Side by Side

by JIN

+ + + + + + +

Although, I was not the only one paying a high price for my lapse in judgment . . .

"Aw hell," Vin muttered as the incessant pounding in his head quickly brought him back to awareness once again. It felt like Josiah was beating him with his hammer, and he had to make it stop. He tried to lift his hands to his aching head, but they weren't working right. Nothing was working right.

"Shh . . . easy, Vin," a soft voice whispered in his ear, and it was then that he realized he was lying down . . . on something soft . . . oh hell, he was in someone's lap. Hopefully it wasn't Larabee's or he'd never hear the end of it; the other guys already gave them a hard time about their so-called 'connection'. Damn Larabee, anyway. He couldn't remember why, but he knew the gunfighter had something to do with the reason he was feeling so miserable.

"Hell," he groaned again as he tried to pull himself up. Everything was dark and blurry, and the ground was spinning, even though he was sitting down. Or was he lying down?

"Just sit back, Vin . . . take it easy," JD repeated, and oh, that was right . . . he was with JD. "We got nowhere t' go."

There was something not quite right about that, he could hear it in the kid's voice. Having nowhere to go wasn't a good thing. With a lot of grunting and JD's help, he finally managed to sit up. Leaning his aching head back onto the hard rock he was propped up against, he mumbled, "What happened?"

"Starting when?" JD asked, for clarification.

Peeling his eyes open a fraction, Vin did his best to emulate the Larabee glare. It failed miserably, though, because he'd no sooner opened his eyes than the earth started spinning again and his stomach started rolling . . .

"Vin, just sit back and close your eyes," JD instructed rather desperately, "I'll tell you all about it."

"O--kay," Vin stammered. Good idea, that part about keeping his eyes closed. It was dark anyway, and as JD had already informed him, they weren't going anywhere.

"Well . . . we were riding from Watsonville to the territorial prison with our prisoner, Earl Gentry. That ring a bell?" Dunne asked hopefully.

"Yeah," Vin grunted. It did; it rang several bells, in fact. He'd screwed up; taken them on the high route when he knew it was more dangerous.

"So we got up here in the hills and the Gentrys found us, and you sent me on down to get help . . . only I got caught. I sure am sorry about that, Vin."

"Ain't your fault, JD," and damn, it hurt his head to even speak, so he kept it short. "Mine. Should've . . . gone low."

He heard JD sigh. "Guess it don't matter now. Fact is that we got ourselves into a mess. They're plannin' on turnin' you in in Tascosa. Well, they think I'm turnin' you in because I lied and told 'em I would. And Clay, he's the sharpshooter, he's sittin' up on those cliffs, waitin' for Buck and Chris. And I don't know what happened t' that sneaky sonuvabitch Will - he's the one that got the drop on ya, Vin - but he's out there, too. Levi, the good lookin' one, and Earl - well, you know Earl - are takin' turns keepin' their eye on us. And Ray, he's the leader and he's drownin' in whiskey right now - which ain't good because he's a mean cuss when he's sober and I'm thinkin' he might be even worse when he's drunk - he's the one that clubbed you with his rifle."

Well, that explained why Vin was feeling so damn bad. And once he waded through the details of JD's explanation, he had a pretty clear picture of what was going on. He couldn't help thinking that if Larabee was at his side, the story would have been completely different; something along the lines of, "The Gentrys got us and you got knocked upside the head." Goddamn, he missed Chris.

But right then, JD was the man at his side . . . and the kid needed him. Gingerly opening his eyes again, Vin realized it was dark because it was night time, but the blurriness and the spinning in his head wasn't going away. Even if they could make a break, he wouldn't get far. Maybe JD could, though; their wrists were bound, but not their feet. It hadn't worked the last time, but JD would be on foot this time, and he obviously knew his enemy.

"JD? If I distract them, think you could . . . could make a run for it?" he whispered, not daring to even turn his head to look at the kid.

"No," JD replied bluntly. "Even if I could, I wouldn't leave you here, Vin. But anyways, I can't. We're tied together."

What the hell? Vin took a deep breath and forced himself to move his head enough to verify what JD was telling him. Sure enough, they were tied together at their waists. Shit. The kid wasn't going anywhere without him stumbling along unless they worked themselves free of each other.

"JD? If I turn a little, can you reach the knot in the rope at my waist?"

With a shake of his head, the young man answered, "Tried it when you were sleepin' on my lap. Those knots are just too damn tight . . . gonna need a knife to get us apart. These guys might look stupid and act kinda dumb, but they know what they're doin'."

"From what I've heard, they've had plenty of practice," Vin muttered despondently.

"Don't worry, Vin. We'll figure somethin' out. And even if we don't, Buck and Chris are on their way, right? I mean, you still think that's true, right?"

"Yeah," he answered, his voice wavering just enough to betray his doubt.

Vin did think they were on their way - think being the operative word. Truth was, he didn't know for sure. Larabee could be sitting back at the saloon, slugging down a beer, trading barbs with Ezra . . . and damn it all, it was Ezra's turn. He should have just let him take it. But no, he was a Tanner and he had to be noble and self-sacrificing . . . and JD would pay the price for it because the kid would have been a hell of a lot better off with Ezra. Standish would have taken the lower trail, and even if the Gentry boys had gotten hold of them, they might have just let them ride off.

It was him being wanted that made it worse.

Well, it couldn't be helped. He'd just have to keep his mouth shut and stay out of trouble until he could figure out a way to get JD out of this. That wasn't going to be easy, though. He knew that for certain when a drunken Ray staggered over towards them and shouted, "Let's have some fun, boys!"

Fun? Great. Vin had a sinking feeling he knew exactly who would be providing the entertainment.

+ + + + + + +

While Vin and I were charged with the dubious honor of amusing our cohorts, Buck and Chris spent a more productive evening, finally reaching an understanding . . .

"Dammit, Chris! I damn near fell off that ledge! It's too damn dark . . . we need t' stop. Won't do JD and Vin any good if we kill ourselves up here on this damn mountain . . ."

Twenty-six; Buck had used the word 'damn' twenty-six times in the last fifteen minutes. Chris was counting because if he didn't keep his mind off of how irritated he was with his old friend, he was likely to shoot him.

When had Buck gotten to be such whiney-assed baby, anyway? If he wasn't complaining about the route they were taking, he was complaining that Chris was pushing too hard. But the man had a point; it was dark and they wouldn't be of much use to Vin and JD if they fell off a mountain.

"Alright, Buck, we'll stop," he begrudgingly gave in. Time was of the essence, he was sure of it, but he'd have to swallow the ache in his gut for another night.

Whiskey helped with that, although he was careful not to drink too much - wouldn't do to have his head wrapped in cotton when they set off early in the morning. Buck took a few swallows, too, but then he stretched out on his bedroll without a single word.

Chris started it, though why he suddenly found himself in the mood to talk, he couldn't say. "I ever tell you about when I met Vin?" he asked Buck quietly. He was on his back, focusing on the stars, and it hit him strong how much Vin would appreciate the beauty of the night. Goddamn, he missed Vin.

"I only heard it a thousand times from JD," Buck responded with a huff.

"No, I mean the moment I met Vin," he clarified.

Buck must have caught on that he was in one of those rare moods when he actually opened up a little. "No, Chris, you never have said."

"Didn't pay him much mind at first. He looked like a kid, pushin' that broom, and there was too much excitement going on for me to take much interest in him. But then after those men kicked Mary down in the street, I saw him go back inside the store and he came out with a rifle."

Buck chuckled lightly. "Bet you had no idea then what he could do with that rifle."

Chris grinned. "Nope. But I knew he was gonna back me up. He looked at me and I looked at him, and I just knew. We walked down that street, side by side, and it was like it'd always been that way." He paused a moment and added, "Been that way ever since."

"Yeah. I know, Chris," Buck answered softly.

After several moments of reflective silence, Buck continued the conversation, "First time I met JD, I thought he was an idiot."

"That was pretty much the universal opinion," Chris agreed.

"I was wrong, though," Buck quickly defended his young friend.

"We all were."

Buck shifted to his side then and turned his face towards Chris. "You really think they're in trouble?"

"Don't think it, Buck - I know it. Don't ask me to explain it because I can't."

On a sigh, Buck replied, "Well then, I reckon I'll stop arguin' and start doin' what you say."

"There's a first time for everything, I guess," Chris answered with a snort.

Buck didn't respond as he turned over onto his back once again. Chris thought he'd fallen asleep, until finally Buck whispered, "I sure do miss him."

"Yeah . . . I know."

+ + + + + + +

While Chris and Buck quietly pondered the wonders of friendship under a blanket of stars, their young partners strengthened their bond in a decidedly less peaceful manner . . .

It was almost as bad as shooting a man in the back - kicking a man when he was down. And JD couldn't take it much longer. But he knew if he spoke up or stepped in to help Vin, he'd only make matters worse. At best, Ray would beat him senseless. At worst, he'd just kill him and be done with it. Either way, JD would be of no help to Vin. So he sat back - or stood back when the rope around his waist tugged at him - as Ray had his "fun" with Vin.

It was relatively harmless at first. Ray pulled Vin up by his bound wrists, and even in his drunken haze, the outlaw could see how dizzy and sick it made the tracker. He'd slap him around a little or give him a good kick, just enough to send Vin to his knees, gagging. Vin didn't fight back. By the dazed look in his eyes, JD figured he didn't even know what was going on. Kicking a man when he was down . . .

But after about an hour of toying with his captive, Ray got a little drunker and a lot meaner. He delivered a solid punch to Vin's face that sent the injured man sprawling to the ground, unmoving. And when Ray raised his rifle to smack Vin over the head again, JD knew it had to stop - Vin couldn't take another blow to the head. So he blocked his friend's body with his own and simply said, "No. You're not gonna touch him again."

Ray laughed, and JD realized at that moment that it didn't bother him so much anymore when people laughed at him. He'd prove them all wrong eventually, and hell, earning Ray Gentry's respect wasn't exactly high on his list. He already had the respect of the men who counted. Or he thought he did . . . most of the time.

"Come on, Ray, leave 'em alone," Earl pleaded. The youngest brother had stood by for the past hour, watching nervously. JD still couldn't figure out why Earl kept coming to his defense. Sure, they'd sort of bonded on the ride there, but JD had to admit that he'd never go up against Chris Larabee on Earl's behalf.

"Stay out of it, Kid," Levi warned, and if JD had his eyes closed, he'd have sworn it was Buck talking.

"Sure thing, little brother, I'll leave 'em alone," Ray said, although his expression said otherwise. "Now go hunt us somethin' t' eat."

Earl swallowed but said nothing more, merely tossing JD an apologetic look before following Levi from the camp.

Ray stumbled over to his horse, quickly producing another bottle of whiskey from his saddlebag, and JD groaned. Just what they needed - Gentry even more out of control with no one to rein him in. But a small voice behind JD whispered, "Now's our chance, Kid. Be ready t' take it."

JD tried not to let the surprise register on his face. Maybe Vin wasn't as confused as he'd pretended to be. Maybe he was playing Ray all along.

Ray staggered over to them, his rifle in one hand and the whiskey in the other. "Now the real fun begins," he threatened. "Move aside, Boy."

'Boy'? JD hated that. 'Kid' was bad enough. He wasn't a kid and he wasn't a boy, and no matter what Vin had planned, JD was not moving aside so Ray could finish what he'd started. "No," he replied simply.

Shrugging, Ray responded, "Don't matter t' me." Dropping the whiskey, he pulled the rifle to his shoulder and took aim.

And just that quick, Vin was on him. JD couldn't figure out how the tracker had gone from laying on the ground behind him, to tackling the drunk outlaw in front of him, but he had. And in spite of his head injury and the fact that he'd been beat on for the past hour - not to mention that his wrists were still tied - Vin was holding his own in the struggle for the weapon. They were on the ground, and since JD was tied to Vin, he was soon rolling in the dirt with them. Two against one - and finally the odds were in their favor. But somehow Ray managed to throw a fist that hit JD square in the temple, and it made him see stars for several moments.

By the time he shook it off, Ray was kicking wildly at Vin, and JD could see that his friend was weakening. With his hands bound, Vin could only maintain his grip on the rifle, leaving no free hand to protect himself or strike back JD knew it would be up to him to bring an end to this. Lunging for the only weapon within his reach, JD picked up the biggest rock his joined hands could manage, and he swung it at Ray's head.

The force of the blow stunned the outlaw enough that he loosened his grip on the rifle. Vin wrenched it away and pulled himself up on his knees. But like his brother, Ray apparently had a hard head, and he came back swinging. He'd knocked Vin to the ground again before JD got in another good shot at him. This time he cracked the boulder directly on the back of the outlaw's head with as much force as he could muster, and Ray went down. Down for good it appeared by the glassy eyes and the large amount of blood now flowing from the man's head.

Damn. JD had killed men before, but never with his bare hands. Well, the rock played a part, too, but still . . . he'd beat a man . . . to death.

Vin groaned as he shoved the dead man away from him with his feet, and shakily tried to stand. It took JD's hands on his arm to pull him up, and even then Vin was stooped over, protecting his middle and breathing heavily.

"You alright, Vin?" JD asked worriedly.

"Yeah," the tracker answered breathlessly before looking down at the body and muttering, "Shit."

"We better get going -" JD started, but Vin interrupted him.

"You didn't kill 'im. You got that?" Vin said, his eyes and voice desperate, and JD couldn't figure it.

"What? What d' you mean, Vin? I did kill him. And I ain't sorry," JD argued. Well, he wasn't too sorry.

Vin shook his head, wincing at the movement. "I killed 'im, JD. That's how it went."

JD couldn't figure out why Vin was wasting time arguing about something that didn't exactly matter at the moment. Maybe Vin was more confused than he let on.

"But Vin-"

"I already got people gunnin' for me. Nothin's gonna change that. But you're clean, Kid. Nobody's got a reason to come after you. I killed 'im."

JD had no intention of letting Vin take the blame for him, but something in the way Vin was looking at him told him this wasn't the time to argue.

"Yeah, okay."

Vin stumbled away then, looking more and more like a man who'd consumed a few bottles of whiskey himself. For the first time, JD was glad they were tied together, because he wasn't certain the tracker would be able to walk at all if he didn't know a friend's survival was directly linked to his own.

That's what it was all about now: Vin believing his job was to protect JD and get him out of this mess. JD knew otherwise. He knew it was more about him protecting Vin, but if his friend needed to believe it was the other way around to keep him going, that was fine.

Vin led them down the mountain, away from the main trail. They had only the light of the moon to guide them, and the terrain was rough at best.

To keep his partner on his feet, JD propped his shoulder behind Vin, and used his hands to support the tracker's elbow. He wished they could at least cut through the rope around their wrists on a sharp-edged rock, but there wasn't time. They'd maybe have an hour before Levi and Earl came back to the camp and found their brother dead. JD knew that no matter how much Earl liked him, he'd stop at nothing to avenge his brother's death.

Eagle-eyed Clay was out there, too - high up on the mountain, probably tracking every movement for miles. And heaven only knew what that sneaky sonuvabitch Will was up to, but it couldn't be good.

Vin stumbled again, and JD sighed as he awkwardly helped the other man regain his footing. He'd do everything he could to keep Vin alive, but he didn't mind admitting that he was going to need some help from Buck and Chris . . . and soon.

+ + + + + + +

Help was on the way. But unfortunately, the aptly titled Sneaky Sonuvabitch Will was indeed up to no good, and he had other plans for Buck and Chris . . .

Buck had slept well for the first time in days, probably because he'd finally cleared the air with Chris. Not in so many words, because Chris just didn't communicate that way - a fist or a bullet or his trademark glare being his preferred means of getting his point across. But with just a few key phrases, Buck got the message loud and clear: JD and Vin were in trouble, and they were going to bring them home. Nothing else mattered.

It wasn't quite dawn, but close . . . the sky a little lighter, the stars a little fainter. Buck got up with a grunt, stealing a glance at his sleeping partner. Chris would be rising at any moment and they'd be off before Buck could even think about his morning coffee.

But Chris hadn't slept much either, and he appeared to be pretty deep under right then. Good. At least Buck might have a few minutes to clear his head and prepare himself for the day ahead. He moved off through the trees, far enough away from the camp so he wouldn't wake Chris. After splashing a handful of water from his canteen on his face, he pulled his fingers through his hair and tried hard not to imagine how good a hot bath would feel. A few other things would feel real good right then as well, but he'd have to settle for taking a quick piss and be done with it.

And then, with no sound - no warning at all - an arm slid around his neck and a knife pressed against his throat. Another hand yanked his open jeans down off his hips, and Buck's first thought was that it took one low-down, sneaky sonuvabitch to attack a man when he was taking a piss.

Caught with his pants down, and it wasn't the first time. In fact, Buck had considerable practice maneuvering pretty damn quickly with his pants around his ankles, and there was something to be said for experience. He shifted his weight and turned slightly towards his attacker as he instinctively gripped the arm that encircled his throat. The sharp blade pressed harder, drew blood, and goddamn, the sneaky bastard meant to kill him.

Well, he wasn't going to get away with it. Buck knew how to fight dirty, too. He dug his elbow into the man's ribs, and when the outlaw's arm slipped just a bit, he bit him. Unfortunately, the only thing that action accomplished was to send Buck crashing to the ground with a grunt - the sneaky bastard now on top of him, and that damn knife still pressed up against his throat. Buck couldn't kick with his legs tangled up in his pants, but he still had his arms, and he fought like the devil, rolling his assailant over and over until he had trouble keeping track of who was on top and where the hell that damn knife was.

Buck gasped and grunted as he fought for his life, but he noticed that the bastard attacking him didn't utter a single sound. Maybe he was mute? Didn't much matter, of course - it was a stupid thing to be thinking about if these were his last moments on earth. And it was beginning to look like they were. The bastard was on top again, one hand cutting off Buck's air as that knife edged closer . . . and where the hell was Larabee anyway?

At just that moment a shot split the air, and Buck swore he felt the breeze of the bullet as it whizzed past his ear. The sneaky bastard's head exploded, covering Buck with a spray of blood and he didn't want to consider what else.

"Shit, Chris!" he hollered, once he'd caught his breath and pushed the dead man off of him. "Goddamn it! You damn near shot my head off! And look at me! Aw, shit. How am I gonna get this off of me? Damn."

"You're welcome," Chris muttered with a shake of his head. "Any of that blood yours?"

Buck nodded as he stood and pulled up his pants. "Goddamn sneaky bastard cut my throat, but it's just a scratch . . . aw shit, what a mess."

"Hell, Buck, you could have told me you were that desperate for companionship," Chris said with a smirk.

"What? What the hell are you talking about?"

Chris shrugged. "I find you rolling around in the dirt with your pants down . . . with a cowboy?"

"Funny. Real funny, Larabee."

"No, it's not funny," Chris agreed, deadly serious now. "You know what this means, don't you?"

"Means some damn, low-down, sneaky sonuvabitch got the drop on me when I was taking a piss. And he didn't make a sound. Not one. Must be mute or somethin'. Damnedest thing I ever seen."

"He's a Gentry, that red hair's a dead give-away. And the only way he'd know we were on the trail is if they've caught up with Vin and JD."

But Buck wasn't ready to assume the worst. "That ain't necessarily true, Chris. Hell, he could just be on the look-out . . . Vin and JD could still be in control."

"They're not."

"No? Then why not just kill JD and Vin and be done with it? Why send one of 'em after us?"

"Because you were right, Buck. Vin's too valuable to leave behind. They're just making sure we don't follow along and take their bounty."

Buck felt the color drain from his face as he realized the implications for JD. It appeared that his worst nightmare had come true. He couldn't think of a single reason the outlaws would bother to keep his young friend alive.

"He won't let them kill him, Buck," Chris offered reassuringly, though Buck hadn't spoken. "As long as Vin's still breathing, he'll do everything he can to keep JD alive."

If Vin was still breathing . . . that was the unknown variable, as well as the determining factor. Because the real question was - why would the outlaws bother to keep either one of their friends alive?

+ + + + + + +

Morning dawned much less dramatically and with far less violence in Four Corners. And for the first time since my arrival in town, I was actually awake to witness it. The rising sun was lovely indeed - I'm sure Mr. Tanner could have waxed poetically about it. I, however, could easily live the remainder of my life without experiencing a repeat performance. Mornings are not my best time of day, you see, and on that morning in particular, my one and only wish was to find my bed. But it was not to be . . .

"Ezra? I'm feeling better this morning. Why don't you go on to bed?" Josiah offered as the sun made its first appearance through the cheap curtains that lined the clinic window.

I was certain I was dreaming. "What? Are you sure? What about Mr. Jackson?" I inquired uncertainly.

"I can help him if he needs it. I thank you for the offer, but you've done enough and you need your rest."

I tipped my hat as I stepped out the door, but refrained from speaking lest I inadvertently wake myself up if perchance I was dreaming. As I hurriedly made my way to my room, I noted that several townspeople were once again up and about. Apparently the crisis had ended. I breathed a sigh of relief and forced my aching legs and weary feet up the stairs to my room.

My head had just hit the pillow when furious pounding assaulted my door. Ignoring it, I pulled the covers over my head and waited for the annoying rapping to subside. It didn't. With a loud groan, I propelled myself to the door and flung it open, prepared to put a bullet through the offending culprit . . . or culprits, plural, as the case may be.

And indeed, there were two of them; a pair of pint-sized urchins who at least had the good sense to appear intimidated by my Larabee-like glare.

"Mr. Ezra? Sally's kitten is in the tree again and you need t' come get it," young Tommy commanded, though his voice wavered just a bit.

"I think not," I responded. Climbing trees definitely was not part of my job description. Not that we had a written job description per se, but clearly rescuing lost kittens was not a requirement for a peacekeeper. No. Absolutely not.

Tears fell and huge blue eyes turned to me in sorrow as young Sally mourned the loss of her pet. Well, it wasn't going to work. I was exhausted. I'd done my part.

"Vin always does it for her," Tommy replied, as if that knowledge would somehow spur me to action. He apparently labored under the misguided notion that Mr. Tanner and I were involved in some sort of popularity contest.

"Good. He'll be back in a few days," I offered.

The tears turned to wailing as Tommy helpfully turned to his sister and said, "Don't worry. Patch will probably die by the time Vin gets back, but we'll find you a new cat."

An hour later, as I was perched on a narrow branch - being clawed to death by a feline nightmare - I mumbled to myself, "I would have gone with JD but Mr. Tanner - also known as Robin Hood, rescuer of possessed kittens and wizened crones - jumped in when it was my turn. In fact, he stole my turn! I was ready and eager - yes, eager - to do my part, and Vin should have minded his own business. He should have gone with Mr. Larabee to begin with . . . yes, that's right . . . this is all Chris' fault . . ."

Suffice it to say that by the time I returned to my humble abode, my already foul mood had deteriorated considerably. Only a fool - or a desperate woman - would dare approach me.

"Mr. Standish!" Mrs. Potter called out as I hastily stepped through the door to the establishment where I abide.

"Mr. Standish!" she called louder, following in my footsteps.

Admitting defeat, I turned and waited for her to catch up to me.

"The door to my store is stuck again. I can't get it open."

And? So?

When I didn't immediately reply, she went on, "Mr. Wilmington always fixes it for me."

And? So?

I offered my now standard reply, "He'll be back in a few days."

"A few days! I can't leave the store closed for a few more days! I've been sick . . . and people are asking . . ."

And none of the aforementioned "people" could open a jammed door?

"Mr. Wilmington is always very gracious about it," Mrs. Potter added with a huff.

"I am not Mr. Wilmington."

"That's quite obvious, Mr. Standish. But you are a man, aren't you?"

Obviously she erroneously believed that appealing to my manhood would coerce me into compliance with her request. In reality, my decision to repair her door had nothing to do with pride or generosity. I simply wanted to be left alone. And in order to forego a repeat effort the following morning, I took the time to repair it properly with a new knob and door jam. Consequently, it was hours later when I finally dropped to my bed in an exhausted heap.

My weary mind wandered then to Vin and JD. They would be nearing the completion of their journey if all had gone well, and I'd all but convinced myself that it had. In fact, in my mind the two young men were having the time of their lives . . . a picnic, so to speak. The wide-open spaces that Vin so loved, the sense of adventure that JD drew breath on - everything either man could ask for. While I labored away with no rest, no respect, and no appreciation.

Life was simply unfair.

+ + + + + + +

I was perhaps a bit delusional due to lack of sleep. Had I been thinking clearly, I might have been more realistic as to the plight of my young partners. A picnic hardly described their journey thus far, and it was only to get worse. . .

Vin wasn't sure how much longer he could go on. Even worse, he wasn't sure where to go on to. He led them straight down the mountain for as far as he could before the drop-off became too steep. At that point, they turned west; back towards the direction they'd come from and parallel to the trail above.

But it was rough going. There was a reason the trail had been carved a few hundred feet above them. Steep, stony ground with sparse, dry shrubbery left little to hold onto and even less to provide a decent foothold. His head was killing him and his vision was still blurry, and it was nothing short of miraculous that he'd managed to stay on his feet as long as he had. Of course, JD was a big reason for that. He couldn't count how many times the kid had kept him from falling face first down the mountainside. After a few clumsy attempts holding onto his arm, JD had caught on that simply gripping the rope around Vin's waist worked better. Every time he stumbled, the kid hung on tight to that rope, until he could find his balance again.

Still, he cursed the rope that anchored them to each other. JD would have a better chance if he could move off on his own, because sooner rather than later, Vin was going to hit the ground and not make it up again. He was so tired, he could barely remember his own name, and he for damn sure couldn't remember the last time he or JD had eaten. Not to mention the fact that he ached all over. No, that wasn't accurate. Ache didn't begin to describe it. Excruciating pain might come close. His ribs, his back, his legs, his goddamn wrists from that goddamn rope . . . and all of that together didn't add up to the knife in his head.

He was in sorry shape alright, which might account for why he kept making such stupid decisions. Didn't excuse him, though - there was no excuse for what he'd gotten JD into.

And it was only getting worse. The sun was up and with the sparse countryside, it was possible he and JD were visible from a good ways up the mountain. They'd left a trail a blind man could follow, too. And as the terrain grew rougher and the cliffs became steeper, he got the sick feeling that he'd led them to a dead end. Climbing up would be impossible, climbing down would be suicide, and going forward wasn't looking much better.

Didn't help that they had no idea where that sneaky bastard - Bill, was it? - had gotten to. And then there was Cal the sharpshooter, perched high up on a rock somewhere. The good-looking one (although Vin couldn't see him giving Buck much competition) was out there, too, probably with Earl - the only man who was arguably stupider than Vin felt at that moment.

Sorry, sorry shape . . .

"Vin? Why don't we stop a minute?"

"JD," he breathed on the heels of a sigh. "We can't . . ." He trailed off then, taking a moment to study JD's face: tired and drawn, dark bruises marring pale skin, but there was more than weariness in the kid's eyes. He was worried, scared, and he had good reason to be.

"At least," JD paused and swallowed, "at least let me have the rifle."

The rifle? Vin had been using Ray's rifle like a walking stick. With his hands bound, he had little choice. He could either futilely grasp loose rock and brittle shrub, or prop himself up with the rifle as they made their way. With his luck, he'd shoot his foot off next, but he wasn't giving up the weapon, and why would JD ask him to?

He chanced another glance at JD, and oh, he got it. Dunne was concerned that he'd slip and fall and accidentally shoot one of them. And he suspected that JD didn't need the rest nearly as badly as he thought Vin did.

And he was right.

Gingerly propping himself against the rugged slope, Vin closed his eyes and said, "Shit. I'm real sorry, JD."

JD carefully leaned next to him as he sighed, "Just stop it, Vin. This ain't your fault. Besides, we could go on apologizin' to each other all day long and it wouldn't change a damn thing. Fact is, we're stuck in the mess together, and we've got to hold each other up 'til we get out of it. And we are gettin' out of it because I for damn sure ain't dyin' up here on the side of a mountain at the hands of outlaws as stupid as the Gentrys. I just ain't doin' it and neither are you."

It wasn't really funny. In fact, JD's determination was admirable. But Vin couldn't help chuckling anyway. He shook his head and offered his partner a wide grin. "You sure are somethin', Kid."

JD smiled warmly, the shadows under his eyes vanishing completely when Vin added, "I'm proud t' have ya at my side."

The younger man opened his mouth to speak, but he never got the words out. Two shots echoed in the canyon, the sound registering seconds before twin sprays of dirt and rock exploded just above Vin's head.

Vin fumbled for the rifle, cursing his bound hands once again. He'd done it before - shot off a rifle with his wrists tied - but he wasn't likely to be accurate. Although, as he raised his eyes in the direction the shots came from, he realized accuracy was a lost cause. He still couldn't see worth a damn.

"Can you see 'em, JD?" he asked frantically as he pulled his sleeve across his eyes to wipe away the blurriness.

"What?" JD yelled as he stooped precariously to avoid another bullet.

"Can you-"

The words died in his throat as the fourth shot knocked him off his feet. Vin was aware that he was falling, hitting the ground too hard and too fast this time for JD to stop his downward momentum. JD couldn't even help himself, the two men now tangled in a hopeless knot as they rolled together down the steep canyon wall.

+ + + + + + +

With the fate of our two young partners hanging precariously in the balance, Chris and Buck raced to their rescue. Neither man spoke as they mercilessly pushed their horses along the rocky upper trail, but one question weighed heavily on both of their minds - would they be in time? And unbeknownst to the men, another obstacle stood in their way . . .

Either Chris' instincts were off, or he was too rattled to pay attention, but he was taken completely by surprise when a shot whizzed over his head and pierced a hole in Buck's hat. And as he jumped off his horse and took cover behind a boulder with Buck at his side, he realized that this was the second time his carelessness had almost gotten his friend killed.

Shit. He was too wrapped up in his worry for Vin and JD, and that's what he got for letting himself get attached. Another shot was fired, and in the glare of the sun, he just barely made out the glint of a rifle high above them.

"Goddamn it!" Buck shouted. "I am sick and tired of these sneaky, red-headed bastards! I'm goin' after him!"

"Sit down, Buck, and keep your head," Chris ordered.

He immediately realized what he'd done. If Vin had said that same thing, his response would have been to say he'd cover him. But Buck wasn't Vin. He didn't shoot like Vin or climb like Vin or make himself damn near invisible like Vin.

"Look, Chris, I know I ain't Vin - but I can do this. I'm goin' up to that ledge right there. You see it?" Buck asked, pointing to a rocky shelf a hundred feet away. "And when I get there, you draw him out. I just need an inch of that red hair and I've got him."

Chris didn't like it - didn't like it one bit. But they couldn't afford to sit there and wait this thing out, either. Vin and JD were running out of time, that was one thing he was sure of.

"Alright. Go."

The shooter was good, damn good - he'd give Vin a run for his money. Even from a distance, the outlaw had managed to get too close for comfort several times. Chris felt his gut cramp up as he spied Buck cautiously maneuvering his way up the slope. Vin wasn't the only good man he needed at his side.

But there wasn't time to think on that as Buck finally moved into position. Chris took off running towards another boulder, firing wildly at the shooter the entire way and making himself as much of a target as the man they were after.

He heard Buck fire off a few rounds as he threw himself to the dirt behind the rock. He didn't feel any pain, but that never meant much in the heat of a fight, so he quickly checked to see if he'd sprung any holes on the way over. He hadn't, and he hoped Buck was just as lucky.

And apparently he was, because the next thing he heard was Buck whooping for joy as he stood up and shouted, "Whoo! Good shot, huh Stud?"

Chris got to his feet and peered up at the rocky cliff where their assailant had hid. A bright shock of red hair topped a motionless form high up on the ridge.

With a broad grin, Chris replied, "Damn near perfect, Buck."

+ + + + + + +

Lady Luck may not have been smiling on the hapless Gentry brothers, but neither was she kind to our partners. Their tumble down the mountainside left Vin and JD in dire straights, indeed. And the remaining outlaws - annoying Earl and handsome Levi - were still on their trail . . .

JD heard voices, distant yet oddly distinct. He wanted to respond to them, but his leg hurt so bad that he knew if he opened his mouth, all that would come out was one long scream.

"You sure they're dead, Levi?"

"Look dead t' me."

He recognized that voice - it was their prisoner, Earl. How . . . what had happened? He tried to keep still and pull his thoughts together as he listened to the men talking above him. Above him? What the hell?

"Well, I'm puttin' a bullet in both of 'em t' be sure. After what they did t' Ray-"

"No! Damn it, Earl, listen t' me. If Chris Larabee is out there lookin' for these two, we don't need to be pointin' him in the right direction. He probably heard the shots we already fired as it is. We're gonna get out of here and wait for Will and Clay to catch up to us further on down the trail."

JD bit his lip and swallowed the bile that rose up in his throat at the pain that gripped his leg. It must be broken, but he knew he couldn't move a muscle or he'd give him and Vin both away. He remembered then - killing Ray, the difficult trek on the side of the mountain, the gunshots . . . the fall . . .

After what seemed like an eternity, Earl spoke again. "Yeah, okay. But Tanner's worth a lot of money. Shouldn't we at least grab his body?"

"We don't got time t' crawl down there and get it," Levi replied. "Besides, who we gonna get t' turn it in? We should never have messed with him to begin with."

"I'm sorry, Levi. I should've let you kill 'em both t' begin with . . . Ray would still be alive . . ."

"Not your fault, Kid. Ray's hot head was bound t' get him killed one of these days. Let's go."

Don't move, don't move, don't move, JD told himself over and over. It was so hard because he hurt so badly, the pain growing more intense with every passing moment. Damn. He could hardly breathe. It felt like there was great weight pressing down on him. But he kept still, long after the retreating footsteps had ceased echoing in the canyon around him.

Finally, he took a chance and opened his eyes. The sun blinded him and sent of stab of pain through his head, and he felt immediate empathy for what Vin had been suffering. It made him want to throw up, but he couldn't even move with that weight on his chest, and it was only then that he realized the weight was Vin. His partner wasn't moving, maybe not breathing, and in a moment of panic, he hastily rolled the other man off of him . . . and almost off another ledge. Fortunately, the tracker ended up on his back right next to him, only inches away from another drop-off. JD could only pray that the Vin didn't suddenly wake up and turn the wrong way . . . if he woke up at all.

JD gingerly turned on his side to check on his friend, but even that small movement jarred his leg, and he gasped as he propped himself up on an elbow. The rope around his wrists was still secure, damn it, and he was having trouble maneuvering his hands to check if Vin even had a pulse.

But he must have, because just then, Vin's eyes fluttered and he moaned softly.

JD breathed a sigh of relief and collapsed onto his back. Alright - nothing done that couldn't be undone. They were both still alive and all they had to do now was wait for Buck and Chris to find them.

Right . . . as if the two men would know to look for them over the edge of the mountain . . . as if they could even see them if they chanced to look.


"Shit," Vin groaned at just that moment.

"Yeah," JD breathed in agreement. And it was only then that he remembered that Vin had been shot - or he thought he had.

Gritting his teeth against the throbbing in his leg, JD pulled himself up again and peered closer at his partner. "Vin? You okay?"

Vin didn't answer - didn't even open his eyes - a weak groan his only reply. JD saw it then, the dark stain of blood on Vin's buckskin coat, high up on his right arm. It could have been a whole lot worse, but it sure wasn't good. Vin leaking blood and himself laid up with a broken leg, and both of them lying too damn close to another damn drop-off. Well, one thing was certain - they weren't going anywhere on their own.

Except Vin apparently didn't know that. "Gotta move, JD," he suddenly gasped as he abruptly sat up. "They're comin' . . . comin' fer us."

"No, Vin," JD replied hoarsely, biting back the pain when the other man's movements jarred his leg again. "They're gone. Just rest a spell."

But it was like Vin didn't hear him. His eyes were unfocused and he couldn't seem to coordinate his movements as he once again tried to pull himself up.

This time JD shouted as he gripped the tracker's arm, "No, Vin! We can't move! We're gonna fall again!"

Vin only stared at him, uncomprehending, and JD knew his partner really was out of his mind this time. Vin must have hit his head again on the way down, and that was all he needed - another lump to match the one Ray had given him. That fear was confirmed when the tracker suddenly bent over and started retching.

JD couldn't do a damn thing about it. He could hardly move, let alone help Vin. All he could hope for was that his friend would pass out for awhile and keep still. But when Vin complied with his request - slumping to the ground without a sound - JD was even more scared.

He needed help. He was tired and hurt, and there was no way he could get himself and Vin up that mountain. And what were the chances that Buck and Chris would find them?

For the first time since the whole thing began, JD had to fight off an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. Tears filled his eyes as exhaustion pulled at him, his vision going dark around the edges. He knew he couldn't give in; knew he had to stay awake and keep Vin from accidentally pulling them off the ledge. But long days and nights of no sleep and little food or water, coupled with his injuries, finally took their toll and he succumbed to the darkness.

+ + + + + + +

Fear and despair were in plentiful supply for our friends that day, but hope remained. Though, characteristically, Chris had trouble grasping it - while Buck refused to let it go. Perhaps there was a reason fate chose to pair up our teammates as it did . . .

Chris saw the horses first. Vin's stubborn mule was nipping at JD's, acting up like usual. The knife-like pain in his gut was sudden and excruciating, and he thought he was going to be sick.

His friends would never leave their animals behind. And if they were still alive, even being held by the Gentrys, they'd be riding them. No, the only possible explanation was that both men were dead . . . JD lying in a shallow grave nearby, and Vin . . .

He couldn't finish the thought, but his mind clearly pulled up the image of his brave young friend's body carelessly draped over the back of a saddle . . . dumped into an unmarked grave in Tascosa. And damn it all, Vin deserved better. JD did, too.

"Well, this is sure good news, ain't it, Chris?" Buck said with a nod as he pulled his mare up next to Chris.

"What?" Was Buck being sarcastic at a time like this?

"Means they got away. Probably on foot out here somewhere. Take some doin' to find 'em, but we will."

"How do you figure that, Buck?"

Buck looked at him in genuine confusion. "How do you not figure it?"

"The horses . . . they'd be on them if they were still alive . . . even if the Gentrys have them."

Pulling his brows together, Buck replied, "Yeah. That's my point. They must have got away. If they were dead, the Gentrys would have taken the horses with them. Never known an outlaw yet t' turn down a free horse."

"Probably just didn't wanna mess with them - especially Vin's," Chris countered.

"No, Chris. JD and Vin took off and the Gentrys - however many are left - went after 'em. And are we gonna waste time arguin' about why these horses are here or are we gonna look for JD and Vin?"

Before Chris could answer, Buck was off his horse, heading for a nearby clearing.

Chris caught up to him as Buck toed the remnants of a fire. "They camped here," Buck informed him needlessly.

Without responding, Chris moved off to further examine the surroundings. It didn't take him long to spot the large dark stain on the rocky soil. He squatted to the ground to get a closer look, but there was no doubt that it was blood. Buck soon joined him, and Chris met his eyes as he asked, "You still think they're just fine?"

Angry now, Buck snapped, "Hell no! I never said they were fine! I said they're alive. But if you wanna swallow yourself up in that black hole you're so fond of, go right ahead. You're not draggin' me in with you."

Buck was right, of course. Chris had given up before they'd really begun, and he knew better. Hell, this was Vin and JD they were talking about - the fearless survivor and the exuberant optimist - and it would take more than a few red-headed bastards to take them down.

He stood and took a closer look at their surroundings, imagining he was Vin. Where would he go, if he managed to break free? There was only one choice, really. They'd have to get off the main trail, and going up would be nearly impossible. Chris wasn't a tracker, but it took only minutes for him to spot the broken branches and the faint prints in the rocky soil that led down the mountain.

But even if he hadn't spotted a damn thing, he'd know. He felt it as surely as if Vin was standing at his side, pointing his finger in the right direction.

He went back to the horses and grabbed a few ropes before starting out. "This way," he said, not bothering to check if Buck followed along behind him.

He heard his friend mutter, "That's more like it."

It was rough going. Chris couldn't imagine how Vin and JD had managed it if either one of them was injured. He took them as far down as he could go before turning west. Buck didn't ask why and Chris was glad. He couldn't begin to explain that Vin was hovering over his shoulder, guiding him. It sounded silly. Or crazy.

But even though Chris got them going in the right direction, it was Buck who actually spotted them . . . so maybe JD was directing his friend in a similar fashion. In any case, Buck suddenly pulled up short behind him and scanned the slopes below. His voice shook nearly as badly as his hand when he pointed to a narrow ledge yards ahead and below them. Their young partners were lying still and silent, side by side. "They must've fallen," Buck said.

Or been pushed . . . beaten . . . shot . . .

Chris' mind conjured up numerous possibilities, none of which boded well for their young friends.

He heard Buck mumble behind him, "Oh God . . . please . . ." and the heartbreak in his voice nearly did Chris in. Buck just couldn't take it. He'd never be the same if they lost JD. And it wasn't right or fair. Buck had a heart of gold and he didn't deserve such agony.

Chris knew then that if only one of them survived, it had to be JD. Because Buck wasn't the only one who couldn't live with losing the kid - Vin would spend the rest of his life blaming himself.

But life without Vin . . . ?

Chris pushed aside his own grief and kept one thought in mind as he stumbled down the rocky slope: JD had to be alive.

+ + + + + + +

But Buck had other thoughts . . .

His prayer was for Vin.

Because he knew that Chris couldn't take it. He'd never be the same if they lost Vin. And the man had suffered enough. It wasn't right or fair. Chris had just started living again.

And then there was the fact that JD would likely spend the rest of his life blaming himself if Vin didn't make it. Buck couldn't bear the thought of the kid shouldering that kind of guilt.

No, as much as it pained him to think it, if only one of their friends survived, it had to be Vin.

Of course, he couldn't bear the thought of living without JD, either . . .

Temporarily burying his grief, Buck threw caution to the wind and slid down the hillside behind Chris.

+ + + + + + +

And so it was that Chris rushed to JD's side, while Buck knelt at Vin's . . .

"He's alive," said in unison, the good news spoken in strangely somber tones.

Chris looked up to meet Buck's tear-filled eyes and didn't bother to hide the moisture in his own. His back was pressed up against the slope, and even then he hardly had room to kneel next to JD on the ledge. Buck was between Vin and JD, straddling one of Vin's legs to get to him. It was tight - the ledge impossibly narrow and the drop-off incredibly steep - and how their two friends had managed to land on solid ground, he'd never know.

"His leg's broke," Buck suddenly spoke up, nodding at JD's obviously twisted lower limb.

Chris nodded and tipped his head at Vin. "He's got a bullet hole in his arm."

"I know that, Chris."

"Both of 'em."

"Didn't know that," Buck said with a grunt.

"Let's start by cutting these ropes and . . . goddamn, Buck, they're tied together!"

"What? Well hell, no wonder they fell. Between their hands bein' tied and them bein' stuck together-"

"Bullet probably hit Vin and they both went down," Chris cut in as he pulled out his knife and went to work on the ties around JD's wrists.

It took some doing to get the tight bonds cut without slicing JD's skin, and with the inevitable jostling, the young man's big brown eyes soon fluttered open. He looked at Chris, but what he said was, "Buck?"

"Right here, JD," Buck responded, turning away from Vin to meet JD's eyes.

It was painfully obvious that they both wanted to be where the other was, so Chris offered, "Trade places with me, Buck."

Easier said than done with the limited space, but finally Buck was eye to eye with JD while Chris squatted down next to Vin.

"Sure am glad t' see you, Buck," JD whispered, choking back a sob of relief.

"Feeling's mutual, Kid," Buck replied with equal emotion.

Chris listened to the exchange and struggled to hold back a few tears of his own. He sawed through the ropes that bound Vin's wrists - cursing the deep red marks they left behind - before bending close to Vin's face and asking gently, "Hey Pard, you with me?"

"Don't wake him up!" JD suddenly yelled, startling Chris so that he nearly lost his balance and fell on top of Vin.

"It's alright now, JD," Buck said reassuringly. "Everything is fine, just be calm."

But the younger man was having none of it. He pulled himself up on his elbows and said again, "Don't wake him up. He don't know where he is and he'll pull us both over!"

"Alright!" Buck stated firmly as he gripped JD's shoulders and held him still. "You're not tied together anymore, JD. And Chris is right there with Vin - he won't let him fall."

Of course, Vin was known for his impeccable timing and this was no exception. He came to life with a jolt - bolting upright so suddenly that he nearly threw him and Chris both over the edge.

"Shit! Hold still, Vin!" Chris pleaded. And just in case JD was accurate about Vin being out of his head, Chris sat on his legs and firmly gripped his shoulders.

Vin turned cloudy eyes towards him and mumbled, "Chris?"

With a sigh of relief, Chris replied, "Yeah, I'm here. Everything's gonna be fine now."

But either Vin didn't hear him or didn't believe him, because he latched onto Chris' forearms and frantically warned, "They're out there . . . Earl and . . . and . . ."

"Levi," JD supplied with a moan as he collapsed back to the ground. "But they're gone now," he added matter-of-factly.

"And Cal, the sharpshooter . . . he's gunnin' for you and Buck," Vin rasped breathlessly, oblivious to JD's statement.

"Clay," JD corrected.

Vin's eyes were wild now as he continued, "There's a sneaky sonuvabitch, too . . . Bill . . . watch out fer him."

"His name is Will, Vin," JD said, not entirely hiding his exasperation.

"We took care of both of them, Vin," Chris said calmly. "And right now we're gonna worry about getting you and JD off this cliff, alright?" While he tried to sound sure, in truth he was wondering exactly how in the hell they were going to manage that.

"Cliff? What cliff?" Vin asked with a frown.

"Vin, there's a drop-"

But before he could finish it, Vin groaned, "My head hurts," and promptly passed out again.

Buck cleared his throat and stammered, "Uh, Chris . . . how, uh . . . how exactly we gonna do this?"

Chris took one look at JD's worried gaze and confidently replied, "With sturdy ropes and strong backs."

+ + + + + + +

And so the story ends. Chris and Buck found Vin and JD and brought them home, much to the joy (and relief) of their many friends.

What? I can't end the story here? Well, I suppose a few more details are in order. . .

They took Vin up first. It was a toss-up whether a limp, deadweight tracker would be more troublesome than a confused, agitated one, but in the end, all agreed it would be better to get Vin on stable ground before he came to again. They couldn't take the chance that he'd wake up disoriented and end up at the bottom of the canyon.

JD was fine with that. All that mattered was that Buck and Chris had come. Besides, he hurt everywhere anyway, and he definitely wasn't looking forward to the journey back up the mountainside.

Still, he had to swallow the lump of fear in his throat when they left him alone. Buck was all over him, promising they'd be back for him as quickly as they could, but it would take time. They had to haul Vin up to the original spot they'd fallen from, then retrace their steps back to the main trail. The route was too treacherous for Chris to carry Vin on his back all that way alone; it would take both of them.

And then they'd have to come back for JD . . . and leave Vin alone on the trail. How was that going to work? Well, it wouldn't. Vin couldn't be trusted - he was too mixed up - and wasn't that a hell of a thing? Vin Tanner was the most level-headed, reasonable, trustworthy man he knew, but they couldn't depend on him to watch his own back when it counted.

No, JD had argued with Buck, Chris would have to stay with Vin. And Buck could come for him, and he'd make it just fine up that hill, broken leg be damned.

"Let us worry about that, Kid," Buck had said, and then he'd climbed up the hill and thrown the rope down to Chris, and together they'd pulled Vin up. That was the last he'd seen of any of them.

It seemed like that had been hours ago, but JD wasn't sure. He tried to rest, God knew he was tired, but he hurt too much. And he couldn't help remembering that Earl and Levi were still out there. Maybe they'd come back . . .

Sooner or later they'd figure out that he and Vin weren't dead. Sooner or later, they'd come gunning for the man that had killed their brother. Vin was right about that. It said what kind of man Vin Tanner was that he wanted to protect JD from that burden. But what would it say about the kind of man he was if he let him? Well, he just wasn't going to do it, no matter what Vin said.

Vin was pretty determined, though. And if Tanner chose to lie, who would take JD's word against Vin's? He knew the answer to that one - absolutely no one.

Then again, with Vin's head cracked like it was, JD would have a little more leverage.

+ + + + + + +

Speaking of "cracked heads", Mr. Larabee faced a rather unusual dilemma regarding Mr. Tanner . . .

He tied to him a tree. He tied his best friend to a goddamn tree.

But really, what choice did he have? Chris couldn't risk Vin waking up and wandering off . . . taking another bullet . . . falling off another cliff . . . getting lost. Now there was irony for you - Vin Tanner, best damn tracker in the territory - lost.

But it could happen - was likely to happen, in fact, if he left him on his own.

And he had to leave him on his own in order to help Buck with JD.

So he tied Vin to a tree.

But he bandaged his arm first. The bullet went through, taking a good chunk of skin and muscle with it, but at least he didn't have to dig out any lead. The hole in Vin's left arm was nothing more than a slight graze, and that was probably the only good news he was going to find once he had the chance to look his friend over a little closer.

That would have to wait, though, because JD was still lying on that ledge. Buck had already started back down, not wanting to leave the kid alone any longer than he had to. JD had said the other Gentry boys were long gone, but they weren't exactly to be trusted.

And that wasn't a comforting thought, either. Suppose they did come back? What would they find? Their bounty tied up in a nice little bow, just waiting for them to finish him off and . . .

No. He had to stop thinking like that. Vin would be fine until he and Buck returned with JD.

But it took forever. Unlike Vin, JD was awake and aware, and in a whole lot of agony. The poor kid groaned with every tug and pull of the rope and every halting step they took afterwards. Chris had hoped to get JD back to the main trail before taking the time to set and splint the leg, but it was too painful for the kid, and neither he nor Buck could take it. So they took care of that difficult task the minute they hit stable ground, and it did seem to ease the pain a little for their injured friend. But it was slow going, and hours passed before they finally made it back to where they'd left Vin.

Chris' initial relief that Tanner was right where he left him wilted a bit when he saw his friend's face.

"Somebody tied to me a tree, Chris," Vin said, his eyes almost as deadly as his aim with that damn mare's leg.

Chris winced but didn't respond as he knelt to the ground and untied the rope around the tree where the tracker was propped up.

So Vin repeated, "Got any idea who the hell tied me to a goddamn tree, Larabee?"

"Now Vin . . ." Chris started, but he decided he didn't really have a good response. Maybe Vin would pass out again . . . if he was lucky.

"Last face I remember seein' is yours," Vin stated as he pulled himself up on shaky legs. "And next thing I know, I'm tied to a tree. And I'm thinkin' my vision's been kinda blurry and my head's been hurtin' some . . . and I'm thinkin' there ain't no way, no way in hell that Larabee would tie me to a tree. I must be confused or somethin' because why would my friend tie me to a tree? Huh? Why would he do that?"

Through gritted teeth, Chris answered him, "Because, Vin, your vision was kinda blurry and your head was hurtin' some and I was afraid you'd . . . you'd get . . . lost."

Well, hell, that sounded really stupid, now that he'd said it out loud. But it was also true.

Vin didn't respond. He merely stumbled off - looking like a man who had drunk more than his fair share of whiskey - mumbling, "Tied me to a fuckin' tree . . . whole damn trip's been a damn nightmare . . . damn Larabee anyway . . . JD would've been better off if-"

The tracker stopped abruptly and turned back to Chris. "Where's JD?"

"He's right there, next to the fire. Buck's tending to him," Chris reassured the other man, sensing the panic behind Vin's sudden question.

"He alright?"

"Yeah . . .considering."

"Considering what?" Vin asked, his voice growing weaker as his face paled.

It wouldn't be long now and he'd go down again. Chris slowly made his way to his friend's side, prepared to catch him when the moment came.

"You two took a pretty good fall, Vin," he reminded his friend gently.

Vin frowned and rubbed his head, wincing at the pull on his arm. It was apparent he had no idea what Chris was talking about - complete and total vindication for tying the man to a tree, as far as Chris was concerned.

"Chris? I don't feel so . . ."

Down and out, with Chris easing the fall. The least he could do was help Tanner avoid more new bruises. Both Vin and JD were more black and blue than white as it was. Nathan would be beside himself when he got a look at them.

If they ever made it back to Four Corners, that was. With JD on a travois and Vin half out of his head - when he wasn't passed out (and oh hell, he might just to have to tie the tracker on his horse, too) - it would take them twice as long to get back. Four days instead of two . . . four long, long, long days.

+ + + + + + +

They were indeed the four longest days of my life. As time marched on, I became more certain that I was a bit premature in my earlier supposition that all had gone well on our young friends' journey. With each passing hour, my mind conjured up one disturbing scenario after another, until finally I could take it no longer . . .

"We should search for them."

"No we shouldn't."

"They are overdue."

"Not really."

"Mr. Sanchez, is there a reason you persist in arguing with me on this point?"

"Look Ezra, at best, they would have been back the day before yesterday. But it's a long route, and we're talking about Vin and JD here. Who knows what they got up to on the way back?"

"And that is supposed to make me feel better?"

"Alright, then how about this? Chris and Buck are already looking for them. Do you really think they can't handle anything that comes up?"

"Yes. I mean no. Perhaps . . ."

"You can stop feeling guilty, too. From what I hear, you're the new hero of Four Corners. I heard that Mary is raising money to erect a statue in your honor."

"Very amusing. And I am not feeling guilty . . . just concerned. Obviously I care about our partners more than you do."

He laughed at that; a rather boisterous, resounding chuckle, in fact. I saw no humor in the situation, and I was about to tell him so when Nathan stuck his head through the slatted doors of the saloon and called out, "They're back!"

My concern was obviously warranted - though I would have preferred otherwise. It was painfully apparent when we first glimpsed our young partners that all was not well. A very pale Mr. Tanner was slumped over in his saddle, holding his head, while young Dunne was apparently too grievously injured to sit a horse at all.

"Good Lord, Buck! What happened to them?" I asked.

"What didn't happen to them might be a better question," Buck replied as he climbed down from his mount and began to untie the contraption on which JD lay.

I rushed to assist him while Josiah grabbed hold of what appeared to be an inebriated Vin Tanner. Our tracker was weaving unsteadily as he dismounted, mumbling a string of curse words.

"Please elaborate," I pleaded, while Buck and I carefully carried our burden up the stairs to the clinic.

"Well, they were caught by the Gentrys . . . tied up . . . beat up . . . Vin got shot . . . they fell off a cliff . . . and-"

"Oh dear Lord," I interjected, not wishing to hear anything further. My stomach already felt like a herd of buffalo was charging through it.

"Ezra? You feel alright?" Nathan asked as Buck and I gently lowered JD to the bed. "You're lookin' green again - might be comin' down with that flu after all."

How or why the man took the time to notice me, I wasn't certain, but I quickly reminded him of his priorities. "For God's sake, Nathan! I am not the injured party here! Although I am quite aware that I should be."

Chris had entered the room and raised a puzzled brow at Josiah upon hearing my declaration. Josiah quickly explained, "Ezra's feeling guilty for not riding with JD,"

Frowning in bewilderment - as if he'd completely forgotten that I was involved in the situation - Chris finally shrugged and said, "Well, fortunately it worked out alright."

"What? This is your definition of 'alright'?" I asked as I waved my hand at our injured companions. JD was stretched out on the bed, an obviously broken limb propped up on pillows, while Vin was . . . well, I'm not certain what Vin was doing. He appeared to be staggering aimlessly between the door and the window, muttering under his breath. I made out the words "goddamn tree", but nothing else. Chris gently took Vin's elbow and pushed him to sit on Nathan's cot, but the tracker stood right back up again and resumed his uneven pacing.

Buck looked over at me from where he now sat at JD's side and asked innocently, "What's the problem, Ezra?"

"The problem? The problem? I was supposed to have gone. It was my turn. And now . . . now . . . look at the results! It all might have been different if I'd assumed my obligation."

Chris shrugged again as he directed Vin back to the cot, and simply replied, "Might. Might not. Could've turned out better for Vin, but it might've turned out worse for JD . . . and for you. But we'll never know that. Will we, Ezra?"

He had a valid point. But I had no doubt that Chris would have been far less forgetful - and forgiving - had our young partners returned with more permanent injuries.

Buck added, "It all worked out. JD took care of Vin, and Vin . . . well, he tried to take care of JD. Nothing's broke that won't mend. And Chris and I figured out a few things along the way. It all worked out."

So . . . no one blamed me at all? In actuality, it appeared that no one even cared.

Perhaps I was feverish after all. In fact, I was certain of it when Chris abruptly pushed Vin down on the cot a third time and threatened, "I'll tie you to the goddamn cot, too, if you don't stay put!"

Collapsing on the chair near the door, I put my head in my hands as the voices of my friends swirled around me. Nathan was clucking out orders, while Chris argued with a mostly incoherent Vin. Buck and JD were laughing merrily over some private joke, while Josiah boomed, "Good to have you back, Boys!"

Yes, well that part was true.

And as it finally sunk in that I had been absolved of any wrongdoing, I lifted my head and smiled at the antics of my fellow peacekeepers.

Well, what do you know? It had turned alright after all.

+ + + + + + +

And so the story truly ends. JD and Vin recovered completely, although their memories of the adventure differed. Considering Mr. Tanner's rather severely cracked head, we tended to side with JD, though none of us were foolish enough to tell Vin that.

The remaining Gentry brothers, young Earl and handsome Levi, have yet to make an appearance in our humble village. With their limited intelligence, my guess is that it will be years before they conclude that eagle-eyed Clay and sneaky sonuvabitch Will are not on their way to join them. And should they choose to seek retribution against any of my teammates, it will not be a problem. As Buck colorfully reassured JD, "We can take their goddamn, sneaky, red-haired asses in a heartbeat."

As with all good tales, lessons were learned. The next time Chris made a journey to Eagle Bend, he waited for Vin to accompany him.

Any story worth telling should have a message, as well, and the moral of this one is that it always pays to have a good man at your side.

Oh, and one more thing - it really wasn't my fault.

The End