by LaraMee

Disclaimer: I claim no rights to the Magnificent Seven and intend no infringement.

Notes: This is one of my earlier fics, written soon after I entered the fandom.

Warnings: Violence, some of it rather graphic.


Chris Larabee screamed that single word over and over at the top of his lungs. His face had gone crimson, his eyes wide with anger and fear. The trembling blond watched the scene before him with a mixture of terror, rage and impotence. He could do nothing to change the events he saw before him and it was eating at his already tattered soul.

"Chris," Came a voice beside him. "You're not doing him any good. Please, Chris, for Vin's sake, you've got to stop."

Larabee looked briefly at the young man beside him, but barely registered his presence, let alone his words. His focus was on the activity in the little open area beyond the two of them. His focus was on Vin Tanner.

Vin hung limply from his wrists, suspended naked some small height above the ground. He stared mutely toward the sound of a familiar voice. He knew Chris was there, although the pain had nearly blinded him. He wanted to tell his friend that it was alright. He winced as he felt the heat of the little fire set below him grow momentarily stronger as the wind coaxed it upward to lick at his already singed bare feet. Tanner no longer had the strength to lift them away from the fire and could only moan softly as the pain managed to crawl through his numbed mind.

Chris and JD Dunne could only watch from where they had been bound, stripped naked as well, to two upright posts. Larabee had strained again and again against the leather strips that held him to the post, causing his wrists to bleed. Slightly behind their leader, Dunne could do nothing but watch the blood well up and drip freely onto the hard ground beneath them. The gunslinger was oblivious to the pain though, just as he had blocked out everything else. The world had shrunk to contain only himself and his best friend.

Watching as the flames leapt up against the bottoms of Vin's feet, Chris could only struggle against his bonds harder. Tanner could only moan, his tortured body twitching against the pain. His eyes, the pain causing the black of his pupils to nearly obliterate the pale blue around them, stared toward Larabee, although Chris was pretty certain Vin couldn't really see him anymore. Then he watched in ever rising horror as the man's head slipped from the arm it had been leaning against and slumped toward the bare and bloodied chest. The gunman knew that hanging as he was, Tanner could soon asphyxiate. He had to get through to the young man.

"Vin! Vin, get up! Get your head up Vin. Please!" His voice was pleading with the tracker. When he realized that the other man had yet to respond he tried a different tact, although it tore at his heart. "Tanner! Get your damn head up, you stupid fool! Are you planning to hang there like some mangy dog? You don't deserve to be called a Tanner. . .now get your damned head up!"

"Chris!" JD gulped hard at the fury in the other man's voice. How could he scream at Vin like that?

"Shut up," Larabee cut him off, his jaw clamped tight against the self-loathing that welled up inside him. "Tanner!"

Vin heard Chris now. . .registered the anger in his voice. Why was Chris angry with him? He wasn't certain what he had done to call down the man's wrath. Truth be told, he couldn't remember much of anything at the moment. . .wasn't even completely certain that he knew just who Chris was. The only thing he knew was that he didn't like that tone of voice when it was aimed at him. Finding a reserve of strength, he slowly lifted his head.

Larabee sighed as he watched the shaggy head lull slowly back upward, coming to rest once more against a tautly stretched arm. Slumping back against the post again, he dropped his head as a few hot tears rolled down his face. How long could Vin keep this up? He stole a look upward, gauging the time from the sun's position. Sundown, that was the deadline that their captors had given. If Vin were able to withstand the torture they had imposed until the sun touched the horizon, they would release them.

"That's good Vin, real good. Now you hold that hard head of yours up pard, you hold it up high. You're a Tanner, don't forget that. They can't take that away from you, now just hold your head up. The sun's gonna be down in an hour or so, maybe less. You can hold on that long, Vin. I know you can. Just keep your head up. . .please Vin. . .hold on." He continued his rambling litany, barely realizing what words he used. It didn't matter. He only needed to keep his friend alive, and this was the only option open to him at the moment.

From where he hung, Vin listened to the soft voice as it continued. He wasn't certain what the words meant, but it gave him comfort to hear the voice. It gave him some hope that he would survive this torture, that things would be all right. He stared glassily forward, not registering anything but shapes and shadows. Pain kept his mind from allowing him to make sense of anything more than that. Except for the voice. He held onto the voice, allowing it to wash over him, comforting him, providing a lifeline for him.

JD watched from where he sat, slowly realizing what Chris had been doing. He saw now what toll it was taking on the gunslinger. Allowing his own tears to fall freely, Dunne leaned back against the post that held him hostage. Was it truly only yesterday when it seemed that all was right with the world? It seemed like a lifetime. . .


"You sure y' got everything y' need, Kid?"

"Buck, I'm sure. I've been sure and I am sure. Now leave me alone, okay? Just leave me the hell alone!" His frustration was peaking, having risen for the past hour or so since Chris had asked him to accompany both he and Vin to Parson Gulch to verify the identity of a trio of gunslingers killed during a hold-up. Wilmington was frustrating on a good day but now he was being an annoying mother hen. The big gunman had suffered some cracked ribs during a recent bar brawl and couldn't ride with them.

"Ain't no call t' talk t' me like that boy, I'm only lookin' after your welfare."

With a sigh, he turned to the bigger man, "look Buck, I appreciate it, okay? But you're making me crazy. I know how to pack a saddlebag, all right?"

Chuckling, the former sheriff slapped him on the back and said, "sorry Kid, reckon I'm just a little fidgety. If Nathan'd let me outta this truss," he grumbled, rubbing at his tightly bound abdomen, "an' let me get back t' havin' fun. . ."

"Yeah, well if you don't behave yourself, he's going to tie you to your bed. . .alone," JD chided. "I heard he already threatened you after he found you trying to sneak off with Audrey Coulter yesterday."

"Yeah, well, if he'd been two minutes later, he wouldn'a caught me," Buck laughed.

Dunne had ridden out of town with the other two peacekeepers, the sound of the other man's laughter following them. The ride had been quiet. As usual, when he was riding with Chris and Vin, too quiet. He wouldn't have admitted it to Wilmington, but he missed his blustering within two miles. At least with the big man along, he would have had someone to carry on a real conversation with. Parson's Gulch was two days ride from Four Corners, so they would be gone for at least five days. JD hoped that there would be someone to talk to at their destination. If he had to ride with Larabee and Tanner for nearly a week, he'd probably have to learn to talk all over again when they got back home.

They had reached Parson's Gulch and identified the bodies. Securing a room, they had spent the evening in town. JD had found some people to talk to, and left the other two men to their own devices. Returning to the room around midnight, he found Vin already asleep and Chris just coming in from the saloon. They had fallen asleep quickly, it seeming to be only a few minutes before the tracker was rousting them out of bed to get back on the road. The morning had passed uneventfully, JD attempting to strike up a conversation with either of the other two. He had given up before they stopped for the noon meal.

It was then that is had all gone to hell.



Hazel eyes, blurred with tears and anger, turned to look at the youngest member of their compliment. "What?"

"Chris, you've got to calm down. I know it's hard, but you've got to do it. As long as you let them know you're this upset, it's just goading them to hurt him more." The blond glared at him, and Dunne was certain he was going to be on the receiving end of a dose of Larabee anger. However, when the older man spoke, he said only,

"You're right JD. . .God help me, I know you're right. But. . .damn it!"

"It's not your fault," the younger man said softly, feeling the hot tears sting his own hazel eyes. "It's not."

"Like hell it's not," Larabee growled, his voice filled with self-loathing. "Like hell it's not."


"Riders comin' this way," Tanner drawled. They were just re-mounting to ride through the afternoon.

"Where," Chris said softly, scanning the horizon. "How many?'

"Southwest, three of ‘m."


"Ain't certain."

JD cringed, wishing for once they'd speak in full sentences. Just once.

"JD," Larabee barked, "be ready for anything."

"Right." Oh hell, now he was doing it.

They stood fast, watching the approach of the three riders. As the horses drew abreast, they saw trail-worn men sitting on equally trail-worn horses. All were covered with dust, making the details of their faces, clothing and dispositions difficult to discern. The three peacekeepers appeared at ease, although their hands never strayed far from their guns.

"Howdy," the biggest of the newcomers said in a softly southern tone. "You fellas been on the trail long?"

"Long enough," Chris said evenly.

"Any good places t' stop over in that d'rection?"

"A couple I reckon," Vin answered.

"Anyplace y' recommend?"

"Parson's Gulch's ‘bout half a days ride. Ain't too bad a place t' hole up," Vin continued the conversation.

"How's th' women?"

"Few ‘n far b'tween."

"That's a shame," the big man said with a shake of his head. "Reckon we'll have t' make do with other en'ertainment, then." His voice took on a hard edge.

The three peacekeepers, already on alert, reached for their weapons. A dry, cold voice stopped them. All three men turned to see a dozen or more men behind them, who seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Not even Vin's keen senses had registered them.

"If I was you fellas, I'd just sit tight an' keep m' hands away from m' weapons." An older man in the clothes of a commanchero, glared at Chris with a cold smile. "Been a long time Larabee."

"What the hell do you want Talon?"

"Me? Why reckon I just wanna have a good time," the man Chris referred to as Talon said evenly. "Last time me an' you met, it was you havin' all th' fun. My turn this time."

"Fine. You've got a score to settle, it's with me. Let them go," he nodded first at Vin and then JD.

A short, hard bark of a laugh escaped the man. "Sure, no problem. I'll let ‘m go. . .straight t' hell if you don't do ‘s your told. Reckon y' catch m' drift."

They had been quickly overpowered, stripped of their weapons and bound to their horses. Larabee's protests were silenced with a rifle butt to the gut. They were blindfolded, each man's horse led by one of the outlaws who had captured them.


They had ridden for the remainder of the day, far into the wilderness. As night fell, the group entered an encampment of tipis and lean-tos surrounded by stone, scrub trees and bushes. A few women, lean and hard as the men, watched them enter with only a modicum of interest. A handful of children clung to their mothers, their eyes already flint hard. No one seemed to consider the arrival of three men tied to their saddles anything out of the ordinary.

They were taken to the farthest end of the encampment and untied from their mounts, their blindfolds removed. Each man, numbed from hours unmoving in the saddle, was yanked from the saddle and tossed to the ground. Vin gained his feet first, grunting as one of their captors prodded him forward with his gunbutt. Chris and JD stood then, stumbling after the tracker as they were all three escorted toward an aged wooden box. As they drew closer JD realized that it was what remained of a prison wagon.

"Right there's fine," Talon growled. He stood before them, glowering directly at Chris Larabee. "Welcome to my territory Larabee. We play by my rules here, nobody else's. Now first off, you boys strip."

While JD stared in shock at the leader of the outlaws, Vin stood passively and Chris replied, "go to hell," in an iron-edged tone. The blond was answered by a shotgun swung across his shoulders, sending him to the ground. He coughed hard, trying to catch his breath. Finally managing to shake off the stars he saw before his eyes, Chris pushed himself back to his feet.

"I spent five years in hell thanks to you, Larabee, " Talon said evenly. "Now it's your turn. Strip, or I shoot one of your boys here."

Chris Larabee was a strong man, with a strong sense of loyalty. His six friends had become his family, and Larabee was not a man to allow someone in his family to be hurt on his account. Not taking his eyes away from Talon's cold gray gaze, he began pulling off his clothing.

"You boys, off with your clothes, too."

They had stripped, not even allowed to keep their longjohns on. Night was falling quickly, and it was not going to be comfortable. JD felt the eyes of several of the women on him, and dropped his gaze to the ground. Next to him, Vin Tanner stood as easily as if he were fully clothed, seeming to be unaware that he was being looked over.

"Alright, you lousy son-of-a-bitch," Chris said, "you've got it your way. . .for now. If I were you I wouldn't be planning on a long life. When I get free, I'm going to take you down. . .nice and slow."

Laughing, the big man said, "I'd be concerned if it weren't for one thing. I know that you ain't ever gonna know freedom again. That's cause I've got a proposal to make you."

"I'm not interested."

"Ah, you will be, because I'm going to offer at least two of you freedom." He smiled when he realized that he now had the undivided attention of the three captives. "And you, Larabee, will get to decided who it is. Here's the deal; your choice. Either you hand yourself over to me for execution. . ." he stopped until their reactions had ebbed. "Or, you choose one of your friends to join me an' my men for some fun. Sunup to sundown, we get to do whatever we want to him. I can't guarantee that he'll still be alive by nightfall, but if he is, you'll all be released. If not. . .well, you can bury him before you leave."

"Let them go," Larabee ordered.

"No, no, now not so hasty Larabee. I want you to think about it. . .spend a few hours with your friends, just discussin' your options."

"Why? I gave you my decision. Let them go," Chris restated.

"Huh-uh," Talon shook his head, long stringy hair waggling as he did. "Not nearly as much fun. I want you to spend the night with your friends here. Let them try to talk you out of your decision if they want. I want you to have time to think about the pain your going to leave behind. I know the six bastards you've been ridin' with these past few months well enough to know that they ain't gonna be happy with the thought of you just givin' yourself over for execution."

With that, all three men were herded into the dank and cramped prison wagon. JD sat gingerly on one of the rotting bench seats, dropping his head into his hands. He felt the bench shift slightly and looked to see that Vin had settled down next to him.

Chris was far to wound up to sit. He paced the cramped quarters, heedless of the fact that he was completely nude. It was some time before the blond calmed enough to voice his thoughts. When he did, his words went straight through JD's heart, causing greater pain than any arrow or bullet.

"Alright, Vin I'm assuming that you kept track of the route."

"Yep," Tanner's voice was as calm as if he were agreeing to a drink at the saloon.

"Good. As soon as you see a chance, you and JD get the hell out of here, get back to town. You get the others to come help you clean out this vipers nest. Probably ought to wire the judge, see if he can get you some help."

"Chris, you're talking like you're not gonna be with us," JD said in a voice that sounded more like the squeak of a startled mouse.

Turning a too-calm gaze at their youngest member, Chris said, "you just stick with Vin, JD, get back to town." Turning back to matters at hand, he continued. "Vin, I want you to take care of selling off my stock. Use the money however you see fit, I know you'll do the right thing."

"Okay," Tanner agreed, heedless of the angry glare the Kid was starring a hole through him with.

"Good. Now, as far as the shack, the horses, the property, you all six figure out what to do with it. As long as Ezra knows there's nothing of any real value, I figure he'll be trustworthy enough. I'd like to see some of the money go to Billy Travis. Reckon it'll help him go to school later on. That would be nice. . ." his voice softened and drifted off as he thought of the blond newspaper editor and her son. After a few seconds he shook off the thoughts and continued in a quiet voice. "I'd like you to tell the others. . . that. . . well, that it's been a pleasure to ride with them. That goes for you two as well. Despite all the warts, it's been good riding with you both." Formally, the blond shook the hand of the other two men.

JD was openly crying by then. He felt as if he were watching the end of the world. How could Chris stand there so calmly, as if he were discussing the weather, and make arrangements for after his death? "Chris. . ." he choked out, "Chris, please."

Putting a hand on each of the younger man's shoulders, Chris said quietly, "it's okay, Kid. Don't worry about it. You and Vin just worry about getting away from here and getting back to town. You hear me son?"

Not being able to speak now, Dunne nodded his head miserably.

Turning back to Tanner, he continued. "I don't want you two trying anything heroic, you hear? I want you to keep one thing in mind; getting away. I'll keep them ‘entertained' for as long as I can, but that might just be a few minutes. You might have to ride out of here naked and bareback, but you get out of here, all right?"

"I heard y' pard. We'll high-tail it outta here quick ‘s we can."

Satisfied, Larabee calmed down. They spent the long night hours sitting near one another in an effort to stay warm. The wind whistled through the bars, chilling them. They spoke from time to time, sometimes about things that had happened earlier in their association, at other times Chris spoke to them in a fragmented way, sharing bits and pieces of his life.

Just as Larabee was finishing a story about his first Christmas as a father, Dunne looked out and saw something that chilled him far colder than the night had done. The sun was beginning to rise.

"It's gonna be dawn in a few minutes," Larabee said with a nod. As if to verify their observation, they heard the sound of boots crunching through the rocks and sand beyond their prison. Turning to Vin, the two men clasped forearms. Blue eyes held hazel ones for several seconds, the two men once more sharing that unspoken communication they used so often.

Breaking his hold with Vin, Chris turned to JD. In a very uncharacteristic manner, Chris Larabee wrapped his arms around the younger man, hugging him tightly. He felt hot tears run down his chest. With a final squeeze, he stepped back. . .

And fell to the ground in an unconscious heap. Behind him Vin stood, the piece of board he had used to knock out his friend dropping with a thud to the ground. As the door was unlocked, he stepped quickly forward. "Decision's been made," He said evenly to the half-dozen men outside. "Reckon y'all can do with me what y' want. . .for the day." He glared meaningfully at the leader. Talon returned his stare non-commitedly.

"Fine," the lawless leader said. Turning toward two of the others, he ordered, "take him to th' pit, boys."

"Vin!" JD cried out as his friend strode from their prison. "Vin, you can't!"

Turning toward the younger man, Tanner winked and said, "sure I can, Kid. Like lickin' butter off a knife." He smiled mirthlessly as he allowed the other men to lead him away.

"You," Talon jabbed a finger at Dunne. "Bring Larabee out here. . .now."

Glaring at the big outlaw, JD moved to where he could get Chris under the arms. He half dragged, half carried the bigger man from the old wagon and into the open. They were forced toward a pair of uprights as big around as they were. Larabee was pulled unceremoniously from JD's arms and tied to one of the posts. The young brunet was forced to the ground and tied to the other. He had little interest in what the men did to him now, his focus was on Vin Tanner.

They men were just finishing with the lanky tracker. They had suspended him from a pair of posts narrower than the ones the other two men were tied to. They bent and swayed like saplings in the wind, but were too heavy to give completely. Vin's arms were stretched to the point that JD was afraid that his joints were going to dislocate. He hung just high enough from the ground to allow them to build a small fire beneath him.

"Vin?" confusion was clear in Chris' voice.

Dunne stretched forward to see the other man. "Chris? Are you awake?"

"Yeah. . .what hit me?"

"Vin did," the younger man said softly.

"Why?" Larabee wasn't completely aware of what was happening yet, or he wouldn't have bothered to ask.

"Don't think he liked your decision," JD whispered.

"What?" Suddenly reality forced the gunslinger headlong into consciousness. "Damn it! Where is he?"

"Up there," He tried to keep his voice even, but the pain and fear was evident.

Quiet fell over the duo for several intolerably long seconds before, "oh God. . .no. Damn it Vin! Why?"

"He couldn't stand by and watch you die Chris. You know Vin. . .he's gotta be Robin Hood – "

"Damn it! It was my decision, not his!" Larabee's voice was dangerous in its even tones.

If and when they were released, the young sheriff knew that Chris would tear their captors apart with his bare hands. JD had no doubts of that; nor did he have any qualms about helping him. These men were worse than animals; they deserved to be torn asunder.

"Torn asunder," JD said to himself. The very sound of the words brought him comfort. It became a mantra, a way to keep his mind focused. A way to keep from going mad as he watched the torture Vin endured over the next several hours. Sun-up to sundown. There had never been a longer day.

The women and children saw to Vin's torment at first. Whip-thin branches filled with nettles and thorns were used to thrash him. He managed to keep his knees drawn up, not only avoiding the fire, but protecting his exposed genitals. He made no sound, simply staring at a spot beyond the encampment. After the children grew bored, the women continued by first dipping the branches into the fire. Sparks flew as the burning greenery struck Tanner's body. He grimaced from time to time, but made no sound.

Chris, on the other hand, spoke up. Reacting to the pain he knew his friend was feeling, he called out to the man who was responsible for their current predicament. "Talon! You worthless son-of-a-bitch, you said that the decision was mine! Damn it, you said it was my choice!"

After several angry entreaties, the big outlaw strolled over to where Larabee and Dunne sat tied. Looking down into the pain-filled hazel eyes he said, "reckon we decided we'd have more fun this way. Watchin' you watch your friend twistin' in th' wind is a lot more in'erestin' than blowin' your brains out."

"Fine, you bastard. You've had your fun, now keep your word. . .or is it as worthless as you are?" Chris' head snapped back as Talon delivered a sharp kick to the man's jaw. After he recovered, Larabee continued. "You set them free, and you can kill me fast or slow. Your choice."

"Chris," JD hissed. An angry stare from the gunman silenced him.

"Like you said, it's my choice," Talon said with a cold smile that didn't reach beyond his ugly mouth. "And I choose to watch th' show." With that he walked away, heedless of Larabee's continued threats and entreaties.

The torture continued.

When the women grew tired of their games, some of the men took over. They took turns hitting the unprotected body with fists and heavier branches, the louder thuds echoing through the encampment. Their meaning burned itself into the minds of the two other bound men. It seemed they were intentionally keeping Vin alive as long as possible. They were drawing out the pain for as long as they could.

"Oh God," JD moaned, "please. . .make it stop."


The sun touched the horizon more slowly than it ever had before. As it did, Chris' eyes burned brighter with rage as he waited for the promised release. Finally, only the barest hint of light still remained and still the commancheros abused Vin Tanner. Finally Larabee's frayed patience broke. "God damn you Talon! Times up. Cut him down!" he screamed, pulling once more on the bonds that were now blood-slicked and gory.

JD felt numb, both physically and emotionally. He had spent the day watching one friend being physically tortured and another tortured emotionally. The young man had given up begging Chris to calm down. The gunman's periodic outbursts had continued. At times his attention, and his cries, were aimed at Tanner himself. Time and again Vin's head would fall, returning to rest on his arm only at Chris' insistence. Each time he was forced to push his best friend to expend his quickly declining strength, Larabee visibly faltered. JD would speak only then.

"Chris, it's okay. You're doing okay. Vin's listening to you. . .he's still fighting back."

He didn't answer the younger man, and JD wasn't even certain that Chris even heard him. Larabee was trapped in the hell of guilt and self-recrimination. Dunne had no words to counter those feelings.

Finally, as the last lingering rays disappeared behind the horizon, two men released Vin. As he dropped, they roughly pushed him away from the still smoldering fire, but made no move to help him otherwise. Larabee and Dunne watched impotently as Tanner was forced to walk on burned and blistered feet. The outlaws pushed and prodded him until he shuffled awkwardly toward the other two men. His face was blank, devoid of any hint that he even registered the pain. Dehydration, from long hours in the sun perched over the fire, was evident as the others saw the tip of his tongue protruding past his beaten and bloodied lips.

Another man stepped to the uprights and cut the heavy bonds. Immediately Chris jumped to his feet, stumbling as his body reacted sluggishly to the movement. He went directly to Tanner, reaching out to steady him. He was surprised when Vin held out a hand to stop him, shaking his head weakly.

"No, don' Cris," he mumbled. " hur's."

Swallowing his frustration the blond nodded. He and JD flanked the injured man as they were forced back toward the old prison wagon. "You said we'd go free," he growled at the leader.

"So I did," Talon responded with a broad smile. "I lied."

"You son-of-a-bitch!" Larabee lunged at the man, only to be shoved roughly away by one of the other outlaws. Not one to back away, the blond fought to reach the object of his hatred. Three of the men grabbed the gunslinger, wrestling him to the ground. However, it was the words spoken by JD Dunne that stopped him.

"Chris! Vin needs you right now."

Looking from beneath the tangle of arms and legs, Larabee saw that Tanner had fallen to his knees. Dunne was kneeling beside him, trying in vain to support the other man without injuring him further. The blond relaxed, signaling that he surrendered. Taking their lead from Talon, the three men released him. As soon as they did, Chris scrambled to his feet and rushed to his injured friend, gently lifting Tanner to his feet with JD's help. The tracker moaned and tried to speak, but couldn't form the words. Whispering an apology to the younger man, Chris held him carefully and turned toward Talon once more. When he spoke, his voice was quiet and deadly calm. "You said you'd let us go if he survived the day. He did. Now if you want to do more to someone, you do it to me. Let them go. He needs water, he needs a doctor. Neither of these men have ever done a damn thing to you, you fucking son-of-a-bitch. Let them go."

Motioning to one of the others, the big outlaw retrieved a canteen and tossed it toward them. JD deftly caught it one handed, not releasing his hold on Vin.

"There's some water. I'll think about th' rest of it tonight, give you an answer in th' mornin'." The ugly face became even uglier as he smiled. "Take ‘m back to th' cage boys."

Retaining as much control as he could, Chris kept his mouth closed as they were prodded back toward the old prison wagon. His eyes spoke volumes, however, as he glared at the outlaw leader with undisguised hatred.

Back inside the tiny, dark prison, Dunne and Larabee focused on the most important thing at the moment, taking care of Vin. As carefully as possible, they lowered the abused man to the wagon floor. It was filthy, but it was their best choice. The benches were nearly collapsed and no cleaner than the floor. At least there they wouldn't have to worry about him falling. Tanner cried out as his tortured body came to rest, the hard surface accentuating the injuries by pressure alone. Chris offered his hand to his friend, the best thing he could do at the moment, it was something to help fight the pain at least. The tracker wrapped his fingers around the other man's hand gratefully.

"Here Vin," JD whispered. He lifted the shaggy head and helped his friend drink. Slowly managing to force a few sips of tepid water past his torn lips and swollen tongue, the injured man nearly choked. Dunne took the canteen away and held Tanner up, looking helplessly across to Larabee.

"It's okay JD," Chris said softly. He wasn't certain if he was trying to reassure his young friend, or convince himself. He shifted his position and pulled Vin up to rest against his chest so that Dunne could feed Vin the water again.

Dribbling the water drops at a time now, JD managed to get enough of the liquid into the tracker's mouth to slake his terrible thirst. By that time it was completely dark, not even a hint of starlight to help them.

"C'ris. . .p -- ease," Tanner struggled to make himself understood.

"Is it hurting you to sit up?" Larabee wasn't certain exactly what the younger man wanted.

"Y-yeah," he nodded.

Gently the blond lowered his injured friend to the ground, but he continued to hold his hand. Vin squeezed it gently, signaling his appreciation. His breathing was raspy, labored. He could no longer hold back his reaction to the pain, and several agonized moans managed to escape thorough his swollen mouth.

The men could hear the unmistakable sounds of merriment beyond the walls of their prison. Men and women could be heard laughing, yelling and calling back and forth to one another. It was a safe bet that whiskey was involved. As the evening wore on, the sounds became less jovial although they were louder as the hours passed. Then, under those sounds were others that would have caused the peacekeepers to bristle with anger, had their attention not been focused exclusively on Vin. There were cries, scream, pleas. . .people begging to be left alone. Pack sounds almost, the larger and stronger preying on the smaller and more helpless.

Chris and JD however, were concerned only with Vin. Again and again he slid into unconsciousness, only to be yanked back to consciousness by pain. His friends did everything they could to make him comfortable, but it was little more than wiping his brow with the precious water they had been provided and holding his hand. Larabee spoke quietly throughout the long hours, doing his best to reassure Tanner that they would find escape; that they would reach Four Corners and Nathan's healing touch.

As night passed into morning, the noises outside began to quiet. The whiskey was taking its toll, sending their captors into alcohol-induced oblivion. The quiet was interrupted in the final hour before sunrise by a faint scratching noise. Chris and JD's heads snapped up, staring toward the cell door. The noise came again, finally identified as a key in the door lock. Dunne slipped forward and stole a look out the tiny barred window. Staring for a minute, he managed to remain silent, returning to his two friends before he spoke in a whisper.

"It's a kid, looks about 10 or so. He's opening the door."

Just as JD explained, they heard the unmistakable sound of the door being eased open as quietly as possible. A tiny silhouette stood out in the weak light from a distant fire. He motioned for the men to come forward, looking over his shoulder even as he did.

"Chris?" Dunne asked his questions with a single word.

"Let's go," Larabee answered. Carefully lifting Vin into his arms, he followed the young boy out of their little prison, leaving JD to follow.

The child led them into the rocks, away from the encampment. As he walked, the boy swept up a bulky bundle wrapped in a worn blanket. Hardly noticing his burden, Larabee walked quickly with Vin in his arms, following the silent child. Bringing up the rear, JD couldn't help but consider how ridiculous they must look – three naked men, walking through the rocks behind one wraith-like child. If it weren't for the situation that had led them here, he would have laughed.

They walked for several long minutes in silence, finally coming to a hidden little recess in the rock walls surrounding the encampment. There the child stopped, turning and offering the bundle to JD. The young man opened it quickly, finding their clothing inside. He looked at the boy, "thank you. I don't understand why you're doing this, though."

The child nodded to Dunne, coaxing him to get the clothing on quickly. Nearby, Chris lowered his friend to the ground and quickly donned his own clothes. The young tracker was far too beaten and abused to bear his heavy clothing, so Larabee shook out the blanket and wrapped it around the thin body. Lifting Tanner once more, he looked to their diminutive savior. "What now, son?"

Motioning, the child led them forward through the littered encampment. The men hurried, keeping a constant vigil for signs of a trap or that they were being followed. The encampment remained quiet, though, the members of the outlaw gang, men women and children, slept. It didn't even appear that they felt it necessary to post a guard. They found no resistance to their departure, much to the amazement of the peacekeepers. The boy had not been able to produce their weapons, they would have had two choices; surrender or die.

Chris Larabee knew which decision he would have made. He would not return to the encampment alive. He had more than himself to think about, though. JD and Vin both deserved a chance. His mind began to formulate a plan; a way to keep their captors busy while his friends managed to escape. If they were found, he would readily sacrifice himself for their freedom. Not from a noble sense of the greater good, but simply because this was his fault. He had already lost far too much in his life when his past came visiting. He would not add his two friends to that list.

Their young benefactor led them to a very welcome sight; Peso, Pony and Milagro patiently awaiting their owners. The horses looked dusty, it was clear that their care had been marginal since their capture. They were rested, though, ready to return their masters to Four Corners.

Larabee lowered Tanner to the ground. Vin sighed at the reduction of contact with his tortured flesh. Absently brushing long brown curls away from the younger man's face, Chris captured the tracker's attention. "We've got the horses, pard. I need you to listen to me, and answer me honest, okay?" He waited until the other man managed a short nod before continuing. "We need to get you on horseback, Vin. Do you think you can stand having your britches on?"

"R. . .eckon," the tracker whispered hoarsely.

"Alright, now the next question Vin, and I want you to be honest. Can you sit your horse, at least long enough for us to put some space between us and Talon's men? We can make better time, but if you're going to fall off. . ."

"I'll. . .ma. . .nge," Tanner said quietly.

Taking a precious minute, Chris searched his friend's face and finally nodded. "All right, then, I'm going to trust you. We'll get you on your horse in a few minutes and then we're going to get the hell out of here."

Nodding, Vin slumped against the rocks and did what he could to conserve his energy. His mind was foggy, the world around him sliding in and out of focus. He was not afraid to die, but he would prefer to do it elsewhere. He had no problem dying as long as he knew Chris and JD were safe. If he had to sit in a pool of his own blood and die in the saddle, he would as long as the other two were able to get clear of this bunch of soulless bastards. He only had to hold on that long, and then whatever happened could happen.

Nearby, JD was trying to engage their young benefactor in conversation. "You'd better come with us son, okay? I don't think it's going to be safe for you here if you stay. You can come back with my friends and me, we'll make certain someone takes care of you, okay?" As Dunne reached out to the boy, he was startled when the kid flinched from his touch. The child's mouth opened, but only a strangled sound came out. The young sheriff pulled his hand back, afraid suddenly that he would scare the child off.

"It's okay, kid, I'm not going to hurt you. Look, I hate to just keep calling you kid and son. What's your name?" When he received no answer, he said, "my name's JD Dunne. What's yours?"

The child hung his head, seeming to be embarrassed or saddened by the one-sided exchange. He moved away, going to sit on a rock that would allow him to oversee the hodge-podge gathering of dwellings. He turned to glance at the men over his shoulder from time to time, but kept most of his attention on the camp below.

JD watched the boy for a few seconds, but turned to the task at hand. He moved to where Chris was ministering to Vin. Together they managed to ease his doeskin pants up over the burned and cut legs and around the narrow waist. Tanner moaned softly, his head lulling to come to rest against Larabee's shoulder. Chris murmured words of encouragement to his friend. On his part, Vin seemed to barely register the words, but a small smile crept across his battered face.

Allowing the tracker a few minutes to adjust to the feel of the rough fabric against his abused flesh, the others then lifted him into the saddle. Peso snorted but stood patiently until his master was settled on his back. The big black showed no sign of his typical spirited nature, a response either to the lack of care at the hands of the outlaw, or a sense of Vin's distress.

Chris moved to Pony, while JD mounted Milagro. Their diminutive savior watched them passively, but Dunne had to do little coaxing to get the child to join him on the back of the sorrel. Larabee took up Peso's reins, leading the horse through the maze of broken rock and fragile undergrowth. JD brought up the rear, his new-found friend secure behind him. Chris picked his way along, searching for the course that would be least likely to alert their captors of their escape. He wanted desperately to push the animals quickly to a full-out run, but restrained himself. They managed to get to the open range without incident. Pulling up, the gunslinger motioned JD forward. As the young man pulled along side, he coaxed Vin's big black next to them. Helping Tanner drink a little water, he turned to Dunne.

"We're going be easy targets once we get out there," Chris nodded toward the broad expanse of open land. "We're going to have to run the horses full out as long as we can. I need you to stay on Vin's right, just in case. If he seems to be in trouble, sing out."

"Be. . .'kay," the young sharpshooter grumbled.

"I know you will, pard," Larabee said quietly. You hold on to the ‘horn tight, okay? We're getting out of here and going home."

Nodding, Vin didn't see Chris look across to JD. The two men were more and more concerned that their friend would not survive the coming ride.

Taking a deep breath, feeling as if he would be running the distance himself, Chris gave one final look around. Deciding that things were quiet, he nodded to JD, and the men spurred their horses forward. On Peso's back, Tanner gasped as he felt the big animal jump forward to a run, but didn't let go.

The three horses ran as if they knew lives depended upon their speed. Necks strained forward while ears lay back flat against their heads, legs kicked up loose dirt and dry grass, sending them flying in the horses wake. They had covered over a mile of open space before they heard it. Pursuit. Chris cursed under his breath, kicking Pony, silently requesting more speed from the animal. The gelding obliged, sailing through the air as if he had suddenly grown wings. Larabee chanced a look to his left, relieved to see that the others were still along side him.

On Milagro, JD felt the young boy behind him tighten his hold. He covered the filthy, torn and frail hands with his own, delivering what he hoped was a reassuring squeeze. From time to time he could feel his companion tremble, although he had no idea if it was from fear or cold. He turned to see Vin an arms length away, swaying slightly in the saddle. The rangy tracker was gamely hanging on, his hands wound tightly around the saddlehorn. Dunne shook his head in amazement. Vin Tanner was one of the toughest men he'd ever known.

They continued on, even when the gunfire began. Talon's men wasted little time in trying to bring down their prisoners. The outlaws couldn't afford to allow witnesses to their atrocities to go free. All the four on horseback could do was lay low in the saddle and push the horses faster. They could feel the big sides beneath them heaving as the horses reached, and surpassed, their limits. The animals would be able to continue for some time, the men had kept them in good shape, still they had their limits. Dunne prayed that they would be able to escape their pursuers before that time came.

Time seemed to at once drag and fly, a strange feeling that almost left the young sheriff disoriented. It seemed that they had been riding for days, and at the same time it was as if they had only just climbed into the saddles. The minutes dragged by, but they had quickly flown through the entire morning and into the early afternoon. They would have to stop soon.

Chancing a look behind him, Chris saw that the outlaws were dropping off quickly. There had been over a dozen men behind them when the early morning light had allowed them to really see their pursuers, now there were only four or five. The southwestern heat must have combined with the liquor from the night before to persuade most of the men to turn back.

An occasional shot still whipped past them from time to time. JD felt the small body jerk behind him and cursed. He couldn't afford to stop or even turn around to check on the boy. He prayed that it was nothing but, when the frail body suddenly relaxed against him, he could only fear the worst. Dunne grasped the child's hands when they suddenly released their hold around his chest. "Damn it," he cried helplessly.

By the time the sun began it's decent, they knew they would have to stop soon. The animals were beginning to falter, the men beginning to fear the horses would die beneath them if they weren't able to stop soon. There were still three men on their trail, however.

"JD!" The man in black yelled.

Looking up, Dunne met Larabee's gaze. The older man pointed toward an outcropping only a few yards away. He read their leader's face and nodded. Keeping Peso and Vin between them, the other two men turned toward the natural structure. JD felt the boy behind him begin to slide from the horse. Tightening his grip, he said quietly, "hang on kid, please. Hang on."

Nothing else was said as the men moved quickly forward, soon reaching the edge of the rocks. Chris moved ahead, Peso close behind. JD came up quickly behind, still struggling to keep the child from falling. They made their way among the rocks and brush, deeper into the maze that would hinder the pursuit. They hoped.

Finding a particularly dense area, Larabee pulled up, stopping Peso as well as Pony. "JD, lets get them off the horses."

Dunne cringed. He wanted nothing more than to continue riding; he did not want to have to look at the boy behind him. He knew what he would find, but as long as they were riding, he didn't have to face it. Taking a deep, trembling breath, he managed to lower the boy to the ground, dismounting quickly.

Nearby, Chris had moved quickly from his horse to stand next to Tanner. Pain-filled blue eyes starred down at him. "Come on Vin, let's get you off this horse."

As if he were a marionette whose strings had suddenly been cut, the lean tracker slid from the saddle. He was unconscious even before the gunslinger managed to catch him. Larabee held him carefully, quickly taking him to a spot nearby where he could lay the younger man down. Turning, he searched for Dunne. "JD?"

"Yeah," Dunne's voice was soft, filled with sorrow.

"JD, you okay?"

"Yeah," he repeated.

Making Tanner as comfortable as possible, Chris stepped quickly toward the other man's voice. "Kid, you sure you're okay?"

"Fine," the emotion in his voice belied that.

Coming around the horses, Larabee was brought up short by what he saw. "Oh no. Is he. . ."

"He's dead," JD said quietly. He was sitting on the ground, the emaciated little body cradled in his arms. "They shot him."

Kneeling next to the younger man, Chris said, "JD, I'm sorry. I wish I could make things different. He was a brave kid."

Nodding, Dunne said, "they hurt him long before now."

Larabee assumed that JD meant the bruises and scars that marred the tiny body, but the brunet's next words corrected his thoughts, and chilled his heart.

"I know now why he didn't talk." He spoke the words bluntly, emotionlessly. Turning the now-peaceful face toward the blond, JD opened the dead child's mouth. "They cut out his tongue, Chris. Those fucking animals cut out his tongue."

"Damn," Larabee breathed as he looked into the dark cavern that contained only broken and blackened teeth. He ran a callused hand across his handsome face, cursing the monsters that had maimed the child before him. He wondered fleetingly as to what other tortures he had been subjected to. "They'll pay, JD. Talon and the rest of those bastards will pay. . .for what they did to this child, and what they did to Vin."

Dunne listened to the oath his friend delivered, but took little comfort in the words. He would ride beside Chris to destroy the evil that had come into their lives. For once he would take great pleasure in the taking of life, and nothing would ever be the same again. JD felt something die inside him, and at the same time, something grew hard and cold.

"JD, I understand, but I need you to help me son." Chris' words stole into the younger man's thoughts. "We're going to have company in a minute, and I'm going to need you to help stop them."

With a final look at the child who was growing cold in his arms, JD nodded. He lowered the lifeless body to the ground and slowly stood. "What do we do?"


Only three men pursued their former captives. They were Talon's best men, as twisted as their leader. They enjoyed the pursuit, savoring the thought of what they would do with the men when they caught them. Talon had required nothing but the bodies as evidence that the man he had hated for long years would never draw another breath.

They entered the maze of rock and brush carefully, watching for signs of ambush. They didn't have long to wait. Two of them were quickly felled by heavy stone nearly as large as their heads. The third drew his gun, shooting blindly into the rocks. He had nothing to go on, having not seen where the rocks came from. The man suddenly found himself flying through the air, something. . .someone. . .forcing him forward and down. Landing on the ground with a heavy thud, the outlaw found himself looking upward with a dazed look into the face of a very angry JD Dunne.

Before the bigger man could react, JD was pounding him with everything he had. With no resistance the young sheriff quickly delivered a blow that knocked him into unconsciousness. It was only then that Dunne felt hands gripping his arms; heard a voice calling his name. Slowly he stopped and looked behind him. Chris was leaning over him, talking to him.


"JD you can stop now. The man's out. Do you hear me? You can stop."

Suddenly everything drained from him; the hatred, the rage, the sorrow. Dunne slumped back against the other man. He took comfort in the feel of Chris Larabee holding onto him. "Oh God, Chris. . ."

"It's okay, son. It's okay." Larabee wrapped his arms around the young man. "They aren't going to hurt him anymore. We need to get out of here though, just as soon as we can. The others may come after us again. I need you to help me wipe down the horses so we can leave. Can you do that Kid?"

Nodding, not wanting to trust his voice, JD pushed himself to his feet and followed the bigger man. The two of them checked the outlaws first, finding two of them had died. The third they tied across his saddle; they would take him back to Four Corners with them. Chris relieved all three of their firearms, draping one gunbelt over his shoulder and tossing the other to Dunne. After checking on the still unconscious Tanner, they used tufts of grass to stoke the foamy perspiration from the animals. All three were beginning to calm down, but they would need a great deal of care when they managed to get home.

Easing Vin back into the saddle, Chris turned to find JD wrapping a blanket around the young boy's body. He started to say something, but the look in Dunne's body stopped him. Without a word he helped his friend lash the body behind Milagro's saddle. Chris led off once more, handgun drawn in the event that they found more outlaws once they returned to the open spaces. All three men had carried a healthy supply of shells and bullets. They would be able to fight off any attack.

JD rode mechanically behind the other horses, his mind preoccupied with thoughts of what he would do to as many of the outlaws as he could get his hands on. At that point in his life, that was the only thing that kept him calmed down.

There was no sign of further pursuit when they reached open ground. Larabee released the breath he had been holding and waved them forward. They were soon riding three abreast, Peso couched between Pony and Milagro. JD led the horse that bore the still unconscious outlaw; they had stripped the other horses and turned them loose. Chances were they would return to the encampment. Chris hoped so; it would give a clear message to Talon's gang.


The remainder of the trip seemed anticlimactic. They lost little time in riding toward Four Corners and home, but neither did they need to push the horses so hard. It was just before midnight when they reached the edge of town. Larabee led Vin toward Nathan's while JD moved toward the jail with their lone prisoner. Chris stole a look at Dunne, saddened to see the look of defeat on the young face. He would ask Josiah to speak to the young Easterner in the morning; for now he had for focus on getting Vin to the clinic.

"Hey Pard," he said softly as he came around the big black to stand next to the injured man. "We're at Nathan's. I'll get him down here to help us get you upstairs."

"No. . .I can make. . .it," the younger man gamely slid from the saddle, trusting his friend to catch him. Chris did. Together they slowly made their way up the wooden stairs. Vin pulled himself along by the rail, balancing himself on aching and bleeding feet. By the time they were half way to their destination he was slipping on the gore; Larabee knew he could not make it much farther. He slid an arm around the other man's waist, lifting him a little at a time until the tracker's feet barely touched the wooden surface. As they reached the top, they heard a door open and a familiar deep voice spoke quietly.

"What did you two get yourself into this time?"

"Sorry to wake you up Nathan," Larabee said in a breathless voice. "Vin needs a bit of looking after. Think you could lend a hand here?"

Shaking his head, the big healer moved to Tanner's other side. Together they lifted the tracker and carried him the rest of the way to the clinic. Once inside they lowered him to the bed. A soft sound, part groan and part sigh, escaped the man and his blue eyes drooped closed.


JD Dunne did not remember ever feeling so tired in his life. He slid out of the saddle, almost falling to the ground. A pair of strong arms caught him and led him to a chair on the nearby boardwalk. He was lowered to the seat, only then looking up to see who had helped him. A pair of familiar dark blue eyes looked back at him with concern.

"You okay Kid?"

"Fine Buck, just tired."

"Where's Chris an' Vin?"

"Uh. . .Chris took Vin to Nathan's."

"He okay?"

"Vin? No, he's pretty beat up. Buck, I'm really tired, could we talk about this later?"

"Sure Kid, I'll –"

"The kid!" He pushed himself from the chair, nearly toppling the bigger man. "I need to take care of the kid."

"What kid, JD?" Wilmington followed the younger man back to Milagro. He noticed the blanket-wrapped body for the first time, as well as the man hanging across the other horse. "What th' hell went on out there?"

"I've gotta take the kid. . .the kid to the Undertaker's." He fumbled, trying to get the little corpse from Milagro's back. Stepping around the smaller man, the former sheriff lifted the bundle from the horse. He was stopped by a strangled cry. Looking down, he saw JD grow even paler than normal.

"No! Let me have him!" Dunne pulled the rigored body from his friend's arms, settling it into his own. With determination, he moved toward the Undertaker's office with his grim bundle.

Watching his friend for a few seconds, Buck moved to the strange horse, lifting the prisoner from its back. The man groaned as he was pulled into an upright position. He vomited all over himself, staggered and stumbled, but managed to walk into the jailhouse. Wilmington secured the man in one of the cells and stepped back outside. He saw a light at the Undertaker's and hurried across the street.

Entering the office Buck found JD standing near the door, staring into the room where the Undertaker had placed the blanket wrapped corpse. He came to a stop next to the younger man, placing a hand on his shoulder. "JD? Y' wanna talk?"

Dunne shook his head. "Not now Buck, maybe later. I wanna be alone right now."

Standing next to his friend for another minute, Wilmington squeezed his shoulder and said softly, "all right. Don't stand here too long Kid, you look done in."


The morning sun found Chris and Nathan just finishing their ministrations. Vin had been cleaned up, his wounds stitched, bathed, salved and bound. They had settled his tortured feet on pillows, each one swathed in heavy white bandages. On his part, Tanner had drifted in and out of consciousness. At times he was able to talk coherently with his friends; at others he mumbled nonsensically as he was trapped in a nightmare world.

Straightening up slowly, Chris couldn't stifle a low groan. He ached, every inch of his body. He had finally allowed Nathan to tend to the deep abrasions on his wrists, washing them out with carbolic and wrapping them in white cloth. Larabee barely reacted to the acid wash, his mind still trapped in the recent past. Looking down at his friend, he felt the rage well up once more at what Vin had gone through in the name of friendship.


He looked up slowly, realizing that Jackson was talking to him. "Yeah?"

"Why don't you go get some rest. You look done in."

"I'm fine. There's only one thing on my mind right now. I'm going back out after the men that did this."

"N-not ‘thout. . .me," came a whisper.

Looking down, Larabee saw Vin staring back up at him. "You ain't going anywhere til Nathan says okay. I didn't drag your sorry carcass back here so you could turn around and get yourself killed."

"I'm fine," Tanner argued. He started to raise himself up, only to slump back to the bed. "J-just gotta get m'. . .wind."

"Yeah, well you'll have plenty of time for that Vin Tanner," Nathan admonished. "You're gonna be my guest for the next three days at least." He raised a hand to forestall the argument he saw in the finely chiseled face. "You argue I'll make it four."

Staring at the healer, Tanner nonetheless kept his mouth shut.

Chris smiled at the exchange, the first smile he had managed for several days. He pushed himself to his feet and with only a quick nod he left the little clinic.


"Boy, I thought you were gonna get some sleep."

"Buck, I ain't in the mood for any of your lectures right now okay?"

His voice softening, the bigger man said, "sure Kid. C'mon, let's go get you some breakfast. . .get y' cleaned up."

Nodding absently, Dunne said, "sure. . .okay."

They entered the restaurant to find Josiah Sanchez already there. Moving to join him, they ordered breakfast from the young woman who greeted them. JD gratefully accepted a mug of coffee, taking a long drink.

The young man's haggard appearance had not escaped Sanchez's notice. "JD, it doesn't appear that you had a very pleasant trip."

"No, I didn't," Dunne agreed. "Josiah, can I ask you a favor?"

"Why of course."

"Can you hold. . .a funeral service for me this afternoon?"

The big man started at the question. "A service? For who, son?"

"That's just it Josiah. I don't know the kid's name. He. . .he couldn't talk."

"JD, perhaps you should fill us in on what happened."

He opened his mouth, intending to tell them nothing other than he didn't want to talk about it yet. Instead, JD Dunne found himself relating the details of the past few days to Buck and Josiah. When he finished nearly an hour later, both men were ready to hunt down the outlaws who had visited such savagery on not only three of their own, but on the poor nameless child who had sacrificed himself to free them.

"I say we get Chris and Ezra and ride out after those bastards," Buck said with quiet rage in his voice.

"I agree," Josiah said. "I'll go roust Ezra while you go get Chris. JD, can we hold the service for your young benefactor when we return?"

Nodding, Dunne said, "I'll go get the horses saddled."


Buck hurried up the stairs, heading to Nathan's clinic. He entered to find only the healer and Vin Tanner. The big man's mouth dropped open at the sight of the tracker lying so still on the bed, bandaged feet propped on pillows. Pulling his gaze away from his injured friend, he turned to Jackson. "Hey Nathan, where's Chris?"

"He left here a good hour ago Buck, why?"

Looking puzzled, the former sheriff said, "he say where he was goin'?"

"I assumed he was going to round up you and the others to go after the bunch that did this," he nodded toward Tanner. "He wouldn't be at the jail would he?"

"Nope, I was there while ago. Maybe he stopped in to send a telegram to th' Judge? Or maybe he's at Mrs. Potter's getting' supplies."

"Go'n. . .after Talon," Vin said tiredly from the bed.

"He wouldn't go by himself. . .would he?" Jackson turned a concerned face toward the big former sheriff.

Giving the dark man a level look, Wilmington said, "you forget who you're talkin' about Nathan?"

"Damn," the healer muttered. "I'll see if Mary can come stay Vin –"

"Don't need a damn. . .babysitter," Tanner grumbled.

"You're gonna do what I tell you Vin," Nathan said quietly. "I ain't gonna argue with you. And if you don't mind me, I'll ask Casey to go get Miss Nettie. You'll mind her."

At the mention of the woman who had become very dear to him, the tracker acquiesced. Jackson was right, the old woman, only had to give him a look and he would do whatever she said. Glaring at the healer, he none the less lay back in the bed. "Fine, I'll stay put. . .don't mean I gotta like it, though."

"I can live with that," the former stretcher bearer said with a grin. The expression turned serious however, as he turned to the other man. "Can you get Able ready for me and I'll take care of things here. Meet you at the livery in 15 minutes."

"We'll be waitin'," Wilmington said as he all but ran from the room.


Twenty minutes later found five men riding hell-bent-for-leather out of town. Mary Travis watched them ride out from the landing outside Jackson's clinic. As they disappeared from view she ducked inside, only to find Vin Tanner struggling to get out of bed.

"And exactly what do you think you're doing Mr. Tanner?" She asked sternly.

"Reckon I'm. . .lookin' for m' pants ma'am," he replied sheepishly, pulling the quilt around him. "Could y' turn your head a minute Mz. Travis?"

"I'll do nothing of the sort. You were told to stay in bed." She walked determinedly across the room, pressing the slender man back against the mattress. "You're in no shape to do anything right now, Vin."

He turned concerned blue eyes in her direction. "Mary," he said softly, "I can't just lay abed like some old man while. . .Chris an' th' others. . ."

"You're not getting up Vin," she replied, her tone softening. "I know you're concerned, but the last thing the others need right now is for you to injure yourself further. Trust them to take care of this."

"Ain't got nothin' t' do with trust or not trustin' ‘m ma'am. It's got everything. . .t' do with. . ." he sighed, "with bein' there. . .for ‘m when. . .they need y'."

Mary sat down next to him on the mattress, taking his face in her hands. "Vin Tanner, you have done enough for now. How do you think Chris. . .all of them. . .would feel if you came to more harm? They're worried enough as it is. . ." she let the words trail off.

Vin stared hard at her, reading the worry and concern in her pretty face. "He's gonna be okay Mary," he said softly. "He will." His own hand came up to cover hers, taking hold of it. "He will," he repeated. Squeezing the man's hand, she smiled. "I hope you're right Vin, I really do."


"JD, you sure you remember the way?" Buck asked.

Dunne glared at him. "I may be a kid, but I ain't stupid," he growled at his friend. With an angry jerk, he pushed his borrowed mount to a gallop, riding away from the other men.

"JD!" Wilmington called. He started to go after him, but stopped when he felt a hand on his arm. Turning, he found Josiah next to him.

"Let him ride for a while, Buck. I think he needs some time alone. What he's been through these past few days – "

"You're right Josiah," Wilmington said softly. "I just wish. . ."

"You wish you could make it all go away, make it not happen."


"You're a good friend Buck Wilmington, but even friendship has its limits. All you can do is be there when he needs you."

"I know, but it just ain't fair. He's already had t' put up with a lot more'n he oughta for a boy his age. Don't make sense that he's gotta shoulder even more."

"No, it doesn't Buck, but no one has forced JD to stay here and weather the storms he has. He's done it because it's been what he wanted; what he came West for. Give him credit. . .he's not a boy any longer."

Nodding, the big ex-sheriff rode with the other three men, keeping track of JD, but allowing him some space. It was late afternoon by the time they spotted Chris. The man in black was riding hard as well, making good time on the horse he had borrowed as well. Just as Dunne had done with Milagro, Larabee had left Pony behind to rest from his ordeal. Fortunately for the men riding after him, this animal had only a margin of Pony's stamina, or they would never have caught up with him. He turned once, when they were within earshot, but did not acknowledge the other men. Instead he simply turned back in the saddle and continued riding.

"Damn it Chris," Buck grumbled as they pushed their horses faster. "For once let go a that stubborn pride a yours and let someone help y'."

"Sadly, Buck," Ezra chimed in, "I doubt that such a miracle is likely to happen in the next ten minutes."

They finally overtook their friend; pulling up beside him. One look at Chris Larabee told them all they needed to know. He had armed himself With several of the rifles and shotguns from the jail, and his saddlebags Hung heavy with ammunition. The gunslinger had no intention of bringing the gang of outlaws to justice, he meant to send them all to hell.


Mary Travis hurried back to the clinic. Vin had asked her to fetch him something to eat. She had tried to content him with the broth Nathan had left, but Tanner would have none of it. He had promised to behave himself if she would bring him some steak and eggs. It wasn't until she was preparing to return that she realized exactly what he had said. . .

"I ain't gonna do nothin' foolish Mary."

It had sounded like a promise to stay put, but it finally occurred to her that it meant nothing of the kind. Vin Tanner did not consider riding out after the other men to be foolish. Leaving the food at the restaurant, she had run from the building and toward Nathan's. Running hard up the stairs she nearly tripped over her skirts. Cursing them under her breath she bundled the heavy material in one hand, headless of the fact that her petticoats were showing. There was only one thing of importance now. As soon as she entered the darkened room, she knew it was too late. The bed was empty.

Hurrying back downstairs, she entered the Livery. Yosemite looked up From where he had been grooming Peso as she entered. "Yosemite, has Mr. Tanner been here?"

"Yes ‘m," he said, coming to stand in front of her. "He didn't look too good, but he come down while ago and asked for th' loan a m' fastest horse. Somethin' wrong Mz. Travis?"

"Yes," she sighed, "something is very wrong I'm afraid. Could you saddle Jasper for me?"

"Yes ma'am," the big man went to the stall where she boarded her horse.

Ten minutes later, Mary Travis was on the road in search of one very stubborn tracker.


"Hey Cowboy," Buck said as they pulled in beside Larabee, "goin' anyplace special."

"You know where I'm going," Chris growled.

"Reckon we do. . .reckon we're goin' with y', too."

"Go back home," Larabee ordered.

"Don't think we can do that," Josiah said determinedly.

"I'll handle this myself."

"How Chris?" JD's voice rose with anger. "There are too damn many of them. There's no way you could take them all."

"Watch me."

"I've got as much right to see this thing through as you do," Dunne continued. "You know that Chris."

"It would seem that we all have a stake in this," Ezra added. "I for one do not take it lightly when a friend and associate is inured."

"We'll see it through with you Chris, whether you like it or not," Nathan said.

"Fine," Larabee spurred his horse forward.




It didn't take Mary very long to catch up to the tracker. Vin was hunched over in the saddle, his injured feet dangling out of the stirrups. The widow Travis didn't know whether she was angrier with Vin for pulling this, or at Yosemite for allowing it. It was obvious that he was in no shape to be out of bed. She knew, however, that Yosemite was no different than many of the townspeople. Mixed in with the respect and admiration most of them had for the members of what Jock Steele had dubbed "The Magnificent Seven", was fear. If Vin Tanner had been speaking from a severed head the liveryman would have still saddled a horse for him.

As she drew up beside him, she reached out and grasped the other horse's bridle. "I should have known that you'd lie to me," she snapped.

"Didn't lie to y'," Vin corrected. "Just didn't say exactly what you wanted t' hear."

"That's a convenient way of looking at it I suppose," she retorted. "The fact remains, however, that you are supposed to be in bed, not dashing across the countryside like this."

"Mary, listen t' me. I reckon I've put y' in a bad spot, and I'm sorry. I didn't have another choice, though. I can't lie there while Chris an' th' others are out here facin' who knows what odds."

"You're only one person Vin, as much as we would like to believe, you cannot right all the world's ills. Now, lets get you back to town and into bed."

"Mary, listen," Tanner held up his hand. "I appreciate your words, I really do. But this is somethin' I've gotta do." He kneed the horse gently, coaxing it into a trot. Cursing under her breath, the newspaperwoman rode after him.


They rode as hard as the horses would allow them to go. Chris ignored the other men, his mind consumed with a single thought. . .revenge. The other men knew that look when they saw it, and they kept their distance. JD, too, remained alone. Buck tried to approach him from time to time, but Dunne simply spurred his horse faster. Finally Wilmington surrendered to his friend's mood; he rode quietly with Ezra, Nathan and Josiah. The usually exuberant gunman's attitude was subdued throughout the trip.

Night came, and still they rode. The horses were exhausted, forcing them to walk, but Larabee gave no indication that he was going to stop. The others followed, knowing that he would crawl right into the mouth of hell in his present state.

The six men couldn't know it, but some way behind them Vin Tanner remained on the trail as well, held in the saddle by pure stubbornness. Mary Travis rode beside him, having finally given up on trying to convince him to turn back. While he threatened to fall from the horse time and again, he managed to right himself. Mary reached out to steady him then, smiling at the politely whispered, "thank you ma'am," he responded with each time.


"We'll leave the horses here," Chris said as they reached the stone barriers that surrounded the outlaw encampment. The men quickly dismounted and gathered their arms. Silently they moved up into the rocks, listening intently for any sign that their approach had been heard. Chris hoped that the bastards had spent another night drinking, but they couldn't bank on it.

They reached a familiar vantage point. JD could barely take his eyes off the rock that their young friend had had used as a vantage point. He imagined that he could see the child sitting there even now, watching the outlaw camp. He found himself approaching the rock cautiously, almost reverently. Once there, he lay a slightly trembling hand on the cold surface, lost in thought. He forgot that he wasn't alone until a broad hand on his shoulder made him jump. Turning he saw the preacher looking at him with concern.

"Didn't mean to startle you son," Josiah said quietly. "Thought maybe you could use a friend."

"I appreciate that Josiah, I really do, but not right now. Maybe when this is all over with."

Squeezing the smaller man's shoulder, Josiah simply nodded and moved off to allow the young sheriff time alone.

Chris stood in the shadows, watching the encampment. Something was wrong, he could see that immediately. "No fires."

"What?" Buck stood nearby, finally braving his friend's anger.

"No fires. It's too quiet down there."

"Think they're gone?"

"Doesn't make sense. Even if the men are someplace else, why would they take all the women and children?"

"Reckon there's only one way to find out," Wilmington said.

Nodding, Chris strode toward the path they had used in making their escape. The others followed close behind, continuing to watch for any sign that the gang was preparing to spring a trap. They made it all the way into the encampment without challenge. Once there, Josiah edged to the opening of one of the tipis. Easing back the flap with his pistol, he peered inside. It seemed like a lifetime before he slipped back, shaking his head. There was no one inside. They spread out, checking the other dwellings. They were all empty.

In a sudden fit of rage, JD took out his pistol, firing into the nearest shack. He had emptied the chambers before the others go to him. Josiah reached him first, wrapping the younger man in a bear hug.

"JD, calm down son. They could still be in hearing range."

"I hope they are. I want them to come back. . .they need to know what it's like. . .they need –"

"JD." The voice was soft but firm. Chris stood before the young man, placing his hands on the Easterner's shoulders. "Listen to me son. We'll find them. . .we'll find Talon most of all. He'll pay, JD, they all will."

Rage turned to sorrow, and Dunne pulled away from the restraining arms, hurrying away into the darkness.

Buck started after him, but Larabee called him back. "Give him time Buck."

They rode as hard as the horses would allow them to go. Chris ignored the other men, his mind consumed with a single thought. . .revenge. The other men knew that look when they saw it, and they kept their distance. JD, too, remained alone. Buck tried to approach him from time to time, but Dunne simply spurred his horse faster. Finally Wilmington surrendered to his friend's mood; he rode quietly with Ezra, Nathan and Josiah. Even the usually exuberant Buck's attitude was subdued throughout the trip.

Night came, and still they rode. The horses were exhausted, forcing them to a walk, but Larabee gave no indication that he was going to stop. The others followed, knowing that he would ride right into the mouth of hell in his present state.

The six men couldn't know it, but some way behind them Vin Tanner remained in the saddle as well, held there by pure stubbornness. Mary Travis rode beside him, having finally given up on trying to convince him to turn back. While he threatened to fall from the horse time and again, he managed to right himself. Mary reached out to steady him then, smiling at the politely whispered, "thank you ma'am," he responded with each time.

Despite his injuries, he had not problem remaining on the trail, taking them on a direct route toward the outlaws. Mary wasn't certain how much of it he was doing from memory, and how much he was following the other men. If he were forced to decide, Vin wasn't certain himself.


"We'll leave the horses here. Don't want to announce ourselves too early," Chris said as they reached the stone barriers that surrounded the outlaw encampment. The men quickly dismounted and gathered their arms. Silently they moved up into the rocks, listening intently for any sign that their approach had been heard. Chris hoped that they had spent another night drinking, but they couldn't bank on it.

They reached a familiar vantage point. JD could barely take his eyes off the rock that their young friend had had used as a vantage point. He imagined that he could see the child sitting there even now, watching the outlaw camp. He found himself approaching the rock cautiously, almost reverently. Once there, he lay a slightly trembling hand on the cold surface, lost in thought. He forgot that he wasn't alone until a broad hand on his shoulder made him jump. Turning he saw the preacher looking at him with concern.

"Didn't mean to startle you son," Josiah said quietly. "Thought maybe you could use a friend."

"I appreciate that Josiah, I really do, but not right now. Maybe when this is all over with."

Squeezing the smaller man's shoulder, Josiah simply nodded and moved off to allow the young sheriff time alone.

Chris stood in the shadows, watching the encampment. Something was wrong, he could see that immediately. "No fires."

"What?" Buck stood nearby, finally braving his friend's anger.

"No fires. It's too quiet down there."

"Think they're gone?"

"Doesn't make sense. Even if the men are someplace else, why would they take all the women and children?"

"Reckon there's only one way to find out," Wilmington said.

Nodding, Chris strode toward the path they had used in making their escape. The others followed close behind, continuing to watch for any sign that the gang was preparing to spring a trap. They made it all the way into the encampment without challenge. Once there, Josiah edged to the opening of one of the tipis. Easing back the flap with his pistol, he peered inside. It seemed like a lifetime before he slipped back, shaking his head. There was no one inside. They spread out, checking the other dwellings. They were all empty.

In a sudden fit of rage, JD took out his pistol, firing into the nearest shack. He had emptied the chambers before the others go to him. Josiah reached him first, wrapping the younger man in a bear hug.

"JD, calm down son. They could still be in hearing range."

"I hope they are. I want them to come back. . .they need to know what it's like. . .they need –"

"JD." The voice was soft but firm. Chris stood before the young man, placing his hands on the Easterner's shoulders. "Listen to me son. We'll find them. . .we'll find Talon most of all. He'll pay, JD, they all will."

Rage turned to sorrow, and Dunne pulled away from the restraining arms, hurrying away into the darkness.

Buck started after him, but Larabee called him back. "Give him time Buck."


"Are you certain you heard gunshots?"

"Yeah, no question of it," Vin answered the blonde. "Just. . .th' one pistol, though. don't make sense."

"Perhaps it was someone in the camp, or someone hunting, or. . ."

"Mary, there's only one way t' find out." His voice rough with pain, Vin clucked to the horse, pushing it to gain more speed.

Mary Travis apologized to Jasper under her breath and hurried to catch up.


"What now?" Nathan asked. They had made a thorough search of the encampment to make certain that there were not other victims to the outlaws brutality.

Larabee had pushed his hat back off his head, and ran his fingers through his hair. "I don't know," he sighed. "Wait til sunup and see if I can pick up their trail. The rest of you can head back to town then – "

"Think we already went through this pard," Buck said in a no-nonsense tone. "We're in it for th' long haul. Soon ‘s it's sunup, we'll pick up their trail."

Chris glared at his long-time friend, but said no more. He stalked away, walking the perimeter of the camp to look for anything that could be a sign as to where to search. He was near the far end of the encampment when he heard it. Hoofbeats. Turning, he saw that the others were too far away to call to. Instead, he scrambled up into the rocks, aiming toward the sounds. He watched for several long minutes before two figures came into view, riding slowly. The blond could tell by their postures that the horses were close to collapse. It wasn't until they were nearly on top of his hiding place that he realized who he was aiming at. When he did, he cursed under his breath. Easing out of the shadows, he said angrily,

"Thought you were keeping him in bed."

Mary nearly fell from her horse's back as the gunfighter's voice startled her. She quickly regained her composure though, and with it came indignity. "I would appreciate it Mr. Larabee, if you would gather all your facts before jumping to conclusions."

"Wasn't her. . .fault, Chris," Vin whispered. He was nearly laying against the horses neck now.

"We'll discuss it later," the widow Travis said coolly. "Right now Vin needs rest."

Swallowing any response he might make, the man in black took the worn out horses bridle in hand and led it, complete with it's exhausted cargo, back into the camp. Mary dismounted her own horse, and followed closely behind. They reached the main body of the camp to find the others working on a small fire hidden by the ramshackle buildings. They looked up as the trio came into view. Nathan and Josiah quickly retrieved Vin from the saddle, the younger man collapsing into unconsciousness as they did. Nearby, Ezra hurriedly threw open a bedroll close to the fire. The two big men lowered the injured tracker to the blankets.

Nathan sighed as he got a look at Tanner's injured feet. They were straining at the now-bloodied bandages, swollen by the long hours dangling from the saddle. "He's got to be in terrible pain," he said softly as if talking to himself.

"Darn fool deserves it," Chris growled, "he was supposed to stay in bed."

"When did we ever know our intrepid plainsman to simply sit by and allow others to engage in a violent altercation without insisting on joining in?" Standish said in an attempt at humor.

Josiah sat on the other side of Tanner, bathing the man's face with a damp cloth. For his part, Vin mumbled incoherently, but didn't regain consciousness. They worked to free his abused feet from their bindings, Nathan carefully cutting the cloth away with a knife. Vin moaned several times as the material pulled at the raw wounds, he tried to move away, drawing his feet away from the source of the pain. Gently Sanchez stroked his brow and talked to him quietly.

"Vin, it's okay. I know it hurts son, but you've got to lay still. Nathan's not tryin' to hurt you, but he's gotta clean up your wounds. You need to lay still so he can take care of you. Can you lay still son? Here, hold onto my hand if you want, squeeze it tight." He slid his big hand around the tracker's slender one. He felt the young man's fingers tighten around his hand, squeezing tightly as the pain ran through him once more. The two men worked steadily, tending Tanner's injuries. When they had finished, they once more elevated the man's feet, hoping to relieve the swelling.

While Nathan and Josiah were busy tending to Vin, the others were trying to find some indication as to what had happened to the outlaw gang. It was almost as if they had all disappeared. If it had not been for the buildings and Vin's injuries, Chris would have begun questioning his sanity; wondering if he had made it all up. It made no sense. There had been nearly fifty people in the camp before. Now they were all gone. It wasn't fair.


He turned to find Buck standing next to him. "Yeah?"

"It'll be daybreak soon. We'll be ready to ride soon 's you say the word."

Chris looked levelly at his friend, but only nodded.


Daybreak brought little comfort to the eight people camped out in the abandoned village. They had tucked Mary Travis away in one of the more habitable hovels to get some much needed rest. Nathan had stayed by his patient throughout the long dark hours, quieting the man's fevered dreams. Vin had slept restlessly through the night, the long days and his injuries conspiring to keep him unconscious. Josiah, Ezra and Buck had rolled into blankets and fallen to sleep around the fire. Chris and JD had spent the long hours awake and silent, staring into the darkness in case the previous inhabitants of the encampment decided to return.

Morning found them still alone. The three members of the group who had actually slept stretched out of their blankets to the smell of coffee. Chris and JD returned to the fire, accepting mugs and Mary stumbled from the little one room shack that had been hers for the night. All eyes went from Vin's still form to Nathan's haggard face with a single question. The big stretcher bearer nodded at them solemnly.

"He slept fair all night. Last thing he needs is t' be back on a horse today though."

"If y'all are goin' someplace. . .I'm goin' with y'," a scratchy voice informed them.

Squatting down next to his friend, Chris said, "you need to rest pard."

"Been restin'," he replied. "I'll take. . .'r easy."

Looking around, the gunslinger said, "don't imagine it's going to be especially safe to leave him here."

"Won't be for y'all. . .when I get on. . .m' feet."

Smiling, Chris said, "that's what I meant." Straightening up, he became serious as he said to the others, "this was my fight, but Talon brought it home to us all. I can't change that, I can't even get you to listen to me and go back to town. So if we're going, we'll be going together."

"Reckon we're all goin' together, then," Buck said with a smile.

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra Standish said, "realizing that you have every right to ignore this inquiry, I would like to have some indication as to why this Talon fellow has such a desire to wreck havoc in your life?"

Chris stared at the young gambler, then turned his gaze to his old friend. With a barely perceptible nod, he left the explanation for Wilmington as he stalked off to check once more for signs that the others were coming back.

Looking around at the others, the big ex-lawman nodded. "Happened ‘bout seven years ago. Avery Talon and his bunch were causin' a helluva stir ‘round these parts. Chris and me had just settled here ‘bout then. He'd met Sarah and suddenly got th' urge t' put down roots. We ended up throwin' in with the local law t' chase th' gang down. We'd taken care a most of ‘m, but Talon and 2-3 a his boys were still goin' strong. Then me an' Chris an' a couple others cornered ‘m in a box canyon. We shot it out, an' Talon was th' only one still standin'. Come t' find out, two a th' boys we shot were Talon's brothers. Talon claimed he actually saw Chris shoot one of ‘m and he put all a his hatred on ‘m. Even through th' trial he kept making threats on Chris' life. Th' judge gave ‘m life in prison, don't know what happened."

"Well for one thing, he sure didn't get over his hatred toward Chris," Josiah said softly.

"Reckon we'll have t' make certain we. . .end it for ‘m," Vin said, "with a bullet."


Taking into consideration the young newspaperwoman's presence, they decided to escort her at least as far as Culley Point, where she could either wait for the stage or hire someone to escort her the rest of the way home. Josiah and Nathan got Vin onto his horse after the healer had given him just enough Laudanum to take the edge of the pain without sending him into oblivion. The tracker was adamant that he wouldn't ride double with any of the others, so they contented themselves by riding close by in case he needed them. As if he were oblivious to their attentions, he watched the trail for signs of the gang. Before riding more than a couple of miles, Vin made an observation.

"They're headin'. . .for town."

"The gang?" Josiah asked from where he rode near the weakened young man.

"Yeah. . .headin'. . .for Four Cor. . .ners."

"DAMN IT!" Larabee growled. "I should have –"

"Chris," Nathan said quietly, "we'll sort out the blame later. Right now we need to head for town."

Looking sidelong at the tracker, Nathan said, "maybe y'all should go on ahead, me an' Vin. . ." his words were cut off as Tanner slapped the reins and sent his horse into a gallop.

"DAMN IT!" Chris spurred his own horse forward, chasing after the stubborn young man. "Tanner! Where the hell do you think you're going?" There was no answer, and Larabee rode harder in an attempt to catch the tracker. They had ridden nearly a mile before the blond caught up with his friend.

Reaching out, he grasped the bridle of the other horse, pulling it to a stop. "Where the hell do you think you're going?"

"Reckon I'm headin' back t'. . .town," Tanner replied breathlessly.

"Just hold up, cowboy. The rest of us can ride ahead and take care of things in town. You and Nathan. . ."

"Me an' Nathan nothin, pard. There's bound t' be folk's needin' Nathan. Either y'all leave me on m' own – "

"You know I ain't doing that. . ."

"Or you let go a th' horse."

"Vin, listen to reason."

"Let go a m' horse, Larabee," Tanner's voice became deadly. He jerked the horse's head, pulling the bridle from Chris' grasp. Once again the wounded man rode toward town, the others hurrying to catch up.


They rode through the day, stopping only when necessary for either their mounts or their friend. To no ones surprise, the horses showed more sense than the human did.

"I'm fine. . .Chris," Vin argued during one brief stop. He had nearly toppled out of the saddle just a few minutes earlier. Only quick action o the preacher's part had saved him from a bad fall.

"Yeah, I know you are, " the blond managed to keep his frustration in check. The tracker was nearly unconscious; it would do little good to argue with him. "We're resting the horses."

"Just did," Tanner replied.

"Nope, been awhile," Buck said as he came to join the other men. "Reckon you dozed off in th' saddle. . .again."

Taking the canteen Wilmington offered in a pair of trembling hands, Vin stared hard at him. He had no recollection of falling asleep, but couldn't be certain. The young man had to admit, at least to himself, that he was certain of very little. The world kept slipping in and out of focus around him. The only thing he knew for certain was that Four Corners could very well be under siege. They had agreed to protect the town, but instead they were moving far too slowly because of him.

Because of him.

"Whoa there son!" Buck grabbed hold of the rangy tracker as he tried to rise.

"Le'go," he pulled away and stood, swaying dangerously.

"Listen Vin," the man in black tried to reason with him. "You need to sit down. Your feet are all swollen up again, you're –"

" ‘M fine, " Tanner mumbled. "Need t' git go'n."

"Here Vin," Nathan said quietly as he joined them. "You sit down and drink this, then we'll get goin' again."

Even while his legs gave out, sending him collapsing into the arms of his friends, the young man eyed the healer suspiciously.

"It's okay," Jackson said with a broad smile, "its just some herbal tea to ease the swelling in your feet and legs."

"Y'sure. . .that's all it'll. . .do?"

"If you want to keep on like you're going cowboy," Chris stepped in, "drink it."

". . .bossy. . ." Tanner said as he accepted the mug. He sipped the brew tentatively, but decided it was safe. He soon finished the tea. Handing the empty mug back to the former slave, he nodded his thanks.

"Now, you lay down and let us prop your feet up, so that swelling will go down," Chris coaxed, ignoring the glare the younger man gave him. With Buck's help, he made Tanner comfortable in the shade of a big tree. By the time they got him settled, the man's eyes were mere slits. Watching as Vin drifted toward sleep, Chris turned to look at Nathan with a single question in his eyes.

Affecting a look of innocence, the healer said simply, "reckon he'll be easier t' get along with for ‘bout the next six or eight hours. Amazing what a dollop of scotch'll hid th' taste of."

Chris glanced toward the gambler who, like Nathan, feigned innocence.

"Damn Nathan, how come I didn't get that kind'a treatment th' other day?" Buck grumbled, rubbing his still sore ribs for effect.

"Reckon you're a bit easier to convince to do the right thing, Buck," Josiah entered the conversation.

Smiling, Chris added, "besides, we only have to worry about you falling out of someone's bed."

Laughing heartily, the big ladies man strolled off to join JD at the picket line. His mood sobered as he saw the young man's somber countenance. "Hey pard," Wilmington said.

Nodding in answer, Dunne continued staring into nothingness.

"Why don't y' come over an' join th' rest of us?"

Shaking his head, JD turned away, focusing his attention on the horses.

"Kid, you need – "

"Buck," the young man's voice was hollow with pain that the other man could only barely fathom. "Right now the only think I need is to be left alone. I know you all mean well, but please, just go away."

The big brunet stood quietly for a full minute, but finally turned and did as the younger man asked. He shuffled away, shoulders slumped in defeat, to return to where the others had collected in the shade of a small stand of trees. He looked to see that Tanner was sleeping soundly. "Reckon we ought'a leave for town, check t' see if it's still standin'?" he asked quietly.

"We were just discussing that very scenario," Ezra answered.

"Reckon y'all could go check on things. Soon's Vin wakes up, I'll bring ‘m home."

Chris considered his oldest friend's offer, but shook his head no. "We're already going to be short a man. . ." he paused, staring toward their youngest member, "maybe two. Besides, when he wakes up, he's going to be a bear to deal with. Reckon the best thing to do is get on the road again, ride him double with someone while he's asleep anyway."

"I'll take ‘m for now, then," Buck said. "Reckon we'll be able t' make better time."

There was general agreement and soon the little group was on the move once more. Vin Tanner was curled up in Wilmington's arms, oblivious to what was happening around him. They were able to move at a quicker pace, only stopping so that they could transfer the sleeping man to another horse and other arms. The three biggest of the group shared the responsibility of carrying the limp form home.

They finally came in sight of the little town that was their destination just as night fell. Chris pulled up, motioning the others to do the same. He looked first at the little town, then to the people around him. "Alright, Nathan you take Vin and Marry on to Gloria Potter's.

"Chris, I –" Vin surprised them all in choosing that moment to slip back toward consciousness.

"Hey cowboy," Larabee coaxed Pony next to Able to get a better look at his still-groggy friend. "I know you hate to be left out of the ‘fun', but there ain't a choice right now. If we take you with us, we'll spend all our time picking your skinny carcass up off the ground."

A faint smile touched the handsome young face. "I. . .kn. . .know. Watch. . .yer back. . .cow. . .boy." He returned to the comfort of sleep.

They were on the move again. As the group neared the outskirts of town, Jackson, Tanner and Travis broke off. They rode toward the Potter home, behind their general store. The others rode on along the dusty street that dissected the little collection of buildings.

Hell had broken loose in the town of Four Corners, and the peacekeepers moved unflinchingly toward its very mouth. Chris directed the other four as they went. He sent Ezra and Josiah to the right and Buck and JD to the left. The men quickly dismounted, checked their guns, and began to walk warily down the boardwalks on either side of the street. The men watched intently for the outlaws, returning their fire and leaving a trail of the dead and injured behind them. In the meantime, Larabee rode directly down the center of the street. He was a prime target; he knew it and he didn't care. Too much ugliness had happened thanks to Talon and his need for vengeance. It would stop tonight.

As they crept along the boardwalk to Larabee's left, Wilmington and Dunne encountered a trio of outlaws crouched between two buildings. During the ensuing fight, Buck's blood ran cold as he watched JD handle one of the men. The Kid was enjoying the attack far too much. As the beaten and bloodied the man slumped against the wall, held upright only by Dunne's fists, Buck stepped in. Grabbing the smaller man, he pulled him away, heedless of the fact that the outlaw fell bonelessly to the ground. "DAMN IT KID!" Wilmington hissed. "Save some a that for th' rest a th' bad guys. He's finished."

Glazed hazel eyes flashed angrily, not even seeing his friend. Dunne pulled away, stepping out onto the boardwalk and moving away from the still stunned gunman. Buck shook off his shock and hurried after his friend.

On the other side of the street, Ezra and Josiah were busy as well. They had dispatched two of Talon's men already, and found themselves facing a quartet of criminals. Moving together in concert, the preacher and the grifter fought their foes and walked away with nothing worse than a split lip to mar Standish's handsome face.

Those townspeople who were not already hidden behind closed doors quickly hid themselves away. They knew only too well that the men who were systematically fighting their way through town only needed to have them stay out of the way. They would take care of the present danger just as they had handled the danger in the past. Tomorrow they would have to clean up broken glass and broken dreams, but at least they would be alive to do so now.

By the time the men had reached the opposite side of town, they had accounted for most of Talon's men. The sounds of men fleeing on horseback and even on foot could be heard against the backdrop of gunfire that became more and more sporadic. Talon's men had acknowledged defeat. There was only one matter that still needed attention.

Chris had emptied and reloaded his gun several times as he rode through town. His Colt had accounted for many of the dead that lay behind them. At the end of town, he turned his horse, dismounted, and stepped back into the street. Glancing quickly to the right and left, he reached for signs of his men. Fixing their whereabouts in his mind, he took a second step, re-loading as he did. "TALON! I'm calling you out you filthy son-of-a-bitch! Are you man enough to show yourself?"

"I'm here."

If Larabee was surprised, he didn't show it. Without another word, he began walking almost casually down the dusty street. Halfway down, he watched as Talon began walking toward him. Then the firing began. Shot after shot, exchanged between the tow adversaries, rang out through the street. One shot after another kicked up sprays of dirt around them. At some point Larabee felt a trail of fire pierce his left thigh, but adrenaline allowed him to push the pain aside so that he could continue the fight.

And then it was over. Chris stared angrily at the object of his hatred and placed a bloody hole in the man's forehead. Momentum carried Talon forward a few steps. Then, as if suddenly turned to stone, the man fell face first into the dirt. Watching him, the man in black barely registered the other coming to stand with him. Suddenly very tired, he felt strong hands on his arms just as his legs gave out.

"Whoa there, pard," Buck said, "reckon we ought'a get y' t' Nathan."

"Yeah," Larabee whispered. He allowed the two bigger men to draw his arms over their shoulders. Limping and hobbling between Buck and Josiah, Chris moved back down the street he had just traveled. It seemed like a lifetime until they came to the Potter's store. He found that he wasn't very surprised to see Vin. The tracker sat slouched in a chair, a shotgun across his lap. The man in black vaguely recalled the report of a shotgun behind them and knew that, as usual, Tanner was watching their backs.

"Hey, cowboy," the younger man said in a raspy whisper. "Looks like I'll have. . .comp'ny at Na. . .than's."

With a tired smile and a nod, Chris answered in true Larabee fashion. Then he collapsed between his friends.


The sun streamed down on the small gathering, while the bittersweet sounds of "Amazing Grace" faded on the wind. They had gathered at a grave that was too small, marking the end of a life cut short by the ugliness of a violent world.

Buck, Nathan and Ezra walked away from the tiny resting place, escorting Mary Travis, Nettie and Casey Wells back to the wagon they had ridden out in. they all sensed the need in three of the four men who remained at the small plot of freshly dug soil. They needed the counsel of the fourth man.

Josiah looked quietly around him, taking in the faces of the others. Chris Larabee's face gave little clue as to what he was feeling, but that impassiveness did not quite reach his eyes. Two grief-stricken hazel eyes stared into the distance. Josiah wasn't certain whether the pain came from three days or three years ago.

Sensing the observation, Larabee shifted on the crutches he had begrudgingly being shot. He looked across the grave and caught Sanchez's eye, returning his gaze evenly. It was Josiah who blinked first.

Turning his attention next to Vin Tanner, the preacher saw a face less marshaled and still. Sitting uncomfortably in the wooden wheelchair, tanner's face bore the grief he felt. Vin could barely tolerate seeing anyone being mistreated. The preacher could only imagine what the younger man was going through, knowing that the young, tortured, and nameless child had died in saving his life.

And while Josiah could scarcely fathom Vin's pain, he could not avoid the tidal waves of unabashed grief that flowed from their youngest brother of the gun.

JD Dunne had become a ghost in their midst. He had barely spoken since they had returned to Four Corners. If he answered them at all, it was in monosyllables that rivaled Chris Larabee on the worst of days. Most of his time had been spent alone; he barely even seemed to notice young Casey Wells. His longest conversation had been with Vin and Chris the morning after their return. He had crept quietly into the clinic. The others, as always, gathered to check n their recovering friends, excused themselves.

A short time later, the young man had re-emerged and walked determinedly away without a word. Later, after Buck's incessant questions, Vin had admitted only that they had been making arrangements for the young boys' burial. They hadn't seen young Dunne again until he had appeared at the head of the funeral procession. Now, he stood alone at the foot of the grave, his bowler clinched in white-knuckled hands. Tears flowed silently down his palely handsome face; for once he made no move to hide them.

Josiah sighed inwardly. What could he say to these men? Three of their brethren had been snatched from them and sent through hell. There were few words that could even begin to address their hardships. Clearing his throat, Josiah said in a soft rumble, "William Wordsworth wrote:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our Infancy!

"Now, poetry means different things to each of us, but to me, it says that we arrive here with all of the best things we can ever leave this world already written on our soul. This child had a strength and nobility that few ever know, even if they live to be a hundred. His soul was inscribed with courage. Although I know it's a lot to ask, I want you three to consider what he would have wanted. I imagine that our young friend would expect you to honor his deed, not blame yourselves for his death. What was given was given freely brothers, and should not be celebrated with sack cloth and ashes."

Chris nodded, his head ducking as if in prayer. Vin nodded his agreement, a shadow of a smile thanking the former missionary for his words and the comfort they brought, no matter how frail. JD seemed to be in another world, his eyes seeing only the simple marker that he had ordered made to mark the grave. Tears continued to flow, his shirtfront soaked through by them.

Following the bigger man's gaze, Vin and Chris both saw the immense grief that seemed to permeate the teenager's very being. Chris mused that JD had not seemed this devastated after the tragic death of Miss Annie. Vin's eyes misted over in sympathetic misery for his young friend. He wondered, even as Chris did, if they would be watching JD Dunne climb into an eastbound stage once again.

Josiah caught their attention once more, and communicated with a quick gesture that he wanted to talk to JD alone. Taking his cue, Vin announced that he was getting tired, and would Chris mind helping him get the blasted chair back to the wagon. With a conspiratorial glance at his two friends, Chris handed the grumbling hunter his crutches and, limping, began to push the chair back toward the wagon where the others waited.

Sanchez stood patiently, watching as JD grappled with his demons. After several long minutes, the boy said, "shouldn't have been him."

"You're right," Josiah sagely agreed.

"Should'a been me."

"Now there you're wrong son," the deep baritone voice rumbled.

"But he was behind me, Josiah. It should have been my back that caught the bullet, not his. It's not right!" His voice broke with pain.

"JD, just because it isn't right doesn't mean there was a right. None of the things that happened to you, Chris and Vin, should ever have gone on. Talon was a monster on two legs, responsible for a whole lot of misery. You know better than any of us what had happened to that child began a long time before you ever met him. It would not be hard to imagine that sweet child dying in the very near future. Son, for whatever reason, I don't believe that boy's life was meant to be long. I think that, once you forgive yourself for being alive, you'll see that too. At least look for solace in the fact that his death was noble – "

"But he should be alive!" Dunne cried out. "If anyone should be in that grave, it should be me. I should have put him in front of me on the horse. I should have. . ." he trailed off, dropping to his knees at the edge of the soft earthen rectangle. "I should have known. . ."

Coming to kneel beside the grief-stricken young man, Josiah said, "I never knew that you were a prophet John Dunne. How long have you been able to see into the future?"

Glaring angrily through his tears, the young sheriff said "your homespun wisdom and bible quotes can't change the way I feel Josiah. Nothing can. I am responsible for his death, and that's all there is to say." He turned his head, dismissing the preacher's presence.

Before he regained his feet, Sanchez recited in a soft voice, "death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so, for those, whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow, die not, poor death, nor yet can'st thou kill me." Squeezing the young man's shoulder, he went to join the others for the return to town. Reaching the wagon, he turned, watching with the others. For nearly an hour they stood in silence, watching the lone figure kneel at the graveside, his shoulders quivering with grief. Finally they stole away, leaving the young man to exorcise his demons. Each one knew that they might leave him for today, but they would not abandon him. They would be there to help JD find his way back from the edge of the dark chasm and into the light.

At the foot of the little grave, John Dunne heard his friends quietly leave, but made no move to go after them. He looked up, his eyes focusing on the inscription that he, Chris and Vin had agreed on:

John Tanner Larabee
"He was a man, take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again"
Now in God's Hands

courage comes not with age

The End