Deadline by Michelle and Amanda

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The sun blazed high in its zenith as the afternoon stagecoach quaked into the dusty little town of Four Corners. As the conveyance processed into the main street, a man's weathered finger pushed aside a dusty lace curtain to peer out the cabin window.

Slices of sunlight breached the dark cabin, illuminating the man within. His eyes, wrinkled along the edges, were a piercing clear blue, refusing to squint at the brightness. A tanned and gnarled hand rested with familiarity on the Colt revolver at his hip. Folded into a careless heap next to the man was a long leather duster. A burnished metal star peeked out of a pocket.

"See, there's my mom!" cried out the yellow-haired child who had been the lawman's traveling companion. The young boy bounded up with excitement and waved at a striking blonde woman on the boardwalk. The child had the door opened and leapt out before the stage had barely shuddered to a complete stop, springing into the waiting arms of his mother.

The lawman smiled at the display of exuberant youth. In his early years in the service he could have hastened out of the stage with as much speed, but age had been gaining on him lately. The Marshal stood up from his seat and stepped out of the coach with the decorum his muscles and joints demanded.

As he stood in the middle of the road, the dust from the departing stage billowing around him, U.S Marshal Clay Bridger scanned the street for signs of his quarry.

The boy who had introduced himself as Billy was wrapped in the arms of his mother. Billy had been able to speak of nothing but her all through the trip, except maybe his friend Chris. The child's pratter had revealed a few points of interest. Mrs. Travis ran a newspaper, which had been left to her by her deceased husband. She appeared young to be without a husband, but then, the West had more than it's fair share of widows. Chris - no last name mentioned - was evidently part of the law in Four Corners, although in what capacity was unclear to the U.S. Marshal. He was one heck of a fisherman, anyway, according to Billy.

Bridger shrugged into his long duster and proceeded at a slow walk across the street, mentally mapping the town. It wasn't the worst dustball he had ever seen. A couple of stores, half a dozen hotels . . . almost civilized. But it was small. Good. Not a lot of places for criminal scum to hide.

A lovely young curly-haired woman passed the mother and child. In the back of his mind, Clay Bridger noted the narrow waist, the ivory skin, and the glowing crown of russet hair. The U.S. Marshal also noted the frosty glare the blonde fired at the brunette. The brunette returned an arrogant sniff, turned her nose up in the air and strode haughtily into the hotel. A bundle of newspapers swung from her hand.

As the brunette entered the hotel, a tall, well-built cowboy with a dark moustache walked out. Arrested by the sight of the attractive female, the cowboy immediately offered to help carry her bundle. The two of them walked into the hotel smiling and chatting amiably.

A gambling man in a green coat and a larger man wearing a cross around his neck passed the hotel as they walked down the boulevard. The gambler held a newspaper as they walked and was reading from the front page.

"Would - would you listen to this? 'The mayor's daughter, Annie, told the Post that Ezra Standish was a brute and a liar who forced his attentions on her.'" The gambler folded the paper shut in a furious rustle. "That woman pursued me like a terrier."

"Why don't you go to the editor, tell him his story's wrong?" the man wearing the cross asked. An old fellow wearing a box hat directed a pursed lipped scowl at the gambler in the green coat as he passed in the opposite direction.

"I did," the gambler answered the larger man. "'I don't print retractions' is the answer I received. Sanctimonious lout. This is the third such Post article defaming my person. I can't walk from my room to the livery without someone spitting at my boots."

The man wearing the cross scratched his head and shrugged. "Maybe you ought to lay low for a while," he suggested. "Seems Miss Claire's got the town turned against you . . ." The pair's conversation drifted away as they turned down a side street next to the General Store.

Bridger's gaze rebounded back to a plain wooden building on the other side of the General Store. The jailhouse. Certainly he would need to inform the local sheriff of his arrival and get some information. In fact, it should be the first thing he did.

Clay about faced in the direction of the jail and immediately a lanky buffalo hunter with long brown hair and a fringed buckskin coat caught his attention. The buckskin cowboy leaned against the post, looking straight at Bridger with a shrewd look in his eye. Clay returned the stare. Something was familiar about that stranger.

Shots rang out from the west. People on the street froze for a moment before a second shot caused the town's citizens to panic and run towards shelter. Or perhaps it was the scream, which pierced the hum of street noise to reverberate down Bridger's spine. The buffalo hunter rose to alertness, unaffected by panic. He moved in the direction of the scream/shot, weaving through the alarmed crowd with steady purpose. Bridger made to follow, but stopped when the buffalo hunter became flanked by the mustached cowboy and an intimidating man in black who Clay recognized as Chris Larabee.

Knowing something of Larabee's experience and reputation, the U.S. Marshal decided it would be wise to confront the men at a later time, possibly with the sheriff and deputies as backup.

The curly-haired minx possessed no such self-preservation instincts. She flew out of the hotel like a bat out of hell, a notepad and pencil waving in her hands. She paused in mid-flight to turn and gesture hurriedly to a grizzled bear of a man who also emerged from the hotel. He was trying to keep up but was hampered by the large amount of unwieldy photographic equipment he carried.

This could be entertaining, Clay thought. He meandered to a porch and seated himself next to an old codger who sat on a bench observing the scene and sipping a flask of whiskey.

"New in town?" the codger observed. He expectorated into a nearby spittoon.

"Yup. This happen often?"

"Every now and then."

Bridger and the old man watched from the porch as the trio of the man in black, the mustached man and the buffalo hunter disappeared around a corner. They had been out of sight for mere moments when another scream broke out and the threesome suddenly returned 'round the corner, running as if the hounds of hell gave chase. The mustached man led the charge, looking over his shoulder and handling his still-holstered gun like he was considering drawing it. Another man followed on their heels, wearing a dusty flannel shirt and brandishing a smoking six-shooter. He seemed less concerned with the three men dashing ahead of him, however, than he was with the fifth figure that pursued him closely.

Tall and solid, face set in an expression of supreme fury, a heavyset woman screamed imprecations as she waved a rolling pin at the gun-toting chap. The man peeked over his shoulder and found the energy for an extra burst of speed.

"Bob's taken up mousing. With his Colt," the old coot on the porch explained to Clay. Unable to catch up to her fleeing prey, the enraged woman chucked the rolling pin at the flannel-clad man before turning and stalking back to her home. The old man chortled. "His wife reckons they should get a cat."

Bridger gave a quiet chuckle. In the street, the trigger-happy husband nodded to his three would-be rescuers before taking a deep breath . . . and heading towards the saloon.

The tall mustached man shook his head. "That's why I don't get married," he said to the other two, "too dangerous."

"Sure it is, Buck," the buffalo hunter nodded. He cast a quick look at Bridger before tipping his hat at Buck and Larabee and melting off into the shadows of some alley. The foxy brunette and that bear of a photographer appeared from somewhere. The woman looked disgusted. Spotting her approach, Larabee ducked his head and quickly took off in the opposite direction. Interesting.

"Who's the law in this town?" Clay asked as the old man took another swig from his flask. "What's the name of your sheriff?"

"Four Corners ain't got a sheriff," the codger replied. "'Cept maybe that young pup with letters for a name. We got seven men that protect the town. Three of 'em were the ones just lent a hand to poor Bob, there."

"Larabee and those other two?" Bridger inquired incredulously. "That tall fellow and the buffalo hunter? What are they, vigilante?"

"No, they legal hired. Judge Travis pays 'em to keep order. Ain't no denying, they're a strange mix, but I gotta admit the town's been safer with 'em here."

The U.S. Marshal nodded grimly. Safe? There was no such thing in the West.

+ + +

"Did you want a picture of that, Miss Danae?" Tom Poppin pointed to the rolling pin lying abandoned on the street. Claire couldn't be sure, but she thought a smile was turning underneath the photographer's bushy beard. "You could put it under the caption, 'Assault with a Deadly Weapon.'"

The photographer was definitely laughing.

"Shut up, Tommy." The Post reporter was in no mood for jokes. She had come out west hearing tales of excitement and adventure, had heard stories about this town to make her toes curl. Read it from the pages of the darned Clarion! Now she was here and her livelihood depended upon such stories, and the most exciting thing to write about was a wife chasing her husband up main street?

Claire tapped her pencil impatiently against her notepad as she looked around for something to salvage her situation.

"Mr. Wilmington! Buck!" Claire saw the gregarious cowboy striding towards the saloon. What did men find so alluring about that place anyway? She skipped over the rolling pin and trotted to Buck's side.

"Howdy, Miss Danae." Buck smiled and tipped his hat.

"Mr. Wilmington," Claire put on her sweetest smile, the one that had always worked so well on her father. "I'm a little bit disappointed. I thought I was going to get another front page story like last week. You men have had such interesting adventures since arriving in Four Corners."

"Oh, please, call me Buck." The handsome lawman grinned widely. "If by interesting you mean dangerous, then yes, ma'am. It sure has been interesting." Buck's smile turned wry. Claire waited expectantly for a few moments but it seemed that, for once, Wilmington was passing on the opportunity to delve into one of his fantastic tales.

"What about before then?" the brunette reporter pushed. Claire had heard that Buck Wilmington and Chris Larabee had been friends before their stint as lawmen of Four Corners. When folk spoke of Larabee they did so with an awed respect, but most people Claire talked to knew next to nothing about his past. "I've heard plenty of stories about Chris Larabee, hardened gun fighter and all that, but surely there must be something more to it. What makes a man pursue justice, some might say vengeance, at any cost?"

A sad and far away expression passed over Buck's face. "It ain't just about those things. It's about wanting to forget, but being afraid to forget." He stopped as realized he was saying something corny and sappily sentimental.

Claire had been fishing, but it sounded as though she might have caught something. "I don't understand what you mean. What does he have to forget?"

Wilmington shook his head. "You want to know the answer to that you're going to have to ask him. I've gotten in trouble before for saying too much. But it's a mighty sore subject, one that most men would be afraid to bring up."

At that moment Mary Travis emerged from the General Store with a little boy holding onto her hand as he popped a hard candy into his mouth. The Post reporter grit her teeth. For the good of her paper, there was no subject that could scare Claire Danae. "Well, Mr. Wilmington," Claire said, "I'm not a man."

A somewhat less-than-decent gleam twinkled in the cowboy's eye. "I noticed."

"After all," Claire pretended to miss the lascivious intent in Buck's words, "what's the worse that could happen? It's not like he'd hit a woman, just for asking, right?"

Buck rubbed at his throat with his thumb and two forefingers. "I wouldn't be so sure," he said. "Chris can be a mite, er, moody sometimes."

"Oh." The brunette's face fell. "Well, maybe if I bring it up subtly?"

"You know, Claire, it might be better to forget the whole thing."

The Post reporter shot a sidelong glimpse up at the tall cowboy. Buck was starting to look supremely uncomfortable, so Claire reluctantly opted to let the subject drop. She sighed, fingering the fabric of the red scarf in her hair. "Mr. Wilmington, you may be right."

+ + +

JD sat at his desk, throwing darts at a board on the jailhouse wall. One of the homesteaders from the wagon train had given it to Nathan for setting her son's arm. Where she had gotten it, JD didn't know, but he couldn't believe the jail had never had one of them before. This was great.

The young sheriff's fun was interrupted by the entrance of a man into the jail. The fellow looked a cowboy of around forty, maybe fifty years old, not very tall, but stout. He was short and stout, just like a teapot, JD realized. Maybe if teapots were made of leather, the young gunslinger amended, noting the man's weathered skin and the hard set of his jaw. Leather and brick.

"Can I help you with something?" JD asked. He reluctantly set down the dart he had been preparing to cast.

The teapot threw something onto the desk, next to JD's bowler hat. Dunne picked up the small silver star, battered and scratched but burnished to a dull shine. Emblazoned around the narrow band encircling the star were the words "United States Marshal." JD hastily stood up straight and at attention.

"My name is Clay Bridger," the man asserted. It was then how wrong JD realized he had been in his initial assessment. The man was obviously a teapot made of pottery. Clay, pottery, get it? He'd have to see if he could work that one into his repartee.

But not when the U.S. Marshal was around. The hard set of Bridger's eyes as they bored into JD belied any sense of humor in the federal lawman. They carried the weight of Authority, more than the small circle of steel. The young man gulped as he introduced, "Dunne. I'm JD Dunne." He looked at the badge in his hand and hastily handed it back to Bridger.

Bridger took the silver star back and pinned it beneath the wide lapel of his plain brown coat. "You're the sheriff."

"I'm the what? Oh, yes, um, sort of." Bridger raised an eyebrow at the young lawman. "Well, you see . . ." JD stopped and took a deep breath. "Yes," he said.

Bridger nodded. "I'm obliged to inform you that I am in pursuit of a dangerous criminal. I believe he's on his way to Four Corners, if he's not here already."

Four Corners had seen its share of dangerous criminals that its seven peacekeepers had handled quite handily up 'til now. They'd seen villains make mincemeat of U.S. Marshals. But this Marshal Bridger looked as though he had locked death gazes with offenders like Billy the Kid and Curly Bill Brocius. JD wondered what sort of scum was on his way to their town.

"If you need any help-" Dunne began.

"No, thank you, son," Bridger interrupted. "It's my job alone. I've notified you of my intentions here as a courtesy, so there's no trouble between us. They tell me that there are seven of you. I would be obliged if you tell your associates that I'm here and to keep out of my way." The lawman tipped his hat and turned for the door to leave.

As if JD was going to say that to the fellows he worked with. If there was a dangerous criminal courting the town then he was the seven's responsibility as well. JD squared his shoulders. "Uh, Marshal Bridger. Sir." The federal lawman stopped halfway through the threshold. JD coughed uncomfortably. "My, uh, associates and I, we've been protecting this town for a while and if this fella's so dangerous . . . well, we should be in on it."

Bridger fixed his steady gaze on the young sheriff. "This is my hunt, son. I've tracked this man from Toledo to Tascosa and I will track him through hell if so required. You and your boys stay out of it."

The door shut with a dull thud behind the U.S. Marshal.

This was information JD just couldn't sit on so, grabbing his hat, he sprang out from behind the desk and strode to the exit. No sooner had the young sheriff departed the jailhouse when he spotted Nathan Jackson walking up the boardwalk. Four Corner's resident healer regarded the anxious young man with curiosity.

"What's got you all riled?" Nathan asked.

"Do you know who that is?" JD pointed after the retreating figure of Clay Bridger.

"I might if you told me. Don't think I've seen that fella 'round town before. He one of the new homesteaders?"

"That," JD asserted, "is United States Marshal Clay Bridger. I just talked with a U.S. Marshal. Had his badge in my hand and everything." The young easterner grinned and proudly put his hands on his hips.

"You've talked with U.S. Marshals before, JD," Nathan reminded.

Dunne shook his head. "Not like this one. This one makes the rest of 'em look like a little girl's kitten playing at being a mountain cat."

Nathan didn't look as impressed as he could have. Rather, his brows furrowed in concern. "What's the man doing out here?" he asked.

"He's in search of a dangerous criminal, of course!" JD related the brief conversation to Nathan.

"Tascosa, huh? Don't supposed Marshal Bridger mentioned the name of this wanted man?" JD shook his head. Jackson heaved an exasperated sigh. "JD, didn't it occur to you that the wanted man Bridger is hunting could be Vin?"


A guilty and horrified expression crossed JD's features. Damn, that hadn't even crossed Dunne's mind, he'd been so overwhelmed by the presence of the government law enforcer. He looked over his shoulder at the diminished form of Clay Bridger, who was now entering the hotel next to the Clarion office. He turned back to Nathan, whose face was set in a concerned grimace.

"What are we going to do?" JD asked.

"Gotta find Vin, let him know Bridger's here. Then we gotta see if we can find out exactly who this U.S. Marshal is hunting."

+ + +

"It's gone, it ain't here. My gold, my gold ain't here!" The voice cracked with anxiety. A little girl heard his ejaculation and stared. The old man bit his lip and left the hardware store, pacing down the boardwalk with his head down.

Shut up, shut up! It is here, it just ain't . . . here. Not in town anyway. We musta hid it out farther than we thought, is all.

"What, in the wilderness?"


"The wilderness. Means I gotta go grab a horse and . . . Shit!" The man halted abruptly in his tracks, gaping down the causeway.


The man turned quickly on his heel and strode the opposite direction.

"He's here."

+ + +

The afternoon sunshine split through the front window of the Clarion office, slicing Mary's desk like a blade of light. It's no use, she thought, throwing her pencil down on her pages, giving up trying to ignite a headline that was about as exciting as watching grass grow on the prairie. She combed her fingers through her hair in frustration. A week ago this feature about Farmer Grigg's upcoming corn crops would have seemed like an important story, a relevant testimony to the farmer's role of cultivating the western frontier. But today, in the face of her flashy competition, the article read as dull as the shine off mud.

Mary's eyes traveled up from her desk to the north wall of the Clarion building. Hung among the maps and notes pinned to that wall was a framed copy of the first Clarion ever printed. The editorial in the first column, written by her late husband Steven, spoke eloquently of Four Corners' destiny as a safe community where families could raise their children. Only if good people would band together and take a stand for what is right can this destiny be achieved, Steven wrote. Mary smiled. Four Corners had been Steven's dream. He had used the Clarion to spread that dream and fight injustice every single day they had owned it. What would Steven do in the face of Claire Danae and the Four Corners Post? Mary wondered. What he tell her to do? She turned her eyes to that first edition of the Clarion and knew what the answer was. Fight them, he'd tell her. Fight for our dream, for the town. Fight for our son.

Mary sat up straighter and took her pencil back up in a firm grasp, determined to win this war of words. The pages on her desk stared blankly up at her. Maybe crops suddenly shifting into amazing patterns overnight would lend drama to the story. Maybe she could ask Grigg's neighbors. The Clarion's editor sighed heavily.

If this was the fodder of war machines, battle looked pretty bleak indeed. All was fair in love and war, was it not? Claire Danae wasn't fighting clean, what with fantastical headlines of missing millionaires and ranchers murdered in the streets.

The machine of the press was only as powerful as the words she wrote for it, and at the moment, as Mary looked at the scribbling on her notes, her words seemed wholly inadequate. She had son to care for. How would she support Billy and herself if she lost the Clarion? Remarriage? Hardly. Mary had never met a man who was fit to match Steven. Well, Mary revised internally, there was one.

Chris Larabee was about as different from Steven Travis as a hawk from a swan. Mary sometimes wondered at the attraction she felt to the gunslinger, an attraction that she rarely admitted even to herself. Yet the two men did resemble each other in two ways. They shared a willingness to defend those who could not defend themselves and the courage to take a stand against injustice. They also shared an affection for Billy, Mary thought with a smile.

A small bit of wood cut roughly into the shape of a horse sat on Mary's desk. She picked it up, turning it in her hands as she studied the carving. Chris Larabee had whittled the figure and given it to Billy one afternoon that seemed very long ago. It was the first time Mary had seen the softer side of the moody gunslinger. Billy had tapped into that side of Chris quicker than she'd been able to. But then, Chris had been able to break Billy out of his shell quicker than Mary, his own mother, had dared hope for. Almost as soon as Billy had gotten off the stagecoach today he had been running to find Chris. They seemed happy when they were around each other, the boy without a father and the gunfighter without a family. She could almost picture Chris as he must have been before he'd lost his wife and son. He'd never talked to Mary about them. Their memories were still too painful for him. Mary never pushed, but she saw it when Chris was around Billy. Maybe one day . . .

The bell over the front door announced someone's arrival. Mary looked up. Crow's feet cornered the intense blue eyes of a thickset man wearing a long duster. He walked in and tipped his hat. "Do you own this publication, ma'am?"

"Yes, I own the Clarion. Mary Travis," she introduced. She held out her hand, which the steely-eyed man took and gave one steady shake.

"Ma'am. I'm Marshal Clay Bridger." The Clarion reporter leaned forward with excitement as the man briefly lifted the lapel of his coat to reveal the badge of a United States Marshal. The action also revealed a bear-claw necklace tied with a leather string around his neck. Mary had seen such adornments on the Seminole and those from other Indian tribes.

Surely this is a man with a story to tell, Mary thought gleefully.

"I'm looking for a man," Bridger continued matter of factly. "I thought you might have some information."

Mary's jaw dropped open and she gaped for half a second before beaming a great smile at the Marshal. Thoughts of Farmer Grigg's crops evaporated. She straightened in her seat and pulled her shoulders proudly back. "What can I do for you, Marshal Bridger?"

"I've been on the trail of a dangerous felon for some time now," Bridger exposed. "My search for this criminal has let me here, to your town. I believe he means to take refuge in Four Corners." His brow lowered to a glare as he spoke, though his posture and voice were rock steady. "But I'm not going to let him." The Marshal's stare turned icy; his statement sent chills down Mary's spine.

"I've already stopped by the sheriff's, but I've found that newspapers usually have their fingers in more of a town's daily goings-ons." Bridger's eyes fleeted out the front window and his exposition stopped abruptly. Mary stared with no small amount of anticipation at the lawman, but something on the street had caught his interest.

Mary followed his gaze, curious. Nothing unusual was occurring outside. Assorted cowboys and hillbillies came in and out of the saloon across the street; several people milled on the boardwalk outside; Vin Tanner went by, walking past the Clarion in a hurry.

The Marshal's eyes never left the window. "Excuse me, Mrs. Travis. I believe I just saw someone I need to talk to. We'll carry this on later." Here he turned, but only to quickly tip his hat to Mary before rushing through the front door.

Later! Mary sat at her desk a split second before scooting out from behind her desk and darting after the Marshal. "Wait!" Mary cried after the lawman. She ground to a halt on the boardwalk outside the door, searching for Bridger, but he was already vanished.

Oh, well, back to Grigg's crops, the subconscious thought floated into the foreground. Suddenly thoughts of rows of corn stalks seemed too dull for Mary to contemplate, even if enormous circles started appearing in them.

The Clarion reporter stalked down the boardwalk, eyes darting to and fro in search of the lawman. She passed a scruffy bearded man muttering to himself with his head down. A U.S. Marshal walking alone down the streets of Four Corner's wasn't safe. Claire Danae could run into him any time.

+ + +

"You sure are gettin' a lot of supplies today, Mr. Tanner," the young man working the counter at Potter's General Store commented. "Are you planning on a long trip?"

Questions like that made Vin wish for the fourth time that Mrs. Potter herself had been running the store that afternoon. The store owner knew of Vin's past association with the law, more or less, and trusted that Vin was an innocent man. The kid behind the counter was new, having arrived early last month with the wagon train. Vin didn't want people asking him where he was going, or why. At the best of times it was nobody's business. With Clay Bridger in town, it was hazardous.

"Ya never know," Vin replied tersely.

It ain't fair, the tracker pondered. Eli Joe had framed him, but Eli Joe was dead. It seemed Vin Tanner would be forever cursed by the bandit's treachery, never able to be at peace. True, Vin wasn't the settle down type, always happier under the stars than under a roof. But here in Four Corners, he had truly found a place where he could stay. Where he wasn't confined, where he had been needed. For a while he had forgotten what it was like to be hunted, to never know where the next meal was coming from. He had gotten used to people. It wasn't settled, it was . . . home.

And then United States Marshal Clay Bridger had rode into town, reminding Vin Tanner that he wasn't a free man, and might never be.

He rubbed the holster of his rifle with his thumb impatiently as the clerk finished doling out change. A scruffy-looking drifter with bushy white hair and a beard was crouched behind a grain barrel, as though inspecting the label. Vin could tell he wasn't actually reading it though, because his eyes were locked on Tanner. It was making Vin nervous.

"You looking at something particular?" Vin snapped at the old man. The drifter's eyes grew wide and he stuck his head behind the bushel of grain without a word. He continued to steal quick glances at Vin when he thought the sharpshooter wasn't looking.

Tanner quickly gathered the jerked beef, beans and toothbrush he had purchased and left the general store, glad to be out of there. His eyes roamed the street for signs of the Marshal. Seeing none, he hastily made his way to the livery, using alleys and back roads to avoid notice.

+ + +

Mary caught up with Bridger in Watson's Hardware. The U.S. Marshal was casually stepping around the store's displays, looking not at the products so much as the patrons. The only other customers to be seen in the store were the old photographer who followed Claire Danae around and a homesteader mother with her two children. The homesteader toddler watched Bridger with wide eyes. Watson looked up at Mary's sudden entrance.

The U.S. Marshal shrugged to settle his duster on his shoulders, abandoning his search around the goods. Mary strode up and caught the lawman.

"Marshal." Watson's eyes grew wide as Mary greeted Bridger. Tom Poppin was looking too. Mary lowered her voice. "I trust you found who you were looking for?" Bridger shook his head, unsaying.

Mary glanced significantly at Watson, who remembered he had a customer.

"Find everything you need, Mr. Poppin? You sure have a . . . wide array there," Watson commented as the photographer dumped an armload of seemingly random items on the counter.

"Gotta fix my tripod," the grizzled bear of a man muttered. He gave Watson the money for his purchases and scooped the pile off the counter. Both hands fully ladened, he pushed the door open with his shoulder and left, casting one last glance at Mary and Bridger.

"I found someone," the homesteader's young girl announced brightly.

"Hush, child," the girl's mother frowned.

"But, mama!" the girl whined to her ma. "I saw him, I saw the missin' milli'naire!"

Bridger frowned. Mary turned to stare.

"It was him! I saw!" the little girl clapped excitedly. "The ol' man from the wag'n train."

"Hush now," the mother scolded. "That man wasn't rich, he was crazy. We were well to be rid of him. Looks like I'll be having a word with your father about bedtime stories from the news journals."

Marshal Bridger took several steps to the door as the homesteader mother continued to scold her children. Mary quickly stepped to follow.

"Hey, wait," she called as Bridger crossed the street. "I want to talk to you. Where are you going?"

He turned and looked at her from across the road. She couldn't quite hear what he said, as at that moment a group of rustlers on horseback crossed the distance between Mary and the lawman. When they had passed, the Marshal had vanished.

+ + +

Vin arrived at the stables, hastily stowing his newly acquired goods into already-full saddlebags. Time was of the essence, as Ezra would say. Every minute Vin spent in Four Corners with Bridger in pursuit was a minute closer to the gallows.

He should have run from the get-go, as soon as he'd seen Bridger get off the stage. Tanner knew the look of a lawman, and Clay Bridger appeared lawman right down to the soles of his boots. But Vin had convinced himself that he was wrong, despite his instincts and experience. He'd quelled the terrible need to run and told himself that it was paranoia. Now his instincts were kicking him in the rear, asking Vin why he hadn't just listened to them in the first place.

Because I wanted to stay, Vin answered ruefully. From what Nathan and JD had said, Bridger was on his prey like a dog on a bone. Even if the tracker managed to shake him this time, there would always be someone else. Vin Tanner would always be hunted. But he wouldn't go down without a fight, and that's where the problem lay. Vin cared about Four Corners too much to let it come under violence because of him. For the past year it had been his job to protect the town, and so for the good of the town, he now left it. I can never come back. He unexpectedly found his eyes misting. He blinked agitatedly to clear them.

What hurt the most was that he couldn't say goodbye. It was simply too risky, and he hadn't the time. Hell, he wasn't all that good at saying goodbye anyway. Nathan had seemed to realize it, as Vin had thanked the healer for the heads up. JD had stood next to Jackson, worrying at the brim of his bowler hat as he tried to keep an optimistic outlook. He refused to believe Vin would be gone for long, and Vin hadn't the heart to tell him otherwise. He hoped the rest of Four Corners' lawkeepers wouldn't think too badly of him for running out on them.

He thrust the painful thought aside and hauled his saddle onto Peso's back. The fading black mare snorted anxiously, sensing her master's mood.

A dark shadow blocked the light from the entrance. Vin reached for the stock of his rifle quickly and turned, but relaxed when he saw the black form of Chris Larabee.

"Leaving just like that, huh?" Chris asked in his soft gravely voice. If he was at all concerned that his friend had nearly shot him, he didn't show it. Vin nodded soberly and went back to adjusting the straps on his saddle.

Chris nodded thoughtfully as he approached. "Any idea where you're going?" he asked, his face unreadable.

"Nope," Vin responded without stopping his work. "Just gettin' as far away from here as I can."

"You know, a few people are going to be sore you left without saying a word to them." He spoke with only the barest hint of recrimination, just as a matter of fact.

"They'll get over it." Vin said. He only hoped he would as well.

"Nettie Wells?"

Vin stopped in the middle of tightening the girth and hung his head. If anyone deserved a face to face parting, it was Nettie. But he couldn't risk her anymore than he could the town.

"I left a letter," he explained. He had caught Casey Wells just minutes before she had ridden out of Four Corners to her aunt's ranch. His prowess with a pen and paper were sorely lacking, even with Mary Travis' tutelage. He would probably never be able to form the graceful and elegant curls required for script. His hands were more comfortable holding a rifle than they'd ever be holding a pen. But he did have a way with words, even though those words came harder to that letter than any before.

Chris just nodded again in silence. Finally Vin couldn't take the quiet, so he asked, "Who told ya I was leaving, Nathan or JD?"

"Nathan. You know, he may not be looking for you."

"Don't matter. Even if he's not, it's only a matter of time before he remembers seeing my face on a wanted poster and hauling me to Tascosa for justice. I ain't gonna let myself be hanged."

"Fair enough." The black cowboy accepted the information stoic as ever. He looked down, seemingly studying the tips of his boots. "You know, I once offered to ride with you to Tascosa. You may not be going there this time, but the offer still stands."

Vin tilted his head to meet the stoic gaze of Larabee. For the first time that day, the tracker smiled.

"That's right kind of ya, Chris, but this is one journey I gotta make alone. Besides, the town needs you."

He was ready. Leading Peso out of his stall, the tracker swung himself on the horse's back and looked out over the open range. He looked back at the town and a lump caught in his throat, making his next words difficult to speak.

"Say goodbye to 'em for me."

And without further ado he spurred Peso forward, away from the one place he ever called home, and the only people he ever called family.

+ + +

A short time later, Mary finally found the man she'd been searching for, talking to a young cowhand in front of the telegraph office.

"Where would a man rent a horse around here?" she heard the U.S. Marshal ask.

The cowboy jerked his head to the other end of town. "The stables. See Yosemite."

Bridger nodded his thanks and strode down the boardwalk the direction the young man had indicated. Mary trotted to catch up.

"Marshal Bridger, please, wait." He didn't, but Mary could hardly expect it of him so she kept stride. "Where are you going?"

"The livery, ma'am."

"This criminal you're after, you saw him here?"

His mouth tightened at the mention. "A few people did. One witness saw him riding out of town just a while ago."

Mary put two and two together and came up with four. "And you're riding after him?"

Bridger kept on walking with no answer but Mary knew she had it right. "Why? What has this man done?"

"Time's too scarce to explain, ma'am. You can take my word he deserves to swing on a short rope."

"Wait, then . . . let me come with you."

The Marshal's stride slowed to a stop, incredulity written on the man's leathered face.

Mary hastened to explain herself. "It's just that . . . it's important that the news . . ." Mary looked away from Bridger, trying to come up with the words to justify her need. Her eyes wandered upon Claire Danae across the street, looking with interest at the Marshal. "I make my living on words, Marshal. And it seems to me your words are going to be important."

Bridger regarded Mary with a very serious look. "Ma'am, this is going to be a hard, dangerous ride. I don't have time to coddle a reporter."

A part of Mary heaved a relieved sigh and said, Thank goodness! What was I thinking? The other part of her said, Claire Danae hasn't stopped staring at us. If I let go of this man now, the Post will get his story and the Clarion will disappear. Then the first part rebutted, But what about my Billy? He just came home! To which the second voice responded, This is for Billy! If I can't keep the Clarion going, how will I support my son? It was the second voice that drove her words.

"Marshal Bridger, I am not here to hamper you. I know this land, and I'm an accomplished rider, and I'm going with you."

The lawman still didn't look convinced. "And when I catch my man? There's like to be gunfire."

"Marshal, if there is a dangerous criminal on the loose in Four Corners, its citizens have the right to know. I promise to stay back if there's danger." Bridger didn't respond, which Mary took as a good sign. "Marshal, getting shot is not my intention, nor is getting in the way. But I report news for a living and if I can't get this story then it's not just me who suffers, but my son also."

The Marshal's blue eyes stared intently at her over his hawkish nose. "Sounds like you believe that awful strong, Mrs. Travis."

His appraisal discomfited her. "I just want to ride with you for a while. Hear your story."

Those serious eyes didn't blink. "I won't go slow for you to keep up," he warned.

Mary smiled jubilantly even as her stomach went queasy. "You won't have to."

+ + +

"Wife Beater Earns New Definition, Domestic Disturbance Spills into the Street . . ." Claire auditioned the headlines on her notebook, shaking her head in disgust. Buster is going to kill me. Just this morning Claire had been treated to the height of Hedgecock's frenzy as the newspaper editor had been going over the books.

"You'd better have something in the presses that's going to get us out of this sinkhole we're in," he'd shaken his pencil at her. "Do you know how much I'm spending on chemicals for Tom? Sending for them from New York? And for what? You haven't brought me a decent story since the gunfight last week." Buster hadn't allowed Claire time to defend herself before continuing, "We can't afford another bad week. Get me a story, or I'll get a reporter who can."

Claire kicked a child's wooden ball that had been abandoned on the walkway out of her path. It rolled into the street. "Assault with a Bakery Weapon," the reporter murmured. She examined the headlines she had written, then aggressively scribbled out each one. Then she hit a wall. "Oomph!" The wall wore a green jacket. "Oh! Excuse me, sir. I'm sorry, I wasn't . . . oh." Drat.

Ezra Standish turned around. His green eyes narrowed a smidgeon when he looked down and saw Claire.

"Excuse me," Claire muttered again. She tried to scoot around the gambler, but he stepped in front of her before she could continue down the boardwalk. He whipped a copy of the day's Four Corners Post out of his jacket and held it up in front of her.

"I want you to print a retraction," he said.

"Ha!" Claire barked and tried to walk by. Standish stopped her again, grabbing her arm for a second before her heated look removed his hand. "What's wrong, Standish? I thought you'd enjoy fame."

The Southern gambler bristled and glared down at her. "You are destroying my good name, and I don't appreciate it."

"You have a good name?" Claire slathered as much biting sarcasm as she could muster into the question.

"Oh, very droll," he returned acerbically. "Miss Danae, you are printing lies and ruining my reputation."

"Lies?" Claire's scarf fell forward and tickled her ear. She tossed it back over her shoulder. "I don't write lies, Mr. Standish."

The conman crossed his arms and glared down his nose at her. "No, you merely editorialize and shade the truth."

The sound of beating hooves drew Claire's attention. Wasn't that Vin galloping out of town? Vin . . . it suddenly occurred to Claire that she had never learned his last name. The man was leaving town like a curse was on him if he stayed. The Post reporter wondered if she should follow him. Maybe the buffalo hunter had received word of a posse of vigilantes hanging some poor innocent farmer out in the desert and was rushing off to his rescue! Not likely, Claire admitted to herself, but still, a man leaving town in that much of a hurry surely had a story to tell.

"Miss Danae, you may not believe this, but I have built a trust with this town that you are destroying with every biased, unjustified, malicious-"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Standish, I don't have time to conduct an interview," she cut off his diatribe. "Besides that, I'm really not convinced you have the good name you claim, so why don't you go swindle whatever decent folk you can find and leave me alone. I have a story that needs chasing after."

Claire turned and left the gambler on the boardwalk, seeing him just out of the corner of her eye scowl, shake his head and walk away, while she scurried toward the livery. Of course, there was the issue that she didn't own a horse, but she'd cross that bridge when she came to it.

The brunette reporter drew back in a hurry as Chris Larabee walked out of the stables. He hadn't seen Claire, close up against the side of the stable as she was, but she wasn't in much of a hurry to announce her presence. The dark gunfighter hadn't exactly been avoiding her, but he did seem to make himself scarce whenever Claire was around. Ever since her first encounter with Mary Travis, come to think about it.

Larabee left the barn and strode purposefully down mainstreet. Claire followed as the man marched toward . . . towards the saloon. Shocking. Claire turned back the direction of the stable before looking out toward the horizon and realizing that Vin had long disappeared. She'd never catch up to him, even if she could get a horse. Claire looked down at the scribbled-out headlines on her notepad. She glanced after Chris, just vanishing into the saloon. She looked at her notepad. She glanced after Chris.

Claire strode purposefully toward the saloon. On the boardwalk she passed a weathered brick of a man engaged in asking a townsperson some question. The brick pointed in the direction Vin had just departed. As he raised his arm, the gleam of a silver star pinned beneath his lapel caught Claire's eye. A U.S. Marshal! What was he doing in Four Corners? The Post reporter turned to question the Marshal. But what about Chris Larabee? Claire turned back to the saloon. A United States Marshal! Claire spun on her heel. Chris Larabee! She shifted back and forth on her feet a moment before turning back to the Marshal.

But she was already too late. Mary Travis had already inserted herself by the lawman's side. Claire put her foot down before she took another step forward. How horrible. A U.S. Marshal in town and the competition already had the angle. The Post reporter leaned up against a post, notepad and pencil in hand as she watched the blonde woman converse with the lawman. They seemed to be arguing about something, Mary Travis casting occasional glances at her competition across the street.

Then, the Clarion editor grinned triumphantly. Claire didn't like the look of it. After a few more words, Mary and the Marshal walked off in opposite directions, both making haste. Claire quickly stepped after the Marshal, her red scarf flapping in the breeze behind her.

"Excuse me, Marshal!" The lawman looked behind him, a look of great irritation on his face. Claire walked faster to catch up with him. "Marshal, could you spare a moment for a brief interview?"

"My apologies, ma'am, but no." The Marshal strode into a hotel without further ado or consideration. Claire stopped at the door and twisted her lips in exasperation. Mary Travis was going to win this one too. Drat.

Claire turned on her heel and stormed back to the saloon.

Larabee leaned on the bar with a drink already in front of him. As she took a hurried step towards the gunfighter, her father's advice of many a time popped into Claire's head. Think before you act. Don't be rash. Larabee would never talk to her if she just walked up to him and started asking questions. Counsel that she had never accepted back home seemed to be doing her well as she applied it out here, so Claire snuck in as quietly as she could and crept along the back wall to a table in the corner. The brunette reporter sat down at the table and settled down to watch Chris drink. The answer would come to her.

Sheesh, the black-clad gunslinger could down them. Only an hour after he'd first walked in, Larabee had already consumed so much alcohol that Claire wondered how he could still be standing. She had only ever seen one man drink that much in one sitting. But come to think of it, that man had been only too willing to talk, after she'd asked. Claire fingered the end of her silk scarf. George had said too much.

Notebook in hand, Claire stood from her table, squared her shoulders and tossed the scarf back over her shoulder. She casually moseyed up to the bar and sidled up next to Chris. He didn't notice. Or he was ignoring her. Hmmm.

"Buy you a drink?" Claire took a line from the oldest book in the universe. The oldest line in the oldest book in the universe. But from the way Larabee had been downing them, Claire had an inkling that the offer wouldn't be refused. They were classics because they worked, right?

"Don't think I've ever accepted a drink from a lady before," Larabee said. He turned back to the bar. "And I don't think I'm gonna start today."

Or maybe not.

"Well, don't think of me as a woman," Claire responded gamely. "Think of me as a desperate writer. And don't think of it as a drink, think of it as a bribe."

Larabee looked skeptical. "Bribe for what?"

"Your life story. A couple rounds of whiskey for a couple days in the life of the infamous Chris Larabee. What d'you say?"

"I say no."

"Aw, c'mon!" Claire's mind raced frantically. "You promised!"

The gunslinger's eyes narrowed. "When did I do that?"

Drat. She had been hoping he'd be too drunk to question her. "That time, after that thing happened and we talked. I said 'tell me about it' and you said 'some other time.'" This wasn't going to work, Claire thought with dismay. Drat it, she knew she should have found a way to stick with the U.S. Marshal.

The gunslinger opened his mouth the refute her claim, but paused as a look of confusion crossed his features. The expression passed and Larabee scowled. "Fine. Bartender! Another round. On the lady."

Claire quickly swallowed her gape, turning it into a grin and hopping up to sit on the bar next to where Larabee leaned. The curly-haired reporter ignored the looks she got from both Larabee and the bartender as she pulled a pencil from behind her ear and set it to her pad of paper. The bartender set down two shotglasses of amber liquid and retreated to the other end of the bar. Claire picked her drink up and shot it down. Then coughed violently as the alcohol burned her throat. Chris looked at her skeptically.

"Ugh, this is rotgut! What are you drinking, the cheapest red-eye in the territory? Bartender," the reporterette waved the server over. "Give me a bottle of your finest whiskey."

The bartender raised eyebrows in surprise but obligingly scanned his stocks and eventually grabbed the neck of a slightly smaller bottle. He set it on the bar next to Claire. She picked up and examined the bottle before casting an evaluatory look around the saloon.

"A bottle?" Chris's skeptical leer must have been permanently stuck on his face.

The reporter looked Chris in the eye and leaned down into the gun fighter. "Now all we need is a private place to drink it," Claire suggested.

The bleary-eyed dark cowboy stared at the brunette reporter. "What'd you have in mind?"

+ + +

Mary hugged her jacket closer to her to stave off night's chill. This was not how she had envisioned her day would end when she had woken up this morning.

The Clarion editor had learned distressingly little of the U.S. Marshal as they rode. Besides the fact that Bridger seemed naturally disinclined to conversation, the lawman had been too intent on maintaining the trail of his criminal to be distracted by talk. Dimples in soft soil, patterns in sand and randomly snapped branches of brush meant very little to Mary, but Bridger examined every aspect of the surrounding landscape. How he determined which signs were indicative of human passage and which were mere animal trails, Mary didn't know. For the most part Bridger had made his observations from horseback, but occasionally he would dismount to make a closer inspection of some clue that Mary's eyes couldn't see. Every now and then he had stopped the horses and just listened. Eventually it had become too dark for any sort of tracking, and Bridger had chosen a spot to make camp.

Now the mountains and wilderness-covered hills were completely hidden behind the shroud of night. Their camp's well-made fire illumed the blackness, like a star crashed in the lonely desert.

Mary rubbed her arm as a coyote's eerie cry filled the vastness of the night sky over the valley. Tethered on a pair of rocks a short distance away, Bridger's dun and Mary's dark bay snorted uneasily at the predator's howl, so Bridger stood and took the few short steps over to the horses. As the lawman rubbed the nervous mounts, a slow, guttural sort of melody carried itself under the stillness to Mary's ears. Bridger was humming, the reporter realized. Then, more surprising still, she heard him start to sing under his breath.

"Weda' paikkamakha gupa okaipin . . . izhape' isha'nai'kha, antapittseh . . ."

The coyote's wail died out.

" . . . doyadukubichi' gupa deegai yekwi gai pea."

Mary shivered and moved closer to the flames. Bridger, silent now, rubbed his horse's nose one more time and moved down the animal's back to rummage through his saddlebag, his back to Mary. The silence now seemed too profound for the newspaper editor to break, so Mary's thoughts rose to fill the void. She had lost count of how many times she'd had to wonder if coming with Bridger had been the right thing. Surely this was utter madness. So many risks, and for what? There was no guarantee that the story the resulted from this expedition would be a success. Very likely she would not get back in time to put out tomorrow's edition of the Clarion. That would give the Post an advantage, and Claire Danae was the kind of woman to take any sort of advantage.

"Thinking on that boy of yours?" Bridger's gravelly voice, directly above Mary, startled her out of her reverie. The Marshal put some jerked beef into her hands and moved to hunker down across the fire from Mary. Firelight reflected in his eyes and off the bear claw around his neck. She looked down at the food and realized for the first time that she was ravenous.

"I . . . yes, I . . . how did you know I have a son?" Mary sought to recover herself.

"Rode in on the stage with him," Bridger reminded.

"Oh, of course." Mary took a bite of the jerky and sought to dispel her guilt. "He's spending the night with a friend. Gloria Potter, she owns the General Store in town." The Marshal remained silent, so Mary continued, "Gloria's husband was shot by a rancher's son not very long ago. Steven, my husband, was also murdered. Billy and Gloria's children, well, they share the misfortune of having to grow up without a father."

Bridger's slow, steady breaths were all Mary heard for a while, then, "It's hard on a boy, losing his father like that."

"Yes." Mary nodded sadly.

A cricket chirped.

"Must be awfully important, whatever it is got you out chasing a story with a complete stranger 'stead of at home with that boy on his first night back," Bridger observed.

Mary felt a flush rise to her face that had nothing to do with the heat of the campfire. "Marshal, my son is everything to me, but I don't have the luxury of relying on a husband to support us. That means I will do whatever is necessary to provide for him by ensuring my newspaper succeeds."

The Marshal's head descended in a single nod. "That's pretty important."

Bridger's mild tone brought Mary's ire to a crashing halt. She coughed lightly and went back to staring into the fire. The lawman seemed no more inclined to speak than he had earlier, but Mary couldn't stand the unnerving stillness.

"What was that song you were humming just now?" she asked. It was hard to tell with the flames dancing in front of his face, but Mary thought a flash of startlement crossed the Marshal's features.

"Just a song I learned when I was a young man," he dismissed. He offered no more, and Mary could feel the silence picking at her already frayed nerves.

"It's Indian, isn't it?" Mary persisted. "I don't recognize the dialect." Not that the newspaper lady would have been able to identify Comanche from Apache, but Bridger couldn't know that.

Or maybe he could. Even through night's darkness the Marshal's clear blue eyes seemed to piece Travis' intentions as his steady gaze regarded her. Mary could almost feel a weight lift off her when Bridger looked away to throw another branch into the fire. Half-burned logs shifted with a flash of sparks.

"My grandmother was Ute," he said. "I was raised among her tribe."

"What does the song mean?"

Bridger shrugged. "Literally? 'Weda' paikkamakha gupa okaipin.' The Bear waits in the river," he translated. "'Izhape' isha'nai'kha, antapittseh.' Coyote lies, the stranger. 'Doyadukubichi' gupa deegai yekwi gai pea.' The Cougar in hunt does not stop."

"I don't understand." Mary's brows furrowed as she tried to puzzle out the song's meaning. "Is it a story?"

"No, ma'am. It's a mission."

Bridger sat for a moment in silence. Then he wiped the grease from the jerky on his leg before turning away from Mary and lying down on his side. "Best get to sleep now, ma'am. I expect tomorrow will hold some excitement."

+ + +

The next morning Chris Larabee woke up with a sense of terrible foreboding. That and a damned big hangover. The two were never a good combination. Particularly when he couldn't remember what he'd been doing last night. He remembered going into the saloon, vaguely recalled something about horses . . .

Somehow he had gotten to his room. The late morning sun pierced through his window and made the gunman seriously wish he was wearing his sidearms right now. He sat up slowly and blocked the offending rays with one hand. Damn, what had he drank last night? More relevantly, how much had he drank? His head felt like Colonel what's-his-name had shot his cannon straight through it.

Geez, his clothes were filthy! What had he been doing last night?! The black fabric was covered with dirt and straw and he smelled like . . . manure?

Suddenly it hit him. The stables. He'd been in the stables, drinking. Why the hell would he . . . her. The reporter, that damned brunette reporter. She'd been there too, drinking that damned smooth whiskey. He remembered, they'd been talking and laughing and . . . and he couldn't remember what they'd been talking about.

But he had a really bad feeling about it.

+ + +

The headline that graced the front page of the Four Corner's Post had the entire town buzzing. Word of it created a vibration in the streets, the only motion in the air on an overcast day that had dawned disquietingly still. JD shivered as a weak breeze - the first he had felt since waking - wove its way down his shirt collar.

Leaning on a post, JD rested his hands on top of twin guns and watched Nathan pace uneasily in front of the steps leading up to the jailhouse. Behind the young sheriff, Ezra lounged in a chair, shuffling cards with an intent that excluded everything else. Every now and then he would stop and draw a single card from the deck, examine it carefully, then put it back and start the process over again. The gambler lifted his eyes momentarily as a figure walked up the street toward the group.

It was Josiah. His boots thumped hollowly as they ascended the wooden steps.

Josiah leaned himself on the post across from JD's and steepled his fingers. "He seen it yet?" the preacher asked in hushed tones.

"I don't think he's woken up yet." Nathan answered. "Where's Miss Danae?"

Josiah jerked his head in the direction from which he had just come. "She's at the hotel, havin' breakfast."

"Y'think we oughta warn her?" JD asked, his eyes roaming the street for signs of a black tornado.

"I hardly think so. Miss Danae is seeking a newsworthy event." The cards rippled through Ezra's fingers. "I wager her own death at the hands of Mr. Larabee will sell a spectacular many papers." The cardsharp drew a two of spades. JD didn't think that was the card he had intended. Ezra frowned at the deuce before replacing it in the deck.

"Here he comes."

JD stopped his pacing in front of the steps leading to the jailhouse and followed Nathan's indicating glance the length of the street. About a hundred paces away, Chris sauntered towards them, his head down and the brim of his hat pulled low to shield his eyes.

A short man wearing a tall hat approached Larabee. Before Chris could possibly know what was going on the man shook the dark gunfighter's hand vigorously before touching the brim of his tall hat and continuing on his way, a newspaper tucked under one arm. Larabee turned and watched the short man's departure, then looked down to the hand he had shook. Chris shrugged and continued toward the jailhouse, wiping his palm on his shirt.

A group of three young women crossed the gunslinger's path. They looked over their shoulders and started whispering to each other as they walked away.

Chris stopped in front of his fellow lawmen. The man looked hungover as a day-old corpse.

"Morning, Chris," Nathan ventured. "Rough night last night?"

Larabee nodded. "Could be," he growled softly. Chris looked at the sparsely populated streets. The half-dozen people who had been stealing glances toward the group quickly looked away and scurried about their business. "Town seem strange to you this morning?" Chris asked.

"Maybe something the good citizens of Four Corners read, perhaps," Ezra drawled. "Speaking of which, have you read today's Post? I believe I have a copy right here . . ."

As Standish reached inside his coat, JD hastily stepped in front of the gambler while Nathan sent him a heated glare. Josiah stomped heavily on Ezra's outstretched foot, earning a pained grunt from the gambler and a questioning glance from Chris.

"Rat," Sanchez muttered as explanation.

"We got a bit of a problem," Nathan hastily informed Chris.

Larabee eyed them all sideways. "What is it?"

Behind him, JD heard Ezra's cards start shuffling again.

"We can't find Bridger." JD threw his hands in the air briefly before setting them back down on the holsters of his pistols. "Me and Nate were gonna talk to him, find out if he's really after Vin, but nobody's seen him since yesterday."

Chris' eyes narrowed. "He ride out?"

"Looks that way," Nathan answered. "Yosemite says he rented a horse yesterday, before dark."

"Before Vin left?" Chris asked.

Nathan shrugged. JD and the healer had broken the news of Vin's departure to the rest of the Four Corners' peacekeepers that morning. The reactions had varied as much as the men themselves: Buck had raged for a minute or two, in the end giving up for the sheer futility of it; Josiah had accepted the news calmly with a prayer that Vin find justice, and that it didn't find him; Ezra . . . the Southern gambler had just nodded thoughtfully without saying a word. That was when he'd begun shuffling those damn cards.

"Yosemite didn't know what time it was. Coulda been before, coulda been after. We just don't know."

A pair of cowboys as they strolled past the group tipped their hats at Chris with solemn expressions on both their faces.

"You know those two?" Jackson asked after they'd gone.

Chris lifted his hat to scratch his head. "No."

"Oh. So what d'you want to do about Bridger?"

"Ain't a whole hell of a lot we can do. Damn it, JD, why couldn't you have found out who he was here for-"

"Mr. Larabee, good morning."

Chris stood aside to reveal Mrs. Gloria Potter standing behind him.

"Morning, ma'am," Larabee returned cautiously.

"I just wanted to tell you, Mr. Larabee, how fortunate I believe Four Corners is to have a man like you protecting it. Why, given all the hardships you've faced, I'd say it's not just fortunate, it's a miracle." The widowed store owner nodded at Chris. Before she left she fired a glare at Ezra which, still involved in shuffling those cards of his, the gambler missed.

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra drawled from the porch. "Have you won some contest or election of which I was unaware?"

Chris took off his black hat and scratched the back of his head. "Any of you boys seen Claire Danae today?"

"Why yes," JD heard Ezra say. "I believe she is-"

Buck's arrival interrupted Standish. "Chris, I swear, I didn't tell her nothing. Not that she didn't ask, mind you, but I told her I couldn't say anything, and that was that. I don't know who she talked to, but it wasn't ol' Buck." The ladies' man gestured with his hands held up in front of him, a folded newspaper clenched in one of them.

Larabee paused a moment after Wilmington had finished his disclaimer. "Who?" he asked.

Buck started at the questions, then glanced down to the newspaper in his hand. "You, uh, you haven't read the Post yet?"

"Let me see it," Chris demanded. Wilmington reluctantly handed it over, then took several quick steps back away from the gunfighter. Chris unfolded the paper and read the headline. "I'll kill her," he snarled.

The newspaper crumpled in Larabee's grip and fell to the ground as Chris stalked off down the street, toward the Four Corners Post building.

The morning sky over the wilderness had dawned clear, but a strong breeze and dark gray clouds looming over the southern canyons indicated worse weather approaching. The storm would likely come in fast and move out the same way, Vin surmised as he studied the cumulous strata overhead. The bad weather would probably sweep into Four Corners within a few hours later. It had taken Tanner more than a day from town to reach this canyon, but storms were more fleeting than horses. Besides, Vin had to admit he'd been dragging his feet since he'd left town. The unfamiliar pang of homesickness weighed them down.

But he'd left Four Corners to keep his troubles away from town, and damned if trouble hadn't followed.

Hidden high in the crevasse of a canyon wall, lying flat on his belly, Tanner peered through his spyglass down to the valley he himself had just passed through little less than an hour ago. Two figures were crossing it now, Bridger and another person Vin couldn't identify at this distance.

The sharpshooter redirected his telescope towards the southern ridge opposite of him. Somewhere in the jutting cliffside a third person was wandering around the rugged terrain, although Tanner could not spy him now. He had seen him this morning though, a strange man resembling a goat moving erratically over the landscape. With diligent searching Vin had spotted him a couple of times since then, but the scruffy stranger was a cagey beast to track.

The four of them, Vin, Bridger and his mystery companion and the strange wanderer, they were all playing a game of cat and mouse out in this wilderness. Vin would give his right arm to know whether Bridger was tracking him - or this stranger in the wilderness.

Tanner scraped himself backwards on his elbows, Comanche style, until he was far enough from the ridge to stand up without being seen. A few feet down he mounted Peso, tied up in some brush. The fading black snorted as a cougar snarled somewhere in the mountain line, and Vin reached down to pat the horse's flank reassuringly. Wind tore at his clothes and blew dust at his face as he squinted south down the canyon ridge. Beyond that ridge lay some rough terrain and not much cover, but tracking on rock was nearly impossible. It would give Vin an advantage if Bridger was following him. The Marshal was an exceptional tracker, employing techniques Vin himself had only learned from Shoshoni tribes - and even some tricks that Vin had never learned.

An itching began between his shoulder blades, which could have been dust sticking to sweat. Tanner scanned the heights. The cougar prowled the ridgeline, watching horse and rider below. Vin frowned, but the cat was too far away to cause him trouble.

He spurred Peso in a quick walk deeper into the rocky terrain, picking a path around the sharp rocks that jutted up out of the sandy soil.

The first rumble could have been mistaken for a trick of the imagination it was so quiet. But at it the cougar on the ridge turned and descended into the woodline, seeking shelter. Seeing that, Vin nudged Peso to pick up her pace. In a short while a deafening peal of thunder announced the storm's sudden arrival. The fat drops of rain dropped slowly at first but with an increasingly steady barrage. His horse whinnied and pawed his hoof against the ground nervously.

Behind him, to the north, the clip of a hoof followed by the shrill neigh of a distant horse. And off to the east, the faintest echo of a hoof beat. Vin drew his rifle.

+ + +

Four Corners was no longer still. A wind had swept into town in the last few minutes, chilling and foreboding.

Chris walked with brisk purpose down the street, resolutely ignoring the looks and stares he received from the people he passed. Despite his resolve, a flush heated the back of his neck as a group of women saw the gunfighter and went doe-eyed at his approach. Larabee quickly skirted around the group, his unease the only acknowledgement of their attention. A pair of grungy drifters noticed the black-clad gunman and eyed him resentfully as he passed. Damn the Four Corners Post. Damn Claire Danae. That paper in everyone's hand stripped Chris bare, opening a window that Larabee kept closed to all but few. He didn't want the world to know, damn it. The attention was downright embarrassing, especially, Chris had to admit, the noble light in which Claire's article had painted him. That wasn't Chris Larabee.

It had been possible, once. Chris had been wild and irresolute as a youth, traits that had only grown as he became a man. His marriage to Sarah changed him. Sarah changed him, had made him want to be all that she thought he was. Then Adam was born and Chris had determined to be the man, the father that his son could admire and be proud of. If those two had lived, then maybe Chris could have been the noble figure presented in the Four Corners Post.

But they had died, and the murder of his wife and son changed Chris again. By turns the raging, irresolute character of his youth then at times detached to the point of indifference. Either way, Larabee had no room left in his vengeful heart for nobility.

Maybe he wasn't noble, but shit, he'd thought he had at least some self-control. How had Claire gotten the story? Chris wondered uncomfortably. He still didn't remember anything about last night except for the whiskey and the stable, but hell, drunk with a beautiful woman in a stable - what else could have happened? Larabee needed to find that damned reporter.

There, up ahead.

"I need a word with you." Chris grabbed the arm of a person highly associated with the Four Corners Post.

Buster Hedgecock looked down with distain at the rough hand crumpling the fabric of his jacket. "I don't know who you think you are . . . " The Post editor shifted his gaze to meet Larabee's face. Buster's eyes widened. " . . . you're Chris Larabee!" The rotund man slapped Chris congenially on the arm. "You're an extraordinary man, Mr. Larabee." At the miniature cloud of dust that mushroomed off Larabee's black coat the editor wrinkled his nose and sneezed like a lap dog. "Why, I've never seen the papers sell so fast off a mere feature. I think we may have to reprint. Your name sells, Mr. Larabee." Buster beamed. "Little Claire seems to have hit the mark with this one."

Chris' dark glare mirrored the angry clouds to the south. "Where is that reporter of yours?"

"Couldn't tell you," Buster shrugged, oblivious to Chris' wrath. "She's been all over town, selling, selling, selling. What a trooper."

The gunslinger's fingers tightened on Hedgecock's jacket. "Where is she?"

Hedgecock looked like he was beginning to get bored with this conversation. "I told you, I don't know. Nor do I care for your tone."

Larabee was just about to burn the editor's ears with some choice curses, but stopped. Claire was there on the boardwalk behind Buster, walking out of the hardware store, selling a paper to old Mr. Watson. She hadn't seen Chris yet. Well, she was about to see him up close and personal.

"What'cha doing, Chris?" came a high-pitched inquisitive voice from behind the gunfighter. Larabee turned and looked down to find Mary's son Billy standing there.

"Ugh, little people." Buster wrinkled his nose.

"Hello, Billy." Chris slowly released Hedgecock's arm. "I'm not doing anything."

"Good!" Billy exclaimed with a little too much enthusiasm. Chris looked down at the boy suspiciously. "Can you go fishing with me?"

Fishing was not on Chris' list right now. "I've got things to do today, Billy. Where's your ma?" Larabee glanced back over his shoulder. Claire had finished her transaction with the store owner and was starting to walk in the opposite direction. Damn it, if he didn't move now he was going to-

"She's gone."

Exactly. She'd be gone. Mary would be . . . wait. What?

"Travis is gone?" Hedgecock exclaimed. Billy nodded. "The Clarion didn't come out today? What a waste!"

Larabee glared, but Buster didn't notice. The Post editor walked briskly away, grumbling under his breath. "Where's your ma gone?" Chris asked Billy.

The boy shrugged. "She went with the Marshal. I rode on the stagecoach with him."

"When did they leave?"

"Yesterday. I stayed with Mrs. Potter. She's nice, but she's not as much fun as you. Can we go fishing?"

Chris couldn't possibly go fishing, he had to go riding out to Mary's rescue and make sure she was safe and that Bridger didn't catch up to Vin and damn it, Claire was turning a corner, out of sight. He had more than a few choice words to say to her . . .

Chris became suddenly and uncomfortably aware of several sets of eyes casting surreptitious glances at himself and the boy. Some townspeople had evidently been paying attention to their little conversation. Copies of today's Four Corners Post were to be seen in hand, in pocket, in evidence. Shoot, they were all paying attention, waiting for Larabee's answer. Chris looked down at Billy. The child's wide eyes were full of hope and adoration.

Damn it.

"Sure, Billy, we'll go fishing today."

Billy beamed a great smile, then took Chris' hand and pulled him along. Larabee glanced down the side street Claire had turned down as they passed, just catching the flashing tail of a red scarf as the Post reporter disappeared around another damned corner.

Irritating female reporters were going to be the death of him.

+ + +


The shot exploded past Bridger's nose and impacted against the canyon wall beside him in a spray of granite shrapnel. Mary Travis shrieked and the U.S Marshal swore at the unexpected bullet, originating somewhere in the above to his right. His horse, already skittish from the torrential rain and thunder, skidded to a halt and reared. A second shot from the ridge grazed Bridger's left temple.

"Travis, ride back!" Bridger yelled at Mary, drawing his revolver and scanning the canyons for a target.

"What about you?" the blonde shouted into the rain.

"You're no help to me, Travis. Remember your promise!"

The news lady hesitated only a moment before reigning her horse around and galloping away. Bridger nodded, satisfied that Travis had sense enough to realize that she'd be more hindrance than help, unarmed and defenseless as she was.

The lawman spurred his nervous mount into a run forward. The third shot followed him and not Travis, as Bridger suspected it would.

The Marshal scowled. Thunder rumbled and crashed as clouds poured rain in torrents over the ravine. Bridger could hardly see the end of his revolver in front of him, much less whoever was shooting up in the cliffside. There! Riding along the top of the canyon, silhouetted against the stormy sky. Bridger squinted a glare and returned fire at the figure. The shootist fired few rounds that were well wide of their mark before diving somewhere down into the rocky wall. Bridger fired again, but the lawman knew his shooting could never be accurate enough to defeat the superior position of his opponent, not in this downpour anyway.

The Marshal steered his galloping mount closer to the western ridge, hoping to make the angle between them too tight for the man in the cliffs to get a clear shot. His horse's hooves skidded tenuously against the wet terrain, bullets striking near them throwing up gravel against the rain.

The shriek of Bridger's mount sang in sharp contrast to the thunder booming in tandem with the sound of gunshots as the dun lost its footing and slipped to its knees. The lawman flew over the foundering horse's neck to the relentless ground below.

Bridger struggled to regain his feet against the hail of gunfire, his grip tightened around the stock of his own revolver. As the Marshal attempted to pull his weight up on his right leg, a sharp jolt of pain ignited the entire limb and his knee buckled under the weight. The weathered lawman cried a broken shout and fell back to his knees. Damn old age! Bridger snarled against his treacherous joints. He tried to rise again but the leg's hurtful flare of protest landed him right back down to his hands and knees.

The Marshal gritted his teeth, bracing himself on his enflamed knee in the mud, fanning the hillside for his target while blinking wet drops out of his eyes. A bullet striking the dirt next to him sent chips of clay flying into the air. Another sliced his left forearm, but still he could not find the source of the barrage.

Then the report of a new firearm joined the fray, fired into the cliffside. The Marshal glanced over his shoulder to find an unlikely rescuer firing shots up into the canyon, riding towards Bridger. A man with long hair and a fringed jacket swung off his horse, still shooting up at the cliffs as he ran towards the U.S. Marshal. Bridger recognized the buffalo hunter from town. What brought the unofficial peacekeeper all the way out here? Bridger glared warily. The buffalo hunter caught the look.

"Gotta trust me, Marshal." He looked rather uncertain himself as he offered his hand.

Another shot fell from the canyon and struck near the Marshal's left boot. Bridger grabbed the slender cowboy's arm above the wrist and the buffalo hunter hauled the lawman to his feet. Together they shambled to the cover of a large outcropping against the east canyon wall. The buffalo hunter peered around the boulder and squeezed off a couple rounds.

After a moment all fire ceased. Raindrops assaulted the canyon.

"What's he doing?" the buffalo hunter muttered, peering through the rain. Bridger slid himself to a sitting position against the boulder and began to reload his gun.

A hoarse shout echoed down into the gully.

"Damn it, lawdog, why can't you just die and stay dead?!"

Bridger ground his teeth at the sound of the familiar voice. Crazy son of a bitch. He fired his revolver into the cliffs. After a moment the lawman responded:

"Give up, you son of a bitch! It'll take more than you've got to get rid of me!"

"I ain't afraid of you!" The shaky voice belied the words. "I killed you once, lawdog, and I ain't afraid to do it twice."

The buffalo hunter wore an expression of irritated confusion. "What the hell's he talkin' about?" he asked Bridger.

The lawman's teeth ground so loudly the sound drowned out the question. When he finally was able to part his jaws to speak, his voice hissed with repressed rage. "Listen to me, you bastard," he spoke softly, then with increasing volume to project over the storm across the canyon. "Listen, you bastard! I will hunt you down the rest of your days! You're never gonna know a moment's rest! Every time you look over your shoulder, I'll be there! You are cursed, you son of a bitch! Do you hear me?! I am your curse!"

A strangled cry reverberated through the valley followed by a volley of sporadic shots. Bridger and his ally returned fire. Not able to get a good shot at the opposing shootist, the buffalo hunter skidded further up the canyon, almost out of Bridger's sight and continued shooting from there.

Bridger peered over his cover to see his enemy's dark silhouette high-tailing it back up the canyon ridge. Bridger fired at the departing form. Through the rain he could see very little of his enemy, just a lanky figure with a large hat concealing the face. The figure vanished over the ridge. The U.S. Marshal looked to his left to find that the buffalo hunter had also disappeared.

Damn it. The rain had slowed from a deluge to a mere downpour, and Bridger levered himself to his feet to stand against it. He could just hear motion above him, the buffalo hunter riding away. Bridger's own horse had apparently gotten up and taken off down the ravine. Hoof prints had made tiny pools in the muddy riverbed.

The Marshal looked after the direction the buffalo hunter had ridden. What sort of story did this man have, a man who ran from the law but had returned to save a stranger's life? Bridger turned a critical eye to the canyon. There was more than one way through its maze of rocky outcroppings.

"Doyadukubichi' gupa deegai yekwi gai pea," he chanted softly.

Bridger began limping forward along the trail of hoof prints. One man was beyond his reach, but damned if he was going to let the other escape. He'd gone too far to stop now.

+ + +

Never take business personally, her father had told her once. Well, her father had never met Buster. The editor certainly seemed to blame Claire personally that the Post's big story had come out when Mary Travis was on hiatus. And he seemed to be taking it rather personally on top of that. It wasn't Claire's fault. Drat it all, how was she to have predicted that Travis wasn't going to release the Clarion today? That she wasn't even in town? Get a story, Buster had said. Do whatever it takes. Well, she had, and the success of today's edition of the Four Corners Post was staggering. The paper had sold out within an hour of hitting the street, due to overwhelming interest in the headline subject and not to lack of a Clarion option. Claire was sure of that. Buster had no right to ream her out.

"Don't take it personally," Claire muttered, closing the door of the Post building behind her as she exited. Thunder rumbled over the town of Four Corners. Claire shook off the eerie feeling that suddenly chilled her spine and walked out onto mainstreet. The muddy streets were mostly clear this evening, as if the town's citizens were still expecting more rain. Storms came in fast out here in the west, the eastern-born reporter thought. It wasn't as if . . .

"I need a word with you."

The rasped statement, said in a tone as quiet and threatening as the echo of thunder disappearing through the canyons, came from behind. Claire turned to face Chris Larabee. The reporter smiled brightly.

"Have you seen your article?" she greeted. "If you want a copy you'll have to wait until I can reprint. We sold out . . ." Claire trailed off as Chris' advance backed her up against the side wall of Watson's Hardware store. Thunder boomed, louder this time, and it started to rain.

"What gives you the right," Larabee rumbled menacingly, "to write about me and my family?"

Claire blinked water from her eyes and licked it off her lips. "I thought-"

"Let me answer for you." Rain plastered the gunfighter's blonde hair to his scalp. "You don't have any right." Claire flinched as Larabee struck the wall next to her with his fist. "If you think," Chris continued, "that because you and I had a roll in the hay-"

Claire's slap caught Larabee in the teeth, sending water droplets flying off his face.

"I don't know what impression you have of me, Mr. Larabee," the brunette hugged arms around her now-soaked figure, "but you obviously don't remember what happened in that stable. All we did was talk last night." Claire looked up and met Chris' eyes. "You and I just talked."

The dark gunfighter, though also soaking wet, looked about ready to explode with repressed fury as he leaned in to make sure the reporter could hear him over the storm. "Whatever happened, it was underhanded. A man's grief is not meant for public display; my wife and son didn't die so you could sell more of your papers. If I ever see one more word printed about them again . . ."

Larabee left the threat unspoken. The dark gunfighter backed away into the muddy, rain-filled street, unblinking until he turned, walking out and disappearing into the torrent that drove down on Four Corners.

Claire leaned her head back against the wall of the store. Her hand hurt from hitting his teeth. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. People wanted to know about the enigmatic figure that was Chris Larabee. It was only natural to be curious about the black-clad mystery of a man. He wouldn't have talked to her sober; she had seen that since the first time they talked. Why he had even started on last night's drinking binge, she didn't even know. But he would have continued drinking with or without her. All she had done was ask questions. It wasn't her fault that he was drunk enough to answer. Nothing she had written in that front-page article was fabrication. Larabee's own words, all of it. Never take it personally.

Claire squeezed her eyes shut against the rain, reliving the night in her mind. Larabee had been fine as long as they'd been talking about generalities. Brusque, but then she'd never known him to be the most forthcoming speaker. He had flat out refused to answer why Vin had left town in such a hurry. Then she had steered the conversation to his past. Claire shuddered.

The intensity of Larabee's anger had frightened her. He hadn't been the only one drinking that expensive whiskey. She'd needed it to give her the courage to keep asking, once his wife and son had been brought up. It had taken about half a bottle of whiskey to push past the fury. His pain had been worse than the rage. She had almost lost her nerve when he had leaned over to finger a lock of her russet hair. "Sarah had curly hair. Like yours," he'd said, and he had looked at Claire in such a way that she knew he was seeing his dead wife. Claire had been relieved when he fell asleep just a few minutes later.

Never take business personally. Claire Danae continued on her way in the rain, feeling small.

+ + +

The dark clouds had outpaced Vin some two miles ago, but the torrential rain had left him soaked, chilled and ornery. As he rode farther into the wilderness both his conscience and his instincts nagged at him worse and worse. Vin hated being nagged. Reason threw in its two cents as well, telling him to keep riding on, although Vin's conscience scolded him for leaving Bridger horseless and alone in the canyon. And above and beyond all those senses, Tanner's instincts screamed that something was going on here, something that involved that strange, deranged figure in the canyons. Something that could be trouble for the town of Four Corners.

Hell. Vin ignored reason and caved to the pressure of his instincts. He turned Peso around at a trot back into the canyons, leaving the storm at his back.

He had barely turned around after making the decision when the sharpshooter spotted a pair on horseback riding straight toward him. They'd been following him, and he hadn't even been aware of it. Vin steered towards them cautiously. Yes, that was certainly Bridger. But the sight of the figure next to the Marshal stunned Vin toward recklessness.

"Mary! What the hell are you doin' out here?"

"Vin!" Mary Travis sounded relieved and happy to see him. The blonde reporter's normally upswept hair was down around her shoulders, disheveled from the wind and rain. "It's a long story. What about you? Why are you here? Did something happen in town?"

The sound of a shotgun cocking interrupted the happy reunion. Marshal Bridger looked entirely unimpressed and somewhat disgruntled as he pointed the weapon at Tanner.

Mary glanced at the lawman uneasily. "Marshal, Vin is a friend."

"Seems a rather fickle friend who would leave me stranded without a horse. But we'll see. Your face is familiar. Should I know you?" Bridger directed the question towards Tanner.

Vin attempted to match Bridger's stoicism. Though that shotgun was raising his hackles, his instincts told him to keep calm "Don't reckon you should. Name's Vin. Vin Tanner." There. His instincts had maybe just damned him if this Marshal recognized the name.

Bridger lowered his chin in thought. "Tanner . . . Seems I may have read that name on a wanted poster. Murder?"

Mary quickly interjected on Tanner's behalf. "Vin was set up, Marshal, by a bandit named Eli Joe."

A hawk screeched overhead, as if it would defend the bounty hunter as well. Bridger slowly lowered the gun, but did not point it down or holster it. "That's another name I know," he acknowledge, not directing his gaze anywhere but at Vin. "What are your intentions, Tanner?"

"Going back to town. Figure there might be trouble and I want to help stop it." Jerking his head westward, toward the gorge, "What about your friend in the canyons? You know his name?"

The lawman's stance assumed a dangerous sharpness. "Don't need that bastard's name. Got his face. Got his ways." He looked off in the general direction the shooter had disappeared. "Izhape' isha'nai'kha, antapittseh," he muttered, singsong, under his breath. The chant startled Vin into giving Bridger a second look. For the first time he noticed the bear claw hanging around the Marshal's neck.

The U.S. Marshal thrust the shotgun in its holster with more force than was necessary. "And apparently I've been following the wrong trail." He glared at Vin.

"Shouldn't stop you," Vin replied. Bridger had managed to cut in front and sneak up on Vin, which the sharpshooter found impressive and a more than a mite irksome. "You're a hell of a tracker."

A corner of his mouth quirked upward just a bit. "You've got a mighty knack for evasion, son, but when a man's been shaken from a trail as many times as I've been, he learns how to catch up." Bridger sighed with a slow, heavy exhale. He spoke again as if to himself. "I'm too close to let this bastard slip away again."

"You don't have go after him yourself, Marshal." Mary spoke up. "Vin can help. So can the other men in town."

Bridger stared off in silent consideration a moment. "Doyadukubichi' gupa deegai yekwi gai pea," he hummed again, and Vin suddenly had a theory that meant the lawman wouldn't be accepting any offer of help. The Marshal voiced the answer Tanner had suspected would come with a single shake of his head.

"Well, I'm going with you," Mary declared.

"What? Mary, why-" Vin started to ask.

"Ma'am," Bridger interrupted before Travis had time to explain, "you can't come with me this time."

Mary started to protest, but Tanner spoke up for the lawman. "I think what the Marshal's tryin' to say, Mary, is that this is something he needs to do alone."

Bridger nodded solemnly, seriously considering Vin. "I have a very long memory, Tanner. I can't forget that you're face is on a wanted poster, but I can't forget you saved my life back there, either. Just as well we go our separate ways now."

Vin extended his arm towards the lawman. "Farewell. Tsaangu deegai."

The lawman's eyes narrowed slightly, and he returned the handclasp with a nod of respect. "Ose. Farewell." Bridger tipped his hat at Mary. "Go back, Mrs. Travis. Your son will be missing you."

U.S. Marshal Clay Bridger spurred his mount into a canter and was soon far in the distance. For an instant it seemed that the newspaperwoman would spur her dark bay after him, but Vin grabbed her reins. "He's gone, Mary."

Travis looked off into the horizon. "And with him my front page."

Vin and the reluctant newspaperwoman turned their mounts north, towards Four Corners. They rode in silence for a stretch, Tanner's thoughts wrapped around the mystery surrounding the enigmatic U.S. Marshal, while beside him Mary mentally sketched out an article for the Clarion, occasionally muttering to herself as she worked out key phrasing. Travis' role in this encounter was one aspect the tracker couldn't explain.

"Why'd you come with him, Mary?" Vin asked as he and the blonde newspaper owner backtracked their way through the canyons.

"I needed a story and there was none to be found in town. Such a fascinating man." A sigh accompanied the admission, then Travis rebutted with her own question: "Vin, what was that song of the Marshal's?"

Vin smirked a little as Mary forgot her woes and assumed her "reporter" stature. "I would guess it's his personal song. Seems to me Marshal Bridger has got some Indian blood in him."

"Yes," Mary confirmed, "he said his grandmother was Ute. But what's a personal song?"

"Among the Plains Indians every young man has a personal song," Vin explained. "They believe the melody and words are given to him directly by the power of his guardian spirit." Vin peered deep into the yellow sky, remembering. "To communicate with his spirit he goes alone into the wilderness and fasts, until the inspiration comes to him in a dream. Then he sings this song at particular moments of his life to renew his contact with the powers he's seen in his dreams."

"He told me it was a mission." Mary frowned pensively. "The Marshal's song speaks about a bear and a coyote, and there was a hunting cougar."

"Well, the bear is a symbol of the Ute, and then the cougar is probably his guardian spirit."

"And the coyote? What does that mean?"

Vin contemplated a moment, then shrugged. "Could mean a whole lotta things. But in most stories the coyote ain't to be trusted."

"The stranger," Mary mused. The pair resumed their silent riding for a while longer before the editor sighed again. "Well, it may be thin for a front page, but it's better than anything going on in town lately."

The sun began to find its way through dissipating clouds as Vin smiled wryly. "A gamy little rabbit tastes like steak to a starving man," he observed.

"Right now I am starved for news," Travis agreed. "And I'm not the only one."

Word of the two riders approach reached all the way to the saloon even before the pair even arrived in town, early in the afternoon.

The black leather of Chris' trenchcoat flapped at the gunfighter's heels as he paced purposefully to the livery. Staccato thumps of his boots punctuated every step. Hands clenched into fists before stretching out wide as they would go, then balling back into fists.

The first person Chris spied as he rounded the Grain Exchange to reach the stables was Vin. Though Larabee was surprised and vastly relieved to see the sharpshooter, it was nothing compared to the relief of seeing who it was that Vin was assisting in dismounting her horse. The sight of blonde hair flowing round the shoulders of the seemingly perfectly fit Mary Travis caused the lump that was in is stomach to decrease.

The Clarion reporter thanked Vin then went about gathering her saddlebags. Chris nodded at Vin, who nodded back, silently understanding. Larabee walked deeper into the stables. Mary smiled at him. "Chris," she greeted warmly as her fingers undid the buckles of her bags.

"Mary," Larabee responded for want of words. He moved closer to the Clarion editor, in the sea of questions he wanted to ask, searching for the right one. "Why did you go?"

"Mommy!" Billy came running into the livery, a giant grin on his little face. Mary crouched to catch her son in her arms in a tight embrace. "Me an' Chris went fishing!"

Mary's smile as she placed her son on the ground seemed to sense Chris' concern. "Marshal Bridger had a story to tell."

Larabee shifted, not happy with the answer but trying not to show it. "He couldn't tell you this story in town?"

"He didn't have time," Mary explained without ire, ruffling her son's hair.

"You could have waited," Chris knew he should leave well enough alone, but he went on anyway. "Riding out like that was dangerous, Mary."

She finally looked at him, quizzically. "It was an important story," she stated simply, as if that made sense.

It didn't. "It was dangerous."

Mary smiled down at Billy. "Sweetie, why don't you run down to the hotel and ask Mr. Sadler to make us some sandwiches. I'll be there in a minute." The child nodded and left, beaming a great smile. Mary turned her back to Chris to remove her saddlebags from her horse. "I've been in dangerous situations before, Chris. I'm willing to take a few risks."

"Mary, you are the bravest woman I've ever met," Chris said. "You ain't one to back down from a challenge, and I admire that. But riding out like that? Seems like a foolish risk." She could have been injured, killed or worse. Anything could have happened to her out there, and she just didn't seem to see that.

A newspaper lay atop some old horseshoes and tools, folded in fours on Yosemite's work table. Mary set down her saddlebags and picked it up. "My livelihood is at stake here," she addressed Chris, brandishing the copy of the Four Corners Post as if to prove her statement. "I'm not going to sit safe in my cubbyhole and let it die. And who are you to tell me what risks I should or should not take?" She looked pointedly at his sidearm.

Larabee gave up the attempt to conceal his anger. "Ain't no call to risk your life for a stupid story!"

"I told you, Chris, this story is important."

Chris struggled not to yell. He would not yell. "No, Mary. That's important." He pointed to Billy, skipping down the street towards the hotel.

But Mary wasn't looking at him. The headline of the newspaper in her hand had caught her attention, and she was now unfolding it in order to peruse the front page of yesterday's Four Corners Post.

"Mary, listen to me-" Chris began, but the Clarion editor interrupted, viciously snapping the paper closed again.

"Don't you presume to lecture me, Mr. Larabee." Mary crushed the newspaper to her side and moved around the gunfighter. "You have no right to tell me how I should run my life or my business!"

What the hell was she mad at him for? Grabbing her arm, "I get worried about you, that's all!" he finally yelled. There. The truth came out at last. Mary seemed not the least touched.

"Worry about yourself." Frost lined her response. "If you do your job then I won't have any trouble to get in, will I?"

Shaking off his hand, Mary stalked away toward Billy and the Clarion, leaving Chris with nothing to do but curse under his breath.

+ + +

A bushy head slowly rose from behind a large mudstone.

Have we lost him?

"He's never lost. I'm cursed!"

Kill him better next time.

"How am I gonna find my gold now? Shouldn'ta let my horse go."

We had to! It threw him off our trail, didn't it?

"Lawdog chasing his own tail," the madman giggled.

He'll be wanderin' around the wilderness for days. Let's go back to town.

"Yeah, I'll go back to town. Gold's gotta be there somewhere."

By the time the late afternoon sun had completely evaporated any trace of the storm that had raged earlier in the week, turning the streets of Four Corners back into a wellspring of dust, Mary had sold enough copies of the Clarion to conclude that her riding out after Marshal Bridger hadn't been a complete loss. At least, that was what she was trying to convince herself.

Once again sitting at her desk, Mary held her head in her hands and stared down at the crumpled copy of the Post she had taken from the livery yesterday. The words, blaringly illuminated by sunlight falling on it through the window, had not changed in the dozen incredulous times she had read it. "Larabee cannot escape the harrowing guilt which haunts him." How had Claire Danae gotten Chris to open up to her? Most of the citizens in Four Corners knew something of Larabee and his family's murder, and Mary herself was privy to a few more details than most, but those had never been directly revealed through the gunslinger himself. Chris had rudely rebuffed the Clarion editor the first time she had brought up the subject. That he gave such intimate details to the curly-haired Post reporter was a betrayal Mary could not comprehend.

Now here she was returned to town with only half a story, and even that small bit of success had turned sour. As Mary wiped at moist and reddened eyes with the back of her hand, a yell from the street startled her into looking up. A thin man wearing an apron scrambled up the boardwalk, running into passerbys in his haste to be somewhere else. "What happened?" a stout little lady shrilled.

"Somebody just tried to kill Chris Larabee!"

Mary dashed out of her office. "Where?" she cried to the panicked shopkeeper.

"The saloon!"

A crowd of spectators already flocked in front of the establishment as Mary arrived. Travis pushed her way through the throng and dipped under the saloon's swinging doors, pausing to take stock of the situation around her. Not just Chris Larabee, it seemed that every man in the bar was trying to kill one another. The main floor of the tavern rolled with combatants and chaos. The western frontier was no stranger to bar fights, but this one seemed riotous even so. Sheesh, if town had been this exciting before, Mary wouldn't have had to run out to the wilderness to chase stories

CRASH! Mary ducked as the chair flew over her head and splintered against the wall. She began to straighten, but immediately fell back to the floorboards as a scrawny man in a green shirt sailed above her. The man hit the ground and tumbled out underneath the saloon's batwing doors.

The Clarion reporter sprang quickly back to her feet, lest she be trampled by the body of tussling men. She sidled along the back wall away from the action as possible, mentally noting the scene unfolding in the drinking house so she could write it out later.

Mary scanned the rumble for any of the seven protectors of this town. There was Buck, slugging it out with a bull-necked rancher until JD came and broke a chair over the man's back. Josiah was here too, tossing men around as though they were stones. The riot was thick with participants. Mary dodged a dusty body skidding across the floor and realized that she probably shouldn't be in the tavern right now.

But there, next to the bar, there was Chris Larabee. He was currently kicking in the head of a couple of grungy drifters. Mary didn't usually see the dark gunfighter involved in common bar fights. More frequently he was the one who settled any drinking fracases. Larabee, slinging the second of the two drifters over his shoulder, looked up and noticed the Clarion editor standing along the back wall. He yelled something at her that Mary couldn't hear and began to make his way over, but the first drifter had recovered enough to snatch the gunfighter's ankle and pull him to a knee.

Mary felt a pang of concern before she bristled. Had he been coming over to protect her, or to tell her that she shouldn't be anywhere near this fight? Let the man try, Mary thought as she steeled herself and delved deeper into the saloon.

A flash of red across the room caught Mary's attention. Claire Danae, Mary mentally growled at the brown-haired reporter, the scarf in her hair waving like a flag as she ducked between two men to get out of the way of their fists. Of course. This saloon fight was just the sort of gimmicky headline that the cub reporter chased. Mary felt a slight pang of hypocrisy as she began trying to count the number of men involved, ducking a shotglass that flew by and shattered against the wall. Tiny shards of glass ricocheted into Mary's hair. Claire Danae smiled snidely from the opposite end of the bar, until Buck was shoved backwards by a shifty Mexican and knocked into the Post reporter. She stumbled into a table, spilling its content to the floor. Mary couldn't resist a satisfied "hmph".

How had the fight started? A table flipped as a man with a rough-looking mien toppled over it, sending diamonds, spades and chips into the air. Perhaps a poker game had enflamed the ruckus, an accusation of cheating, maybe? Mary looked around the room and spied Ezra Standish, holding his own against a tall, scrawny cowboy. The Southerner was usually fairly adept at avoid gambling scuffles, though.

Buck had slugged the shifty Mexican in the face, knocking him tottering backward. Mary quickly stuck her foot into the lumbering hombre's path, and the Mexican fell on his back. Buck spared a nod, but a random elbow flying out and hitting him in the ribs precluded any conversation.

A cadre of interlocked combatants rolled by close enough for their sweat to fleck off onto Mary. The blonde reporter picked her way further along the wall, deeper into the saloon, wondering what the heck she was getting herself into. Then she found out when a dandy in fancy duds who was swinging at everything around him with his eyes closed stumbled into her radius. She squealed and ducked the flying fists, but thankfully a hand grabbed the dandy by the shoulder, swung him around and punched him clear over a railing.

Mary gulped the breath she'd been holding. "Thank you, Vin."

The tracker nodded. "You really shouldn't be in the middle of this, Mary." He grabbed her arm and pulled her aside as another body barreled across the floor. The flying man missed Mary and Vin, but continued his uncontrollable flight along the saloon. He bumped into Claire Danae, who sat to the floor with a huff.

"You're right about that, Mr. Tanner," Mary agreed under her breath. "But I think I'm too far in to get out now."

The explosive boom of gunshots froze the saloon as though one of the Post's photographs. Whose gun had fired the shots? Mary's eyes hurried around the room, and her heart began to race when she realized that she didn't see Chris anywhere.

"They came from outside," Vin said, beginning to push his way through the crowd to the doors. Mary followed, and soon everyone was filing out the batwings into the street.

The two unsavory-looking drifters that Chris had been fighting lay in the street, unmoving. Chris stood over the two. Even as people began moving to circle and gape at the scene, Mary noted the revolver lying in the dust just feet away from one of the drifters, the Colt grasped by the still hand of the second man, and the smoking barrel of Larabee's gun.

Nathan Jackson pushed his way through the crowd, winded but otherwise seemingly uninjured by the brawl. The former medic quickly took appraisal of the situation and knelt to take the pulse of the drifters.

"They're dead," Nathan declared.

Suddenly this bar fight had become front page news! Mary felt a surge of excitement, suppressing the guilt which assailed her for experiencing the morbid emotion. The gunshot on the street had dispersed the saloon like dew in the midafternoon sun and the town's peacekeepers now gathered by the dead men to discuss their identity. Wishing she had not left pencil and paper back at her office, the Clarion reporter stepped up to the seven lawmen. So did Claire Danae.

They spoke in tandem: "Gentlemen, I want to talk with you!"

Travis shot an irritated glance at Claire, which the curly-haired brunette returned. The Post reporter was out of breath, flushed and disheveled from the fight, but exhilaration brightened her green eyes. Exhilaration and determination.

Steeled by a firm resolve of her own, Mary turned back to the seven peacekeepers to find all but two regarding the female reporters with bemused expressions on their faces. Chris, his gun now holstered, wore a grim frown while Ezra, brushing dust off his sleeves, glowered in Claire's direction. The Post reporter scowled back before turning to the other men with a friendly smile, pulling a pencil from behind her ear and setting it to her notepad.

"If I may have a word, gentlemen," she spoke, "how did the fight start?"

"Gentlemen," Mary broke in hastily, "perhaps you could tell me who these two men were?"

Bemused expressions vanished as the lawmen realized they were going to have to choose between the two newspaperwomen, and a look of collective consternation crossed their features.

"I, uh, only came in after it started . . ." Josiah excused.

"They rode in last night. I don't know . . ." Vin explained.

" . . . but I was clear on the other side of the saloon," Buck apologized.

They all spoke as one, saying absolutely nothing in the process. Nathan was spared his input as he lent grateful assistance to the recently arrived undertaker. Then JD, shuffling his feet in the dust and scuffing fingers through his shag of dark hair, inadvertently dropped the relevant information.

". . . first time I saw 'em was when they jumped Chris," the young sheriff said.

Mary had already reasoned that an attack on the gunslinger had instigated the brawl, but Claire's eyes were wide and appalled as she turned to Larabee, who had been ignoring the two reporters and now nudged one of the dead men with his boot.

"They tried to kill you?" Claire indicated the drifters with her pencil. "Why?"

Chris watched Nathan and the undertaker load the first body into the undertaker's cart. "Thought I would make them famous." Directing a baleful glare over his shoulder at the Post reporter, "Wonder what gave them that idea," he said dryly.

The reference to the Larabee's headline article soured Mary's excitement for the story. Her first instinct had been to latch on to Chris and drag as many details of the fight as she could out of him, but now . . . let the gunfighter give his exclusive story to that Danae woman, Mary couldn't care less. There were six other peacekeepers, not to mention the saloon's other patrons, who could give Travis a clear picture of what had happened.

Mary turned her back on Larabee and the Post reporter, only to be faced with a gleeful Buster Hedgecock taking big, blustering strides up to the scene, the photographer Tom Poppin lugging his equipment behind the editor.

"No, no, you can't take them away yet!" Hedgecock hollered to the undertaker. Then to Poppin: "Hurry up and take a photograph, we've got to get this story to press immediately." The undertaker cast a puzzled glance at Nathan, who rolled his eyes and shook his head. The two men continued to clear the bodies off the street, much to Buster's dismay.

Hedgecock's bear-like photographer, however, seemed to take everything in stride. The immediate opportunity for a photograph passed, Poppin - quickly despite his deceptively leisurely attitude - managed to persuade Jackson and the undertaker to pause long enough to record an image of the deceased drifters as they lay in the cart. Then he turned his bulky camera to face the saloon. Compelled by her necessity to render the scene with words rather than through image, Mary's gaze flowed past the photographer to survey the wreckage overflowing from the drinking house. Debris, visible though the batwing doors, spilled out beneath them, littering the boardwalk with broken chair legs, trampled cards, spilled beer and shattered glass.

"It's a mess," Mary heard Claire behind her comment to Hedgecock.

"No," Buster replied with relish, "it's a gold mine."