Tight Spot by The Neon Gang

Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the multi-media zine, A Small Circle of Friends #12, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of our zines that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Sierra Chaves and Mary Fallon Zane are the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Deyna Greywolf, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Karson Raine, Nina Talbot, Kacey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 6-13-2008. Art by Shiloh

Authors' Note: this story was a 2007 birthday fic for Tonny, one of the June birthdays. Happy Birthday, Tonny! We hope you enjoy it. The story is based on the Soldier of Fortune, Inc. episode "Tight Spot" – one we have been hoping to recycle into a Mag 7 story for quite a while now. Our thanks go out to Patricia Grace, Michelle Fortado and Erica Michaels for all their help and support. And, to the rest of the Gang, another thank-you for suggestions and encouragement. We've never tried co-writing before, but this was a great experience for both of us and we look forward to doing it again, real soon!

Four Corners

Thursday afternoon
Josiah rode slowly into town, his gaze sweeping over people and buildings, assuring himself that nothing out of the ordinary had happened since he'd left town on Monday. Of course Chris and Vin had been there, so it was likely they had taken care of anything that might have come up since then, but he still felt a little anxious for some reason.

He shook his head, silently chiding himself over his worry. Things had been relatively quiet the last few months, the arrival of more settlers helping to drive off more of the proverbial "bad elements."

Glancing around again, he allowed himself a small smile as he nodded greetings to some of the passersby. Yep, the town was growing, and it gave him a warm feeling to know he had a small part in that. It was a balm to his soul, which wasn't nearly so weary as it had once been. But he knew that had more to do with the men who had become his brothers than it did the town itself, but that helped some, too.

He stopped at the livery, turning the care of his weary gelding over to Tiny, who welcomed him back with a big smile and a friendly handshake. Once that was done, Josiah headed straight over to the saloon to get himself a drink and something to eat. Having ridden nearly all day, he was hungry and thirsty, not to mention tired.

Walking into the dimly lit building, he paused for a moment, allowing his eyes to adjust and then glanced around, immediately spotting Nathan at one of the tables, working on one of Inez's tasty burritos. His mouth already watering, Josiah walked over and took a seat across from his friend, asking curiously, "So, boy or girl?"

Nathan grinned, his eyes dancing with contentment. "Both."

"Twins?" Josiah asked, his own eyes rounding with surprise. "But she's such a tiny little thing…"

The healer nodded. "Yep, she sure is, but both of 'em are just fine. A bit on the small side, but she's got milk for 'em both so they ought ta put some weight on right quick. And, before ya ask, Mrs. Cranmer's doin' fine, too. Can't say the same for Mr. Cranmer, though."

"Oh?" Josiah asked, knowing it couldn't be anything serious or Nathan would still be out at the Cranmer's homestead.

"Yeah… He's got a knot on the back of his head the size of an egg…" He grinned. "Fainted dead away soon as he saw there was two of 'em."

That put a toothy smile on the former priest's face as he chuckled delightedly – twins… That would be fun… "Well, ol' Jason never did take a surprise too well… But that's good news, Nathan, real good news."

Nathan nodded, then asked quietly, "And your sister?"

"Over her fever," Josiah told him, with a nod. He'd been more than a little scared for her when he'd first gotten there, but she'd pulled through, even experiencing a brief period of lucidness just after it broke. It had meant a lot to him to be able to talk to her then, to tell her how much he loved her. And she'd smiled at him, blinking back tears, and told him she had always known that, even when she hadn't known anything else.

The healer nodded, looking genuinely happy for the man. "That's good new, too, Josiah."

Inez spotted Josiah as she came out of the kitchen and she smiled her welcome to him. He pointed at Nathan's plate and her smile widened and she stepped back into the kitchen to make him one as well.

"The others get back?" Josiah asked as he waited for his meal.

Nathan chewed and swallowed before he answered. "Ezra, Buck and JD got in yesterday afternoon," he told him. "Chris and Vin are still gone."

Josiah scowled. "Chris and Vin are gone?"

Nathan nodded. "Yeah, ya know what they're doin'?"

Josiah shook his head. "Left 'em here to keep an eye on things after I got the wire from the sisters on Monday morning; I was gone by mid-morning. They didn't have any plans to leave – just the opposite, in fact."

Nathan frowned. "I got back yesterday 'bout this time, and they was gone. Saw Mary and she said they'd left after noon on Monday. Said she didn't know why either."

Josiah shook his head and shrugged. "I have no idea what they'd be doing. You ask around?" he questioned as Inez arrived with his dinner and a mug of beer.

"Nope," Nathan replied, "but I reckon we'd better."

"Just as soon as I eat," Josiah added. "I'm starved."

Nathan nodded his understanding. Whatever was going on, it could keep for a few more minutes – it wouldn't take the big man much longer than that to make short work of his dinner.

Josiah took a big bite, his eyes closing as he chewed, a low, soft moan escaping him. Nathan chuckled, enjoying the other man's obvious pleasure. "Yep," he said, "she sure makes 'em tasty, don't she?"

"Heavenly," the former preacher agreed.

Friday morning, early

The five peacekeepers had just finished their breakfasts when they heard the telltale sounds of a stagecoach rolling down the main street of town.

Buck was the first one to look up, frowning. "Ain't they runnin' a mite early?"

"About five hours early, yes," Ezra acknowledged, adding, "Quite unusual, actually – unless, of course, this was yesterday's stage, just now arriving – late, as usual." He grinned, slightly amused by his own wit.

The others grinned, except their young sheriff.

"Think I better go over and see what's goin' on," JD said, wiping his mouth on his napkin and standing.

"They'll come get us if there's a reason," Buck told him.

JD hesitated for a moment, but his own curiosity got the better of him and he started for the bat-wing doors. But before he could reach them, they were shoved open and Judge Orin Travis stepped into the saloon. His gaze fell on JD first, then he looked past the young sheriff to the other men who were still seated at the table. "Gentlemen," he greeted them, walking over to the table to join them. JD trailed him back, slipping into his seat, determined to finish off the last two biscuits, if possible.

"Mornin', Judge," Buck greeted the older man, gesturing for him to take one of the two empty seats at the table – places that had been saved in case Chris and Vin had showed up to join them.

"What brings you to–?" Ezra began.

"Chris and Vin have been captured," Travis stated without preamble.

"Captured?" Josiah repeated, setting his knife and fork down. "By who?"

Travis heaved a long sigh and glanced around the saloon to make sure they couldn't be overheard and were alone. When he was sure they were, he took one of the two empty seats at the table and said quietly, "On Monday I asked Chris and Vin to meet someone in Mesa Ridge and escort them to Bent Copper."

"Why?" JD asked.

Travis shot the boy a hard look, but then relented and said, "Ever since that incident with Stutz, I and a few others have been keeping our eyes on Governor Hopewell. The depth of the corruption the man's involved with is nothing short of astounding. I've been working with a special commission, gathering evidence that can be used to remove Hopewell from the governorship and consign him to Yuma Prison – for life."

"Must be some evidence," Buck replied, looking rightfully impressed.

Travis nodded. "I asked Chris and Vin to deliver the last, and most important witness, to Bent Copper. When they didn't arrive on Wednesday morning, as we expected, I sent out some wires. They were captured. Evidently Hopewell's uncovered what we're doing and he's trying to stop us, although I think it's already too late for that."

"Do you know where they are?"

"I do," Travis replied with a single nod. "They're being held at Ft. Gila."

"A military post?" Buck questioned.

Travis nodded. "The fort commander, Colonel Jacob Milton, is a longtime friend of Hopewell's, and he's more than likely aware of our Governor's dealings. He might even be part of some of them."

"Jacob Milton…" Buck echoed, his brow furrowing with concentration. "Where have I heard that name before?"

"I remember a General Milton being tried for the murder of a lot of Indians up in the Oregon Territory," Josiah supplied. "If I recall, it was a group of Blackfeet he'd found camped along the Snake River between Ft. Bosie and Ft. Hall. He ordered his soldiers to kill them all… It was a massacre."

Travis nodded again. "You remember correctly, Mr. Sanchez. Milton claimed the Indians were preparing to ambush his troops, who were transporting supplies from Ft. Hall to Ft. Bosie."

"But it wasn't true?" JD asked, a little confused about what all this had to do with Chris and Vin going missing.

"The dead turned out to be mostly women and children," the Judge explained.

"And old men," Josiah added, then his voice dropped and he said, "The women were violated; some of the children as well. And the old men were tortured before they were killed. It was brutal… evil."

Travis nodded, his lips pressed into a thin line of disapproval. "Milton was stripped of his command at Ft. Hall and sent back to Washington for a military trial. Hopewell was the young lawyer who defended him. When it was over, Milton married Hopewell's eldest sister."

"Why isn't he in prison?" Nathan asked.

Travis shook his head. "He was convicted on a lesser charge, thanks to Hopewell's efforts, reduced in rank to colonel and sent back to the west to fight against the Comanche."

"He's a butcher," Josiah stated. "He should have been convicted for the atrocities he committed. If Chris and Vin are in his hands…"

"Yes, Mr. Sanchez, I couldn't agree more, but, unfortunately, that's not the way it happened. However, I want them out of there," Travis said. "As you know, I have no authority over the Army, so I can't help you do this… officially, in any case."

The others nodded their understanding.

"Don't you worry, Judge," Buck assured the man, "if they're in Ft. Gila, we'll get 'em out – one way or the other."

"I'm counting on it. I need to find out what happened to the witness they were escorting."

Nathan looked a little upset about that. "That more important to you than Chris and Vin?"

"Of course not," Travis snapped. "But it's important that the witness talk to the commission. It will seal Hopewell's fate."

The peacekeepers nodded their understanding.

"How soon can you be ready to leave?" Travis asked them.

"Give us an hour," Buck said.

Ft. Gila, Arizona Territory

Late Tuesday night

A detachment of soldiers arrived at the fort, stopping outside the closed gate. Someone inside lifted the iron rod that secured the main entrance of the compound and two privates swung open the gates, allowing them to ride in to the compound leading two black geldings with riders.

Chris and Vin sat on their horses, both of them bound, gagged and blindfolded.

Once the horses came to a stop, more soldiers came out to meet the detachment. They untied the prisoners and dragged the two peacekeepers off their horses, beating and kicking them until they lay unmoving, and a voice called out, "That's enough. Take them to the stockade."

The huffing soldiers reached down and roughly grabbed hold of the two unconscious men, dragging them to the stockade and tossing them into separate cells, then removing their clothing and boots.

They walked away, leaving the two men lying sprawled on the cold stone floor to wait for consciousness to return.

Four Corners

Friday morning

The five peacekeepers stood around the desk in the jail, packing their saddlebags. Nathan added extra bandages, herbs and carbolic to each man's supplies, just in case. Josiah, Ezra and JD each loaded extra ammunition. Buck packed his saddlebags with sticks of dynamite. A spool of fuse was sitting on the desktop, ready to be tied to his saddle.

"Anyone got an idea how we're going to spring Chris and Vin from that fort?" JD asked them.

"Well, the soldiers aren't going to recognize any authority except that of the Army, and perhaps not even that if they're loyal to Colonel Milton," Ezra put in.

"We'll think of something," Josiah assured the younger man. "We'll have a couple of days to think of something before we get there."

"Guess they thought doin' this favor for the Judge would be easy," JD said to no one in particular. He shook his head sadly.

"It's always the easy ones that'll get your private parts caught in a twist," Buck said on a sigh. He gestured to the remaining sticks of dynamite on the desktop. "Hand me those, will ya, Josiah?"

"Certainly, brother," came the reply. "Think you'll have enough?"

"For what?" Ezra asked, looking more than a little nervous about the explosives. "There is more than enough there to blow the entire Territory back to the Atlantic seaboard."

Buck just grinned and wagged his eyebrows. "Hope so."

Ezra shook his head. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you were looking forward to this, Mr. Wilmington."

The ladies' man grinned. "Hell, Ezra, you know me, I just like a good fight."

"Yes, well, I also seem to recall you claim that you do not appreciate 'ugly,' Mr. Wilmington, and this, my friends, could very well end up quite ugly if Governor Hopewell knows he's under investigation."

"Don't care if he knows or not," Buck replied, his voice edged with a cold determination they rarely heard. "Judge Travis says Chris and Vin are in Ft. Gila… I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm plannin' on gettin' 'em out. The rest will take care of itself."

"We hear you, Buck," Nathan said, nodding. "Our first priority is Chris and Vin."

Josiah nodded as well. "Amen, brother. Once we have them out safely, then we can worry about Hopewell."

"And he's already got plenty of ugly in his pocket," Buck replied.

Ezra grinned. "And if those blue-bellies give us any trouble?"

"Then we'll just have to teach the Army a lesson about which side they're supposed to be on," JD concluded with an air of finality.

"Amen, brother," Josiah replied, grinning as he clapped the smaller man on the back. "Amen."

"Plannin' on gettin' a little payback?" Buck asked the southerner.

Ezra feigned an air of innocence as he replied, "Why, whatever do you mean, Buck?"

The former Union soldier just grinned and shook his head. But he pitied the poor fool who got in the gambler's way.

Ft. Gila Stockade

Late Tuesday night

In their separate cells, both men lay unconscious from the beatings they'd survived for several hours. Vin was the first to wake, shifting and groaning as he slowly came around.

The first thing that struck him was the damp, biting cold. In fact, it felt like he was freezing. That alone forced him to sit up as he tried to minimize his contact with the frigid stone floor he'd been lying on.

The next thing to register was the darkness – deep and foreboding. It had been nighttime when they'd arrived at the fort, and it was nighttime now, but he wasn't sure if it was the same night, or the next.

The third thing that hit him was the pain. He ached, everywhere, but he knew he had no broken bones to worry about. He couldn't be so sure about his insides.

"Chris?" he called quietly, squinting to peer around his cell, looking for the other man.

There was a soft moan in reply, then a raspy, "Vin?"

"Yeah, 'm here," Tanner said, a thin smile on his puffy lips. It sounded like Larabee was just waking up from a real bender. "Y' okay?"

"Yeah… think so," was the reply, followed by, "just cold. Damn cold."

Vin nodded, not thinking about the fact Chris couldn't see him. Looking down at himself, he realized he'd been stripped down to his long johns, and his boots and socks were missing as well. He guessed Chris was in similar circumstances. Damn, it was no wonder he was so cold…



"You hurt?"

"Nothin' t' worry on. You?"


Vin nodded. Well, that was something. It was a good bet Hopewell had figured out they were onto him, and he'd apparently taken steps to cover some of his tracks. "Reckon they'll be lookin' fer us?"

"Lookin', yeah," Chris agreed. "Ain't so sure about the findin' part, though."

That brought a small smile to Vin's lips. "Hell, Larabee, y' sound as sour as an' ol' widow-woman." That prompted a soft chuckle from the man in the other cell.

"Well, ya found me once… guess they can do it again."

"Ah hell…" Vin mumbled.


"Last time they had me along t' show 'em what t' do."

That caused a snort from the other man. "Tanner, you're full of shit, you know that?"

Vin smiled and started to reply, but he bit it back and frowned. "Y' hear that?"



The two men fell silent and, a few seconds later, the distant sound of boot steps reached the gunman. "Shit, how do you do that?"

"Must be part jackrabbit," Vin said quietly.

"Reckon you're right."

They waited in silence, and, before too long, they heard the door to the stockade squeak as it was pulled open. Three men appeared, coming toward them down the long hallway. The one leading the way was carrying a lantern and both peacekeepers squinted against the brightness until their eyes adjusted.

The one holding the lantern was older than the other two, tall and broad-shouldered. His silver-grey hair stood out in the glow of the lamp. As he reached the cells they could see from his insignia that he was a colonel in the US Cavalry.

Both of the peacekeepers stood before the men reached their cells, determined to be on their feet to meet whatever was coming next.

"What the hell's going on here, Colonel?" Larabee demanded. He was cold, hungry and thirsty. And he wasn't in any mood to play games.

"You will speak only when spoken to, prisoner," the officer snarled, glowering at Larabee. "You understand?"

Oh, he understood all right. The blond had spent time as a prisoner before, and he hadn't liked it, not one little bit. Larabee didn't reckon he was going to care much for it this time, either.

"I'm Colonel Jacob Milton, and you men are prisoners in Ft. Gila, Arizona Territory."

"On what charge?" Chris couldn't help insisting.

"Treason," Milton replied, enjoying the twin looks of surprise his announcement prompted.

"Like hell," Larabee snapped, the charge angering him. "We're peacekeepers, from Four Corners. We're paid by Judge Orin Travis to keep that town safe. We're no traitors."

"No, sir, you are not peacekeepers, not any more, anyway," Milton told him, the hard glint in his dark eyes sending a chill racing down Chris' back. He'd had some experience with sadistic prison wardens, but this man made the Warden look like an amateur. "Now you're nothing more than prisoners – my prisoners." His gaze shifted from Chris to Vin. "And this one here looks more like a renegade off some reservation than a man, a peacekeeper. That true, breed?"

Vin refused to be baited. He simply stared back at the colonel, his chin up, his eyes defiant.

Milton replied to the silence with a sharp smile that quickly disappeared. "You're just prisoners, my prisoners… for as long as I decide to keep you alive."

"You can't just kill us," Chris challenged the officer.

"I can do any damn thing I please!" Milton bellowed back at him.

"We need food, and water, and some blankets," Larabee told him, his own voice rising as well. He knew there was absolutely no reason for the Army to be interested in him, or in Vin. Not unless the colonel had something to do with Hopewell's dealing, in which case he and Vin were in more trouble than he'd thought.

"You'll get what I want you to have, prisoner, when I want you to have it." And with that Milton turned and stalked off back down the hall, the two privates trailing after him.

"We need food, water and blankets!" Larabee yelled after them, but there was no reply. "Damn it," he hissed. He was already so thirsty he could barely spit. It was the water he wanted most, but it didn't look like he was going to get it.

Friday, on the trail

The remaining five peacekeepers had pushed their mounts as hard as they dared all day, trying to reach the small community of Mesa Ridge before nightfall. The horses were tired, the pace set over the day grueling for both man and beast. So when the lights of the small town came into view, each of the men let a small sigh of relief escape his lips.

As they had traveled, they had tried to come up with a way inside an Army fort, but nothing anyone had suggested had held up as they'd continued to examine it. It was frustrating, and worrisome.

But the most chilling comment of all had come from JD when he'd innocently commented, "Hell, we don't even know if they're still alive."

"We have to assume they are," Ezra had countered, his face having gone a little pale over the all-too-real possibility.

"Damn right we do," Buck had added, and that had put a stop to the conversation. The last two hours of the ride had then passed in silence.

Several minutes later, they rode into Mesa Ridge, heading straight to the livery at the edge of town and dismounting. After freeing their saddlebags, they paid for the care of their horses and then headed, as a group, to the hotel to procure themselves three rooms. Buck and JD took one, Nathan and Josiah the second. Ezra, opting to pay a little more for his privacy, and a soak in a hot bath, paid for the third.

After grabbing a meal at the only restaurant in the small town, they headed for the saloon, each man ordering himself a drink, which they sat and sipped at a table toward the rear of the establishment. Ezra scanned the two groups of men seated at tables and playing poker, but made no move to join either of the two games.

JD finished his beer, then excused himself and walked down to the telegraph office where he found a wire waiting for them from Mary Travis. After paying for it, he carried it back to the others, sliding back into his seat before opening it and reading it aloud to the others.

"Mary says… Our friends alive and where expected. Hope to see them home soon."

"So, they're still in Ft. Gila," Ezra said softly, taking the telegram from JD and looking it over himself. "Any ideas, gentlemen?"

Buck shrugged. "Like usual, I reckon…"

"By the seat of our pants?" Nathan asked.

The gambler rolled his eyes. "That, my good fellows, is an excellent way for someone to end up dead."

"Might be the best we can do until we get a look at the place," Josiah reasoned. "Once we get there, then maybe we'll be able to spot a hole in their security. Every fort has one."

"Sounds like the voice of experience there, Josiah," Buck returned with a grin.

The former preacher gave a slight tilt of his head as he said, "My father preached in more of 'em than I could count… I, on the other hand, had more… earthly interests at the time."

"Sounds like there's some good stories to be told," Nathan said, amusement clear in his dark brown eyes.

Josiah nodded, a slight grin on his lips. "Yes, I suppose there are… But they'll have to wait for another time – when we're all together again."

Ezra checked his pocket watch, then reached out and picked up his drink, finishing the remainder in a single swallow. "Gentlemen, my bath should be waiting. I will see you all in the morning, when we break our fast."

"You're takin' a bath?" JD asked him. "But we're gonna have another day just like today tomorrow…"

Ezra issued a long-suffering sigh, then said, "Just because one plans to expose himself to the dusty grime of the wilderness doesn't mean one cannot partake of the particular benefits of civilization when they're available."

"Huh?" JD responded.

"He'll just take another bath again tomorrow," Josiah translated.

"Oh," JD said, then looked up at the gambler, frowning. "Well, whatever ya want," he said. "Just seems like a waste of money to me."

"Yes, I can tell," Ezra replied, heading off.

JD's frown deepened. "Did he just—?"

"Say ya stink?" Buck finished for the younger man. "Yep, I think so."

"I do not!" Dunne retorted, noticing the amused expressions on the other men's faces. "Well, no more than the rest of you!" he added.

"Maybe we oughtta go see if we can borrow that tub when Ezra's finished," Nathan said.

Buck grinned, spotting a pretty little redhead coming down the stairs of the saloon for the evening. "Mmm, I'd rather borrow hers," he said.

"You don't even know if she has one," JD argued.

"Something that pretty… she must," Buck said, pushing up and starting over to the woman. Within moments they were cozied up to the bar, sharing drinks, their heads bent toward one another.

JD shook his head. "Sure don't see why they always do that," he muttered.

"What, you don't think it's his animal magnetism?" Josiah asked.

"Heck no, Josiah," JD replied. "I'm thinkin' maybe he pays 'em to act like that when one of us is around to see it."

Nathan and Josiah exchanged amused glances.

"Betcha I'll be sleeping alone in my room tonight," JD added, then sighed.

"I'm gonna go find out about that bath," Nathan said, standing.

"I'll come with you, brother," Josiah told him. "Between the two of us, we might be able to roust Ezra out before the water's completely cold."

JD didn't watch the two men leave, his concentration on Buck as he and the redhead started for the stairs. When they disappeared at the top, he shook his head, then picked up the telegram and stuffed it into his pocket and stood. Looking down at his dust-coated clothes, he frowned. "Wonder what a bath costs here anyway," he mumbled as he headed out of the saloon.

Ft. Gila, Thursday night

Larabee stood at the bars of his cell and yelled, demanding food and water for him and Vin. He rattled the bars as hard as he could, and called out louder, but there was still no response, not even a call for him to shut up.

After a while, Larabee sat back down on the cold floor, leaning back against an equally cold cell wall.

"I want some damn water," Chris said on a sigh. "Hell, even that hole in Jericho gave us water, and one lousy meal a day. It's already been two full days…"

"Me, I'd like a blanket," Vin replied from where he sat, leaning back against the same wall as Larabee was. He was cold all the way down to his bones.

"Didn't even leave a bucket to piss in," Larabee grumbled. "Bastards."

In his cell, Vin grinned thinly. "Hell, with no food or water, don't reckon we'll be needin' one, do you?"

The tracker heard Chris snort softly in reply. "Reckon you might be right about that." After a few moments passed, he asked, "You have any ideas about gettin' out of here?"

Vin thought for a moment. "Y' mean 'sides feet first?"

Another soft snort. "Yeah, beside that, I mean."

"Nope. You?"

"Same as you."


"Yep, that about sums it up."

"Somebody's comin'," Vin said, his voice going quiet.

A moment later they heard the squeak as the door to the stockade was pulled open.

"How the hell do you do that?" Larabee asked the tracker.

Vin just grinned in his cell. If it was Colonel Milton again, it would be the first they had seen of the man in forty-eight hours. For a while, the tracker had wondered if the colonel planned to let them die slowly of thirst and hunger.

And it was indeed the colonel, along with two more soldiers, both of them carrying wooden buckets.

"I hear you're demanding water," Milton said.

Larabee glowered up at the man, but he refused to beg.

"Soldier," Milton snapped and the private standing in front of the blond's cell tossed the contents of the bucket onto Chris, soaking his long johns with cold well water.

Larabee sucked in a sharp breath as the biting cold assaulted him, then scrambled back away from the bars and shot to his feet. With a growled curse, he threw himself at the bars, reaching for the soldier through them, determined to tear the man's head off if he grabbed him.

The private quickly scrambled back out of reach, then stepped over to the other cell, drawing his sidearm to cover Vin while the second private opened his cell door, then went in to set his bucket down inside the cell.

As soon as he was done, he stepped back and closed the door again.

Milton grinned at the soaking wet peacekeeper. "Gonna be a cold night, prisoner," he said, then turned and stepped over to Vin's cell. The tracker hadn't moved from where he sat. The colonel studied him for a moment, then grunted.

"Don't have much to say, do you, breed?"

Vin remained silent.

Chris waited until Milton wasn't watching him, then dropped to the stone floor of the cell, using the material of his shirt to soak up as much water from the floor as he could, sucking it greedily out of the material.

"Your friend's very… thirsty," the colonel said, not needing to see the man to know what it was he was doing. He smiled, enjoying the sound of Larabee's desperation.

"So am I," Vin replied. "We been three days with no food or water." He didn't need to mention that they had been three unbearably hot days, and three freezing cold nights.

Milton nodded. "I want to know where the woman is, and who sent you to her."

"Don't know what yer talkin' about," Vin said, staring at the wall across from him.

"Oh, you'll tell me, breed," the colonel said. "Sooner or later, you'll tell me everything." Milton turned on his heel and left, the two soldiers trailing obediently after him.

When he heard the door to the stockade close, Vin moved, scooting over to the bucket and lifting the lid. It was half full of water. He dipped his hand in, scooping out mouthful after mouthful, until he grew frustrated and finally grabbed the sides of the bucket and lifted it to his lips, gulping down nearly half of what was there before he could stop himself.

When he finished, he scooted over to the corner where the bars met the wall. "Here, I got some more."

Chris looked up, the light of hope reaching his eyes as he heard Vin dip his hand into the water. A moment later that same hand appeared in front of the bars of Larabee's cell. He reached out, trying to guide Vin's hand close enough for him to drink from his hand, but it was impossible. He reached out, cupping his hand under Vin's. "Okay, pour it into my hand."

Vin did, and Chris pulled his hand in and sucked the tiny amount down. They spent nearly an hour like that, Vin passing mouthfuls of the precious liquid to the blond until, finally, his bucket was empty.

Then, weak from the lack of food and water, they each leaned back against their shared wall, resting. A moment later, Tanner heard the sounds of Larabee's teeth chattering.

"Soaked y' good, didn't he?"

"Bastard," the gunman snarled, pulling the sodden shirt off and hanging it on the cross bar so it might dry. He pulled his legs up and hugged his arms over his naked chest, curling forward to try and conserve whatever body heat he could.

Vin sat for a while, trying to figure out some way for them to get out, but there was nothing. The bars were solid, the windows too high to reach and too small to crawl through, even if they did find some way to get past the bars.

The locks on the cell doors were well maintained, too, and there wasn't a damn thing in his cell he could use against the lock. He shivered, knowing Chris must be considerably colder, due to the soaking. Still, he couldn't help but murmur, "So damn cold…"

"Gotta find a way out of here," Chris said, sounding stronger now that he'd finally gotten some water.


"Hell if I know, but I'm not going to let this bastard win."

Vin nodded. He understood what Chris was saying. He didn't want to let the bastard win either, but right now Milton was holding all the cards.

Ft. Gila, Friday night

The two peacekeeper were both dozing when Milton arrived.

Two different soldiers were with him this time, and one of them unlocked Chris' cell, gesturing with his gun for Larabee to stand.

Once the blond was on his feet, the two soldiers escorted him out of his cell and down the hallway.

"Where y' takin' him?" Vin demanded.

"Don't worry, breed, you'll get your turn," Milton assured him smoothly, then turned and followed after his men.

"Colonel!" Vin bellowed. "Y' better not kill 'im!"

But the only reply he got was laughter.

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

Once outside the stockade, the two soldiers stopped Chris, binding his hands in front of him and then blindfolding him. Once that was accomplished they led him away.

"Where are you taking me?" Larabee demanded, but the men didn't reply. "Where are we going?" he tried again, getting the same results.

After a short walk they took Chris into another building. He stumbled on a rough-hewn wooden floor and was pushed into a chair. He raised his hands, striking his wrist on the edge of a thick wooden table.

A few moments later he heard someone else enter the room, the sound of heavy footfalls telling him someone had taken a seat across from him at the table. That had to be Milton.

"I want some water," he said, his voice as raspy as Vin's usually was.

"After you've answered my questions," the colonel stated.

"Need water to do that," Chris countered.


"Nothin' to tell," Chris replied. "Just a peacekeeper."

"What were you doing in Mesa Ridge?"

"We were tracking a couple of men who robbed a local shopkeeper. The trail took us there."

"You're lying," Milton snapped, his palm slapping the tabletop and making Larabee jump slightly. "You're working for someone who wants to bring Governor Hopewall down."

"What? I don't know what you're talkin' about."

"Like hell you don't," the officer sneered.

Chris smiled thinly. "Wasn't there a General Milton once? Heard he was convicted of slaughtering helpless women and children…"

"Yes, well, I have friends, and I won't be in the Army forever. You, however, are going die here."

"So will you," Larabee snarled. "It'll just take a little longer."

"You will tell me what I want to know, boy."

"Go to hell."

Milton stood and walked to a table in the corner of the room. "You keep asking for water…"

"Because I'm thirsty," was Larabee's tart reply.

Milton reached out and lifted a clay pitcher, filling a cup with it. Then he set the pitcher down and picked up the cup sitting next to the one he had just filled. He walked back to the table where Larabee sat. "Tell me your name, and I'll let you have this," he said.

"Larabee. Chris Larabee."

"Open your mouth," Milton instructed.

Chris tilted his head back and opened his mouth.

Milton poured the contents of the cup into the blond's mouth.

Chris gagged, coughed and began spitting out the sand. "Bastard!" he choked. "Give me the damn water!"

Milton smiled at the man. "You're a pathetic excuse of a man, Larabee… and your degradation has just begun." He looked at one of the soldiers in the room. "Given him his water, then take him back to his cell."

Saturday evening

On the trail

Five tired men rode into Red Canyon. They dropped their horses off at the livery and walked down to the first restaurant they found, eating a large meal, accompanied by several cups of coffee.

When they were finished, they paid, then stood and walked to the closest saloon. There they broke up, Buck heading straight to the bar and striking up a conversation with one of the working girls. JD, Nathan and Josiah took seats at a table. The bartender shot the healer an angry look, pointedly ignoring the three men until Josiah finally stood and walked over to the bar, exchanging a few words with the man and bringing back a bottle and three glasses to the table. After a short while, JD wandered to the bar and struck up a conversation with the bartender.

Ezra had made his way over to one of the four poker games being played, joining in with the next hand.

After a couple of hours, the men excused themselves and headed to the hotel, taking rooms for the night. Before they slept, they met in the single room Ezra had taken, exchanging what information they had come up with.

Most interesting was something the saloon girl had passed along to Buck.

"She says the man who knows the most about the fort is a Mr. Troutman. He was part of the work crew that helped build it."

"And where might we find this Mr. Troutman?" Ezra questioned.

"She said he's got himself a farm now, between here and Bent Copper."

"Then it looks like that's our next stop," Josiah said.

Ft. Gila, Saturday night

Vin sat in his cell, hunger gnawing at him. Neither he nor Chris had had anything to eat since just after dawn on Tuesday morning. And he'd only been given water on Thursday night. His body was feeling achy and sluggish, and his head was aching.

It hadn't helped that soldiers had come for him twice so far, beating him and trying to get him to tell them where they had hidden the girl. He closed his eyes and willed his aching ribs to quiet.

It was completely silent in the cell. They had come for Chris about an hour earlier, so there wasn't even the reassurance of the other man's presence to keep him company. He worried about what they might be doing to Larabee, hoping it wasn't what they had done to him. Chris seemed to be suffering more than he was. Vin knew it was because he had gotten used to deprivation while living among the Indians and while a prisoner of war.

He wondered, too, if the others were looking for them, knowing that they must be, but he wasn't sure how they could find them, unless Travis had friends in the Army, and that wasn't impossible. He fervently hoped that the judge did.

A soft scratching noise captured his attention and the tracker cocked his head to the side, listening intently. The sound grew slightly louder and Vin's eyes opened. The large grasshopper was making its way slowly across the cold stone floor of the cell.

Vin moved slowly as well, carefully, easing ever closer to the insect. Then, his hand shot out and he grabbed it, passing it straight into his mouth, biting and swallowing. He didn't care for the taste, but it was better than nothing, and he'd eaten them before while living with the tribes.

The squeal of the outside door opening alerted him to the soldiers returning. He moved back to the wall and leaned back against it, watching. The soldiers were dragging Chris between them, and, surprisingly, they opened Vin's cell door and tossed Larabee in with him, then they left without a word.

Chris pushed himself up onto his hands and knees, then he crawled over so he could sit next to Vin, their shoulders touching.

Before Vin could say anything, the blond slumped against him. He grabbed the man, pulling him in against his chest and wrapping his arms around him.

"Chris, y' hear me?" he called.

"Vin?" Larabee asked, sounding confused.

"'M here," the tracker said.

"Didn't tell 'em anything," Chris whispered. "Didn't give me any water, either," he grumbled. "Don't think we're gonna get out of here… 'cept feet first, pard."

"Yes, we will," Tanner told him, giving him a little shake.

"It all goes t' hell, sooner or later," Larabee continued. "Look at my family…"

"Reckon there's a reason y' survived, Chris… Reckon there's a reason why we all survived as far as we have."

"What would that be?" the blond asked, sounding more than a little skeptical.

"Hell, Chris, I don't know."

That brought a snort from Larabee. Then the man turned serious as he asked, "What keeps you going, Vin?"

Tanner thought about that for a moment, then said, "The look on yer face when I caught yer eyes that first day…"

Chris huffed out a weak laugh and gave a slight nod, letting the tracker know he understood what he was saying, but what he said out loud was, "What? I just didn't want to see some damn store clerk get himself killed."

"Y' really think I was a clerk?" Vin asked, already smiling thinly.

"Must've been that apron…"

That forced a snort from Tanner. "Hated that damn thing…"

"I don't know… looked pretty good on ya."

"Keep it up, Cowboy, I'll kill y' and eat yer liver."

"Like ol' Liver-eatin' Jones?"

"Nope," Tanner said, "he didn't kill 'em first…"

Chris winced. "Guess it's a good thing he found God."

Tanner nodded. "Good fer someone."

"Damn I'm thirsty."

"'M cold," Vin replied.

The two men settled where they were, drawing comfort and warmth from one another as they waited.

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

Some time later, the soldiers returned, dragging Chris out of Vin's cell and taking him back to Milton's office. When Larabee still refused to talk, he was returned to his own cell.

But, just before his cell door was pushed shut, two additional soldiers arrived, each of them carrying a bucket.

But it was Vin's cell that was opened first, one of the privates stepping inside to set the bucket inside, then the door was closed and locked again.

A second private walked into Chris' cell.

"Give me the water," Larabee demanded.

The soldier pulled the lid off and lifted the bucket, pouring a thin stream onto the blond's face. Chris closed his eyes and opened his mouth, gulping down the water.

The soldiers watching laughed and the private stopped, replacing the lid and setting the bucket down on the stone floor. He quickly stepped back out so another man could close and lock the door. He rattled the door, making sure it was locked, then the men turned and walked out without a word.

Vin waited until they were gone, then scooted over and pulled the lid off his bucket. He leaned over and sniffed the water.

It smelled normal.

He dipped his hand into the cold liquid and lifted the water to his lips and sipped.

It tasted normal as well.

"Chris, y' get some water?" he asked, hoping the men hadn't poured it all over Larabee again.

"Yeah," the blond replied, licking his lips and going to the bucket, pulling off the lid. Inside he found a dead rat, floating on the surface of the liquid.

"Son of a bitch," he hissed, turning away and vomiting, the water he'd just consumed coming right back up.

"Chris?" Vin called worriedly.

But Larabee couldn't reply. He continued to heave a few more times, then wiped the back of his hand over his mouth and yelled, "You want to kill me, Colonel?" He waited, knowing somehow that the man could hear him. "You'll have to do better than that!"

And with that he turned back to the bucket, reaching in and grabbing the rat by the tail and lifting it out, throwing it into a corner of his cell. Then he lifted the bucket and drank deeply.


"I'm all right," he said. "Bastards put a dead rat in the bucket."


"Yeah," the blond said, wiping his hand over his mouth again. This time the water stayed put.

"Give it t' me, Chris."


"Give me the rat," Vin told him.

Larabee shivered, but he crawled over and retrieved the dead animal and crawled back to the bars, passing it over to Vin, wishing he could see the man. "What're you gonna do?"

There was no reply, but a short time later he heard a choking sound, then a wet, tearing sound. "Here, eat," Tanner said, his voice a little thick.

A moment later, Larabee saw the man's blood-soaked fingers as he held out a piece of raw meat. "I… I don't think I can…"

"Better 'n dyin' and letting Milton beat us," Tanner said.

He was right. Chris reached through the bars and took the meat, forcing himself to eat it, and the rest Vin handed over to him.

Sunday, on the trail

They found Troutman's farm with help from one of the man's neighbors that they met along the road from Bent Copper.

Riding into the man's yard they tipped their hats to an older woman who was standing out, feeding her chickens.

"Ma'am," Josiah greeted her. "Are you Mrs. Troutman?"

"I am," she replied, looking a little nervous about having five armed men in her yard.

"Madam, we're looking for your husband," Ezra told her. "We'd like to talk to him."

"What about?" she asked.

"Ma'am," JD said, flashing her his best smile. "I'm the sheriff over in Four Corners. We just need to ask him a few questions about Ft. Gila."

"Ft. Gila?" she echoed. "And you say you're a sheriff?"

"Yes, ma'am, he is," Buck said, giving her his best smile. "And we don't want to be a bother to you any longer then we need to. We know you must be busy."

She still looked suspicious. "A few questions take five of you?"

"Well, ma'am, two of us ought to be plenty, if it makes ya worry," Buck agreed.

She nodded. "He's gone out to remove a boulder from a new field," she told them, then pointed the way.

"We're much obliged, ma'am," Buck told her. "Now, if ya like, the three of us would be more 'n happy to help ya with the mornin' chores."

Josiah and Ezra rode out to speak to Mr. Troutman, the other three finding small tasks they could do for the women while they waited. In gratitude, she fixed them coffee and baked them some biscuits, which they ate with freshly churned butter and warm honey.

"This is mighty fine cookin', ma'am," Buck told her.

She blushed prettily and smiled. "Well, I'm glad you like it. You think your friends might be back soon enough to enjoy some while they're still hot?"

"Don't know for sure, ma'am," JD replied, a twinkle in his eye. "But we'd be happy to finish them off if they don't."

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

"There he is," Josiah said, nodding.

Ezra looked. A man just past middle-age was urging a mule, rigged with ropes and a harness, to drag a large stone from a recently turned field. The contrary beast wasn't too happy about his task, but it was slowly getting the work done.

The two men rode slowly up, waiting until the animal finally pulled the stone free and the man could stop and wipe his brow.

"I help you?" he asked the two men.

"We hope so," Josiah replied. "We heard you worked on the construction of Ft. Gila."

The older man's eyes narrowed. "And if I had?"

Josiah and Ezra exchanged a look, then the gambler said, "We have it on the best authority that two friends of ours are being unlawfully detained there by one Colonel Jacob Milton."

"That right?" the man replied, his eyes narrowing slightly.

"Yes, sir, it is," Josiah said.

"Milton's… a zealot," Troutman said, "runs a tight ship."

"Yes, well, that might be so, sir, but we all know that everyone, and everything – like a fort – has its Achilles' heel," Ezra stated. "We're hoping you might be able to help us determine what that might be for Ft. Gila."

The man shook his head. "Can't be done."

"We think it can," Josiah said.

"Boys, I'm busy. I need to get this field ready to seed."

"Sir, we've ridden a long way, and we have no intention of leaving here empty handed," Ezra told him.

"I have nothing to tell you."

"Mr. Troutman," Josiah said, "are you familiar with a circuit judge by the name of Travis?"

"I am," the man replied, looking puzzled. "Served on a jury in his court last year."

Josiah nodded, glad the man had met the judge. "Then you know Judge Travis isn't a man who likes to be frustrated by pig-headed folks."

"You sayin' you're here for Judge Travis?" Troutman questioned.

"You could put it that way," Ezra agreed.

Troutman sighed. He knew Travis was a good man, and a fair judge. He also didn't tolerate anyone who got in his way. "Let's go back to the house," he said.

Ft. Gila, Sunday night

Chris struggled in the grips of two men who guided him along outside the stockade. This was the first time he hadn't been bound and blinded as soon as he was outside the cells. He was taken over to a wall, his hands tied so his arms were outstretched to either side.

"You know," Colonel Milton said as soon as he'd been secured, "I've always been fascinated by men who are more willing to die for their causes rather than to live for them."

"Easily entertained, aren't you?" Chris spat back.

"If you think I approach your execution without remorse, you're mistaken, Mr. Larabee. I regret not learning more about you."

"Too damn bad for me. I've already told you everything I know."

"It's not too late to reconsider. I will ask you one last time, where is the woman?"

"And I still don't know what the hell you're talking about. I'm just a peacekeeper."

Milton gestured to his men, still standing on either side of the blond and they began to beat him.

"This should feel familiar, doesn't it?" Milton asked. "A little like your time in Jericho, isn't it?"

Chris waited until the men stepped away, then looked at the colonel and snarled, "The warden there had a helluva lot more imagination."

"Form up!" Milton snapped angrily, and the soldiers milling around, watching Larabee's beating, formed a firing line. "It doesn't have to end like this," the colonel told him.

"Least I have peace of mind," Chris replied with a feral grin.

"Weapons ready! Be sensible, Larabee, your life doesn't need to be cut short like this."

"Don't I get a blindfold?" Larabee asked, his tone taunting.

"Aim! What will it be, Larabee? Cooperation… or death?"

"Cooperation is death, at least with you, Colonel."


The soldiers opened fire, shooting all around Chris, but not hitting him. He stood, his eyes squeezed shut, his head turned away, waiting for one of the bullets to strike him. But none did.

"Cease fire!"

Chris could stop his body from beginning to shake when the guns fell silent. He opened his eyes, staring murderously at Milton, who was gesturing for the two soldiers to untie him, which they did, then grabbed his arms.

"Maybe next time you'll be willing to see it my way," Milton said to him. "Or my soldiers will have improved their aim."

"Go to hell," Larabee replied.

Milton turned and walked away, the two soldier taking Larabee back to his cell, two more following with their pistols drawn, just in case he tried to escape, but at the moment he was having trouble just staying on his feet.

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

Vin sat in his cell, wondering what they might do to Chris this time. Then he heard Milton's voice. "You know, I've always been fascinated by men who are more willing to die for their causes rather than to live for them."

"Easily entertained, aren't you?" he heard Chris snarl back. The tracker grinned. Larabee had more than his fair share of grit, no doubt about that.

"If you think I approach your execution without remorse, you're mistaken, Mr. Larabee. I regret not learning more about you."

That grabbed Tanner's attention and he felt his heart begin to race.

"Too damn bad for me. I've already told you everything I know."

"It's not too late to reconsider. I will ask you one last time, where is the woman?"

"And I still don't know what the hell you're talking about. I'm just a peacekeeper."

A few moments later, Vin could hear the sound of fists falling on flesh and he knew they were beating Chris again. He cursed softly, frustrated that there was nothing he could do to help his friend.

"This should feel familiar, doesn't it?" he heard Milton ask. "A little like your time in Jericho, isn't it?"

That scared Vin more than he'd expected. The colonel must have been spending some of his time finding out about them. And if he knew that, he probably knew the tracker was wanted, too.

"The warden there had a helluva lot more imagination."

"Form up!" he heard Milton snap angrily. "It doesn't have to end like this."

"No," Vin whispered harshly.

"Least I have peace of mind," he heard Chris say.

"Weapons ready! Be sensible, Larabee, your life doesn't need to be cut short like this."

"Damn fool," Tanner growled.

"Don't I get a blindfold?" he heard Larabee taunt.

"Aim! What will it be, Larabee? Cooperation… or death?"

"Cooperation is death, at least with you, Colonel."


"No!" Tanner cried as the soldiers opened fire.

"Cease fire!" he heard the colonel yell.

Vin was shaking all over and he panted for breath. His chest hurt like he'd been shot himself. But he felt his heart lurch when he heard the colonel say, "Maybe next time you'll be willing to see it my way. Or my soldiers will have improved their aim."

"Go to hell," came Larabee's voice.

"Chris?" Vin choked past the lump in his throat. Larabee wasn't dead.

The tracker's eyes fell shut and his knees buckled. He dropped to the cold stone floor and sat there, shaking with relief. If he hadn't been so dehydrated, there would have been tears falling down his face, but his tears had long since dried up. Still, he reached up as if to wipe them off. Finding none there, he cursed softly and rubbed his face anyway.

Outside Ft. Gila

Monday, mid-morning

The five peacekeepers lay on a small ridge that overlooked the southwest side of the fort. From their vantage point they could see the soldiers going about their duties. After half a day, they had gotten a feel for the rhythm of the activity and, more importantly, the changing of the guards.

As they lay there on the ground, Buck removed his pocket watch, checking the time. "Well, they ought to be getting that wire in Bent Copper anytime now."

Nathan, lying next to the ladies' man, nodded. "I'm sure Mary sent it on time."

And, sure enough, about a half hour later, a man came up to the fort on horseback, riding as fast as he could. He jerked his mount to a halt, and shouted something the peacekeepers couldn't make out. The gates were pulled open and a soldier walked out, taking the telegram the man was carrying. Less than an hour later, a large group of soldiers rode out of the fort in formation, their horses breaking into gallops as soon as they had cleared the walls.

"Well, so far so good," JD commented, grinning.

"Amen, brother," Josiah said. "But that was the easy part."

Ft. Gila, Sunday night

After his mock execution, Chris was taken back to the stockade and tossed into the same cell with Vin again. He hit the floor hard and rolled, coming to a stop near the far wall. One of the soldiers removed the water bucket and the door relocked.

As usual, Vin had stayed right where he was, leaning with his back pressed to the cell wall until the soldiers left, then he quickly crawled over to Chris.

Larabee had stayed right where he was, lying on the stone floor, tremors quaking through him.

"What's a smart guy like you doin' in a place like this?" he asked Vin when the tracker reached him.

"Thinkin' 'bout goin' back t' bounty huntin'," the tracker said seriously. "Somethin' stable… 'n' a little less lethal."

Chris snorted and shook his head, smiling. "We get out of here, I'm gonna swear off captivity as a way to live."

"C'n agree with that," Vin replied, nodding, greatful to see the ordeal hadn't broken the man.

"You know I'm sorry about this whole thing, don't you?" Larabee asked.

"Don't be," Vin said. "We had us a good run."

"'M still sorry," Chris said. "We never got over to Tascosa to clear your name."

Tanner shrugged. That had been haunting him as well. "We'll do it once they find us and get us th' hell out 'a here."

"Don't think they're gonna find us in time," Chris admitted sadly.

"Sure they will. 'M gonna kill that colonel if it's the last damn thing I do."

Ft. Gila, Monday afternoon

The five peacekeepers slowly worked their way closer and closer to the fort. It was in sight now, but the wash they were moving through was heavily overgrown with brush. The chance of anyone seeing them was remote, but it made progress slow and tedious.

They continued along, however, moving as silently and steadily as possible.

When they were less than ten yards from the wooden fence that surrounded the buildings inside the compound, they stopped.

"What are we waiting for?" JD asked. "Let's go."

"You lookin' to get yourself killed?" Buck asked him, reaching out to grab his arm.

"We have to wait for it to get dark," Josiah said.

"We go now, they'll cut us down for sure," Nathan added.

JD nodded, but it was hard to just lie there and wait. Like the others, he'd heard the screaming begin that morning, and he couldn't help but think it had to be either Chris or Vin. And he really didn't want to think about what might be happening to them to make them sound like that.

The piercing sound had the other men on edge as well, but they all knew there was nothing they could do until it got dark.

Ft. Gila, Monday morning

The two men heard the outside door open and, a few moments later Colonel Milton was standing in front of the two men's cell with two guards. Chris and Vin sat, huddled together, in order to share what warmth they could.

The soldiers entered the cell, this time grabbing Vin and jerking him to his feet.

"What're you doing?" Chris asked, trying to stop them, but one of the soldiers hit him across the face, knocking him to the ground. "Vin!" he yelled, trying to rise.

Tanner didn't reply, walking out with the soldier, refusing to give them any reason to beat him more than they were.

In moments they were gone and Larabee was left alone.

The blond swore softly, but he crawled back to where he'd been sitting. The ground and the wall were still slightly warm. He wrapped his arms around himself, still cursing the colonel. Vin never said what they did to him, but he suspected it was worse than just the beating that was obvious to the gunman.

He shook his head, wishing for the hundredth time that he'd told Travis no when he'd asked them to take that woman to Bent Copper. But he knew he had to do it. And Vin had agreed. Hopewell deserved to be brought down. He just hoped they could do it without the woman.

Ft. Gila

Monday, early evening

Colonel Milton poured himself another drink and continued eating his dinner at the table that was set up in his office. In the background, the terrible, bloodcurdling screams began again. He stopped chewing, smiling at the sound.

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

In his cell, Chris was on his feet, pacing inside the cell.

"Vin!" he cried as one scream in particular ended on a strange, strangled sound that nearly made the blond's empty stomach turn over.

"Milton!" he bellowed. "Milton! You fuckin' bastard! Leave him alone! Yo hear me? Leave him alone!"

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

At his table, Milton smiled as he heard the man begin begging: "No, please, stop! Stop! Please! Bastards! No! No!"

The screaming returned, louder and more pain-filled than before.

Milton chuckled and glanced across the room to where Vin Tanner sat, tied into a chair, blindfolded, a gag in his mouth. The tracker was fighting the ropes, his wrists gone bloody.

"Suffers nicely, don't you think?" Milton asked Tanner.

He couldn't make out the words the man was trying to say around the gag, but he could tell from the tone what the man thought of his entertainment. Milton laughed. "Would you like me to tell you what's being done to the poor bastard?"

Tanner fought harder, the chair hopping slightly, the legs making an angry pounding sound on the rough wooded floor.

That just made the colonel laugh harder.

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

In his cell, Chris raised his hands, pressing them over his ears. But he couldn't shut out the wrenching screams that continued to fill the air outside the stockade.

"Milton!" Larabee screamed. "Stop it! You fucking bastard! Stop it! Leave him alone!"

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

The five men watched the sun sink toward the horizon. The screams had slowly gotten weaker, finally getting so soft they could no longer really hear it. Then there was one last cry and then silence. The men were all on edge.

"Hell of a life, isn't it…" JD commented to Buck.

"Come again?" the ladies' man said.

"You ever get nervous 'bout doin' things like this?" JD asked him.

Buck thought for a moment, then said, "Ya askin' if I ever get scared, kid?"

JD nodded.

"Yeah," Buck admitted, "a time or two… Pucker time," he added and the others chuckled softly.

"A man would have to be a fool not to feel fear," Josiah added wisely.

"Fear can be a powerful friend," Nathan said, nodding. "But if it gets the upper hand…"

JD nodded. "Yeah, well, Mattie did it for me. I was so scared I couldn't think, couldn't move, couldn't even breathe…"

"Fear keeps you alive," Ezra said. "The way I look at it, fear keeps us at the peak of our games, keeps us from getting brave. Brave is just… stupid."

"Yep," Buck agreed, nodding, "fear is our friend."

"Love it, feel it, taste it, smell it… embrace it," Josiah picked up.

"So there you go, fear's our mistress, boys," Buck continued. "You love her good and hard and she might just keep us alive. But if you cheat on her, you'll lose, big time. That's for sure."

The others nodded.

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

The screaming continued, but Chris could hear that it was getting weaker now.

"Stop it! Leave him alone! I'll tell you what you want to know, just leave him alone! You hear me? I'll talk! I'll talk, just stop! Please!"

The creak of the door opening started Chris shaking. Two soldiers came up to the cell and took Chris out.

"Fucking bastards," Larabee hissed at the two men.

The soldiers ignored him.

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

The rest of the peacekeepers were moving. Now dressed in the Army uniforms they had picked up in Bent Copper, they eased into the darkness and sprinted to the wall, making their way to the section Troutman had told them about.

Buck had stopped several times along the way, pressing sticks of dynamite into the ground as he went, JD following along behind him with the roll of fuse.

At the section, Buck arranged the sticks in the way Troutman had thought would breach the barrier.

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

Larabee was taken into Milton's office.

"I understand you have something to tell me," the colonel said, his eyes bright with victory.

"Where's Vin?"

"Back in his cell. Now, you'll tell me what I want to know, or I'll have him finished off."

"I need some water first," Chris said as he was pressed into a chair across the table from Milton. The remaining portion of steak left on the man's plate made the blond's stomach ache with hunger.

The colonel gestured and one of the soldiers poured Chris a cup of water and handed it to him. Larabee took it and drank it down in three huge gulps.

"Judge Travis pays us to protect the people in Four Corners," Larabee started. "Can I have some more water?"

Milton nodded and the soldier filled Chris' cup again.

And, once again, Larabee drank it down. "We do whatever he tells us to. He came on the Monday stage, told us to meet a woman at Mesa Ridge and take her to Bent Copper. We didn't ask why." He paused and held out his cup, a hopeful expression on his face.

The soldier looked to Milton, and when the colonel nodded, he refilled it. Chris emptied it.

When the gunman began to speak again, he started over with Hopewell's trip to Four Corners.

"I don't see the connection," Milton said. "What happened to the woman you met in Mesa Ridge?"

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

Three soldiers escorted Vin back to his cell. One opened it and another shoved Tanner inside.

"Where's Larabee?" the tracker demanded, whirling around and dropping into a crouch like he might spring and attack at any moment.

"Ain't our concern," one of the soldiers said.

"What did he do to him?"

"Ya heard the sergeant," one of the privates snapped, "ain't your concern. Ain't yours neither."

Vin threw himself at the bars, just missing the private who had locked the door. "Y' tell me what y' bastards done t' 'im!"

"Reckon you'll be finding out soon enough," the sergeant said. "Less you want to tell me what ya know 'bout that woman."

Vin stood, his eyes filled with hate for the men.

"You tell me what the Colonel wants to know, I'll see to it they bring your friend back here before he dies alone."

Vin's lips curled back off his teeth in a feral snarl. "Y' c'n go t' hell, y' fuckin' dogs." He continued to curse them in Comanche and Kiowa as they turned and left.

"Chris!" he yelled as loudly as he could, but there was only silence in reply.

He dropped to the floor, his shoulders shaking with silent, tearless sobs. What had he done?

The least he could do now was be with Larabee at the end. He owed the man that much, and more. He wished he could have traded places with him, but it was too late to dwell on it now. Chris was dead or dying, and sooner or later Milton would be coming for him.

Well, he'd take what he knew to the grave with him. There was no way he'd give the bastard the satisfaction of breaking him.

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

"The woman?" Chris echoed, looking slightly confused. He took another gulp from his cup, then said, "I don't know. When we got to Mesa Ridge, there was no woman. Please, can I have some more water?"

Milton sighed heavily and nodded his approval. This time the soldier just handed Chris the pitcher, which was nearly empty. Chris accepted it with a grateful expression, but as soon as the soldier released it, he used it to strike the soldier, who went down in a boneless heap on the floor.

Outside, an explosion shook through the building. Milton and Chris were both startled, then the colonel turned his attention to the gunman, attacking the unarmed peacekeeper, who fought back with the desperation of a man who knew his life hung in the balance.

Raising his arms, he protected his head and skittered back to escape another blow that Larabee knew would fell him. He was weak and sluggish, and nearly tripped over the unconscious corporal lying on the floor.

The colonel moved in on him, and Larabee swore silently that he'd find a way to kill the man – for Vin, who he had no doubt, was dead.

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

The five men entered the compound, heading straight for the stockade, which was right where Troutman had said it would be. A young private stood guard outside, looking nervous and scared about the explosions that were still going off.

"Private, you see any strangers?" Buck snapped, striding straight up to the boy.

The soldier opened his mouth to reply, but realized for the first time that the uniform Buck was wearing had no rank insignia. "Uh, just you… sir?" he said, utterly confused.

Buck stopped right in front of the man and grinned. "Nope, ain't no sir," he said, then drew his gun before the boy could react. "Open the door, son."

The private hesitated, and Josiah moved closer, saying, "Now, don't make us kill you, son…"

The private turned and unlocked the door.

And, inside, they found Vin inside his cell.

Buck prodded the soldier he'd led inside with his gun and the young man removed the keys from his belt and unlocked the door.

Vin scrambled to his feet, hurrying out. Buck shoved the private into the cell and closed the door, pulling out the keys and pocketing them.

"Where's Chris?" the ladies' man asked.

"Ain't sure, but if he's still alive, m' money's on the colonel's office."

"Vin, you hurt any?" Nathan asked, noting how frail the tracker looked.

"I'm fine," Tanner replied, which immediately told the healer the man was hurt, but he didn't think now was the time to deal with it.

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

Outside in the compound, soldiers ran this way and that, horses screamed, and dogs barked as the dynamite continued to go off.

The peacekeepers ran through the chaos, Vin in the lead.

They burst into an outer office just outside the room where Chris and Milton continued to fight. Seeing Vin, the soldier on guard there started to scramble up from his chair, but Josiah felled him with a single blow. Vin took the soldier's gun, firing with the others as other soldiers came running toward the open door.

Buck and JD each took a man down, Nathan another with one of his throwing knives when the private managed to get past the door.

"Hurry up!" Buck yelled, and Ezra went to the door, using the keys from the top of the desk to open the lock.

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

Inside his office, Milton swung, striking Chris and sending him crashing to the floor. He drew his gun and held it on the gunman.

"Go ahead," Larabee hissed at him. "Ya might as well shoot me, because I'm not telling you a damn thing."

"No, not yet, but soon. I'll make you scream, just like I did your friend. Guard!" he yelled.

The door burst open and Vin stormed in, followed by Ezra and Josiah. Without the slightest hesitation, he raised the gun he was carrying and shot the colonel, but he didn't kill the man.

Chris stared at the fallen soldier, stunned by the sudden turn of events, and the ghost he was seeing. "Vin?" he said.

"Come on," Vin said, extending his hand and helping Chris to his feet.

Chris nodded, the two men wrapping their arms around each other's shoulders to support one another as they left the office. Josiah and Ezra pulled Milton to his feet and forced him out behind the two men.

They left the building, making their way through the confusion even as the last of the dynamite sticks exploded, raining dirt and sand down on them.

"You won't get away with this," Milton snarled, then opened his mouth to call for help.

JD stopped him with a blow to the jaw.

On the trail

Nathan called for a halt as soon as they came across the first outcrop of rocks they could use for cover if pursing soldiers caught up to them, then went over to treat Milton's gunshot wound, but the colonel steadfastly refused his help.

"Suit yourself, but don't blame me if ya end up losing that arm," the healer said, heading back to his horse. He glanced at Chris and Vin, wishing he could get a better look at both of them, but they had also refused his pleas so far, seemingly in a hurry for reasons other than pursuit.

"Turn yourselves in," Milton said to the men as they started off again. "You don't stand a chance."

"I don't think so," Vin replied. "But we will turn y' over t' the men lookin' into Hopewell's dirty dealings."

Several minutes later they reached the waiting horses and mounted, riding off into the night, Milton tied securely behind Buck on his big grey. Thus far, no soldiers seemed to have found their trail.

After they put several miles between them and the fort, Chris and Vin peeled off, Larabee calling out, "Meet us in Bent Copper. Room twelve at the hotel. Tell 'em it's time to go fishing."

"Chris!" Nathan snapped. "Ya should let me look you both over!" But the men had already disappeared into the darkness.

"Damn stubborn fools," the healer grumbled.

"They'll be all right, brother," Josiah said.

"They're hurt."

"I made sure they had an extra canteen each," JD offered.

Nathan just shook his head, still muttering to himself.

Heading toward Bent Copper, the men rode in silence, pushing their horses as hard as they dared, just in case the Army did try to get back their colonel. But after nearly an hour, Buck could feel Milton beginning to sway behind him. "Nathan!" he called, pulling his horse up and dismounting. He reached up and untied the colonel, Milton toppling over and falling to the ground.

Nathan walked over to the man and stared down at him. "Guess I'll be treatin' that wound now," he said.

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

Chris and Vin rode through the desert for a little over two hours, finally coming to a small Mexican village. They rode in, stopping outside a house that was dark and quiet. Given the hour, that wasn't surprising.

Chris swung down and walked to the door, knocking softly three times, then waited and repeated the action. A few minutes later, the door opened and a young woman stepped out. "I didn't think you were coming," she said, reaching down to cradle her swollen belly.

"Ran into some trouble," Larabee told her. "Are you ready?"

She nodded and turned back, calling, "Elizabeth, get dressed, sweetheart, we have to go."

Chris and Vin waited for mother and daughter to dress and prepare, the old Mexican woman who lived in the house making them tortillas and beans, which they wolfed down along with a cup of goat's milk.

When the pair were ready, they left, the little girl riding in front of Chris on his borrowed horse, the pregnant woman in front of Vin.

Bent Copper

Wednesday, late morning

The five peacekeepers and Colonel Milton rode into the small community of Bent Copper, heading straight to the only hotel in town.

They climbed the stairs to the second floor and walked down to room 12, the only suite. Josiah knocked and called out, "Uh, it's time to go fishing."

The door was unlocked and opened and they ushered the colonel inside where Travis sat, watching as Chris and Vin finished off what had been a good-sized breakfast.

There were several others in the room, waiting as well.

Travis glowered at the man and said, "I've heard what you did to these men, Colonel."

"So have I," added another man.

Travis smiled thinly. "Colonel, Nicholas Shepherd, special prosecutor."

Shepherd nodded to Milton. "And given that these men were working for my office, at the behest of the President, that means you'll be facing federal charges, Colonel."

Milton flushed. "I have nothing to say."

"We'll see about that," Travis said, "If you don't help us, then you can go down with your brother-in-law. Either way, your time in uniform is over, Colonel."

And Jacob Milton, being no fool, nodded his understanding.

Back in Four Corners

Monday morning, a week since all began

Chris and Vin were seated on chairs that had been placed outside on the balcony of Jackson's clinic. Nathan was hovering nearby, watching them, but he knew they were out of danger and on the mend once again.

The telltale jingle of tack heralded the early arrival of the stage, and several minutes later Orin Travis reached the top of the stairs.

"How are you?" he asked the two men as he walked over to join them.

"Fine," Larabee replied for both of them.

"I just thought you should know that Hopewell's been indicted on all the charges and is already on his way to prison – for life."

"It's where he belongs," Larabee replied. "And Colonel Milton?"

"He'll be serving his time in the cell next to him – for the next twenty years," the Judge replied.

Tanner snorted softly and shook his head.

"I agree, Mr. Tanner, but unfortunately we didn't have the same kind of evidence for Colonel Milton as we did for Hopewell."

"How's the girl?" Chris asked.

Travis nodded. "She delivered a healthy baby boy the day before yesterday. Mother and son are both doing well. As soon as she's able to travel, she'll be heading to her sister's home in St. Louis. It was her testimony that ensured Hopewell received a life sentence. It's just a shame we didn't get a hanging out of it."

"You rape a man's wife in front of him, then kill him in cold blood, you deserve to be hanged," Chris said.

"Yes, I agree, but a seven-year-old witness can't stand up to cross-examination the way an adult can. Still, the girl's testimony was enough to ensure a life sentence. Hopewell won't be able to hurt anyone else, and neither will Colonel Milton."

"Then it was worth it," Larabee said.

"Y' find out what he done to whoever it was screamin'?" Vin asked the judge.

Travis nodded, his lips pressing into a thin line. He had to take a couple of deep breaths before he could say, "He had two other prisoners tortured and killed. One had his skin flayed off a little at a time, the other was impaled on a stake that eventually punctured his heart and killed him."

Both of the peacekeepers paled at the news.

"And the jury didn't see fit to hang the man?" Chris half-growled at the judge.

Travis huffed out a sigh. "They were Mexican commancheros and therefore not protected under the laws of the Territory."

"They were men," Vin said. "Could 'a been us."

"Yes, well, I'm just very glad that that wasn't the case, Mr. Tanner."

Travis looked over at Nathan, who had stood, listening to the conversation without comment. "Are they really all right, Mr. Jackson?"

The healer nodded. "Still need to put a little more meat back on their bones, but they're gonna be just fine."

Travis nodded, then turned to go. "Oh!" he said and turned back. "I almost forgot. It seems that Hopewell had a network of cronies who did favors for him – up to and including murder. Horace Vincent, his secretary, was only too happy to trade a list of people for leniency. Two names on that list might interest you, Mr. Tanner – Eli Joe and Sheriff Reynolds of Tascosa."

Vin's eyes rounded with surprise and the front legs of his chair crashed to the floor as he sat forward. "You mean–?" He stopped, his mind racing. Then he looked up at Travis and asked, "What does that mean?"

Travis smiled. "It means, with a little luck, that the murder charge hanging over you in Texas will be lifted shortly. The special prosecutor is seeing to it himself."

Vin didn't know what to say, so he settled for, "Appreciate that, Judge."

"Least of what we owe you both," Travis replied. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an appointment for lunch with my daughter-in-law and my grandson."

"Orin," Chris called before the man could turn to go. "Thank you."

"No, Chris, thank you, and Mr. Tanner." And, with a smile, the man turned and headed back down the stairs.

Nathan, smiling brightly, walked over and shook Vin's hand, saying, "Best news I've heard in I don't know how long."

Vin just didn't know what to say.

Chris laughed at the man's expression as he leaned forward and slapped him on the knee. "Guess this calls for a celebration."

"Not 'til I have somethin' official in m' hand," Vin said softly.

Chris and Nathan exchanged glances.

"Vin, this is a good thing," the healer said.

Tanner nodded. "Cost two men their lives, too."

"That wasn't your fault, Vin," Chris said. "Travis is right, it's the least they owe us."

Vin offered a half shrug in reply, but he settled back in his chair and looked out over the town. "Reckon we's owed something, that's true enough…"

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

At the bottom of the steps Travis saw Buck and Josiah waiting for him.

Buck was frowning. "We didn't hear no whoops or carryin' on. You tell Vin?"

"I did," Travis replied.

"It's the cost of those two men's lives that has brother Vin slow to celebrate," Josiah said.

"I believe you're right, Josiah," Travis said. "How bad was it for them?"

"Bad enough," Buck replied. "They ain't said a word about it to any of us."

"Well, keep an eye on them, and let me know if there's anything I can do."

"We'll do that, Judge," Josiah agreed.

"Just like always," Buck added.

Travis nodded and headed off for his lunch. JD came up just as he left, Ezra right behind him, both men carrying trays of food, compliments of Inez.

The four men climbed the stairs, and the food was delivered.

Chris grinned as he dug into the thick burrito. "Mmm," he said, "appreciate it, Ezra. I think I could get used to this."

"Mr. Jackson," the gambler replied, "I do believe it's time to cut these two loose before they are irredeemably spoiled."

"Think ya might be right about that, Ezra," Nathan agreed and the others laughed.

Chris and Vin exchanged brief glances. The scars from this one would take longer time to heal than any of the others knew, but they had survived, and now it looked like Vin might be cleared as well. That was reason enough for Larabee, and he'd see to it Vin felt the same way, too.