by Vickie G

Disclaimer: I don't own the characters of The Magnificent Seven. Someone told me they are owned by CBS, MGM, The Mirsch Corporation, and Trilogy. This work of fan fiction is not intended to infringe upon anyone with legal rights to The Magnificent Seven. I'm just keeping the show alive. The owners should be happy as it's free advertisement for their DVDs, not angry; after all they're not using them anymore. All OC's are mine.

Comments: This is my first ever Magnificent Seven fanfiction. I've never seen the series. All I know about it, I've learned from reading other people's fiction. Therefore, I don't know what's canon and what's not. If I've stolen something you've used in your writing, consider it an honest mistake and an honor that your story(ies) were taken as a part of the available fandom. If you contact me, letting me know of the error, I will correct it if I can or publicly apologize.

Summary: What would Vin do if keeping his secret about the bounty meant one or more of the Seven would be put in mortal danger?'

Thanks: My thanks to Mary Ann for the beta. She's been invaluable in correcting my characterizations and my typos. All remaining errors are mine. Thanks also go to Jan for help with posting and ratings information. Thanks ladies.

Feedback: Yes, please. I appreciate kindly given constructive feedback. Flames will be deleted.

Rating: FRT-P, SC, V
There's nothing in here I haven't heard the teens say on their way home from high school; or you won't see watching primetime TV. This is h/c with a liberal dose of swarm.

Timeframe: Set early in the show. Trust in each other is still new, though Chris and Vin have formed a tight bond.

Part 1
Four Corners Mid Morning
Vin Tanner strode quickly down the boardwalk. He stopped and looked over the batwing doors into the saloon. He saw Ezra and Buck at their usual table. "You seen Chris around?" he asked.

"I haven't spied our esteemed leader since sundown," replied Ezra.

Vin cocked his head in a puzzled fashion. Buck supplied, "He hasn't seen him since night fall last," supplied Buck. "He didn't join us for breakfast, which probably means he ate at his cabin, though he doesn't keep many supplies there."

"We were supposed to meet for breakfast; it's not like him to not show." Before either man could reply, Vin continued on down the street, leaving both men puzzled and worried. Tanner's words were true, 'It wasn't like Chris to say he'd do something and not do it.'

The tracker found JD in the sheriff's office. "You seen Chris, today?"

"Not since last night, he said he was riding out to his shack . . . err cabin," he corrected when hit by Tanner's blue- eyed glare.

The tracker turned and stormed from the office and headed towards the church, leaving behind a bewildered and now aggravated JD. He passed the livery and decided to stop and check with Nathan; then he remembered it was clinic day. The healer would be busy with patients. Vin couldn't get rid of the worry that plagued him. He'd had this feeling since he woke before dawn that something was wrong. He just couldn't figure out what. Chris would listen to his concern without making him feel stupid. Now he just had to find Chris.

He decided he'd overlooked checking to see if Chris was at the Clarion with Mary. He decided to ask her before he bothered Nathan. He found Mary before he reached her office. Even though he greeted her as politely as he could, his anxiety came through. "Hi, Mary, you seen Chris today?"

"No, he went out to his cabin. He's supposed to take Billy fishing tomorrow. I've been busy printing; did you try out there?"

"Not yet, but that's where I'm headed; just got to talk to Nathan and Josiah first. I don't want to miss him if he's already here, like he's supposed to be."

He rushed off again, before Mary could reply; leaving the newspaper woman perplexed, because it wasn't like Vincent Tanner to worry needlessly. Heading for the livery and Nathan's clinic above it, he ran into Josiah. "You seen Chris this morning?"

"Good morning to you too, brother Vin. No, I've not seen Chris. He was . . ."

"Going to his cabin last night," finished the younger man testily. "Can . . . can I talk to you?" he asked hesitantly.

"Anytime, you know that. What's bothering you, son?"

"That's just it, I don't know. I woke early, before dawn, and just felt like something was wrong. I have no idea what. I wanted to talk with Chris. I was going to talk it over with him when we met for breakfast. It's not like him to not show when expected. No one's seen him since last night."

"Tell you what, how about I ride out to the cabin with you? If something's wrong, then I can come back for help. If he's just working around his homestead, it's just a mix up in communication that you didn't get together for breakfast. I'll meet you at the stable after I stop by and tell Buck where we're headed. We may need someone to come after us if there's been trouble. Probably it's just something simple like his horse lost a shoe and he's walking in."

Vin burst through the door of Nathan's clinic, "You seen Chris?" he called to the healer.

"Not this morning, he was going . . ."

" . . . to his cabin," finished Vin. "He was supposed to meet me this morning." He turned and left a concerned medic in his wake.

Twenty minutes later, Vin and Josiah were on their way to the cabin; leaving the folks Vin talked distressed by Vin's concerns.

Part 2
Larabee Cabin
3 AM

The cabin door crashed in with a bang. Chris bolted up reaching for his gun on the chair by the bed. He saw the flash of a gun and felt the bullet tear through his shoulder, throwing him back down on the bed. "You should'na oughta done that. Where's Tanner's hideout?" a rough voice demanded.

"I'm not telling you anything," Chris grit out between clenched teeth.

He was backhanded across the face, the ring on the beefy hand left a gash across his cheek. "I know you're a friend of his. You lead them regulators. But, you don't know one of them is a killer. Now where is that murdering swine? He's got a bounty on his head I aim to collect."

Chris was stunned. 'How could the Tanner he knew possibly be a murderer?' he thought. "Are you trying to tell me Tanner's wanted for murder somewhere, I don't believe it."

"You're either a very good liar or he is. Don't matter which. We'll just use you as bait." He grabbed Chris's good arm and hauled him roughly from the bed.

Chris fought the behemoth wildly, knocking things over in the process, after a series of blows were landed on the smaller man, a punch to his wounded shoulder caused him grunt and pass out.

The intruder tied the unconscious man's hands and ransacked the tidy cabin. Finding nothing to tell him where the tracker may be, he hauled the slowly reviving man to his feet and dragged him out of the cabin. He threw Chris up on a horse and secured his hands to the saddle horn. The gunslinger's blood left a dripping trail on the ground as the horse was led away from the once tidy cabin.

Part 3
Larabee Cabin around Noon same day

Vin and Josiah topped the last rise before the cabin. They hadn't seen any chimney smoke in the direction of the cabin. If Chris were still at the cabin there should have been a pot of coffee on the stove. As they descended the hillock, they still didn't see any smoke and the door stood open. Still mounted, they cautiously approached the cabin with their hands on their weapons. "Larabee ya here?" yelled Tanner.

"Chris, where are you?" yelled Josiah.

Not receiving answers to their hails, they dismounted and Vin crept to the open doorway and ducked inside. The one room cabin was a shambles. Lying neatly on the table was a folded piece of paper. Vin picked it and saw the wanted poster with his picture on it. He threw it back on the table and then rushed to the bed where he could see what looked like blood on the sheets. Two fingers and a sniff confirmed it. "Blood, at lot of it."

Josiah watched as Vin picked up the paper, paled and then continued towards the bed. He figured it was important as the table was the only piece of furniture standing besides the bed. He opened the paper and saw a wanted poster. His sharply inhaled breath drew the younger man's attention. Josiah turned to his friend, "You're wanted for murder in Texas? I thought we were friends. I thought I knew you. There's got to be some mistake, you're not the murdering kind. I do know that much. Would you care to explain brother?"

"I know they all say it, but I really was framed." Vin studied the drawing at the bottom of the poster. A map he decided. Below the drawing were some words. "What's it say?"

Josiah stared at the young man. "You can't read?"

"No," Vin admitted suddenly finding his boot tops interesting. "Mama died when I was five. I went to live with my grandfather, but there weren't no school. Then grandpa died and I was taken in by the Indians," he admitted.

"Son, there's lots of people never had a chance for book learning; to read and write. You're an intelligent man. After we get Chris back, if you want to learn, I'll help you."

Vin's head snapped up to look at the older man, expecting to see ridicule in spite of the kind offer. Instead he found acceptance and a willingness to help in the other's eyes. "We'll discuss it after we get Chris back, Now what's it say?"

"Come alone, him for you. Dawn"

Vin snatched the paper and headed for his horse.

Josiah caught up and grabbed the tracker's arm. "Vin, settle down. Let's leave a note for Buck and the others. You know where this is?"

"Yeah, it's an old mine. It says to come alone," he replied petulantly.

"Vin, he won't let Chris go. As long as he has Chris, he controls you if you let him. Let's work out a plan. Is there a faster way to get there than what's drawn?" He snatched the poster back and stuck it in his pocket for safekeeping. "You already know where the mine is, I need the map."

The sound of hooves on the hard dirt road diverted their attention from their argument. They drew their weapons as four horsemen appeared at the top of the hill. "It's the rest of the guys," stated the tracker as he put his mare's leg back in the specially built rig he wore. "What are you doing here?" he demanded.

"We came as soon as we could round up the others and pack some provisions." "It's not like Chris to miss a meeting." "You were worried so we came." "Figured you'd either find him, trouble or both, either way, at worst we took a long ride." "What have you found?" With everyone talking at once it was a bit confusing who answered with which comment.

Josiah looked to Vin to decide whether to tell the others about the wanted poster now in his pocket or just tell them about the message.

Vin reached out and made a give me motion towards Josiah. He took the poster when offered it. He paced the couple of steps to Buck's side and handed him the folded poster. He then turned and walked to his own mount. He was just about to climb in the saddle when Buck exclaimed, "This can be true!"

JD still mounted by Buck's side grabbed the wanted poster. "Let me see that?" He studied the drawing for a moment and drew the weapon from his right hip. "Vin Tanner you're under arrest for murder."

Nathan and Ezra looked at JD like he'd lost his mind. Nathan spoke. "JD, men that are capable of murder don't save men from lynch mobs. Think boy, this is Vin we're talkin' 'bout. Put that gun back."

JD holstered his weapon and sputtered, "But . . .but I'm the sheriff and I have to uphold the law. The law says I gotta take in anyone who has a bounty on their head. He's accused of murder. He'll get a trial." He said no more as Buck thwacked him on the back of the head with his hat.

"Perhaps Mr. Tanner, if given the opportunity, can expound on his version of events and we can deliberate on how to proceed. Apprehending our tracker will not be of any assistance to Mr. Larabee. This states the kidnappers desire to exchange Mr. Larabee for Mr. Tanner. Might I remind you that Mr. Tanner willingly enlightened us to the existence of the bounty," offered Ezra.

JD looked to Buck to tell him what to do. "JD, we all, with the possible exception of you, have things in our past that hound us. Ezra's right, Vin didn't have to tell us about the bounty. We need him to help get Chris back." He turned to address the tracker still standing by his horse studying the ground intently. "Vin will you agree to help us rescue Chris and then tell us your side of the story?"

Vin nodded and mounted his horse.

"So what's the plan, stud?" Buck asked Vin, deferring to the man who took control when Chris wasn't available. He might be a wanted man, but he was still Vin Tanner, friend.

"We get Chris back. He's being held atta mine. There'sa map on the poster. He don't know 'bout the shortcut that takes ya behind the mine and I'm betting, he don't know about the tiny back entrance either. JD's the only one small enough to get through besides me. I gotta show myself at dawn if we ain't rescued Chris by then. JD and I will go in the back, the rest of you from the front. We gotta do this fast afore he has a chance to hurt Chris more," responded Vin, his Texas drawl thicker due to the added worry about being arrested by his friends once they had Chris back. Buck's support helped ease that worry somewhat and for that the tracker was grateful.

"What do you mean by more?" inquired the healer.

"There's blood on the bed. From the look of it Chris was hit in the right shoulder if he was lying on his back," answered Josiah.

"Are you sure he's being held at the mine and not just gonna be dragged there come mornin'?" demanded Buck.

"Yeah, with Chris injured he's not gonna wanta be draggin' him ta hell and back; that fucking' bastard's mine," replied the tracker. "We gots us a trail ter foller, sos we can be sure."

"I'm going with you and JD," declared Buck.

"Your ass ain't skinny 'nough to get through that entrance. It caved in some," insisted the tracker.

"You calling me fat?"

"I'm callin' ya ta big ta fit, ya can take that anyway ya like. Let's ride."

"Well at least I got an ass, not like that skinny thing you sit on. Ma boys are bigger an yours, too."

"My ass is cuter, Inez said so. My boys make up for any short commin's my ass might have; not that it has any. Sides if my ass were bigger the boys would be crowded.

Nathan and Josiah rolled their eyes at the exchange between Chris' best friends. Both knew the teasing would help relieve tensions and worry while it lasted.

Part 4
Meanwhile at the Mine

Chris awoke to the feel of cold hard ground under him and a stomach that was trying to expel everything he'd eaten in the last week, or so it felt. He cracked open eyes that still held unshed tears from the pain of the horrendous retching. Somehow, he'd managed to get to his knees so that he didn't choke; but he wasn't sure how. His hands were bound behind his back and attached to his bound feet with a length of rope. The ropes cut into the skin of his wrists and ankles. Chris shivered in the cold mine. All he wore were his long john bottoms he slept in. He had neither shirt nor shoes.

He wondered where he was. His survey of the area around him was cut off when he was once more attacked by dry heaves. The noise he made drowned out the approach of his captor. Caught off guard, he howled when the toe of a huge boot impacted with his already protesting mid section. The force of the kick sent him onto his side in the dirt; his face inches from the mess he'd made on the dirt floor.

"Well he's finally awake. Not feeling so good are you?" Another kick to the ribs this time prevented any answer Chris might have made as the air rushed from his lungs. He was hauled to his feet and thrown against the rock wall. His unclothed back collided with the wall and the rough surface abraded and cut his skin as he slid down the stone to land in an unconscious heap.

Having spoiled his own fun, the kidnapper left his victim where he lay and went back to the small fire where he was gutting a rabbit for his dinner.

Part 5
On the trail

Josiah pulled his horse alongside JD's. "JD, Vin already feels terrible about Chris being injured, he doesn't need you adding to his stress. He feels it's his fault because of the bounty on his head. Do you really think, Vin's a murderer?"

"No, but I do have a duty to uphold. He'll get a trial," insisted JD.

"Did you ever think about, there may have already been a trial and he was sentenced to die? Lots of places hold trials that have nothing to do with justice or proof. Let's get Chris back and then give Vin a chance to explain," counseled Josiah.

"OK, I'll allow him free reign until this is over."

"Good boy," praised Josiah with a pat to JD's knee.

At the head of the line of riders, Vin stopped and dismounted. "JD, come here," called the tracker. Once JD was standing beside him, he asked, "What do you see?" Vin had been teaching the youngster to track, he saw no harm in continuing the lessons as long as it didn't slow them down. 'Once he takes me back to Texas I won't be able to teach him or anyone anymore,' he thought morosely.

"Blood and tracks of two horses. One horse and rider are heavier than the other. That horse has bigger hooves." He pointed the one set of tracks. "They're headed the opposite direction from us. There is another set going the same direction as us that were made later. The lighter tracks from before are now deeper as though the horse is carrying something more than it was on the way to the cabin."

"Good can you tell how old the newer tracks are?"

"I'd say sometime today; last night at the earliest. You think he's still alive?" blurted JD, expressing the question everyone was afraid to ask.

"I don't know. If he's not, then you'll have reason to arrest me, cause I'm gonna kill the bastard.

"Just make sure it's in defense of Chris or one of us and then I won't have to arrest you for killing him. I don't want to arrest you. Maybe after you explain, we can ask the judge for help in your case."

"Thanks JD, 'preciate that. Let's go, Chris needs us."

An hour later, they reached the last hill before the mine. The six gathered together on foot when Vin dismounted. "OK, over that hill is the entrance to the mine; the tracks are still leading that way. JD and I are gonna go 'round back, this here little trail takes us back there. Buck, I still say you won't fit, but you can come with us if you want. The rest of you, give us an hour to get back there and move up through the mine. "JD, you got a watch right? When the hour is up, create a distraction. JD'll get Chris to the back outta the line of fire. I'm going over the top and come out on top of the front entrance. When he comes out to investigate, I'll jump him."

"Mr. Tanner, Might I suggest we should reconnoiter and determine that there is indeed a lone kidnapper prior to proceeding with your proposed tactics?" queried Ezra.

"There were only two horses, neither of which carried two riders; there is only one kidnapper!"

"I don't desire to argue, but might he have accomplices that didn't accompany him to the cabin?"

"If you were going to kidnap a fast gun, wouldn't you have your help along when you took him?" retorted Vin, the frustration he was feeling starting to show in his words and tone. "What would you like to do? Go ask him?"

"Certainly not, but if we secured his horses, then he would be less likely to escape our net. I'm not willing to gamble with Mr. Larabee's life."

"I think Ezra's right. Let's get his horses and that will at least put him on foot," interjected Josiah. "Vin, don't let your anger overrule your good sense," he added.

"All right good point, as long as we can do it without letting him know we're here," agreed the tracker.

"Let's get on with it, Chris could be bleeding to death," opined Nathan.

Vin shot an ice blue glare at Nathan. "If I'm not back in a few minutes, assume I've been caught. Then do what you think best, rescuing Chris comes first, got that?" Receiving nods he slipped off one way and after a moment Buck another.

Ten minutes later, both men were back; Vin leading two non descript sorrel horses. "Satisfied?" he asked.

"Yes, let's affect our rescue as you previously outlined," replied the gambler.

Part 6
Inside the mine

Chris roused once again, this time the pain in his back and ribs and his increasing fever overriding the cold in his body. The sweat dripped from his chin, ran down his chest and back into the scrapes and cuts from sliding down the rough rock wall, increasing his pain.

He looked around and spied his captor seemingly asleep by the fire. The smell of the man's dinner hung in the air causing Chris to fight harder to keep his stomach contents in place.

He found a sharp edge on the rock wall and began to saw at the ropes around his wrists. The motion sometimes pushed his hands and arms against the sharp stones adding more cuts. Eventually the rope parted and Chris began to use his numb fingers to untie the rope from around his ankles. He was almost done when a hand clamped over his mouth. He nodded at the words hissed into his ear by his best friend.

Vin helped Chris to his feet and steadied him until he had his balance. Vin led Chris to JD at the edge of the torch's light. Vin then turned to go back towards the front of the cave, ignoring the previously laid out plan, when Chris' hand stopped him. They exchanged words without making a sound. Their eyes conveyed all that was needed, "Trust me, go with JD," stated the blue. "Don't get hurt; I need you," replied the green.

JD pulled Chris' good arm over his shoulder and headed the older man quietly towards the back of the mine.

Vin stopped and picked up the rope from where he released Chris Then he pulled his mare's leg and pushed it into the kidnapper's bulbous nose. "Wake up scum. Go for your gun, give me half a reason to blow your fucking head off."

The man's hand fell back to the ground away from his weapon.

"Pull your gun with your left hand and toss it on the other side of the fire," demanded Vin. Right on cue, a ruckus ensued as rocks started rolling down the opposite hill.

"On your feet, fish face. OK, guys I've got him," yelled the tracker.

Vin's attention was momentarily distracted when Ezra tripped over a wire strung across the mine entrance. That was all the humongous kidnapper/bounty hunter needed. He elbowed Vin in the ribs, then delivered a few well placed blows to Vin's ribs and face. Then he grabbed the business end of the mare's leg. The two men struggled mightily for the weapon until it was pressed tight between their bodies. When it went off there was absolute silence. The stranger slid to the ground.

Vin collapsed a moment later. Both men had blood all over the front of their clothes. Buck rushed forward and grabbed the weapon, and checked on the stranger. "He's dead," he informed.

Nathan, having rushed to Vin, began to pull frantically at the buttons on Vin's shirt. He pulled the soggy garment from the waistband of Vin's buckskin trousers and pulled it over the younger man's head. He balled it up and wiped the blood from Vin's chest and stomach. The skin was burned and blackened from the weapon's discharge while pressed against the tender flesh but there was clearly no bullet in the tracker.

Chris pulled away from JD when he heard the other men enter. He made his way as quickly as his injured body would allow towards his friend. "Vin!" he cried after the weapon discharged and Vin hit the dirt.

Nathan looked up and saw Chris coming when he heard his cry.

JD caught up with Chris after only a step or two, and pulled the injured man's good arm over his shoulder once more. He helped Chris him get to Vin's side now that the stranger was dead. The young man eased the gunfighter down beside the tracker as Vin moaned and turned his face in Chris' direction though his eyes didn't open.

"Hur . . Hurt," was all he said. His right hand went towards his belly where the burn was centered. The left flailed in the air in Chris' direction.

The unofficial leader of the seven eyes met the medic's over the supine body of the tracker. "He'll be all right. Josiah's gone to get my medical supplies. The bullet still in that shoulder?" he asked nodding toward Chris's right shoulder.

"Don't know for sure, feels like it," was the surprisingly honest reply. "He gonna be ok, Nathan?"

"Yeah, it's a powder burn. I'll let Josiah smear it with burn cream while I take a look at you." Louder he called, "I need more light over here, or I need them out of this mine."

"Sorry, no more torches. Outside it is then," stated Josiah as he slipped an arm under the tracker's back and one under his knees. He stood with his precious burden and headed for the mouth of the mine. Vin was awake, his eyes shot open and he snarled, "Put me down, I kin walk." He pushed against Josiah's chest and kicked his legs so that the big man almost dropped him.

"Calm down, I'll put you down," Josiah attempted to soothe.

He stood Vin on his feet. The younger man's legs immediately gave way and he crumpled to the ground once more.

When Josiah reached for the stubborn man, Vin batted the hands away. "I can do it," he snarled.

"Ok. I'll tell Chris you'll be along in twenty minutes or so, it will take you a while to crawl that far."

"Ok, help me up," conceded the long haired mule headed man.

Josiah once again reached for the sharpshooter and hauled him to his feet. His legs buckled once more and the preacher scooped the long haired man into his arms again, chiding, "You've got to learn to accept help when offered, boy. You're not alone anymore, you have friends to lean on or carry you if needed."

Nathan stood and pulled Chris to his feet. Buck stepped up beside his old friend and slung Chris's arm over his shoulders. Nathan took Larabee's wrist on the injured side and pushed it across Chris' stomach with his left hand and wrapped his own right arm behind Chris' back and grabbed his waistband the on the gunman's other side. Chris's hiss drew the medic's attention to the blond man's back. "Lord a mercy. That must hurt something fierce." He adjusted his hold to the back waistband of Chris's long johns and together the two men helped their de facto leader out of the mine into the sun. They helped him lay on his uninjured side and Nathan began to clean Larabee's injuries with carbolic, soap and whiskey. He offered the bottle to the blond. Without protest the blond chugged half the bottle before, Nathan could wrest it away. "Save some for the ride home. Your gonna need it later."

"Ezra has more," countered Chris. "Vin?"

"You have an empty stomach. I don't want it coming back up while I'm working on you. Josiah's taking care of him," assured the healer.

On the other side of the mine entrance, Josiah had his hands full. "Whoa, where you trying to go, boy?"

"Chr . . Chris," stuttered the tracker through clenched teeth as Josiah washed the burn with carbolic.

Part 7

"Darn if you two aren't made for each other. Hold on. If you promise to lie still while I tend this burn, I'll tote you over there beside him."

Vin's head bobbed in a yes motion. The big man once again scooped the younger into his arms and carried him to Chris' side. Josiah hadn't even laid Vin down completely when Vin's hand locked around Chris's forearm.

"Damned stubborn fools. Neither of ya is dying. Never seen the like of two men, can't bear to be separated when one, the other or both is injured."

Josiah and Nathan resumed care of their charges. Josiah finished with Vin and pulled a blanket over the tracker. He then stepped around Vin to help Nathan with Chris.

Nathan reached for his bag near his patient's feet and pulled it up between Chris and himself. He pulled out a bottle of ether and one of laudanum. He poured a small amount of the pain killer into a tin cup. Chris's eyes were closed and didn't see Nathan ready the medicine.

Vin did. His free hand left his side and grabbed Nathan's arm. "What?" he asked.

"Laudanum, for the pain. I don't have much ether and don't want to too much, this will help him deal with the pain without having to use as much of the sedative. I've got to get the bullet out."

The hand retreated and the head nodded.

Nathan administered the drug.

Larabee's fingers curled tighter around Vin's forearm and then relaxed.

Vin didn't let go.

Nathan pulled out his bottle of ether and tipped a drop or two onto a cloth held in the other hand. He handed the cloth to Josiah and capped the bottle. The whole time both men keeping the bottle and the cloth from their faces.

Nathan leaned over and whispered in Chris's ear. "I'm going to put you to sleep now so I can take out that bullet and stitch your back in a couple of places. OK?"

"Yessss," slurred the blond.

Nathan laid the cloth over the gunslinger's nose and mouth. He took the instruments Ezra brought him from the boiling water with the tongs, the gambler handed him. He turned to the tracker briefly, "Go to sleep, he's asleep now. Rest while you can."

Vin rolled once more onto his back and closed his eyes. His hand  still gripped Larabee's forearm. Nathan used his probe to find the bullet. Then he traded them for a tool that looked like a large pair of tweezers. He used the forceps to grip the bullet and pulled it free. While Nathan worked he supervised Josiah adding a drop of ether at regular intervals to the cloth still over the gunslinger's face.

Neither man was aware that Vin had resumed watching them. Larabee's arm still held securely by the younger man's hand.

Nathan almost jumped when Vin's soft voice asked, "He gonna be all right?"

"Yes, if we can control his fever and prevent further infection, he'll be fine."

"My fault, I shoulda kept moving."

"You can stop now Josiah," ordered the healer. "Help me turn him on his stomach more so I can treat his back."

They began to turn Chris when Nathan noticed Vin still had a firm grip on the gunslinger. "Let go now Vin so we can turn him over. You need to sleep. I promise I'll wake you when he starts to come around," promised the healer.

Vin studied the medic's chocolate eyes looking for any possible deception. Finding only honesty, he released Chris' hand.

Buck joined them just as Nathan was assuring Vin that Chris would be ok. He spoke up, "Hey stud, Nathan wouldn't lie to you. Chris is safe, rest now, friend." He brushed the hair back from Vin's brow earning a glare from the tracker.

"That glare don't bother me junior. Go to sleep so you'll be able to help Chris when he wakes.

Vin's eyelids drooped then opened again.

Buck ran his forefinger across Vin's forehead.

Vin watched the finger and tried to pull away. "Relax this will help. It's something my momma taught me." He continued to run his finger back and forth across Vin's forehead, smoothing out the tension creases and providing a very light message to the younger man's brow.

Against Vin's wishes, his eyelids grew heavier. Finally his eyes closed and remained that way.

Josiah, who'd been watching Buck work his own magic with the tracker, marveled, "I've never seen anything like it. You say your momma taught you that?"

"Yeah, I wasn't the only kid, there were some younger kids from some of the other ladies. She showed me how to calm the little ones with that motion. I'm surprised Vin allowed the touch long enough for it to work," offered the ladies man.

"He trusts you, even though he doesn't want to. That you spoke up for him against JD went a long way in gaining that trust. What are we going to do about that bounty on Vin?"

"We're not going to collect it, I'll tell you that," retorted the skirt-chaser.

"I didn't think we would. I don't want to. I meant, how are we going to handle this to get him cleared. We both know he's not the murdering kind. What do you think Nathan?" asked the preacher.

"I think we should just ignore it and keep a closer eye on his back. We're not going to let anyone take him away from us."

Vin wasn't quite asleep like the three older men thought. He listened to their words and felt warm all over. No one had cared for him like these men, since the Indians who took him in when his mother died. He let himself drift off secure in the knowledge he and Chris were in good hands.

Nathan spoke into the hush that followed his words about watching Vin's back. "The sun's setting; it'll be getting cold. "Let's move them back inside by the fire pit and get some dinner. In the morning, I'll decide if Chris can be moved. We'll need a travois for Chris; he shouldn't be on a horse. Vin should be fine with someone riding close by."

JD had joined them after stoking the fire. "Nathan, why did Vin pass out when the weapon fired? I know he was injured, but not that badly or was he?"

"I'm sure the burn was a shock to his system. However, it has more to do with his not being 100 percent healed from his last injury, and the pneumonia that he had to fight as well. Add to that to his worry over Chris and your wanting to arrest him, I think his body just used up his limited reserves."

Buck broke in. "You saw the size of the guy he fought, he was the size of you and Vin put together. Hell, me and Chris put together. That guy must have packed a wallop and he got a few good hits in on Vin before the gun went off. That seems like a pretty good reason to me to collapse."

Nathan finished his interrupted reasoning with, "he wasn't totally out, more like totally spent. I got to him right after he hit the ground. He wasn't unconscious, just exhausted and hurting."

Ezra joined the group gathered around the two sleeping men. "How are our two wounded companions?"

"As I explained to JD, Vin's just worn out. Chris should be fine, if we can get rid of the infection he was starting and keep his fever under control."

"I found a stream to provide water. The horses have been watered and hobbled for the night. Buck and I unsaddled them all and JD helped us brush them after he tended the fire and gathered wood for the night. We buried the cretin. Here are the effects from his pockets. Maybe there is something to identify him so someone can be notified of his demise," informed Ezra.

"I laid out Vin's bedroll and the extra he brought for Chris nearest the fire, I added more wood to get the mine warmer. Buck, should we post a guard for the night?" asked JD.

"Yeah, not a bad idea. I don't think anyone will bother us, but it doesn't hurt to make sure. This mine is old so don't be bumping the support posts or making lots of noise inside. We don't need it coming down on us. We need to stay near the front of the mine," replied Buck.

"Is it safe?" asked JD eyeing the aging timbers uncertainly.

"Yeah, I suspect so. I've seen worse timbering in working mines. Let's not push our luck though."

Part 8
The next morning

The night had passed without incidence except for Chris' thrashing from the fever delirium. Nathan was up most of the night tending Larabee, sponging him off with cool water. Now he was once again changing the dressing on the wounds. The gunslinger's shoulder was infected as was one of the cuts on his back. Both wounds had to be drained and restitched loosely to allow it to continue to weep. The fever was still present, but it hadn't risen any higher.

Vin awoke in the middle of the night and sat with Chris, helping Nathan sponge him off and calming him when Chris called out for him during the fever dreams. Vin's voice seemed to be the only thing that would calm the blond man down.

As soon as it was light, Buck took JD and taught him how to build a travois. They'd saddled the horses as Josiah cooked breakfast.

Josiah and Nathan carried Chris to the contraption JD and Buck had fashioned. They were about to place him on the transport sled when Vin walked out of the cave. "We need to secure this to two horses. The ground is too rough around here, he'll be shaken to pieces thataway."

"Two horses, Vin? Can you show us how to do that?" asked Buck.

"Yeah. The travois needs to be turned into a litter, which has poles straight to each other. He held his arms out to show what he meant. It will be attached to the stirrups of two horses; one behind the other with the litter hanging in between. We'll need to fix the blankets you used to make the sides straight instead of leaning in. The poles will have to be longer to give the horses room to move. We also need a way to secure him to the litter, so's he don't topple off. Nathan there's clothes for Chris in my saddle bags. There's also extra shirts, tear some up to use to secure him. Buck, you and I are gonna get some new poles. We'll use my rope to bind them together."

The men set to their tasks, with Ezra, JD and Josiah pitching in to help where they could. A half-hour later, they were ready to ride. The litter carrying their leader was strapped to the stirrups of the two sorrels that belonged to the bounty hunter one in front and one behind the litter. Chris had a cloth tied across his chest carefully placed and padded to protect his shoulder. There were also straps across his knees and hips.

They started out slowly with Vin showing Buck how to guide the lead horse and keep an eye on the stirrup on his side. JD rode on the other side keeping an eye on the lashings there. Ezra rode on the same side as JD, but beside the trailing horse, performing the same function, Josiah took the same side as Buck beside the trailing horse. Nathan rode beside Chris between JD and Ezra so that the horses were almost nose to tail. Once Vin was sure Buck was leading the front horse correctly, keeping the litter as straight level as possible, he dropped back to ride on Larabee's other side across from the healer. Nathan and Josiah kept close watch on the tracker as well as on Chris. Chris had been liberally dosed with laudanum; therefore, he was unaware of his friend's watchfulness over him. They made slow progress along the broader road that led back towards the cabin and the town beyond. The narrow shortcut was forsaken due to the narrower, rougher passages. The added time was deemed worth it in the smoother, safer ride.

They stopped periodically to allow Nathan to attend to Chris' needs, for water and bandage changes. The fever rose with the heat of the day. Midday found them camped along a small stream, where the litter was lowered to the ground to allow Chris and the horses to rest. Nathan, Josiah and Vin tended to Chris while the others tended the horses and refilled canteens and prepared lunch. After a two hour stop they again set off towards town.

Dusk was falling when they entered the town from the end nearest the livery. Chris would not appreciate being carried through town on a litter any longer than necessary. Luckily their timing was such that most folks were sitting down to dinner; leaving less people on the streets. The horses were turned over to the livery owner and Larabee was carried carefully up the stairs to the clinic still on the stretcher.

JD disappeared and 20 minutes later was back with Mary and Mrs. Potter carrying trays of food for everyone.

Vin commandeered the chair by Chris' bed. Once more Larabee's arm was clasped by the callused tracker's hand. Vin refused food but accepted the cup of heavily laced coffee from Mary's smaller hands.

"I put a quarter of the sugar bowl in there," she teased. "I also put some cocoa powder in it." She didn't mention the dose of laudanum that Nathan added.

The sweetener and the cocoa masked the bitter taste of the drug. Vin drained the sweet concoction quickly. Having eaten little since the ordeal began; the drug quickly took effect on the sharpshooter. Josiah and Nathan eased the young man out of the chair and onto a mat laid alongside the bed which held the gunslinger.

The remaining men retired to other pursuits, Nathan catching up on sleep in his room at the back of the clinic. Ezra went to bathe away the trail dust and find a game of chance. JD went to check on the town. Josiah sent a wire to the Judge asking him to come, and then he entered the church to pray. Buck also grabbed a bath and then lost himself in willing female arms.

Mary took turns with Mrs. Potter tending to Larabee's needs; cooling the remaining fever and checking on the healing wounds to help them overcome the infections present.

Mary was sitting with Chris when the dreams began. Nathan stumbled from his room and tripped over the tracker, rousing him further from the drug induced stupor. Vin's soft reassurances calmed the blond and he settled back to sleep. Now that Vin and Nathan were awake, Mary made her way home to see to her son.

An hour later Chris awoke again. The sweat poured off of him as the fever broke. Once again Nathan and Vin were called upon to ease the troubled man and to change the damp bedding. Vin coaxed a small glass of water into the parched man. By dawn the infections were all but gone and only a very low fever remained.

Nathan pushed Vin from the clinic and sent him to the boarding house to sleep. Unwilling to go that far, Vin climbed into his rickety wagon and fell asleep. His best friend was going to be all right. His friends were going to help him clear his name; all was well in his world.

That peace lasted until a couple of no good punks, tried to rob the bank. They'd heard the peacekeepers were out of town rescuing one of their own. They didn't bother checking to see if they'd come back. That was their last mistake ever. They died in a hail of gunfire delivered by the six standing peacekeepers. The gunfight was over quickly. The bank's funds were returned to the safe. There they resided, as safe as the peacekeeper leader tucked up in the bed in the clinic.

Part 9

Nathan's Clinic next morning

Chris sat up in bed and looked around. He could hear someone; he assumed it was Nathan, puttering around in the other room. Other than that he was alone. 'Vin! Where's Vin!' his mind cried. He scrambled as much as he was able to hurry to get out of the bed. His moan of pain from the numerous wounds brought Nathan running into the room.

"Chris, ya outhen be up. Lay back down, ya hear me."


"Vin's safe. That bounty hunter brute gave him a pounding, but he'll be fine; a few bruises and a flash burn. I sent him to the boarding house to get some rest."

Chris relaxed back into the bed. Then Nathan's words fully registered. "You know about the bounty?"

"Yes. In my opinion, that charge is wrong. The rest of us met up while Mary was tending you to discuss it. We think we should try to clear his name."

At the mention of Mary tending him, the gunslinger's face tinged pink. "You do? How does Vin feel about that?" queried the injured man.

"I don't rightly know. We ain't talked it over with him yet. Figured we'd let you handle that. Josiah'll be here shortly and I'm fixin' ta go check on Vin."

The conversation ended as Josiah entered with a tray. "Chris! It's good to see you awake brother. How are you feeling?"

"Bit stove up, but thankful for the rescue," came the reply.

"Well now that Josiah's here, I'm gonna go check on our wanted friend." Nathan tried to lighten the mood.

This comment brought an iced pond glare from the gunslinger's green eyes.

"Yeah, he's wanted alright. I want to talk to him. Bring him back here with ya Nate; better yet. Give me a minute and I'll go with ya."  

"Yur not going anywhere. I'll bring him back. You settle back and eat yur breakfast, afore it gets cold."

"You know your southern drawl gets worse when you're angry?" asked the gunfighter trying and failing to hide his smirk completely.

"Just eat yur breakfast and behave while I'm gone. Yur worse than an ole biddy hen after her chicks."

An hour later, Chris was fit to be tied when Nathan and Vin finally walked through the door. The tracker and the gunslinger each carefully appraised the other. 'I'm fine,' offered the blue eyes. 'I'm healing, thanks to you,' offered the green though neither man spoke a word. Together they turned blue and green glares on the other two men.

"We're goin', you'd best remember this is my place," declared Nathan as he and Josiah stepped out on the landing.

Inside, the silence was heavy for a few minutes, as the two friends studied each other again. Finally they both spoke. "I shoulda told ya." "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Well, tell me now," demanded Chris.

"I didn't know you well enough at first," offered Vin.

"And?" queried Chris.

"Then I didn't want to put you in a bad spot. If you didn't know about my past then, you wouldn't have to choose between the law and me," the tracker told his boots.

"You didn't think I'd believe you." It wasn't a question from the blond.

"When you're on the run, you can't trust nobody. I'm powerful sorry you got caught up in it." He rose from the chair he was perched on. "I'll be gone in an hour. Gotta get me a few 'visions for I light out."

"You're not going anywhere, Vin," stated the gunslinger with deadly intent. "You're going to park it on that chair and tell me why there's a bounty on your head. I don't believe for one minute you're a murderer."

Vin was so surprised by the order and the words of faith that he sat in the chair as instructed. "You gonna tell the others what we talked about?" he asked.

"They care about you. At least the two on the porch and Buck. I think JD and Ezra do as well. Don't you want them to know why there's a bounty on your head?"

"Yes. I want them to know. I'm not sure I can go through it more'n once though," stated the tracker.

"Nathan, Josiah, quit eavesdropping and go round up the others." Chris raised his voice just enough to be sure it was heard clearly through the door. 

The door opened on two sheepish faces appeared. "Will do,"  "Right away, brother," the two men acknowledged the order. The door closed and the two friends inside could hear the two friends outside troop down the stairs.

"What was all the shooting? I heard it, but couldn't get out of bed. Everyone ok?"   Chris asked once the he and Vin were alone again.

"Everyone's fine. Just some dispectadoes, Ezra called them tried to rob the bank. They'll be planted on boot hill by the end of the day," allowed Vin.

"Dispectadoes? You mean desperadoes?" corrected Chris.

"Yeah, that's it." Vin squirmed on the chair afraid his other secret would come out.

"Vin, I know you can't read," offered the older man. The long haired man's head shot up, his blue eyes as big as saucers. "I've seen you pass stuff off for others to read. You do it a little too quickly to have read it yourself. Don't worry; I doubt anyone else has noticed."

 "Josiah knows, I had to ask him to read the message on the bottom of the wanted poster," offered Vin.

The other five announced their arrival by the sound of boots on the wooden stairs.

They came in and gathered around their two injured friends in a silent show of solidarity. Everyone entered silently until JD walked in. "Vin, I just can't arrest you, you can't be guilty," he blurted.

"You damned well better not, JD," declared Larabee, fixing the sheriff with a green eyed glare.

"Vin wants to tell us all why he's wanted."

Vin had moved over and perched on the side of the bed where Chris sat propped against several pillows? when the others entered. After a moments silence he began his tale. He faltered and Chris's good arm shot out and clasped Vin's in the forearm hold that was becoming their trademark version of a handshake. This steadied him and he went on to explain how he was framed.

There was silence at first as everyone digested the information and pondered on solutions. Not surprisingly, it was JD who broke the quiet, "I think we should ask Judge Travis if there is any way he can help. Surely he knows about this already. He seems like a man who would have checked on our backgrounds before hiring us."

That statement made everyone uneasy at first, then Chris said, "JD, you're right. He probably does and is waiting on Vin to come to him for help."

"He may already be working on it," offered Josiah.

"JD check his schedule on the wall of the jail and find out where he is. I'll write a wire and send a request for him to come as soon as he can." 

At that point they heard the rumble of stage pulling into town. A few moments later they all heard a small boy's delighted cry of 'Grandpa.'

"Never mind, go get him and bring him here, JD," ordered Chris.

JD had barely made it to the bottom of the stairs when he saw Judge Orrin Travis headed towards the livery and the clinic above.

"I know, JD," Orrin spoke before JD could explain.

"Come on. I've got some important papers to serve."

"But he's innocent!" declared JD scrambling after the old judge.

Orrin breezed into the clinic to face four guns. He heard a fifth behind him. "Whoa, boys, put away the hardware until I've finished what I have to say."

Five guns went down, but were not put away.

"Vincent Tanner, stand up," the judge ordered. Vin rose on shaky legs. His clasp on Chris's forearm moved to his hand and fell away as he stood.

"I present you with the papers that declare you are innocent of the charges brought against you in Tascosa, Texas. Keep these with you at least until things die down. It will take a while for news of your innocence to be made known. There may yet be hunters who haven't heard."  

Vin was speechless, he'd expected to be sent back or have the sentence carried out here.

With a whoop, Buck grabbed Vin in a bear hug that squeezed most of the air from the smaller man's lungs. "I knew you were innocent."

The rest of the men gathered round and congratulated the stunned man.

Chris remained where he was; watching, waiting on Nate to step in.

Sure enough, Nathan pushed the still reeling young man back down on the edge of the bed beside Chris. "Breathe boy. That's it. Take as deep of a breath as you can. Now let it out slowly. Again.

Chris and the others watched as Nathan calmed the now pale young man down. Chris reached out with his good arm and clasped Vin's once again. This time Larabee used his grip to pull the tracker into a congratulatory hug. "I knew you were innocent. It never crossed my mind that you could be guilty."

Two sets of eyes, one blue, one green, conveyed, what men never said aloud, 'I'm glad you're my friend. I trust you. You're my brother of the heart.'

The End