What Hides in the Darkness by LaraMee

Characters: Vin, Chris, Buck, Inez, the rest of the gang

Acknowledgements: Many, MANY thanks to Ro for translating some of Inez's dialogue for me. And thanks to Pamela, Katy, Jeanne, Annie, Jill and Firefox for looking this over for me to keep me on track! This wouldn't be nearly as good without your help folks! Any remaining typos, etc. are all mine!

Dedication: To Jean (April 5), Teresa (June 18) and Dawn (June 26). HAPPY BIRTHDAYS LADIES!! This is one of those long lingering WIPs that I am endeavoring to complete and post.


"How well do you really know anyone?"
~Chris Larabee, Penance

Inez Recillos smiled at the man standing at the bar. It was just past midnight, past closing time, and he was the only other person in the room. "So, Señor Vin, how did you get so lucky as to draw night patrol?"

Tanner smiled back, a flash of white in a tanned face. "Don't mind it, really. Ends jist as the sun's comin' up."

She didn't need to ask for clarification. She'd learned enough about the quiet tracker to know that he felt more connected with nature than the hustle and bustle of even a town as small as this one. Pouring him more coffee and adding a dollop of Señor Standish's best scotch whiskey, she nudged the cup toward him.

Taking the drink and nodding his thanks, Tanner drank over half the cup before sitting it back on the bar. "Mighty fine... but don't Ezra get a bit upset when his special stock starts disappearin'?"

Shrugging, the young woman replied, "He usually believes that he was celebrating a good night at the tables. I don't tell him otherwise."

With a chuckle, Vin drank the rest of the coffee and handed the empty cup to the saloon manager. "Obliged, Señorita. Reckon I'd best get on the road."

Just then the sound of the bat-wing doors slamming open startled both of them, and they turned their attention in that direction. Buck Wilmington strode into the room, his face dark and his expression grim.

"Somethin' up, Bucklin?" Vin's hand relaxed from where it had automatically grasped the butt of his sawed off.

"Why don't you tell me, you ignorant son of a bitch? Just who in the hell do you think you are?!" He stopped; close enough for the others to see the fire in his dark blue eyes.

"What the hell are you talkin' about?" Vin straightened from his customary slouch, looking the other man right in the eyes.

"You know damn good and well what I'm talkin' about you lousy, worthless, son of a bitch!" With that he swung, heavy fist catching Vin in the jaw. Stunned, the smaller man dropped to the sawdust covered floor.

Nearby, Inez cried out angrily, in Spanish. "°Pare! °Salga de aquí, ahora! °Salga! °No es bien recibido aquí! °Salga!" She hurried around the bar, dropping to her knees beside the stunned Texan. She held a bar rag to the man's bleeding lip, her eyes meeting Wilmington's, dark flames colliding as they stared at one another.

"Don't waste your time with this worthless piece of ---"

"°Salga! °Ahora!" She pointed toward the door.

"I'm goin'," Buck growled, his tone low. Turning toward Vin, he said, "This ain't over, boy. Best you watch your back."

They watched him storm back out the door, still cursing. Vin gently pulled Inez's hand from his face and slowly worked his jaw. With a grunt, he rubbed at a sore spot. He regained his feet, reaching down and helping the young woman to hers as well.

Shaking his head, Tanner said, "What the hell was that was all about? Reckon he's been drinkin'?"

Eyes fixed on the empty doorway, Inez replied, "I'm not certain. I've only seen him as angry one other time... and that was with Paulo." She spit out the hated name before asking, "Have the two of you had words lately?"

"Nope... not that I recall." Rubbing his sore jaw, Vin said, "Well, reckon I'd best get on the trail. Think I'll stop by Larabee's shack and see if maybe he can shine some light on what's goin' on."

Worry in her expression, Inez said, "Watch your back, mi amigo. He is still very angry."

"Aw, hell... ‘scuse me... Inez, reckon this is the worst I'll git from him, other than maybe a tongue lashin' when we settle this... whatever it is. Meanwhile I'll let ‘im calm down a bit and stay outta his way." Pulling his hat on, he touched the brim and started out the door with a smile. "Night, Señorita."

~o~

He rode slowly through the night air, darkness surrounding him. It was the new moon, with only the barest light to guide him. Not that it mattered much; he knew the area and he trusted his horse. The sure-footed gelding would carry him through the familiar territory as he made his rounds.

With one leg hooked around the saddle horn, he allowed himself to relax. Even relaxed, though, Vin Tanner's keen senses were in tune with his surroundings. Pulling out his harmonica, he blew a tuneless melody, keeping time with the soft breeze that blew through the trees, over the grass, and up the distant hills.

The only thing spoiling the night was the questions that gnawed at him. What had set Buck off? The big man was generally easy going, only getting his back up when he took offense at someone doing harm to those he cared about. Vin had always figured that he was one of those Buck cared about; he certainly never thought he'd be at the wrong end of the man's fist. On the wrong side of that Wilmington temper.

Well, maybe Chris would have some idea of what was going on. He'd be riding close to the blond's little shack. He'd stop by and talk to the man. Probably have to keep him from going after Buck, too. Lord knew those two going head to head wouldn't be pretty... What was that word Ezra used? Monumental. That was it. He'd seen both men in a bad temper, but never going head to head over something.

He smiled at the thought that Standish would find a way to make money over something like that, too. The former bounty hunter shook his head. They were the strangest mix of men he'd ever known to ride together.

Vin was drawn sharply from his thoughts when he heard the sound of a twig snapping nearby. Before he could do more than register that sound, though, he found himself flying through the air. Landing in an ungraceful heap on the hard ground he gasped, finding that his lungs suddenly weren't working. Tears of pain filled his eyes as he tried to clear his vision. Tried to get his mind to work. He heard his horse whinny then there was a sharp snap of leather against flesh. Hoof-beats told him that his horse had been the recipient of that strike, and was now tearing away at a full out run.

Another sound called his attention, and he turned toward it. There, in the shadows of the night, he saw a figure. Tall. Light colored hat... coat. The figure stood there for a minute, and then mounted his horse. His gray horse.

As the rider turned away, Vin gasped out breathlessly, "Buck?"

~o~

Chris yawned, rubbing a hand over his face. It was the middle of the night and he should be in bed. A dream... actually, a nightmare... had wakened him, though, and he doubted he'd find more sleep this night. Dressed only in his black jeans and carrying a cup of coffee, he wandered out onto his little porch and dropped to the chair sitting there. Lighting the lamp that sat on the table beside him, he picked up the book that lay there as well. Opening it, he began reading by the low flame of the lamp. From time to time he took a drink from the coffee, feeling the hot liquid, laced with a small amount of whiskey; wash over his tongue and down his throat.

He had borrowed a weathered copy of Silas Marner from Mary Travis, and soon found himself lost in the tale of the solitary weaver once more.

At some point he heard the distant, faint report of a gun. Laying the book aside, he sat tensely in his chair, listening for more shots. But they were shots that never came, and eventually he settled back. Deciding that it had been nothing more than someone hunting game, he returned to the story.

~o~

Vin lay on his back, staring into the darkness above him. Pain poured through his body, radiating outward from his shoulder. It emanated from his back, telling him where the bullet was. He cursed; there was no way he could patch himself up if the wound was in his back. Damned, cowardly way to attack a man, he thought to himself.

Buck?

The fog of his mind lifted slowly, and he remembered seeing his attacker. It had to be a mistake. Buck Wilmington wouldn't shoot him... there was no way in hell he'd believe that. It had to be a trick of his mind... that's what it was. He'd been thinking about the big man and that had caused him to see something that wasn't there.

That had to be it.

He groaned as the pain threatened to overwhelm him. Next came the sensation of cold... numbness. His left arm was numb, right down to the tips of his fingers. He needed to get help, before he bled to death.

Gingerly lifting his left hand with his right, he struggled to tuck the useless limb inside his jacket. That accomplished, he let his head drop back to the ground, breathing slowly, through of his mouth. He wanted to be sick; to rid himself of the nausea that kept him lying there.

Rolling to his right, the tracker fought the pain and lethargy as he pushed himself upright. Sweat ran down his face, covered his body, and burned into the wound. He fought off the pain and ignored the nausea in order to push himself, one handed, to his feet. Once there, he swayed and lurched, staggering as he fought to stay upright. He leaned against one of the sparsely grown trees nearby, panting as he gathered up what little strength he could summon.

Doing his best to keep his mind clear; to keep his thoughts together, he contemplated his options. They seemed to be slim and none right now. Trying to remember just where he was, he slowly realized that Larabee's place was only about a mile away, maybe less. If he could keep his feet under him, and head in the right direction, he might make it to the shack.

Maybe.

He pushed away from the tree, and began walking in the direction of Chris Larabee's fledgling homestead.

~o~

Chris yawned, looking up from the book to rest his eyes for a moment. The story was interesting, managing to capture his imagination. He'd managed to read quite a bit of it, at least giving him something productive to do through the dark hours.

The sound of a horse coming toward him caught his attention and brought him to his feet. Reaching for his gun, holstered and hanging from the back of his chair, he blew out the lantern. Standing in the shadows, he waited for whatever came.

The first thing he saw was the familiar, white blaze. As the gelding came closer, he heard it call out with a wicker, the greeting answered by Larabee's horse.

The second thing he saw was that the horse was riderless.

"What the hell did you get into this time, Tanner?" He asked softly as he stepped off the porch and padded barefoot toward the big animal. Moving slowly, he reached out toward the gelding, speaking softly to the skittish horse. "Take it easy, mule, you know me. You know I wouldn't hurt you, so come on and settle down. Where'd you leave Vin? Hmm? Leave him on foot back there on the trail?"

Reaching the black, he stroked a hand down its sweat-soaked neck, continuing to talk in soft, soothing tones. Tying the dangling reins to the top post of his corral, he began to look the animal over. Other than the fact that Peso was spooked, there was only a shallow cut across his rump to show there had been trouble on the trail.

Sprinting back toward his home, Chris dashed through the open door. Scant moments later he re-emerged, fully dressed and strapping on his gun. Apologizing to the gelding, he vaulted onto the saddle and aimed the animal back toward the direction it had just come from.

~o~

It was becoming harder and harder to keep his feet under him. He could feel the blood running down his back, and knew that he wouldn't be able to stay upright for much longer. His right hand was clamped around his left forearm, keeping it as immobile as possible.

His thoughts were wandering, one beginning before the last one ended. From time to time he thought he could see the words floating through the air, disappearing from view in the inky blackness.

Someone giggled at that... thought it was hysterical that his words were visible to the naked eye.

Lord, on top of it all, he was losing his mind.

Then he was on his knees, slumping and gasping for air, and he had no idea how he'd gotten there. And then he couldn't quite remember where he was, anyway. He was pretty certain he knew who he was, but even that was up for debate at the moment.

It'd be real nice if whoever was giggling would lend him a hand about now.

"Vin? Vin?"

He frowned. Who was hollering at him? "Yeah?" He murmured softly.

"Vin Tanner!"

"What?" Again the word was barely audible.

"Vin! Answer me, damn it!"

"Chris?" He tried to look up, but found it too difficult to raise his head. Why was Larabee yelling for him?

"Vin?" The call came again, and then, "Vin!"

Suddenly someone was kneeling beside him, strong hands holding onto him. He sighed as relief flooded through him. Someone had found him. He was safe now. Things would be all right. Then he cried out hoarsely as hands pressed against that point in his back that was the source of all pain.

Chris felt the other man stiffen, winced at the weak cry, and registered the sticky warmth that covered his hand. "Jesus, Tanner... what happened?"

"S... some... someone sh-shot me," Vin replied, shivering now, as if he was suddenly covered in ice. Then, brows furrowed, he murmured, "Buck?"

"Buck? Is Buck out here, too?" Chris wrapped his arms around the younger man, lifting him gently to his feet. When Tanner couldn't seem to get his balance, Larabee held him, keeping him safe and upright. As he did, his keen eyes pierced the darkness, trying to find his oldest friend.

Vin shook his head. "Not... with... not with me. Came... came outta... no... nowhere. He... he sh-shot... shot me?"

The blond decided that his younger friend must be out of his mind from the pain. There was no way the big man would hurt any of them. Retrieving his handkerchief from his jacket, and then took the one from around Vin's neck as well. As carefully as possible, he used them to staunch the flow of blood.

"Okay, let's get you in the saddle. Think you can help me?"

Vin nodded, too exhausted to talk now. He allowed the other man to lead him toward his horse, then fumbled to help Chris get him into the saddle. He sat there, slumped over his horse's neck, while Larabee climbed up behind him.

Coaxing Tanner to lean back against him, the black-clad man took up the reins, heading the tired animal toward his cabin. He would need to get Vin to town, and to Nathan, soon. But right now his place was much closer, and he needed to get the bleeding stopped.

Vin lay limply in Chris' loose embrace, drifting in and out of consciousness. Whenever his eyes closed, he saw Buck's face, looming before him, a cold smile on his face. Then he would jerk, wakening the pain once more, as he fought the idea that Buck Wilmington had done this to him.

After all, Buck was his friend.

~o~

They were soon at the cabin, Chris heaving a sigh of relief and Peso calling to the other horses. Only Vin was silent, lying heavily in the other man's arms. He hadn't roused or spoken for some time, which worried the blond to no end.

Reining the big horse in as close as he could to the front door, he dismounted, keeping hold of the insensate man. Softly he called out, "Vin? Let's get you down and into the house, all right?"

Whether he actually understood what was being said, or just too far gone to keep his seat, Vin began to slide toward the older man.

Chris managed to catch his friend, drawing him the rest of the way off the horse and to the ground. Tanner's knees buckled and, with a breathless moan, he slumped toward the porch floor. Larabee held him firmly, bringing him back upright with a grunt. "You're sure as hell heavier than you look," He growled as he took most of the other man's weight. Half dragging Vin into the house, he moved toward the far corner, where his narrow bed sat.

Awkwardly, the blond settled the injured man on the edge of the bed. He fumbled with Tanner's coat, shirt and undershirt, cursing each of the garments as he pulled them off. "It's the middle of summer, you mangy Texan, ain't no need for twelve layers of clothes."

As Chris held the man, sliding the undershirt up the lean body, Vin's head thudded to his shoulder. He stopped, gently rubbing his hand over the bloodied, sweat-soaked back. "Take it easy, Pard. I'm gonna get the bleeding stopped, and then we'll see about getting you in to see Nathan. Understand?"

Vin's head moved against Larabee's shoulder, letting the man know he had understood. His right arm lifted weakly, from the elbow, to grasp the gunman's forearm.

Chris closed his hand around the bare arm, a smile ghosting across his lips. "Okay then. I'm gonna lay you down so I can get to the wound."

The injured Texan whimpered softly as he was once more coaxed to move. He wanted nothing more than to just curl up and go to sleep. He didn't want to be manhandled; to be shifted and called on to move any more. The other man was quietly insistent, however, and after more cajoling, Vin found himself lying on his belly, face down on Larabee's bed.

Chris pressed a cloth against the wound, making certain that it was tight against the hole in his friend's flesh. Then he left Tanner lying quietly, while he took care of other matters.

Putting a kettle of water on the stove, he built up the fire and left the liquid to heat. That taken care of, he went outside to where Peso stood waiting, patiently for once. He led the animal toward the corral, removing his saddle and tack. Rubbing some straw over the glistening coat, he decided that the horse would be fine for now. Returning to the cabin, he gathered up the lantern and the chair, carrying them inside with him.

Lighting the lamp, he knelt on the floor beside the bed. Then he gathered up whatever he could use for bandages, and sat it all on the chair. Going to the stove, he wrapped a cloth around the handle, and carried the heated water back to where Vin lay.

Kneeling beside the bed once more, Chris removed the bloodied cloths and dipped a dry, clean one in the water. Wringing it out, he gently began to bathe the blood from Tanner's body. It covered most of his back, but was concentrated most around his left shoulder. He left that area for last, using a second cloth to bathe the blood from around the torn flesh. The injured man moaned a couple of times, but didn't come fully awake. He was grateful for that, at least.

When the tan, well-muscled back was clean and dry, Larabee took another dry cloth and soaked it in whiskey. Squeezing it out just enough, he pressed it against the bullet wound, one hand pressing down to keep his friend from moving. He felt Vin jump weakly beneath his hands, whimpering in pain, despite being unconscious. "Sorry, Pard," he said softly, "I'm sorry, Vin."

"S'okay," Tanner murmured, still more asleep than awake.

Deciding the younger man wasn't going to be doing much moving right now, Larabee settled on simply leaving the cloth pressed against the wound, rather than wrestling a proper bandage on the prone body. He pulled worn boots from the man's feet and slipped his holster off slim hips, loosening the tie down before hanging the entire thing over the bedpost. Then he shook his blanket out, spreading it over Vin, covering him to his chin. Unless the younger man became delirious, he would make certain he had his weapon at hand.

There was no way of telling whether the Texan's attacker would return or not.

Buck?

Vin had sounded as if he thought the man had shot him. That was ridiculous; Buck Wilmington might be a hothead at times, but he wasn't one to attack a friend.

In the first days of their comradeship, he had the idea that Vin wasn't overly fond of his old friend. In the beginning of their partnership the quiet Texan had slid more than one look toward the boisterous cowboy; finding his refusal to take things seriously difficult to understand. But Tanner slowly came to realize that, although Wilmington was a big kid in a lot of ways, he was also a good man to have in a fight and fiercely protective of his friends.

Then there was that time with Chanu. Vin had gone up against most of the town, unwilling to believe that the young brave was guilty of killing Claire Mosley. Buck and Ezra had been the most vocal of the peacekeepers, their minds set that Chanu was guilty. But, in the end, the Indian had been proven innocent, and Wilmington and Standish had done their best to make amends toward Tanner.

None of it made sense. He just hoped that, when Vin was better, he could shed some light on the entire incident.

If he got better.

Shoving that thought aside, Larabee took a drink from the whiskey bottle. Pushing stiffly to his feet, he took the bloodied water outside, tossing it into the dirt. Coming back into the cabin, he poured a little more water into a shallow pan and carried it to the chair. Finding yet another clean cloth, he soaked it, squeezed it out, and stroked it over the unconscious man's pale face. Vin sighed once, but otherwise lay completely still.

He'd get to the bottom of things later. Right now, he had to keep his friend alive.

~o~

Chris woke to the sound of a low moan, opening his eyes to find the other man beginning to stir. At some point he had settled onto the chair, where he was slouched down and sprawled out now. Pulling himself upright with a groan, he leaned forward and settled his hand on Tanner's uninjured shoulder. "Vin?"

One, wide, unfocused eye blinked open halfway. The younger man whispered in a raspy tone. "Hurtin'."

Larabee knew it was bad if the Texan was going to admit it even before he asked. Rubbing the clammy flesh, he said, "Reckon so. Think the bleeding stopped at least. Think you could stand me binding the wound? Then we can sit you up a bit; give you some whiskey to cut the pain."

He moaned at the very thought, but simply nodded. Chris was quickly rounding up more bandage material. He did his best to fight the pain, but he just didn't seem to have the strength. His friend got him sitting up, and all he could do was lean against the blond, trying his best not to cry out. He managed to help a little; to shift himself when coaxed. All the same, by the time Larabee informed him that they were finished, and he could lay down, he was trembling, and covered in a cold sweat.

Lowering the weak and injured man on his back, propping him up with pillows and a quilt, Chris once more apologized. "I'm sorry, Pard. Know it hurts... wish I could make it stop."

"Ain't... bad," Tanner managed to grit out through clenched teeth.

With a shake of his head, Larabee said, "Yeah, right." Rather than engaging in an argument, he retrieved a metal cup and poured a healthy dose of whiskey into it. Putting a hand behind the perspiration soaked head; Chris steadied the other man while he held the cup to his lips.

Vin drank the bitter liquid, grimacing as it burned its way down his throat. Larabee controlled the cup, so he didn't drink too much or too fast. Even so, by the time the cup was empty, he was dizzy and panting.

Lowering the man back to the pillow, Larabee said softly, "Just breathe, Vin... it'll pass in a little while. He wiped the perspiration from the colorless features, worry creasing his face. "Take it easy, Pard."

Finally things settled down, thanks in part to the whiskey. Tanner managed to crack open his eyes, staring up at the blond. "Stop frettin'... I'm..."

"Okay. Yeah, I know." Larabee rolled his eyes.

Vin managed a brief, sheepish, grin. "Whattaya... ‘spect?" Then he began to cough, the action ripping through him like a hot poker.

Chris held a cloth beneath his friend's chin, his other hand working to keep the younger man as still as possible. He wanted to offer him more support, but anything he could say sounded hollow and worthless, even in his mind.

Tanner finally collapsed, exhausted, onto the pillows. A breathless moan escaped him, tears rolling unchecked down his face. He felt the other man bathing his face once more, but couldn't summon the strength to respond.

The blond slid his hand beneath Vin's shoulder, feeling the dampness of fresh blood on the bandage. He found Tanner staring at him, his look a combination of fear and reconciliation. Dropping his head, he said softly, "You're still bleeding."

"'S mornin'... got... gotta h-head fer... t-town." The Texan drawled.

"Maybe one of the boys will..." Larabee trailed off, knowing that anything he said would be a lie. The others rarely rode out here unless there was a problem in town.

Vin just nailed him with a look, a small smile taking the edge off his words. "Don't think I... wanna wa... wait."

~o~

Chris helped his friend to walk from the bed to the front door, where their horses stood, ready to ride. Vin was holding himself as still as he could, but even the smallest move sent daggers of pain shooting through his body.

It took nearly a quarter hour to get to the horses and to get Vin into the saddle. Finally mounted atop his black, he rocked precariously, nearly falling back off. With a monumental effort, he grated out. "Rope."

It took Larabee a long moment to decipher what the other man meant. "Tie you to the saddle?"

Nodding, Tanner said, "Only... way."

Heaving a sigh, the blond reluctantly agreed. "Yeah, okay."

Ten minutes later, they were on the road toward town. Vin was bound to his saddle, both ankles and his right arm fastened snugly. His left arm, still cold and numb, was bound to his chest to keep it still. Chris had helped Tanner into his black duster, fastening it around the slender man before they began their ride.

The blond rode just ahead of the other man, leading the fractious gelding and praying the animal didn't get into some sort of snit over something. He glanced back at Vin every minute or so, making certain he was managing the ride. So far, Tanner was hanging on gamely, head resting on his chest, while his bound hand was wrapped, white knuckled, around the saddle horn.

Larabee kept up a running commentary, doing his best to keep the other man grounded. He knew that, more than anything, he wanted to keep from thinking about the younger man's chances of making it through the ride. At the very least, he was going to lose more blood... possibly too much. He could end up with a fever, which would ravage his already weakened body. He could...

He could die.

"No!" Chris growled the word aloud, doing his best to force the thought from his mind. He refused to accept that this could be the last ride the two of them took together.

~o~

The ride took far longer than it usually did but, finally, the cluster of buildings they had come to think of as home came into view. Larabee reined both animals in, coaxing Peso abreast of his own black gelding.

Reaching out, he gently placed a hand on the Texan's slumped shoulder. "Vin?" When he received a soft grunt in response, he said, "We're close to town. Think you could stand it if I kick these jug-heads into a run for a few minutes?"

Tanner managed to lift his head, piercing the other man's soul with bloodshot eyes. Then he nodded slowly before letting his head fall back to his chest. His body slumped even further in the saddle, every muscle seeming to scream with pain.

Hardening himself against the pain he knew he was about to inflict his friend to, Chris kicked Pony into a run, Peso following suit. Quickly, the two horses were flying across the prairie, their riders clinging gamely to their backs.

~o~

Josiah frowned, shading his eyes against the morning sun as he tried to decipher who was riding into town at a dead run. Then he offered up a quick prayer as he recognized the two men who were riding his way. He started running down the street, calling out over his shoulder, "NATHAN!"

The town was still waking, merchants preparing their businesses for the day. Most of them stopped, looking out into the street, heads swiveling from the running man to the running horses.

Alerted by the former preacher's call, Nathan dashed out onto the boardwalk from the restaurant, having just sat down to breakfast. With a curse, he joined Sanchez in running toward the horses.

Chris reined in, both horses quickly responding to his action. Peso moved up beside him, and he reached out to steady the swaying Texan. He called out to Jackson, "He's been shot in the back, Nathan, and I can't get the bleeding to stop!"

"Damn," the healer cursed, moving quickly to where Vin sat, all but laying over his horse's neck. Grasping one of the knives that were sheathed on his back, he quickly cut the ropes binding the man to the saddle. As soon as the smaller man was free, he gently pulled him from the horse's back and into his arms. Vin cried out weakly, then went limp in the former slave's hold.

"Josiah, help me get him up to my place," Jackson instructed. Turning toward Larabee as they started toward the long staircase that led to the healer's little clinic, he said, "Chris, get as much hot water as Mr. Tan can give you and bring it up."

Turning the two horses over to Yosemite, the blond sprinted to the bathhouse, calling out to the manager as he did. A minute later he hurried back out with a steaming bucket in each hand. He moved swiftly toward the clinic, catching the curious gaze of several of the townspeople. He returned those looks with one of his own that warned them to back off and stay out of his way. Nobody disputed it.

Moving up the stairs as quickly as he could, Chris hit the landing and sprinted to the clinic door. He barely acknowledged Josiah, who was holding the door open for him. He entered the clinic to find Vin laying pale and still on the bed, Nathan hovering over him. The healer was coaxing the injured man into drinking from a cup. Tanner was struggling to comply, but finding it impossible to focus enough to accomplish that simple task.

Setting the buckets close to the little heating stove, Larabee moved to the other side of the bed, glancing across at Nathan. Perching on the edge of the mattress, he lifted Vin slightly, coaxing him softly. "It's all right, Pard. Just rest easy and let us do the work. Come on now, just take a drink, it'll make you feel better."

Slowly Tanner managed to drink the liquid. He made a face, telling the blond quite clearly that Jackson had laced it with something. By the time the cup was empty, he was leaning heavily against his friend. Chris held the younger man, looking to the healer for direction.

"We need to turn him over, so I can get to the wound." Nathan directed the movement and, a few minutes later, Vin lay face down on the bed. Going to the cupboard Jackson pulled out an old blanket. They slipped it under the prone form, eliciting a soft grunt as they shifted him as carefully as they could.

Looking up, Nathan noted that Josiah was standing at the foot of the bed. The former preacher had assisted him many times in the past and it was obvious that Chris was already on edge. The last thing he needed was for the blond to lose his temper while he was operating on the injured man.


"Chris, Josiah can help me, and you look like you could use a break."

"I'm okay."

Shaking his head, the bigger man said, "No, you're not. Get on out of here, go down to the restaurant and get something to eat. We're gonna be an hour or two, anyway. Time enough for you to eat and get cleaned up." He knew that Larabee would haunt the clinic until they knew for certain whether Tanner would make it or not.

Chris hesitated, but finally nodded and reluctantly left the room.

Turning toward the healer, Josiah asked, "What can I do to help?"

~o~

A short time later, the gunman was sitting in the back corner of the restaurant, eating a breakfast of ham and fried potatoes. His head, neck and shoulders ached with tension, but he refused to relax. He wouldn't until he knew that Vin was going to be all right. Mixed in with the worry and concern for his friend, Larabee continued to mull over the injured man's words. Had Buck shot him? Why? None of it made sense.

It was at that moment he looked up to see Wilmington strutting down the walk, some young woman on his arm. The big man was grinning from ear to ear as he talked to her. Moving without conscious thought, Chris pushed away from the table and stormed across the room. Slamming out of the door, he reached out and grabbed the bigger man by the coat.

Jerking to a stop and releasing the woman as he turned in surprise, Buck kept his smile in place as he said, "Hey, ya ol' war dog. What's goin' on?"

He didn't even realize he was doing it but, suddenly, Chris plowed a fist into the bigger man's face. Somewhere in the back of his mind he registered the woman's scream, but his attention was completely on the man sprawled out on the boardwalk in front of him.

Pointblank, he asked, "Did you shoot Vin in the back!?"

Stunned, Buck could only stare up at the other man while he rubbed his jaw. Finally, finding his voice, he asked in an angry tone, "What in the hell was that for?!"

"Answer the damn question! Did you shoot Vin in the back?" Larabee towered over the downed man, fists clenched; eyes aflame.

"Jesus Christ, you damn fool! Thought you knew me better than that! Hell, no, I didn't shoot that mangy son of a bitch in the back, or anywhere else."

"You certainly were angry with him, last night, Señor."

The two men found Inez approaching them from the saloon. The woman glared at the ladies man, barely registering the blond's presence until he spoke.

"What are you talking about, Inez?"

"He attacked Vin in the saloon last night... for no reason at all."

"Oh, I had reason," Wilmington argued.

"Yeah? Was it enough reason to go after him with a gun?" Chris responded.

"NO! Damn it, I never went after him with a gun. I was with..." He trailed off, looking around. For the first time, he realized that his pretty companion was nowhere to be seen. "Where's the Duchess?"

With a snort, Larabee said, "Duchess?"

"That's what she called herself... she was... I was with her... all night..." Wilmington stammered, looking around in bewilderment.

"And I'm going to take the word of one of your whores?" Chris knew the comment was below the belt, but at the moment, he didn't care.

Launching himself from the boardwalk, Buck's stance mimicked Chris' now. He towered over the other man, blue eyes blazing. In a low voice he growled menacingly, "Don't you ever say that, you lousy son of a – "

Larabee cut off the other man's tirade with a strong right that landed his friend back on the boardwalk. Before Buck could recover, he launched himself on the bigger man.

Inez sprang back, barely missed by the fighting men. She hadn't expected such a violent response from the gunslinger, just as Wilmington's response had seemed out of character the night before. Moving away from the brawling men, she called out, "°Quietos! °Quietos los dos! °Estais locos! °…sto es una locura!"

The sounds of the fight, paired with the saloon manager's cries, brought most of the town out into the street. The noise increased as some of the spectators called encouragement to the brawlers, while others cried out for them to stop. It was only when Josiah, Ezra and JD entered the fray that anything productive happened. While Sanchez grabbed Chris in a bear hug, Standish and Dunne grappled with Buck.

"Stop it, you fools!" The former preacher barked. "Nathan has his hands full taking care of Vin... the last thing he needs is to have to patch you too up as well!"

Mentioning the injured man had the effect of throwing cold water on the blond. He twisted in the angry man's arms, asking, "Is he okay? Why are you down here, instead of up there, helping Nathan?"

"Nathan got the bullet out and he was stitching up the wound when all hell broke loose down here. Since it sounded as it you fools were trying to tear the town apart, I figured I'd better come see what I could do."

"Let me go," Larabee ordered, pushing against Josiah's steel embrace. "Damn it, I'm not going to do anything! Just let me go!"

Sanchez slowly acquiesced, watching as the gunslinger pushed his way through the crowd, heading for the clinic. He turned toward the other combatant, still secure between the two, smaller men. "What's this all about, Buck?"

"Damned if I know. He just come up behind me and started accusin' me of things."

"What sort of ‘things'?"

Blowing out a harsh breath, Buck wiped the back of his hand beneath his nose, smearing blood across not only his hand, but his cheek. Shaking his head, he said in a tone of bewilderment, "He accused me of shootin' Vin in the back, for god's sake!"

"Did you?" Inez questioned, stepping toward him once more. Hands firmly planted on her hips, she stared up into the dark blue eyes, answering them with cool brown. "You were very angry with him last night. I have only seen you that angry once before. I never thought to see that sort of fury directed at one of your amigos."

"Damn it, yes, I admit I was angry at him, I admit that I hit him. But I'd never shoot the mangy bastard... especially in the back. Now, if we can just find the Duchess... the lady I was with last night... she can vouch for me. I didn't go nowhere last night."

Nodding his head, Ezra released his hold on the bigger man. "I believe that might be prudent, Mr. Wilmington."

~o~

Nathan looked up as Chris entered the clinic. He had just finished bandaging Vin, the tracker still lying on his belly. They'd striped him to his drawers, the rest of his clothing blood stained and dirty. Brushing the long hair back from the ashen face, he announced, "He's still alive." Then with a frown, he noted, "So it was you creatin' that ruckus out there. What happened?"

"Nothing."

"Sure don't look like nothing." He tossed Larabee a clean cloth and watched as he applied it to his bleeding lip.

"It'll keep", Chris acknowledged. Sitting on the hardback chair on the other side of the bed, he looked squarely at the healer. "Will he make it?"

Shrugging, Nathan began gathering up the soiled cloth and instruments he had used to remove the bullet. "Your guess is as good as mine. He's lost a lot of blood... maybe too much. The bullet lodged amongst the nerves... the things that let us feel and move... in his shoulder. We ain't gonna know if he'll have the use of his arm until he heals up. 'Til then, all I can do is keep it bound up so it don't move. Sometimes that helps."

"One armed... he'll be as good as dead," the blond said in a defeated tone.

Frowning at the other man, Jackson said, "Don't go givin' up on him, Chris. That's the last thing he needs. We have to all put those thoughts aside... at least when we're with him. If he thinks we've given up on him, he might just give up on himself. I've seen it before."

"What can I do to help?" Larabee sidestepped the other man's directive. Nathan had patched Vin up, but he'd been the one to bind his wound and bring him into town, tied to the back of his horse. Not to mention the questions regarding Buck's involvement in the whole mess. How could he think positively after that?

"You can go get cleaned up and get some sleep. You look damn near as bad as Vin does," Nathan said lightly.

The ghost of a smile crossed the blond's face. "Reckon you're right. I'll be back in a couple hours."

"Make it eight."

"Four."

"Six."

"Be back in a couple hours," the gunman repeated as he strode from the clinic.

~o~

Buck frowned, glaring at the man behind the hotel desk. The man had just informed them that no one had checked in for more than a week, no one had checked out in the last half hour, and there certainly wasn't anyone fitting the description he gave of the young woman from last night.

"What room did the two of you go to? Ezra asked.

Shaking his head, the bigger man said, "We went to mine. She said she had roommates, and we couldn't go to hers." Turning back to the clerk, he asked again, "There ain't a group of three ladies usin' one of the rooms, Mickey?"

Pinching the bridge of his nose, the clerk said, "I told you, Buck, no. We've only had three ladies here in the last month. One was travelin' with her husband, and the other two were Mrs. Wells and her niece. And before you ask, the lady travelin' with her husband left two weeks ago."

"Maybe she's one of the new girls over at Virginia's?" JD suggested.

"No, she wasn't a workin' girl." The mustached man argued.

"Well, perhaps she's visiting with one of the families around here, then," Ezra offered.

"She said – "

Holding up a hand to forestall another argument, Standish said, "She may have engaged in a bit of subterfuge; perhaps not wanting to give her true self away. Hence her use of the nom de plume."

"Yeah, maybe she heard about your animal maggotism, Buck," JD grinned, "And didn't want to get a reputation."

"Boy, I ain't in the mood for jokes."

Seeing that things were becoming heated, Josiah stepped in. "All right, listen, Buck. They may have a point. Perhaps she needed to protect her privacy for some reason, or perhaps she was protecting you."

"By walkin' down the street with me, in broad daylight?"

"Well, we aren't going to find out anything as long as we stand here, pondering," Ezra pointed out. "Perhaps we should split up and go looking. JD, why don't you come with me and Josiah, you accompany Buck."

The suggestion was almost transparent. Both of the smaller men knew that Sanchez would have the best chance of restraining Wilmington if it came down to it.

"All right. We'll meet at the saloon in an hour," Josiah added, as he firmly nudged Buck out the door.

~o~

He hurt, the pain washing over him in waves that left him weak and nauseous. There were sounds around him, but nothing that sounded as if he was still in trouble. He tried to remember what had landed him here... wherever he was... in pain. The last thing he could remember, however, was riding out on the prairie.

No... there was more. He remembered... pain. There was pain. From where? Shot... he remembered a gunshot. Then... what then? Walking. He remembered walking. Trying to get somewhere... to get help.

"Chr... isssss?" He called in a weak, raspy voice.

"Take it easy, Vin, you're all right."

"Naaaa... than?"

"Yeah, it's me. You lost a lot of blood, Vin. You were shot. Do you remember?"

He lay still for so long that it seemed he'd slipped back into unconsciousness. Then he moaned, "s-some of... ‘t."

There was a hand on his shoulder, patting gently. Then Nathan's voice again. "That's all right. Don't push it. Right now, you need to work on healin'."

"Shot?"

"Yeah, you were shot. Last night, out near Chris' place." Nathan knew he might as well supply the information; it was doubtful the tracker would remember later, anyway.

The tip of Tanner's tongue appeared, running slowly over his lips. Jackson responded, dipping a cloth into the bowl of clean water beside him, then wetting the other man's lips. He pressed the cloth against the broad mouth, Vin automatically sucking the water from it.

A frown furrowed the sandy brows for a full moment before Tanner grated out, "Buck?"

"What about Buck?" Nathan sidestepped.

"Was... was ‘t... Buck?"

"We... don't know, Vin," Jackson replied honestly. "You told Chris that someone that looked like Buck shot you. The two of you had words last night, according to Inez. But we don't know for certain who it was that shot you."

"No... no... not B-Buck. Friend... Would... wouldn't sh-shoot... me," Tanner was getting agitated.

"Take it easy, Vin. We'll figure this out, later. Right now, you've got to rest. You lost a lot of blood." Nathan reached for the little amber bottle that contained his tincture of morphine. Drawing a few drops into the dropper, he pressed a hand against the side of Tanner's head, holding him still. Pressing the glass tube against the corner of the man's mouth, he depressed to rubber bulb, releasing the opiate.

The medication took affect quickly, sending Vin back into the darkness of oblivion. Nathan wiped the man's feverish brow, straightened the covers, and did his best to make his patient comfortable.

~o~

The four peacekeepers sat in sullen silence around the table in the saloon. They had looked through the town, but there was no sign of the mysterious "Duchess". Buck stared down into the glass of whiskey before him, his face somber. JD sat beside him, looking anywhere but at his friend. Josiah, on the other hand, was staring at the brunet intently. Ezra sat, staring at his ever present deck of cards, shuffling and manipulating them.

"Preacher, you're about to get my fist in your face. Stop starin' at me." Wilmington grumbled angrily.

"Then answer the question."

Frowning, the mustached man asked, "What question?" He tried to remember hearing the older man's voice, but couldn't dredge up a sound.

"Could it be that this woman was a grifter? Have you checked to see if anything was taken from your room?"

"Hell, Josiah, I've got less than two dollars to my name and the only thing in my room is dirty laundry." The words were delivered with a snort.

"Then perhaps she had some other reason to misrepresent herself," Standish observed.

"What possible reason could she have for using Buck, though?" JD asked.

"That, I'm afraid, is the question," Ezra sighed.

Pushing away from the table, sending his chair sliding backward, Buck slammed his hand, palm opened, against the scarred wood. As the glasses and bottle danced in response, he cursed. "Then we gotta figure out where the hell we go to answer that question."

The trio watched their friend storm from the room. Josiah turned back to the other two. "Brothers, we need to get to the bottom of this... or risk losing our brotherhood."

~o~

Chris wakened slowly, feeling just as tired as he had when he lay down. He stared at the ceiling, taking a few seconds to recall just why that was. When the last couple of days entered his consciousness, he sprang up all but leaping from his bed. Grunting when the sudden change of position nearly sent him to his knees, he stumbled back and sat down on the mattress with a huff. Scrubbing his hand over his face, he rose again, this time with slightly more caution.

He had gone to the bathhouse and cleaned up before scuffing to his room to collapse on the bed, not even bothering to pull off his boots. Climbing to his feet a second time, he hurried from the room. Sprinting down the boarding house stairs, he passed through the lobby, unaware of anyone or anything. He had only one thought: Getting back up to the clinic.

Behind him, a young woman smiled from where she sat in the shadows. Brushing away the wrinkles in her riding skirt as she stood, she left the lobby, quickly mounting her waiting horse and heading down the dusty street.

Down the street from the boarding house, Buck stood, leaning against an upright. He had searched everywhere for his mysterious companion from the night before. Then, suddenly, his mouth fell open. Riding past him was his quarry. He started to call out, but something kept him from making a sound. Instead, he watched the woman ride out of town before he grabbed up the reins of a horse tethered nearby. Before the animal's owner was even aware of it, he turned the head, kicking it into a gallop as he followed the woman out of town.

~o~

Nathan looked up as someone entered the clinic. He didn't have to look, really, he knew for a fact who it was. "Wondered when you'd show back up." Nodding as he took in the man's more acceptable appearance, he said, "At least you don't look like the walking dead."

"How's he doing?"

"Come around a couple times, but not all the way conscious. He hasn't lost any more blood, which is a good thing. If we can just keep him resting while he builds up his strength, he's got a better chance than I'd have given him a few hours ago."

"So he'll make it?"

"Still about fifty-fifty."

"Damn it Nathan!"

"You want me to lie?" The former slave asked, staring evenly at the gunslinger.

Dropping down onto the chair, Chris shook his head and let out a long sigh. "Sorry. It's just..."

Offering a compassionate smile, Jackson said, "You're worried. I know. So am I, and so are the rest of the boys."

With a snort, Larabee said, "I doubt all of them are."

"Are you so sure it was Buck that shot him?"

"Are you so sure it wasn't?"

"Chris, you've known him longer than any of us, but the Buck Wilmington I know would sooner shoot himself than hurt a friend."

"Or take a saber across the chest... I know. But, sometimes the people we think we know the best are the people who let us down."

"You talkin' about Buck here, or someone else?"

Shaking his head Larabee said, "Hell, I don't know what I'm talking about. Damn it, Nathan! Do you think I want to suspect my oldest friend of shooting someone I... a friend? All I have to go on is what Vin said."

"Yeah... always best to take the word of a man who's shot and bleedin', probably in shock, but definitely stunned and confused. And if that word sets you against a man who's watched your back – "

"All right!" Larabee shouted. Then, seeing Vin twitch, he repeated more softly, "All right. I know. Look, Nathan, I know. I jumped to conclusions. But, in all fairness, Buck's done some stupid things."

"Ain't we all?" Deciding he'd given the blond enough to think about, the healer changed the subject. "Since you're here, do me a favor and help me turn him over on his back. The wound ain't bleedin' and it's gotta be uncomfortable layin' on his belly."

Nodding, Larabee did just that, and a few minutes later they had the injured man propped up on pillows and covered in quilts. Chris couldn't help but worry at the pale features that spoke of blood loss and the lines that screamed of long hours of pain. He wanted to ask Nathan again... wanted the man to give him a promise that Tanner would be all right.

Sensing that the blond needed a few minutes alone with his friend, Jackson said, "You mind staying with him a bit? I need a little fresh air."

Barely glancing up, the gunman said, "Sure, go ahead." He wasn't even certain when the former slave left. Leaning forward to prop his elbows on his knees, he watched Tanner. He wanted the other man to wake up... to know the details of what had happened. He wanted Vin to identify anyone else... a stranger... someone who's guilt wouldn't leave another scorch mark on his soul.

"Chris?"

Starting at that call, nothing more than a faint whisper that barely reached him, he looked to find Vin watching him. "Hey, Pard."

"Studyin'... awful hard on some... somethin'."

Dredging up a smile, the blond said, "Reckon I am."

Cutting through the niceties, the former bounty hunter said, "Buck?"

"Yeah... Buck."

"Couldn't ‘a been... him, Chris. Not... not Buck."

"He attacked you in the saloon."

"Helluva lot ‘a dif... difference ‘tween a fist and a bullet."

"I know!" Larabee groused angrily. Then calming, he nodded. "I know. Believe me, no one wants it to not be Buck as much as I do. But Vin, the man you saw..."

"I's layin' on my back... bloody an' hurtin'. We'd had words. It was... on my mind. Chris..." He trailed off, too tired and in pain to continue.

Realizing their talk was exhausting the tracker, the blond said, "Never mind, Vin, we'll talk more on it later, all right?"

It wasn't all right, but he didn't have a choice, his body was betraying him. Unable to do more, he nodded slightly, allowing his eyes to close. He felt his head lifted and a trickle of water washed away the hot, parched feeling in his throat. Then a cool cloth wiped across his face, the blessed relief sending him farther toward sleep. He worried that his words would send two friends against one another, and he couldn't live with that. He wanted Chris' promise that he wouldn't do anything to Buck, but couldn't pull himself back to wakefulness long enough to form the words.

As Tanner drifted off, the blond leaned back, simply watching the other man. A few minutes later he heard the clinic door open and close and knew without turning that Jackson had returned. Without preamble, the big man delivered the news that had brought him back.

"I ran into Josiah downstairs. He said that Buck's drivin' himself crazy, trying to find that woman he was with last night. From what he said, the chances are she was playin' him for some reason."

"What reason?"

Shaking his head, Nathan said, "That we don't know."

Frowning, Chris pondered the question for a moment. "Vin's shot by Buck... or someone who looks like Buck. Buck spent the night with some mysterious woman..." Turning a puzzled expression to the other man, he asked, "Think the two might be related?"

Frowning in return, the healer said, "What are you thinking?"

Answering only with a question, the blond asked, "Do you know where Buck is?"

"No. Josiah said he'd been out searchin' the town again, trying to find this woman, but no one's seen him for a while."

"Damn." Chris hesitated, looking down at his injured friend. He had to make a decision; stay with Vin or go looking for Buck. He knew what he had to do, though. Vin was safe here, under Nathan's care.

And he had to get to the bottom of all this.

~o~

Buck had ridden cautiously, keeping far enough away from the Duchess that she wouldn't notice him. Then, without warning, she disappeared. He rode forward for a while, trying to catch a glimpse of her in the distance. Standing in the stirrups, he peered ahead, his hat brim shading his eyes.

Nothing. Not even a dust cloud to mark her passage.

Dropping back to the saddle, Wilmington scratched his chin, trying to decide where she might have lost him. Then, before he could react, he heard thunder, even though the late afternoon sky was cloudless. Suddenly there was lightning nearby and he was flying through the air. Then, pain exploded in the back of his head, and darkness claimed him.

~o~

He was no tracker. But then, Buck wasn't making any effort to hide his tracks. While looking for his old friend, he came across a very agitated cowboy and discovered that the ladies man had ‘borrowed' his horse. After that, he just had to discover which direction to head in, and he set his gelding off on a gallop, not bothering to get word to the others. Something told him that the other man wasn't running from them, but rushing toward something or someone.

The woman he'd claimed to have been with last night?

Chris kept Pony at a gallop, his senses sharp and his Colt loosened in the holster. It never paid to take anything for granted; he'd learned that long ago.

Larabee had ridden a few miles out of town, when he saw something. Actually, two somethings when he got close enough to discern that there were two bodies on the ground. He reined in the black, taking his time in surveying the surroundings. Deciding that it was safe, he kicked the black into a full-out run and dropped from the saddle before the animal could stop.

Dropping to his knees, he reached out tentatively and pressed against the neck of his friend, only taking a breath when he felt the faint flutter of a heartbeat beneath his fingers. Beside his old friend was a very dead horse, the animal sporting a gaping hole in its side.

"Damn, Pa," he whispered, using his old nickname for his friend, "What did you get into?" He began to examine the fallen man as carefully as possible, finding a gash just below the crown of his dark hair. The entire time, he spoke softly, not certain if he was comforting himself or his friend.

Whether it was the sound of his friend's voice, or something else, Buck moaned softly, a pain-filled sound. "Chris?"

"Right here."

"Wha... what happ'nd?"

"Not for sure. Something blew the hell out of your horse, and from the looks of it you took a good whack to that hard head of yours. Do you remember anything?"

Taking the time to run his tongue over his lips, the dark-haired man murmured, "No... reckon Sarah's gon... gonna have my... hide, I keep you... out too... too late..." He drifted back into unconsciousness.

Swallowing the lump brought on by the mention of his dead wife, Chris studied the terrain. Finding a sheltered spot some yards away, he decided to get the injured man there. It would be far enough away from the dead horse that he wouldn't have to fight predators off all night. For he was certain they'd be out here until morning. The sun was caressing the Western horizon, and he didn't want to move Buck until he was a little more certain as to the man's injuries.

All thought of their altercation that morning disappeared as Larabee moved to tend his old friend.

Chris had set up a crude camp by the time the sun disappeared completely behind the mountains. He had settled Buck on his bedroll, covering the unconscious man with the blanket he'd taken off the dead horse's back. He had stripped the animal, taking what he could use and secreting the rest beneath some brush. He'd return it to the rightful owner later.

For now, the only thing on his mind was caring for his old friend. Settling in the shadows near Wilmington he found himself thinking back on his relationship with the big man.

Suddenly, laughter filled his thoughts, calling out from the past. His mind's eye saw a younger Buck Wilmington standing before him. The big man was teasing him about his school boy's actions in trying to gain the attention of the beautiful Sarah Connolly.

The laughter faded and a strong feeling of brotherhood came over him. his mind's eye had suddenly conjured up the scene within a tiny chapel, where he had made Sarah his wife. Buck smiled warmly as he walked the auburn haired beauty down the aisle to meet him. The bighearted man had done everything in his power to keep the specter of Hank Connolly's absence from destroying the wonder of the day.

The warm feeling of family and friendship only grew stronger as he looked down into the crying, scrunched up face of his newborn son. The son that Buck had helped bring into the world when he, himself, had nearly passed out from the tumult of emotions that struck him suddenly.

The world of his past continued to tumble by as he sat beside his injured friend. Buck was always there, beside him, lending the quiet strength that he had come to expect and rely on. The warmth and love wrapped around him like a well-worn quilt.

Then, the inevitable. He felt the icy chill reach out and wind around his heart. The darkness filled him, so dark that it seemed the sun would never shine again. And still, the constant was Buck Wilmington.

He had come to regret his actions and hard-mindedness through that dark time... had come to regret the way he had treated Buck back then. Now, looking at that time from the vantage point of the present, he could see that that friendship had never wavered. He had simply refused to reach out for it. He had lost more than his family back then... he had lost his humanity.

A soft groan pulled Larabee from his thoughts and he turned his gaze toward the prone form. Leaning forward, he called out softly, "Buck?"

"Mm?"

"You back with me?"

"Mm?"

"Are you back with me?"

"Back?" The brunet's voice was weak and strained.

"Yeah... you back with me?" He spoke slightly louder, hoping to get through to the other man.

"Back?"

Concerned by the vague tone and obvious confusion, Larabee moved closer to the big man. "Buck? Look at me... do you know who I am?"

One eye squinted open briefly, then closed again. "Yeah."

With a brief smile, the blond said, "So? Who am I?"

The eye blinked once and then, "Chris."

"Do you know what happened?"

A full minute passed, Chris growing more and more concerned by second. Then, "No" was the answer.

Leaning back slightly, the blond let out a long, drawn out breath. "Well, you took a good whack to the head. What's the last thing you do remember?" He hoped it wasn't Sunday dinner with Sarah and Adam.

In a weary voice, Wilmington managed, "Arguin' with... with JD over... night pa... night patrol."

Another smile flitted across the blond's concerned face. That had been two days ago. Then he sobered as he remembered that it got them no closer to who had attacked Vin.

~o~

Nathan was dreaming, there was a part of him that knew that for a fact.

He was standing in the middle of town, squaring off against one very stubborn, ornery mule. The animal was wounded; blood dripping from its tattered, dirty coat. But for all that, the animal kept snapping its big teeth, trying its damndest to bite him.

"Now, you knock that off, ya damn fool! I'm just trying to help you!" He locked eyes with the beast and, for the first time, realized that it had bright, intelligent, blue eyes. Glaring at the animal, he grumbled, "Now don't that beat all."

The injured mule took that opportunity to drop, gracelessly, to the ground. It raised its head and brayed weakly, "Naaaaaa... thaaaaan!"

Jackson jerked awake, peering over to the old bed that dominated the little clinic. Another pair of blue eyes stared back, these bright with fever and dulled with pain. "How you feelin'?"

Vin studied the question, taking silent inventory of bones, muscles and limbs. "Shoulder hurts... cain't... cain't feel my arm!" The last was delivered in a frightened tone, fear filled eyes pleading with him.

Nathan saw the injured man struggling to raise his head; to check his arm. As he moved toward the bed, he said, "Vin, it's okay. You've still got your arm."

Sandy brows furrowed as the tracker asked, "It dead?"

"Won't know for a while," He responded in a compassionate tone. "Bullet hit some of the nerves. We're not gonna know how much feelin' you'll get back until the wound's fully healed."

Dropping back to the mattress, Vin breathed out in a resigned tone, "Least it ain't my shootin' arm."

~o~

Just as dawn turned the night sky gray, Chris rubbed a hand over his face and pushed himself to his feet. The popping of his joints drew a grimace as he stretched. He hated that sound... it was the sound of old men.

Brushing that thought aside, he yawned and moved to saddle his horse. He was already dreading the long walk ahead. Pony would tolerate carrying them both for only so long before he became as difficult to deal with as Peso.

At the thought of the fractious beast, Larabee's mind turned to thoughts of his friend. He hoped Vin was doing better than he had the last time he'd seen the younger man.

"Chris?"

The blond spun at the call to find Buck trying to rise. "Lay still, you don't need to be moving around on your own yet."

"Been doin' just that for... oooohhh..." the big man moaned as reality hit him like a fist, in the form of dizziness and nausea.

"Might not wanna do that again anytime soon." Chris knelt beside his friend, a wry smile on his face, while concern shone in his eyes.

Frowning, the brunet asked, "What hit me?"

Not answering the question, Chris asked, "You remember anything?"

Wilmington started to shake his head, thought better of it, and replied, "Not certain. There's just some flashes... pictures. I was... lookin'... no, I was followin'... someone. Not certain who... or where..."

Watching his friend becoming more and more agitated, Chris said the only thing that came to mind. "Don't worry about it. We'll sort it out later."

"Were you with me... when it happened?"

"No. I was following you."

Frowning, Buck said, "We playin' kids games... follow the leader?"

"No, not really." Larabee shook his head. "Look, we should get on the trail home. I want Nathan to look you over."

"Hell, Chris, I'll be fine. I've had worse fallin' outta bed... you know me."

With a smile, the blond said, "Yeah, I do pard... reckon I really do."

~o~

Dawn had wakened the little town as well. Vin had slept comfortably, aided by some of Nathan's potions. The healer had slept in a chair, keeping an eye on his patient. He was somewhat concerned that Chris hadn't at least poked his head in, to check on the Texan, but the blond had been suspiciously absent for hours now. He'd been too busy caring for Tanner, though, that he hadn't questioned it until now. He should check in with one of the others, though.

As if on cue the door opened and Josiah Sanchez walked in, carrying a heavy laden and covered tray. "Good morning. Thought I'd bring you two some breakfast."

"Thanks. Not sure how much he's gonna be able to eat," Jackson nodded toward the sleeping man. "He's a mite feverish and still havin' pain. Ain't nothin' I wasn't expectin', though."

"Any sign that his arm..." Sanchez broke off, not certain he wanted to know.

Shaking his head, the healer said, "Not yet... gonna be a while." Then he changed the subject with, "Have you seen Chris?"

Frowning, the former preacher said, "No, I haven't. Haven't seen Buck, either."

"Well, that can't be good," Jackson replied.

"Think they.... kilt each other?" The two men turned toward the third, who they had thought was sleeping.

"What?"

"Chris ‘s mad at ‘im. Cos a what... what I said..." Vin opened his eyes, looking over at the other two men. "I don't... don't want ‘im doin' anything... stupid... it weren't Bucklin... couldn't be. Told... I told ‘im that, but... ain't sure he was lis... listenin'."

Turning to Josiah, Nathan said, "He was in a strange kind of mood when he left here yesterday. You know how he gets..."

Nodding, Josiah said, "I'll get Ezra; we'll go looking, JD can keep an eye on things here in town."

"You know he ain't gonna be happy about that, especially since it's Buck we're talkin' about."

"I'm goin'..."

"No where," Nathan ordered, shaking a big finger in the prone man's face. You can't even get up on your own; I'm not gonna have you wreckin' my handiwork with your stubbornness."

The scolding was unnecessary, however. Both men looked to see that the tracker had slipped back into unconsciousness after the briefest struggle to rise.

~o~

Pony had allowed both men to ride far longer than Chris had expected. They rode at a good pace, fast enough to get Wilmington home, but not so fast that it wore out the horse. Buck had alternated between consciousness and unconsciousness, his long years as a horseman keeping him in the saddle. After Pony had made his discomfort clearly known, Chris slipped off his back, walking beside the black and his friend. From time to time Buck argued that he should take his turn riding, but Chris simply shook his head and continued walking.

It was mid-morning when they saw riders approaching. Larabee reached up and tugged on the horse's halter, bringing him to a stop. They waited for the two horses to rein in nearby.

"You boys out for a morning ride?" Chris asked, glancing from one man to the other.

"Seemed a nice day for it," Josiah answered with a toothy grin.

~o~

Taking turns riding behind the others, Chris accompanied them back to town. Ezra stayed close to Buck on one side, Josiah on the other, making certain that the big man didn't fall out of the saddle.

They reached the livery just after noon, Yosemite greeting them at the stable's double doors. The big man saw that Buck was leaning over Pony's neck, and took the animal's halter while Josiah and Chris helped the brunet down.

Just as they were starting toward Nathan's clinic, Inez came toward them, moving hurriedly and looking over her shoulder. As she came abreast of them, she said rapidly, in Spanish, "Tienen que venir, es importante. Creo que el hombre que disparó a Vin está en la cantina."

Buck raised his head, he and Chris both staring at the young woman. It was Chris who spoke. "What are you talking about, Inez?"

"JD, he overheard two men talking, they spoke in a different tongue... I could not make it out from where I was. He did, but didn't react, so the men felt free to speak. They joked about their part in destroying our peacekeepers. Those they do not kill, they are going to run out and whoever they work for plans to take over the town."

"Well, they can try," Larabee growled. "Ezra, you go on over to the saloon."

Nodding and tipping his hat, the gambler said, "I shall endeavor to engage them in a game."

"Good. Tell JD to keep tabs on them, too, in case they give any more information. The rest of us will go on up to the clinic and get Buck patched up, then we'll be along."

~o~

Nathan looked up as the door opened; heaving a deep breath when he saw Chris and Josiah guiding a semi-conscious Buck inside. "What happened?"

"Not sure. Someone took his horse out from under him and left him with a new dent in his hard head," Chris supplied.

"Weren't you?" A soft voice came from the bed.

"No, wasn't me, Pard," Larabee replied glancing over and nodding to his injured friend. Relinquishing his place beside Buck to Nathan, he moved over and stood beside the bed. Looking down into Vin's pale face, he said, "It's all part of a plot to get rid of us and take over the town. JD and Ezra are keeping an eye on a couple of them at the saloon."

"Well, hell... why're we sit...sittin' here?" Vin moved, trying to pull himself up.

"Lay still, you stubborn fool." The blond pressed a hand against the other man's uninjured shoulder. "We'll take care of it. You just rest."

"I can... I... can..." Vin drifted off, eyes closing as he returned once more to unconsciousness.

Satisfied that the Texan was sleeping now, the gunman turned toward the others and asked, "Nathan?"

Without looking up from where he was dressing Buck's head wound, the former slave said, "He'll be okay. He'll have headaches for a while and have trouble stayin' awake at times, but he'll be fine."

"Good. You gonna need us for a bit?"

"Nah, I've got it."

Chris turned toward Josiah. "We need to go take care of things in town."

Nodding in agreement, the former preacher followed the black clad man out the door.

~o~

JD wondered just how long he was going to get by with this. He'd been standing at the bar for nearly two hours, his focus on the conversation behind him. The two men had been sitting at the table and drinking even longer. The more they drank, the more they said. As far as he knew, no one else in the saloon understood a word they spoke. Some of what they said got past him as well, but he caught enough.

When Inez returned from delivering her message, he waited for her to make her way along the bar toward him. She spoke softly, the words barely reaching his ears, telling him that the others were aware of what was happening, and that Ezra would be joining them shortly.

He tried too keep his face from giving away his emotions as she told him that Buck was injured, but that all she knew was that he was only somewhat awake, and there was a bloody bandage around his head. He knew, though, that his place was here, at the bar, gathering information.

A short time later, Ezra descended the stairs with his usual flair. He was dressed impeccably in his dark green coat and looked for all the world as if he had been upstairs the entire day. He nodded and offered the younger man a bright smile as he moved over to his usual table. Settling in his chair, he retrieved a pack of cards and began shuffling them.

Less than ten minutes later the men JD had been listening to got up and staggered from their table to Standish's, sitting down at his invitation. With only a few words, they began playing a game of cards.

~o~

Buck managed to open his eyes, trying to figure out what had wakened him. Then he heard it again. Someone was moaning. Turning his head slowly toward the sound, he managed to focus on the nearby figure. "Vin?"

Another moan was his only answer. Moving slowly, he pushed himself up to a sitting position, searching for someone else; someone to help the Texan. "Hey? Anyone here?"

Only silence, broken by another moan, answered him. With deliberate movements, he pulled himself up from the cot where they'd laid him, and staggered over to the bed. Dropping to the chair next to the bed, he reached out and touched the younger man's face. "Vin? What's wrong, Pard?"

With a groan, the prone man opened his eyes half-mast and stared up at the other man with an unfocused gaze. "Buck... lin?"

"Yeah, it's me. What's the matter?"

"Thirs... ty."

"I reckon I can handle that." Wilmington poured a glass of water, sat down in the chair beside the bed, steadied Tanner's head, and helped him drink the cool fluid. Laying Tanner back on the pillow, he asked, "better?"

Vin nodded, letting his eyes close. "Thanks."

"Well, least I can do, considerin'."

Tanner's brow furrowed. "Ya still... mad at me?"

Blowing out a hard breath the ladies man replied honestly, "Not for certain. But reckon that'll keep ‘til you're feelin' better."

"Might not... git ta feelin'... better." Vin answered matter-of-factly.

"Don't you say that! Don't you even think that, boy!" Buck growled angrily. "You're gonna be fine, Nathan's got ya patched up."

"But I left a... mess a blood on th' trail. And, I cain't feel my... arm."

"There's ways of buildin' up a man's blood, and you don't know that the feelin' won't come back. And, even if it don't, it's not your shooting arm."

"But it ain't... fer certain..." Tanner trailed off, his body betraying him and sending him into the oblivion of unconsciousness.

"Ain't nothin' for certain," the bigger man murmured to himself as he straightened the blankets over the trim body.

"Buck?"

Turning, the rogue found Nathan coming in the door. "Where the hell were you?" He asked in an angry tone.

"Went to get some more water. What's wrong?"

Taking a calming breath, Buck leaned back in the chair he was sitting on. Running the fingers of a trembling hand over his mustache, he said, "Sorry, Nathan. Just scared me is all. He could have needed more than a drink of water and,well hell, wasn't even real certain he'd let me near him."

Checking on the sleeping man, the healer turned and insistently coaxed the other man out of the chair and back to bed. "Buck, you know as well as I do that he's got a heart bigger than Texas. I'm sure he don't hold a grudge against you for hittin' him."

"And the other?"

"None of us believed you shot him... not really."

"But it crossed your minds?" Wilmington said with a rueful grin.

"Well, we've all seen your temper. Just not directed our way," Jackson said honestly.

Smile fading, Buck replied, "I might hit a friend, but I'd never shoot him... and definitely not in the back."

"I know... guess we all know that. It's just..."

"‘How well do we really know anybody. Yeah, that's one of his... codes, I reckon you'd call it. Come up with that one about the same time he started sayin' you don't shoot nobody in the back. Man lives by his codes." Buck offered as he rolled over to face the wall, a small groan accompanying him.

"Don't go too deep asleep, Buck. I wanna take another look at that –" Nathan stopped, shaking his head as the brunet started snoring softly.

~o~

Chris and Josiah entered the saloon within a few minutes of one another. They made their way to the bar, sidling up on either side of JD. Neither man failed to notice that one of the men was dark headed and roughly Buck Wilmington's size.

The blond nodded to Inez, who brought a bottle and two glasses over.

As she poured whiskey in each glass, she said softly, "I didn't know if the two of you were going to get here before Ezra wiped them out."

"Took a quick tour around town... suggested most of the folks keep inside for a while, ‘til we get this sorted out," Josiah answered just as softly.

"Most?"

"There were a few we couldn't locate, others we didn't bother with," Chris explained. Then, turning toward the young sheriff, he said, "JD... ready to go ‘discuss' things with our friends over there?"

Throwing back his drink, Dunne nodded as he said, "Let's go."

Together, the three men strode over to the table where Ezra had been entertaining their quarry. The Southerner didn't look up, but said to the other two men at the table, "Gentlemen, I do believe we have company."

As the two drunken men shifted their gazes toward the three new arrivals, Chris said, "Afternoon. Thought we'd pay a visit to you two magpies."

"Magpies?! What gives you the right..."

Turning toward JD, Larabee canted his head toward the men.

Grinning as he read the man's meaning, the easterner recited, "Eu não posso acreditar como fácil era.... Estava... uh... fundindo nesse órgão stupid da boca de his, e não soube mesmo... que eu estava lá ` até que eu... eu disparei nele fora da sela." Turning to the others, not missing the approving grins of his friends, he repeated in English, "I can't believe how easy it was. He was blowing into that stupid mouth organ of his, and didn't even know I was there ‘til I shot him out of the saddle."

The two men paled. One started to reach for his gun, only to find four aimed at him. Placing both hands on top of the table, he asked, "How did you know?"

Grinning over the barrel of his gun, JD said, "When I was growing up, the stable boss spoke Portuguese. I spent a lot of time with him."

"Now, we want to know who put you boys up to this. And the quicker you tell us, the longer you get to live." Chris Larabee glared at the two men, holding their attention until one of the two actually looked ready to pass out. After a full minute, he said sharply, "I'm waiting."

~o~

Archie Conklin did his best not to show how nervous he was as he faced the young woman. She stared at him coolly, hands on her hips and one booted foot tapping her impatience on the store's wooden floor.

"Look, I-I told you... those men your boss sent they... they don't listen to me. They've been over in the s-saloon all day, drinking. What do you expect me to do?"

"What you were paid to do, Conklin. You said you'd take care of things at this end. That damn cowboy nearly caught up with me out there. If he'd been a little quicker I wouldn't have had time to sic Danley on him. Now, the boss wants to know whether or not you can handle this. If not..." she trailed off, but her right hand, caressing the butt of her gun, spoke volumes.

Paling, one trembling hand reaching up to wipe the perspiration from his upper lip, the nervous man said, "I... I told you I can... h-handle things."

"Really? You haven't done well so far. All seven of our obstacles are still alive, even if they're not all kicking." She smirked.

"I said I could... and I c-can." Something caught his eye, and Conklin saw three of the so called "Magnificent Seven" marching toward his store, with those two, worthless Portuguese bastards walking ahead of them. "Damn!"

Turning, the woman saw the approaching group as well. Cursing under her breath, she pulled her sidearm, even as she moved across the threshold into the back room. "I'll be listening. If you give anything away..." She pointed the business end of her Colt toward him just before melting into the shadows.

Conklin barely managed to nod before the front door slammed opened. He watched as the two hired men were roughly "escorted" over the threshold. Pulling himself ramrod straight, he barked out, "What's the meaning of this!?"

"We... we had no choice! Matar-nos-ão!" One of the men stammered in a frightened tone.

"Stop your blithering, you idiot!" Archie spit out before he caught himself. Trying to cover his tracks, he continued, "We only speak English in here! I don't have to -- "

"Just give it up, Conklin," JD replied sharply.

"Confession is good for the soul, brother," Josiah's deep bass rumbled against the walls. "And I believe you may wish to do something good for yours about now."

"I... I have nothing to confess." Conklin said, unconvincingly.

"You're... you're lying!" One of the drunks from the saloon yelled. "You're the one who hired us!"

Leveling a cool gaze at the businessman they simply waited. After a few, long, silent moments, the man who'd been a thorn in their side virtually since that first day, simply surrendered to the inevitable. With a furtive glance toward the back room, he looked back at the gunmen. "Will you allow me enough time to lock up? I uh... I need to lock the back door."

Glancing toward their youngest member, Larabee said, "JD?"

"I'll go with him," Dunne said with a nod. Both guns leveled at their newest prisoner, he said, "Let's go."

Staring at the young sheriff with a mixture of animosity and fear, Conklin turned and led the way toward the back of the store. He knew that the woman... that "Duchess" as she called herself... was back there. What he didn't know was what she would do.

Entering the back room, Conklin glanced furtively to the right and left, hoping to catch a glimpse of the woman. He didn't want to end up her victim, that upstart little bastard from back East was better suited for that role.

"Hurry up, we've got better things to do," JD ordered through gritted teeth.

"Yes, yes..." Archie nodded absently, still looking for the woman. There didn't seem to be anyone there. Had she fled, leaving him to face the consequences of what had been, at best, a risky proposition? He moved as slowly as possible across the room toward the back door. Just before he reached it, the door opened. He smiled; she hadn't left after all. The young woman stepped through the door, a look of absolute fury on her beautiful face. Then Conklin's smile faded, replaced by one of shock and horror. The peacekeeper who spent most of his time at the poker table walked in behind her, his sidearm trained on her back, while he carried her own sidearm as well.

"I believe that the two of you are acquainted?" Ezra Standish drawled, smiling at the expression on the shopkeeper's face. "That will stand you in good stead then... you'll have someone to talk to while you're incarcerated."

~o~

Ten minutes later, Archie Conklin and the two men from the bar sat in one cell, while the young woman sat in the other. Chris locked the door to the woman's cell, and turned to the others with a grin. "Nice work, Ezra."

"Thank you, Mr. Larabee," Standish replied with a short bow. "May I say that I was only able to capture the young woman thanks to your keen insight. You were quite correct in wanting the back door covered while the rest of you confronted Mr. Conklin. I dare say you had barely entered the building when the lovely young woman slipped outside and prepared to ambush whomever entered the back room. All I had to do was to slip up behind her as she watched through the slightly open back door, and disarm her."

Turning back to level a glare on the auburn haired woman, Larabee said evenly, "So I take it you're this "Duchess" Buck spent the night with?"

"I have no idea who you think I am."

"Who I think you are is some damn bitch who almost got two of my friends killed. So, Duchess, save your lies." With that Chris turned away from her and started toward the office section of the little sheriff's office.

"So, what do we do now?" JD asked.

"We wait. Whoever paid these scum will be sending someone to look for them, and soon. We just have to be ready to welcome them into our little hotel, here. For now, though, I'm gonna go check in at the clinic." With that, Chris left the office, the other three to guard the prisoners.

~o~

"Nathan, I told you, I'm fine. I've got a headache, sure, but I've had worse after a night in the saloon."

"And I told you that you've already passed out on me twice, and you don't even remember it. So you lay your ass back down on that bed and do as I tell you."

Chris couldn't help but chuckle at the exchange as he entered the clinic. "Want me to hogtie him, Nathan?"

Shaking his head, the healer said, "Hell, you should've just left him out there on the prairie, save me all the trouble of havin' to argue with him."

"I'm not tryin' to argue with you, Nathan, I just know that I'm feelin' a lot better, and I'd like to leave the clinic."

"Buck?" Chris called across the room.

"Yeah?"

"Lay down before I shoot you. We caught your girlfriend, along with Conklin and a couple others. They're in the jail; we've just gotta wait to see who comes lookin' for them."

Flopping back on the bed, the big brunet said, "Ah, hell. I was hopin' she wasn't in on... whatever the hell's goin' on."

With a shrug, Chris said softly, "Sorry."

Heaving a sigh, Buck said, "No need for you to apologize, stud. I should've known something was off about that one."

"Why?" Chris looked concerned, seeing how much the news affected his old friend.

"Because..." Wilmington took a deep breath and then, finally, said, "She's the one that set me off... sent me lookin' for Vin."

"What did she do?"

Shaking his head, Buck continued, " Wasn't what she did, it's what she said. She told me that Vin came up to her on the street and said some pretty nasty things about her... to her."

"Why'd you believe her... oh, yeah, this is you we're talking about here," Chris folded his arms across his chest. He knew better than anyone just how hard-headed Buck could be when it came to women.

"Well... she was real convincing. Described Vin to a "T" and... well, we'd been drinkin' a bit. And..." He sighed, shaking his head as he admitted, "Yeah, I let her get the best of me. Damn, I was a fool."

"Wouldn't be the first time," Chris growled, "Your brains drop right below your belt, and you do something stupid."

"Won't b-be the last... more 'n likely... ei-either," Came a soft voice from the bed. The other three men turned to see Vin lying there, eyes at half mast as he joined the conversation.

"Vin... I can't tell you how sorry I am," Buck said contritely.

"Tell me again, later... when... when I'm awake," Vin replied with a soft smile as he slipped back into unconsciousness.

Chris shook his head and looked from one friend to the other. Eyes settling on Buck, he said, "I'm sorry, Buck. I should have known you wouldn't knowingly bring harm to a friend."

Shrugging, the big brunet said, "Looks like she played more than me, in one way or another. Her or someone she's workin' with. Let's just mark it down to bad information and take it from here." He held out his hand, smiling when his old friend took it.

"Sounds good to me." Chris turned his attention to their "guests" in the jail. "When you're feeling up to it, I'd like you to see if you can get anything out of her... who hired her, what the plan is... anything."

"Well, hell, let's just... whoa!" Buck stood too quickly, the room spinning around him, causing him to drop back to the bed with a grunt.

"Can it wait 'til morning?" Nathan asked the blond.

With a sympathetic grin, Chris said, "Yeah, that'll give us time to work on Conklin and the other two." With that he gave the other men a nod and left the clinic.

Turning his attention back to Buck, Nathan said, "Okay, let's get a look at that hard head of yours and see if we can't get you healthy by tomorrow morning."

"I –"

"Nu-uh, don't say it." Nathan filled a bowl with water that had been warming on the stove, and picked up some clean bandages, carrying it all to the table that sat beneath the nearby window. "Think you can make it over here?"

Pushing himself carefully off the bed, Buck walked with unsteady steps across the small room, dropping heavily onto the nearest chair. "See, I'm good."

As he began to unwind the bandages around the other man's head, Nathan said only, "Um-hm."

~o~

Chris sat tipped back in the chair, his long, lean legs stretched across the corner of the desk. He watched Conklin and the other two men, from time to time his gaze drifting over to the woman's cell. She had stretched out on the narrow bunk, her back to them all. He didn't think she was actually sleeping, she seemed far to tense for that. The two Portuguese men were stretched out on the floor, each having been allowed a bedroll. Conklin was sitting on the bunk, staring at the floor.

"It'll go easier on you if you tell us who set all this up," Chris said, the comment directed at the shopkeeper, but offered to all four of the prisoners.

"I have no idea as to what you're inferring, Mister Larabee," Conklin groused, still staring at the floor.

Out of the corner of his eye, Chris saw the other two men looking at one another, whispering in Portuguese. "If you've got something to say, say it, don't mumble," Larabee said, shooting a glare at the men.

"Hé incontro de s!" One of the men said. "Uh... he is lying. He is... well aware of who it was."

"Yeah? Then so are you." Chris couldn't help the wolfish smile that sent the two men cold as they realized his meaning.

"O bastardo pagou-noo para fazer o trabalho."

The second man interpreted, "He is the bastard who paid us to do the job." As he spoke, he canted his head toward Conklin. "You must get more information from him."

"They're all lying," The woman Buck had referred to as the Duchess had rolled over and was sitting up on her bunk. "They're all more than able to give you the information you're looking for."

"Yeah? What about you?" Chris asked, staring pointedly at the woman who had caused one of his friends to turn against another.

"Me? Why, Sheriff..." She smiled sweetly, "I was simply an ignorant bystander."

"Who just happened to try to shoot JD," Chris amended, ignoring her labeling him the sheriff.

She stuck out her bottom lip, affecting a pout. "I... why I just didn't understand what was going on. That cretin lied to me, made me think ill of you and the others!"

"Yeah, sure," Larabee said with a snort.

"Venderia sua pŕopria mãe para um dólar," one of the men muttered.

"What did I say about mumbling?" Chris growled.

"My pardon, he was only saying that she would sell her mother for a dollar. You cannot trust her."

"Yeah, already figured that one out," he replied.

"Why, you slanderous vermin!" The Duchess yelled, coming to the common wall of bars and reaching through as if she was hoping to scratch someone's eyes out.

With another wolfish grin, Chris said softly, "Look, you can all sit right where you are, it makes no difference to me. Judge'll be in a week or so, he'll see to your case then."

"What!?" Archie Conklin cried out. "You can't... I'll... I'll be ruined!"

"Should have thought about that before you threw in with this bunch, then." With that, Chris stood and went out onto the boardwalk. He lit a cheroot and stood in the late afternoon sun, listening. Inside, the two Portuguese men were arguing back and forth, one in their native tongue, the other in heavily accented English. Conklin was barking at both of them, while the woman remained silent. He smiled, knowing that soon, one of the men would break. And, if not, they'd have Buck work on the woman.

~o~

Ezra was sitting at his regular table, waiting for any likely candidates to play poker. He watched as a large cowboy entered the room. It was easy to see from his behavior that he was looking for someone. Standish smiled, certainly this was one of the others involved in the current plot to oust them from their role as peacekeepers.

Feigning indifference, the gambler continued playing solitaire, but kept the man in his peripheral vision. He watched as the man ordered a beer and spoke to Inez for several minutes, before draining the mug, dropping a coin on the bar, and leaving. Waiting a full minute before she moved, the young barkeep came to where he sat.

"He was looking for information about the injured men," she said as she sat down across from Ezra. "Also the woman who is involved, this... this Duchess person, and Señor Conklin."

Nodding, he asked, "And what was your response?"

"As you requested. I told him that the injured men were dying, but that the others are busy guarding the prisoners or searching for the men who attacked Vin and Buck... that you would be heading over to the jail in a few minutes to take over from Chris; that you had only returned from your search a short time ago."

With a smile that showed off his golden tooth, Ezra said, "Excellent. Thank you, my dear. I suppose, then, that I should go and relieve Mr. Larabee." With that, he gathered up his cards, donned his hat, touching the brim as he nodded to the young woman, and left the saloon.

~o~

Art Danley stood in the alley, watching as the gambler exited the saloon and strode purposefully toward the jailhouse. A few minutes later, a black-clad figure left the jail and walked down the boardwalk toward the livery. He waited until the man entered the building and returned a short time later, atop a black gelding. That meant one less man to deal with, and he liked those odds. With a wicked smile, he stepped out of the shadows and headed toward the jailhouse.

~o~

Vin blinked open heavy lids, staring around him as he tried to discern where he was. When it registered that he was in the clinic, he sighed. He tried to find a more comfortable position, but wasn't successful.

"Need some help?" Buck eased himself to a sitting position on he cot he had been sleeping on.

"Don't think anything's gonna help."

Standing, Buck stepped across to the bed. Vin was lying on his back, his injured arm bound tightly to his side and supported by a pillow. He knew the man had trouble with his back, and discerned that shifting his weight a little might help. Carefully he helped Vin to move to his side, placing pillows behind him, and adding one between his legs. At once the pain eased, and Tanner actually smiled. "Thanks, Buck... feels better."

"Glad to help. You need a drink or anything?"

"Wouldn't mind it."

Wilmington poured a small amount of water into a mug and helped Tanner to drink it. He watched as weariness overtook the other man again, and he drifted off to sleep. Shuffling across the room, he looked out the window and saw Nathan standing outside, looking out across the town from the landing. Making his way outside, he asked, "Lookin' for anything in particular?"

"Just watchin'. Chris, Josiah, Ezra and JD are workin' a con against those folks they arrested. Told 'em I'd keep an eye out from up here, just in case."

Nodding, Buck dropped heavily onto one of the benches that sat against the railing. In just a few short minutes he had expended his energy, and was now trembling and sweating ice. "Vin woke up."

"Yeah, I've been keepin' an eye on you two, too."

With a grin, Buck said, "Well, guess I didn't do him any harm then, if you didn't come barrelin' in and scoldin' me for helpin' him turn."

"Reckon you'd make somebody a real good nurse maid," Nathan replied with a devious smile.

"Funny... real funny. Anything goin' on out there?"

"Fella just comin' toward the jail. Ezra just took guard duty from Chris. Chris just rode out."

"Wait... what? Why aren't you goin' down there to help Ezra?!" Buck started toward the stairway, stumbling as the floorboards beneath him seemed to buckle and sway. Suddenly someone had hold of his shoulder.

"Just simmer down. Everything's under control; goin' right like Chris planned it out."

Heaving a sigh, Buck seemed to wilt, and allowed Jackson to help him back into the clinic. "You're sure it's all workin' out to plan?"

"Yep, now you lay down and I'm goin' back out to keep a watch." Waiting just long enough to make certain Wilmington laid down, the healer went back outside. Watching from his vantage point, he saw the man he'd been keeping track of enter the jailhouse.

~o~

Ezra looked up as a rather large man entered the jailhouse. "May I be of assistance?"

"Yeah," Danley said, pulling his sidearm, "You can open the cell doors."

"Oh, I couldn't do that." Standish replied calmly.

"I could shoot you."

"I don't think you'll do that, either." Josiah said as he stepped out of the small room at the side of the sheriff's office. He was holding his own gun on the visitor.

"Actually, I think you might just want to put that away," Chris said softly as he stepped up behind Danley. He had entered through the front door.

"Uh... l-look, can we t-talk about this?" Art stammered, holding his gun with two fingers and away from his body.

"What's to talk about?" JD asked as he stepped up beside Josiah. "Unless you want to tell us who hired you."

"Why... sh-she did," Danley pointed to the young woman.

"You lying pile of horse shit!"

"Now, now," Ezra interrupted her tirade, "is that any way for a lady to talk?"

"Look... ma-maybe we could come to an agreement?" Danley continued as if she hadn't spoken. "I'll give you all the information I've got, you let me go."

"Yeah? Can you tell us who hired her?" Chris nodded toward the woman.

"No, no, but she hired me," Danley repeated.

"So you've already told us what you know?" Larabee asked, amazed at the man's stupidity.

"Well, I... uh... ah hell," Arthur Danley dropped his gaze to the floor, realizing what had just happened.

"JD, put him in with the other men," Chris instructed.

"We get many more, we're gonna have to stack them like cord-wood," JD chuckled as he headed the now disarmed Danley to the cell, already populated by Conklin and the other two men.

Now with five people in the jail, they were no closer to knowing for certain who had hired them. Chris motioned to the others, and they adjourned to the boardwalk.

"Okay, so now what? We still don't know who hired them," JD stated the obvious.

"We let Buck work on the Duchess."

~o~

"You sure you're up to this?" Chris asked his old friend after Buck had nearly fallen for the third time.

"I'll make it. You and the boys just be ready." With that, Wilmington straightened his shoulders, took a deep breath, and strode into the jailhouse with no hint of his infirmity of just a few seconds ago.

As soon as he entered the room, the people residing in the cells stared at him, open-mouthed and in shock. Managing to find his voice, Conklin said, "B-but... they s-said you were dy-dying!"

"I got better," Buck said, barely favoring the man with a glance. Instead, he went to the cell where the woman was sitting. Wrapping his hands around the bars, he said, "Darlin', I can get you out of this. I know, in my heart, that you were tricked into workin' for whoever it is that's behind all this. If you give me a name, I'll make sure you're outta this cell by the end of the day."

Elizabeth Watkins, who had given herself the title, Duchess, stood and crossed the narrow cell. She placed her hands over the big man's, and smile shyly up at him. "How can I be sure you're not just trying to use me like... like he did?" She even managed to dredge up a tear and put a tremble in her voice.

"Darlin', I would never do a thing like that! I know that it's hard getting through this life as a poor, defenseless woman. I know how disreputable men can take advantage of a woman, forcin' them to do things they don't want to do. I know you didn't want to hurt me, or my friend. Just tell me who's behind all this, and we'll make sure he never does anything like this ever again."

"But... but how can I be certain that I'll be safe?" She blinked, squeezing out a few more tears.

"Because me and my friends will arrest whoever it is behind all this. They'll be behind bars... or hung... and you'll be safe. You'll see."

"I... I just... I don't..." She chewed her lower lip, seeming to be considering his proposal. After a full moment, she said, "Yes, okay, I'll tell you."

"She's gonna lie to you, Wilmington!" Conklin complained. "You can't trust a thing that comes out of her mouth!"

"Shut up!" Buck barked, blinking as his raised voice made his headache worse.

"The man who hired me..." She said, dragging the moment out as long as she could, "it was one of the local ranchers."

"She's lying! She knows as well as any of us that it's all a part of the scheme of Wykes people. The men who worked with him, they want to get rid of the seven of you before they bring in more women!" Archie Conklin yelled. "This... this woman... worked for him! She's the one who recruits young women to come out here to work. They hired her to disrupt --"

"SHUT UP!" This time the order came, not from Buck, but from the so called Duchess. "Shut your mouth you weak, worthless man!"

With a devilish grin, Buck said, "Thank you, darlin', that's all I needed to know." He turned and prepared to leave the jailhouse.

"Wait! You said... you said you'd let me go!"

Stopping at the door, Wilmington turned and smiled at her with a cold look in his eyes. "I did? Well, reckon I lied." He left the building, closing the door behind him. Even so, he could hear the woman's angry scream as clearly as if he were still right beside her.

~o~

Vin watched curiously as Nathan and Josiah helped a limping, cursing Ezra Standish into the clinic. As they settled him on one of the chairs, and he could see blood seeping through a hole in the upper leg of the man's pants. "Have yerself a little accident, Ezra?" He asked quietly.

"More like an attack," Standish groused.

"What happened?" Tanner asked as he shifted on the bed carefully.

"We went out to where Wykes had his tent town set up, looking for whoever had tried to get us out of the way," Josiah explained as he grabbed Ezra's hands, keeping him from fending off Nathan's ministrations.

"And?" Vin encouraged when the other man didn't seem interested in continuing.

"They'd cleared out. Evidently someone warned them that their plans had fallen through, and that we had a jail full of people who could testify against them. Guess they decided a new location might suit their needs better."

"So... if they weren't there, how'd Ezra get hurt?"

With a toothy grin, the former preacher said, "That happened after we got back. Our usually nimble friend here got a little too close to a certain, cantankerous, black gelding while we were standing near the corral fence."

"Evidently, Ezra was carryin' some of those molasses candies in his pocket, Peso was feelin' neglected since you've been laid up, and he decided to treat himself."

"Yes, well, he not only helped himself to the candy, but a chunk of my flesh," Ezra groused.

Wincing, Tanner said, "Ah, hell, I'm sorry, Ezra. I'll have a talk with 'im and I'll pay t' have yer britches mended."

Ezra bit back a retort when he glanced up and caught sight of the other man. Vin was still pale, the flesh bruised around his eyes, and there was a pinched look of pain on his face. Instead, he said only, "I accept your offer."

JD entered a minute later, carrying a change of clothing for the gambler. Handing them over, he said, "Chris just got a wire from the Judge. He's been delayed up in Culverson, tryin' a murder case. Says it's gonna be at least a week before he can get here."

"Well, perhaps we'll have more information on whoever hired our guests by then. Think they'll give us much more than they already have?" Josiah wondered.

"Doubt it. Other than the woman, I really don't think they know much more." JD replied.

"Well, at least we've got some of 'em," Vin added to the conversation, "And we know to watch for the others, now."

"True... OW!" Ezra said, yelping as Nathan washed out the wound on his leg.

"Sorry, but we need to get it cleaned out good as we can. I don't think you're gonna have a lot of trouble as long as you keep it clean and stay off it when you can, it'll be sore for a few days is all. It didn't much more than break the skin," Nathan explained. "Don't think it'll interfere with your gamblin'."

"Well, I suppose it could have been much worse then," Ezra said in a relieved tone.

"That's the spirit, brother!" Josiah said with a deep chuckle, slapping the smaller man on the back and nearly sending him to the floor.

JD left to deliver the ruined pants to the laundry while Nathan and Josiah finished binding Ezra's wound and helping him into the clean pants. Josiah even assisted the other man in getting his boot on. Then he helped Standish from the clinic, with instructions from Nathan that he should spend the rest of the day in bed.

As the clinic became quiet once more, Vin found himself feeling lonely and somewhat out of sorts. "Nathan?"

"Yeah?" Jackson was cleaning up the soiled muslin and preparing to dump the bloody water outside.

"Think I could get up?"

"How're you feelin'? And I need more than fine."

"Mostly just tired and foot sore. But I would count it as a real favor if I could go out on the landin' fer a bit... get some fresh air."

"Reckon we can accommodate you there. Give me about five minutes, okay?"

"'Kay," Vin replied with a smile.

True to his word, Nathan was back in less than five minutes, setting a fresh bucket of water near the stove before coming to the bed. "Let me check the bandages real quick, then we'll see how you fare getting up."

Wordlessly, Vin watched as the healer shifted the dressing and checked beneath for signs of bleeding, then bound his arm snugly to his chest. "This necessary?"

"If you want any chance of getting feeling back, yeah, it is. Now, any feelin' in your arm?" As he spoke, he pressed on several areas.

"Nothin'," Vin said, his tone downhearted.

"Listen to me, Vin, it's only been a couple days, the nerves ain't had time to heal up any at all. Now, the one thing I don't want you doin' is getting yourself worked up that things ain't gonna change. I've seen this before, and it's gonna take some time. You hear me?"

"I hear y'," Vin said with a sigh.

"Well, hopefully it'll sink in," Nathan said with a smile. "Now, let's get you up and out on the landin', okay?"

Managing a smile, Tanner said, "Okay."

~o~

After hounding him for another three days, Vin got Nathan to allow him to go back to his room in the boarding house, under the stipulation that he stay off his horse and not sleep in his wagon until the healer said it was alright. He still tired easily, and having one arm bound so snugly made it difficult to do the simplest of things at times. Even with all the restrictions, placed by both the healer and his body, he was soon wandering around the little town, making certain that there was nothing happening to spoil the peace that the residents had come to expect.

Things were quiet, the most commotion coming from Archie Conklin, who kept insisting that he be released so that he could get back to running his business. His near constant complaints, however, fell on deaf ears, as the peacekeepers returned to their regular business of keeping watch over the town. Ezra and Buck had already returned to their regular duties, which meant that Ezra could most often be found at the poker table, and Buck in one of several ladies beds in town.

Each of them took their turn at the jailhouse, watching over their prisoners, although Vin settled for sitting with Chris on his watch. The two of them passed the time playing cards and looking through the latest wanted posters, their quiet natures stretching the patience of the five people currently populating their cells.

"Well, I see that Buck wasn't the only one who wasn't dying," The Duchess said dryly upon seeing Tanner for the first time since the attack.

"Yeah, sorry t' spoil yer plans, miss, but reckon I'll be well enough t' make sure you and yer friends make it to prison when the time comes."

"Prison!" Conklin exclaimed. "No... no... now, listen here --"

"Shut up, Conklin, before I shoot you for trying to escape," Larabee growled.

"You wouldn't!"

Setting a glare on the other man, Chris said, "Try me."

"Reckon I'd settle back and wait fer the judge, Mr. Conklin," Vin said evenly. "'Least with him, you might actually make it t' prison."

"And me?" The woman asked.

With a smile, Vin scuffed over to where she stood near the bars of her cell. "Reckon the ladies prison's where yer gonna head, miss." His eyes were filled with laughter. She was the one he had focused all of his anger on; she had caused him to be injured and possibly crippled for the rest of his life. As far as he was concerned, there wasn't enough that could be done to her for that.

She glared back at him. "You can't be serious. I cannot be locked away! This is ridiculous! I've done nothing worthy of a prison sentence and surely the Judge will see that."

"Maybe so, but I doubt it," Vin said evenly. "Reckon he's too smart t' fall fer yer feminine wiles."

As the tracker returned to his seat, Chris looked at him with an amused expression. "Feminine wiles? You've been listening to Ezra again."

"Oh, shut up, Larabee," Tanner said with a grin.

~o~

They were still on the alert for something to happen; some sort of attempt by the men who hired the people they had arrested to keep their prisoners from talking since their attempt to break them out hadn't worked. The second attempt would in all estimation be much better organized and thought out; the people in charge no longer underestimating the peacekeepers.

It was just after midnight when the people who were trying to resurrect Wykes town entered the little town. A dozen men made their way to the jailhouse, horses lining up before the barred windows in the front. The men could see the silhouettes of two men sitting at the desk and, beyond them, the shadowy outlines of their prisoners. With a simple nod from the man in charge, who wore a dusty, multi-colored striped jacket, they began to shoot into the jail. They didn't stop until they had all but torn the door from its hinges and the porch roof was tilting from a single upright.

Looking around, the man in charge of the attack said, "Hell, that was easy. Reckon the rest 'a them piss ants are too scared to face us."

"No, not really." Chris stepped out of the shadows, his Colt aimed squarely at the man's chest.

"Actually, we were just waitin' for you to run outta bullets," Buck added as he joined his old friend, a rifle trained on the men as well.

"So, if you gentlemen would be so accommodating as to drop your weapons," Ezra entered the conversation as he stepped away from the alleyway where he had been watching the attack.

"We'd appreciate it," JD concluded as he joined the others, both handguns trained on the would-be killers.

"Otherwise, well, we'll just have t' unload our weapons... don't think you'll enjoy it, either," Vin stepped up next, his mare's leg balanced on his hip and pointed toward the riders.

"And I might not be real gentle when I go to pull the lead out of your hides," Nathan put in as he stepped into the moonlight, his knives at the ready.

"And I may not be willing to offer last words to the likes of you," Josiah stepped up last, his gun held on the riders as well.

One by one the men dropped their weapons. While Buck, Chris and Josiah covered them, Vin, JD, Nathan and Ezra checked for any hide outs and then ushered them into the nearly destroyed jailhouse. Inside, other than some gouged brick and splintered wood, the interior was intact. It was also empty, except for a pair of dummies that were now sprawled on the floor near the desk, and several piles of blankets and pillows in the cells.

"Where are they?" Asked the leader, growling as he found himself shoved into a cell with the other eleven men who'd come with him.

His question was answered a few minutes later when Yosemite and Tiny escorted Conklin, the Duchess, and the other three men into the jail as well. The men were crowded into the same cell, while the woman was allowed to maintain a cell to herself.

"Well, boys, reckon we've got our work cut out for us until the Judge gets here," Chris said as he brushed the wood and glass off the chair and dropped into it. "Why don't you boys go over to the saloon and then head for bed for a few hours. We'll clean this mess up in the morning."

"I've got a better idea," Josiah disagreed, "what if we bring a couple bottles over here so we can all celebrate?"

With a grin, Chris said, "I do like the way you think."

~o~

The next day, with the help of Yosemite, Tiny and some of the other townsfolk, they managed to repair most of the jailhouse, settling for knocking out the broken glass in the windows until they could be replaced. After spending a night crammed together in the single cell, Conklin, Danley, and the other men were ready to tear one another's heads off. Finally, with a few renovations, they turned the tiny room where JD, as sheriff, slept, into a temporary cell, and the woman was moved into there. Splitting the sixteen men into two, eight men groups, did little to calm down the anger and fights, but at least it was more manageable.

Surveying the crowded cells, Chris shook his head. "Judge better get here soon."

~o~

It was three more days before Judge Travis arrived on the stage and decided the future of the people involved. Finding the information cut and dried, Travis opted to hold a bench trial for the lot of them. As Chris had predicted, nobody got off. Attempted murder, destruction of public property, conspiracy to commit murder, and a few other charges were leveled against the fifteen men and one woman. In all, the jail was overcrowded for several more days before a prison wagon arrived to remove the men. Another wagon would arrive to take the Duchess away.

Finally, things settled back into a normal routine for the peacekeepers. For the most part.

Vin Tanner, however, still had no feeling in his right arm.

Every morning, he diligently came to the clinic, where Nathan carefully exercised the numbed limb. Every evening he returned for another session. In between, he could be seen massaging the bound limb, rubbing at his cold fingers, and doing whatever he could to bring feeling back to his arm.

There was no grand and glorious scene when his arm miraculously went from numb to normal. It took a great deal of dedication on both the healer and the patient, working to restore first feeling, then movement, and then dexterity. Days moved to weeks and weeks to months while Vin, pushed past the end of his estimable patience, struggled with his disability and they all prayed that it wasn't permanent.

Each milestone was celebrated, the seven men raising a glass to mark first the return of feeling, then the ability to move and finally, months after the injury, Nathan declared him fully recovered.

~o~

The seven peacekeepers entered the Saloon, faces flushed, their chests heaving, and smiles on every face. Earlier that day they had spoiled an attempted bank robbery, locking the four would-be robbers away in the jailhouse. Chris and Vin had ridden out of town in one direction, Buck and Josiah in another, sweeping the area looking for anyone who might have gotten away. Satisfied that the men in the jail were the entire gang, they returned to town.

Now was the time to celebrate. All of them were once more whole and well, which meant that, as a group, the peacekeeping force was once again whole.

In the midst of the celebration, Vin looked across the table, his eyes locking with Buck's. The bigger man raised his glass, Vin mirroring his actions. With a nod and a smile, the two men celebrated their friendship which, just like Vin's arm, was mended and just as strong as ever.

The End

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May 27, 2012