Magnificent Seven Old West Universe
Dead or Alive by The Neon Gang

Authors' Note:  This story was plotted out for A Small Circle of Friends, a multi-media recycling zine, but that zine isn't being printed anymore, so it ended up here instead.  The story is based on the Hawkeye episode "The Bounty."

Monday, early afternoon

Vin allowed his thoughts to wander as he gave Peso his head, the gelding picking his own route down the narrow, rocky trail.  The tracker had accomplished what he'd set out to do the day before – find a rabid cougar, and kill it – so there was little reason for him to hurry back to town.  Nothing except the bitter cold wrapping around him, making his bones ache to their core.

He was headed back for a hot bath, a hot meal, and a couple of drinks with his friends – preferably in that order, too.  He shivered; the hot bath and hot food, for once, held a greater appeal for the tracker than time spent with his friends.

The weather had turned bitterly cold two months ago, and it showed no signs of warming up again anytime soon.

The tracker couldn't recall a winter quite like this one, not this far south, anyway.  Even the ground was frozen which, in these parts, was saying something.  And while it was so cold it could freeze a man to death, they'd had no snow or rain, either, which didn't bode well for the springs and creeks lasting through the hot summer months.

He watched the puffs of white lifting up from Peso's nostrils.  His breath would have done the same if he hadn't been breathing through the scarf Miss Nettie had given him for Christmas a couple of weeks past.  How she'd known the bitter cold had come to stay was a mystery to him, but he was damn grateful for her gift today.

As Peso reached the bottom of the hill, Vin felt a tingle between his shoulder blades and he glanced up slightly, his piercing gaze sweeping over the landscape.  He knew eyes were watching him, predatory eyes, but he couldn't rightly tell from where they were watching.

Straightening slightly, Vin's heightened attention was subtly telegraphed to Peso, who tossed his head slightly.  An instant later, the relative silence of the desert was shattered by a gunshot, and Vin felt the heat and tug from a bullet that seared between his inner arm and his ribs.

He jerked forward over his saddle horn, flattening himself over Peso's withers to become a harder target and gigging his heels into the gelding's flanks, causing the horse to leap straight into a run.

The tracker had a pretty good idea where the shot had come from, and he bore down on the location atop the big black gelding.  He spotted a man, swinging into his saddle, and grabbed for his Mare's Leg.  The man got off one more shot, but it went wide of the tracker thanks to the man's horse lunging to the left to avoid the charging Peso.

Tanner straightened, jerked Peso around, and raised his weapon.  He fired as the man made a third attempt to kill him.  The man toppled from his saddle, landing in the dirt with a dry thud and a puff of cold trail dust.

Vin was off Peso a moment later, approaching the man, making sure he was dead.  Once he was sure the man posed no further danger to his life, Vin turned his attention to the man's horse, whispering softly to the animal, letting it calm before he reached for the trailing reins and secured the gelding.

Once he had the horse in hand, he wrestled the man's body across the saddle and tied it down securely, then continued on to Four Corners.

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

Monday, early evening

Chris was standing next to one of the street fires burning near the jail when Vin rode into town.  Seeing that Tanner was leading the horse with a body slung across its saddle, he waited where he was for the tracker to reach him.

"Don't look much like a cougar," the blond stated.

Vin snorted softly.  "Nope; left the cat where I shot 'im."

"Where'd you find this one?" Chris asked, walking around the horse to lift the man's head by the hair.

"Just on the other side 'a that slide-rock rise; took a couple 'a shots at me."

"See you returned the favor," Chris replied, amusement dancing in his hazel eyes.  Vin looked quite put out by the man's actions.  "Ya know him?"

"Nope," Vin replied, swinging down from his saddle.  "Probably a bounty hunter; reckon there'll be a poster in his pockets."

"We can take a look at the undertaker's," Chris agreed as he watched Vin tie Peso to the hitching rail, then start off down the street, leading the other horse.  He fell into step beside the tracker.

Vin stopped at the undertaker's and cut the corpse free, but instead of carrying it into the building, he arranged it on the boardwalk so it was sitting up, leaning back against the front of the building.  Then he checked the man's pockets, coming up with a few dollars in change, an old tin penny whistle, and a small ball of string.

"No poster?" Chris asked.

"Nope," Vin told him, frowning.  He took a step back and handed Chris the coins – US and Mexican from the looks of them.  "But he offered t' buy us a drink."

"Right neighborly of him," Larabee commented.  "Aren't ya going to take him in?"

Vin shook his head.  "Ground's frozen, can't bury 'im.  'Sides, maybe somebody'll recognize 'im," he said as two women hurried past, talking quietly to each other as their gazes darted from the body, to Vin and Chris, and back again to the dead man.

"Not sure folks 'round here will tolerate it," Chris told him, although he personally thought it sounded like a pretty good idea.

"I can put him in a coffin, leave him in the window 'til I can get a proper grave dug," the undertaker said as he stepped out onto the boardwalk join them.  His hands were rubbing up and down on his arms, and he was wearing at least two heavy jackets.  "It's so cold, he'll freeze right up."

Chris reached out and dumped the coins Vin had given him into the undertaker's hand.  "This'll have t' cover it, Milton," he said.  "Was all he had on 'im."

"'Cept the horse and saddle," Vin said, gesturing to the animal.

The undertaker stepped over and gave the gelding a good looking over.  "Together it ought to over all his expenses," the man said with a pleasant smile.

"Anybody recognizes him, have 'em talk to us," Chris added, and the undertaker nodded.

Vin took a moment to check the man's saddlebags for any wanted posters, but there was nothing there to suggest that he was a bounty hunter, or anything other than a poor drifter.

Their business done, the two men walked back up the street to where Peso waited.

"Gonna go get a bath, then some food," Vin said as he shivered.

"Come get me when you're done with the bath.  I could eat," Chris told him.

Vin nodded, then untied his horse and headed for the livery.  Damn, but it was cold.

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

And hour later, the two peacekeepers were sitting in the restaurant, Vin putting away enough for two men while Chris watched with fond amusement.  He'd never met a man who could eat like Tanner did and still be so damn slim.  Hell, Vin put away more in a meal than either Josiah or Nathan did, and those two probably had at least forty pounds on the tracker.

It was while they were finishing off their desserts and coffee that the gunslinger spotted the damage to Vin's jacket.  He frowned as he asked, "You get shot?"

Vin looked up, startled for a moment, but then he nodded.  "Like I told ya, that fella I brought in.  Just tore up m' coat some, though.  Maybe Miss Nettie c'n mend it."

Chris shook his head.  Tanner had more lives than a damn cat, and more luck than a leprechaun.

"'M goin' out t' Nettie's t'marra.  I'll ask her 'bout it then," Vin told him.  "Y' want t' ride along?"

Chris thought for moment.  It was cold, and the ride out to the Wells' place would be brutal, since he was sure the wind would be blowing out of the north, just like it had been for the past few days.  "What're ya plannin' on doin', besides gettin' that piece 'a hide fixed?"

"See if I can't chop some wood, try 'n' seal up the windows a little tighter," Vin replied with a shrug.

"Nettie be doin' any cookin'?"

"Reckon so," Vin replied, a twinkle in his blue eyes.  He knew what Chris was really asking:  would Nettie be baking.

"Ain't got nothing here that needs me," Chris replied as off-handedly as he could manage.  The gunman had to admit, Nettie Wells baked a damn fine apple pie, and it was Vin's favorite, so if Tanner was out there, working in the cold, she'd make one for him, to express her thanks.  It just so happened that apple pie was Chris' favorite, too.

Vin nodded.  "Probably leave early, right after breakfast."

"I'll be ready."

Then, with their meals eaten, the two men made their way over to the saloon, joining Ezra, Buck, and Nathan at their usual table.  JD and Josiah were out on patrol, but they would be back before too much longer.  None of the seven men were dallying with the temperatures running so low.

The five men passed the time playing a few hands of poker, Ezra regaling them with a story of past conquests at the gaming tables in Santa Marta, Mexico.

JD and Josiah came in just as Standish finished his tale, both men looking miserable.

Inez saw them and brought over two more cups, and a fresh pot of hot coffee, which both men were grateful to accept.  She also refilled the cups sitting in front of the other peacekeepers, then left the men alone to return to her duties.

JD's teeth were chattering as he cupped his hands around the tin cup, letting the warmth seep into his icy fingers.  "S-saw the s-s-strangest t-thing on the w-w-way in," he managed.

"What's that?" Buck asked him.

"D-dead m-man in the w-w-window of the undertaker's s-shop.  P-propped up all s-s-strange-like."

"Friend 'a Vin's," Chris replied.

The tracker nodded when JD looked at him, his eyes rounding with surprise.  "Weren't much of a friend, though.  Tried t' kill me today.  Was hopin' somebody might recognize 'im."

"So you propped him up in the window of the undertaker's like… like a prize turkey?" Ezra asked, looking both shocked and repulsed.

"That was Milton's idea," Chris explained deadpan.  "Vin was just gonna leave him sittin' out in front of the place."

Ezra looked scandalized as he shook his head in disbelief.

"Ground's frozen, can't bury 'im 'til it thaws," Vin defended himself.  "'Sides, I'd kind 'a like t' know why he wanted t' blow m' head off."

"Leavin' him in the window's probably the best way to give folks a look at him," Josiah agreed.  "As long as we give the man a proper burial when the time comes."

Chris shrugged.  "That or we can just leave 'im out behind the building, let the coyotes have him…"

Buck looked surprised, then realized Chair was joking – or at least he hoped he was.  He laughed, and the others followed his lead, except for Vin, who looked like he'd be quite happy with the arrangement.

When Buck and Nathan left for their patrol the rest of the men headed for their beds, except for Ezra, who had more pockets to fleece at the poker tables – provided the cold didn't chase away all his potential victims.

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

Monday night, late

Ezra was just about to call it a night when the sound of the batwing doors opening caught his attention.  He'd actually done better than he'd expected, given the cold.  It appeared that, given the temperatures, most of the men in town preferred to warm themselves with libations than in front of their own stoves.

But the person who entered the saloon wasn't a man.  In fact, he was reasonably certain that she was little more than a girl.  She paused just inside the door, glancing nervously around the nearly empty establishment.

Ezra rose and walked over to her, surprised to see that she was either Mexican or Indian.  "Well, good evening, my dear.  And what brings you out on such a cold night?  I don't believe I've seen you in town before…"

She looked up at him, uncertainty in her eyes, but then she drew herself up and squared her shoulders.  "I am looking for a man," she said, her accent making the words difficult, but not impossible, for the gambler to understand.

He smiled.  "A particular man, or will any male of the species do?"

She looked confused.

"Are you seeking someone specific?" he tried again.

"White man," she replied.

"Well, yes, there are quite a few of those hereabouts."

"This one hunt other men," she said.

"A bounty hunter?" Ezra asked, his voice falling so the conversation remained private.

She nodded.

"Well, now, you happen to be in luck.  We do have a former bounty hunter in residence in our fair metropolis.  Might I inquire as to the reason you require the services of a bounty hunter?" he asked, gesturing for her to take a seat at a nearby table.  She did, and when she sat down, Ezra noticed for the first time that the woman appeared to be with child.

She glanced down at her belly, then looked up at the gambler and said, "Father is bad man.  Need bounty make care for baby."

"I see," Ezra said, nodding.  "Well, I'm sure something can be arranged to ensure that you and your child are provided for."

"You take me bounty hunter?"

"Why don't you return here in the morning," Ezra told her.  "I or one of my companions will be happy to listen to your story and strategize a plan."

She nodded and stood.

"Excuse me," Inez called.  "Where are you going to sleep tonight?" she asked the girl, who shrugged.  "I will make you a bed for you in the back, where I sleep," she offered.

The girl nodded, tears filling her eyes.  "It is much cold outside."

"Yes, too cold for you and your baby," Inez said.  "Come, I will show you."

"Why don't you go on to bed," Ezra told her.  "I'll finish closing."

"Are you sure?" she asked.

Ezra nodded, wondering what in the world had come over him.  If his mother ever found out he'd volunteered to do work…  He shook his head.  With luck, she'd never hear about it.

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

Tuesday morning, early

The following day Chris and Vin left town after an early breakfast at the restaurant, riding straight out to Nettie Wells' ranch.  They cut wood, patched window frames, and did several other chores around the place until she finally called them inside for dinner that afternoon.

The pot roast and potatoes, canned green beans from that summer, and biscuits were all delicious.  But the two slices each of the mouthwatering apple pie made the cold, hard work well worth the effort for both men.

After the meal they chatted with Nettie and Casey, then headed back to town, wanting to get there before it was dark.

They rode along the trail in comfortable silence, both men slightly drowsy thanks to the heavy meal and the cold weather.  But that didn't slow Chris much when he spotted a man taking aim at them from behind the cover of a clump of tall mesquite bushes.

The fellow managed to get one shot off before Chris plugged him in the forehead.

"You all right?" the blond hollered at Vin, who was off his horse, his Mare's Leg in his hands.

"Lost a few whiskers, but I'm just dandy," Vin replied, but he was shaking from the excitement of the close call.

Together they walked over to the dead man and stared down at him.

"You know this one?" Chris asked.

"Nope," Vin replied, shaking his head.  "You?"

Larabee shook his head.  "Never seen him before, think he might be a bounty hunter, too?"

Vin shot the gunslinger a nasty look.  "What makes y' think he was aimin' at me?"

Chris thought for a moment, then said, "Well, somebody tried t' kill ya yesterday, right?  Guess it was this jackass's turn today."

Vin gave the blond a sour look, but he'd already reached the same conclusion.  Besides, fellas who wanted to take on Chris Larabee generally called him out from the middle of the street, with as big an audience as they could get.

Vin muttered something under his breath and Chris grinned as Tanner reached down and rifled the man's pockets, finding no wanted poster.  He checked the man's saddlebags as well, but nothing turned up there, either.  He looked like just another poor drifter who'd decided to take a shot at the tracker.

Tanner handed Chris the money he'd found in the dead man's pockets – just slightly more than he found on the first man.  "Reckon that'll have t' cover his expenses."

"Along with his horse and saddle of course," Larabee added.

Vin shook his head.  "Hell, Larabee, we's in the wrong damn business."

Then, together, they wrestled the man over his saddle, called their own horses to them with whistles, and headed back to town.

The second stranger joined Vin's first would-be killer in the window of the undertaker's shop, Milton Graves smiling over his payment once more.

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

Tuesday night

"Vin, you plannin' on makin' a collection 'a dead drifters?" Buck asked when he sat down with the others at their usual table in the saloon.

The tracker scowled at the ladies' man.  "Don't intend to, no," he replied.  "'Sides, Chris shot this one."

Buck glanced over at his long-time friend.

"He was shootin' at us," Larabee said with a shrug.

"Both 'a ya, or Vin?" Josiah asked.

"There a difference?" Chris wanted to know, his voice immediately taking on a harder edge.

"Only that it would make two strangers in two days who were gunning for Vin," Josiah stated, trying not to smile at Larabee's protectiveness.  "Interesting coincidence, wouldn't you say, brother?"

"They've got to be bounty hunters, right?  Don't they?" JD asked.

"Weren't carryin' no wanted posters, JD," Vin said.

"Maybe our Mr. Tanner should remain closer to home," Ezra stated, "where his back can be more effectively guarded."

Vin didn't look too pleased with the notion, but Chris thought it sounded perfectly reasonable, so he nodded.  "Think that might be a good idea."

Tanner sighed, but he didn't put up an argument, because he knew they had a valid point.  The last thing he wanted was to get shot dead.

"Besides," Ezra continued, looking at Vin as he said, "I have just the thing to take your mind off your recent… troubles."

"An' what would that be?" the tracker asked suspiciously.

"A young woman, Native, I believe, who is looking for the services of a bounty hunter," the gambler supplied.  "She's presently napping, but she is most anxious to speak to you."

Vin frowned.  "Indian woman wants t' hire a bounty hunter?"

Ezra nodded, enjoying the fact that he had captured the attentions of all of the men.  "She came in last night.  Apparently the father of her unborn child is a 'bad man,' and she requires a bounty hunter to track him down for her.  The bounty will allow her to care for her child."

"How bad?" Chris asked.  He didn't want Vin taking on any more trouble than he already had.

"I have no idea," the gambler admitted.  "You'll have to speak to the young woman yourselves."

"Łitso Haskįįyįį?"

Vin turned when he heard the name he'd been given while he'd lived among the Jicarilla Apache, until they had adopted his Comanche name of Long Eyes.  He smiled.  "Ha'dishéí Ya'íí," he greeted her.  "What're y' doin' here?" he asked as he stood and walked over to her, then escorted her over to join the others.  "This is… Singing Sun," he said to introduce her.  "Why aren't y' with yer people?"

She glanced down, wrapping her hands around the bulge of her abdomen.  "Family gone now," she said sadly.  "Eight moons ago Cousin sold me to white man…  He used me for his wife, but when child began to grow, he leave.  He is bad man.  He kill, take people money.  I see paper with his face.  Woman tell me he worth much money."  She looked up at Vin, her expression imploring.  "I need money, give Cousin.  Go home baby."

"Maybe she can look through our wanted posters," JD said, trying to be helpful.  "If she can find the wanted poster, at least we'll know who we're looking for."

Vin nodded.  "Ha'dishéí Ya'íí, tomorrow morning you go with JD.  He'll see if y' can find yer husband's paper face."

"I sleep now," she said, and headed to the back of the saloon.

Vin watched her go, frowning.

"Something bothering you?" Chris asked him.

Tanner shrugged.  "I knew her cousin," he said, shaking his head.  "Never struck me as the kind t' sell her like that…"

"They live on a reservation?" Nathan asked.

Vin nodded.

"Things can get complicated there," Josiah said, sensing where Nathan was going with his thoughts.

The tracker nodded again.  "That's true enough, J'siah… still…"

"Well, if she finds the wanted poster, and the man's in the area, there's no reason we shouldn't welcome the opportunity to—"

"Line our pockets?" Nathan finished for the gambler.  He was scowling.

"I was going to say help the poor child.  If that money will allow her to go home where she has family and friends to help her…"

"He's got a point," Chris admitted reluctantly, although he guessed the healer's comment was closer to the mark when it came to the gambler's real motivation.

Vin nodded.

"Need to talk about what we're gonna do about these folks tryin' to kill Vin, too," Chris said.

"Best you lie low for a time," Nathan told the tracker.

"Maybe the two 'a you ought to go do some work on your cabin tomorrow," Buck suggested.  "It's nice and out of the way."

Chris glanced over at Vin, who nodded.

"Maybe we will," Larabee agreed.

"I'll send JD out with the poster if she finds it before you two get back," Buck assured the two men.

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

Wednesday morning

Vin and Chris rode along the narrow trail that lead out to Larabee's small cabin.  Over breakfast they had discussed the repairs they planned to undertake, most of them inside the cabin, or in the barn, since neither man was ready to face another day working outside in the cold, especially with no hot apple pie as a reward for their efforts.

As they neared the last small creek that was still dry, Vin caught a glint of sunlight as it struck metal.  "Get down!" he hollered, diving from Peso's back.

Chris did the same just as they heard the report from a rifle.

Both men scrambled into the dry creek bed, using the bank to protect them as they made their way toward the shooter, their guns drawn.  But before they could reach their attacker they heard the bark of a pistol, then silence.

When they finally found the shooter, he was already dead, a bullet hole in the center of his chest.

Chris looked at his friend, asking, "What the hell did you do, Vin?"

"How the hell should I know," Vin replied, dumbfounded over having yet another body dumped in his lap.  He rifled the man's pockets.  "Did y' see the second shooter?"

"My concentration was on this one," Larabee replied, going over to check the man's saddlebags.  "Hey," he called, holding out a piece of paper to Vin, "can you read this?"

Vin glanced at the paper.  "Hell, Chris, c'n hardly read English yet, let alone that.  What do y' think that is?"

"Mexican would be my guess," the blond said, glancing nervously around, wondering if the second shooter might not be gunning for Tanner as well.

"C'n speak it enough t' get by, but cain't read it."

"Lucky we know somebody who can," Larabee told him, leading the dead man's horse over to the body.

Vin was squatting next to the corpse and he looked up saying, "This keeps up, Milton's gonna have himself a whole damn herd."

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

Inez unfolded the paper Chris had handed her and read it.  She frowned and paled slightly, then looked up at the two men and said quietly, "Someone in Purgatorio has placed a bounty on your head, Señor Vin."

"What's the charge?" JD asked, surprised.

"Charge?" Buck echoed, then snorted.  "Hell, kid, they don't have law down there; ain't no charge to it."

"For the murder of Eli Joe… destruction of local property… and other acts of public disruption," Inez read.

Chris grinned at that last.  They had all done a fair job of public disruption in the lawless border town.  "What's he worth?" he asked the bar manager.

"Four hundred dollars, U.S. money, for proof of death, or six hundred U.S., if he is brought to Purgatorio alive," she responded, glancing nervously at Vin.

"Why more if he's alive?" JD asked.  "Law here says five hundred dollars dead or alive."

"So they c'n enjoy me 'fore they kill me," Vin explained.

On that sober thought Chris reached for the bottle of whiskey that sat in the center of the table.  He poured each of them a drink, except for JD, who was enjoying his cup of hot coffee.

Nathan shook his head.  "That's a lot of money – either way."

Buck nodded.  "A man could buy a helluva nice spread with it, some horses, cows, chickens…"

"Probably get fifty head of quality stock," Chris agreed, nodding.

"How many of those new Winchester '76 rifles do you think it'd buy?" JD wondered out loud.

Vin scowled, looking from man to man.  "Depends, JD," he replied sourly.  "Y' plannin' t' shoot me, or turn me in alive?"

JD thought for a moment, then said, "Alive."

"Twelve, maybe fifteen," Chris supplied.

"We could use the money to buy the rifles, then we could use the rifles to free Vin!" JD rationalized, concluding with a smile.  "That way we end up with the rifles and Vin."

"Well, that is a plan," Ezra stated, shaking his head.  He glanced over at the tracker, imagining what he could do with $600 at the gambling tables in San Francisco, Carson City, or New Orleans.

"Could save y'all the effort 'n' just turn myself in," Vin grumbled at them.

"But then why would they pay us?"JD asked, honestly confused.

"Good point," Buck agreed, nodding thoughtfully.

"Sure is nice t' know a man's got friends," Tanner hissed.

"That much money being offered… a lot of men are going to try to cash in," Josiah said.

"That supposed t' be a comfort, J'siah?" Vin asked, sounding more than a little hurt, and annoyed.

"Would you be more comforted if I lied, brother?"

"Be more comforted if at least one 'a ya had a plan," Vin growled.

"Gentlemen, gentlemen," Ezra said, getting their attention, "the real enemy here is greed.  The question, therefore, is how do we defeat that greed?"

"Remove the bounty," Chris said simply.

"Only way t' do that is t' turn me in."

"Not if we can find out who's behind the bounty," Chris said.

"How do you plan to do that?" Nathan asked.

"Thinkin' about that," Larabee replied.

They fell silent when Ha'dishéí Ya'íí came in and headed straight to their table.  She handed JD a wanted poster.  "This is my husband."

JD glanced down at the poster for Benjamin "Big Ben" Chattam, who was wanted for horse theft, theft, assault, and disturbing the peace; the reward was a hundred and fifty dollars, dead or alive.  He handed the poster to Vin.

Tanner glanced down at it and nodded.  "Big Ben Chattam," he said.  "Crossed his path a couple 'a times in New Mexico Territory, an' Texas.  Nasty sonuvabitch."  He looked up at Singing Sun.  "This the man yer cousin sold y' to?"

She nodded.  "Bad man."

"That he is, ma'am," JD said, then looked at the others.  "I'll send a few wires, see if he's been spotted in these parts."  He rose and headed out.

Singing Sun looked at Vin as asked, "You find, yes?"

"We'll try, Ha'dishéí Ya'íí," Vin told her.

Inez swept by, pausing when she reached Singing Sun, who was looking slightly haggard.  "You should get more rest.  Go lie down and I will bring you something to eat."

The girl nodded and headed to the back where Inez had made up a bed for her.

"Think you can find Chattam?" Chris asked the tracker.

"Reckon I can, if I got a place t' start," Vin replied.

"Gallivanting through the wilderness might not be the prudent course of action at this particular time," Ezra warned the tracker.

"If that means y' don't think I ought t' be out there with another price on m' head, I done thought 'a that already."

"But you're still gonna go, aren't ya?" Buck asked him.

Vin sighed and nodded.  "Her mama 'n' her family took me in while I was livin' with the tribe, made m' life a heap easier 'n it'd been otherwise.  Reckon I owe her."

"You don't owe her your life," Chris reminded him.  "Think I'll take a ride down t' Purgatory, see what I can find out about whoever put this bounty out there."

"You'll need somebody to watch your back, brother," Josiah added, standing as Larabee did.

Chris nodded.  "Be glad for the company, Josiah."  He looked over at Vin.  "You stay in town and lie low 'til we get back.  Milton's runnin' out of window space."

Tanner nodded, but he didn't look happy about it.

"Rest assured, Mr. Larabee, we will see to it no harm befalls our resident Robin Hood."

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

Tuesday night

Vin spent a good deal of the day prowling through town like a caged animal, often the only one out on the boardwalk, the cold having driven everyone else inside.  He paused as he passed the undertaker's shop.  The three dead men were all frozen solid, and looked uncomfortable in the window, but at least there was a chance someone might recognize one of them, and give him a clue as to who was gunning for him.  There was only room for one more, and the tracker hoped he wouldn't become the last of the window-dressing.

The tracker took some time to groom Peso, then oiled his saddle.  He helped Josiah at the church, and watched Ezra play several hands of poker.  But nothing he did made the minutes, or the hours, creep past any faster.

He shared lunch with Buck and JD, who had sent out several wires, but hadn't received any replies as of yet.

Dinner he shared with Nathan and Ezra, both of whom tried to occupy his thoughts, but he found himself loosing track of whatever it was they were saying as he listened for Chris and Josiah to return.

After the meal, he followed the two men back to the saloon, then Nathan and JD headed out for their patrol, while Buck joined Vin at their usual table, the two of them keeping an eye on Ezra while they continued to wait for their friends to return.

Just after Nathan and JD had come in from their patrol, Chris and Josiah finally walked back into the saloon.  They headed straight to the table and sat, accepting fresh coffee from Inez, but adding shots of whiskey to them to cut the chill.

"Well?" Vin asked.

Chris nodded.  "Found the man who posted the bounty."

"Who is it?" Vin asked.

"Levi Erasmus Joe," Josiah told him.  "Eli Joe's younger brother."

"Chattam's there, too," Chris told him.  "He's been shacked up with one of the local whores for a couple 'a days; don't look like he's goin' anywhere anytime soon."

Vin nodded.  "Reckon the bounty makes sense, then.  The Joe brothers used t' ride t'gether, 'til Eli took t' killin' damn near ever'body he come across.  Levi, he's more a thinker.  Heard he'd took up with Sly-Cat Nelson an' was robbin' banks in Texas cattle country…"

"Well, now he's in Purgatorio, lookin' for you," Chris said.

"An' I got t' go down there t' get Chattam," Vin added, then sighed and shook his head.  "Don't ever get easy, does it."

Chris snorted softly.  "Best you let us go get Chattam."

Vin shook his head again.  "Mine t' do."

"You find husband?" Singing Sun asked as she walked up to the table.

Vin nodded.  "Holed up in Purgatorio with a workin' girl."

She frowned, looking at the other men, who didn't appear too happy.  "You get?"

Vin nodded.  "Said I would."

"Vin…" Chris started.

The tracker looked at him.  "Don't start with me, Larabee."

"Just don't think you ought t' ride in there and get your damn head blown off," Chris argued.

Singing Sun reached out, resting her hand on Vin's arm.  "This is a dangerous place for you, Long Eyes?" she asked in her own language.

He gave her a nod, replying, "There is a man there who wants to see me dead.  He blames me for the death of his brother."

"Then you cannot go," she told him.

"Uh, excuse me, but we'd kind 'a like to know what you're sayin'," Nathan interrupted.

Vin looked at Singing Sun and said, "I told you I would find him and get you that bounty, and I plan to do that," in her language, then he looked at the others and said, "I'll be leavin' tomorrow fer Purgatorio."

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

Wednesday, late morning

Singing Sun slipped from her pony's back and walked over to where a man stood, waiting for her.  She had waited for nearly an hour after Vin and the others left for Purgatorio, then slipped out herself to make the rendezvous.

The man smiled at her, his gaze sweeping up and down her body hungrily.  "They take the bait?" he asked her.

She nodded as she walked up to him.

He reached out, slipping his hand into her long, black hair and pulling her head back so he could kiss her roughly.  He never saw her hand move, just felt the cold bite of the long blade as it slipped between his ribs.  He staggered back, his hand coming up to press against his side as blood began to flow from the stab wound.

He looked back at the woman, completely confused.  "What'd ya do that fer?" he gasped as his knees buckled and he dropped to the ground.

She watched him dispassionately as he fell over onto his side, then rolled onto his back.  He was quickly dying, she knew.

Walking over next to him, she squatted down, looking him in the eye as she said, "You whoring Purgatorio.  I warn what I do."

He clearly wanted to say something to her, but it was too late.  The life slipped from his body and he went limp, his dead eyes still staring up at her.

She checked his pockets, taking the money she found there, as well as his pocket knife, which was all he had on him of value.

Singing Sun stood and walked over to the dead man's horse, taking up the reins and leading it back to her pony.  She removed the serape tied above his bedroll and pulled it on over her head for added warmth.  Then, reaching under her dress she untied the padding that had faked her pregnancy and tugged it free, tossing it over next to Chattam's body.  She swung up onto her pony's back and headed south, toward Purgatorio.

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

Wednesday, just before noon

Four of the seven peacekeepers stood in the shadows provided by a small stand of trees and looked down on the small Mexican outlaw town of Purgatorio.

Activity there was really just beginning, most having had to sleep off the night before.  And those who hadn't been drunk were still reluctant to leave their warm beds to face another bitterly cold day.

While Vin continued to watch the town with his spy glass, the others pulled on clothing that would allow them to blend in better with the locals.  The transformations were startling, except for Larabee.  The blond was dressed all in black, looking every inch the shootist he was reported to be.  Nathan, on the other hand, dressed like one of the Seminole warriors from the village where Rain lived.  All of the items of clothing he pulled on over his own clothes had been given to him by the residents, in payment for his medical services.  He hardly resembled the town healer residents of Purgatorio had seen once, several months ago.

But it was Ezra who looked the least like himself.  Dressed in dirty clothes and sporting long grey hair and beard, the gambler was gone, replaced by an old prospector.  None of the peacekeepers had asked the con man why he had a chest full of costumes, fake beards and moustaches, various wigs, and makeup.  There were, they knew, just some things a man ought not to know.  The gambler pulled out one of his empty pockets to make it obvious that this old timer was as poor as he looked.

As for Vin, he was already wearing a getup Singing Sun had helped him put together, making him look like a renegade half-breed off one of the border reservations.

"No sign 'a Chattam," the tracker said.  "Levi, neither."

"We'll go down an' look around, see what we c'n find," Nathan said.

Chris nodded.  "You spot either of 'em, just point 'em out," he told the two men.

They nodded and left.

Several minutes later, Vin watched through his spy glass as Nathan entered town first, taking his horse straight to the farrier, a broad-shouldered Black man, and paying him to fix a loose shoe Tiny had helped create before they'd left town.  While the man worked, Nathan chatted with him.

Ezra entered town on foot from a different direction, leading Lady Slipper, Tiny's small burro.  He tied the animal at the hitching rail outside one of the saloons and disappeared inside.

Less than half an hour later both men had made their way to a second saloon, Nathan standing in the shade of the awning, made from ocotillo sticks tied down on a rickety frame and letting in more than enough sunlight to help warm the man.  The old prospector disappeared inside.

"Looks like they've found one of 'em, maybe both," Chris stated, watching through the spy glass Vin had handed him when he'd seen the two men converge on the same spot.

Vin nodded.  "Yep, reckon so."

"Give me a few minutes to see what's goin' on," Chris told him.

Tanner nodded.  "Watch yer back, Cowboy."

"Always," the gunman replied, then walked to his horse, mounted, and started for the town.  Vin watched him until he was out of sight, then walked over to his own horse and followed as slowly as he could manage.

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

Ezra sat at a table with three other men, playing poker.  In the center of the table was a small pile of pennies and pesos.  The gambler's glass of watered down whiskey was only half empty.

Across the saloon, Levi Joe was leaning against the bar, sipping on a glass of top-shelf whiskey and chatting quietly with one of the prettier-looking working girls.

Nathan was still standing outside, waiting.

Chris ignored the healer as he rode up to the saloon and tied his horse to the rail.  He flipped a coin to one of the boys squatting along the side of the building.  The boy caught it and grinned, going over to run his hand over Pony's neck.

"I watch good, Señor," the child said.

Chris nodded.  "You do and there'll be another one of those when I'm ready to leave."

"Sí!" the boy agreed, shooting his friends a haughty grin.

Larabee waited a few moments under the awning, then stalked into the saloon, heading straight for the bar.  "Whiskey," he said.

The barkeep recognized him from past visits, and he pulled a bottle from the shelf behind him.  As he sat the shot glass in front of the blond Maria sidled up to him, smiling.  "Señor Chris," she said, batting her eyes.  "It is good to see you."

He smiled at her.  "Good to see you, too, Maria."

She glanced over her shoulder to the door, then smiled seductively at him.

Chris tossed back the whiskey and set the glass back down on the bar-top, then snaked his arm around the woman and headed outside with her.  When they hit the dusty street he asked, "You know a man goes by Big Ben Chattam?"

She looked up at him and nodded, her expression slightly worried.  It seemed this wasn't the social call she'd thought it was.  "He's been in town for a day or two, but he left this morning."

"How long has Levi Joe been in town?" he asked as they reached her small shack.

"A day or two longer," she replied as they entered.  She watched as Chris went straight to the small window looking out on the main street and pulled back the curtain slightly so he could look out and make sure no one had followed him.  It appeared no one had.

Fishing into his pocket, he pulled out the wanted poster and handed it to the woman.  She glanced at it and shrugged, unable to read it.

"Seems Levi Joe has put a bounty on a friend's head," Chris explained.

She nodded.  "He has talked about it to anyone who will listen," she said, slipping up behind him and running her hands up and down his back, then wrapping them around him to rub his chest.

"Not this time," Chris said, capturing her hands and pulling her around so she was standing beside him.  But he dug into his pocket again and dropped two dollar coins into her hand.  "I just wanted to see what you can tell me about Chattam and Joe."

"I have told you what I know," she said, looking and sounding disappointed.

Chris continued to watch the saloon, Maria pressing close to him so she could peer out as well.  Levi Joe and the girl he'd been talking to left, walking down the street a short distance before disappearing into another one of the small shacks the working girls rented.

"That is his regular girl," Maria said.  "They will be there for a while."

Chris saw Vin riding in.

Nathan saw him, too, and he pushed off the wall where he'd been leaning and started down the street, stopping in front of the shack where Levi Joe had entered to check the heel of his boot before he continued on to the blacksmith's.

Vin rode past the shack Nathan had singled out and disappeared behind the undertaker's.

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

Vin didn't even look at Nathan as he rode past him, but he had no trouble understanding what the healer was telling him:  Levi Joe, or Ben Chattam, was in the small shack.  He turned Peso when he reached the undertaker's, riding past it to a small store.  He dismounted and tied Peso to the rail there, then made his way carefully back to the rear of the shack.

There was one man leaning against the back wall of the shack, keeping watch.  Vin was sure that there must be more than one guard, so he waited in the shadows for several minutes.  But when there didn't seem to be any other guards, he decided that, maybe, things might go a little easier than he'd expected.

The tracker glanced around and, spotting a small stack of ocotillo sticks, he picked them up in his arms and started toward the shack.  As he neared the man lounging against the wall of the structure, he tripped, the stack of sticks scattering across the ground in front of him.

The guard chuckled softly to himself as he watched Vin bending to collect up the sticks again.  But as soon as the tracker was close to the guard, he tossed them at the man, who instinctively threw up his hands to protect his face.

Vin's fist plowed into the man's gut, doubling him over.  Then the tracker brought his clasped hands down on the back of the man's neck and he dropped into the cold dust, unconscious.

Moving to the rear door, Vin paused to listen.  The only sounds he heard coming from inside were heavy breathing and soft moans.  He checked the latch and found it unbarred.  He lifted it and pulled the door open, stepping inside with his Mare's Leg up and ready, only to be brought up short by the sight that greeted him.

On the small bed a man was sating himself with the whore.  Levi Joe sat in the only chair in the shack, his six-gun in his hand and pointed at Vin.  Another man stood next to the chair, his gun also out and pointed at the tracker.  And, next to him, Singing Sun also stood.

"Ha'dishéí Ya'íí, what are you doing here?" Vin asked her in her language.

"Why don't you hand that gun over first," Levi said, a nasty smile curling his lip.

The man standing next to Joe stepped forward and relieved Tanner of his weapon while the man in the bed finished his business and climbed off the girl, who slipped from the bed, grabbed her clothes, and fleeing out the back door.

"Reckon you know who I am," Levi said, his gaze sizing Vin up.

Tanner nodded once.

"Then ya know why I put that bounty on yer head."

Another single nod.

"And to think I didn't believe this little cunt when she told me she could deliver you to me, but I see that I was wrong."  He walked over to the small table in the shack and opened one of his saddlebags, pulling out a small bag and tossing it to Singing Sun, saying, "That ought to make you financially independent, if you spend it wisely."

She slipped the bag into a pouch she carried and Vin realized that all signs of her pregnancy were gone.  Looking at him, she spoke briefly, then slipped out the back as well.

"What'd she say?" Levi asked.

"Said no hard feelin's, an' she'd remember me in her old age," Vin replied.

Levi Joe laughed.  "Well, alrighty then.  As for our business… Eli weren't much of a man, but he was my brother," he stated, circling the tracker before he pulled back his fist and landed a hard punch to Vin's lower back.

Vin grunted and nearly went to his knees, but he managed to stay on his feet.

Levi continued on around him, then threw another punch at the tracker, which Vin blocked, landing one of his own on Joe's nose, which broke.

"Sonuvabitch!" the outlaw yelped, then grabbed his gun from his holster and fired.

The bullet seared through Vin's leg and the tracker went down.  But he knew the sound of the shot would bring the others.

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

Once Nathan knew Vin had gotten his message, he walked back to the blacksmith's shop and picked up his horse.  He walked the animal back up the street toward the shack, spotting Chris stepping out of Maria's shack as well.

The sound of a horse hurrying away caught the healer's attention and he swung into his saddle and lunged after the sound, just catching sight of Singing Sun heading away from town at a run.  A moment later came the sound of a gunshot from the shack where he knew Vin was inside.

He started to wheel his horse around when he heard Ezra yell, "Go after her!"

Nathan gigged his horse in the belly and started after the woman, hoping Vin was all right and that Chris and Ezra could get to him in time if he was in trouble.

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

As he and Maria crossed the street back toward the saloon, Chris heard a pistol fire inside the shack.  Beside him, Maria jumped and gasped, "Elena!"

Larabee shoved her toward the saloon even as he headed straight for the shack.  As he passed the narrow space between one shack and the next he heard Ezra shout, "Go after her!"  He frowned.  Go after who?  But that didn't matter.  He needed to know what had happened to Vin.

As he reached the shack, another man stepped out into the street from the other side of the road, calling, "Leave it alone, Mister."

Chris stopped, his gaze shifting from the man to the door of the shack and back.  "Don't think I will," he replied.

The man reached for his gun, but Larabee was far too fast for him.  The stranger fell, dead, and three men raced over, pulling off the man's boots and clothing even as they dragged the corpse off in the direction of the undertaker's.

Larabee shook his head as he headed for the door.

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

Levi stared down at Vin, who was clutching the entry and exit wounds in his thigh.  He smiled.  "Ain't gonna kill ya quick, Tanner.  Gonna do it slow, enjoy m'self."

"I don't believe you'll do it at all," Ezra announced as he stepped through the back door.

Levi shifted his Colt and fired at the same time as the gambler let loose with his derringer.

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

Chris heard two more shots from inside the shack and bolted for the door.

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

Levi's bullet caught Standish's arm, the force spinning him around to crash into the open door.  He stumbled and fell with a shout of pain.

Joe was also hit, in his gun arm.  His Colt fell from his suddenly nerveless fingers, but he stayed on his feet.  He lunged at Vin, kicking him twice before the front door burst open.

Levi jerked around, reaching for the knife he wore on his belt, but Larabee killed him before his fingers even touched the hilt.

Levi Joe dropped.

The blond looked from Vin to Ezra.

"I'm fine," the gambler hissed.

Chris moved forward to the tracker, who was lying on his side, curled into a ball.  "Vin, ya alright?"

But the tracker was caught in a spasm of pain that refused to let up.  Levi Joe had caught him square on his spine with the toe of his boot, and his entire body had seized up as a result.  He wasn't even sure where the second kick had landed, but the bloody gash on his cheek made it obvious to the gunman.

"Vin, what's wrong?"

"The bastard kicked him in the back," Ezra supplied, climbing slowly to his feet.

"You hurt?" Chris demanded.

"Just a graze," the gambler replied.

"Where the hell's Nathan?" Chris demanded.

"Going after Singing Sun," Standish replied, going over to help the blond lift Vin from the floor to the bed.

"What was she doin' here?" Chris asked.

"Set me up," Vin hissed through clenched teeth.

"Son of a bitch," Larabee replied.

"Get me the hell out 'a here," Tanner growled, his body jerking with another spasm.

Together, Chris and Ezra managed to get Vin on his feet between them, and carried him across the street to Maria's shack.  Chris kicked the front door open and they carried Vin to the bed and laid him down.  A moment later, Maria was there.

"Go get my saddlebags," Chris told her and she hurried out again, returning a few moments later with them.

She looked at Ezra, her eyes rounding with surprise as he said, "Shall I go after our healer and fetch him back?"

"Go," Larabee replied, digging out bandages.

Maria watched the gambler slip out, wig and whiskery being plucked from his head and face as he did.  "Madre de Dios," she breathed.

"Maria," Chris called, "come help me."

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

Nathan bore down on the woman, who was leaning over her horse's withers, trying to urge more speed out of the animal.  As they reached a small dry wash, the healer saw her horse collect itself and leap, but didn't make it all the way across.  It landed half in and half out of the wash, then jumped, front legs flailing before it screamed and fell.

She jumped free of the thrashing animal, and rolled, the force of the impact knocking the wind from her.

Nathan was on her, jerking her to her feet.  When he did, the bag of coins fell from her pouch.  He frowned and reached down, picking up the bag and weighing it in his palm.  "That's an awful lot 'a money for somebody needin' a bounty to buy her freedom."

"Let me go!" she snarled, trying to jerk free.

"I don't think so, missy," Nathan said, trying to subdue her.  Given his size and strength he soon had her tied and sitting in the dirt while he checked her horse.  The animal's broken front leg told the healer what he had to do.

He eased his gun from its holster and fired.

Ezra rode up on them, looking worried.  "Nathan!"

The healer turned.  "Just the horse," he said, walking over to the young woman and pulling her up to her feet.

"Vin's been hurt," the gambler said, glowering down at the woman.

"For this, I'll bet," Nathan said, tossing the gambler the bag of coins.

Ezra opened it and looked inside.  "I see."  He slipped the bag into his coat pocket.

"What do we do with her?" Nathan asked.

Ezra thought for a moment, then said, "Untie her and leave her here."

"What?" Nathan asked.

"She cannot return to Four Corners, which is the closest town on the U.S. side of the border, and I doubt she'll be welcome in Purgatorio, especially after the stories I plan to tell."

"You cannot leave me here," she hissed at the two men.

"We can and we will," Ezra told her.  He pointed off to the northeast.  "You keep walking in that direction, you might just make it back to the Reservation, but I warn you now, this will be reported to the Army, and the Indian Agency."

She glowered at the men as Nathan untied her.

"Give water!" she demanded.

Ezra smiled, the effect somewhat ruined by the remnants of the makeup and the stain he'd used on his teeth.  "I think not.  You'll just have to take your chances, which are better than those you arranged for Mr. Tanner."

She cursed in her own language, although both men could easily guess what she meant, even if they didn't know exactly what she'd said.  She gave them one last glare and started off, heading to the northwest.

Nathan quickly mounted and the two men headed back to Purgatorio.

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

Maria came back from the saloon with a bottle of whiskey and closed the door behind her.  She handed it to Chris, saying, "It's not safe for you to stay here."

"I know," Larabee replied, pouring some of the alcohol onto a folded pad of cloth and pressing it to one of Vin's wounds.  The tracker gasped and cursed, the words getting louder and more creative when Larabee did the same to the exit wound as well.  "As soon as my friends return, we'll leave."  He tied the pads in place with more bandages.  "Best you come with us, too."

Maria looked surprised, then she smiled and shook her head.  "This is my home," she told him.  "I will stay."

"You might be in danger if they think you were helping us," Chris argued.

She shrugged.  "They will be angry, yes, but I will be fine."

He scowled, wondering how that worked, but he decided it was probably best if he didn't ask her anything more.  For whatever reason, she liked him, and she was willing to help him, and that was enough.

Reaching into his pocket he pulled out another three dollars and handed it to her.

She smiled.  "I will go get your horses and tie them out behind," she said, nodding at the rear door of the shack.

Chris nodded.  When she was gone, he turned his attention back to Vin.  "You think you can ride?"

The tracker's face was pale and coated with sweat, but he nodded.

Chris made sure he had all their belongings, packing everything and getting ready to leave as soon as Ezra and Nathan returned.  He heard the soft cry of a dry hinge and his Colt was in his hand.

Maria looked from the gun to Chris and smiled.  "You are very fast, Señor Chris."

Larabee shook his head and slipped the gun back into his holster.  He fished a quarter from his pocket and tossed it to her, saying, "For the boy."

"He is filling your canteens," she told him.

"Thank you."

She nodded, walking to the door following two sharp raps.  Opening it, she stepped back and Nathan and Ezra pushed inside.

"I believe our disguises might be wearing thin," Standish announced.

Nathan went straight to Vin, but the tracker slapped the healer's hands away when he reached for the bandages around his leg.


"Later," Vin said.  "Gotta go 'fore some 'a these fellas decide t' collect on m' bounty; the real one."

Nathan nodded his understanding and, together, he and Chris got the tracker onto his feet and out to his horse.

Vin stepped into the stirrup and swung his injured leg over Peso's back, the flare of pain in his back at the move making him see stars.  Then they were moving, Ezra quickly collecting the burro they had borrowed.  They trotted out of town, most of the residents watching them go, but none of them daring to try and stop them.

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

For the first time in many weeks Vin didn't care about the bitter cold, which helped to numb the pain in his back, leg, and cheek.  He rode with his head down, trusting the others to make sure they made it safely back to town.

His vision had narrowed to what felt like a pinhole, and he knew he didn't have much more left in him.  The voices of the three men had faded to muffled, unintelligible sounds, and he felt the coldness slowly beginning to squeeze his bones.

His breath wheezed in and out, the white clouds obscuring what was left of his narrowed vision.  At some point he felt himself start to slip from the saddle, and then… nothing.

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

The four men made their way home as swiftly as they dared.  Chris rode the entire way next to Vin, his fingers curled into the man's hide coat where the upper arm met the shoulder to ensure that the tracker stayed in his saddle.

When they reached town they headed straight to the livery, and Nathan's clinic.

Chris had to let go of the tracker to dismount, and had no sooner stepped down than he saw Vin start to slide bonelessly from his saddle.  He and Nathan both reached for the man, catching him as he fell.  Josiah hurried up to join them, taking Vin into his arms and carrying him up the stairs to the clinic.

"Put 'im on the bed," Nathan said, heading straight to the stove to build up the heat in the room and to put water on to boil.

Ezra left to change out of his costume, Buck and JD on his heels, demanding to know everything that had happened.

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

Wednesday night

In the clinic, Nathan unwrapped Vin's bandages, checked and cleaned his leg wounds as carefully as he could, and then did the same for the tear in his cheek, putting in a few tiny stitches so it wouldn't leave too bad a scar.

And, with that done, the healer turned the tracker onto his side and studied the nasty bruise that had already formed on the man's back.  He looked up at Josiah, who had been helping him and said, "Can you go fetch me some ice?  Inez has a bunch of it."

"Ice?" Chris asked.  "Isn't it cold enough already?"

"I want t' put it on his back," Nathan said.  "Hope it might stop any more swellin'."

Chris shook his head, but he knew the healer understood Vin's injuries better than he did.  He just hoped he knew what he was doing.  Tanner hated the cold, and the blond had a hard time imaging Vin would lie still for his back being iced.  But Vin remained unconscious.

When Josiah returned, Nathan took some of the ice and broke it into pieces, wrapping them in cloth and pressing it against the trackers growing bruise and, with Josiah's help, rolled Vin over so he was lying on it.

Then, they waited.

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

Thursday morning

Chris, Nathan, and Josiah took turns sitting up with Vin throughout the night.  The tracker slowly built a fever, but he was still aware enough to take the teas and water Nathan and the others gave him.

The healer kept the leg wounds as clean as possible, using the carbolic every few hours.  He also made sure more ice was added to Vin's back every few hours as well.  And, for the first time since the cold spell had settled in, all three men were grateful for the cold that meant there was plenty of ice to be had.

After Nathan escorted Chris to the door, sending him off with the order to "get some sleep" the following morning, he returned to find Vin was awake.

"How're you feelin'?" the healer asked.

Vin frowned.  "M' leg 'n' m' back ache, but it ain't so bad as I 'pected."

Nathan nodded.  "I think the ice is helpin' your back," he explained.

Tanner shivered.  "Maybe so, but it makes me cold."

"I know.  I c'n get you another blanket."

"Naw, don't reckon it'll help much."

The healer lifted the covers so he could see Tanner's feet, then said, "Want ya to move your toes and feet."

Vin did both, and Nathan smiled.  "Think your back is gonna be okay."

Tanner nodded, but decided not to tell the man the movement had sent sharp stabs of pain up his legs to his back, where it flared, but the ice kept it from getting so bad it showed on his face.

"Think you can take some broth?" Nathan asked, wondering if the tracker was being fully honest with him, but he knew there was no getting Tanner to talk if he didn't want to.

"Try," Vin agreed.  He was more than a little hungry.

The healer filled a bowl halfway and brought it back to the tracker, who managed to eat most of it before it exhausted him and he slipped back to sleep.

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

Friday morning

It was Chris who was sitting with Vin when he woke the following day.  The tracker's fever had broken late in the night, and he'd slept for several hours, as still as a dead man. So it came as something of a relief when Larabee saw the man's eyes blink open and he peered around the clinic, scowling.

"Mornin'," he greeted.

Vin rolled his head and looked at him for a moment, then grumbled, "Guess that depends on who y' ask."

That put a smiled on the gunman's face.  "I'm askin' you."

Vin lay for several moments, taking stock.  "Reckon I'll live," he concluded.

Chris nodded.  "Glad t' hear it, because I wasn't lookin' forward to having to pass by your sorry corpse in Milton's window every day until this cold snap breaks."

Tanner snorted softly.  "Just don't give 'im m' horse 'n' saddle, got enough 'a 'em as it is."

"Nobody be crazy enough to take that mule you call a horse."

Vin glowered at the blond, but he didn't have enough energy yet to put any power into it.  "What happened to Levi?"

"Dead," Chris told him.


"Dead," was the reply.

Vin frowned.  "An' Singing Sun?"

"Probably dead," he concluded.

Vin thought for a moment, then shrugged.  He hadn't really expected anything else.  "Where'd y' find Chattam?"

"Didn't.  Nettie found him on her way to town; been dead a couple 'a days – stabbed.  He's in Milton's window now, too."

That would make it four, Tanner knew.  "He have a horse 'n' saddle, too?"

"Nope," Larabee replied.  "Not a single coin in his pocket, either.  Milton wasn't too happy 'bout that."

Vin grunted.  Damn undertaker had more than enough to bury four men, what with three horses and three saddles.

"How's your back?"

Vin wiggled his toes and was pleased to find there was only a slight tingle in his legs and back.  "Gettin' better," he told the man.

Chris nodded.  "Nathan'll be happy to hear that.  Guess using all that ice worked after all."

"Damn near froze me t' death," Vin grumbled, watching as Larabee stood and went to the stove.  The blond brought back a bowl of brother and a cup of coffee, giving them to the tracker.

"What exactly happened t' Singing Sun?" Tanner asked after taking several sips of both.

"Nathan and Ezra caught up to her out in the desert.  She tried to jump her horse across a wash; didn't make it.  Nathan had t' kill the horse.  Ezra told her to walk away, but he was reporting her to the Army and the Indian Agent on her reservation.  Last they saw, she was headed off northwest."

Vin thought about that for a moment.  "Don't reckon she'll get much of a welcome with any of the other tribes around there… maybe…"

Chris could tell by the expression on the tracker's face that he was hurt by what the woman had done.  "She wasn't any friend of yours, Vin."

"No," he agreed, "reckon not, but her family was.  Reckon I owe 'em at least a visit t' tell 'em what happened."

"If you feel you owe 'em, you can give 'em this," Larabee said, lifting the bag of coins and letting it drop back onto the small table.

"That what I think it is?" Vin asked.

Chris nodded.  "Seven hundred dollars."

"Seven?" Vin repeated.  "Thought I was worth six."

"Ezra 'borrowed' the money, made a killing at the poker tables the last couple of days – business men passin' through, or something like that."

Vin grinned.  "And y' took it away from 'im?"

"Wasn't his money to be gambling with in the first place."

Vin chuckled softly.  "Reckon this ought t' be split seven ways."

Chris frowned.  "Why?"

"Weren't fer all 'a ya, I'd be propped up in Milton's winda with them others."


"I mean it, Chris.  Y' give each 'a the boys a hundred, 'n' take one fer yourself."

"And what you plannin' to do with your hundred?" Chris asked.

Vin shrugged.  "I'll give some 'a it t' Singing Sun's family – if there's anybody left…  If not, well, don't rightly know.  Maybe I'll just go ahead 'n' pay fer my buryin' now, so I don't gotta worry 'bout Peso."

That put a smile back on Chris' face.  "Don't you worry," he told the tracker.  "Soon as you're dead, I'm gonna shoot that damn excuse for a horse myself."

"Over my dead body!" Tanner argued.

"That's what I said, ain't it?"

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

Josiah and Nathan paused outside the closed clinic door when they heard the two voices raised in an argument.

"What do think it is this time?" Nathan asked.

Josiah shook his head.  "Couldn't begin to guess, brother, but it sure is a good sound, ain't it?"

Nathan grinned and nodded.  "Yep, it surely is."