Magnificent Seven Old West
Aurora’s Embrace

by Deirdre

Disclaimer: The following is a work of fanfiction based on the CBS television series, The Magnificent Seven. It is in no way intended to infringe on the copyrights of CBS, MGM, The Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp., or anyone else who may have legal rights to the characters, settings or song references. I don't own the characters. This story is strictly for entertainment. No monetary gain will be made from anything contained in this story.

This story was formerly hosted at another website, and was moved to blackraptor in May 2016.

Part 1

The wind howling outside and the midday sun creeping into the room, caused him to shudder and pull the quilt up to his chin. The horrid choking cough turned him sideways, his hand fumbled for a cloth. The effort left him breathless, sweat seeping from every pore. His eyes were hot, his head pounding and his throat felt like it was lined with shards of glass. Another series of coughs wracked his body, a hand appeared with a new cloth. He grabbed it and expelled, tossing it in the can next to the bed. Two hands this time, easing him up, wiping his face with a cold cloth. A raspy drawl urging him to drink. He gulped the water, choking on most of it, spilling down the front of his nightshirt. He heard the footsteps again, relentless and restless, followed by a string of soft curses.

"As if it weren't bad enough that I've succumbed to this horrid malaise," Ezra moaned, shuddering and pulling the blanket higher. "Must you torture me further with your childish tirade."

Vin ignored the fevered patient and continued his futile journey. He eyed the walls of the clinic as he turned at the end of the narrow room. He glared at the same cracks in the wall, glowered at the same peeling paint on the door and kicked the same unfortunate cot.

"This exercise in futility that you insist on maintaining is interfering with my nap time...or is it my midday meal time?" Ezra frowned, his fuzzy brain trying to navigate through blurry eyes.

"It's gonna be time fer yer eulogy if ya don't shut the fuck up..." Vin paused over Standish's cot and unleashed a fraction of his pent up fury.

Nathan pushed the large text book away and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. The weary fingers then moved to the throbbing temples and he rubbed them without relief. With a heavy sigh, he pushed his chair back and looked at the list in front of him. He didn't have to eye the clock on the wall next to his tiny desk. He knew ten minutes had passed, Vin's boots told him that. He watched the frantic blue eyes scouring the walls and he stood.

"Ya fixed all the shelves, ya cleaned and restocked my cabinet, ya sorted the stuff on my desk...there's nothing left to do."

"I want out..." Vin clenched his fists, while his blue eyes screamed at the healer. "I can't stand this...ya gotta get me outta here, Nate."

"Ya think I like this?" Nate rebelled, "I ain't slept in three days and hearing that ungrateful mouth cussin' and fussin' every ten minutes is driving me mad. I done told ya the's a quarantine, Vin."

"How much longer?"

"I told ya!" Nate roared, towering over the irate Texan. "Hell I told ya about fifteen times today!" He glared at the clock and then at the pacer, "Eleven days, six hours and seven minutes." His voice lowered to a dangerous pitch and he raised his left hand and pointed to the vacant bed. "Now get your ass on that cot before I get some rope and tie ya down!"

"Hell," Vin's face screwed up as he turned away, "Best get yer mournin' suit and have 'siah pick out a nice verse," he lamented of his fate.

"Your imminent expiration is music to my ears," Ezra coughed painfully, his pounding head tired of the endless tracker's tirades. "If I had a pistol..."

"Shut the hell up, Ezra or I'll take a pilla t'yer face when yer nappin'!" Vin shot back, then kicked the wall when a burst of loud laughter emerged from outside on the stairs.

"...mournin' suits and funeral verses," Buck chuckled, slapping J.D.'s leg. The two eavesdroppers were just outside the clinic's door, sitting on the top step. Tanner's tirade slid easily through the crack in the wall. "Hey, Vin! I'll take up a nice collection for you."

"Reckon yer more 'an qualified," Vin hollered, punching the wall, "...since yer lazy ass is real good at collectin' splinters."

"Buck!" Nate shoved Vin's wiggling body back as he tried to get out the door. "Ya better not be parked on my step when I leave. I ain't got enough problems with the two worst patients west of the Mississippi? I need you two imbeciles addin' to my misery?"

"Sorry Nate!" Buck called out, scampering down the steps, the chuckling sheriff right behind him.

Nate pushed Vin onto the cot and glared down at him. "I will only say this once. I have had it up to here," He cut a hand across his throat, "with your endless temper tantrums. I got other patients to see to and I can't do that because I got a full-grown, drawlin' baby that's fryin' my last nerve. Ya gonna act like a child, then ya get treated like one. Josiah's gonna babysit ya while I see to some folks who really need my attention."

"Mornin'" Josiah called out and entered the small room. He heard the beginning of the latest storm from Buck and caught the newest action in person. He was aware the Vin was frustrated. The tracker didn't like to be inside for any great length of time to begin with. Being stuck in a small clinic for two weeks for a quarantine had taken the Vin Tanner they knew away and left a jumping pile of nerves in it's place.

"Got some fried chicken and potatoes Vin...Apple walnut pie and fresh cream..." Josiah tempted and found a small smile, as the young man's head lifted.

The disgruntled inmate lifted his nose and sniffed, then rubbed his flat stomach. "Well, I reckon I could eat..."

"Hah!" Ezra groaned, the scent of the food causing his head to swim. "Other than complaining, it's all you do." He coughed again, filling the cotton cloth and crumpling it up. He tossed it in the can next to bed. It wouldn't be there long, Nathan would take it outside to the ashcan where he kept a low fire. He tried to find a comfortable position, but couldn't. The endless coughing left his throat raw and it felt thick, nearly choking him at times.

"Vin!" Nate smacked his arm as an expletive began to form on the snarling lip. "That's enough!" He shoved the brooding bounty hunter towards the table by the window, where Josiah left the tray. He nodded his thanks to the preacher, and lifted a forkful of fried potatoes. From the corner of his eye, he saw Josiah walk outside with Nate. He heard the low, muffled tones and the food turned sour. His eyes flicked to the southerner, who was red-faced from coughing. He saw Nate talking to Buck and they both looked up at the clinic. The uneasiness in his stomach flared up, something was wrong. He knew Nate didn't lie to him, but his gut instinct told him there was a large piece of the puzzle being held back. As he ate his lunch, his mind went back in time, replaying again how this nightmare began.

qqqFive days earlierxxx

The dusty road was spotted with disinterested saguaros and a smattering of palo verde trees. It stretched out featureless and rather flat, giving the trailing rider of the tired duo, cause to frown. He reined in his mount, lifted his hand and wiped the perspiration from his brow. His jade eyes narrowed, eyeing the buckskin clad, slim young man in front of him. His own scarlet jacket was already neatly folded in front of him, his white shirt damp with sweat.

"What's the problem now?" the cranky voice called back, "I swear, Ezra, I'dda sooner taken a pack of nuns and made better time..."

"That's the thanks I get for my misplaced concern for your welfare," the conman slid from his horse, took a long draw from his canteen and glared openly at the nonplussed blue eyes. The fact that the lean Texan was barely damp made him even more cross.

"How's that?" Vin Tanner leaned over his saddle horn and squinted down at his unlikely travelling companion.

"You're not sweating and that's not normal..."

"Reckon them silk drawers yer so fond o'wearin' ain't exactly normal neither," Vin rebuffed, his lips twitching as the gambler flushed. "Look, I'm tired o'waitin' on ya. Ya squat yer ass here as long as ya want. There's a lake up ahead, good spot t'make camp..."

"There's a town less than five miles south from this 'Eden'." Standish resumed his place in the saddle. "I've taken the liberty of wiring ahead for a room. There is only one Inn in San Carlos and small gambling hall..."

"Ya don't say," Vin's wry comment was punctuated by an eye roll. He turned his horse and shook his head. "I'm gonna stop by the lake and wash the dust off m'bones...won't be the same without ya..." He wagged his eyebrows and saw a single Standish eyebrow arch.

"As difficult as it is to pry myself away from such a tempting offer," the green-eyed man drawled, "Alas, I'm forced to pass up your invite. Should you decide to rejoin the civilized masses..."

"Yeah..yeah..." Vin turned away, then glared back at the glinting gold toothed grin. "Ya keep yer crooked ass outta jail, Ez, I ain't got time t'bail ya out. We're already two days late gettin' back t'town."

"Something for you to keep in mind before our next sojourn into Hades..."

"Ain't but two of us here, Ez...quit spittin' up the dictionary..."

"Would there be man-eating creatures living in this lake?"

"Hell no..."

"Mores the pity..."

"Reckon ye'll be runnin' into them in town..." Vin shot back, "Best be savin' some o'that wad in yer boot for some of that itchin' cream. Reckon the sawbones outta have that flowery shit yer so fonda..."

"Excuse me?" Ezra narrowed his eyes suspiciously at the smug face that disappeared under the large slouch hat. "May all the asps find yer ass too tempting to turn away..." He retorted, hearing the Texan laugh as he rode off.

San Carlos was a nice enough town. Two mines in the hills kept the town busy, as well as traffic from the river. It was late when the weary Texan left his horse outside of the Saloon. The swim in the cold lake invigorated him. He took a short nap and used the beautiful sunset as inspiration for the entry into the small leather journal he kept. Two short poems later, he left the crimson and fuchsia sky behind him. Had Ezra's reputation not proceeded him, the tracker would have much preferred to dine under the stars and sleep under the open sky. They'd delivered the prisoners to the jail wagon in good time. The reward money was wired back to town and the two peacekeepers followed at a slow pace. The southerner wasn't used to the pace that Vin pushed himself on. With any luck, they'd be home in two days.

He sighed, peeked through the batwing doors, letting his cool eyes linger on every crack, corner and crevice in the smoky room. Not seeing any threats, he entered. He disappeared at the end of the bar, sliding a coin down the counter and gaining a bowl of stew and a brew. Ezra glanced over briefly, making eye contact before luring another sucker into a game. There were three players at the table with Standish. Two looked like locals, they dusty attire and leathery skin bespoke many hours working in the sun. One was a newcomer, his clothes stood out like a sore thumb. He had' back East' written all over him. Fancy suit and tie, slicked down red hair, nice pocket watch. Vin hid his smile, as Ezra's eyes didn't miss the watch or the tremble in the man's hands.

"Gonna be a long night," he muttered, taking his beer to a corner table, in the dark corner of the room. Slouching down, he tilted his head back, letting the oversized hat cover his features. From here, he could draw on anybody taking offense at Ezra and the door was close by. Hours went by and he grew weary, dozing off. Twice he glared at Ezra, when his silver tongue damn near got the gambler shot by the two locals. He saw the stranger slide a pile of coins at Ezra and the southerner pour the man a drink.

"A pleasure sir," Ezra toasted, "It's not often I get to parley with a gentlemen. Harvard you say?"

"Yes, I'm an engineer, working for the railroad. I'm a few days ahead of schedule. I don't have to be in San Francisco for two more weeks."

" that is a city...a true gem..."

"Come on Ez..." Vin huffed, eyes watching the two losing miners, who lingered at the bar. The bottle they shared was disappearing fast. He stood and made his way to the bar, after seeing the younger of the two, let his hand ride on the gun at his waist.

"I wouldn't..." he warned, introducing the mare's leg. "Ya best be gettin' on yer way, boys..."

"Back off, half-breed, it ain't your business..."

"Neither is blowin' yer balls through the floor, but I'm gettin' the ya take that other jackass and get goin'..." Vin warned, not liking the look the pair were giving Ezra. Several minutes went by, before they backed off and staggered outside.

"Problem?" Ezra sauntered over to the bar, flicking a miniscule piece of lint from his coat.

"Nah..." Vin shrugged, "We was just parlayin' with them drunks..."

"We?" Ezra cocked his head, watching the blue eyes crinkle.

"Me and m'girl..." Vin grinned, drawing his coat back and patting his mare's leg.

"You make a charming couple," he grinned, "A bottle my good man..." he nodded to the bartender. "Brandy..."

"...s'right nice o'ya, Ez. buyin' us a drink..." Vin snatched the bottle and took two glasses.

"Us?" Ezra inquired, watching the nimble fingers pour and drain both shots. " and the lady in question are quite welcome," he offered, realizing what Vin had done. The nose wrinkled up and the bottle was thrust back at him.

"Don't care fer it..." Vin decided, "Ya can buy me dinner and we'll call it even. What room's ours?" Vin headed outside and across the street to the hotel.

"Ours?" Ezra protested, taking his bottle and jogging to catch up to the lean striding younger man. "What makes you think I'm sharing your fleas?"

" up the street has a sign out front...steaks an inch thick...taters too..." Vin continued.

"More to the point," Ezra drew his key out and unlocked the door, "Why am I buying supper? If I recall correctly, I've been turning over quite a bit of silver, keeping your belly filled."

"If I recall correctly," Vin parroted, laying on both beds, before choosing the one near the window. "Ye'd be linin' the undertaker's pockets right about now..."

"Point taken," Ezra conceded. "Was is necessary to leave a flea parade on both beds?"

"Hell yeah...only way to pick out which one suits me..."

"Suits you? Oh, now why didn't I think of that? By all means, you take the better bed. I'm just the fool footing the bill..."

"It's a wonder yer gums don't get t'bleedin'...hell, ya bang 'em together enough." Vin walked over to the closet, shaking his head in disbelief. "What the hell did ya buy another coat fer? Jesus, we'll be home in a couple days?"

"To find a Chevalier in this armpit of a hamlet is a miracle..."

"A who?" Vin eyed the bright green coat with disdain.

"A designer of true taste and talent in New Orleans. The proprietor of the store across the street happened to visit the Crescent City only a few months ago. It was a steal at five dollars..."

"Fer five dollars they oughtta lay ya out in it..." Vin headed towards the door, then turned back, wearing a cocky grin. "Reckon that fella in New Orleans ain't wearin' fancy rags with yer name on the collar. Don't make a lick o'sense..."

"You're in no position to be critical..." Ezra followed him outside into the hall.

"Got m'own" Vin paused, dusted his hide coat off and wore an devilish smile. "...a gen..u..ine...Tanner. Course it ain't fer sale..." he added sympathetically, widening his smile as Ezra grinned back at him.

"Mr. Tanner, at times you leave me speechless..."

"Ain't possible," Vin settled into the chair, taking his hat off, "I got a notion ya was spoutin' nonsense when ya got birthed. Hey...they got chocolate cake...damn..."

Although he hadn't known this young Texan long, he had a charm as unique as each sunrise. The more time he spent in his company, the easier he smiled. The awe that shown in his blue eyes the day before when they saw a fawn and doe near the river was as profound as the deadly sniper who so easily and naturally could take a man down at incredulous distance with amazing precision. Of the group of men fate tossed together in a dusty town, this engaging young man had penetrated his armor effortlessly. There was that smile again...

"I miss somethin'?" Vin eyed the gold tooth glinting from the conman's grin.

"Highly unlikely," Ezra returned, ready to enjoy his meal and the wry commentary from his dinner companion.

It was almost nine a.m. when Vin trudged up the boardwalk. He flinched, backpedaled and did a double take. The image through the window better not be what it seemed.

"Aw, hell..." he muttered, retracing his steps and entering the dusty saloon.

"Good Morning," Ezra nodded to the brooding, unshaven face glaring at him. "I took the liberty of..."

"We're leavin'..." Vin interrupted, "...let's go..."

"You, Sir, are not my father and I am not in short pants. I 'come' and 'go' as I please." Standish replied curtly. He was tired and irritable and wasn't about to take orders from the disgruntled tracker. "Furthermore, I got little sleep last night, thanks your incessant coughing. I intend to reclaim those lost hours here this evening."

"Weren't m'fault that room was crawlin' with dust," Vin defended.

"...or that something crawled out of that less than pristine lake with you..." the jade eyes accused.

Vin's mouth formed a grim line at the cold, caustic tone. His eyes went from the deck of cards Standish was shuffling, to the other fancy dressers hovering around the room. They weren't the usual crowd for a saloon and he saw some of them signing something at a table in the corner. Silver passed from their hands to a weasely, greasy looking man. He, in turn, pointed them to a particular table.

"A tournament," the cool gambler answered the puzzled eyes. The body turned back, hands on slim hips, and stared at him with distaste."...for professionals, of course..."

"Fine," Vin spat back in anger. He caught the nuance of the southerner's words and misread the implication. "See ya back in town..."

With that he turned and was gone. Ezra felt a brief pang of guilt, knowing Vin misread him. But the gavel on the table brought his attention back into the room. The tournament was about to commence.

"Dammit!" Vin climbed off his horse, took his hat off and brushed the sweat from his eyes. His gaze at the sky told him it was midafternoon. The rockslide in the path ahead ended his short route to home. He took a long draw from his canteen and cast his eyes back on the ground he'd covered. He could backtrack a few miles, cross over the river and take the longer route. Sighing in frustration, he let the tired mount rest and graze. His growling stomach told him he'd not eaten since breakfast. Rummaging in the saddlebags, he drew out a napkin. He sat down and ate three biscuits and a small piece of ham. A pear ended the meal and chucking the core away, he began his journey back.

It was three p.m. when the card company who was hosting the poker challenge called a five hour recess. This would allow the gamblers that were left to rest, eat supper and return refreshed for the final contests later. It was none to soon for the tired conman. He stood, stretched his back and nodded to the three men seated with him.

"Gentlemen...until this evening..."

Although he was hungry, his exhaustion won over. He decided to take a nap first, then eat a light supper. He was walking down the street, ready to cross, when a rough hand clamped on his shoulder.

"Hold it right there fancy pants..."

"To what do I owe this pleasure?" Ezra eyed the two roughnecks and recognized them from the night before. They were the two locals he'd won money from, the same ones who tried to shoot him.

"Where is he?"

"...and you would be referring to?" He hedged, sizing them up.

"That half-breed bastard who tried to shoot me last night."

Ezra stared at the wad of tobacco that was sent out with the end of the sentence. He wrinkled his nose in distaste at the foul offering on his boot.

"Which brings me back to my original question." He stared coolly at the venomous pair, " and moreover, why would I know?"

"Ya sure seemed cozy enough last night," his stench-ridden friend replied, emphasizing his point by using the barrel of his gun to part the buttons of Ezra's new coat. "Yer the reason he was ready to plug me with that funny gun..."

"Professional courtesy." Ezra pushed the barrel of the gun away. "We crossed paths yesterday afternoon on the road outside town. He was in dire straights and I was of great assistance to him. He was merely repaying the debt. Now if you'll excuse me..."

"I told ya, Zeke..." The larger, tobacco-chewing brute shoved his smelly companion. "That murderin' half-breed bastard don't run with the likes of him." He jerked his thumb at Ezra.

The conman's eyes never changed, but his mind clicked. The word 'murdering' struck him hard. Had they known about Vin's past the night before, they wouldn't have waited until now to seek him out.

"We got business with him," the barrel-chested man answered the question on the well-dressed man's face.

"Business?" Ezra's voice remained neutral. "Really..." he drawled, "I'm sure if he's from this quaint hamlet, you'll be able to seek him out and complete your transaction."

"It ain't local business..."

"'s Texas business," Zeke grinned, "Iffen the damn sheriff didn't throw us in jail last night...we'd a never knew who he was..."

"Shut up Zeke!" the larger man smacked the other one hard, glaring at him for his loose lips. Then he turned back to the gambler. "He say where he was headed?"

"Hmmm." Ezra frowned, stroked his chin and pretended to be lost in thought. "He did mention Nogales...but I wouldn't be able to state for certain if that is where..."

"That's fine..." the brute produced a gun, "we're grateful..You forget all about us and I'll leave them pretty teeth of yours in your mouth."

"An acceptable agreement," Ezra nodded, leaving his game face on and heading nonchalantly into the hotel. More clues answered his nagging question. Undoubtedly, while they were in jail, they saw Vin's wanted poster. He sank into the bed, depositing his boots, coat and shirt on the nightstand. The shades were drawn, basking the room in a shadowy darkness. It reminded him of Vin...he liked the shadows, preferring the company of the ghosts that lived there. Sleep didn't find him, and his exhaustion mounted. He's a grown man...well able to care for himself. He'd ridden alone for quite some time with that bounty on his head. He punched the pillow and shoved his head down again. Vin wasn't anywhere near Nogales...those two buffoons wouldn't find him. The sly tracker could outfox anything on two feet. No doubt by now he was halfway home. He doesn't need anybody to watch his back. He sighed, rose, threw the pillow across the room and shoved his boots on, cursing softly.

"That scruffy tracker will be my demise..." he argued at his image in the mirror. Taking his saddlebags and rolling up his clothing in his bedroll, he secured it with leather cord and headed for the door. The apology to the contest sponsor and the loss of the prize money seem to lessen, as the image of Vin's bullet-ridden body being spit on by the tobacco-infested brute came into view. He climbed on his horse and headed out of town, seeking the blue-eyed sharpshooter.

"Thanks, Gloria," Chris Larabee nodded, taking the burlap sack outside and tying his purchases to his saddle horn. He pushed his hat back, eyeing the approaching twilight and the empty rocker where the lean Texan should be sitting and smirking at him. He squinted at the empty street and ambled over to the saloon. Buck and J.D. were eating dinner. Inez was going over the ledgers at a corner table. The rest of the room was vacant. He sighed, nodded to the pretty proprietress that he was taking a bottle. She nodded back and watched him flip a coin onto the table in front of her.

"Gracias," she smiled at the handsome blond, "He is not back yet?" she asked, knowing full well what the concern was in the green eyes. He picked up a shot glass and sat down next to their youthful sheriff.

"No." Chris took the first shot fast, then lingered over the second.

"Hey, maybe we should wire some of the towns on the way back," J.D. teased. "Vin don't have a whole lotta patience when it comes to Ezra. It's been over a week...that would try the patience of a saint."

"Vin can handle himself," Buck took a large bite of the chicken pot pie in front of him. "and he's better with Ezra than the rest of us. The wire said they'd be a little late. Most likely Ezra found a hot game..." He saw the restless green eyes looking past the batwing doors. "You heading out?"

"Yeah..." Chris sighed, took a biscuit from J.D.'s plate.

"Hey, that's mine!" the youth protested, until a single, raised sandy eyebrow shot him down. "But uh...I wasn't gonna eat it anyway."

"Why don't you wait a few days, Chris?" Buck inquired, "Vin will be back...he's gonna need some peace and quiet by then." He noted of the horse auction the two had planned to attend. Vin knew horses better than anyone Buck ever met. Chris asked him to travel to a nearby ranch where some fresh stock was for sale.

"Can't afford to wait..." Chris answered, tossed back another shot and corked the glass container. He caressed the neck of the bottle and stood up. "You tell him...I'll see you in a week or so." He nodded to the pair. Vin knew every trail in the area and could catch up to him. Meanwhile, he'd get to the ranch early and pick out his choices.

The crackling amber fire kept the cool night air at bay. The lone figure slept lightly, his gun resting comfortably under his hand. His keen ears picked up the sound of a horse approaching. His eyes became blue slits and his lean fingers curled around the trigger.

"That's far enough," he warned, cocking the gun at the body in the shadows.

"As I live and breathe," Ezra replied, sliding from his horse and taking the saddle off.

Vin replaced his gun and his brows crossed in confusion. He counted the distance from San Carlos and cocked his head.

"Ya lose?"

Ezra smiled at slight rise in the tone of the other's voice. the thought of his losing at that which he was so skilled. He squatted by the fire, warming his hands. For some reason he was quite chilled. He shivered and pulled his coat closer.

Vin was about to prod Ezra some more, still stung by his dismissal from town and by his interrupted sleep. Then he saw the southerner's body shivering and the smooth fingers move twice to press against his throat. He didn't miss the slight grimace. He shook the coffee pot which was on a nearby rock and placed it back over the fire.

"Be hot in a few minutes...I got some rabbit...ya hungry?"

"No thank you...but the coffee will be well appreciated."

"Ya ain't sick, are ya?" Vin moved in closer, studying Erza's expression.

"I'm tired...very tired..." Ezra lied, already regretting his caustic words in town that morning. He stood and swayed, eyeing his bedroll nearby.

"I'll get it," Vin hissed as the hot handle of the coffee pot bit his fingers. He poured a mugful and handed it to the shivering body. "Here...toss some o'yer fancy whiskey in there and get yer ass near that fire."

"I'm touched," Ezra teased, trying to use his sarcasm as an apology.

"It ain't that," Vin defended, spreading out the blanket and shoving Ezra on it, "I don't want ya slowin' me down. So finish that and get t'sleep." He moved away to take care of Standish's horse. When he returned a few minutes later, the coffee was drained and Ezra was covered to his chin. He saw the body shivering still and eyed his coat nearby. As he crossed in front of the other, he saw the green eyes following him.

"What are ya starin' at?" he asked.

"Nothing...I didn't mean to disturb you...thank you." Ezra closed his eyes, not comfortable with the now fleeing feeling of angst. Until he'd seen the slim, younger man safe and sound, the nagging fear in his gut bothered him more than the chill he'd picked up.

"Ya ain't bothered me..." Vin snarled, "Had me a nice quiet ride...keepin' myself company. Nobody spittin' up the alphabet at me..." He sat by the fire, as the green eyes slid shut. He frowned at the trembling shoulders under the blanket. He moved again, placing his warm, hide coat over the other man.

"Thank you, Mr. Tanner," Ezra cracked an eye open at the gentle touch, just in time to see the concern in the large blue eyes.

"...s'okay, Ez..." Vin mumbled, "and there ain't no Mister Tanner here..." he paused, watching the jade eyes drooping and adjusting the coat over the gambler. "My friends call me Vin..."

"Goodnight, then," Ezra said, lifting his heavy eyes to meet the telling blue ones. "...Vin..." he smiled and found the warmth he'd sought.

Vin yawned, stretched, stood and rubbed the small area at the base of his spine. Flinching, he gathered up some wood and stoked the fire. After the coffee was done, he speared the rabbit and roasted it, leaving it long enough to dig out the last of the biscuits from San Carlos. He soaked the hard baked good in a little coffee to make them edible. Taking the large mug, he yawned again and put the bit sized pieces of meat over the broken up moist bread. He sat down next to his hacking companion and tapped the lump where his shoulder should be.

"Come on Ez..."


Vin chuckled as the weary body sat up, disgruntled, coughing and irritated.

"Thought fer a minute ya was J.D...." He referred to the dumbfounded single-syllabled response. "It ain't them fancy eggs Inez does fer ya...but it's all I got. Ya best get it down. I got the meat cut up bitty fer ya...."

"Thank you," Ezra nodded, his trembling hands taking the hot mug. He stared at the food for a moment and thought of the simple act mentioned. That Vin had taken the time to make the meal swallowable, knowing his throat was sore. He peered around in the darkness and shivered again, bringing a spoonful of food to his lips. Vin's haggard face and drawn eyes were the result of lack of sleep. Ezra knew his coughing had kept the younger man up. He eyed the neat pile of white squares next to his bedroll. "Is that my shirt?" He flinched as the words came through the razor-blades in his throat.

"Yeah..." Vin called back from beyond the campsite. "Ya got t'spittin' up stuff...I made sure it went in the fire."

"Our local healer trained you well," he took more of the food and thought of Nathan Jackson. Anything involving expulsion of body fluids, ended up in cotton and in the fire. While there was nothing scientific about his methods, Ezra had seen the results. More established towns with doctors bearing sheepskin on the wall, would scoff at this. Yet, Nate's methods kept most of the contagious illness down to a minimum. His herbal cabinet was second to none as well. He gathered the plants from the surrounding area and traded with the Seminoles for some of their herbs. He also conferred with Ming, the ancient Chinese apothecary on the edge of town. "Why are we up at this ungodly hour?"

"Well I got t'thinkin', Vin emerged from the darkness, his close proximity from the opposite direction of whence he left, caused the other man to jump.

"Must you do that!" Ezra hissed painfully. "I fail to understand how you maneuver without your feet touching the ground." He continued to finish his breakfast, then managed to finish the coffee as well.

"That's cause ya ain't lived with the locals," Vin spoke with pride of his years with the Kiowa's and Comanche. "Gotta tell ya, though, Bucklin's real good about sneakin' about in the dark..."

"So would I if I had half the married men in the territory chasing me with a weapon." The southerner admitted, "...practice makes perfect..." He then dissolved into a coughing fit. "I'm not blind..." he grabbed the cloth offered and after his deposit, he tossed it into the fire.

"Anyway," Vin continued, hauling Ezra up and pointing him towards a nearby rock. "Ya sit and rest while I get yer horse ready. Neither of us is sleepin'...sooner we get movin'...sooner yer ass will be Nathan's responsibility."

"Lucky me," Ezra commiserated, watching the quick moving Texan quickly break camp.

It was just after seven a.m. and Ben Thomas was enjoying his second cup of coffee. He smiled as his firstborn, a high-spirited, short-tempered filly with a nose for trouble, stomped her foot in frustration. Her small face screwed up and her lower lip thrust out at him.

"Mornin' Sunshine!" he greeted the blond, wisp of a six-year old. The sky eyes glared at him as the small body settled in at the table. He slid a plate of hot eggs in front of her and suppressed a smile as the tiny nose wrinkled.


"Callie..." He warned as the hand snaked onto the plate and it appeared to be headed off the table.

"I ain't eatin' 'em..." she defied, lifting her chin.

"You're not eating them," he corrected, buttering a biscuit and placing it next to the outcast eggs.

"That's what I said," she agreed and eyed the cup near her hand. "Why can't I have coffee?"

"You're too short," he chuckled, watching the milk-mustache appear on her upper lip.

"That ain't fair!"

"That isn't fair," he corrected and tapped his fork on her plate, pointing to the eggs.

"See," she piped up, "Even you think that's a dumb rule..."

"Callie, just eat," he shook his head, "please..."

"When's Mama comin' home?" she whined, toying with the now cold, runny mess.

"Not soon enough," he muttered, sighing in frustration. It amazed him that he could run his business in town, manage his staff, negotiate with clients and yet handling his own child was next to impossible. His wife and two small sons were visiting her mother. The only reason his eldest wasn't with them, was that she was being punished. Her willful, impulsive streak ran strong, the latest victim was his wife's favorite serving platter. It now was in a pile of pieces, waiting for the destroyer to glue it back together. The tantrum, chin-jutting, defiant stance of 'It wasn't my fault and I ain't fixin' it' ended with the rest of the family's departure. Somehow, he felt he was the one being punished. Someday that spirit in her would serve her well. She was smart as a whip and could outmaneuver any adult. But the growing years would be a challenge or leave him bald or both.

"She don't make me eat this." The plate hovered near the edge again.

"Caroline Leah Thomas!" He growled, grabbing the plate just in time. Named for her two grandmothers, the melding of the two names resulted in her own, Callie.

"Well, she don't..."

"She doesn't," he corrected, spooning the eggs onto a spoon and shoving it in the gaping mouth.

"Then how come you do," She muffled, spitting the eggs back.

"You're not leaving this table until you eat those eggs," He issued, taking his empty plate to the metal basin. He would heat some water from the well and dump it over the dishes and pan, adding soap to clean them.

"I get oatcakes usually, with jam..." she tried, eyeing the back of her father's dark head. "...not that you'd know...your already in town..." She watched his back and slid quietly from the table, taking the offensive material out the back door.

"Why...are...we...stopping..." Ezra coughed and looked up as Vin turned his horse back to meet the lagging member.

"Ya need t'drink..." Vin urged, "Ya empty?" he saw the ill man's hand shaking his canteen. "Damn that went fast...Here," he handed Ezra his canteen. "Thomas's place is just up the road, we'll stop there and fill up." He eyed the swaying body and the flushed face, now developing a fever. "Ya sure got a bad cold...We got a long ride t'town...ya up fer it?"


"Well," Vin scratched the stubble on his chin, "Chris's place is only a couple hours from here...ya could rest up a bit, I could make ya some broth." He considered this option, knowing with the heat of the day yet ahead of them, the southerner would never make it to town, not as fast as the water was disappearing. The swaying body and half-mast eyes were in need of a bed and town was just too far. If Ezra got a good nap at Chris's, and they past the worst of the heat...they'd make it town by supper.

"Chris..." Ezra frowned, "doesn'" Ezra finished his drink and used some of the water to wipe his hot face.

"He ain't home," Vin returned, taking his now empty canteen. "he's likely halfway t'Gratton's place by now..."

"The auction," Ezra's head came up. He'd forgotten that Vin was enlisted to use his expertise to guide the blond's decision. "I'm sorry, Vin..."

"Aw, hell...yer gettin' soft," Vin grinned at the solemn face, "Chris can manage and I'll catch up..." He turned and led the way over the crest to the neat house behind a white picket fence. He found a warm smile for the pretty, little tomboy. Her long blond hair fluttered and two bare feet peeked below her long white nightdress. She was all spunk and fire and her favorite stop in town was at his wagon, usually with Billy Travis. He slid from his horse, near the inside of the yard, motioning for Ezra to not come further. He walked quietly up the path, pausing just behind the little devil.

"Morning, Callie..."

"Vin!" she jumped, dropping the plate. "Uh-oh...Pa's gonna be sore..."

"Ya didn't throw them eggs in the bushes?" His mock-stern voice got the pint-sized culprit's eyes to grow wide.

"'course not," she recovered, thrusting her small chest out with confidence. "Andy did it...I was just gonna clean 'em up."

"Andy?" Vin kept his stern face, thinking on her four-year old brother, "Didn't he go with yer Ma and baby brother Jared t'see yer Grandma and Grandpa?"

"Yeah?" She cocked her head up at him.

"That was two days ago..." Vin squatted down, examining the eggs. "Never seen the likes of it...usually critters wouldda got t'em..."

"They ain't very good," Callie whispered, leaning in and resting her hand on Vin's shoulder. "Reckon them critters knowed that..."

"Reckon," Vin agreed, picking up the plate. "Where's yer spoon?"

"I didn't bring it..." Her face dropped when she realized she'd been found out. "Aw, shoot!"

"So help me God!"

"Hey, Pa," she smiled angelically at her irate father, "Look...Vin's here..."

"You keep this up, Young Lady and you'll be in until Christmas. First spitting and now know better!"

"I ain't been spittin' today!" she protested.

"You haven't been spitting today," Ben corrected, handing her a spoon.

"See...I told you!" she stood proudly.

"A young lady like yourself...should conduct herself all times, the company of...gentlemen." Ezra called over from where he was trying not to fall from his horse.

"You sure talk funny..." Callie screwed her face up Ezra, "You got a belly pain? Our outhouse is just over..."

"Callie!" Ben hollered, brushing past the smirking Vin Tanner. Even Ezra couldn't suppress the smile on his own face. "Apologize to Mr. Standish and then get that mess cleaned up!"

"I'm sorry," She offered over and saw Ezra nod.

"How's things goin' Ben?" Vin quipped, unable to hide the mirth in his eyes or tone.

"Just peachy, Vin!" the exasperated father replied. "Abby won't be back for a week..."

"Yer a brave man," Vin concluded of the tough task. "She's still down in the mouth?" He inquired, knowing the child was disappointed at missing the trip.

"Yeah..." Ben replied, and saw the wheels in Vin's mind spinning. "You...uh...want some breakfast?"

"No thanks, Ben," Vin denied, "Ezra picked up a bad cold...we're outta water and a long way from town."

"Help yourself," he offered of the well. "How about coffee?"

"Okay," Vin agreed, retrieving his large mug. "Just half a cup, thanks..."

"Ya know Ez's right, Callie," Vin stated, walking with both canteens to the well. The adoring child was glued to his hip. "Ya gotta quit spittin', swearin' and misbehavin' ain't ladylike."

"I ain't no lady!" She protested. "You spit and swear..."

"That's different, I'm a man and I'm growed...Ya ever hear yer Ma or Miz Travis swearin'?"


"Billy won't marry ya iffen ya don't quit actin' out..."

"Reckon I'll think on it," she decided, taking Vin's hand and leading him to the steps outside the front door. "I could marry you..." her voice wavered, staring at the tracker's blue eyes. "You wouldn't care if I spit or sweared."

"Sure I would!" Vin chuckled, sitting down. "Besides, time ya get all growed up...I'll be an old man. Billy's just right..."

"Ma says I'm an itch!" She complained, settling on Vin's lap. She turned her face up when she heard him chuckle. "It ain't funny...she gets mad...she don't want me bein' an itch..."

"I ain't laughin' at ya, Sweetheart," He stroked the silken head, "Ya just remind me of another pretty little gal I heard tell o'..."

"Who?" the head cocked, staring at him adoringly.

"A little angel, up in heaven. Like t'hear about 'er?" he asked and saw the head bobbing up and down. The wide blue eyes were trained on his every word. "Well, there was this little angel gal up in heaven, her name was Callie..."

"Just like me!" She sputtered, impressed.

"How 'bout that!" Vin nodded solemnly, "she was havin' a real tough time settlin' in...kept messin' up her chores..."

"Just like me!" she exclaimed excitedly.

"She kept losin' her harp...making big holes in the clouds...breaking her jar o'angel dust..."

"What's angel dust?" she squinted, resting her head on his shoulder.

"It's what yer guardian angel sprinkles on ya at's ya have sweet dreams..."

"Oh..." she nodded, brushing her face against the stubbled cheek. She liked the feel of it against her skin.

"...the head angel who was in real upset...she told Lil' Callie iffen she didn't shape up...they was gonna ship her out...take away her wings..."

"Oh no..." Callie's head came up. "What happened?"

"Well...she got her temper t' stompin' her feet and sassing' back...the head angel punished her...called her an itch..."

"Just like me!" she shouted.

"Well...she was supposed t'clean up her mess...but she didn't...she wandered off and saw a big box. Now she knew this was the special had the biggest, brightest star ever made inside. It was bein' saved fer the Baby Jesus."

"I know about that star," She gasped, "Mrs. Potter told us about it in Sunday School..."

"Well I betcha didn't know who was holdin' it up real high...makin' it shine so pretty..."

"Little Angel Callie?" She guessed, heart pounding.

"Yup..." Vin nodded, "Ya see, she had a bad habit o'openin' stuff she weren't supposed t'..."

"Me too!"

"Well, this time, it got her in a pack o'trouble. She took the star t'play with t'flyin' about the sky...fergot the time. When the head angel come t'get the's the shepherds and wise men could find Baby was gone."

"Oh No!" she shook her head. "What happened?"

"Well, the head angel sent the other angels out huntin' fer it...and they found Lil' Callie tossin' it around."

"I bet they were sore at her..."

"Real sore," Vin agreed, "Because she disobeyed and was bad...the Baby Jesus almost missed havin' all them angels, shepherds and wise men findin' 'im...The head angel made Lil' Callie go with the others that night, so's she could see what she done. That star got t'be awful heavy and Lil' Callie was feelin' awful poorly about bein' bad...'specially about the little baby nearly bein' born in the dark. After all, his Ma and Pa needed that star...t'find that manger."

"Oh yeah..." She whispered, swallowing hard.

"So Lil' Callie, she fluffed up her wings real good, sproutin' them out and such...she straightened up her halo and she held up that star. The other angels told the head angel what she done and the head angel was real proud o'her."

"Pa, did you hear that!" She exclaimed, wide-eyed and breathless.

"So ya let that be a lesson t'ya...Doin' good, makin' yer Ma and Pa proud o'ya...givin' them a big smile...bustin' their buttons o'er ya...that's important."

"I'll be good, Vin, I promise." She buried her face in his neck and sighed at the warm hug. Then she scrambled to her father, throwing herself in his arms. "I'm sorry, Pa...I'll be good...I just wait and see..."

"I believe you, Sunshine," he kissed the upturned face. "Now how about starting by cleaning up that mess?" He handed her a spoon and watched her remove the eggs. "Can I bring Vin his coffee?"

"Okay, but use both's hot..." He stretched his hand out, gripping the smiling trackers. "Thanks Vin...I owe you one..."

"Ah," Vin shook his head, "She'll be okay...she's just got growin' pains..." They talked quietly for few minutes, until the little hostess appeared. He turned and smiled as the carefully walking child approached, with his mug. "Thank ya, Darlin'..." he took the cup and ruffled her hair. "What?" He felt her tug his pants and bent over, grinning again as he got a tiny kiss on the cheek.

"You sure you'd be too old?" she whispered, lifting her large eyes to his smiling ones.

"Yer breakin' m'heart..." he laughed, ruffling the golden head. "Thanks..." he went to sip the coffee and frowned.

"Something wrong, Vin?" Ben approached, and saw crumbs floating in the brew. "CALLIE!"

"Yeah Pa?" She said innocently.

"Why are there oatcake crumbs in Vin's coffee?"

"Oatcakes?" She sighed, "Well you see, Pa, one sorta fell in while I was...uh...uh...stirrin'...yeah...stirrin' Vin's coffee."

"You mean while you were dunkin' the cakes in there..."

"I tried to drunk 'em all out...they kept gettin' away from me..." She dropped her head and then felt Vin's hand on her chin. "I'm sorry, Vin. It was an accident. I was holding one in my teeth while I got the coffee and it fell in and I tried to get it out but it got all busted up and then I tried drinkin' it out and..."

"Okay...okay..." Vin laughed and finished the beverage, crumbs and all. "Thanks again, Ben. See ya Darlin'...Ya remember yer promise now..."

"Sure," She nodded, walking fast to keep up with him. "Swap spit on it?"

"Callie!" Ben gritted, watching both Ezra and Vin chuckle.

"What?" She turned confused. "It's like givin' your word. Ain't that what you told me, Vin?"

"Yer a lady now, Callie, ya can't be swappin' spit no more..."

"Aw, hell," She mimicked her idol, than slapped a hand across her mouth. "Oopps..."

"Callie!" Ben directed, raking a hand through his hair. "Get in the house. I'm gonna get some water from the well so you can wash up."

"Yes sir..." She hugged Vin once and skipped away.

"See ya, Ben," Vin grinned, shaking his head. "She sure is somethin'..." he noted, tying Ezra's canteen to the dozing man's saddle horn.

"Indeed," Ezra croaked, "It would appear you were speaking from the voice of experience."

"Well," Vin climbed on his own horse and eyed the other. "I reckon I was called 'an itch' a time or two when I was a little feller."

"What do you mean 'was'?" Ezra challenged, knowing Vin Tanner couldn't sit still long. "That said, I might add that although I am the one accused of 'spittin' up the alphabet' On my best day I would never be as eloquent or graceful as you were just now. Well done..."

"Ya mean that," Vin amazed, flushing slightly, "don't ya?"

"You have a gift Vin, when it comes to creating moving images. I was as enchanted as that child was...and your poetry would rival Keats."

"Aw, hell...ya do got a fever..." Vin turned his horse away, but cast a drunken grin back at the smiling conman. "Thanks..."

"My pleasure."

Part 2

The distant mountains provided a dramatic backdrop to the saguaro covered plains, scattered with various cacti. The rocky hilltop that led to Bandalero Road was just in view; he'd taken a shortcut Vin recommended and saved a good bit of time. With any luck, he'd be at the Gratton ranch by ten a.m. or so. He tossed the remainder of his coffee away and cleaned up his campsite. The large spread covered nearly five thousand acres. Calvin Gratton and his brother-in-law were partners; Stephen Dubonnet had a large horse farm in Kentucky. He shipped the horses out west to Calvin, who sold them quarterly at auctions. Chris had come to the last one, but didn't find anything to his suiting. He did, however, find Gratton to be about as honest and straightforward as they come. They'd hit it off right away and Chris liked the Canadian breeder.

"Come on boy..." he climbed on his mount and eyed the road back to town. He'd hoped Vin would have caught up to him by now. A small twinge inside was replaced with a shake of his blond head. The tracker was fine, most likely he'd found a new route and would be grinning like a jackass when he arrived. Clucking his tongue, he wasted no time in gaining the road to the ranch.

"Easy now..." Vin urged, gripping Ezra's arm. The southerner was barely upright, sweating profusely and sneezing as well as coughing. He got the swaying body inside the Larabee abode. "No...hold up..." he pulled the body headed for the bed in another direction. "Ya get that coat off...and the shirt...yer soaked."

Ezra was too tired, sore and dizzy to argue. His limp arms flopped around as Vin guided him from the fever-damaged clothing. He was pulled upright and then wrapped in a blanket. He felt the warmth of a fire on his face and a cup was shoved in his hands. He sipped the cold water slowly, unable to get more than a little past his swollen throat. He shivered as he heard the Texan's boots make several trips outside.

"Have you lost...your...mind..." He gasped, eyeing his red coat being tossed in the fireplace.

"Ya got five more in yer closet at ain't like ye'll miss's got crud all over it..." Vin defended, wrinkling his nose and scrubbing the mess from his hands. "Hell, ya been spittin' and sneezin' on it fer two hours..."

"Wonderful!" Standish grumbled, pulling the blanket closer. "It's not bad enough I've been overtaken by this horrid malady, I must ride into town in the guise of Godiva..."

"Huh?" Vin screwed his face up and saw a weak smile.

"Naked..." Ezra supplied, jumping as the clatter of pots assaulted his tender head. "I think you...missed one..." he complained, eyeing the bottle of whiskey on the mantle.

"I got two rabbits skinned and ready t'go...Chris's got some carrots and onions in his dry sink..." Vin tossed a linen towel in the cool water and headed for the flushed face. "Ya take a nap and I'll get yer broth goin'...Chris's got some stuff ya can wear..."

"I will not be manhandled like an invalid..." Ezra ducked and protested weakly as Vin's hand covered his face and neck in one fell swoop.

"Shut the hell up..." Vin warned, dropping the cloth into a pot of boiling water. He picked up the last of the cotton cloth squares he'd cut from Ezra's shirt and caught the wet sneeze as it left the other's mouth and wiping it hard. His well-intentioned, if not forceful, efforts didn't go unrewarded.

"Ouch!" the green-eyed man yelped and pulled himself away. "Your bedside manner leaves a lot to be desired. Furthermore..."

"Yer ears stuffed up?" Vin huffed, sweating from his frantic movements about the warm room, "Somethin' ya didn't understand about 'Shut the hell up'?" He pointed to Chris's bed in the next room. "Plant yer ass in there and quit raggin'..." He directed, grabbing a large pot and heading outside to get more water.

"Plebian..." Ezra coughed, standing and eyeing the empty room. He uncorked the bottle and took a liberal swig, before replacing it. "Mother always says spirits are good for a cold..." He wobbled into the next room and eased his throbbing body on the bed. He pulled the thin blanket up and then the thick one he'd been wrapped in. He rubbed his eyes and coughed again, reaching for a cloth. His eyes widened in amazement. There was already several squares of fabric on the bedside table, along with a tall mug of water. He watched the nimble body moving quickly about the cabin and dozed off.

"Wake up..."

"Why?" Ezra groaned, turning away, "Is it judgment day?"

"No, lunch is ready...ya need t'eat..." Vin advised, taking the crumpled up swatches of cloth to the fire. He looked back, but the body hadn't moved. Sighing, he ladled a bowl full of broth, accented with minced up meat and vegetables. He carefully made his way to the room and set it on the table. "Ya need some help? I can..."

"If you come near me with a spoon, I vow it will end up someplace not befitting a proper utensil..." Ezra growled and heard the soft chuckling. He didn't protest, however, when the strong arms lifted him to a sitting position. He felt another blanket draped around his shoulders and managed to swing his legs around. The small table was close enough and he eyed the steam rising. His hand wavered, but he managed to eat the whole bowl. "I doubt the finest coq au vin at Andre's on Canal Street would rival this," he noted of a favorite cafe in New Orleans. "Vin?" he gathered up his blankets and moved slowly, the pounding in his head was like a hot anvil. He stopped in the doorway and his eyes narrowed. He tossed out a soft breath, catching the lean Texan dozing at Chris's table. On the wooden structure, were a dozen or more cloths cut up, an herbal concoction that resembled tea and some salt in a small bowl. Ezra felt a pang of guilt, realizing the younger man had been up all night caring for him. Just as the long shaggy head dipped, the chin nearly clipping his chest, it jerked up, the wide eyes shot open.

"Damn..." Vin cursed, shaking the drowsiness away. "Can't sleep now...t'much t'do...Ez!"

"Thank you," the other winced as the loud sound hit every fiber in his body like a hammer. "I hope you have enough soup left for the dead you've awakened."

"Sorry," Vin stood up, eyeing the body, "Hey...ya look a little better..."

"How long?" Ezra tried to peek out the window.

"Ya was out a good five hours..." Vin countered, as the fevered body passed by. "How ya feelin'?"

"Fine...don't I look it..." he said sharply, settling at the table. He flinched as the harsh tone brought an iciness to the warm room. He heard the shuffle of the boots and saw the back of the damp red shirt over by the fireplace. "I'm sorry, Vin...that was inexcusable. You've forsaken rest and nourishment at my expense and I'm grateful."

"s'okay Ez..." Vin came back bearing a cup of warm water. He sprinkled the salt in it and shook it gently. "Rinse yer throat out and spit in that bucket..."

"What for?"

"Dunno...but it works..."

"By whose account?"

"My grandfathers!" Vin shoved the cup at the protestor. "Jesus ye'd wear the stripes offa tiger..."

"Ugh!" Ezra drew his head back and wrinkled his face in distaste, having completed the chore. "A vile practice long abandoned by freethinking..."

"Here," Vin cut him off, giving him hot apple cider. "I put some herbs in it...fer that cough...get it down. Ya finish the rest of the soup and I'll get some clothes fer ya t'put on...we got get goin' iffen were gonna get to Nate's by sundown."

While Ezra finished his spiked cider, soup and managed to dress himself, Vin burned the used clothes and folded the blankets on the porch outside.

"I'll ride back tomorrow and boil 'em proper..." Vin said, putting the clean pot back on the cupboard. Eyeing the tidy cabin, he got the sluggish gambler outside and on his horse. With every movement, the southerner tossed a new stream of complaints. Nathan's clinic never seemed farther away or more desirable.

"Ah, Mister Larabee, I can see your fine eye for horse flesh has improved since we last met."

"Hey, Cal, how are you?" Chris greeted the robust, gentlemen whose suit would make Ezra blush in envy. The ranch was beautiful, no expense spared. Claire Gratton was a genteel and gracious hostess. Joshua, Joseph and Peter, the three heirs to the empire, were fine young men, the products of their father's firm hand. All three worked from dawn to dusk, hand in hand with the rest of the crew.

"Fine, my friend, and you?" The tall man shook the hand offered by the corral. He saw the green eyes slowly scour the dozen or so horses, before settling on the prize. He also noted that the blond was by himself. "Where is your companion? I don't see that distinctive coat of his..."

"It's distinctive alright," Chris grinned, "You'd have smelled it a good mile or so away." He paused and eyed the long road that wound down several miles to the entrance of the sprawling enterprise. "Actually, I was hoping Vin was here...he was held up on business...didn't get back before I left."

"Ah...I shall miss his entertaining comments. He has a unique flavor..."

"That he does," Chris agreed and moved closer to the railing. The large red stallion kicked up his legs, tossing his head in arrogance. "He's a beauty..."

"The best of the lot...just over eighteen hands...his bloodlines go all the way back to Spain. You won't find better this side of the Mississippi..."

"I don't doubt that," Chris mused, his eyes raking in the sight of the fine beast. "How much?"

"The auction is set to begin tomorrow at nine, I'm sure..."

"How much?" Chris repeated, cocking his head and curving his lips upward, "I don't intend to lose him. Why waste time? I'll be more than fair."

"Well..." Gratton scratched his chin, "I expected he'd bring in a good bit of silver..." Then there was that sly grin and glint in the green eyes. No, he had no doubt that Chris Larabee got what he desired. He wondered how any woman in the territory was safe with that gaze.

"I'll give you one-hundred-and-twenty-five..."

"Hah!" Gratton scoffed, "Anything less than two-hundred-and-fifty would be criminal..."

"One-fifty," Chris grinned, his fingers itching to break in the fine beast. "I read about that sale in Santa Fe last month. Fine stock...all the way from Ireland..."

Now it was Gratton's turn to grin, this young man not only knew horses, he knew how to play the game. The stock from the sale he mentioned was superior to that which was offered today. No doubt he knew the prices as well.

"It's indecent...but for you, I'll take a"

"Done!" Chris extended his hand and shook on it. "Now you can buy me lunch..."

"I don't know if I can afford you, Chris!" the older man laughed and led his young friend into the large house. The filet tips in wine sauce, potatoes au gratin and green beans almandine went down easy, along with the robust red wine. As the two men discussed horses and other business over cigars, Calvin couldn't help notice the blond uneasiness. "If I were a betting man, I'd wager you won't be staying under my roof tonight."

"That obvious?" Chris smiled, enjoying the imported cigar.

"You are anxious to get on the road...and to find that hide coat..."

"That damn sorry-assed Texan will outlive both of us..." Chris teased and drained his brandy. "But I do want to head back. I want to get Paladin settled in his new home." He noted of the horse. He folded the paperwork in his pocket and entered the large foyer, as the beautiful wife of the host approached. He kissed her hand and smiled. "Thank you for a fine afternoon, Claire..."

"You're welcome anytime," she blushed, her hand tingling. "You're not staying?"

"You don't have to sound that disappointed," Calvin teased his wife, giving his young guest a grin.

"No, thanks, Claire, I need to get home. Next time..."

"Of course," she nodded as the two men left.

"He's a fine catch," Cal shook hands with the young man again as he tied the reins of the new acquisition to his saddle horn. "You come back in the spring and I'll have the perfect mare for him..."

"Count on it," Chris nodded as he climbed onto his horse. "Thanks again, Cal..."

He rode for home, eyeing the afternoon sky. With any luck, he'd be home by midday tomorrow. He and Vin had planned to break the horse in and relax a few days at his shack. Maybe he'd meet the Texan on the way home. If not, he'd enjoy the rest of the week at his place. The last few weeks in town were rough and he needed the solitude. The supplies were well stacked and the well full. He could use a few days alone.

It was dark when Vin got into town. Ezra was barely upright and Vin jumped from his own horse, before leading the gambler's into the livery. Tiny wasn't around and Vin was too exhausted to hunt him down. He sat Ezra on a barrel and quickly dispensed of the saddles and blankets. After giving each animal a good amount of hay, he tossed both saddlebags on his shoulder and got the ill man up the stairs.

"Nate...ya here...Nate..."


Nathan Jackson looked up from the medical journal he was reading as the door was pushed in with a dusty boot. He jumped up as soon as the horrid coughing made a wet splash on the floor. Ezra's haggard appearance brought the healer to action. He led the fevered man to a cot and sat him down. A well placed hand to the flushed forehead told him the fever was rising.

"Ya okay, Vin?" He inquired, his dark eyes seeing exhaustion, but no signs of illness.

"Just tired, Nate...Ez's got a helluva cold...I burned up all his spit some broth and herbed cider in him at Chris's shack...he come down with it last night..." Vin hedged, "Ya got this? I'm wore t'the bone and starved..."

"Hey Vin," Nate called as the young man turned , "I need a favor. Can ya get the ashcan full of wood and get the fire going?" He said of the metal can he kept outside the door. "Bring my bag over..."

"Sure..." the tired man nodded, first getting the small fire going in the bottom of the large vessel .Then he brought the leather satchel to the healer. When Nate looked up, Vin froze. Something in the dark eyes made his stomach drop.

"It's just a cold, ain't it?" he asked, watching the stethoscope hit Ezra's wheezing chest.

"No..." Nate shook his head and sighed, "Might be croup...I ain't sure..." his fingers gently felt along the dozing patients throat.

"I made him wash his throat with salt water..."

"That was good thinkin' Vin..." Nate nodded ,hearing the worried tone. "But I don't know what this is and if it's catchin'. I don't need ya spreadin' it all over town. Ya meet up with anybody when ya rode in?"

"No...brought him right up..." Vin replied slowly, shifting his aching feet. "I'll stick t'my wagon..."

"Sorry, Vin." He eased a white cotton nightshirt on Ezra and tapped the stuporous face, "Ez...I got some sweet gum and myrtle...I'm gonna make ya some'll help that sore throat..." He pushed two large pillow behind the coughing body and moved to put the kettle on to boil.

"Ya don't mean..." Vin shook his head and tried to back peddle. "Here...I can't stay here...Aw, hell Nate...I'll be good, I promise. I won't talk t'nobody...I'll ride back t'Chris's..."

"Can't take that chance Vin...Ya gotta stay put." He poured boiling water over the herbs and added a little honey. He then carried the mug to Ezra. "Here ya go...sip it slow..."

"" Ezra managed, shivering under the blankets.

"How long?" Vin sank into the chair and Nate's desk, swallowing hard as the walls seemed to move inward.

"Depends...a week maybe two..."

"A week!" Vin's voice went up a full octave as his body flew upwards. "In here? A week...Hell, I might as well dig me a ditch in the bone yard." His brows drew together and he looked up, "I ain't even sick...Hell he's been coughing that shit all over me since last night..."

"That don't mean ya won't get sick...or get somebody else sick." Nate eyed the weary body swaying and sat him back down on a small cot near the window. "Ya look wore out...ya eat today?"

"No...ain't hungry..."

"Don't start." Nate moved to the back of the chamber where he had a small kitchen. He reappeared with a plate of food and a large mug of coffee. "Eat...I'm gonna give Ezra an alcohol bath...his fever's coming up..." He moved away to get the bottle and a new basin. Twenty minute later his task completed and his patient sleeping fitfully, the healer returned to find the weary Texan sound asleep. The food was half gone and the head was resting on crossed arms beside the plate. He shifted Vin's legs and body, moving the plate, and covering the slim man with a light blanket. He flipped his hand on the back of the slumbering man's neck, glad to find it cool. He gathered up the scattering of Ezra's used cloths and tossed them into the metal can. He spotted Josiah and waved to him. He stopped the large man at the foot of the stairs.

"Come around back, under my window...we got trouble."

"Trouble?" Josiah frowned, eyeing the worried face. He turned around and his long strides took him into the dark, deserted alley under Nate's back window. He waited until the dark head popped out. "What kind of trouble?"

"The quarantined kind..." Nate answered, "Vin brung Ez in...he's sick as a dog. He's burning up, spitting up crud, sneezing, wheezin', his heart's racing and his glands are swellin' up...."

"Oh Lord," Josiah shook his head, "Vin?"

"He's fine...wore out...passed out already."

"You check his throat?" Sanchez asked as the silver moon his the ashen healer's face.

"Yeah...nothing yet...could just be croup."


"But I can't take no chances...ya wire the Fort and ask Major Harper if anybody else is sick in the territory. Keep folks away from here...Vin said he rode right in...didn't see nobody."

"That's a blessing," Josiah nodded. "Okay, should I wire Cooper Landing?" he said of the small town nearby where most of the town had journeyed to attend a Harvest Festival.

"Not yet," He paused, "We'll wait until morning. I'll know by then..."

"Nate..." Josiah's head rose with his voice. "You gotta tell 'em..." he said of the remaining citizens. "They have a right to know...I've seen what something like this does to a town and it's ugly."

"Don't you think I know that!" Nate hissed, "I just want to be sure."

"I think you already are..." He paused, hands on hips. "How long's he been sick?"

"Vin said he took sick yesterday."

"Then we'll know by morning. The army will be asking...I'd rather have them helping out. Folks get word we got that sickness in town...they panic...start fleeing like rats on a sinking ship. Next thing you know, it's all over the territory."

"Don't insult me, Josiah!" Nate fumed, pounding the windowsill. "I've been through this twice, damn near died of it once. If I keep them in here...and the folks stay out of town...we might be okay." A horrid, round of coughing took his attention. "I gotta go..."

Josiah stood for a moment, his own mind wandering back in time to similar epidemics and the fights, bloodshed and violence that fear induced panic brought on. A shadow nearby caused him to break his concentration. "You heard?" he asked the tall man.

"Yeah...what's Nate think it is?"

"You mean what's he praying it isn't?" Josiah paused, wincing as Ezra's harsh coughing echoed in the still night. "Diphtheria..." he whispered and watched all the color leave Buck Wilmington's face.

It was still dark when a harsh echo of coughing filled the infirmary. The weary healer jerked himself awake, jumped up and made his way to the patient's side. He guided him to an upright position, trying to calm the alarmed green eyes.

"Easy now...chuck that shit up...come on..." he urged, holding a large cloth near Ezra's mouth. Finally, the red-face, fevered patient released a large wad of mucus. While he spent he next several minutes, regaining his breath, Nathan gave him another alcohol bath. "Here..." he gave the thirsty man some cool water, then handed him a mug of warm salt water. "Rinse that throat out, spit it in here," he moved a small basin onto Ezra's lap. "I got some tea and broth simmerin'.."

Ezra shivered in the darkness, his aching eyes taking in the shadowy interior of Nathan's clinic. As he gargled, his bleary mind recalled a flight from the Larabee cabin and Vin getting him up the stairs here. His eyes rested on the slight form in the next cot. He finished his throat rinse and moved the bowl to the side table. He stood on unsure legs and made three steps to the next bed. He cocked his head and heard even breathing, his hand hovered over the tracker's forehead.

"What are ya doin'?" Nate hissed, putting the tray down and shoving the startled man back on his own cot.

"I was merely trying to ascertain if Mr. Tanner had attained this malady as well."

"No...Vin's fine, he's just wore to the bone." The dark-skinned man placed the wooden tray on legs in front of Standish, who was sitting up in the bed. Behind his back were three thick pillows.

"How long?" Ezra rasped, eyeing the strange tea with a curious eye.

"It's sweet gum, myrtle and willow bark..." the tall man answered the question jade eyes, "Vin brung ya in last night. Sunup will be in about an hour." He watched the wet head nod and replace the mug, picking up a spoon.

"You're certain he isn't ill as well?" Standish's eyes went across to Vin's stilled form. "He's been hovering over me since I encountered him on the road a couple days ago. He'd been coughing quite a bit the night we spent in San Carlos..."

"Coughing?" Nate sat down on the chair next to the bed, "No, he's okay." He moved the lamp in closer, turning it up. "Open up, Ez...I need to look at that throat."

Ezra complied and saw the tireless healer's face ashen. The slight tremble to the hand cupping his chin gave him alarm.

"It's not a cold?" Ezra frowned, "The flu perhaps?"

"No," Nate sighed and drew his face up, meeting the fever-bright jade eyes. "It's diphtheria..."

"Sweet Jesus!" Ezra gasped and laid back against the pillows.

"Look at me, Ezra!" Nate commanded sharply, "Ya lose that quitter's face and fight this thing. I've had it already, I know how hard the war's gonna be, but I also know ya can beat this thing. I did."

"...and I've read accounts of epidemics that wiped out entire communities. I'm sure those misfortunate souls fought hard too." His gaze went to Vin again. "Why isn't he sick? He brought this from that lake with him. He lies sleeping peacefully..."

"Cut that out!" Nate hissed, eyeing the jealous eyes, "I don't know that answer to that. But ya can't go blamin' Vin 'cause ya got sick. Ya got no proof...besides, from what he told me, he took care of ya out there. That salt water wash was good thinkin'...he cleaned up at Chris's...fed ya...took care of ya..."

"Cease and desist," Ezra picked up the spoon. "I didn't mean it that way..." He was finished his soup when a cold fear struck him. "Good Lord!" He moved the tray and went to stand up.

"Ezra!" Nate shoved him back down. "Ya gotta stay under them covers..."

"No, you don't understand," he pleaded, "That child was climbing all over Vin...nuzzling his neck, kissing his cheek...she's so small..."

"What child?" the dark eyes widened in fear, "What are ya talkin' about?"

"Callie Johnson..." He coughed, doubled over and spit into the cloth in his hand, dropping it in the small container by the cot.

"Johnson?" Nate's heart dropped, "Ya stopped at Johnson's place?" He saw the head nodding and cursed softly. "Dammit Vin..." he shook his head, "I asked him if ya rode right in...why didn't he tell me?"

"...cause I thought yer were talking 'bout Chris's place," Vin answered, without moving. "Ya asked if I stopped on the way in...weren't m'fault..." he defended. "Hell, I thought it was cold..."

"Alright," Jackson smacked the lean leg under the blanket, "Sit up. I need to know everywhere ya been...from the top. Were ya sick in San Carlos Vin?"

"Huh?" Vin squinted, his not awake eyes blinded by the lamp. He shielded his face from the glare and licked his dry lips. "Ya got any water? I'm drier than a burnt-out buzzard."

"Hold on..."

Vin remained in place, rubbing his weary eyes. An uncomfortable silence filled the small room. He'd heard what Ezra said about being sick. The question nagged at him. Why had his cough gone away so quickly? Could he have brought this from the river? He felt a cold metal cup brush his hand.

"Here," Nate charged, "Don't get this mixed up...I marked it with a 'V'...ya drink from this one only. Same with your plate and bowl." He watched the water disappear and saw Ezra's anger flash briefly.

"It was dusty in that damn room. Hell, them sheets wasn't changed since Lee surrendered..." he noted of his idol from the Civil War.

"Quit snipin'!" Nate barked, eyeing both men, "Ya both listen up, ya ain't leavin' here for two weeks, so ya best learn to get along. I won't put up with any tantrums, squabblin' or other childish nonsense. Now fill me in..." he inquired of their trek home.


The handsome cowboy smiled in his sleep, his slumbering mind still lost in the rapturous embrace of the lovely vision. He was drowning in a sea of red hair and firm flesh, the skilled limbs of the voluptuous woman left him breathless.

"Slow...down...Darlin'...." he groaned, pushing the arm away, "You're killing me..."

"Get your ass up!"

"Damn..." Buck mumbled, blinking at the harsh tone and then at the stern features of Nathan Jackson. "Dammit have terrible timing..."

"I ain't got time to waste on your sweat get up!"

"Where's the fire?" Buck squinted as he pulled his pants on. He caught the shirt tossed at him and noted the sun was just breaking through the window.

"In my clinic," Nate answered the disgruntled face, "and that's where I aim to keep it..."

Buck's foggy brain began to work, as his fingers fumbled with the buttons on his shirt. His hand froze on his boots, when the chilling conversation with Josiah replayed in his mind. He drew his head up slowly, now fully alert. One look at Nathan's stricken features gave him the reply he dreaded.

"Diphtheria?" He pulled his boots on and stood up.

"Yeah...Ez's is down...we got a lot of work to do...Josiah's waiting at the church."

"Shit!" the mustached-man hissed, raking a hand through his disheveled hair "...does that bring bag a lot of bad memories..."

"Only reason I'm here," Nate replied, "I remembered ya said ya had it before..."

"Twice," Buck grunted, buckling his holster, "Once when I was a kid...twelve or so, damn near died." He paused and remembered the worry lines on the pretty face in his past, "Scared my Ma half to death..."

"Twice?" Nate waited until Buck got his coat and hat.

"Yeah..." He ambled through the door, "Second time wasn't as bad...but I was laid up a couple weeks. Winter of the Virginia." He kept his strides even with the taller man's long ones as they hurried to the church. "Vin got it too?"

"No...but they stopped at Chris's place and at Ben Johnson's...Callie was climbin' all over Vin. I can't leave Ezra, but you and Josiah both had this..."

"You ever had it, Nate," Buck pulled the arm of the tired medicine man, his eyes wrought with worry.

"Yeah..." he smiled wearily, "In the army...Mornin' Josiah..."

"Brothers," the eldest imparted, as the two entered, "Coffee's done...eggs are just about finished."

"What's the plan, Nate?" Buck asked, taking the plate of food from the preacher with a nod. He sat down next to the ex-slave and poured each of them coffee. Handing the hot mug to the other, he saw the paper with notes on it his hand.

"First thing, we gotta get word to Cooper's Landing." He eyed Josiah, "...stop them folks from coming back home. You know how to send a telegraph?"

"Yeah...I'll get right on it," he advised, knowing the telegraph clerk was at the Festival with the others. They were expected to leave in the late afternoon and be home by dark. "Who else?"

"San Carlos," Nate dictated, eyeing his notes, "Vin and Ezra left out of there. Ezra got sick the next day, so it's likely he caught it in San Carlos. Him and Vin split up before they got there...Vin got cleaned off in the lake. Ez said Vin was coughing in the room all night...Vin claims the bed was loaded with dust..."

"So we find out if anybody else came down with it," Josiah replied, scooping up eggs with a large biscuit. "We gotta wire the Fort...the Judge..."

"He's with Mary and Billy at the festival," Buck muffled through his eggs. He stopped to do a mental head count. "We got fifteen...twenty maybe left here in town. We gotta block the roads..." he paused, "We gotta tell 'em Nate..."

"Yeah, I know, Buck," Nate admitted, pushing the food around without eating it..."I woke up the clerk at the hotel, he's getting them up. Josiah, you take the east side of town, get folks to the Granary. Buck, you take the west side, I'll meet you there in a half hour, I got to get back to Ezra. After the meeting, I'll need one of ya to ride out to Johnson's and warn ' stop by Chris's shack too, leave a note."

"I'll go," Josiah volunteered, then eyed the younger man across from him, "Buck, you're gonna get trouble from the Upshaw's and their men."

"Aw, hell," Wilmington replied, pushing his plate away with disgust. A mental vision of the three loud, foul-mouthed, brutish clan who were nefarious troublemakers. "They're in town?"

"Sad to say...I saw them stumble into the hotel after midnight. They got at least three of their men with them. Bill Wilson, Jessie Sinclair and Tom Dobson will be okay," he noted of the three local shopkeepers who were honest, tough and always first to volunteer to help. "You pair up and take watch on either end of town."

"We're gonna need help...folks get nasty when something like this hits town." Buck recalled from his past. "Sure wish the Kid didn't take Casey to the Festival..."

"Major Garrison is a good man, " Sanchez noted of the nearby army command, "He'll send some men over, with any luck, they'll be here by ten or so. How's Ezra?"

"Not too bad off yet, but the next few days are gonna be rough. I got plenty of herbs and Mrs. Potter's got more salt for his throat wash. The Dry Goods stores loaded with linens. I'm gonna talk to Ming about using his tubs to boil the bedding..maybe get some herbs from his as well." He noted of the ancient Chinese apothecary whose sons ran the town bathhouse and laundry.

"What about medicine?" Josiah frowned, "Isn't there anything we can use?"

"Well..." Nate sighed, but got interrupted.

"Quinine," Buck supplied, his dark head snapping up. "That's what they used on us in the army...the officers I mean. They didn't have enough for everybody."

"Did it help?"

"Yeah," the ex-union Captain recalled, "I just got promoted when I took sick...there was about a half dozen of us...they doused us all with it." He found a small smile at Fate's gentle hand, "That's how I hooked up with Chris. My outfit moved out, I was a couple weeks gettin' over it and got assigned to Chris's unit."

"Chris ever had it?" Josiah asked.

"No, don't think so..." Buck frowned, "But he won't be back for a week or more. Last I heard, he was fixin' on staying at Gratton's for a few days before heading back. The auction isn't until this afternoon. Best wire him too, Josiah..."

"Yeah..." Sanchez nodded and finished his breakfast, "Soon as the meeting's done, I'll head out, Nate."

"Let's go..." Buck swung his legs and stood up, heading for the door.

Josiah paused at the crossroads and took his hat off, swiping the sweat from his brow. He sighed deeply and eyed the Johnson home in the distance. Saying a quick prayer to God for the occupant's health, he urged his horse onwards.

"Callie!" Ben Johnson exited his barn and walked to his home. It was just after ten a.m. on a glorious sunny morning. His usually perky child was lagging today, still in bed when he left to clean the barn an hour before. He ducked inside, frowning at the still full bowl of porridge, now cold, at the table. "Callie, you didn't eat..."

"Yeah I did," a voice called from the loft above.

He looked up as a cascade of blond hair dangled upside down at him, along with a heart-breaking smile. The winning grin was covered with jam.

"Callie," he shook his head. "Did you eat all the oatcakes?"

"They was gonna get stale anyways and it's a sin to be wasteful. So I figured I'd help God out and clean up them cakes."

"Help God..." He frowned, trying to suppress his own grin.

"Yeah...he don't like folks wastin' his boundaries."

"You mean wasting his bounty?" He wiggled his hand and urged her down.

"See, I knewed ya take up my side, Pa," she jumped in his arms, burying a sticky kiss on his cheek. "Ya know Pa, your real smart..."

"Not as smart as you, I think," He murmured, "Get washed and dressed, we're gonna go into town."

"Yippee!" She squealed, "Can we get some peppermint sticks?"

"We'll see..."

"Aw, hell...that means no!"


"Sorry, it just slips out Pa, honest, I don't mean to swear. I'm gonna try real hard to be a lady, just like Vin said. I ain't got all the itches out yet."

"Hello in the cabin!"

"Josiah?" Ben called back, walking to the door with his princess in his arms. "Morning, Josiah. What brings you out this way?"

"Uh," the preacher climbed down and eyed the pretty little girl. "Morning Miss Callie..."


"Talk to you a minute, Ben," his eyes went cold and he saw the smile leave the younger man's face.

"Callie, go get washed and dressed, okay?"

"Sure Pa," She nodded, "See ya Mister Sanchez..."

"See you Callie," he waited until the door was closed and Ben Johnson was at the edge of his porch. "Ezra and Vin said they stopped by yesterday?"

"Yeah, early, Ezra was sick. They got some water, Vin took a cup of coffee..." His voice trailed off as he saw the fear in the smoky eyes.

"You and Callie feeling okay?"

"Sure, why? Josiah what's wrong with Ezra?"

"I wish there were an easier way to tell you this, Ben, but there isn't, so I'll just spit it out. Ezra's got Diphtheria."

"Oh God no..." the shaken man sat down on the steps, dropping his head. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah, Nate confirmed it this morning, his throat's got a thick coat, glands swollen up, heart racin', can't breathe...fevered up. I wired Cooper's Landing, the fort and a few other places. Nate thinks we can keep a lid on it. Where's your family? I'll wire them too..."

"Uh...Marsh Creek...with her folks...thanks..." His head rose slowly, eyes cast to the well. His ears still ringing with Callie's laughter the day before as the climbed all over Vin Tanner. "Vin?"

"He's not sick, but that doesn't mean you won't get it. I need you to stay here on the farm, Ben. Major Garrison's got the town in lock down. Nate or me will be able to come out everyday. Could be you two won't get sick. But if you do, we want to be prepared." He handed the trembling man a satchel. "That's got herbs for tea, salt for throat washin' and instructions from Nate. We'll be checking on you again this evening. Anybody else been by?"

"No, just...just...Vin..." he sighed again, "Josiah, she was all over him...she's so small...she's not strong enough...I can't lose her...I can't...." his voice choked off.

"I know Ben," the other sympathized, "and I'm sorry. But you're putting the cart before the horse. Let's take this one step at a time. Don't panic...if either of you gets to feeling sick, sore throat, coughing, fevered, you stay put. Nate's got a schedule written down. We'll be stoppin' by several times a day. I gotta get to Chris's, but I'll be back. I posted a sign at the edge of your property, you won't get any more visitors. Keep the faith, Brother."

"I'll try, Josiah," he answered, taking the sack inside the house.

"Pa, look, won't Vin be surprised, I'm wearin' a dress. Ain't I lookin' like a lady?" She twirled proudly, then frowned, "Pa, what's the matter? Why are you sad?"

"Uh...Nothin' Sunshine," he smiled at the crooked buttons and uneven braids. "You're beautiful, you know that...prettiest thing God ever put on this sweet earth." He hugged her close, tears in his eyes.

"Pa, you're squooshin' me..." She wiggled, then cocked her head, eyeing the tears in his eyes. "Why ya cryin'?"

"'cause I love you so much, it hurts, Sunshine," he rasped painfully, tugging on a braid. "Josiah said that Mr. Standish is pretty sick. He thinks maybe we shouldn't go to town for awhile."

"Is Vin sick too?" She worried, blue eyes large.

"No, he's fine. How about we read that new book your Aunt Theresa sent last month."

"The one with all the princesses and castles?" She squealed, "Oh Boy!!"

He watched her scramble through the house and felt his heart clench. Suddenly, the light left the sky and his world grew dark and cold.

He paused and took a look at the familiar shape as it's darkened form stood out against the scarlet and purple sunset. Home. How had the collection of wood and nails become his sanctuary? He looked forward to a few quiet days, without the noise of town and buzzing of voices. Just peace and quiet, and plenty of time to break in his new horse.

"Come on, boy," he eyed the majestic red stallion, "Let's go home..."

By the time he settled the horse in the corral and got into the cabin, it was dark. His eyes adjusted and he went for the mantle. His hand found the bottle and he uncorked it with his teeth. He took a long draw and headed for the bedroom. He took his gun belt off, hanging it over the bedpost. He tugged the boots off, then shivered. Taking another long swig of whiskey, he headed for the kindling. He knew the cabin by heart and didn't need a lamp. He lifted several pieces of kindling and placed it in the hearth, lighting it with a match. He headed for the cupboard in the corner, seeking flour for biscuits and a tin of beans. Not much of a supper...but he was too tired to hunt anything else up. His back was turned to the fireplace, he didn't see the crisp lettering of Josiah's note. The letter was placed carefully behind Chris's bottle of whiskey, knowing it was the first thing he'd see when he entered. Upon taking the bottle, the note slid into the woodpile below. The same wood the blond gathered up and tossed in the fireplace. By the time the weary traveler got his can open and the flour mixed, the note was cinders.

Years of experience gave him an inner alarm system that never failed. His eyes jerked open, adjusting to the shadows. Darkness. Not even a trace of blue in the sky peeking in his window. There is was again, the cry of alarm from his new horse. He tensed, the muscle wall of his lean torso rigid with alertness. One hand reached for the gun belt as he sat up, not bothering to get a shirt. Barefoot, he crept through the house, lashing his gun belt onto his slim hips. The damp blond hair stuck out on his head, as he peered out the window.

"Shit," he swore under his breath, watching two strangers approach the majestic animal, each with a rope. He poked the door open and stole into the night, crossing the porch easily and sliding behind the trough near the water pump. The first thief was dead before he hit the ground. His partner turned and quickly took cover, wary of the razor sharp hooves flying in the air. Bullets crossed the air, each screaming in anger. Then he saw the rope around Paladin's neck and moved in, spotting the surviving bandit slinking toward his horse. Chris used his last shot well. He hit the shoulder of the stranger, as he attempted to leave, sending his weapon under the horse. "Oh no you don't..." he took off on foot, tackling the large man. They rolled in the dirt, grunting as they exchanged blows. They the bandit's large hand grabbed his throat, choking with a steel grip.

Chris fought for every breath, feeling himself weakening, his fingers fumbled for the man's knife, which hung low on his belt.

"Adios Senor Larabee..."

The rancid breath hit his face as the large hand slammed his head into the hitching post. Pain and stars collided and he felt a solid kick to the groin. Pounding hooves send dirt into his face. He tried to rise, but couldn't, blackness thicker than the night threatened to fall over him. But something spurred him on, the sight of his prize stallion heading south toward Mexico. He rolled over, ignoring the pain that shot through the side of his face. It took several minutes for the power to be restored to his legs. He crawled, then stood and staggered towards his horse. Taking time only to reload his weapon, toss on an old work shirt and saddle up, he took off in hot pursuit. Nobody was gonna steal his prize and live...nobody.

Dawn laced her fingers through the window, casting a golden light on the troubled face. He continued to prepare coffee and breakfast, as if it were another new day. But this wasn't just another day, the tiny, hacking cough from the loft above told him that.


"Yes, Sunshine?"

"I ain't feelin' so good, my throat hurts and my heads got hammers banging on it..." the raspy, tired voice assessed, "Do I gotta get dressed?"

"No..." his own voice was small and unsure as his hands mechanically finished the morning meal. "Come on down..." he poured some of the herbs into the mug and added hot water and honey. He place it next to the rocking chair and eased himself into the wooden frame. The flushed cheeks slashed garishly on her small face. The blue eyes were clouded and there was no life in the shuffling gait. He opened in arms and she crept in, snuggling close. He wrapped her blanket around the shivering frame, his heart hammering as his lips brushed her forehead and detected the fever rising.

"Here...I have some tea for's got medicine in it..." he prodded, lifting the spoon towards her parted lips. He found a half-smile as the small face screwed up.

"Do I gotta take it?" she pleaded, " tastes like a pack of dead frogs..."

"You've never eaten a dead frog," he guided another spoonful in her mouth.

"...that's cause they'd taste like this..." she paused, taking a third spoonful. "We gonna go see Nathan? His got peppermint sticks iffen ya behave..."

"Nathan's gonna come see about that?"

"Good..." she sighed, lifted the mug offered with two hands and sipped it. She snuggled into her father's chest, relaxing in his strong arms. "...cause I like it right here." She paused and her face tilted up, when she felt his hands press her close. "I love you Pa..."

"Not as much as I love you, Sunshine," he whispered, his heart full.

The food lost all it's flavor and he shoved the half-eaten chicken and potatoes away. His weary blue eyes found the street outside. Even from this distance, he could see how upset the healer had become. He also didn't miss Nathan's large medical bag, which was now slung over the side of a horse. Nobody was on the was far too quiet for the middle of the day. His eyes flicked on Buck, the handsome man's face was creased with worry. He sighed and trembled, feeling the grip of an unknown fear take over him. Something was wrong...very wrong...he eyed the door and then the window. Nathan said he couldn't go out the door...he never mentioned the window...or the roof. He shoved the tray aside and stood, just as a scratchy, congestion filled voice broke the air.

" better than a rat...on a ship..." Ezra coughed, his trained eyes reading Vin's face. Then he suddenly found himself totally without air. He panicked, sat half-up and gripped his throat. air at all...his stricken eyes roamed towards the door.

"No!" Vin chased Ezra and caught him as he fell. They both landed heavily on the floor. A well-honed elbow catching the disgruntled tracker in the eye. "Cut it out...that ain't helpin' up!" he commanded, seeing the raw fear reflected in the jade eyes. He felt the other pull away, turning his head in denial. "Godammit Ezra!" he screamed, kneeling up and gripping Ezra's head from behind in a death lock. "Open the fuck up..." He began to panic himself, knowing the infirmed man couldn't breathe. The pale green eyes were full of fear and doubt. "I won't hurt ya, Ez..."

Somewhere in his haze of pain and just in front of the large wall of spots that now danced in front of him, he paused, his tense body coiled. The change in the tone of voice caused him to relax. The raspy drawl was soft and full of emotion. The large blue eyes were confident and secure. He held that gaze and his jaw lost it's grip.

"...ya trust me?"

He found his head nodding and attempted to surrender, but then fell into a wall of darkness.

"Shit!" Vin clawed frantically at the gambler's jaw, popping it open and sliding his fingers inside the slack mouth. He didn't know what he was looking for, but shoved them as far back as he could, grateful for once that he had slender hands. "What the fuck?" he hissed, his slick fingers gripping something hard. He got a hold and yanked, the effort took him to the floor. "Jesus..." he recoiled, dropping a hard, green ball of mucus onto the floor. "Ez..." he croaked, fearful he'd been to late. Then as he lifted the unconscious man, the body buckled and vomit surged forth. "Thank God..." He held the groggy patient over his arm, until he was finished. "I gotcha...yer okay...ya throwed up the hell all over me..." he teased, hoping the now dazed green slits would offer a sharp retort. But nothing came, no a sound, an insult or even a stinging barb. Instead, the shaking southerner slacked back, resting against him, sucking loudly, trying to get air inside. "Sorry...did I hurt ya?"

He felt the head shaking negatively and waited a few more moments, until the ragged breathing returned. "Let's get ya back in bed..."

The sound came back first, from nothingness to the awful retching. Then the pain in his throat and the sour bile he tasted quickly roused him to a half-conscious state. Something else...another voice in the darkness...breaking the void. Light spilled in, forcing his heavy lids open. A strong hand on his back, a solid parade of Texan slang in his ears. He relaxed in the strong grip as life returned to his body. His foggy brain took in the words and as he tried to drain the room of all it's air, he found himself lifted. His eyes shut again, unable to remain open. He felt the gentle touch as cool water laced with alcohol coated his skin. Then more cool water on his face. Commands came again, the soft, raspy drawl gave him comfort. Open...drink...turn...drink...spit...drink...gargle...spit...drink...more alcohol...and a new nightshirt being eased on his hot flesh. Softness..pillows...the hand returned on his forehead. Sleep...the voice said...he pried an eye open and saw his rescuer on his knees, cleaning up Nathan's floor. He tried to speak but had no strength. He watched the lean body make two trips to the kitchen and return with scalding water and bleach, scrubbing the floor. He saw the lean man peel his own soiled shirt off, tossing it with the rags to be burned. Then he saw Vin pick up a horrid looking thing carefully with a large thick cloth. A blurry movement before he rested his eyes, as Vin found the ashcan. Ezra's hand automatically went to his throat. The offensive thick wad had nearly choked the life from him...had it not been for the slim fingers and skilled hand that now scrubbed the floor. His job completed, he watched Vin slump against the wall, too tired to rise. The shaggy head was damp from sweat. The only visible sign of the ordeal, was the slight tremor to the Texan's hands. It was then that their eyes met.

"Dammit Ez..." Vin managed, shaken at how close he'd come to losing the gambler. He saw the pale lips parting and gratitude shining from the green eyes. He found a smile. "Reckon this makes us even...I don't gotta get ya a new red coat..."

"Certainly...not..." Ezra hissed painfully over his throbbing throat. " do...with other...expect"

Vin saw the start of a twinkle in the pale eyes and heard the familiar return of sarcasm in the southerner drawl. He smiled, sighed and let his own eyes rest a minute. The sweat still poured down his face and the walls seemed to close inward. He eyed the open window and knelt forward, seeking to stand. He felt the eyes trained on him and sat back.

"" Ezra rasped, coughed and shuddered, "I am...not... in...the...habit...of...divulging..." he paused and saw the confusion on the other's face and smiled. "Go...get some air...before you pass...out...and I am...forced"

Vin's head came up and he caught the sly grin, and just a glimpse of the gold tooth. He exhaled a deep, long breath and rose on trembling limbs. He paused long enough to pull the blanket over the ill man and pat the shoulder once. "Thanks...I'm only goin' t'the roof...I'll keep m'head down...I won't be long."

Ezra blinked and took a breath, trying to respond, but the breeze on his face told him the nimble tracker was gone already. His tongue recoiled from the salt on it, still lingering from the throat wash Vin made him do. His hands found this neck again and his eyes spotted the offensive cause of his near demise, still cloaked in cotton. The other signs of the ordeal were already burning in the can. He kept his eyes trained on the window, silently thanking God for the gift that had been bestowed upon him, in the guise of a scruffy tracker from Texas.

Upon his feet touching the roof, he felt his lungs expand and all the dizziness and anxiety leave his taut body. He slunk low, training his ears towards the voices. He followed the path of the sounds, until he as over the edge of the livery, directly above Buck, Nate and Josiah. He flattened his body to the ground, held his breath and cocked his fine ear, listening intently.

"How long you gonna be?" Buck asked, watching the weary healer pack his horse.

"Don't know Buck," he replied, "Callie ain't got the weight on her to put up a's gonna hit her hard. I don't know if I'll be able to get back for awhile. Josiah and you will have to hold things down here. No new cases in three days, that's a good sign."

"I'll come out and spell you tonight, Nate, bring fresh linens and supplies..." Josiah offered with his hand, "God go with you, Brother."

"He better," the dark-skinned man replied, easing into his horse. "Buck, you keep that temper of yours down, I don't need to be pulling any of Upshaw's bullets from that thick hide..."

"That's easier said than done, Nate," Buck kicked the wall of the stall. "I've had it up to here," his hand hit his throat, "with that tribe. If Dale says one more word about Vin, I swear to God I'm not gonna be responsible..."

"God's on Vin's side," Josiah eased, watching the emotion on Buck's face. Since the meeting, the citizens were full of fear and anger. It didn't take long, he'd been here before, in other towns hit by a potential deadly killer. Accusations flew wildly, torches usually followed, reflecting the fear in the eyes of the yet claimed. The Upshaws were no different, rabble-rousers of the worst kind in normal circumstances. This turn of events had given them new fuel, which they were spreading fast. He turned back to Buck as Nate left. "You need help?"

"No, Bill and Tom got them under watch," the rogue answered of the men that were aiding him, "Me and Jessie are gonna wait for the supply wagon. The Army will bring it as far as the border they set up outside town. We'll reload it onto our wagons and bring it back."

"Okay, I'm gonna wire the Judge and then get back to the clinic."

"I'll bring you some supper over later," Buck added.

Vin clenched his eyes shut, his hammering heart nearly breaking through his ribcage. Nathan's words burned a hole right through him. 'Callie ain't go the weight'...he shook his head and cast his frantic eyes heavenward.

"Please...don't...take 'er..." he rasped to the brilliant blue sky. Knowing Josiah would be returning, his reluctantly took himself back through the window. Ezra was resting fitfully, coughing and sneezing. Vin padded into Nate's small kitchen, clutching his cup carefully marked with a 'V'. He poured a cup of coffee and doused it with sugar. He was still lost in the steam, when Josiah joined him.

"Your shoulder's are sagging a bit there, Brother..."

Vin didn't respond, he sipped the strong brew and sighed heavily. Trapped in the clinic with one sick friend, now his mind had a bigger worry. The image of the sassy, little blond who'd so easily captured his heart now broke it in half.

"Keep the faith, Vin," Josiah tried, eyeing the defeated blue eyes, "I know it's not easy..."

"Save yer sermon," Vin said quietly, taking his coffee and heading back to the bunk.

The landscape disappeared as fast at the tracks covering it, as the gunman sped after his stolen stallion. The darkness bled into morning, then eased into afternoon and now the sun was setting again. He pressed onward, harder and the steel in his eyes scanned the horizon. Then his head cocked and he saw it...a flash of reddish hide ahead. He pulled up, tied his mount, checked his ammo and headed into the makeshift camp.

"You will make me a rich man..." The Mexican stroked the beast's neck. "It was my good fortune to be in town near that Gringo Gratton's ranchero." He recalled his friend mentioning that a gringo named Larabee bought the big red stallion. The two had their eye on it, planning on stealing it from whoever bought it. Now the fine animal was his to sell. "Si...I will be buried in gold..."

"You're half right," Chris snarled, cocking his gun, "You fucked with the wrong get your thievin' hands in the!"

"I do not think so, Senor..." he replied, whirling and reaching for his gun. It was a fatal error in judgment.

"Fuckin' bastard!" Chris squatted over the corpse, taking the bag of gold on his belt. "Looks like Josiah will get the roof of his church early. After burying the man, he dropped by the bandit's campsite. The fire was going strong and coffee was brewing. Two skinning rabbits were already roasting on a spit. Chris took care of his horse and grabbed his canteen, draining it. He frowned and flinched as he swallowed. His throat was sore and his head hurt. He was a days ride from home and tomorrow promised to be hot...a long hot ride back totin' a cold, just his luck.

"Damn," he muttered dropping by the fire, he gingerly pulled the meat from the fire, setting it on a smooth rock. He ate quickly, drinking coffee spiked with tequila and hunkered down in his bedroll. As sleep descended, he eyed the fire in the eyes of the prize stallion. The first step in his quest to rebuild his horse ranch. His eyes went to the shadows dancing at the perimeter of the camp. He nearly expected to see a pair of blue eyes and a hide coat lurking there. His best friend was most likely back in town, relaxing with a beer. As his eyes drifted shut, the image of the mischievous Texan's eyes appeared. It was the last thing he saw, before drifting to sleep.

Part 3

His blinked several times, clearing the mud from his head. Daylight, bright and assertive, struck his groggy eyes hard. He turned over and tossed the blanket off, the sweat running freely from his damp chest. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and scowled as a dark-skinned face came into view.


"Huh?" Vin croaked, sitting up and shaking his head again. He just couldn't wake up. Afternoon? How could that be? The last thing he remembered was waiting up for Nate to return. It was late and he was waiting in the small kitchen in Nate's quarters. Josiah came in and made coffee for himself and hot cocoa with cream on the top. Vin recalled how sweet it was and Josiah suggesting he finish the whole thing.

"I'm gonna skin that interferin' preacher alive..."

"Ya needed the sleep," Nate Jackson countered, "...and we needed the peace..." He was standing watch over Ezra while he gargled. "I heard old ladies do better than that..." he urged, getting a bleary green-eyed glare from the patient. Actually, he was worried, Ezra was getting weaker. The Major did track down some quinine, but it would be several days before the train would be able to get nearby. Ezra might be able to fight a little longer, but Callie Johnson couldn't. Sighing, the weary healer rubbed his eyes, trying to move the shadows away. He'd stayed all night, she got sicker by the hour. He rode in after Josiah relieved him a midday. He was getting a few hours sleep, more supplies and some more herbs from Ming. Then he was headed back out to Johnsons and saying a prayer. The little girl was alive with fever and not strong enough to dispel the thick mucus covering her throat. He felt the tap on his leg and blinked himself out of his stupor. "What?"

"Spikin' m'cocoa...that's what. I needed t'talk with ya...he knew I was waitin'..."

"I just got in Vin," Nate frowned at the lack of rally in Ezra. He shook his head, gave the weak man another mug of herbal tea and covered him up. He turned back to address Vin and saw a jar on the ledge next to the tracker's cot. He lifted the jar and eyed the object floating inside. "What's this? Where'd you get this?"

"How's Callie?" Vin ignored the ex-slaves question and stood up, getting right into his face. "Why didn't ya tell me she was sick? Is she bad off? Maybe I can help..."

"Ya can help by stayin' right here and takin' care of Ezra. Ya know the Major has us in lockdown, Vin, ya can't leave for another week." He pushed the jar between them. "Where did you get this?"

"What?" Vin exasperated, needing to know about his young, blond friend. "I plucked it from Ez's throat yesterday, damn near killed him...all his air got took away. What the hell is it anyhow? I was savin' it fer ya...put it in alcohol..."

"It's a plug..." Nate's voice drifted off, "How did it happen?"

"How's Callie?" Vin countered, not giving in. He followed the healer through the narrow lane and over to his desk.

Nate saw the determined blue-eyes on the Texan bulldog and sat down hard, his shoulders slumping. "She ain't good Vin...she's too little...she ain't got enough strength to fight this. The herbal tea and salt wash are helpin' but...without Quinine..."

"Qui...what?" Vin's face screwed up.

"'s medicine, good medicine that would help. The Major wired over to New Mexico Territory and found some. The Army dispatched it by stage but they ran into a storm and now I'm not sure when it'll come. It's stuck just east of Badger Pass."

"I know them parts...hunted in 'em long enough. I can get the medicine. Ya give me a horse...I'll be..."

"Ye'll be shot on sight, the Major won't take any chances." Nate denied, still staring at the glass. "Vin, I need ya to tell me about this...from the beginning."

"Ya seen that before?"

"Yeah...but never saw anybody alive with one...we lost a few high ranking officers in the war, from diphtheria. I saw these during autopsies. It seemed that a gray colored coat grew up the windpipe, gettin' thicker and thicker, till no air could get through. These..." he tapped the glass..."were blocking the path...stranglin' 'em from the inside like..." He eyed the somber face before him. Vin turned away, walked a few steps and gazed down at the sleeping gambler.

"Can ya tell me about it, Vin?"

"Yeah..." he sighed, raking his fingers through his tangled, dirty hair. He took the cold cider offered and sat down on a chair by the window. With few words, chosen carefully and uttered slowly, he recounted Standish's narrow escape.

The sun bid adieu long ago and the air grew cold, whipping around his aching body with a vengeance. He was slumped over on the saddle, barely able to see. The harsh coughing had just about worn him out and the pounding in his head was merciless. He was beyond exhaustion and slid from horse, falling to his knees.

"Shit..." Chris Larabee grunted as the canyon flew around him. Finally the dizziness left and he managed to make a meager campsite. This small effort took all the strength from him. He curled up next to the fire, nibbled at the leftover rabbit he'd wrapped up and winced as it painfully got past his throat. He rubbed his neck, frowning at the swelling under his jaw. He'd left the diagnosis of a cold miles back and hours before. The constant coughing, raging headache and difficulty breathing spelled trouble. He'd rest a few hours then push on, with any luck, he'd be home by morning. The scolding words from Nathan's tongue would be welcomed like prose from Keats now. He shivered, drew himself up on his elbows and coughed up more crud. Dizzy, weak and overcome by a fever-induced fatigue, he collapsed. The mighty red stallion stood watch over his new master, tossing his head fitfully.

"Damn!" Josiah squinted, eyeing the sight from the buckboard he was driving. It was just past seven a.m. and he was on his way to Johnson's place, to bring supplies, clean linens and herbs from Ming to Nathan. He eyed the crossroads and felt his gut instinct directing him away from the homestead, toward Chris Larabee's place. The buzzards that circled overhead where right where the gunslinger's shack was and it gave the preacher a bad feeling.

The weary body stretched and rose, taking his long limbs to the door. He picked up the large basin and went to the well. He eyed the new sun and saw no promise in the newborn day. He carried the water inside and poured it in the large black kettle. His dark eyes went to the herbs carefully lined up on the counter. He needed more and he needed quinine...sighing, he measured sweet gum, myrtle and willow bark into mugs and filled them with water. He sat one by Ben Johnson's bed, tapping the ill man on the shoulder. The wet dark hair clung to the fevered man's face and his blue eyes seemed unnaturally bright. He sat up and shivered, coughing into the cloth Nathan held out.


"Sorry, Ben...she's failin'..."

"Oh God..." his hand waivered as he brought the steaming mug to his lips. He sipped the bitter brew and watched the tall, dark-skinned man tenderly care for his eldest child. The sassy, fireball who ruled his heart was lying lifeless on a small cot by the fireplace. Her beautiful blond hair was reduced to limp, wet strings, her fiery eyes were dull, void slits. Lifeless...something so painful he couldn't feel pain...just a numbing sensation all over his body. But the burning in his soul brought tears to his eyes.


"Callie!" he set the mug down and staggered to his feet, only to fall on the floor.

"Hold on..." Nate left his tiny charge and got the weakened man off the floor. He pulled him to a sitting position and then got him back into the bed. "I'll bring her over..."

"Nate?" Ben's eyes found nothing but truth in the soulful brown ones. He saw the head shake negatively and clenched his eyes shut, unwilling to accept the inevitable. Death was a part of life out many times had his wife commented on the stories in the paper. Families who lost all their children to fever. How blessed they'd been. Now, he was one of the those unfortunate souls he'd read about.

"Whoa!" Sanchez pulled the team to a halt and frowned, jumping down and quickly dropping by the dead man's side. He groaned and covered his nose and mouth with his kerchief, the stench was overpowering. Whoever the poor bastard was, he'd been dead a few days. Staggering to the wagon, he grabbed a blanket and rolled the dead man inside, then carried him well away from the Larabee house. After checking inside, he'd come back to bury the Mexican man. "Lord God..." he gasped, staggering away and gagging down the bile that rose. He eyed the Red Stallion in the coral and frowned. His quickened his steps and headed for porch.

"Chris! Chris Larabee!"

The air was still and silent and he opened the door. The main room was neat and very empty. His eyes found the spot on the mantle where he'd left the note. It was gone...along with the bottle. He strode through the room.

"Chris!" He poked his head into the bedroom and found that empty as well. He rested his hands on the distressed sheets, but they were cold. Nobody had slept in the bed for a few days. He was about to go back outside and scour the grounds, when he heard a familiar sound of coughing.

"Chris?" he poked his head out the bedroom window. "Chris!"

It took mere seconds to move the large body through the house, around the porch and out back. The leader lie in the yard, nearly unconscious and wet with fever. His flush faced and slick bare chest were covered in vomit and muck. He dropped to the ill man's side and rested his hand on the burning flesh. "Damn..." He tapped the face hard, watching as two green slits appeared. A weak fist was formed and attempted to strike out. "You'd be well advised to save your strength, Brother, you've got the devil to beat. Come on...let's get you inside." He easily lifted the semi-conscious man and took him back into the shack. In less than ten minutes, he'd stripped, bathed and placed the infirmed man in his bed. He lifted the damp, blond head in one large hand and eased the mug of cold water toward the open lips. "Just a little...your throat's swollen..."


"He's at Johnson's...Callie and Ben both got what you do...Ezra too..." He replaced the cold mug with another, full of warm salt water. "I need you to wash your throat out and spit, okay?" He saw the exhausted head nod once and the blond willingly complied. Then he got more cold water.

"Josiah?" Chris lifted his aching head, barely able to make out the features in front on him. "What..sick..."

"Diphtheria." He frowned, "Didn't you get the note I left, by your whiskey?"

"No...note..." the husky voice denied, "...just...whis...k..ey..."

"When did you get back?"

"Don't...know...days?" Chris coughed, expelling as much as he could into the cloth held near. "...damn...Mexicans followed...tried border..."

"Chris did you meet anybody...see anybody," Josiah paused, thinking of the towns or camps on the way. "I gotta know..."

"No," the blond head shook, "Nobody...buried the bastard...came back...alone..." He paused, recalling the preacher mentioning Ezra. "Vin?"

Josiah found a small smile at the worried edge on the voice that was mirrored in the glazed green eyes. "He's fine, he's at Nate's. good as you could be quarantined with Ezra for a week." He smiled again at the half grin the patient managed.

"Dead?" Chris asked, flinching only slightly when the preacher's words confirmed what he'd suspected. This sickness he had was a potential killer.

"Not yet...but Callie's in a bad way. She's so little..."

"Damn..." Chris jerked, his body convulsing, he tried to cough to get rid of the force trying to flee his pain-filled torso, but couldn't. His eyes grew wide and both hands went to his neck. "...can't..." was all he could get out, before his airway shut off. No air...suffocation...his mind flashed. He felt Josiah flip him over as if he were a child. He was suspended upside down over the broad arm and his back was whacked mercilessly. He grimaced in pain, it felt like every rib was on the verge of breaking. Then a popping sound erupted, bringing watery vomit and thick wads of mucus onto the floor. He collapsed weakly, hearing Josiah's voice and feeling a cold cloth wiping his face, then he surrendered to the blackness.


"I'm right here, Sunshine..." He held the frail, blanketed body close to his chest. Her wet head hit his shoulder.

"I'm sorry about bein' an itch..."

"You're my itch and I wouldn't trade one inch of you," he vowed, kissing her forehead.

"Ma...Ma?" Her head turned. "Ma...I can't find her, Pa...where's Ma?"

"She's at Grandma' just rest now."

"No, she's callin' me...Can't ya hear that? It's real pretty singin'...and music's beautiful, Pa. They're callin' me..."

Her voice was weak and her eyes were barely open. But they stared past both men at something only she could see. Her face broke into a smile and her arms reached out.

"No!" Ben cried, pulling her back. The body flopped like a limp rag doll as he gathered her close. "Callie...I love you...I love you, Sunshine..."

"'m ...a"

"Sure you will, Sunshine..." he pleaded, trying to will the life-force back into the tiny body.


"Please, please..." he cast his eyes, now flooding with tears, heavenward. "God...not her..." Then the body jerked as a horrid rush of coughing caused her to convulse. "Nate!"

"Give her up, Ben!" Nate pulled the slack body from the stricken father. The coughing ceased, the wheezing stopped, the limbs went limp and the eyes rolled shut.


The raw, anguish that only a parent can feel ripped right through the soul of the healer. It bounced off the walls and echoed off the hills beyond the house. A swing moved in the breeze, the one she'd helped to build for her little brothers. The garden so carefully planted with rows of vegetables, sat waiting for her. A tiny row of nightshirts blew in the morning breeze. A single blue ribbon used to tie back her golden hair, fell from the window, sauntering down gracefully onto the earth. The air was still as the Angel of Death hovered over the porch.

Josiah was just jumping off the rig and headed for the porch, when the horrid gasp stopped him in his tracks. The choking cry was barely in the air, when he opened the door and saw Nathan's stricken face. He closed his eyes, dropped his head and said a silent prayer for the departed.

"She's gone," the dark eyes were full and the voice was shaken.

"I'm sorry, Ben..." he started, but realized the shocked father couldn't hear him. "I found Chris lyin' outside his cabin...he's bad, Nate."

"Damn!" the weary medic swore, shaking his head, "How'd he get it?"

"Near as I can tell, he rode in a few days ago, he never saw the note. Two bandits tried to steal his new horse. He killed one in the yard, took after the other. Chased him clear to the border. He's barely breathin'....I got him started after he choked up once but..."

"Yeah...yeah..." Nate realized Josiah was asking him to go to Larabee.

"I'm late already," the preacher eyed the road. "You know how jumpy them greenhorns are...We need those supplies, especially the herbs for the tea. It'll be three days before the next wagonload." He said of the supplies the Major was sending from the Fort. A pair of new sentries was delivering them to a crossroads several miles from town. They'd leave them once they saw Josiah. But the predestined time was arranged, if he wasn't there, they'd turn back. They had a schedule to keep. "I'll be right back...or I'll send Buck from town..."

"Yeah, go ahead, take my horse. I'll take your rig over to Chris' soon as..." Nate's face softened when he watched the anguished father, mutely rocking his child.

"Okay," Josiah replied, gripping both of Nate's shoulders. "I'm sorry, Nate." He moved past the tall man and stopped by the bed. He said another prayer, spoke quietly to Ben, but the young man never heard him. He left quickly, realizing how late he already was and rode hard towards the meeting point.

Nate shut the door and was about to gently pry the child from her father, who had broken into a coughing fit. He was lifting her back onto her cot, when he saw her pinkie move. "Callie?" Thinking of Vin's actions, he yanked her mouth open and reached far into the back of her throat. He didn't find the plug, but his actions caused her body to convulse.

"Leave...her...alone..." Ben screamed, trying to get to his daughter."Don't defile her now...she's with the Lord...What are you..."

"She ain't dead yet!" Nate hollered, dumping her chest over his arm, leaving her head dangling low and banging her back. "That's it...good girl..." he urged as the bile and mucus spilled forth, including a good-size plug. He took her outside to the well and washed her off, even managed to get her to drink a few sips of water from him. Then the eyes slowly opened, her tiny chest heaved with a supreme breathing effort. She trembled in his arms, shuddering and gasping. Two blue slits regarded him through a haze of confusion and fear.

"Easy now, Darlin'," he coaxed, lifting her up and walking back to the house. He eyed the sky and smugly grinned. "Ya come back for her in eighty years or so...okay?"

"Aw, hell..." she croaked, wiggling weakly in Nate's arms. "I peed myself...Pa's gonna be sore..."

"Oh no he won't," Nate laughed, walking his miracle back to her father.

"Callie...Oh Sweet Jesus..." Ben choked, rocking the squirming child. His trembling fingers touched her face, her damp hair and he didn't even try to stop the tears on his cheeks.

Nathan went back outside to clean himself off and give the father a moment of privacy. But he eyed the road to the nearby Larabee shack and sighed. Josiah was not one to exaggerate and the tone the preacher used told him Chris was in need of aid. He looked to the road to town and weighed his choices. If Josiah got to town in good time and updated Buck, the rogue should be back here inside a couple hours. He strode back to the cabin, where Callie was sleeping next to Ben, her head resting on his chest.

"I think she's breathin' better...a little bit...Nate..." the hopeful father spoke softly, stroking her wet head. "She's soaked..."

"Yeah, I'll get a clean nightshirt and a towel..." he paused, "Did ya hear Josiah earlier? Chris is real sick. He's just over the hill at his cabin."

"We'll be fine...go on..." Ben urged.

"Buck should be here anytime. I'll be back as soon as I can..."

Ten minutes later, he'd stripped the bed and placed clean linens on it. He coaxed a large mug of tea into Ben and left a smaller one for Callie. He deposited the clean and dry child and left for Chris's.

At twenty-one, Adam Upshaw had barely made his mark on the world, but his dark good looks gave him a cocky edge. He eyed Josiah's return to town and frowned at the dust cloud behind the flying wagon. He heard the preacher's deep voice gruffly addressing Buck Wilmington.

"Dammit, Dale," he complained to his older brother, who was detangling his long frame from a slumbering blonde. "I'm sick of this...being called like a dog...ordered around. We ought to bust outta here and head for the ranch," he noted of their large spread outside town.

"Yeah, Adam, that'd work," the other grunted, slapping the bare bottom of the busty saloon girl and standing. "The army has orders to shoot...we lasted this long, it's only six more days."

"Might as well be sixty," Adam kicked the bedpost and grabbed his hat. "Something's up...Sanchez just came chargin' into town, he pulled Wilmington into the livery."

"Where's Jake?" the eldest asked of the youngest of the clan. The sixteen-old didn't see eye to eye with his brothers on most issues. His short temper led to more than one fight and he'd threatened to leave the ranch. Their father, Zebulon Upshaw, at sixty and four inches over six feet, was an imposing figure who ruled with an iron fist. But this wild child, the last seed of his loins, was the apple of his eye. This didn't always set well with the two older brothers.

"Hell if I know..."

"Dammit, Adam! You were supposed to keep an eye on him..."

"Hey, he's not in nappies!" the other fired back.

"No, but you will be if something happens to know how Pa gets..."

"Yeah...yeah...okay..." He headed for the door.

"Hold up," Dale pulled his boots on and grabbed his gun belt. "Let's slip around the side and see what that bible-thumper is so fired up about."

The pair stole easily out the back exit, treading quietly behind the livery, until they heard the pair inside clearly. By the time the conversation ended, Dale's mind was spinning. He jerked his head back and the pair retreated. Padding around the back of the buildings, they eased onto the boardwalk. Adam spotted his brother with the three hands they came to town with over a week ago. They were in the saloon, playing cards. He caught the eye of Yancy Bates, the burly foreman who shared Dale's eye for trouble.

"What's up?" Bates asked Dale.

"Not here..." Upshaw replied, eyeing the shopkeepers as well as Wilmington, who seemed to be his shadow. "Ten minutes, in the alley behind the billiard hall. Bring Max," he said of the hand who detested Vin Tanner and the other peacekeepers. "Leave Gabe with the Kid, he won't go for it..."

"Gotcha!" the balding man nodded, before crossing the street.

"They're up to something," Buck tensed, as the two elder Upshaw brothers leered at him openly from across the street. "I can smell them...dammit...."

"Can't arrest 'em for being ornery..." Jessie Sinclair shook his head. The assay clerk gave a tug to Buck's shoulder. "You better get going, Buck..."

"Yeah..." he shoved his frame from the doorway, skin crawling as the pair disappeared into the hotel. "You keep your eyes peeled..."

"They don't scare me...Bill's covering the east end of town, Tom's got the west road. Go on now...I'll save some supper for you."

"Okay," Buck nodded, "But keep after that pack...I'll alert the soldiers on the way out." He nodded to Josiah, who was sending a wire to the Fort and to the Judge as well. He didn't envy Josiah's job. After updating the town, he had to tell Vin Tanner the bad news. The preacher's words still echoed in his head. Callie was dead and Chris was in bad shape. As he rode towards Johnson's, he thought of Chris and the rough three years he'd left behind. How many times had he escaped a deadly bullet? He never thought a fever would take down his oldest friend.

Vin pulled the blanket over Ezra's head and shoved it lower. He felt the southerner fighting back and smiled, Ez was holding his own. He was weak, fevered and still coughing, but he wasn't worse. "Quit fussin' and sniff up that steam like Nate said..." he argued of the steam tent the healer left instructions for. The herbs and roots produced an effect through the steam that loosened the muck inside, causing it to drain out and lessen the thickness in the throat. "Ya keep yer head over the pot...I'll be back."

"...speaking of sucking in air..." Ezra muffled from under the mini-tent Vin erected next to his bed. "...please leave me and seek out higher ground..." He felt a pat on his back as the slim body left his side. He was sitting up over the side, a small table between his knees. The heavy pot was full of boiling water, the vapors were trapped inside the small tent over his head and shoulders. He knew Vin was antsy, no relief came in today. Usually, Josiah or Nate was there in the morning and for part of the day. But not today and that spelled trouble. Neither mentioned it, but both knew that Callie was fading. Vin had beam exceptionally quiet and withdrawn all morning. He heard the window rise and the soft boots hit the frame. He inhaled the medicinal mixture, the heady scent filling him. He wondered how to help his suffering friend, if the child died...he shuddered, still seeing the light in Vin's eyes whenever the little girl was near. He carried his pain too deeply, he'd withdraw and pull away. Would they lose him? They? or himself? He'd let Vin get too close and broken his own rule. short lived as it was, he embraced it fully. He inhaled the sweet air, filling his lungs and stretching his arms. He walked briskly around the perimeter of the connected buildings, letting his nerves get unwound. As soon as this mess was over, he was heading out of town. He needed open plains...lots of space...a ceiling of blue sky and white clouds and a carpet of soft earth and moss. He sank down at the other end of the row of buildings, resting his head on his knees. She'd been on his mind all day and the night before as well. Was she still alive? Would he feel that butterfly kiss again on his cheek? Would he hear that sweet laugh? He was still lost in thoughts of Callie, when voices caught his ear. Recognizing the troublemakers, he crawled over and lifted his head, listening attentively.

"I say we take that damn Indian lover out of town and teach him some manners..." Yancy spit a wad of tobacco in the alley. "Wilmington can't protect him forever...he's been squattin' on the clinic steps night and day, glaring us down and spewing threats. Well, he just rode out...that means that bastard is up there alone with Standish."

"Too risky...he's got guns watching out..." Dale denied, "Besides, I got a better plan. Once that murderin' half-breed finds out he's responsible for the little gal he's so found of dying and with Chris Larabee having one foot in the grave...he'll head out on his own."

"Yeah," Max agreed, "You heard what Sanchez said...that Tanner is a carrier. Spreadin' that disease from town to town...Devil's spawn's are like that...never take sick themselves, just pass it amongst Christian folk."

"Just like that fella in Kansas City Pa told us about, remember Dale?" Adam nudged his brother.

"Yeah...left a trail of small pox in what...five towns in the territory. Never took sick, just kept spreadin' it every where he went. Over a hundred folks died before they caught him and hung him."

"This town won't sit for it," Yancy spit again, "Too many folks here already don't like 'im...wait until the find out he's totin' this kind of plague...they'll string him up..."

"Not if the Army gets him first. You heard Wilmington, that Major said they got this sickness in San Carlos, where Tanner come from. Then he hit the Johnson's, killed that little her Pa sick...left his filth at Larabee's place and is gonna kill him too...the army wants him locked away...before he kills anybody else."

Vin didn't hear the rest of the words, the hammering heart in his chest and thundering hooves in his head deafened all thoughts. Callie was dead...Chris was dying...he was the killer. A carrier...spreading filth...killing folks...hundreds dead...string 'im up...Callie was dead and he killed her. That's why he wasn't sick...he was the cause...he was responsible. He took an innocent child's life.

"Oh God..." he rasped, staggering across the rooftops. He was trembling so badly he nearly toppled from the building. He shook violently all over, his breath was shallow and shuddering. The horrific vision of his blond angel's lifeless body was burned into his heart. The searing pain burst through his chest wall, causing him to fall to his knees. He vomited violently, nearly passing out from the force. He had to run...get away. Unable to rise, he crawled to steps at the roof's edge then froze. He couldn't escape. He had no where to go. No one would ever be safe with him near. He was a silent killer living in a prison without walls. The air grew thin and he couldn't breath. Swirling images appeared, led by Callie's ghost. The pale image floated over another body, the dead, unseeing green eyes of his best friend bore into him. He moved without purpose, finding the window ledge. The words came back, hitting him like the bullets of a Gatling gun. They shattered his soul, sending him into a cold dark place, without feeling or need. His body turned icy and his heart closed. Killer...spreadin' filth...hundreds dead...Devil's spawn never get sick...totin' the plague...Larabee's got one foot in the grave...string him up...

The voice in his head screamed at him so loudly, it caused him to fall through the open window, hitting the floor on all fours. He covered his ears, trying to make the accuser's mocking tone from piercing his brain. Callie was dead, Chris was dying...then another face appeared, one he couldn't remember. A feeling of unparalleled intensity filled him.

"Good Lord!" Ezra shoved his head from the tent as the loud thud announced Vin's return. One look at the pale body on the floor, covered in vomit and trembling violently, shook him to the core. Vin's eyes were wide and unseeing, dulled by pain and something far worse. Guilt and remorse hung heavily on the slim frame. "You're ill..." he moved down the cot, attempting to move the shocked Texan from the floor. "Vin, can you hear me?" He called, then coughed, wiping his sweating face with the large towel wrapped around his neck. "Vin...Vin..." he waved a hand in front of the unblinking gaze and flinched. "Get off that floor this instant!" He barked in a loud, sharp voice. Still the body remained in place, huddled on the floor, quaking and whiter than the sheets on the cot. Sighing, he managed to stand and move behind Vin, then attempted to lift him up.

The ghosts lurked, invading his darkness, they green-gray faces curled in disgust. The tiny child who he cared for so much, now despised him. Where those cornflower eyes should be, were dark sockets. One small hand pointed to him and screamed at him. The other came after, unclear in image but strong in feeling.

"Mama..." he reached out, trying to see her.

"What?" Ezra grunted, frozen by the child's voice coming from the adult's mouth. One trembling hand rose, reaching into the past. "Come on Vin...let me help you..." With all the strength he had left, he managed to get the shaken man onto the cot. "Here..." he poured water into the 'V' mug and thrust it at Vin. "Better yet..." he staggered to the shelf nearby and pulled down a dusty bottle of whiskey. He paused, eyeing the mug slide to the floor, through slack fingers. "What the hell happened out there?" His frustration at the unknown hand that struck his friend down made him angry. Then the limp, blue eyes lifted to meet his briefly, full of a sadness the likes and depths of which he'd never seen.

"I killed her...she's dead...Oh God...I'm sorry, Callie...Chris is dyin'..." he swallowed and reached for the blurry image who danced away, shrieking at him. The other lingered, still cloudy and formless, yet it filled him with longing. Snatches of cinnamon and lavender, a soft calico bunny, a rocking chair...that was all he knew of her. A small boy's remembrances that misted over time. "I'm sorry...Mama...s'm'fault yer dead...Grandpa said...I was lucky...I didn't get sick like ya done...ya suffered...on accounta me...I done it...Devil's spawn don't get sick, just give's it t'the innocent folks...Oh God..."

"Vin!" Ezra moved, dropping the bottle as the tracker's eyes rolled in his head and he fell forward. He managed to catch him, but not before the edge of the bedpost met the unconscious man's forehead. "Vin? My God..." he barely managed to get the slim man onto the cot. The lost soul was shaking all over, pale and clammy and icy cold. Ezra scanned the room, spotting the lone clean blanket, left by Nate the day before. He covered Vin as best he could, then spotted the buckskin coat. He eased it over the blanket, tucking it carefully. "I'm sorry..." he offered, not knowing what horrendous pain caused his friend to shatter. "I'll watch you're back, you friend." He sank onto his own bed, pulled the blanket up and waited.

Nate jumped off the wagon and moved quickly inside the cabin. A burst of coughing led him to the stuporous patient, who was lying on the floor, trying to crawl. The gunslinger's body was slick with sweat and his handsome face flushed with fever. His biceps were stretched taut as he tried to support his weakened body as the horrid coughing continued.

"Chris!" He dropped to the stricken man's side as the damp blond head lifted. The green eyes were screaming relief silently, and he felt the body sliding sideways. "Where ya goin'?"


"Well," Nate grunted, lifting Chris's arm over his broad back and hauling him upright. "Since I'm kinda fond of the body I got, I don't aim to lose a hunk of it to them shakin' hands of yours, how about we get you some tea and breakfast instead?" He sat Chris on the bed and grabbed the empty wash basin. "I'll get the water boilin' and then give ya an alcohol bath. After breakfast, ya go under a steam tent..."

"Gun..." Chris interrupted, bleary eyes trying glare.

"Cut that out," the dark eyes warned, "Ya ain't got enough spark in them eyes to shoot down a fly." He turned away with a final warning, "Ya set as much as a toe from that bed and so help me, Chris Larabee, I'll tie ya down...My nerves are frazzled now..."

Within minutes, the efficient medic had a kettle boiling on the stove, a mug full of salt water and an alcohol bath in the basin. He hung Larabee's gun belt next to the bed, where the infirmed man could see it. Chris was lying on his side, gasping audibly, the green eyes tinged with fear. Nathan winced at the harsh, labored breathing. Josiah was right, Chris was failing fast.

"Here," He pulled the shivering man upright and held the mug out. "It's a salt wash for your throat. I got some tea...Can ya handle this?"


"Okay," Nate waited, watching the trembling hands lift the mug. A small bowl sat in Chris's lap, waiting to catch the rinse. He returned with a tray, setting it down next to Chris's bed.


"He's okay," Nate replied, taking the empty mug.


"Had a close call, he's holdin' his own..." Nate sighed and cupped the fevered man's chin, "Open up, Chris, let me have a look..." He eyed the back of the infected throat and paled. The thick coating was worse the Ezra's had been. The herbs Josiah was picking up would help, but unless he got some Quinine for Chris and the Johnson's...he pushed that thought away and continued his examination.

"How...long..." Chris rasped, sipping the tea as Nathan wrung out a cotton towel.

"How long what?" Nate turned Chris slightly, wiping his back, shoulders and neck.

" cure..."

The cloth froze in his hand in the basin and his eyes met the others. He sighed and lifted the rag, wringing out the excess. "When this broke out, we contacted Major Garrison, he's got the town in lockdown. San Carlos got hit hard...they got a couple dozen folks sick and ten dead. So they sent the Quinine over there. Now he got more and it was on it's way here, but it stuck just east of Badger Pass. They got a bad storm and the road's shot..." He paused, feeling the glazed green eyes bearing in on him. The mug was empty and the wavering hand nearly dropped it. Nate took it from the slack fingers.

"How long?"

"I look like God to you?" Nate got angry, feeling rage at the helpless situation. The image of Callie's body still fresh in his mind and Ben's failing health.

Chris flinched as the healer's hands bathed his chest, neck and face. He shifted, lifting his aching body to allow the tray to be placed over the blanket on his body. Steam rose from a bowl of hot soup, next to a mug of cider. He gripped the wrist as it turned away.

"I'm sorry...didn't mean to...bite..."

"No, I'm sorry, Chris," Nate sighed and picked up the basin. "It's been a long week and my nerves are fried. Callie Johnson died in my arms this morning and..."

"Dammit!" Chris threw the empty mug of cider across the room. Like Vin, the feisty, blond with a salty tongue had enchanted him. He envied Vin's ease at talking to children, the natural way he was able to reach them. They waited for him in the morning outside his wagon and following him up the boardwalk. How many times had he found himself smiling at the patience the Texan had. The easy drawl that rolled off his tongue, answering every question patiently, while the pint-sized posse herded him around town. The almost musical quality of Vin's laughter when they jumped him at the fishing hole. A pack of tiny arms tickling him, led by Callie...she was special...she had a fire inside. "Vin's gonna be busted up..."

"Not if I can help it," Nate answered from the other room pouring boiling water into the basin, already lined with herbs and roots. He grabbed a clean sheet and returned, setting up for the steam tent. "I don't gotta tell ya how devastated Ben was..."

"No..." the anguished father hissed, eyes lost in the past, to another child's body.

"He's so sick himself, started chokin' I had to take her from him...and her finger moved..."

"What!" Chris's head jerked and he listened, wheezing heavily, as Nate told him of Vin's motions with Ezra and how that led to him saving Callie. "Now she's still in a bad way and I need that Quinine, but...she's alive. Come on, let's get ya under this tent. The steam will loosen up that mess in ya. I can't answer that question, Chris. Some folks go quick like, others rally. I beat this once, hell Buck's beat it twice, I just don't know...Ya fight hard until the army gets us that medicine...ya got a chance..." He saw the coughing blond head nod once as he eased him upright. He put the steaming bowl on a table between Chris' legs and covered him with a sheet. As he heard the harsh coughing, and his trained eye assessed his newest patient, he wondered if he'd have enough time to save him.

Josiah's mind was going faster than his long legs, as he mentally made a list of what needed to be done. The wires were sent and the supplies were being unloaded. He stopped by the hotel and got a large tin of hot soup for Ezra. Once he checked on the southerner, he would update the rest of the town. He eased his large frame in the clinic and placed the hot tin on the table. He wrinkled his nose as a sour smell greeted him. He went straight for Ezra, laying a hand on the wet brow. To his relief, it seemed a little cooler. He poured a mug of cold water and was about to lift the wet head, when he noticed Vin curled up in his bunk. The only thing visible was the very top of the shaggy head.

"Vin?" he questioned aloud, noting that the tracker never stopped pacing or moving in his prison. Sleeping was barely something he fit into the evening hours.

"...Jo...siah..." Ezra croaked, tugging on the blurry sleeve near his eye.

"Hey, Brother, you're lookin'a little better," he greeted, lifting the weak man up and guiding the mug to his parched lips. He frowned when Ezra pushed his arm away, nearly spilling the water. "What's wrong?"

"...he's ill...collapsed...something...dreadfully...wrong...I" Ezra's brief update was interrupted by a serious round of coughing.

"Easy now," the elder man coached, handing the red-faced cougher a clean rag. He saw the green eyes firing up and the wavering arm shoving him towards the other bunk. "You're a persistent devil...alright..." He moved and bent over the tracker, pulling down the blanket. "Vin...Vin..." he called gently, resting a hand on the trembling shoulder. He eyed the vomit on the scruffy chin and covering the shirt and frowned. The young man was nearly as white as the sheet beneath him and trembling all over. He took the limp hand and winced at the icy touch.

"He's freezing..."

"Traumatized..." Ezra noted, sitting up weakly. "He was fine...he left me under the steam tent...he was only gone a short time...collapsed from the window...he..."

"Window!" Josiah growled, holding Vin's unconscious frame upright in one large hand and unbuttoning the soiled shirt. "He knew better than to leave..." He picked up a wet cloth and washed the mess off the pale face and chest, before settling him back down.

"...didn't use the door...only the roof..."

"How long?" The preacher demanded, then sighed, "Never mind...Vin, can you hear me?" He eased the shivering body down onto a clump of pillows and tapped the pale face. There was no response. "I don't like it..." he piled another blanket on the Texan and turned towards the other patient. "What happened?"

"I wasn't able to...determine...that...only that he blames himself for that poor child's death and our esteemed leader's failing health..." Ezra coughed violently, expelling more mucus.

"What!" Sanchez roared, causing the slim body on the cot to flinch without waking. "How the hell did he find out! The only person I told was Buck, and he left town."

"Apparently...he...heard...something...on the...roof. Perhaps someone overheard...your conversation..." Ezra then leveled a cold, hard stare at the other man. "When did you appoint yourself judge and jury? You had no right labeling him the cause of this horrid malady. You have no proof he is a carrier..." He saw Josiah flinch and drop his head. "So he was did discuss that with Buck?"

"Look, Ezra, I don't like it any better than you. But the fact is, everyone Vin came in contact with, has come down with this. They didn't have the sickness in San Carlos until after Vin arrived. He was the last stranger in town that night. Callie was climbing all over him...and he was the one running all over Chris's. I'm no man's judge Ezra...God's the only one wearing that robe. The Army has orders to pick him up as soon as the quarantine's lifted. "

"Hah," Ezra spat in disgust, "Pick him up indeed! I'd wager he doesn't make it to the Fort alive."

"I won't let that happen," Josiah vowed, "I'll ease his pain...stand by him..."

"I'm afraid you're too late, he's soul is shattered." Ezra turned his eyes towards the sleeping body and sighed heavily. "He...blames...himself..." he paused to contain a cough, "..unjustly for his mother's demise...she died of this too..."

"He was only five, he can't remember that," Josiah looked down on Tanner's slack features with concern.

"He mentioned a grandfather...that he was told how lucky he was not to have gotten sick. Now he in under the impression he gave this to her as well...that is...what caused him to collapse." Ezra coughed hard and dropped the rag into the bucket next to his feet. He pulled the blanket tighter, his eyes briefly leaving Vin and staring hard at the older man. "A sight which I won't revisit. Furthermore, I insist you find out what villainous cretins caused this trauma, as I require a short audience with them."

"First things first, you eat your lunch," he stood and moved towards the kitchen. "...and stay in that bed!" he ordered, hearing Ezra trying to stand. He returned with a tray of soup and tea, all of which Ezra consumed. Soon the green eyes faded into a fitful rest. He eyed the clock and made his way to the granary, where the townspeople were gathered.

The rabble of voices started as soon as he entered the door. He saw Jessie Sinclair move from the shadows, his rifle cocked. The young man made his way to his side quickly.

"How long these folks been in here?"

"Started arriving as soon as you rode in..."

"Everybody, any strays?"

"Uh," he shifted the rifle, eyeing the crowd, his features darkening at the smirking sextet by the door. "The Upshaws were the last to arrive...come to think of it, Dale looked like the cat that swallowed a canary..."

"You see where they came from?"

" didn't cross in front of the I guess from the east...Why?"

"Enough small talk, Sanchez," an irate voice hollered, "We want some answers! How long you gonna keep that murderin' bastard hid in that darkie's clinic..."

"Now look Clive," Josiah warned, rising to his full height and not hiding his disgust. "You watch that filthy mouth of yours. We got no proof that Vin Tanner..."

"The hell we don't..." another issued loudly. "He rode into San Carlos and the dead are stacked like kindling. Ben Johnson was warned about lettin' that filthy half-breed paw his little girl. Now she's dead on accounta Tanner."

"Yeah," Adam Upshaw snorted, shoving his lean body from the doorway. "..and he spread that disease all over Larabee's cabin and now he's got one boot in the grave...We ought to save the Army some time and labor and string him up right here."

"You say one more word, Upshaw and I'll lock you up!" Jessie's eyes flared, his gun rose and snapped to his shoulder.

"It is true, Josiah?" A woman from the front row asked, "Did Vin bring this fever to town?"

"I don't know Ida...the Army is still investigating..."

"Bullshit!" Dale Upshaw moved up the main aisle, wagging a finger at the preacher. "He's guilty alright and you won't be able to protect him this time. I'll hang that animal myself...I'll get justice for her...the Judge is blind."

"That's done, Dale and you know it," Josiah moved forward, his smoky eyes turning to ice, "Vin had nothing to do with that attack on Virginia Smith."

"He brung her witnesses...and she ain't never spoke a word since...ain't that convenient!" Upshaw spat back. The young lady in question was being courted by him, but was found outside town, raped and beaten. She recovered physically, but mentally she blocked out the world.

"Vin was with Ezra and J.D. when that girl was attacked. They split up on the way to town..." Josiah eyed the crowd and saw the tide turning. The rumors would start again...just what Vin needed. "ENOUGH!"

"Is she dead?" Ida Watkins asked, "Callie I mean..."

"How did you hear that?" the preacher pressed, and saw the answer when she shifted her eyes to Dale Upshaw.

"I should have guessed, eavesdropping is right up your alley."

"Don't matter known how I heard, that half-breed killed an innocent child. Well, I say we don't let him kill again!"


"Let's get him!"

A gunshot stopped the small mob in their tracks. Josiah nodded to Jessie, who moved to guard the exit.

"Hold it!" Sanchez hollered, "First of all, show some respect for the loss of that innocent child. She was known to all and loved by all. Bow your heads..." He commanded and said a prayer, which helped to cool the fires building. "Chris Larabee has the fever as well. The new supplies came in and you can pick up what you need at Potter's. If there's any new news, I'll ring the bell," he noted of the fire bell at the edge of town.

"What about Tanner? Adam Upshaw asked.

"Vin Tanner is in quarantine. The army has given me and my deputized men orders to shoot anybody who breaks that rule. Any of you fools who try to set a foot near that clinic, will be shot down. The Army is still conducting their investigation. They will determine what happens to Vin."

"You can't watch him forever..."

"He ought to hang..."

Josiah's anger grew at the small minds who now converged in clandestine pairings, shuffling like rats in the street. He left Jessie guarding the foot of the stairs, and angrily took them two at a time.

He awakened slowly, taking several minutes to reassemble his scattered thoughts. His pulse was racing, his mouth was dry and he was cold. He sat up, wincing as his nausea battled anxiety for control of his insides. He stood on shaking legs and nearly fell again, before taking several deep breaths and righting himself. He managed to pour three mugs of water, before his thirst was sated. He washed his face and shivered, knowing he'd never be able to feel warm again. All that kept his fire going, his heart, his truths, his soul...were shattered and strewn all over the roof above. He trudged to the kitchen and poured coffee into his 'V' mug. The bitter taste seemed right at home in his empty stomach, and caused a churning pain inside. Callie was dead, just like his mother. Chris...he dropped his eyes, thinking of the gaping hole inside. He swallowed hard, struggling to come to terms with the enormity of what he'd done. He'd signed the death warrant to the best friend that God ever graced him with. He tossed the rest of the coffee down the sink and devised a plan. He wasn't going to let Chris or Ezra die, and Ben Johnson had a wife and two more little ones that need him. He squared his shoulders and pulled himself together. He buried his grief and shame deep down, he'd deal with it later. Right now, he had a hard trip ahead. He heard the door slam and looked up, meeting the flashing eyes of the preacher.

"I'm headin' out," he warned.

"Don't talk nonsense, Vin," Josiah replied, glad for the color that returned to the younger man's face. He noted the trembling hands and watched them curl into fists, as if to thwart him. "You can't leave until the two weeks are up. You might as well know, the Army's plannin' on taking you to the Fort until..."

"Won't be here..." Vin replied icily, "Ya best hear me out, 'siah, I'm headin' north t'Badger Pass t'get that medicine. I'll leave it in that burnt out tree," he noted of the large tree struck by lightning the year before. "Ya wire that Major and let 'im know. I'm headin' out after dark, It'll take me a couple days t'get there..."

" can't make it that far in two days. Hell, the Army can't even get up that trail. The storm ruined the roads."

"Them blue bellies couldn't find their asses with both hands!" Vin spat tersely, "I know them parts, I spent near on ten years chasin' buffalos and bounties in them canyons. I'll be back in four days, ya see t'it that them soldiers ain't anywheres near that tree. I'll drop it before daybreak. The Army won't do a damn thing...they need this thing ended. The longer that quinine is stuck, the worse off they look. Hell, they're real good at lettin' folks do their work...reckon they'll twist this all around...make it look like their idea...take real pretty bows too, I'll bet..."

"Where will you go?"

"What ya don't won't kill ya..." Vin answered, thinking of the Army's interrogation. He then dropped his voice considerably; a quiet wistful rasp filled the air. "I know a place...high above the Eagle's call and far from the livin' souls. A prison without walls...but at least I won't kill nobody..."

"Never figured you'd go yellow, Vin Tanner," Josiah tried, but the quiet man never even blinked. He moved to pass the larger man and stopped, leveling a cool gaze.

"Ya don't know me, Preacher," he paused, "Ya don't know a damn thing about me. I ain't gonna let no fuckin' blue belly string me up...or anybody else fer that matter."

"I can handle the Upshaws...and I'm sorry you had to find out like that Vin."

"Don't matter known how I found out...Callie's still dead and Chris is..." he bit his lip and headed for his bunk.

Josiah knew that any further words would be an exercise in futility. He eyed the clock and realized he had to get back to Johnson's. If he timed it right, he could be back by dark.

"Alright Vin," he said to the curled up form on the bunk, "I'll be back at six. I won't wire the Major until ten tomorrow morning. That should give you plenty of time to get a good start. There is a Captain Pearson heading up the division digging out at Badger Pass. I'll have Major Garrison wire him, tell him to expect you. They'll put a stinger on your tail, you know that..."

"Ya can't harness the wind," Vin predicted, already mapping out his trip mentally. "I'll lose 'em afore I hit the river. I been outrunnin' them jackasses fer years, they ain't caught me yet...four days, just before dawn. Ya look in that tree..."

"I'll leave a mount out by the turnoff, just shy of Rebel Run," he noted of the trail a few miles from town. It was a little known area and far beyond the eyes of the army scouts. He paused and extended his hand, gripping Vin's tightly. "God keep you Vin Tanner..." he studied the young man's eyes, "Just for the record, Son, I don't think you're responsible for this. There's something we missed. Folks get crazy when a fever comes to town, you know that..."

"Facts is facts," Vin said flatly, "But thanks..." He waited until the large body was nearly by the door. "Bye...'siah..." he swallowed hard, gaining some comfort from the wise man's stance in his corner.

Vin busied himself by making several trips to empty the cartons Josiah stacked inside the door. He restocked the shelves with herbs, roots and tea. He placed clean linens, returned by Ming, on the bed in Nate's room. He eyed the clock on wall as darkness descended. He heated up soup for himself and Ezra and ate the fried chicken Josiah left as well.

He left the mug of soup by Ezra's bed and returned to get the tea. He heard the harsh coughing and tapped the spoon against the mug. Ezra was sitting up, legs swung over to the floor, as he approached.

"Hell, I almost recognize ya," he greeted, setting the tea down. "Ya best drink it hot, it tastes like piss iffen ya let it chill..."

"Hot piss...cold piss...lovely choice..." Ezra sipped the tea and then picked up the mug of soup. He eyed the jacket folded neatly, the change of clothes and more importantly, the gun belt snapped onto the slim hips. "I should like to join you..."

"Not with that cough...they'd hear ya clear inta the next county..." he grinned, easily reading between the lines and knowing that the older man was giving him his full support. "...'preciate it though..."

"Where will you go?"

"Badger Pass...t'get the medicine..."

"You can't!" Ezra denied, "The rodents in blue uniforms will apprehend you."

"Ya can't hang what ya can't catch," Vin predicted cockily, shoving a mug of salt water at the wheezing southerner. "Here, last call..."

"Ever the gentlemen," Standish grinned, saluting Vin with the cup. "Safe harbor, my friend..." He knew the odds were stacked against his ever seeing Vin Tanner after tonight. He had no doubt Vin would find that medicine and that the Army would never catch him. "There is sufficient funds in my boot..enough to last you for many months."

"Don't need any silver, not where I'm headed," Vin noted, but gave the concerned green eyes his best smile, "But thanks...just offerin' is enough, Ez...I won't ferget it...standin' by me like this...even after what I done..."

"You've done nothing wrong and if you continue in this ridiculous stance..."

"Ya got eyes, ya seen what I done...hell, I damn near killed ya..." Vin's voice choked. His guard dropped briefly, exposing his broken heart through the large, luminous blue eyes. "Callie...Chris...My Ma..."

"Furthermore, you are not responsible for the untimely death of that child or your Mother." With heaving effort, he pulled a was of bills from his boot, shoving them at the denying Texan. He watched Vin peel off a few bills and hand the rest back."

"Twenty dollars," he noted, "I see t'it ya get it back...I'm grateful..."

"There is no need for repayment and I'm so sorry Vin, about Callie." He watched the demeanor change, the warmth left the room and the chill invaded him. Vin shut him out, shut everything out, not able to face something so painful. He watched the buckskin coat go on and then Vin took his empty mugs. He returned and offered his hand, the lips parted briefly but no words came. Ezra didn't need them, Vin spoke more eloquently with his eyes than any words could.

"You're welcome, and I'll miss you too..." he smiled and felt the hand grip his, then the body disappeared out the window.

Part 4

Somewhere between the frightening closure of his throat, when he felt life ebbing away until the reassurance of the solid thwack on his back and the expulsion of the blockage, Chris Larabee nearly welcomed death. Endless hours crashed into each, taking his sense of time and space away. mattered not, his world was reduced to fighting his body to regain his property rights from his greedy lungs. Every painful, waking second spent clawing at his throat, thinking this time it won't clear. Then blacking out, not knowing if he'd wake again. But into the dark void that had become his world, an arena of confusion induced by fever, came the light in his storm.

"" he croaked, his body flopping weakly back onto the bed. His eyes were still on strike and he'd grown accustomed to the wet, sticky skin he was trapped in.

"'til a better offer comes along," Buck replied, wringing the linen cloth and wiping down the fevered man yet again. Josiah arrived at Johnson's in the early afternoon and updated him. He white-knuckled the cloth, thinking on Vin Tanner's plight. Mentally he was skinning Dale Upshaw and his pack alive, for causing the tracker's heart to break. Callie and her father were both in bad shape and Buck left to get Nathan. The healer reluctantly left Larabee, vowing to return later. That was hours ago and now the moon hung high in the cold night sky.

"...sorry..." Chris rasped, spotting the stains covering Buck's white shirt. His fevered eyes took in the dark circles under Buck's eyes and the haggard face. ""

"Fuck you, Larabee!" Buck chuckled, and exchanged an old, familiar smile with his friend, as he gently eased the cloth over the sweat-ridden features. He'd been down this road too many times over the last dozen years. He'd seen this man survived multiple bullets, stabbings, drownings and other close calls. But this time, he was scared. He could feel the life sliding right out of Chris Larabee...right through his fingers. He rolled Chris to one side, pulled the soiled sheets over, placed the clean ones underneath, then rolled him the other way and repeated. Tossing the soiled sheets on the floor, he eased Chris upright, as the familiar signs of a struggle erupted. He folded the choking blond over his forearm and hit him hard between the shoulder blades. Chris was too weak to cough out the rough stuff and getting weaker by the hour. He moved the towel from under the gaping mouth and eased Chris back against him.

"...fuck..." Chris gasped, frustrated by the endless fight to capture his breath, accompanied by a raging headache and the battering on his aching back. He heard a soft chuckle in his ear and dimly realized Buck was holding him.

"You're a cheap bastard, Larabee, you didn't even buy me dinner..." Buck teased, easing Chris a cold mug of water towards the gaping mouth. Chris latched on and sucked greedily, spilling half over himself. His throat just couldn't get the liquid down. He saw the fist curl up in anger and strike the bed. "I know...I'm sorry, Chris, I wish I could do more. I've been where you are and it's frustratin' as hell." He felt the tension leave and finally rose from the bed, hauling Chris upright. "Can you sit up for a spell? I want to put a steam tent around you..." He saw the damp head bob once and exited. Several minutes later, the kettle was on the floor at Chris's feet and a blanket was draped over his hunched over body.

"I'm gonna get some chow...I'll be right outside," Buck stated and saw the lump where Chris's head sunk down, nod once.

From the shadows that he once called home, he shifted uneasily, feeling the tendrils of fate curling on his neck. He squinted against the pane of glass, watching the occupant inside carefully. He was a student of the world, carefully observing all around him and filing it away. He watched the tired man swipe a biscuit through his second bowl of stew. He winced, his own stomach empty and growling in a sour mood.

"Won't be long..." he whispered into the wind. Sure enough, ten minutes later, the body eased onto the chair by the fire and the long legs stretched out. The dark head tipped back and tucked itself onto his shoulder. He waited another ten minutes, the soft snoring ensuring him that Buck's daily nap after overeating had begun. Usually, they lasted twenty minutes or so...he didn't have much time. Leaving the front porch, he tiptoed carefully around the house and through Chris Larabee's bedroom window.

The hacking cough was weak and pale and the sight of the body hunched over a steam kettle caused his stomach to churn. The room shrunk in size and the air seemed thinner. His heart was hammering so loud and fast, it hurt his chest wall. He was glued to the floor, unable to move his legs. Then the coughing stopped and a horrid, suckling sound caused him to move like greased lightning. He caught the body as it slumped sideways and pulled the blanket off. The green eyes were wide and frantic, unseeing and screaming silently, while the twisted 'O' of the mouth remained mute. Like the strings were cut from a puppet, the arms and legs twitched, hands clawed frantically. There was no more sucking noise...nothing...and then the light left the giver's eyes.

"No...No..." Vin denied, "Not again..." Before he realized what he was doing and not wasting one precious second, he shoved his long fingers down Chris's throat and searched. Where the hell was it? Ezra's shot right out...sweat poured from him and he felt the limp body jerk in his arms. "Thank God..." he sighed weakly, tossing Chris forward over the kettle. The infirmed man was barely conscious and Vin held his jaw wide, so the bile and muck could escape. What didn't come out, he pulled out. He flipped Chris over and cradled him, clutching his jaw and staring hard. "Dammit..." he swore, slapping the languid face hard. The eyes popped open and the most blessed sound he ever heard, tickled his ears.

From the surrender to the darkness, he was pulled back roughly. Through his hazy world of numbing disorientation, the oxygen deprived man was reborn. Like any angry infant, he reacted to the pain by striking back. Through fever-scorched eyes, he saw a cloud of long hair and sky eyes wide with fear. A name formed as a hand slapped his face, reminding him to breathe.

"...Godammit Vin..." He collapsed, his body to weak to defy gravity just yet. He heard the soft chuckle in his ear and the warm breath on his neck. He faded awhile, as strong arms guided him back to bed, cleaned him and spoon fed herb-laced tea into his mouth. Fate intervened again, waving her hand and taking his muddle away. Vin? Vin? What was Vin doing here? His eyes bleary and worn, took in the mare's leg, layered shirts and...and...the haunted eyes. Haunted and desperate and rimmed with guilt and sorrow. He tried to speak, but his lips wouldn't open. Then the soft drawl drew all his attention.

"Chris?" Vin sat on the stool next to the bed and saw clarity in the glazed eyes. "Sorry about sluggin' ya...ya was dyin'...figured ya wouldn't mind..." he saw one half of a lip rise and the damp head nod against the pillow. He pushed another spoonful of medicine in and watched the lazy blink, and waited for the dazed eyes to refocus. "Listen up, I ain't got much time...I'm headin' north t'get some medicine...Nate calls it Quinine...the Army's holdin' it just past Badger Pass." He rested his hand on Chris's arm for a moment, swallowing hard. "I wa...wa..." he swallowed again and composed himself, "I want yer word, Larabee...don't ya die on me ya stubborn bastard..."

"W...w..w..wa..." Chris took several shallow breaths, his tongue thick and clunky. "w...wer....word...Cow...b...b.oy..."

Vin smiled then, a real genuine lip-splitter, one fighting to be born for over a week. He saw the weak arm lifting and snagged it, locking the forearm. Nothing was said, it wasn't needed. The Giver's eyes spoke to him clearer than any voice he'd ever heard. He nodded, sending back his faith twice fold. "I'm holdin' ya t'it...four days...ya hang on...I got a favor..." he bowed his head and drew his hand inside his jacket. He pulled out an envelope and a worn brown leather bag. He saw Chris's brow knit together and the dazed eyes following his hand. He set the envelope where Chris could see it, propped up against the mug on his bed stand. "It's just some words I tossed down...where yer up t''s fer all ya ain't much's from m'heart..." he licked his lips and his hands trembled as he opened the small bag. "Listen Chris, I want ya t' sorry..." his voice broke and he bit his lip, swallowing down the wall of emotion. "They say I'm some kinda carrier...spreadin' disease t'folks and never gettin' sick...first my Ma..." it broke a little, cracking and causing his words to shatter, "...then Callie...God...she's just a baby...didn't deserve t'die..."

Die? Chris's weak fingers tried to reach Vin's shirt, to get his attention. It was only inches but it might have been miles. He couldn't move...but his eyes could and he wished they hadn't. He saw such a mask of pain and unbridled anguish on Tanner's face that it lanced through him like a saber. The tracker's chin trembled, his voice was broken and shivering...but the eyes...they were haunted...lost in place that even Chris Larabee couldn't reach. His Ma? Callie?? Callie wasn't dead. Jesus, that what you think? That you're responsible? Carrier? Who told you that? Dammit Vin...Vin... His lips wouldn't open, his fingers wobbled and fell back against the sheet. He was trapped in his broken body, watching the bits and pieces of Vin Tanner's soul shatter all over the floor.

"...damn near killed Ezra, now yer sick..Nate says ya got it bad..." He turned back to the bed and saw Chris screaming at him through the wildest green eyes he'd known. "Quit swearin' at me...ya know I'm right. I brung this t'San Carlos...they got dead people..." his voice cracked again. "...over there...dead...on accounta me...then I give it t'Ez and Callie."

"" Chris whispered, amazed that his thoughts slid out verbally.

"It ain't fucked up..." Vin spat back, anger rising, his fingers gripping the tiny bag. "Devil's spawns...they don't never get sick...just spread it t'decent folks...Grandpa said how lucky I was ...not gettin' sick like my Ma..." He laughed maliciously, "Some fuckin' luck...killed m'own...mother...that sweet little angel..." he saw Callie in his mind's eye and tears brimmed in his agonized eyes. "...she meant somethin' t'me, Chris..." he sighed and eyed the bag again. "I want ya t'hold this fer ain't much, not compared t'what ya give me...with this," he opened Chris's palm and stared hard into the green eyes so hard they flinched and he felt he fingers tug back as if burned. "Ya know this, Chris Larabee...wherever I go...I ain't never gonna ferget...what ya done...with this..." he pulled the open hand again, brushing his eyes. "Like I said," he recovered, watching Chris fighting to form a word. "It ain't much...but it's all I got..." he spilled out an old, beat up silver watch and fob. "It was m'Grandpa's...don't know that it ever run right...but he'd hold onta it...when things was rough...and somehow I knew we'd be okay." He saw the old man then, those proud Tanner eyes looking back at him. "he'd hold onta it...look right at me..." Vin chuckled, "Hell, fer years I thought 'Tanner' meant tossin' yer shoulders back and holdin' yer head up high..defiant like, ya know...he done that fer means somethin' t'me...I want ya t'have it..."

"" Chris's voice was barely audible. He wanted to scream at Vin, knock some sense into him, find out who hurt him...find out who hurt him...hurt Vin...kill the bastard. Suddenly a flame ignited inside and he fought back like a lion.

"I gotta go," Vin stood placed the watch in Chris's hand and curled his fingers around it. He saw the raw emotion in Chris's eyes as the fevered gaze went from the precious gift to his own face. Vin tapped his fist against his heart, then tapped Chris's as well...silently bonding them brothers. "Goodbye...Cowboy..."

With that he was gone, fleeing through the open window without looking back. Chris stared mutely at the window, his numbed mind putting the pieces together. He clutched the old watch with a fierceness he didn't know he still possessed. He congested chest heaved and he felt a firewall of molten anger build up. His lips curled up and with all the strength he could muster, he allowed the angry release.


The horse kicked up, rearing his head at the familiar call of his master's voice. Vin reined him in, he'd ridden Larabee's horse before and easily controlled him. It was a fine horse, as the owner's keen eye attested to. He needed a fast, strong steed to take him north, to save Chris's life and the others. With the north star shining for him alone, he rode hell bent on fury, trying to erase the anguished cry of his name that split still night.

The grievous scream jarred the slumbering body awake. The first thought he had as he ran towards the bedroom, was of a word he'd heard his mother use. Keening...something her relatives in Ireland did; a mournful wail from deep within. He dropped to the floor, kneeling next to the bed and placed a tentative hand on the semi-conscious man's neck.

"Chris?" Buck studied the vacant eyes and frowned, wondering what had caused such a nightmare. "Helluva dream, huh?" He asked, turning away to get the fevered man some water. He heard a thump and saw the body twisting, trying to get out of the bed. "Where the hell are you going?" He grabbed the slick torso and hauled it upright, wondering about the weak man's fight. "What?" The answer came in a horrid rail of coughing. "Jesus..." he grabbed a cloth and caught the flow, then managed to get some water in him. Seated on the side of the bed, his boot toe nudged something on the floor. He bent down to pick it up, frowning at the foreign object.

"...not much of a watch..." he noted, then felt his air cut off as a hand lashed out with sudden impact, grabbing his neck. From the corner of his eye, he saw nothing short of livid, molten fury in the glazed green eyes that burned into him.

"" Chris gritted slowly, trembling with rage. He dropped his hand, clawing for the timepiece.

"Alright...alright," Buck surrendered it, "Here..." He dropped it in Larabee's palm. A combination of the strong overflow of emotion in the pale face, along with the envelope he now saw and the name Chris screamed , sent his wheels spinning. He felt a cold breeze and saw the curtains dancing. "Shit!" he flew to the window, tossing his head outside. "Vin! Vin!"

"...too late..."

"How the hell..." His voice trailed off, as Josiah's words came back. He turned, hands on his hips and his eyes closed briefly in pain. Had Vin come to say goodbye to his best friend? Did the pain inside become to much to bear? The thought of his young friend alone in the cold and carrying such a burden was too much. He kicked the wall unleashed a string of colorful objectives, with Dale Upshaw's face in the center. "...that's it, this time Dale Upshaw went too far. I'm gonna teach him some manners...Wilmington style!" He stopped when the clarity cleared up the cloudy green eyes. He saw Chris study him hard and joined him back at the bed. "I'm sorry, Chris..."


It was one word and barely airborne, but despite the weak body that issued it, the order yet lingered. He sat on the stool and eyed the watch clutched tightly Larabee's fingers.

"When Josiah got back to town this morning, he thought Callie was dead. You were in bad shape and Nate couldn't leave Ben. He updated me in the barn, before wiring the army and notified the judge. When he got to the clinic, Ezra was desperate to tell him something...pissed off as hell. He said Vin was sick, shaking all over, white as a sheet; that he collapsed. He said Vin was on the roof and overhead Dale and that pack of rats he runs with talkin' about him. How he was the carrier of the Diphtheria, how Callie was dead on account of him and how you were dying and that is was all his fault. It hit Vin hard..." He paused and the fever flushed face screwed up in anger and the free fist pounded the sheet weakly. "I'm sorry Chris, we didn't know we were overheard. Poor Vin got some cockeyed idea his Ma's death is his fault too. Helluva burden to carry..." his voice wavered and dropped as he eyed the watch. "...even for a Tanner. Josiah said at the meeting that bastard Upshaw was rakin' Vin's name over the coals...brought up Virginia Smith the town's folk waggin' their tongues..."

"...fuck..." the weak body struggled in vain, trying to rise. "...gun..."

Buck smiled then, for the first time in hours. The ferocious green eyes were spitting fire, even if the body couldn't follow through on the murderous intent. He saw a picture that he'd taken for granted over the last few months, from the window of his room early in the morning. Vin's body relaxing in the rocker on the board walk, his lean legs stretched out before him. That damn hat pulled so far down over his face, only his chin was visible. But somewhere underneath, you just knew an easy smile was being born. Then later, Chris would appear, cool and stalking, his penetrating gaze would rip up the street, until they saw that scruffy Texan. Then the tense shoulders would dip a little and the body would relax. Without a word, he'd slip into the Saloon for breakfast, knowing his balance was intact. That power that Vin Tanner held, left the rogue at a loss for words. It brought light into Chris Larabee's dark world and restored the lost part of his soul. It was the reason that those eyes were locked in anger now, raging and causing the feeble body to fight. Vin left him and that hole that opened up, that gaping wound, would only be healed one way...and the warrior was battling hard to get there.

"...go away..." Chris hissed, angry at the world. He felt Buck's words rather than hearing them. Like bullets, the penetrated his heart, as visions of Vin's haunted eyes burned into him. As the metal of the watch in his fingers tore into his palm, he turned his eyes to the window. Somewhere in the dark, cold night, Vin Tanner rode solo. Alone in his pain, something he'd vowed he never let happen...he'd given his word to watch Tanner's back. Now his best friend was fighting the battle of his life, alone. He didn't hear Buck rise and pull the blanket up, he was already asleep. He didn't feel Buck take the watch, placing it carefully next to the envelope, but his fingers groped the bed searching for the last shard of the lost blue-eyed soul.

The luminous silver disc was suspended high in the sky, winking at him boldly. He paused at the well, leaning heavily against the perimeter. He was tired to his bones, couldn't remember the last time he'd slept. He sighed heavily, rubbed the back of his neck and winced as his aching back protested any movement. His dark eyes lingered on that moon, remembering just over a week ago, before this nightmare began, another miracle in the sky. Stolen kisses bathed in the silver light with the woman he loved; her hands rubbing his back, those beautiful eyes smiling for him.

"Rain..." he mumbled, before a hacking cough caused him to move. He poured the water into the large kettle on the fireplace and moved to the bed. Ben Johnson's dark wavy hair was plastered to his head. "Easy now..." Nate coached, lifting the critically ill man and helping him clear his throat. "Here..." he managed to get the mug of herbal tea into the slack jawed mouth. Two slits appeared and a hand wavered near his wrist.


"Damn Ben," the kind healer smiled at the grateful man, "ya been thankin' me all day...just keep fightin', that's thanks enough, okay?" He eased the head back down and frowned at the fever still hovering. He shifted his frame and moved to the other side of the large bed, where a tiny body was curled up. One arm was clutching a love-worn rag doll. Her eyes followed him as he grew close and he felt her damp face. "How you feelin' Callie?"

" a squooshed up bug..." she rasped, "Can I have some cider?"

"Ya gotta drink some tea first, okay?"

"Rose don't like tea," she pouted, holding her doll up.

"She ain't never had my tea..." Nate smiled, lifting her to a sitting position. Weak and still very sick, Callie had been unconscious most of the day. He wanted to get some broth in her as well. "How 'bout ya ask Miss Rose if she likes broth?" He pulled the blanket over her and saw her tiny head flop against the pillow. For most of the day, she'd hovered near death, with her father slipping further by the hour. Nate had been run ragged, coaxing the life back into them. They were barely holding on, and that medicine never seemed further away. He returned with two mugs, setting them down by the bedside. He guided the first to the wheezing little girl's lips. "Come on now, make Miss Rose proud of ya..." He watched curiously as the tiny nose wrinkled up after one sip.

"...needs more dousin'..." she gasped, coughing and clutching her beloved doll.

"Dousin'?" Nate frowned, almost hearing the Texas drawl coming from the small mouth. "Ya been hangin' around Vin too long. It's got plenty of sugar, now you finish that up."

"...needs dousin'...can...still...taste...the...weeds..." she protested, jutting her lip.

"They ain't weeds, they're herbs and they're helpin' ya finish that..." he commanded and watched the scowling face obey. "that's a ya go..." he guided a spoon full of rich broth towards her, but she turned away. "Callie, honey, ya gotta eat...ya need your strength to fight this..."

" Pa..." she cast her eyes at him with so unselfishly that is stopped the spoon midair. He smiled through his fatigue as she moved painfully over, lifting her face to watch her father carefully. "Pa? Pa?" she waited, but no loving voice answered with 'Sunshine'.

Nate put the cup down, when the large blues eyes filled and her bottom lip quivered. He heard the shuddering breaths as the tears rained down. His heart nearly broke at the tiny choked sobs that were mixed with wet coughs. "Hush now," he moved her back to her side of the bed, rubbing her back and using a clean cloth to wipe the tears away. "Ya gonna get sick...he asked me to make that soup just for you. He's countin' on ya to drink it..." He waited until the last hiccup ended and the small flushed face looked up at him. He lifted the spoon again and resumed his mission. Finally, the mug was empty. "Good girl," he wiped her down with alcohol as she dozed fitfully, coughing and gasping for breath.


"Okay," he pulled a clean gown on her and got a cold cup of cider. "Here ya go..." he tipped the mug and watched it empty, grateful that she seemed to be able to swallow it, albeit very slowly. He was adding vegetables to the chicken and water in the kettle, when the frail, wavering voice interrupted him.

"Mister Nate?"

He covered the pot and wiped his hands on his pants, walking towards the bed. Her eyes were barely open and her ragged breathing was harsh. "Somethin' wrong?" He saw her shake her head negatively and work her mouth, trying to speak. "Ya just rest, Honey, don't worry about talkin'..."

"...don't let 'em in..."

"Who?" He quizzed, his brows drawn as the blue eyes peeled half open, peering nervously at the door.

"...the angels..." she coughed, her eyes frantic. She wormed her body closer, her painful gazed fixed on her father's still face. "I...been...watchin'...over Pa...real...hard..." she paused, catching her breath. "But...I'm awful keep...'em..away?"

The small wavering voice was bad enough, but the last remnant of hope glimmering in the fevered blue eyes nearly broke his heart.

"Don't let the Pa..."

Nathan swallowed hard, trying to fight the swell of emotion inside. He took a deep breath, as the blue eyes burned a hole in him. He squatted down and brushed damp tendril of hair from her slick face.

"Please..." she croaked, tapping the dark cheek with one trembling hand.

It took several minutes for Nate to get control of himself. "Your Pa, he's a strong man, Callie, and he's fightin'...fightin' hard...I'm not gonna leave ya...I'll be right here..." He saw her tear her gaze away to flick a glance at her father. "Ya been sayin' your prayers?"

"Yes Sir..." she whispered, nodding against the pillow. "...real my insides to hurtin'..."

"That's the best kind of medicine," he said softly, watching her eyes shut. "Ya keep talkin' to the Lord and I'll watch over both of ya..."

"Swap...spit...on...on..." she faded away, but not before one hand found her father's and latched onto it.

"Damn..." he swore quietly, rising and taking to the front porch, sucking in air greedily. "Sometimes I hate this job..."

"Doesn't come with any guarantees," Josiah eased from the shadows.

"Hah," he scoffed sarcastically, "Ya tell that to that child..." his voice wavered and he swallowed down his pride. "I thought Vin's eyes were deadly..." he dropped his head, rubbing his neck and felt a strong hand on his back.

"God gives us all different gifts, Brother," Sanchez paused, "You got doubly blessed, good heart...skilled hands..."

"Skilled hands?" Nathan's head rose and he found a small smile. "Ya sure ya don't mean Ezra?"

"Ezra's holdin' on his own," Josiah updated, gazing into the house. "He's not better, but he's not getting worse. His fever's down a little and he's not spittin' up crud all the time. He's sleepin' easier...Jessie's sitting outside the clinic, listenin' for him. I can't stay too long."

"Chris?" Nate's guilt poured from his voice. "He ain't been off my mind, but Ben's in bad shape, I damn near lost him twice today...and Callie's so frail..."

"Nathan, you don't owe me an explanation, you're only human," Josiah replied, "Come on give me a hand..."

"With what?" Jackson's eyes followed the large preacher in the dark, as he approached the wagon. "Extra cots from the basement of the hotel and a couple of bodies..."

"Bodies?" he froze, then heard Josiah talking to someone in the wagon.

"Wake up Sleepin' Beauty..." Josiah said in a low voice, tapping the body in the back.

"You're gettin' awful familiar for someone who isn't blond and breastful..."

"Breastful?" the gray-haired peacekeeper chuckled, "Buck, you been hangin' around Ezra too long. Get on out of there...and don't fall, we can't afford to lose the manpower."

"You're all heart," Buck yawned, sliding out and stumbling blindly, barely feeling the taller man steady him. "Hey Nate..."

"Chris!" Nate jumped in the back, when he saw the second body.

Josiah waited for Buck to disappear inside, taking a cot with him. He moved to the wagon, waiting for Nathan to pass the unconscious blond to him. "Buck's wore out...he ain't slept in three days...and he's been fightin' the devil for Chris all day. He couldn't go on...he was damn near passed out at the shack. I figured we could put Chris up here, near the window by the fireplace. I'll set up the extra cot out here on the porch. That way, you and Buck can take turns tendin' to the patients here and sleepin'. No more running between spreads...we're wastin' time that Ben and Chris don't have. I'll keep an eye on Ezra and tend to things in town." He paused as he carried Chris towards the house. "Besides, if Buck gets anywhere near Dale Upshaw, they're won't be enough left of that loudmouth to fill a teacup."

Years of experience guided him easily through the desert terrain. Like a old lover, he fell right back into her arms. He guided the skilled horse through the night, until he found what he sought. It was well after midnight and they both needed some rest.

"Whoa," he called out, sliding wearily from the great horse. He ran a hand along the sleek black neck, talking softly to the proud beast. His tired eyes made out the entrance to the cave and after taking care of the horse, he dropped the saddle, saddlebags and bedroll inside. A short time later, he had a small fire going and warmed his hands. He pulled out a half empty bottle of whiskey and eased back onto the saddle, resting his head. Two long pulls later, with some old jerky for supper, he corked the bottle and sighed with longing.

"...lone wolfed 'afore..." he answered the restless neighing of the horse nearby. "...rode fer years keepin' m'own company. Don't need no folks interferin' in m'business..." he tried to convince himself as images danced in the shadows behind the fire. The golden light that flickered from the flames onto his face, reflected a deep sorrow in the questioning blue eyes. He clenched them shut trying to ward off the images...Ezra's gold tooth glintin' at him from across a poker table. Inez's shy greeting each morning as a mug of coffee appeared by his rocker. Mary bright smile and wave from across the street, when she pull the shades open on the Clarion's office. He flinched as sounds invaded his semi-conscious state. The rhythmic thumping of Josiah's hammer against the roof of the church, J.D.'s endless prattle, a cocky confident voice from a boy turned man. Buck's booming laughter and cocky braggin' rights each morning as he 'expanded' on his conquests. Nathan's scolding tone each time he was injured.

"Hey Cowboy..."

"Chris!" he jerked his eyes open, heart pounding furiously at the voice that pierced his eardrums. A call so real it caused his chest to ache. Chris would he solve that? How was it possible to fill the hole inside? A gap so ragged and rough, it cut his tender interior like a razor. Would that burning pain ever leave? He pulled the blanket over his shivering frame sharply, creasing his face in anger. "...gone soft...I rode alone fer years...don't need no interferin' green-eyed mule cussin' at me..." But try as he might, another image full of color and dimension kept resurfacing as well. A blond child with endless eyes and a smile that came right from the sun. A laughter so sweet and musical, it gave him a joy inside that he didn't know he could possess. The army of tiny arms and legs that pestered him each morning, forcing him up the boardwalk to Potter's store. Mrs. Potter's knowing smile when each tiny soldier had been rewarded with a peppermint stick and the leader, the ray of sunshine with a face of an angel, getting a chocolate drop as well. His reward, the tiny kiss on his stubbled cheek and a solid hug, gave him a warmth inside all day.

"Am I your best girl Vin?"

"Oh God..." Vin choked, rocking in the cold night, letting the tears fall for a child he loved like his own. A beautiful little spitfire that would never live to go to her first dance, get her first kiss and take an unsuspecting spouse. "Oh God what have I done?" he rasped, rocking until exhaustion finally claimed him.

Wearily, he pulled himself from the window as the sun came up. Tired eyes, red from fatigue and desperate for promise, gazed at the newborn light. The coffee still smelled just a bit bitter and was befitting for the empty town. Sighing, he forced his large body up and into the narrow end of the clinic. A tousled brown head was huddled over, coughing and gasping. He carried the boiling pot of water and set it on the floor. He smiled a bit at the hand reaching out, accustomed to the ritual. He picked up the small can holding the discarded rags and moved it aside. Gently, he eased the weak body upwards, righting it on the side of the bed. A cup of cold cider was produced and a soft moan was his thank you.

Ezra blinked up through wet eyes at the tired preacher. He nodded once, took the cup and sipped it slowly. He saw the steaming herb filled brew at his knees on the small table and huddled over, silently taking the blanket.

"Has anyone else succumbed?" he croaked, inhaling the medicinal mixture.

"No.." Josiah paused, pushing Ezra's head down lower. "Get your head down there!" He sat wearily on the cot across from the infirmed man, sipping his coffee. "Fact is, Callie pulled through..."

"What!" Ezra's head popped up, dripping wet with hair plastered to his flushed face.

"Nate said it was a miracle." He paused, "Get your head down before we lose that steam. Anyhow, he was taking her body from Ben and saw her finger twitch. He did that 'Vin move' that saved you and it worked on her too."

"The savage ironic fist of Fate," Ezra spat angrily. "That he fled on the wind of the Reaper's breath while housing a hero's heart." He saw the sad shadow on Josiah's face and dropped his head again. "He doesn't know?"

"No...he made his peace with Chris and left. I'm gonna try to get to that tree early...make sure he knows."

"What about the Army?"

"What about them?" Josiah replied, "Vin's gotta make peace with himself and God. I don't intend to let the Army send him to St. Peter early."

The loneliness of the multicolored, eroded landscape appealed to him. The grassy plains died away; dissolving into a group of small clay hills, shallow ravines and strange, lurking rock formations. He paused and slid off the horse, his pensive face bathed in the colors of the sunset reflected off the canyon surrounding him. Reds, oranges, golds and browns played on his fine features. The strong stallion drank behind him, at the edge of the pool with a graceful waterfall providing a gentle lullaby. The weary traveler took the saddlebags and eyed the waterfall. Widow's Tears, how aptly named, he thought, squatting down to fill his canteens. It was late and he'd ridden long and hard since well before sunup, but the extra effort was worth it. He'd be at Badger Pass by mid-morning.

Sighing, he headed down the rocky path, twenty five feet or more, until he heard the familiar tiny call of the bubbling steaming springs located underneath the ground. He ducked inside the narrow opening, easily skimming the walls, until the berth widened. A crack in the rocky walls send the setting sun inside, illuminating the thermal bath before him. Setting the bags near the edge, he quickly stripped down and slid into the hot pool, groaning with relief. The heat penetrated his tender flesh and he dove under, making several passes across the private pool. He scrubbed himself with some Yucca root, taking the dust, grime and grit from his hair and skin. Diving under again, he swam until he was exhausted, as if to punish himself. He stood then, the water lapping just below his navel. Flexing his taut muscles, the rivulets ran down his lean body, as he waded to the edge, grabbed his canteen and his dinner. He quickly ate the wild turnips and prickly pears, before draining half the canteen. Then he sank down deep, resting his aching head against the base. He closed his eyes, hearing the soft call of the waterfall far above, his thoughts drifted to the last leg of his journey. After picking up the quinine and delivering it to the tree, he needed to find sanctuary. He recalled remote areas in the Rocky Mountains, north in Colorado Territory, that he'd passed through after the war.

"High above the Eagle's call..." he murmured, dozing in the steaming hot water, while the ghost of his golden haired angel remained nearby.

"Josiah! Josiah!"

"If that is Saint Peter calling, kindly inform him I am not yet ready to play poker," Ezra groaned, rolling over and wincing at the high level of noise outside from the street below. "Furthermore, that it is not necessary to rouse the dead at this ungodly hour..."

"Sun's up, Ezra, so should you be," Sanchez replied, lugging the pro testor upright. "Come on...move to the other bunk, your sheets are wet..." "It's perspiration," Ezra huffed, watching the sly smile on the caretaker's face.

"That's okay, Brother," Josiah winked, "Your secret's safe with me, I won't tell anybody you wet the bed."

"Your humor is sadly lacking,"

"Josiah! Josiah! Get down here!"

"Good Lord, I'm to be driven deaf as well," Ezra moaned, shivering as the soaking nightclothes were taken from him. He eyed the large kettle of hot water nearby, next to clean towels and clothes. "I am perfectly capable of bathing myself," he protested, shoving the arm away and moving towards the small bath. "Please silence that cur before I take action..."

"You take any action in your birthday suit and I'll have to lock you up for indecent exposure."

"Indecent?" Ezra raised a single brow, "that would depend upon whom I've exposed myself to..."

"Fever addled," Josiah muttered, heading for the door. He saw the young man half way up the stairs and put both hands out. "Jessie, get down in the alley, you know better than to come any closer."

"It spread..."

"Where?" Josiah's heart sank.

"Up country, ten dead in Hooper and seventeen sick, six dead in Glen Oaks..." the youth hissed in exasperation. "Don't you see? Vin didn't head that wasn't him! Look! I drew a map, from San Carlos to here and then keep headin' that way you hit California...It's not Vin..."

"I think you might have something there Son," Josiah mused, reading the map. "I'm gonna talk to Ezra, see if he can't remember something. Where'd you get this?"

"I've been wiring towns all over, the clerk in Cobbs Creek got that from the Army. They only had three strangers in Glen Oaks, the army's holding them at Fort Preston."

"You get their names?"

"Not yet, but I will!"

"Keep me posted," Josiah nodded, "...and wire the Major, make sure he knows..."

Sandy hills covered with vegetation led to a cliff off a road out of sight. The surreal surroundings were composed of layers of coal, shale and mudstone in varying degrees of hardness and hue. The sandstone that mixed in gave way to strange rock formations. This sandy, wind-swept area was deserted by most and only added to it's mystery. Vin eyed the landslide far below and shook his head. A half-dozen army men moved slowly, using horses and cables in a futile effort to move the rocks.

"Damn fool blue there a month..." he muttered, urging the horse down the steep path. He got within shouting distance and hid himself in the rocks.

"Hello in the camp," he shouted, and grinned as they scattered like ants to get their weapons. "It's a wonder they won the war," he sighed, and saw one tall, gaunt man with gold stripes on his sleeves look upwards. "I'm here fer the medicine...I'm the courier..."

"Who sent you?"

"Sanchez, with Major Garrison's okay, I'm pickin' up quinine, they got sick folks that need it bad..."

"I'm Sergeant Peterson and you''re..." he fumbled, reading the note a messenger brought the day before. "Tanner...I can't risk you infecting anybody else. You draw a map of your route and I'll see to it that the medicine reaches it's destination."

"Ya leave it in a burlap bag in them rocks what looks like arrowheads," Vin paused and saw them turn to the nearby formation. "...and I'll see t'it that yer still breathin' t'spout yer orders come lunchtime."

"Who do you think you are! You dare to give me orders!"

"Mister," Vin hollered with a tinge of smugness, "from where I'm sittin', I can take out them lazy assed recruits before ye'd get a shot off."

"Washington," Peterson whispered, get around the back of the camp and see if you can get a bead on him. But before the eager youth got two feet away, a shot took his large hat off.

"Ya best start thinkin' with yer brain, 'stead o'pissin' through it, Mister," Vin hollered down, "Get that medicine packed and in them rock, then ya take move the hell over...back behind them rocks ya cleared off..." he noted of the area far down the road."

"Where the hell is he?" a soldier nearby eyed the canyon walls.

"I don't know," Peterson spat back, not liking being bested by the stranger, "but I'm gonna make sure Garrison damn well locks him up. Get the medicine in those rocks and get my horse ready. I'm gonna wire Garrison, Tanner better enjoy the next two days of light, because where's he's going, the sun don't shine!" he noted tersely, turning away.

Nathan shivered as he took an armful of kindling into the house. He stoked the fire, stirred the chicken stew inside the large pot and then poured hot water from the tea kettle into three herb filled mugs. He paused and frowned, eyeing his slumbering assistant. He walked over and laid a hand to the head resting on the kitchen table.

"I'm okay, Nate..." Buck yawned, rousing himself and rubbing his eyes. "Must have dozed off..."

Nathan smiled as the dark head turned to the cot by the fire. Buck's eyes were never far from Chris. He'd spent the past three days at the blond's side. Bathing the fever, stripping the wet bedding and cleaning it, ensuring the semi-conscious patient got broth, gargled and spoon fed herbal tea into his slack lips. He held the weak body upright, under the steam tent, because Chris couldn't sit up on his own. The healer saw the worry in the blue eyes and rested a hand on the downcast shoulder. He knew Buck was concerned, Chris had remained mostly unconscious for the last three days. Rousing on command to 'drink', 'spit' or 'cough', he remained lost in a netherworld, unseeing and lost.

"He's hangin' tough..." the ex-slave implied, "Callie's perkin' 'bout tryin' to get some stew in her? Use that silver tongue of yours...ladies love that talkin' ya do..."

"Okay," Buck sighed, pausing by Chris's cot and pulling the sheet down. Before he realized it, he'd wrung out a cloth and wiped the face, neck and chest down with alcohol water. He tucked the cotton bedding up under the slick chin and gave the shoulder a pat.

"You keepin' fightin', you hear..." he said quietly, turning back to the stove. He took a mug of tea from the grouping that Nate poured and a bowl of stew to the table. Nate wanted to bath and change Ben and the bed, so Buck moved in, squatting down to where the tiny body was curled up.

"Hey, Darlin' 'bout havin' dinner with Old Buck?" he asked, watching the tired blue eyes open for him. Her fever was much lower and she was coughing less, but she was so weak, they were both worried they'd lose her. He watched the small face scrunch up and a fist curl.

" bones don't wanna get up...I can't get 'em to work..."

"How 'bout a ride, Princess?" Buck winked, "I'll be the handsome knight and rescue you..."

"Well," she lifted one arm, staring hard at his face, "You're not Vin, but I reckon you'll do..."

"Thanks!" Buck chuckled, like the others, he was captivated by her. "Easy now..." he lifted her up and felt the wet clothing. "Nate..."

"Clean nightgown on the stool by the window. The tub's got warm water in it..."

"Aw, hell," Callie squirmed, "...don't...wanna...bath..."

Buck grinned at the Tanner-like stance and eased the protestor into the warm water, picking up a sponge. "You gotta quit swearin' like that. I thought you were gonna be a lady."

"It's too hard," she yawned and giggled when he tickled her, "...'sides...I seen them church ladies...they don' drawers is...too tight...they...ain't havin'"

Buck laughed again and gently washed the tangled blond locks, before rinsing the soap away. The long sentence left her winded and she was gasping. "You quit that chatterin'...take some deep breaths for me...good girl," he coached, "Up you go..." he dried her off, pulled the gown over her hand and sat down on the chair, towel drying her head and brushing it. He carried her over to the fire and sat in the rocker, holding the bowl on his lap. He guided the spoon in her mouth, nudging it as she was blinking and already falling back to sleep. "Come on now, you're almost done."

"How't...married?" she asked, snuggling into his chest as he placed the bowl on the table and rocked her. She liked sitting by the fire and closed her eyes, letting the heat from the flames bathe her face.

"'cause I waitin' for you, Darlin'" Buck replied, kissing the top of her damp head.

"Time I get ready, you'll be an old man..."

"Aw, Callie," he chuckled, "you're breakin' my heart."

"You like kissin' all them ladies?" she wrinkled her nose, thinking on some of the antics she'd seen in town, peeking under the saloon doors. "...and ticklin' their bumps..."

Buck didn't expect that and neither did Nathan. While the rogue choked and sputtered, the healer's booming laughter sauntered in from the next room.

"You never mind my ladies..." Buck coughed, eyeing the blue eyes fighting to stay open. She was curled up on his lap, resting her head just under his chin. He tucked a small blanket around her and continued to rock, patting the side of her leg.

"" she gazed up him with asking eyes.

"Well, now, I think I know a song or two," Buck melted at the angelic face, "Matter of fact, my Mama was real good at singing in a rocker too..." Two songs later, the steady flow of warm breath against his neck told him she was sleeping. One tiny fist was clutching his fingers. He'd forgotten how easy a child could sneak in your heart. Sitting by the fire, rocking a small body brought back memories of Adam as a toddler.

"Ya okay, Buck?" Nate poured himself a cup of coffee, needing fuel. He saw the wistful expression on the charmer's face and wondered about it.

"Yeah," the dreamer replied, kissing the forehead of the sleeping child, "Just lost in the past...Bed all ready?"

"Yeah, clean Ben cleaned up too."

"How's he doin'?" Buck asked, rising and tucking her against his broad shoulder. Nate just bit his lip, dropped his face and shook his head.

"If that medicine don't come soon..."

"Yeah," Buck nodded, feeling the weak breath of the child and hoping she could hold on. He laid her down gently, pulling a clean blanket around her. Two blue eyes opened halfway, prodded by a lazy yawn.


"Yeah, Darlin'?" He leaned down, her frail voice was hard to hear.

"Thanks for...singing..." she sighed and shivered, "'re real good at rockin' and tuckin' can be my husband..."

He smiled broad and easy, his heart filling. He rested a hand on her head and stroked the golden curls. "I thought you were gonna marry Vin?"

"I am..." she yawned again, snuggling down. "He's my best husband, the one in the could care...of the...horses..."

Buck chuckled and shook his head, hearing Nathan laughing nearby.

"Horses?" Buck asked, still grinning.

" could sing too...but...if we get can't tickle them ladies' bumps anymore..."

"Okay," Buck whispered, eyeing the eyes closing. "How many husbands are you plannin' on marryin'?"

"Well," she whispered, blinking back up at him, "Mr. Standish...he for walkin'..."

"Walkin'?" Nate asked, dropping by her side with medicine spiked cider. He lifted the small head and she drank, nodding over the cup.

"Yeah...I like the way them fussy words sound...don't understand most of 'em but they come out slick like...and he dresses real pretty..."

"You gonna strut around town showin' off Ezra?" Buck asked and saw the head nod. "That all...three husbands?"

"Yeah...Mr. Larabee, I like him, but he ain't ready yet...his heart's to sad....he's got sad eyes..." she opened her own and looked sorrowfully at Buck, so much so it gave him a pain. "Did you know ....his...little in heaven?" She asked, remembering what her mother said and to pray for the little Larabee boy.

"Yeah, Darlin'" Buck said quietly, "I do..."

"I think..." she whispered, nodding off, "he's those my book. His heart's gotta hurt an awful lot...and...he..." she yawned, "...makes Vin smile..."

"Come on," Nate tapped Buck's shoulder, not missing the heavy emotion in his face, "Ya better eat...I can't have ya keelin' over..." They sat down, each with a bowl of stew and Nate eyed his partner. "So Mister Local Expert...How 'bout tellin' me about ticklin' ladies' bumps...I could use a few tips..." He ducked his head and saw the beginnings of a Wilmington smile, then an outright laugh, and he joined in, releasing some tension.

Vin eyed the hollowed out tree, glad of the full moon. He kept one eye on the road, hoping to see Josiah's large body coming. Every few seconds, he glanced backwards, edgy and tense. The hairs on the back of his head stood up, he had a bad feeling. He trusted his instincts and they told him trouble was near. As he waited for the preacher, he thought back to several hours before. He'd ridden hard for a day and a half, hoping to cut the time down. He'd seen their camp from an overpass, then jogged down to get a closer look. There were about eight soldiers, looking at a map near a campfire. His hackles rose and his fists clenched when he heard their words.

"...the wire said Tanner tried to murder this Sergeant Peterson's whole outfit...tried to shoot them all down in cold blood. Major Garrison isn't taking any chances. We got orders to bring him down...any way we have to...shoot to kill."

Vin cursed and swore all the way back to his horse. Lying, no-good, bluebell dog...he passed on dinner and rode hard for home, hoping to pick up a few hours. They weren't expecting him until dawn. By then he'd be headed north to Colorado. The hooves on hard ground brought him back to present. He saw Josiah ease off the horse and pick up the sack. He knew the soldiers were close and didn't want to risk Josiah's getting shot in the takedown. He heard the thundering hooves and swore, they were closer than he thought. He ran back to where the horse was, then realized the army was blocking the path to freedom. From high atop the pass, he watched the eight riders approaching.

"Dammit!" he swore, eyeing the rough, rocky trail behind him. It was long and roundabout, but if he was lucky, he could get through most of it and then pick up the road to the border, north of here, past the soldiers. He reined the horse in, turned and used the rocky trail. He felt his gut clench and a chill cross his spine. He didn't need to get close to the sign posted, he knew it by heart. 'Private property - trespassers shot-' He took a steadying breath, resting his hand on one of Larabee's colts, tucked in his waistband, patted the rifle and crossed into Upshaw Property.

Part 5

Despite his fatigue, Buck couldn't rest easily. He tossed and turned on the cot, finally giving up and heading inside to get some coffee. The sounds of the night creatures followed him as well as the starless sky. He paused at Chris's side, resting a hand on his throat, wincing at the feeble breathing sounds. As he looked at the scarlet slashes on the blond's face, he wondered if this would be Chris's last sunrise. He made the rounds, checking on Callie, who barely took up room in the large bed and her father, who was in worse shape that Chris. Nathan was sleeping on a chair, his head resting on folded arms in front of him on a table. Feeling frustrated as his lack of power over the situation, he poured the coffee and went back outside, walking to the edge of the property.

"Never thought it would end like this..." he murmured to the slight night wind, thinking on his years next to Chris Larabee. He smiled, sipped his brew and thought about the night Adam was born. One of the best nights of his life, he and Chris celebrated in style. He never saw the blond so relaxed and truly happy. The drunken, life-happy grin that he wore and the pride in his voice with full eyes proclaiming, 'that's my boy...'. A thundering call of hooves brought him out of his memories. He pulled the gun from his belt and eyed the road. A familiar voice beckoned.

"That you, Buck?"

"Trouble?" the reply came, as the gun was tucked back. He followed the horse into the yard and then saw the anxious light in the preacher's eyes. The low light from the porch reflected hope in the smoky depths.

"Salvation, I hope!"

Buck's brows knitted, until he saw the two bottles Josiah carefully took from a large burlap bag. "Quinine!" he shouted, then whooped and slapped the preacher's back. "Damn...Goddamn! How'd he do it? Jesus, he must be exhausted...he had fly on that damn horse."

"Wouldn't know," Sanchez replied, handing Buck a bottle, "Get Chris up and get two spoonfuls in in him..." his long legs took him across the cabin. "Nathan, Nate..." he set the other bottle down and shook the slumbering healer.

"What?" Jackson replied, eyes not focused. "Callie..Ben..." he jumped up and got a steadying grip on his shoulders.

"Whoa!" Josiah shook the bleary-eyed soul, until the brown eyes popped open. "Two spoonfuls for Ben, one for Callie..." he handed the bottle, "Make it last, Nate, I can only spare two bottles. I'm taking one to the clinic and the other six have to go to Fort Preston. From there, they go to Glen Oaks, they got a lot of sick folks that need it, ten dead at last count in Hooper."

"Hooper...Glen Oaks..." Nate muttered, lifting Callie and tapping her face. "Wake up, Honey...I got medicine..." he waited for the lips to part and slid the spoon in, following with some spiked cider, she never roused, made a face and fell back on the pillow. His head shot up over the bed to where Josiah was supporting Ben Johnson. He moved around the bed, picked up a clean spoon and between the two of them, they got two spoonfuls into the unconscious man.

"He's on his way, out," Josiah noted, seeing the life ebbing away.

"Not if I can help it," Nate retorted, "This sickness spread up that way, that means it wasn't Vin..." he sighed, dropping his head and saying a silent prayer. "I'll bet that lifted a weight from his shoulders..."

"He doesn't know,"

"What!" Buck exclaimed loudly, from where he held Chris upright, the wet blond head resting on his arm. "Why didn't you tell him?"

"I didn't see him, Buck," the preacher argued, settling Ben into a clean nightshirt and helping Nathan ease him back onto the bed. "He'd come and gone before I got there, with good reason."

"What good reason?" Nate asked, seeing anger flashing in the blue-gray eyes.

"Vin hightailed outta the area, the army's got 'shoot to kill' orders..."

"Godammit!" Buck roared with such velocity, his patient roused, eyes cracking open.

"Some pissed-off stripe-holder at Badger Pass claimed Vin tried to shoot them all down." He answered Buck's furious eyes and saw the rogue's face twist up in hatred.

"He'll be okay, if that boy don't want to be found, he won't be..." Nate predicted, not wasting any time and moving quickly across the room. Carefully, he slid two spoonfuls of quinine into the semiconscious man's mouth. He tipped the cup towards the slack lips, "Come on Chris, drink some water. We got the medicine gotta fight back."

"...shit...ful..." Chris managed, wrinkling his face at the horrid taste.

"Never you mind about the taste, it works..." Nate answered, "Keep him awake, Buck I want him to gargle..."

"Yeah," the dark headed nodded, his arms trembling in rage, as the healer managed to get him to gargle a warm salty, throat wash.

"...s'wrong Buck..."

"Nothing Chris."

"...bad liar..." Chris panted before dissolving into a coughing fit that took both Josiah and Buck to quell. The effort left him unconscious again and after cleaning him up, Josiah rose and took the coffee Nate offered.

"They got any sick at the Fort?" the healer asked.

"No, they're holding three men there...the only strangers in town before the sickness came."

"Which way did they come? Maybe one of 'em was in San Carlos...Did Ezra recognize their names..."

"I don't know, Nate, he was really out of it when I talked to him. I didn't want to miss Vin and I had to take off," Josiah said, "I got this from Major Garrison," he pulled the wire from his pocket and sat down at the table. "Willie Soames, Dutch Schmidt and...and...Percy Packer. I'm gonna head back and drop these bottles with the guards. Then get some of it into Ezra, I'll ask him more about this Packer fella, the wire said he's the only one that was in San Carlos."


"Callie?" Nate turned at the weak voice and the three men moved to the bed. "How ya feelin'?"

"Thirsty...Can I somethin' that's got no weeds?"

"Yeah," he replied with a chuckle, taking a mug of cold water from Buck. "Here ya go..." He paused and saw her eyeing Josiah. "Ain't you... supposed to be...lookin' afte...Mr.Standish?"

"He's asleep...he's okay. You keep takin' that medicine and listenin' to Nathan and you'll be okay too."

"His name's not's Persimmon..." she yawned, smiling weakly at Buck. "Hiya Buck...we still gettin' married?"

"Sure thing, Darlin'" Buck squatted down, stroking her damp head. "Honey, can you tell me about Persimmon?"

"Sure," she shrugged, screwing her tiny face up, "He's got hair like smushed up carrots," she paused and took a couple breaths, "he talks real nice and he's wearin' his Sunday clothes...even though it weren't Sunday. He gimme a nickel for some water..."

"Sweet Jesus!" Josiah groaned, shaking his head.

"When was this, Darlin'?" Buck coached, having gained her full confidence. "Was it before Vin and Mr. Standish came to see you last week?"

"Uh...Uh..." she screwed her face up for a moment, then nodded, "Yeah, it was the night before." She stopped and thought hard, taking some slow breaths. "Pa was are wore out, sleepin in the rocker. I heard the horse and went to look." She eyed the three adults and then continued. "He asked for some water, but I didn't say nothin', cause he was a stranger." She paused, clutching Buck's arm and shaking a little. "I'm cold, Buck..."

"Okay, Old Buck can fix that," He scooped her and the blanket up and walked to the rocker, the others in tow. He settled in, using his long legs to move the chair. "Better?" he asked, feeling the warmth of the fire.

"Yeah," she sighed, then poked her head up. "Am I bein' an itch...I tryin' awful hard not to be..."

"You're not itch, Darlin'" Buck smiled, kissing her forehead. "Can you tell me what else happened?"

"Well," she coughed, then snuggled into the broad chest. "He said his name and then asked for some water. It was too dark to see the cup by the well," she recalled, "and I ain't allowed to climb up and hang over the I took Pa's coffee cup and let him use that."

"Damn!" Nate walked away, adding up the pieces and rubbing the pounding tension behind his eyes. "He gave it to Ben and Ezra..."

"He works on a train, I think..." Callie commented.

"An engineer with red hair," The preacher said, bending down and ruffling the damp, blond curls. "Honey, you just might have saved Vin Tanner's life. You're a brave girl..."

"What?" Buck caught Josiah's eyes.

"Ezra...when I asked him the names, he mumbled that Parker was an engineer from back east with red hair..."

" smushed up carrots..." Nate repeated, thinking on Callie's words. "Ya make sure them guards know about Packer bein' here...and Garrison too. It takes the army forever to wrangle out the mess they make."

"How are we gonna get word to Vin?" Buck whispered, rocking the sleeping child carefully.

"I don't know, Brother," Josiah pulled the blanket up over Chris and headed out.

"Dale...hey Dale..." Yancy approached the table in the smoke filled Saloon where the twenty-five year old Upshaw heir was holding court. Most of the coins were in front of him, while disgruntled faces holding losing hands sat around the table.

"I'm busy," he replied, tossing a shot of whiskey down. The bottle was nearly done and the three kings he held would make it another winning hand.

"Army's in town...I heard 'em talkin' to that kid Josiah left in charge. They're huntin' Tanner...claimed he tried to kill a bunch of soldiers up at Badger Pass. Stole the medicine and took off..."

"Well now," the blond grinned, tossing his cards onto the table. "I'd say it's time for us to do our duty, the government appreciates law abiding citizens. Let's go huntin'!" He hooted, slapping his dozing brother Adam. "Wake your ass up and get the Kid, we're headin' out."

"What about the barricade?" Adam yawned, draining his beer.

"They lifted it," Yancy informed, keeping the part about Tanner's innocence himself. "The clerk already wired the Judge, folk's will headin' back come morning."

"Let's ride!" Dale hooted, gathering his men and heading for the livery. "Gabe, you take Jake home," he noted of the youngest, who wasn't into blood sport. "We got business to do!" After the sleepy sixteen-year old was roused from his bed at the hotel, they took the back road out of town, which was a short cut to the massive property of the Upshaw ranch.

It was an hour closer to forever for the exhausted traveler. He'd ridden for a day and a half with little rest or sleep and now was running on empty. Larabee's horse forged onward, despite his own fatigue. Vin spotted a creek ahead and slowed down, they both needed a drink and a few minutes. As the beast sated his thirst, the lonely man thought of the road ahead for him. Would he be able to fall back into the solitary life? Or would the silence prove deafening? His debate was short lived, the thundering call of hooves set him in motion again. A mile later, with the wind slapping his face, he saw riders blocking his path, the lone path that led to the property's edge. Reining the horse in, he turned back, only to find himself surrounded.

"This here is private property!" a voice bellowed. Vin's eyes narrowed in the darkness, trying to count he bodies in the shadows ahead.

"I'm just passin' gone in a few hours..." he called back, taking the rifle and raising it carefully.

"Tanner?" Adam Upshaw hollered, "The army's huntin' you tried to murder a bunch of their men and stole some medicine."

"They lied." Vin spat back.

"Well now, you won't object if we search you then?" the middle Upshaw replied, watching Yancy sneaking up behind Tanner.

"Go to hell!" Vin snarled taking aim. The shot never sounded, as the rifle was grabbed. A snapping sound erupted at the same time all his air was cut off. His fingers fumbled for the pistol, getting a shot off, before he was dragged down from the horse. A sharp tug on the whip that was bound around his neck, nearly rendered him unconscious.

"Get on your knees, you murderin' savage!" Dale barked, grinning as a torch was lit from a nearby tree branch. The flickering light revealed the defiant eyes glaring at them. Blood ran from his lip where he hit he ground. The gun at his temple prevented further movement. The eldest Upshaw moved forward, yanking the long hair savagely with one hand and kicking the captive hard in the groin. "You were warned...sign said we shoot trespassers...but me being the civil minded man I am..." he paused, yanking the drooping head again. "Pay attention!" He backhanded Vin hard, drawing blood from his nose. "I'm gonna give you a second're gonna stand trial in the court of Upshaw," he gloated, tying the tracker's hands with rough rope. "Get up!"

Vin struggled and stood, wheezing heavily through the crushed windpipe in his neck. His hands were tied in front of him and the rope was attached to Dale's horse. The whip was released and he coughed and sputtered, fighting to remain upright.

"Where we headed?" Adam asked, seeing the glint in Dale's eye. "Pa ain't gonna like this..."

"Then we won't tell him, will we?" He warned and saw the younger man back down. "Clancy's cabin's been deserted for years." He said of the old hermit who once lived on the land. "It's out of the way, real private. Max, see if you can track down Larabee's horse," He said of black steed that rode off. "Yancy, you head back to the bunkhouse, get what we need. You tell my Pa we're huntin' a trespasser who took a shot at us."

"Like the last time?" Bates grinned, remembering the last trespasser's unfortunate demise.

"Oh yeah," Dale grinned, moving the horse forward and forcing the prisoner to keep up on foot. "I sure am gonna enjoy this...let's see how good them feet are at keepin' time."

Vin's slow trot increased to a jog as the horse sped up. Angry he jerked back on the rope, causing Upshaw's horse to rear up.

Adam was behind and his well placed shot grazed the captive's left thigh, causing him to drop to his knees. "Get up before I put a crease in the other leg..."

Vin grimaced and felt the blood running down his leg. It wasn't deep, but the added pressure of putting weight on it, didn't help. Again he was forced to trot, jog, then run, the pain firing up his leg and causing him to stumble, time and time again. Hours went by and they slowed down, enjoying the game. Then they would speed up, causing him to cry out in pain. The last time he fell, he couldn't get up. He had nothing left, his swollen, numbed fingers tried to feel the area above the soaked thigh of his pants, where the wound was. His throat was so dry...his lips cracked and bleeding and his head spinning dizzily. He was on his side, eyes shut, when he heard a voice above and felt a canteen brush against his face. He reached up, his bound hands fumbling through the lack of circulation. While one brother diverted his attention with the canteen, the other laughed and moved above the dazed man.

Vin felt the warm stream of urine hit his face and he turtled up, grunting as a boot connected with his ribcage.

"Get up, you filthy savage," Adam warned, then watched as Dale's horse resumed it's journey, slowly dragging the weak, struggling man behind, even after he didn't rise. He grinned and followed, anticipating the next few days of fun.

+ + + + + + +

A loud rapping on the door brought the tall man to his feet. He pulled his pants on and grabbed his gun, while moving quickly across the floor. His long strides took him in the hallway, where he met his youngest son. The sixteen-year old was coming up the steps. Behind the handsome boy, he saw Carlos, his loyal servant for twenty-five years, coming from the back of the house.

"Pa, the army's outside..."

"Jacob," He greeted his son, absent for almost two weeks, "When did you get home? Why didn't you wake me up? Are your brothers with you?"

"I was hungry, Sir, in the kitchen eating a sandwich. I didn't want to disturb you." He braced himself for the bear hug. "I'm fine, Sir, really..."

"Damn heathen...spreadin' that sickness...he could have killed you too. I heard he killed Ben Johnson's little girl...I warned Orrin Travis when he looked the other way after Claire Mosley was killed. The likes of him defending that Indian...bold as he could be...then Virginia..."

"Callie's not dead and there's no proof Vin made anybody sick," the youth defied the black eyes bearing on him. He liked Vin Tanner and J.D. Dunne, they always treated him fair, didn't look down on him or brush him off, like his own brothers did. "As for Virginia, he had witnesses...and that guy they caught in Vista City confessed..."

"Bullshit!" He saw the door open and moved in front of the boy. "Where are your brothers?"

"They're huntin' a trespasser...that's what Yancy said...he rode in a little while ago..."

"Good Evening, Senor,"

"I'm Captain Timmons," the weary soldier pushed past the half-asleep servant. He saw the large, strong body and recognized the face. Zeb Upshaw was well known in the territory and his influence and money, went far. He supported the army heavily and the Major bought most of their stock from the horses bred on the ranch. "Mr. Upshaw, I hate to disturb you, but it's important."

"That's alright Captain, the sun will be up soon enough. Please come"

"No thank you, Sir, we can't stay. My men and I are looking for Vin Tanner. Are you familiar with him?"

"That dirty half-breed isn't here..." he spat, "I'd sooner let a rapid wolf in here than that animal. I don't cotton to Indian lovers. That savage has the whole town fooled...the likes of him walking among descent folks." He poured himself a shot of whiskey from the bottle on the desk in the study next to the foyer. "What'd he do now?"

"Word from up north...from a unit that's clearin' the road near Badger Pass. He attacked them and stole the Quinine that they were waiting to bring to town."

"Thievin', dirty breed...nobody listens to me. I warned the Judge about him. Making him a keeper of peace is like puttin' the wolf in charge of the henhouse." He turned, eyeing the dusty soldier. "You think he's headed this way?"

"We've been tracking him all men are tired and hungry. The horses need some rest..."

"Say no more, Son, you go to the bunkhouse and have McCleary put up your men. You rest up and get some grub. He'll see to the horses. You need men?"

"No sir, we figure he's headed north...that stuff brings a nice profit...We'll rest a bit then head out."

"Very well," the elder man assessed, "You know you don't have to worry about Upshaw land. If he's here, he's as good as caught. I don't take to law breakers...I believe in justice. If he's found here, I'll detain him and send a man to Major Garrison at the Fort."

"Appreciate the support, Sir, the Major said we could count on you."

Jake stayed in the shadows, his blue eyes narrowing as the words echoed in the hall. Vin wouldn't kill anybody or steal medicine. Something was wrong. He thought on the wolfish grins his brothers shared on the way home. Dale was tall like their father, but had their mother's fair eyes and coloring. Adam was Zeb's son out and out, the dark unruly hair, dark eyes, hot temper and lean body. Although at sixteen, he was already nearly as tall as his father and brothers, and had the trademark Upshaw dark hair, his blue eyes and fine features were his mother's. So was his heart, at least that is what Maria, Carlos's wife said. Dale was his brother, but there was something about the cruel streak in him that Jake didn't like. Until a year or so ago, when Adam came back from college, he thought they were close. But Adam was starting to change, to become like Dale. He padded back to the kitchen and finished his roast beef sandwich. Swallowing the last of the milk, he thought on the lifted ban. That meant J.D. would be coming back. He could spy on his brothers and find out what they were up too.

+ + + + + + +

Daylight soared into the room, scorching his eyes. He ran his tongue along his dry mouth and tasted something bitter. Rolling and groaning he sat up, wincing as his sore chest, ravaged by coughing, protested. It was too painful to keep his eyes open, he shivered, then heard a deep voice.

"Mornin' Brother, open up..."

"What is that vile poison?" Ezra swallowed on command and frowned. "That is what I tasted when I woke up..."

"That's cause I plied you with earlier...when I got back. It's Quinine..."

"Chris and the others?"

"With some luck, a nod from the Lord and Nate's hands, they should pull out of this fine. Callie's doing better already." He nudged the body, "Get up so I can change your linens..."

"Quinine?" Ezra rose, staggered to table and sat down. Josiah put down a platter of eggs, biscuits and honey, apple cider and a large mug of tea. "Vin?" his jade eyes sparked for the first time in several days. "Then he knows about Callie?" He saw the large hands move quickly, stripping the bed and replacing the sheets. Then the preacher moved back towards the kitchen.

"No, he left the medicine and took off, the army's huntin' him and they're in a bad mood." His eyes lingered on the package he found with the medicine. He set is aside and turned back to the recovering patient. "Turns out that fella you were playin' cards with in San Carlos, the engineer, he stopped at Johnson's the night before you and Vin did...Callie gave him Ben's cup to get a drink out of..."

"Good Lord!" Ezra choked on the eggs, taking a liberal swig of cider. "He's the carrier?"

"She described him flat out...right down to the hair like smushed up carrots...he was Glen Oaks and Hooper too."

"There's something else," the southerner guessed, blinking as the herbal tea took effect.

"Yeah, but it can wait, I got a pile of wires to send. J.D. and the others will be back by this afternoon." he eyed the empty plate and nodded. "You get back under them covers and get some rest. Nate says that's the quickest way to beat this...sleep, take the medicine and eat. You're a pro already at two of them..."

"Keeping oneself fit and alert is a key to success. A sound mind and body..." he frowned as the door shutting ended his thought. "Plebian...I am surrounded." He moved to the cot and settled back down, thinking on the sly tracker. " are missed..."

+ + + + + + +

He swallowed hard, drinking down the metallic taste of blood. He shifted painfully and groaned, every inch of his bruised and battered flesh protested. He couldn't move, even if he wanted to. For a brief moment, he had no idea where he was. Something hard that reeked of urine, waste and mildew was beneath him. The air was dank and cold and went right through him. What clothes were left were in tatters, giving him no relief from the cold. He moved again and the dull throb in his left thigh, that sparked his memory. Shot, then beaten and dragged behind Dale Upshaw's horse for miles. He moved again, feeling a raw and burning pain in his wrists and ankles. He was bound to something hard, lying flat on his back. He blinked against the blindfold, wondering where he was and more importantly, how he would escape. Chris? Was he even alive? His heart sank...he told Josiah he was heading north. Nobody knew...he was alone in this hell hole. He thought on the preacher's humble church and how many times he'd stolen inside, seeking solace in the dark. He turned to that now, praying for Chris...hoping he was alive. The angel appeared behind the darkness that blinded him. Her sky eyes sparkling and her golden hair dancing around her face. The pain returned, stabbing his heart and shredding his tender insides. A lone tear escaped, running under the dirty cloth and down his cheek.

"Callie..." he rasped through the bloodied lips. "God fergive me..." He prayed then, for salvation for his tortured soul. For hope was all he had left.

+ + + + + + +

The fog lifted and clear thoughts actually tried to invade his brain. He coughed and rolled, tasting the bitter residue of the medicine. Images of Buck holding him, coaxing the quinine in and guiding water to his parched lips. Come to think of it, all his memories during the nightmarish week, involved Buck being at his side. He coughed again, and his chest flared. The endless hacking had given his muscles to ache.

"Shit!" he rolled over again, trying to find relief.

"You said a swear word...that's five cents I'm gonna get from Buck. He said I'd make a lot money iffen I waited for you to rouse some."

One green eye got brave and opened, only to have a harsh ray of sunlight stab his delicate head. "Dammit!" he hissed, hunching up on the bed and covering his eyes.

"That's another nickel, boy oh boy, I'm gonna be rich!" she squealed, leaning in closer, examining the tense, pale face. "Josiah said if you say swear words, you could end up dancin' to the devil's fiddle. What's that mean? I didn't know the devil had a fiddle. How can he play a fiddle? Where'd he get a fiddle? I thought he only had pitchforks..."

The endless prattle hit him like bullets...bullets with fire. He squinted up at the curious little face and grimaced, "Go away, Kid..." he growled, turning over.

She walked around the bed again, putting her hands on the frame and leaning inward. She got so close, she was only an inch from his face. Her nose wrinkled up in distaste.

"You sure do stink good. I don't think I ever smelled anything so bad. Worse than Mr. Bate's pigs or even the sheep in the middle of summer when they're smellin' awful. My Mama's got some rosewater, I know where it's hid. I could douse you real away that stink. Maybe I could give you a bath first, then douse you."

"Nathan!" Chris roared, the pesty mite's barrage of questions was causing his head to explode. He jumped back when his eyes opened and the face was right in front of his, smiling like a cherub. He glared openly, but she leaned closer, tapping the top of his head.

"Your hair is all stickin' up like a porcupine down wind of a skunk...I could slacker it for you."

"Where the Hell are you, Nathan!" His frustration went airborne.

"You cussed again!" she giggled, clapping her hands and sitting on the bunk next to him. "If you say the real bad one, Buck says I get a whole quarter. Vin says you should earn your keep. Vin says not to take charity from nobody. Vin says I gotta be a little lady...Vin says you never break cover...Vin says..."

"...walkin' on water was he?" Chris groused of the child's idolization.

"Vin don't walk on water..but I seen him swimming once. He sure swims good...and he smiles good too. He don't stink like smell like you was wrestlin' with a pack of riled up skunks. Why's your hair stickin' up like that? Vin's hair always looks good...even when he's throwin' up... I seen him throwin' up once in the alley. Me and Billy was comin' back from the fishin' hole. J.D. took us and we caught lots of fish. We tried to show Vin, but he turned all green. He didn't like our fish...his eyes got all funny and he ran. Mr. Standish was smiling so hard the sun shot off his gold tooth. He said Vin was...was...embribin'..."

"Buck! Get your ass in here!" Chris growled, desperate and hurting and not caring. He saw the dark head through the window and heard the laughter before the heavy footfall.

"You said another one..." she jumped up and leapt at her mustached hero. "Buck I'm gonna be owe gotta give me..." she frowned and held on hand out, looking at her fingers."Aw, hell, I lost count."

"You lost your tip, Sweetheart," Buck laughed, carrying her across the room. "Part of the deal was that you wouldn't swear anymore. Get back in that bedroom and get in that tub. I left a clean dress and...and...things...for you to dress in."

"A dress?" she wrinkled her nose. "It ain't Sunday. I ain't gotta wear no dress..."

"You don't have to wear any dress." Buck corrected, putting a tray next to Chris's cot by the fire.

"Good, I'll find something else," she decided, leaving the room.

"I owe you," Chris sighed, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. He heard the soft chuckle and took another breath, the endless prattle still ringing in his ears. " your price..."

"I just got my reward," the rogue said seriously, watching the head rise. "Welcome back..." he held out a hand and smiled again at the strength returning in the grip. "You scared ten years off me, Pard and I ain't got that many left."

Chris tossed the worried man a half-grin and stood up, searching for clothes. He swayed and if Buck hadn't grabbed him, he'd have fallen.

"Damn..." he gasped, "How long I been out of it?"

"I brought you in six days damn near died on me..." Buck paused, gripping Chris's shoulders and shaking off the bad feeling, "Josiah brought Quinine last night...I've been giving you doses all day. It's almost suppertime." He saw Chris trying to stand again and intervened, "You don't have your sea legs yet," he warned, "...and Nate's to busy to be stitchin' or splintin' anything."

"He made it!" the blond grinned, "Damn his stubborn hide to hell..."

Buck didn't miss the pride in the voice and a touch of sadness. The brief light left the green eyes and the body sagged.

"I'm sorry, Chris," he answered the question he saw lingering, "He was gone before Josiah got to the drop off. The army hasn't found him yet..."

"They' won't." Chris said quietly, eyeing the mountains in the distance through the window. Where was Vin Tanner now? Would he find peace without knowing the truth? It bothered him that he couldn't find his friend and take the pain away. "Ezra?"

"Josiah said he's doing good, he helped them identify the carrier," he saw Chris look up briefly and the pain increase. "I ripped my guts up too. Vin's all alone out there, hunkered down on some cold Goddamn mountain, thinkin' he killed Callie and poisoned the town..."

He helped Chris sit up in the cot, back resting against the wall. He pulled the blanket up and set the tray on his lap. A bowl of broth with some biscuits and tea waited. He took a few more minutes, filling Chris in on the rest of the news.

"You eat, then we'll get you cleaned up, then you get more medicine and go back to bed." He paused, watching the wavering hand get the spoon up without spilling a drop. "She's right you know, you do stink pretty good..." he paused and walked across the room, watching her splash in the tub. Every few seconds, she'd look over at the large bed and her smile would fade.

Chris dipped the hot biscuit into the savory broth and frowned, watching the crestfallen Wilmington return. "What?" he asked, devouring the biscuit.

"Ben...he's not respondin'...poor kid, her heart's broke..."

+ + + + + + +

Something roused him from his semiconscious state. He tensed up, straining against his bonds. He felt it again, tiny feet walking on his bare chest. He sucked in his breath and felt the feet on his collarbone, whiskers brushing his cheek. He moaned and twisted his face, trying to dislodge it. A snicker nearby told him he wasn't alone. The fat belly of the beast landed on his lips and he bit it, tossing his head and hurling it across the room.

"Damn!" Adam laughed, watching the dazed rat scurry away.

"I bet he gave that rat rabies," Dale sneered, squatting over the captive who was tied to a wooden berth that was built into the wall. He eased the dagger down the filthy chest, watching the Adam's apple bobbing. "Now I'm impressed. Did you learn that trick while you were sleepin' with them savages? I'll bet you had a pretty little squaw." He punched Vin hard in the groin and smiled at the cry of pain. "Adam, get him up, it's time to play."

Vin felt the ropes cut, but was too long without circulation. Upon being raised, his legs collapsed, then suffered the pains of pins and needles. His arms were pulled painful high above his head and tied to a beam in the ceiling. The blindfold was removed and he squinted, turning his head as the light from the lantern on the table hit him. His quick glimpse was of a cabin, old, but sturdy. Two windows on either side and one door. A single table and two chairs, a small stove and a bunk. His throat was so dry, he was choking, his limbs ached and the smell of food, hot and savory, assaulted him empty stomach. When had he eaten last? Or had a drink? Two bowls of beef stew sat just a few feet away, steam rising. He saw Adam pour a mug of water and licked his lips. A plate of hot biscuits drizzled with butter was waved under his nose, the scent nearly knocking him out.

His head was jerked back and the blade appeared at his neck. He felt Dale pressing close from behind.

"Now you listen up, breed, we got a lot of questions to ask think what you been through over killing that little girl was ain't lived through my questions about Virginia and how you violated her..."

"Go...t'hell..." Vin whispered, his voice struggling against his water deprived throat. He kicked his bare foot backwards, striking out at the oppressor. A beefy fist to his lower back caused him to cry out as a severe pain ran up his spine. He blinked and saw stars, then Dale's face appeared in the center of his multicolored vision.

"You keep a civil tongue or I'll cut it right out of that mangy head of yours..." the elder Upshaw warned, punching Vin hard in the stomach and then in the wounded thigh.

The first blow took his air away, his head dropped and his sagged against the strain of bearing his weight. The second one send him into the black pool. He heard their voices from far away...

"You rest up, Tanner, once we get done supper, the fun's gonna begin..."

+ + + + + + +

Josiah sat across from Ezra, watching the trembling hands. The gambler hadn't moved an inch, not made any attempt to open the package with crude paper wrapping.

He saw the even letters of his name and realized how hard the author worked at getting them so even. But the 'from Vin' was what hurt. He traced the three letters and felt like a mule kicked him. Finally, he managed to get it open, and a small, well-worn leather book fell out. He cocked his head and images of the same book balanced on the tracker's lap in the wagon came to view. He eyed Josiah briefly, before gazing once again at the book. He opened the flap and read the new words on the inside aloud.

"Yull find me ware the Eagle calls..." He made a face and turned to Josiah "I don't understand..."

"I think he meant to finish that, Ezra, but he ran out of time. The Army was bearin' down on him..."

"But..." Ezra's words died in his throat, they were burned and set south, settling noisily in his stomach. The churning war began...sending angry spears of protests through his intestinal track. "There erred grievously..."

"No, he thought that out...on the way up, I'd guess. A man thinks he might not live to see tomorrow..."

"Why?" Ezra pleaded, pushing the book away, as if it seared his fingers. "Why me? He must have meant for Chris to have this...not"

"Why not you?" The preacher knew Vin made the right choice and Ezra needed to feel it too.

"You don't understand," he rose, leaving the book behind and walking to the window. He saw the crowd on the street, the signs of life had returned. Casey and J.D. were talking to Jessie out front of the Hotel. Other citizens lingered, their anxious faces realized in the flickering torches on the street. He remembered another night, not unlike this one. A night he'd wished he could have more than ever. "You weren't there..." his voice was distant and bitter, "I laughed at him...scoffed at his claim...sneered at that gifted soul..." he turned away, not wanting to see the life below. "It was a small request, it priceless value realized much later. He sought me out...entrusted me and I laughed..." He sat back down, staring at the book but not touching it. Again, he lifted his face to the wise man. "Why me?"

"You pick up that book," Josiah warned, standing and taking his hat, "You read every word and verse," he noted of the poetry Vin wrote in the book, one which even he hadn't seen. He knew Vin wrote poetry, they'd all seen him pull it own when they were out of town, around the fire or even when he was hunkered down in that damn wagon. He knew Chris read it, he'd seen Vin sharing the poems with him in the shadows of the saloon. "You listen real hard and you'll get your answer. Vin..." he paused at the door. "...saw you, the real you. That's why..."

So Ezra picked up the book, laid on the cot and flipped to the first page. As he read, his emotions were tossed like a ship in storm. Some of the poems were full of light and joy, others reflective and moving, others sad and haunting. Tears formed at the words...and rage followed. That someone so gifted, with such vision was so misunderstood. With a heavy heart, he clutched Vin Tanner's most prized possession against his chest and heard the soft drawl. Vin understood why he laughed and accepted him for it. That irony...Vin saw it where no one else could. If he lived to be a hundred and slaved for hours every day, he'd never be able to produce art as exquisite and moving as this. Vin understood the bitter laugh...and Ezra now understood, too late, how special the gentle spirit had been. For the first time in his life, he felt like someone touched his soul. The lamp flickered out, casting the room into darkness. He slid beneath the blanket and let the burning tears score his face.

+ + + + + + +

The crickets played to an unappreciative audience in the dense thicket around the old cabin. The rider eyed the road behind him, carefully noting that he wasn't followed. He slid from the horse and made his way to the cabin. A cry of pain split the night, chasing the chirping insects away for a moment. He paused in the doorway, letting the slow grin form. Tired of the waiting for the unconscious man to rouse, Dale had placed the lit end of the cigar he was smoking into the open wound on Tanner's thigh. The sky eyes shot open, just before the scream. The visitor chuckled, then he strode inside, placing a bottle of whiskey on the table.

"Well now, I hope I didn't miss all the fun," Yancy spit a wad of tobacco, hitting the bruised cheek of the prisoner.

"Hell no," Dale yanked the mangy hair hard, bringing the tracker's head up. The blue eyes were alive with fury. "I was just about to ask the breed here, about the dirty, stinkin' Indian he defended...the one who raped Claire Mosley. That's his first crime, defendin' that thievin' redskinned rapist."

"...didn't rape...her...was...mar...ried..." Vin coughed, flinching as a fist was driven into his lower back. His body was thrown forward, only increased the pain in the pressure of his arms extended over his head.

"Liar!" the blond's lip curled up in fury and he moved in front of the gasping victim, whose head hung down. He backhanded him hard, splitting the cracked lip, before yanking the head up hard. He inched his face closer, wrinkling his nose in disgust. Saliva and blood ran down the tortured man's chin, leaving a long, lingering wet string down his chest. "Look at him, droolin' like an old man. You keep your head up when I talk to you, Boy!" he growled, "and don't you sass me, you lyin' sack of shit...he used her like an animal...probably did a lot worse too...I heard about what they do to Christian women...twistin' their minds up. They should have cut his meat off...made him suffer awhile, then hung his heathen red ass."

Vin heard the words and his anger rose. Chanu was a friend, a good one and he wouldn't let Upshaw talk about him like that. Claire and Chanu loved each other and the time they shared was too brief, halted by her deranged father.

"Ye'll never be half the man he is..." Vin hissed, as his mouth filled with blood again. " needs balls...that leaves..ya out..." He lifted his face, spitting a wad right into Dale's eye. He felt the pain explode between his legs, when the hard toe of the keeper's boot hit him. A storm of color erupted in his vision, blues, reds and purples swam in a frenzy. He bit back a scream, as a burning pain tore into his leg.

"You go speakin' with 'forked tongue' again dog and I'm gonna start cuttin' off little bits and pieces of you." the elder Upshaw charged, withdrawing the glowing ember from the open wound on Tanner's bare leg. He put the cigar on the edge of the table and picked up his knife. He'd cut away the cloth around the open bullet score, to gain easy access. "Listen up, Tanner, this court is now in session, the honorable Dale Upshaw is presidin'..." he laughed, slapping Yancy's back.

"What are the charges, Judge?" the other man chuckled.

"Trespassin' to start off with," Upshaw paused, pressing the point of the knife he held into the damp folds of the prisoner's naval. "...takin' the side of the Indian dog Chanu against the rest of the town...the decent folks..." he increased the pressure, drawing a sharp hiss as a bead of red appeared. "...and..." he growled, yanking the head up violently and moving the knife to the pale exposed neck. "...rapin' and chokin' the life out of my sweet Ginny..."

"...she's not...dead..." Vin choked, feeling the blade press into the flesh over his collarbone.

"Breathin'?" the blond spat back, jerking the blade and causing a tiny cut, "Yeah, she's still breathin'...but she's dead inside...her mind's gone...Her folks put her in some fancy hospital in St. Louis." he moved the knife under the loose waistband of the muddy pants and pressed the blade low, making his threat clear. He pulled the gathered hair back further and pressed his lips close to the struggling man's ear. "You might have fooled the judge and them others...but not me..I know what you did to her in the fuckin' animal!"

Vin froze, his body stiffening as he prepared for the crude castration, but it didn't occur. He unclenched his eyes, when he heard the laughter. Yancy moved in, slapping Dale on the back and whooping it up. Vin closed his eyes again and his chest sagged in relief. The two moved to the table, toasted themselves with a new bottle of whiskey.

"Hey, Dale," Yancy elbowed his boss with a wink, "Don't forget about all them folks he killed with his sickness," he baited and saw the blue eyes shoot open and fill with pain. He winked again and picked up a broken piece of board, moving in front of the bound tracker. Seeing the fires of guilt clearly through the eyes dulled by pain, he sneered. "Ya know, I heard that poor little gal's Pa was so busted up about her dyin'...he give up. Hell, he's probably dead by now...Larabee too."

"Poor little Callie," Dale threw more fuel on the fire, "I can just see her face all red from the air bein' cut off...eyes buggin' out..." he moved around the table, elbowing Adam who had been observing. "Horrible way to go...and her poor Pa havin' to watch...You feel proud of that, you mangy dog, causin' all them folks to choke to death?"

Try as he might, he couldn't shut out the anguish and it shot out of his eyes. He bit his lip as the wave rose, constricting his chest. Blurred images from a long ago memory lingered in the shadows...another face...choking and gagging...then the deafening silence and the agonizing death. Her unseeing eyes staring right at him, before he was pulled away. That's the last memory he had of his mother. Callie, the sun shining from her eyes and the lyrical tinge to that wonderful laughter. Her small hugs and tiny kisses, that cranky voice when she was cross, the confidence when she led the pack of kids around town, was gone forever. Ben and Chris? God, did he kill his best friend? Bad enough that poor woman was coming home to a dead child, but a dead husband too. He was nearly drowning in a sea of remorse, the black waves crashing over him. So lost was he, that he didn't see Yancy raise the club. The sharp pain in his side forced a dull grunt from his battered lips, as wood men flesh and bone.

"That's for what ya done to Claire Mosley, by lettin' that heathen escape from jail..." Yancy spat, handing the club to Dale, who tossed it from one hand to the other, while circling the victim.

"Ginny," he whispered in Vin's ear. "You're gonna pay for what you done to her. You'll be screamin' for a bullet to end your misery you stinkin' savage..." he swung the wood hard, hitting the soft area under the exposed ribcage.

His air was stolen from him and he dropped his head, coughing hard and fighting for every breath. Through the next several minutes as the fog lifted, he heard the evil laughter. His shifted his weight, trying to stand and take some pressure off his upper arms. The burning muscles begged for release, as the strain was intensified by the pressure of bearing his weight.

"Look at me when I'm talking to you!" Dale hollered, leveling a punch to the side of the dazed man's face. "We were gonna get married, until you soiled her..."

"Hah..." Vin grunted, knowing through Mary that Virginia had been planning to break off the courtship. The dangerous side of the hot-headed Upshaw frightened her. "...yer dreamin'...she'd a sooner wed a snake..." he rasped, blinking through the fog. He saw a flicker in Upshaw's eyes and zoned in, "...ya knew...that it?" he quizzed, his side on fire, "...she turned ya down that night, didn't she? Ya got pissed off and"

"Shut up!" the blond raged, pummeling the helpless body with both fists.

"Dale, that's enough!" Adam jumped from the window ledge where he'd been resting, fighting with his inner doubt. He pulled his brother away, wincing at the blood running down Tanner's face from a new cut above his eye, a split lip and a bloody nose. His chest was already discolored by the rough handling and dragging the night before and full of small cuts. "He's had it...he's out cold..."

"Fuck off, Adam," the elder struggled against his strong brother, who pulled him outside.

"Listen to me!" the dark-haired Upshaw commanded, zoning his eyes onto the furious face. "We're already late, if we don't hurry, we'll miss curfew. Pa'll have a want to tangle with him?"

Dale paused a moment, fisting his rage and quelling the fire inside. Adam was right. Besides, he wanted Tanner  to suffer long and hard. Nodding, he caught Yancy's eye. "You and Adam get him back on that bunk, I'll get the horses."

While Bates secured the stunned man's legs, tying the naked ankles to each corner, Adam tied the hands, wincing at the battered face. Glancing backwards, he saw Yancy turn away and grabbed the canteen. He managed to wipe some blood away and dribble some moisture into the dazed man's mouth. What started as a prank, had turned sour. He thought they'd rough up Tanner a little, scare him good and set him loose on foot near the property border. But the murderous glint in the elder Upshaw's eyes, worried him. He knew now that Dale intended to kill Tanner slowly. Sighing, he eyed the battered body and tied on the blindfold.

+ + + + + + +

Buck rose from the mat on the floor and stretched, eager to head out in the morning. Nathan needed supplies and suggested Buck go for them, sending the wagon back with Josiah. He told Buck to get some rest, a hot bath and a good meal. Buck eyed the lines of exhaustion on the sleeping healer's face and shook his head. He wondered how Nate found the strength to pull himself up; he hadn't had a break in almost two weeks.

Trotting to the bed, he checked on Callie and her father. The tiny child was curled up, sleeping sound. Her breathing had improved and Nate felt confident with rest, continued medicine and good food, she'd be fine. Ben wasn't better, but at least he wasn't worse. He needed to be watched at all times, too weak to expel the congestive matter clogging his throat. Coffee...the guard walked through the room and into the small living area. He poured a cup and turned back, surprised to see Chris sitting up and blinking at him.

"You hungry?" he asked, knowing Nate wanted to get some food into the weak man. The damp blond head dipped once and he headed to the stove. He ladled out some chicken stew and wrapped two biscuits in a damp towel, then put in a pot over the heat. He waited a few minutes, then pulled them out. After adding some cold cider and a mug of herbal tea, he headed for the table. "Here," he pulled out Chris's spoon and took the bottle of medicine from the mantle. Two spoonfuls and a wrinkled face later, he helped the dazed man stand. "Easy does don't have your legs back yet." Finally Chris was settled at the table, wearing a clean shirt of Buck's.

"Thanks..." Chris whispered, a headache still plaguing him. His chest felt heavy and his throat was still sore. He fought against the urge to sleep, feeling the need to build his strength back. "Ben?" he asked, eyeing the concerned face across from him.

Buck sipped his coffee thoughtfully, before replying. "He's holdin' on...barely. I'll tell you what, Chris, Nate deserves a medal. He's been amazing."

"He must be exhausted," Chris noted, hearing the admiration in Buck's tone, "He hasn't yelled at me in hours." He coughed and closed his eyes as the room swung around. Then it passed and he resumed eating.

Buck watched Chris's eyes darting to the doorway and he sighed, then rose. He made his way to the peg on the wall where his jacket was. Reaching in the pocket, he drew out the watch and letter. He sat them next to Chris and saw the pale face blanch. The watch disappeared immediately, nestled tightly inside the firm fist. The green eyes regarded the letter with caution.

"My head's splittin' in half..." Chris whispered, feeling a wave of dizziness, which only grew more intense when he saw Vin's writing. He slid his finger inside the envelope and drew out a sheet of paper. The black markings tumbled together before his blurry vision. He blinked hard, narrowing his gaze to find the words. "Shit..." he dropped it, then slowly slid it across the table.

"You sure?" Buck's voice dropped in awe, knowing what Larabee was asking. His answer came when one hand gripped the watch again, the other finishing the meal. The eyes met his once and he nodded, picking up the paper.

"Hey Cowboy," he paused, grinning at the name that only Tanner could get away with. "Don't waste no time worrying on me. I gotta go away...a place I know, high above the eagle's call. Somewheres I cant kill no more folks. Im sorry Chris fer causin' ya to suffer so. Callie...God fergive me...I keep hearin' her...seein' her...takes my breath away..." Buck paused, feeling his own gut clenching and hearing the sharp hiss of pain from the tortured man across from him. The eyes were simmering and the fist gripping the watch, was now over his chest. He knew Chris Larabee well enough to know the inability to help his best friend, hurt worse that the disease that nearly killed him. He took a slow sip of coffee and continued. "Ya no this, Larabee, what ya give me...with yer hand open...I ain't never gonna ferget." He paused again, and waited, feeling Chris's pain reflected in his tormented eyes. "There's a poem..." he saw the slight nod and continued. "My fate lies ahead in a path cut and true. My naked hearts cut open by eyes wide and blue. My hands are marked by blood that wont go away. My soul is cold and broken, I lost my brother today." He swallowed hard, feeling the utter hopelessness and desolation his younger friend was housing. He could see those emotive blue eyes and shuddered. He folded the letter and replaced it, rising as he saw Chris struggling for control. He slid the envelop across the table, under the free hand. He rested his own hand on Chris's wrist for a moment, squeezing it gently. "I'm gonna go check on Ben," he said, leaving the blond to his grief.

+ + + + + + +

Breakfast at the table in the large house was somber. Jake glanced at both of his brothers, zoning in on Adam. Usually a good eater, his brother was toying with the food, glancing uneasily at Dale when their father wasn't looking. Maria, their housekeeper for years, placed a platter of sausage, eggs and fried potatoes in front of Dale, who dug in with gusto.

"Senor," a young voice called from the foyer.

"Yes, Diego," Zeb replied to the young stable boy.

"This just arrived from town," he handed the message to his employer.

Zeb scanned the note and swore, before tossing a coin to the waiting youth. He moved to the desk across the room and quickly wrote a reply. "You get that to telegraph office and hurry..." He returned to his seat and pushed his plate away. "Do you have those contracts ready?" He asked his middle son, who didn't seem to hear. "Adam...I'm talking to you."

"Huh?" the dark eyes blinked, "Oh, sorry Pa."

"Don't sorry Pa me," the silver-haired magnate replied, "That's your punishment for arriving home so late. You both know this is a working ranch. You should have been in bed by eleven."

"Yes , Sir," the dark head nodded, "I should have the figures done by this afternoon." He said of the contract with the railroad. They were selling off a parcel of their massive holdings. The railroad was paying top dollar, expanding across the northeast corner of their land.

"You'll have plenty of time to review them on the train. You and Dale will be going to Silver City to meet with Chester Kincaid. He's arrived five days early and he's anxious. That means he might pay our price." He paused and saw the color leave the middle boy's face, while he exchanged a curious look with his older brother. "Is something wrong?"

"No, Sir," Adam recovered, "I just didn't sleep well. Train...the depot is a half days ride..."

"Clem will drive you both there," the elder man said of one of their hands.

"I don't see why we both have to go," Dale argued, masking his anger. Silver City meant three days away at the minimum. His itch to pound the flesh of the tracker into minced meat was almost unbearable. "Besides, roundup is coming up and..."

"I'm sending Jake with Gabe and Max. It's about time he gets more involved in the physical side of the workings of this ranch. His nose is always buried in a book..."

"But Pa..." Jake protested, his plans suddenly dissolving. For a brief minute, his idea of finding the secret his brothers hid glimmered. With them gone for three days, he could try to find out whatever it is they were hiding. Now, that was dashed. Roundup was on the far edges of the property. Hundreds of calves had to be rounded up, branded and recorded in the tally book.

"No buts about it..." he warned his youngest, then turned to the brooding blond on his left. "As for you, Dale. You promised Mark Goodfellow that you'd look at his bull. If it's as good as he claims, we could negotiate a good price. His ranch is just outside Silver City. You better get going, the train leaves Dry Gulch Depot at noon."

By the time Adam had his bags packed and in the wagon, Dale was already conspiring with Yancy in the bunkhouse. He cornered the pair, just as Yancy laughed in a way that made him uncomfortable.

"I'll take care of it, Dale," he noted of the devious heir's plans. "I'll go out this afternoon, see to it that boy gets fed and watered."

"Just enough to keep him going..." Dale warned, "I don't want him dying before I get a chance to teach some manners..."

"Let him go," Adam suggested, "You had your fun...hell, he ain't headed back to town. He's never gonna show his face in these parts again. Why can't Yancy take him to the border," he noted of where their property ended, far north. "...and let him loose?"

"Why don't you hike your bloomers up a little higher, so they cut your balls off altogether," Dale spat back, shoving his brother hard into the wall. "You listen to me, Little Brother, that bastard's gonna pay and so is anybody who tries to stop me...comprehende?"

Adam had seen that look before and remembered all to well the broken arm and busted head he'd suffered because of it. He didn't flinch, or give a reply. Zeb's body in the doorway saved him.

"Quit horsin' around and get moving!" He ordered, pulling the older boy hard, "I'm not talking to myself here, Dale. You keep that temper in check and get some business done. Now go..."

+ + + + + + +

Callie tugged at the collar of her nightgown, eyeing the pensive blond from across the room. Nathan and Buck were working on her father, so she was waiting in the large room. She sunk down on the floor, pulling herself in a tight little ball. Buck warned her, while she ate her breakfast and took her medicine, that Chris was a little sad today, so not to pester him. She thought of her Papa and her chest hurt. She heard Nathan telling Buck he didn't think he'd live the day out. Would he Pa leave her and go do heaven? Tears filled her eyes and she wrapped her arms around her knees, holding them at bay.

Chris heard a small squeak and looked up from the table. Although barefoot, he was dressed and trying to sit up as often as possible, hoping to build his sapped strength back. He narrowed his eyes at the sight of the balled up figure. He didn't miss the second squeak, recognizing the stifled sob. His eyes diverted to the bedroom door and Buck's ashen face. He winced and eyed the large apple muffin on the plate in front of him. Nate made some earlier and he and Buck had each eaten one. He eyed his empty mug and the jug of cider by the door. He stood twice, but the doom flying around caused him to sit down hard. The third time a tiny hand tapped his arm.

"Here," she carefully lifted the jug with two hands. She watched him pour a mug and waited, then tapped his arm again. "I'm sorry...about yesterday and bein' a pest. You don't gotta worry, I ain't go no pest in me today. My insides are hurtin' pretty good."

"Yeah," he nodded slowly, "I know the feeling. I hate drinkin' alone..."

She waited a moment, then got her mug from the shelf. She settled in beside him at the table, sliding her mug over. She sipped the cold beverage and saw Nate bending over her father again. She looked at the sad green eyes on the man next to her, and thought about what her Mama told her. That Mr. Larabee lost his little boy. She thought for a moment and tapped his arm. "Mr. Larabee?"

Chris looked over, his wandering thoughts interrupted. He eyed the solemn blue eyes and waited.

"I wanted...I been thinkin'..." her voice wavered, then she took a deep breath. "I Pa...I think...he'll take good care of your little boy. He's a real good Pa...he's listens...he only hollers 'cause I'm a itch...he's tells good stories and tickles real good. He calls me 'Sunshine'...Did you know that?" she paused, her lip trembling and her chest aching. "He's goin' to'll be think it him after your...boy...he's gonna miss..."

It wasn't bad enough that the small, fragile words wounded him, he looked over just as the floodgates opened.

"Dammit," he whispered, wincing as the heart-wrenching sobs and quivering shoulders on the tiny child ripped a hole in him. He rested a hand on her back and rubbed it gently. He waited until the sobbing slowed and retracted his hand. "Here," he handed her a napkin. "Blow your nose and clean up that face. We ain't got any room for quitter's at this table."

"Huh?" she hiccupped twice and did as she was told.

"You're a quitter," he noted, "Vin sure would be disappointed in you..."

"No he wouldn't..." she defended of her absent hero. "Don't you talk about him."

"He don't take to cowards. I thought you were different."

"I ain't no coward." She stood up, her face red with anger.

"Then why are you burying your Pa?" Chris leveled at the irate face. "You got him in heaven and he's still breathin'. You gave up on him...and maybe he knows that. Maybe he's waitin' for you to call him back. Tell him how much you need him...give him He...uh...holler at him good."

She inched closer to him, glared at him good and marched off in a huff. Two minutes later, Nate and Buck appeared, each wearing a confused face.

"What got into Callie?" Nate said, pushing the swaying blond back towards the bed.

"We had a talk," he said, yawning and draining the last of his cider.

"Must have been some conversation," Buck grinned, "She's burnin' Ben's ear off...she's all fired up about somethin', chased us out of the room." He paused, seeing Chris give a half grin, before lying back on the bed. He shrugged and walked outside with Nathan, eager to get back to town.

Nate was still outside, washing his weary face under the pump, when her shrill hollering brought him dripping wet through the house. He saw Chris struggling and shoved him hard, barking at him to stay put.

Chris fell back on the large stack of pillows, waiting for the room to stop spinning. He felt a small kiss on his cheek and peeled an eye open. The small face was wearing a smug grin, the head tilted up in a cocky fashion.

"I hollered at him good, I got so mad I got to swearin'..." she bragged, then smiled, "Sometimes bein' a ain't so bad. He opened his eyes...he tried to talk...I think he said 'Sunshine'...." she paused, "he touched my face and started to cry...that's good, ain't it?"

"Damn straight!" Chris shot back, with a small grin.

"That's another nickel you owe me," she decided, skipping away to sit by her father. Later, after Nate assured her that he felt her father wasn't going to die, he asked her to warm up some water for tea. As she waited, she saw the sad look on Chris's face. Thinking on Buck's words that morning, that he was sad because Vin went away, she padded across the room.

Chris felt a tug on his sleeve and looked up.

"I got a book from my aunt, a real good book, all full of knights and princesses. I can't read a lot of the words, but I can read the pictures real good. If you want, I could read some of them to you.. It might chase your sad eyes away...maybe for a little bit..."

Chris smiled at the brave little girl and nodded, hitching himself up weakly into a sitting position. "Okay, Kid..." So she climbed up to the loft and got her book, carefully walking back to the bed. She paused a moment, then scowled.

"That ain't hardly enough room for a bird," she pouted, "You gotta move or I'll be all squooshed up..."

"Alright...alright..." Chris protested, moving over and waiting for the small body to wiggle next to him. She opened the book and paused, eyeing his face carefully.

"You get the feelin' that your gonna start hurlin' up spit wads, you warn me. This is my good nightgown and I don't want you spittin' on it."

"Don't push your luck, Kid..." he grunted, resting his aching head against the wall.

Part 6

It was just past four p.m. when J.D. rode back into town. Sliding off his mount, he tied the reins loosely over the hitching post, before entering the saloon. He strode quickly to where Buck and Josiah were huddled. The two were studying a large map, and he grabbed a beer and joined them.

"Army's pulling out, they got Indian trouble down south, near the border." The youthful sheriff declared, while leaning over his best friend's shoulder. He saw the signs of relief the news brought. Vin Tanner was safe, at least for the moment, from the army. "What's that?" He asked, taking a large gulp and belching in Buck's ear.

"Jesus, J.D., what barn were you raised in!" Wilmington laughed, shoving the arm away. "Josiah got this from the telegraph office. We're tryin' to figure where Vin might be."

The dark-haired youth watched Buck's finger tracing the mountains up north and frowned. "What makes you think he's headed that way?"

"'cause it's high above the eagle's call," The mustached man replied in a distant voice.

"Huh?" Dunne asked, eyeing the other curiously.

"That's the clue Vin left," the preacher announced, seeing Buck's lost eyes and jumping in. "He told Ezra and wrote it in a note to Chris. We're tryin' to think of places he mentioned he'd been to, when he was younger."

"Hell," the sheriff took another sip, "...that'd be just about everywhere. Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada..." He mused, thinking on some of the references the Texan made to him in previous conversations.

"Thanks," Buck groaned, shoving his body back and rubbing his eyes. "Damn, I'm tired..."

"You've earned it," Sanchez grinned, squeezing Buck's shoulder. "You heard what Nate said. You need to eat good and rest up for couple of days."

"Yeah," Wilmington yawned and gave his stomach a pat, "I think I'm down a couple pounds. Come on, Kid, you can buy me dinner."

"On my salary?" Dunne teased, "I can barely afford to buy me dinner. If you didn't waste all your money on carnal pleasure..."

"Carnal pleasure?" Sanchez choked, grinning as Buck nearly spit out his whole beer on the table. "J.D., you gotta quit spendin' so much time with Ezra."

"Speaking of which?" the young easterner eyed the street over the batwing doors. "How's he doing?"

"Settled back in his room." Buck recovered, slapping J.D.'s leg. "...and you show some respect. You're damn lucky to have me to teach you the fine art of wooing a woman."

"...and who's gonna teach you?" Sanchez grinned, smacked Wilmington's back and rose. He took the map and folded it up, eyeing the door. "I'll update Chris and Nate about the army cuttin' off the hunt."

"Chris get home okay?" J.D. inquired and saw the weary Wilmington nod. Buck looked awful, dark circles still lingered under his eyes and he was still very tired.

"Yeah," the rogue sighed, recalling the trek that morning. The fourth day after the regimen of quinine was introduced, the steam tents, salt wash and herbal teas combined for success. Although very weak and needing a couples weeks to build his strength back, the blond was now back at his shack. Nathan gave the okay, once he felt Chris was strong enough to manage the orders given for recovery. One look at the determined green eyes, told them all what they needed to know. Chris wanted, needed to get well. He had two things on his agenda and two only. Find Vin Tanner and bring give him his soul back. The sooner he got stronger, the quicker he could begin his quest. So this morning, after a good breakfast and steam treatment, Buck took him home. Chris appreciated the offer to have his offer to stay, but declined. He wanted to be alone for a couple days. Buck left the cabin well stocked with food, herbs for tea and salt. Josiah saw to it that the shack had been bleached and scrubbed with the recommended solvents. Then he got the potentially dangerous linens and blankets burned. "Maybe I'll eat later," he yawned, the last two weeks of no sleep and hard work caught up with him.

"What?" Dunne stood and grabbed the weary man's arm, pulling him up, "and deprive me of the world famous Wilmington Wooing School? I think not!" he chuckled, shoving the grinning man towards the door. "Besides, the hotel's got a new ought see she fills out her..."

"New?" Buck's eyes lit up and he raked a hand through his hair. "A looker? Maybe I should get a bath..."

"Come on Romeo," J.D. rolled his eyes. "That bath's only got water, it's not a miracle cure."

"You're gettin' cocky Kid," the older man teased, swatting his young friend with his hat as they headed for the hotel. "She's loaded huh?"

"...packin'..." J.D. nodded, glad to see Buck finally relaxing. The strain of nearly losing Chris Larabee had taken it's toll. Ezra wasn't himself yet either, staying in his room and shutting then out. He planned on visiting the gambler as soon as he got Buck settled in bed.

+ + + + + + +

Dale watched the dusty landscape even out and grinned. He elbowed his dozing brother and sat up straight. The familiar landmarks appeared, marking their homecoming. He whistled and hooted, looking forward the evening ahead. His father would be proud of the contract Adam negotiated, getting top dollar and a bonus for the land sale. Then they got Mark Goodfellow to come down from his price for the prize stud bull. It was very successful trip, but the best part was yet to come. He'd been planning an evening with Vin Tanner. His blood heated up, when he thought of his plans to tame the wild man. If Yancy followed the orders, the smart-mouthed half-breed would be primed and ready.

"What's the shit-eatin' grin for?" Adam asked, watching Dale light up.

"We're home, brother," the elder Upshaw replied, as the stage pulled into Dry Gulch Depot and he spotted Max with their horses. "...and I know that stinkin' Texan is just dyin' to see me!" He laughed and jerked the door open.

Adam watched his older brother trot to the horses, leaving him to get their bags. He frowned uneasily, knowing that his hesitation prior to leaving, had taken it's toll. Dale and he had been tied up for three days, negotiating both contracts. Little time was taken to discuss their prisoner. But Dale lost his trust, and hadn't disclosed the plans made. He carried the bags over to the wagon from the ranch, tossing them in the back. Without a word, he took the reins from Max, vaulted onto his horse and followed Dale back to the ranch.

+ + + + + + +

Vin shifted on the cot, the hard frame chewing the tender skin on his back. The blindfold and lack of food left him terribly disoriented. He had no concept of time, dates or night and day. Had it been days or weeks since his capture? The early part of the confinement was filled with beatings and pain. Now, his days were muddled and empty. The blindfold closed out his senses and left him dizzy. Every once and awhile, it was removed, and one hand freed. A bowl of stew, a biscuit and a canteen were left on his cot. Like an animal, he clawed at the offering, eating with his fingers and letting it drip off his chin. Starvation did that to a man...and a disoriented one, weak and fevered, cared even less. The pain in his leg throbbed again. He felt the heat and shifted, trying to dislodge whatever was walking over his thigh. He'd grown accustomed to the tiny feet of the visitors. The same questions returned, plaguing his disillusioned mind. Was Chris dead? Had the medicine worked? Had the townspeople returned and found out what he'd done? A silent killer...a dead man walking...a prisoner without walls. Callie appeared in his darkness, her small face choked red with lack of air. He struggled weakly against the ropes, crying out as her body stiffened in death. Then another set of eyes appeared, blue and lethal. A snide laugh, a harsh hand on his body. Why hadn't Dale just killed him? Why was he left in this place? A hand on his ankle and a surly laugh made him flinch. The keeper was back...and his insides tensed. The aroma of meat assaulted him and caused his starving body to react. He grunted and groveled, grabbing the bowl and scooping out the meat and gravy.

Yancy stood by the cot and grinned, eyeing the animal that Tanner was reduced to. Dale was right, the long hours spent alone and in the dark, had taken it's toll. Combined with the near starvation for four days and the added guilt of the misknowledge of Callie's death, nearly broke the victim's spirit. The first day, he'd rebelled, tossing the food against the wall. But hunger replaced caution and when Yancy came back the next day, the reaction was different. Now he'd gained the confidence of the prisoner. He eyed the gaunt face, streaked with dried blood and dirt. The hair was dirty and matted, hanging in his eyes like fetid rat tails. Weak from his deprivation, his arms shook as they moved to finish the meager meal. He laughed then and sat down at the table to wait. The poor bastard didn't even know...he ate blindly, following his need. As the last of the food disappeared ,the head rose, seeking the canteen. Yancy chuckled, wrinkling his face in disgust. Gravy dripped from the weak man's chin. Fever slashed his cheeks and gave his swollen eyes an unnatural brightness. The yellow ooze that peeked through the angry leg wound smelled foul. The beating Dale gave him before he left, marked the lean body with purple and blue bruises. One eye was swollen shut and that side of his face swollen and discolored.

"You want your water now, Breed?" he chortled, dangling the canteen in front of the thirsty man's eyes. He watched the tongue slip through the bloodied, swollen lips and laughed again. The food had been spiked with salt...and something else. Soon the pain would come...ripping through his intestines and taking him into a new world of pain. He uncorked the canteen and poured it over the floor, laughing as the body scrambling frantically, licking up the filthy puddle, despite the wad of spit lying in it.

The fire in his mouth made him move. The whole inside of his mouth was on fire, burning relentlessly. The flames drove him past reason, and he watched through blurry eyes as the distorted figure poured the water just past his lips. Grunting and groaning, he dove, trying to capture it before it soaked through the dirt. He didn't hear the laugher, or see the visitor enter.

+ + + + + + +

Restless and unable to sleep, Chris rose from the bed and strode towards the fire. He stoked the embers, the light played off his naked chest. He made a pot of coffee and then settled at the table, gazing at the carefully assembled pieces. His hand reached past them, to the envelope. He read Vin's words again, although he knew the verse by heart. He needed to see the black lettering, Vin's own hand, and drink in the scrawl. He held onto that...feeling the strength in every letter. He carefully folded it again and resumed his work. He found a small smile, recalling the shock on Buck's face earlier. The rogue brought him home and got the bedroom ready. He stocked the shelves and left Nate's orders on the pantry wall. While he was busy, Chris settled at the table and began. As the time passed, he thought on the day he first befriended the Texan. Then the friendship changed, deepening into something he couldn't describe or put words to. The intensity he felt wasn't tangible or explainable. Buck came through, eyed the collection of pieces from Vin's watch and shook his head.

"You got a death wish?" he asked and retreated, leaving the blond to his work. He worked past midnight, until he snapped the crystal back in place and wound the watch. He wore a triumphant grin, when the second hand began to move. He eyed the fine scrolling letters inside, anticipating Vin's face when he read his grandfather's name. He turned the light out, took the letter and watch, retreating to his room.

+ + + + + + +

Jake waited until he was sure his father and brothers were gone, then sprinted to the window. With little effort, he eased out the window, down the roof and sprinted to the path behind the house. Quickly, he found the fine black where he left him earlier. Grazing on the hay he provided, Larabee's horse looked up as the boy's hand stoked his neck. He eased onto the saddle and rode out, pausing at the crossroads. He saw where Dale turned off and knew where he was headed. He eyed the other path and hollered out, riding the devil himself.

"J.D....J.D...." He cried out, jumping off the horse and flying though the office doors. He coughed and panted, totally out of breath.

"Jake?" Dunne queried, rising from his desk and moving around to greet the visitor. "What's wrong? What's the mat..." his words died in his throat when the boy handed him the coat. Not just any coat, Vin Tanner's hide coat. "Where did you get this!" he demanded, grabbing the startled youth's collar.

" Mr. Larabee's brothers...have him...might be hurting him..."

"Where!" J.D. scrambled and got his guns, grabbing a rifle and ammunition as well.

"I" He panted, staring hard at the youthful sheriff. "I'm sorry...I was gone...three days...roundup...I just got back...I found them tonight...I..."

"That's okay, Jake," J.D. reassured with a pat and headed for the hotel. "You're here now and that's all that matters." He eyed the windows and picked up a pebble. "It took a lot of did the right thing."

"What!" Buck hissed, sticking his head through the window. "Dammit J.D., this hotel better be on fire..."

"Get down here, It's Vin!"

+ + + + + + +

"Damn he looks just like the pigs at Quincy's holler..." Dale noted of the pig farmer nearby. He didn't recognize his prisoner and clapped the guardian on his back. "You did good..."

"He's all ready," Yancy noted, "Poor bastard didn't even realize the meat was tainted...look at him...lickin' that shit up..." he laughed, "You see your Pa?"

"Yeah, he's busy with Adam headin' over to Carter's place," he noted of the family lawyer. His father was eager to have the solicitor read the contracts as soon as possible. "I got three hours until I gotta ride back." He leaned down and yanked Tanner's head up, twisting the greasy locks violently. "We're gonna have a party tonight...a necktie party..." he laughed, tapping Tanner's cheek. Before the prisoner's confused eyes could focus on him, the first of the waves of pain took hold. "Got yourself a little bellyache, Breed?" he leered, cutting him free. He watched the body curl up in a tight ball, the grit covered face a mask of agony. The weak cries of pain filled the air, before the stench followed. "Dammit, Breed, you're gonna have to clean up that mess..." his nose wrinkled in distaste at the weak body that was expelling the poison. "That should learn you not to take gifts from strangers..."

Through the haze of pain and the razor-like talons that ripped through his tender insides, Vin glared up at the hostile intruder. The fever and hunger took his rationale away, so it was hard for him to recognize the blurry face. But he knew that voice. As the fire exploded in his gut, he cried out and rocked in the dirt. He felt the watery residue leave his bowels and didn't care. He just wanted the pain to end. His throat was swollen from the salty food, and he yearned for water. The canteen appeared again and he reached up, grunting and blinking, trying to focus on the moving blur.

"You want some water, doggie?" Dale leered, dropping the open canteen. He waited until the creature's hands got a good hold and took a long mouthful, then he unleashed his boot, kicking the bare abdomen hard. Water shot back, causing the victim to choke, cough and sputter. He turned back to say something to Yancy, not seeing the last flicker of anger in the blue eyes.

Through his waves of pain, Vin Tanner rebelled. He had nothing to lose and struck back, hitting the side of the guard's face with the canteen. Then a hand smacked his face and he bit it as hard as he could. Something hard his head and he felt the pain at the same time as something wet ran down his cheek. A boot landed hard in his gut, taking him to the floor. He splayed out flat, eyeing the stars that danced above his eyes.

"That no-good bastard bit me," Dale growled, kicking Tanner's exposed, reddened leg. "Get him's time I teach the breed here some manners."

Yancy hauled the young man upright, lashing the raw, blood-encrusted wrist to the rope dangling from the ceiling. He picked up the left hand, about to follow suit, when he was stopped.

"No," Dale denied, picking up a board, "Hold it out..."

Vin screamed as wood hit bone and it snapped, sending a shocking ripple through his already spent body. His eyes shot open, the whites erupting in unbridled pain. Then the broken limb was forced upwards, over his head. That caused him to black out, until the arm was tied and the ripples of agony forced his eyes open. Through a fog he saw a noose approaching and his gut clenched. He stared defiantly, as it was placed over his neck, then tightened to the point of choking. The free end as strung over the beam above, pulled until he was upright, he feet barely on the floor.

"Get his shirt off!" Dale barked, walking to the table and caressing the item in his hands. He heard the fabric ripping as Yancy ripped most of the tattered mess free, slashing what was left, and taking skin with every swipe. Blood ran from the new cuts on the shoulders and arms, only enhancing his excitement. He walked behind the prisoner, watching the head hit his chest. He grinned and let the whip fly, feeling the excitement rise as his cut into the skin on Tanner's bare back.

Vin felt the leather rip him open and jerked, shoving his legs up. The rope cut his air off, he struggled against the pain in his leg, the agony tearing up through his broken arm and the burning wounds the now ripped into his back. The blood from his cut head ran freely, blinding him as it mixed with sweat and tears. He sagged, his knees buckling under the pressure, then the rope tensed and his air was cut off. Again he shoved his legs, needing to stand to get relief.

"He knows the game," Yancy chortled watching the mixture of colors on the battered face. Bright red blood covered on half, purple and blue bruises marked the other half. The kiss of the whip brought the blue eyes open, glazed and feverish, they were lost and defeated. Again and again the whip was issued and the weak cries rang out. The feeble legs fought hard, but were losing ground fast.

Vin felt the leather cut into the skin right about his buttocks and cried out dry. His voice was gone and the blurry face in front of him went away. Then the leather chewed into his inflamed, wounded leg. That brought his agony to a swift closure. One intense brilliant light erupted in front of him, then nothing. He didn't feel the pain anymore...just sweet relief. He sighed once and went limp, his feet dragging slowly across the floor as his body swayed. Dale raised the whip again, when Yancy's voice stopped him.

"We got company, four riders on the canyon road...twenty minutes...maybe less."

"Okay, let's get out of here," Upshaw decided, cutting the noose from the beam.

"Where?" Yancy inquired, grabbing Tanner around the waist and letting him flop over his back.

"Well now," Dale smiled yanking the victim's head up and laughing. "It just wouldn't be neighborly, if we didn't introduce him to Henry Patterson."

"Henry?" Yancy shook his head, not clear on the idea. He handed the body up to Dale, who mercilessly tossed it over the saddle in front of him. "Oh," he nodded and laughed. "Yeah, I reckon he needs some company. I'll lead them back to the river, then head home."

+ + + + + + +

"J.D...." Josiah waved the youth down, putting a hand up in protest. They watched as Buck skittered along the sides of the house, dropping on the porch and inching his way forward.

Buck listened under the window, but heard nothing. No talking, movement or breathing even. He raised his head and peeked inside, then stood, waving to the others. "It's empty..."

"It can't be," Jake flew by him, rushing through the door. "What is...that..." he backed up, right onto the porch.

"It's fresh," Buck said, squatting over the watery diarrhea.

"Oh God," J.D. whispered, picking up the ragged green remnants of one of Larabee's shirts. "It's Chris's..."

"It must have been in his saddlebags," the rogue noted, "I think he packed that for the horse auction. He never got chance to unpack...Vin must have used it..."

"I hope to God you're wrong Buck," the preacher noted, wincing at the blood, vomit, body fluids and puss that lined the filthy cot. "'cause if not, that boys' been livin' in Hell. Let's go..." he turned, "Buck, you take Jake back to the house, get that Old Man out of bed and get some help to comb this place. J.D. and me will pick up their tracks..."

+ + + + + + +

Dale laughed from where he way lying flat on the hilltop. He watched Yancy go by far across the river and the twenty minutes later, two horses followed. Shaking his head, he slid down and got to work. Sweat never felt so good and finally, he was done. Unceremoniously, he yanked Tanner's legs over, then hauled his body up and inside. Finally he was done and he stared at his prey, while he unbuttoned hid fly and released.

Wet...something wet was hitting his face. Rain? Water? No, it was warm. Something was wrong, he couldn't breathe. He tried to raise his arm to free his raw and bruised throat, but a fiery pain ate up his limb. His good hand fumbled, it was pressed tightly against something hard and firm. He finally reached the rope, tugging pitifully. Then something hit his face, forcing his eyes to open. He inhaled it, causing him to lose the little air he found. He opened his mouth, gulping desperately, trying to find air. He was struck again and got a mouthful, causing him to spit and sputter. He moved, wondering why the ground under him wasn't hard like the tight sides near his shoulders. More sounds...things hitting his legs, eyes, chest and feet. He tried to get his mouth empty, only to be hit again. Then his blood ran cold and his heart began to race frantically. He tasted it and realized the odd texture under him was a body. The rotting smell that invaded his world was decomposing flesh. The course matter that filled his mouth and nose was dirt. He was being buried alive. Under the full moon, the blurry image of Dale Upshaw disappeared as the dirt rained down.

+ + + + + + +

The rage had grown over the last couple weeks. As Buck Wilmington urged his horse onward, mentally he was pummeling Dale Upshaw. Slow and easy...making him hurt. So lost was he in his anger, he almost didn't hear the boy calling to him. Vaguely, he heard his name through the fog and reined in his horse.

"You day something, Jake?" he asked, waiting for the youth to catch up.

"...ain't there..." the boy panted, wiping his sweating face with his sleeve.

"What do you mean?"

"My Pa and Adam rode over to Mr. Carson's...something to do with the new contracts."


"Dunno..." he paused, then drew his head up, "No...he stopped to talk to Max and then headed the other way."

"So who was watchin' Vin while your brothers were away?" Buck inquired, mentally calculating the distance to Roger Carson's home.

"Well," Jake mused, collecting a list of the hands he'd been with. "If I was bettin', I'd go with Yancy. He's got a mean streak in 'im. He wasn't at roundup...Chuck was in charge, said Yancy wasn't feelin' good. He wasn't there when I rode in today either..."

"What about Max?"

"Maybe...he's always hangin' around with Adam and Dale..."

"Okay," Buck eyed the road ahead, "Your place ain't that far, you get on home and stay there. I'm gonna head over to Carson's and talk to you Pa..." he paused, "...and have 'word' with Adam..."

"He's not like Dale...not really. Deep down inside, he's not like that, but he's afraid of Dale. Dale bullies him in front of the men..." Jake defended. "I bet that's why he made Adam go with Pa tonight. Adam and him had a fight before supper...I didn't hear what it was about, but it wasn't ranch business."

"That's no excuse, Son," Buck added, resting a hand on the boy's shoulder, "If Adam knew Vin was in trouble...or hurt and he knew where, he should have told your Pa. You're a good brother, stickin' up for him like that. Now you go straight home...if your Pa gets there first, you tell him what happened."

"Yes Sir," Jake nodded and started for the big house. He'd hadn't ridden far, when he heard a horse whinny. He cocked his head and listened. Sure enough, the sound rode through the air; it was clear and not far away. Curious, he proceeded slowly, until in the distance, he saw the unmistakable outline of Dale's large bay. Sliding off Larabee's horse, he eased forward, creeping through the bushes and peeking. Dale was burying somebody. Then something happened that nearly made his heart stop. The distinct sound of coughing was heard...coming from within the grave. He didn't realize he was moving, until his body hit his older brothers.


"What the hell?" Dale growled, hitting the ground with a thud. He had his gun drawn, when he saw the dark hair of his brother.

"Jake?" He hissed, shoving the boy hard and rising. "What are doing out here? Get home!"

"No!" he defied, dropping to his knees and pulling dirt off one end of the grave, his fingers touched flesh, a nose and mouth. "Jesus!" He cried out in disgust. "Is this Vin Tanner? You buried him alive?" Not waiting for a response, he pulled the dirt off and slapped the stunned man's face lightly, gaining a shuddering breath. "Vin? Vin?"

"Get off!" Dale lunged, pulling the boy free and gaining a punch to the jaw. He drew his gun on reflex, then grimaced in anger. He didn't need the full moon to 'see' the defiant eyes looking back at him.

"Go on," Jake said calmly, "You're gonna have to shoot me. Guess you'll bury me out here too." He panted, flexing his fists. "They know about you...Buck, J.D. and the others. I found Vin's jacket and the horse...took 'em to J.D. Him and Josiah are chasin' somebody up that trail from the cabin. Yancy probably...Buck's on his way to Carson's to tell Pa. It's over, Dale. Why? He's a good man...he's taught me..."

"He's a lyin', stinkin' Indian lover...he let Chanu go free and Claire Mosley died...and Ginny...weren't no witnesses...except him..."

"Dale, Claire's father killed her, he confessed, so did that man they Vista City. Vin wouldn't ever hurt a woman. He's real respectful of 'em...they like Vin. He ain't rough like you. You hurt 'im...I heard Pa warnin' you the last time he paid off them two saloon girls you carved up."

"She laughed at me..." Dale choked in a faraway voice. "I asked her to marry me...she laughed...and laughed..."

"Did you hurt her, Dale?" Jake asked, sliding his hand down and groping in the dirt, until he found Vin's. Quietly, he moved him forward, pulling him and getting the dirt free from his chest and arms.

"No..." the confused man replied, staring at the horizon. "She...laughed...we were by the lake...I got so mad...I took the buggy." He swallowed hard. "I went to town and got drunk..."

"You left her out there!" Jake's voice rose in disgust, "You said you took her home...that her folks were out. You said you saw her to the door. You lied..."

"She laughed at me..." Dale repeated, not seeing the handful of dirt before it was flung in his face.

Jake followed up his first move, by charging at Dale, headbutting him in the stomach. They landed in a heap. Dale's strength overpowered his youngest brother, but Jake got a hold of the fallen gun and hit him with it. Scrambling to his feet, he crawled over and pulled Vin Tanner free. "Come on, Vin...sit up...that's it," he coached, jumping into the grave and flinching when his boot hit an old skull. He stood behind the fallen man and put his hands under the shoulders, pulling him up hard, getting him on his feet. The weight nearly buckled his knees. "I can't hold you, Vin, you have to help."

Vin blinked and the blackness parted. He swayed on his weak legs, eyeing the unfamiliar terrain. A voice, a very young voice, was urging him to move. J.D.? Was he here? No...he couldn't get near him. It was dangerous. The mental image flashed a warning, but Vin didn't remember why, just that he couldn't let J.D. near him. He staggered, stumbled and felt hands pushing him upwards.

"That's it, Vin...go on..." Jake urged, watching in amazement as the victim climbed out, dropped to his knees and coughed up a lot of dirt. Then Dale began to stir and reached for the gun. Jake scrambled over to get it, not paying attention to the injured man.

"Get off me, Kid," Dale warned, "He's gotta pay. He turned her head...smiling at her, talkin' pretty to her, spoutin' poetry and shit...he's me...the...gun..." He wrestled, tumbling over the ground with his brother. Neither man noticed the prisoner staggering towards a horse, oblivious to their quarrel.

His mind pushed him forward, urging him to get away. He couldn't let J.D. get sick. Sick?? Sick from what? Why was it dangerous? Then the memories came flooding back. His eyes widened in shock, when through the blurry shadows of the night, he spotted Larabee's horse. With his last ounce of strength, he got into the saddle. He tumbled forward, gripping the reins and hanging over the sleek neck.

"...home...home..." he croaked, sighing in relief as the stallion's head tossed back, sensing a familiar body. He held on for life, as the loyal horse stole away into the night.

"He's gone..." Jake grinned in relief, his mission accomplished.

"Shit!" Dale shoved the boy hard, grabbing both shoulders. "Do you know what you've done!"

"Yeah," he spat back, "I saved your life. Murder is a hanging offense, in case you didn't know."

For several seconds, neither body moved. Then Dale released the death grip he had on his youngest brother's shirt. He picked up his gun and holstered it, before walking to his horse. He mounted up and turned back, watching the disgust on the youth's face.

"See ya , Kid..." he tossed, eyeing the road off the property. He could cross the river and be in New Mexico Territory in a couple days.

"Goodbye Dale," Jake replied to the wind. He watched until the horse was a speck, recalling the days gone by. He remembered all to well the blond as a teenager, scooping up an inconsolable child who couldn't bear to say goodbye to his dead mother. Dale has been his hero then..and that left a bitter taste in his mouth. The promise of what could have been, turned his stomach sour. He sighed and made his way to the road towards the house.

+ + + + + + +

The remnants of the illness still plagued him and the coughing woke him up. His weakened body took too long to respond. Sitting up, he gulped in several mouthfuls of air, letting himself settle down. He eyed the empty pitcher next to his bed and frowned. He shivered as the cold night air embraced him. Drawing his aching body up, he waited until the brief episode of dizziness passed and headed for the main room.

The fire had gone down and he stoked it, adding some kindling and enjoying the warmth that rose through him. He picked up the pitcher and headed for the door, pausing to toss on his heavy work shirt. He had his hand on the doorknob, when he heard the hard pounding of hooves to the ground. A rider was approaching. His hand automatically went to the hook by the door and his fingers curled over the holster. He slid on of his colts into his waistband and slowly opened the door. Once his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he took his bare feet onto the porch. Then his eyes widened in shock.

"What the hell...."

+ + + + + + +

Cursing his bad luck, Yancy ducked as a bullet soared past his ear. He didn't realize that they had gotten so close. He'd led them on a goose chase, but a couple hours had gone by and they were closing fast. Another bullet sent him flying from his horse and behind the cover of a cluster of rocks . He drew his weapon and returned fire.

"You got him, J.D.?" Josiah whispered, from behind a cluster of trees.

"Yeah...give me five minutes to get around behind him..." The sheriff noted, sliding from his horse and moving away.

"Keep your head down!" the preacher hissed. "Buck'll have my hide I bring you home with a hole..."

J.D. inched along the trail, skimming trees and rocks and scaling a short hill. He saw the back of a man crouched below and eased up behind, cocking the hammer in the suspect's ear.

"Toss it over..." he ordered of the gun, and waited until the weapon was dispensed. "Come on out, Josiah!"

"Dunne?" Yancy hissed, spinning around and getting a fist into the young man's face, before a well placed boot hit him hard in the side.

"That's Sheriff Dunne to you , you walkin' where is he?" He slammed the man on the ground.


"President Grant!" J.D. hollered, kicking him again. "Tanner...where is he?"

"How would I know?"

"Well, you better start prayin' Brother," Josiah interjected, "Because I'm not in a forgiving mood." He turned the struggling man onto his belly and tied his hands, before turning him back and unbuttoning the captor's shirt. "J.D....Did I ever tell you about my friend Maquah?"

"The Cherokee warrior?" J.D. guessed and saw Sanchez smile evilly. "Oh yeah..." he caught on, nodding and flipping his knife. It landed with a dull thud between Yancy's legs. "He's the one who taught you how to skin a man..."

"Easy peelin'..." Josiah returned, lighting a match to the piece of wood he found nearby. The low light illuminated the ranch hand's fear clearly. He handed the torch to J.D. and picked up the large knife. "Yeah...old Maquah sure had a talent...." he flicked his wrist, cutting off a large portion of the shirt in one swoop. "Slow and easy....took hours for the poor bastards to die...helluva mess..."

"You can't do that!" Yancy squirmed, feeling the blade press against his flabby belly. "It wasn't even my idea....Dale...he's the one who thought it up..."

"Where is he?" J.D. repeated. "What did you do to him? Start talkin'..." He leaned in and felt his stomach churning with every syllable the victim uttered.

+ + + + + + +

Buck was nearly at the wealthy lawyer's home and slowed up. He eased off his horse and approached the front door. Lights illuminated the interior and voices were heard on the other side of the massive oak door. He knocked hard, rested his hand on his gun and waited. He saw the white shock of hair and recognized Zeb Upshaw.

"I wanna talk to you, Upshaw!"

"Not at midnight you don't," the elder man replied, "...and I don't want to talk to you. I've got a long ride ahead and..."

"It's about Vin Tanner," the tired rogue interrupted.

"Discussion closed," Zeb shot back, "I got nothing to say about the likes of him. I hope to hell by now the army has him locked up..."

"Maybe you didn't hear me," Buck pulled his gun as Roger Carson's face appeared in the doorway.

"What's this about , Wilmington?"

"It's about this," Buck threw Vin's jacket on the foyer. "...Jake found it on your property along with Chris Larabee's horse. Then we found an old cabin...and signs of somebody being kept prisoner..." He aimed at Adam, who was shifting uneasily in the doorway. "You got an itch, Boy? You best find it, or I'll scratch it for you..." He leveled the pistol and waited.

"Don't you threaten my son," Zeb hissed, "You turn back now and I'll forget this indiscretion."

"Your son ain't gonna live long enough to worry about any indiscretions if I don't find Vin Tanner alive, " he growled, gripping that nervous younger man's shirt with one hand and pulling his gun up with the other. "What did you do to him?"

"It was Dale's idea...I thought we were just gonna scare him a little...then...let...him...go..."

"You son-of-a-bitch!" Buck screamed, slamming a fist into the tall Upshaw's gut.

"Wait a minute!" Carson held up both hands and moved in front of the irate peacekeeper. "Come on inside, Buck, we'll get to the bottom of this."

+ + + + + + +

Chris tensed and eased off his porch, towards the familiar horse. His careful gaze flew along the property lines, seeing no signs of life. He remained guarded as he grabbed the horses reins, leading him to the corral. He noted the sweat on his coat and the heavy breathing. He tucked his gun away and took the saddle off. Shivering in the cold night air and feeling the icy ground on his cold feet, he headed back to the house. His energy level was far from normal and Nathan warned him about a relapse. He didn't want to revisit the dreaded disease and took his dizzy body back towards the cabin. He could solve the mystery in the morning. He was nearly to the door, when his side vision caught movement.

Vin was curled up in a ball, fighting hard to breath and unaware of where he was. The horse stopped and he tumbled off. He crawled forward, hand over hand, until he felt wood and a wall to his back. Then he heard movement and a blurry body went by. He rested his eyes, shivered in the cold and heard footsteps again. The light from the house revealed a blurry image. But then he moved and the distorted face cleared up. Blond pants...pearl handle on the waistband. The porch...the porch...he shook his head and moved away. The danger sign flashed again, the word' carrier' and 'death' in red letters. They burned a hole in him and he tried to crawl away, just as the hand brought the pearl handle out. A gun...a gun...he got to his knees and tried to stand.

"Move and I'll shoot," Chris warned, eyeing the filthy, bedraggled, half naked man on his porch. Then his eyes narrowed as he got closer and saw two hands move in front of the hidden face.


He dropped the gun and his heart lurched as the soft drawl cut the night air. He stumbled badly, stubbing his toe and cursing a blue streak. He dropped to his knees, trying to reach his injured friend. He hardly recognized him. "Vin...Jesus..." he stammered, eyeing the huddled mass on his porch.

"No...go 'way..." Vin rasped over his raw throat, every word causing the razor-like pain to flare up. "...hurt ya...Mister...kill...can' got a sick...ness...please...don't..."

"Mister?" Chris winced, realizing painfully that Vin had no idea where he was. He didn't want to frighten him, so he knelt a couple feet away, watching the weak man trying to crawl. "Vin...Vin Tanner. Vin, it's me...look at me..." he prodded to no avail. "Get your head up!"

The words were so harsh, hard and loud, that his head jerked up and he backed up. His eye shot open, staring hard at the face looming before him. He studied the blurry features for a moment, then gasped, shaking his head. One hand reached out, trembling badly.


"Yeah, Vin, it's me..." he sighed in relief, grabbing the fragile hand and using his other hand to grip the shaken man's jaw. "Listen up, this is important!" he directed sternly, watching the eyes blinking rapidly. "You didn't kill anybody...they caught the man responsible for the diphtheria. The army's holdin' him up north...Do you understand? Vin? I'm talkin' to you!"

"...yer...not..." Vin hesitated, staring at the face near his. He had to be sure. "...truth...rissss...."

"I wouldn't lie to you, Vin."

No, he wouldn't and those words caused a huge sigh of air. That was all he needed. He reached out and took the hand offered and collapsed.


"Yeah, Cowboy," Chris gripped the frail body, shivering at the weak, warm breath hitting his neck. He gripped the back of the tangled, greasy, matted hair. "You're home. I got you, you're safe now."

+ + + + + + +

"Six days!" Buck roared, grabbing the tall youth's shirt collar and slamming him against the wall. "You fuckin' animal!" He backhanded him hard, drawing blood and had his fist raised again, when a strong arm pulled him back.

"That's enough, Wilmington!" Zeb barked, pulling irate peacekeeper off his son.

"Enough?" Buck snarled, eyes shooting fire, "I haven't even started yet. Where is he?"

"I don't know..." Adam replied, "Honest to God...I told Dale to let 'em go before we rode out. He threatened me..."

"That's what caused the two of you to fight?" Zeb demanded and saw the head nod. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"You don't even like him!" the middle son protested, "You're always calling him names..."

"Don't you use that tone of voice to me," the father snapped, "and despite what I feel about that Indian-lovin' savage, I don't cotton to know that. They got a jail in town. We could have taken him there and wired the army..."

"I didn't think he was gonna go this far. I thought we'd have some fun with him, rough him up a little, then drop him over the border. He was headed there anyhow..."

"Start from the beginning, Adam," Roger Carson advised, eyeing Buck Wilmington with a guarded stare.

"It was late...the Army sprung us...lifted the curfew. So we...headed home. But Adam sent Jake straight away, we took another route. He knew the army was lookin' for Tanner...he thought maybe...well...he got that look in his eye. He said we were gonna go huntin'," he sighed, not able to meet his father's eyes. "...we caught him near the river, headed north." His eyes flickered painfully at the irate blue eyes Buck Wilmington. He dropped his gaze knowing the next segment of the story would cause an explosion. "We forced him down, and tied his hands and put a rope around his neck, pulled him behind the horse."

"Buck!" Roger intercepted the six-foot cannonball as it flew at the suspect. "That won't help."

"The hell it won't," Buck shot back, pointing his index finger at the cowering Upshaw. "You give me ten minutes out back with that animal, it'll help real good."

"How bad is he hurt?" Roger asked.

"Well, he started fightin' right off, wouldn't settle down, so I had to crease him..."

"You shot him?" Buck roared, slamming him into the wall again, before Zeb and Roger pulled him free.

"That's your last warning, Wilmington," Roger advised, "You settle down or I'll advise my client not to say another word."

"I creased his thigh," Adam continued. "We tied him to the cot and blindfolded him. We came back after supper the next night and..uh...questioned him a little. But then Dale changed...Vin figured out the truth of what happened with Virginia."

"What are you saying Boy?" Zeb's gaze narrowed.

"Dale asked her to marry him that night and she laughed at him. He snapped pissed off and left her way outside town. Then he rode back into town and got drunk."

"You better not be lying..."

"It's the truth, Pa. When Vin told Dale...he snapped out...beat the tar out of him. They had him tied to the beam in the ceiling. I tried to stop..."

"Tried!" Buck screamed, clenching his fists and using every fiber of his strength to restrain himself. "You left him beaten and hurt in that fuckin' shack for damn near a week. Tried?"

"Why didn't you tell me!" Zeb demanded.

"I was afraid..." Adam admitted, slumping his shoulders.

Buck snorted and leveled a cold stare of distaste at the senior Upshaw. "Guess that makes you the fuckin' Father of the Year..."

"Anyhow," Adam continued, "the next morning is when I told Adam I was gonna go and get Vin, take him to town. We fought, he said he'd tell you it was my doin', that he'd get Yancy to back him up. Then you sent us away. He made sure I couldn't get back to the cabin. I don't know what they did with him..."

Buck rose slowly and walked over to the lawyer's desk, glanced at a few books, before selecting on. He turned and walked even slower over to where Adam Upshaw was cowering in a chair. He stopped in front of him and held out the book.

"You a religious man?" he asked the young man who nodded slowly. "Well that's good. Because if I don't find Vin Tanner alive and in short order," he dropped the book into the quaking cowhand's lap and leaned in close, his tense face just inches from the other's. "I'm gonna make sure Josiah uses this book to say a few words over what's left of your pathetic body when the box goes in the ground."

He remained in place, staring hard, until the other man looked away. He finally got his father's eyes and was startled by a show of sympathy.

"Get up, Son." Zeb said. "...get our horses. We've got work to do." He paused and rested a hand on the boy's shoulders "Know this, you'll have to own up to what you've done before the law. But I'll make it right, and I'm sorry. No man wants his child to fear him."

+ + + + + + +

Sweat clung to every aching inch of his lean frame. Grunting and dizzy from overextending his still healing body, Chris tugged Vin's body through the door. He was on his knees, the force of gravity keeping him from rising in the swirling room. Panting and gasping, he blinked through the moisture pouring down his face and eyed the warmth of the fire. The bed in the far room seemed miles away and higher than the Rockies. Sucking in a great gulp of air, he managed to get to his feet and stagger forward. His legs gave way as they reached the bed and he dropped, crawling the remaining few feet. He tugged at the bedding, making the journey back to the open spot before the cozy hearth. He pulled himself up to the table and turned the lamp up. He grabbed the bottle of whiskey sitting there and dropped back down. After positioning a think blanket on a floor, he grabbed a hold under each of Vin's arms and pulled him onto the makeshift bed. He collapsed against the small barrel sitting there, taking more gulps of air. That's when he allowed himself to look at the battered body of his best friend in the light. He flinched in horror at the filthy body, covered in cuts, scrapes, bruises of every color and burns. He knew on the porch that the swollen left arm was broken. He rested a hand on Vin's blackened face, frowning at the heat rising.

The normal one minute trip to the well outside to fill the pot on the stove with water, took ten. But at last he had a full kettle boiling and a basin of tepid water, a pile of rags and strips of linen, his hunting knife, whiskey and a new bar of Pears soap. His hand wavered just a bit, as it wiped the grime, dried blood and muck from Vin's face. Then he saw the swollen folds of the tracker's neck, raw and bleeding, from where the whip and rope ate his skin away. The unfathomable rage that filled him caused him to tremble in anger. He brought his clenched fists up twice, gritting his teeth and feeling the heat from his burning eyes. This hatred drove him, as he scrubbed the dirt from Vin's nose, eyes and ears. He opened the pliant mouth and twice the cloth came out muddy. The vision of Vin in a grave, watching dirt being tossed on him, too weak to move, filled him with a lethal invasion of ice.

"They'll pay, Vin," he vowed, using a soapy cloth to wash the injured man's face, neck, hair and chest. "You got my word." He cut the raggedy pants off, continued his cleaning, pausing to drain half the canteen and take a few breaths of air. Then he eyed the boiling water, his stomach turned over at what he had to do next. The rancid smell that hovered over the greenish, yellow, puss filled leg wound, spurned his aching, numb legs into action. He stumbled to the stove and used tongs to remove the boiling cloths. He waited a few minutes for the intense heat to lessen. Dropping back to Vin's side, he pressed his right hand down on the purple-blue-and-scarlet chest. He took a deep breath and pressed the cloth over the infected wound. He pushed the small, weak cry and the feeble attempt at movement from his mind. He pressed harder, until the quaking body stilled. Then he removed the cloth, flinching in horror at the streams of greenish fluid covering the cloth and running down Vin's leg.

"Fuckin' bastards..." he hurled the rag across the room and punching the floor hard. He picked up a second cloth and washed the remainder out with soapy water. Finally satisfied, he poured whiskey on the wound and kept the damp cloth on it. Splints...he eyed the chipped wood next to the fireplace and selected several pieces. He secured Vin's arm to them, using strips of rags. As he worked, he shut his mind down. He drove the intense pain this vision was causing him, right out the door. He worked mutely, without feeling, cleaning every scrape, cut and abrasion on the battered chest, legs and arms. His hand hovered of the circular burns, knowing a hot cigar was pressed to the tender flesh. The fingers hovered, unable to move in a straight line. He took several shuddering breaths, until the demon inside was sated. He filled the basin with clean water, took a swig of whiskey and gently turned Vin over, on his side and away from him. He wasn't prepared for what he found. Peeking through the dirt encrusted on the naked back, was the unmistakable criss-crossed images of where a whip was laid time and time again. The faceless, nameless cowards who'd tortured his best friend entered the shack. They hovered over the body, leering and driving their spears in him. He felt it coming, growing in strength, rage and passion as it travelled up his windpipe and crashed through his teeth, right past his lips curled in venomous rage. The unearthly howl that split the night air, sent every creature, furried and feathered, to higher ground.

+ + + + + + +

They were almost to the crossroads, just a few miles from the house, when they spotted a trio of riders.

"You got him!" Buck hollered out, recognizing J.D. and Josiah. The figure on the third horse was barely upright. When they got closer, Buck saw the beaten man's face, recognizing Yancy Bates. He eyed his two friends, before settling on Josiah.

"Damnedest thing," the preacher said somberly, meeting Buck's question, "he keeps falling of his horse. Never saw the likes of it..." he heard Zeb's snort of contempt and his smoky eyes filled with rage. He moved his horse closer, baring his teeth. "You hear this, Old Man, that demon seed you spilled and gave claim to, tortured, whipped and buried a good friend of mine alive..."

"Godammit!" Buck hollered, ready to grab Yancy, had J.D. not intervened.

"It's no good, Buck, he's not there." the youth replied of the empty grave. "It was empty. We found lots of tracks, all mixed up. One set headed north and the other east..." He caught Buck's eyes and saw him relax a little; they both got the same feeling about where that missing horse went, bearing an injured rider.

"Dale?" Zeb asked.

"Gone..." Josiah said, "We're takin' Yancy in town to jail. I'm gonna wire the Judge and get a posse up. We got a lot of ground to cover. Where's Jake?"

"I sent him back to the ranch..." Buck asked, eyeing the road. "Two sets..." he mused, rubbing his weary eyes, "Vin got away..."

"Most likely," Josiah replied, "We'll take Adam with us," he spied Buck's roaming eyes. "You thinkin' what I'm thinkin?"

"Yeah," the rogue turned his horse, "I got a hunch I know where them tracks headin' east are goin'..." He turned to Zeb Upshaw again and leveled a steely gaze at the older man. "By the grace of God, you turned out one damn fine boy. Don't fuck up with Jake like you did with the other two."

"Come on," Josiah moved the other way, watching Buck take off towards the Larabee spread.

+ + + + + + +

The coffee left a bitter taste in his mouth and he pushed the cup aside. He eyed the closet in his room, which seemed miles away, and thought of putting a shirt on. Despite the new sun peering curiously in the window, he was cold. The fire need stoking and he should make some breakfast. He should do a lot of things, if only his legs would cooperate. He stumbled to the stove, poured a mug of the herbal tea and knelt by his patient. Placing the steaming cup next to him, he rested a hand on the flushed face, frowning at the fever. He tapped the stilled face several times, until the eyebrows drew together and the mouth quirked.

"Vin...Vin...I got some water for you."

His injured friend was resting on his side, propped against a stack of blankets. This gave him comfort and support. Chris carefully lifted the damp head, watching the lips open for his voice only.

"That's it...cold water...slow now, there's no rush..." he coached, watching the water disappear. "Okay, now I got some medicine, it's in the tea on this spoon." He felt the head turn away and the brows knit together again. "Quit swearin' at me Tanner! I got no time for your temper tantrums. Open your damn mouth and take this..." He ordered in a loud and severe tone. The body relaxed against his and the lips parted. Ten minutes later, the last of the mixed tea was consumed. Satisfied, he thought of the large container of broth in the tin outside on the porch. Nathan left several each day, full of rich soup. The sealed tins in the cold air kept them fresh. He tossed a few logs in the fireplace, basking in the warmth the new flames provided. He leaned back against the wall and sighed wearily. As soon as he rested his eyes for a moment, he'd get the broth inside and get some into the injured body.

Buck approached the ranch at record speed, the hooves of his horse barely touching the ground. He rose in the saddle and felt his heart hammering. There in the corral was the familiar dark coat of Larabee's horse, prancing around with the new red-coated stallion. Had Vin made it back? Was he alive? He jumped from his horse and raced to the entry, the amount of maroon puddles of water on the porch turned his stomach. He pushed the door open and was about to call out, when he saw them. Vin was resting on his right side, facing the fireplace. A blanket covered him loosely, his pillow was the lean thigh of Chris Larabee, who was sound asleep, one arm flung protectively across Tanner's neck and chest.

"Thank God," he breathed in relief, making his way to the hearth and crouching next to Vin. He rested two fingers against the marred neck, his eyes burning like coals at the raw wounds that the rope left there. "Bastard's gonna pay..." he vowed, feeling the fever as his fingers laid against the scarlet slashed cheek.

"Bastards gonna die..." a voice grumbled, "...slow...real slow..." Chris swore, easing his body from under Vin's. "Get me up, Buck."

"You look like ten miles of bad road, Pard," he greeted his worried friend, leading him to the table. "You ain't going anywhere. Josiah's gonna get a posse up. We already got two of them..." He updated, opening several containers until he found eggs. He doused the pan with butter and scrambled several eggs, before cutting two hunks of bread and some cheese. He poured a mug of the medicinal tea and put it before the pale rouser. "Drink! I can't afford to have you end up back in that bed."

"Who?" Chris inquired, his eyes on Buck's strong back. He watched every muscle in the tall man's body tense up and nearly burst through his shirt. He didn't miss the white knuckles that now clutched both sides of the shelf over the stove. For several seconds, there was silence. Then a plate full of eggs, bread and cheese was placed in front of him. The pure hate glowing from Wilmington's eyes, gave him pause. "I wanna know..." he dictated in a warning, "He was damn near dead when I found him outside. His left arm's broke, his ribs are bruised, he's got cuts the hell all over, burns from a fuckin' cigar!" he punched the table, causing the utensils to dance in anger as well. "a bad infection in his leg and..." he eyed the blanket covering Vin's back and then his green coals burning right through his guest. "...bastards fuckin' hung him, whipped him and buried him alive. He had dirt in his nose, his mouth...godammit!"

Buck didn't even flinch, he heard the story already. He knew words would be useless. Chris Larabee wouldn't rest until the toll was paid in full. He poured a shot of whiskey in his coffee and took a long sip, waiting for the heaving chest across from him to slow down. Without responding , he rose and got a shirt and a pair of socks from Larabee's room. He held the shirt out and Chris snaked a fist into the dark blue flannel. He then moved to Vin's side, giving him a fast evaluation. His rage grew again, seeing the slash marks on his back and the round burns from the glowing end of a cigar. The raspy shallow breathing and weak pulse had him concerned. Would Vin survive this ordeal?

"Start talkin' Buck," Chris advised, shoveling the food in his mouth.

By the time the story concluded, told in a cold, level tone, the plate and mug had been heaved against the wall. Buck lifted Vin's head and tipped a cup of warm broth, which he'd heated up during the recounting of the week of hell. He watched every muscle in Larabee's body pulsing in unabated rage. The eyes...he'd never seen them so lethal, not in all the year's he'd known Chris Larabee. Like a caged panther, he moved around the small cabin, fueling his need to escape. He turned his eyes back to Vin, whose head rested against his chest. "Come on Slick, I got some broth for you..." he nudged the pale lips, but there was no response. He sighed in frustration, and heard the boots hitting wood.

"Vin, quit foolin' around and drink that!" Chris barked loudly, causing Buck and Vin to jump.

Buck smiled as the tracker's brows drew together and his lips made a grim line of protest, but they opened. "You don't have to be happy about it," he teased, guiding the liquid inside, "just drink it..." Satisfied through the raspy moans of relief that Vin was sated, he eased him back on the blanket, laid a clean cold cloth over the abrasions on his throat and squatted over the leg. He moved the blanket back, took the loose bandage off and frowned. "Jesus, that stinks..."

"I had to draw it out with hot water," Chris said flatly, from where he stood in the doorway. He put his holster on and snapped the clip shut, "Puss and shit flyin' the hell all over..." he watched Buck's dark head moving as a new bandage was applied. "I'm goin' after that animal Buck..." he warned, waiting for the lecture of caution, but none came. The tall man wrung out a cold cloth, wiped the fever from the face, neck and chest of his injured friend. He spoke in a low, comforting tone, addressing the distressed moans coming from the Texan's lips. Finally, he left the folded, cold cloth on Vin's head and drew the blanket up. With a small pat to his shoulder, he rose and joined his ire-fired friend by the door.

"I'm goin' with you," Buck said quietly, sending his full support and getting a wave of green relief from the pained eyes across from him. "But right now, the boy's life is more important," he nodded back to where Vin Tanner lie all too still. "Nathan's at Johnson's, I'm gonna get him. Your voice is the only one he hears, Chris. You need to stay, until he's stronger. That bastard ain't gonna get away, you got my word on that."

"Wilmington's word is as good as done," Chris managed a small smile, thinking on the first time he'd heard the cocky phrase, close to a dozen years ago. He offered his hand and the other shook it firmly, matching the time worn smile. The kind of grin that only old friends shared. They'd ride together, hunt down the bastard and see justice done - for Vin Tanner.

Part 7

The words 'bone weary' took on a whole new meaning for the ex-slave. The few hours he could snatch for catnaps, weren't enough. He was tired...Lord was he tired. He thought of how nice a few days resting at the village with Rain would be. The beautiful face filled his mind and the memories of her sweet kisses and warm body made him groan. He turned on the cot, realizing he had only a few hours until sunup. Ben Johnson was doing better, but so weak he couldn't walk yet. Josiah was supposed to relieve him at dawn. He was heading back to town to get a hot bath, a hot meal and a soft bed. His heavy eyes slid shut and he resumed his fitful sleep.

Buck jumped from his horse and eased through the front door. He winced as he crouched over Nathan. Even in the dim lamplight, the healer looked awful. He'd lost weight, shadows marked his face as only exhaustion can. Sighing, he tipped his hat back and shook the tall man's shoulder.

"Nate...Nate..." he whispered, not wanting to rouse Callie or Ben.


"Sorry," Buck apologized to the blinking eyes. "You gotta get up...get over to Chris's..."

"Damn fool!" He hissed, sitting up and buttoning his shirt. "I told him not to overdo it..."

"It ain't Chris," Buck interrupted, then his voice deflated, it's edges tinged with sorrow, "It's Vin..."

"Vin!" Nate's head shot up, then he saw the defeat in the other man's blue eyes. "What happened?"

"You're gonna need bandages and just about every trick in the book," Buck said, rising as the other stood, "I think...maybe...he's dying..."

"What!" Nate's eyes searched Buck's face, wincing inwardly at the profound sorrow there. "How?"

"The Upshaw's gotta a hold of him...the night he fled, after the medicine drop. The army cut off his road out...he had to cross their property. They jumped him...been holdin' him prisoner in a shack out there. Bastards tortured him..."

"Shot? Stabbed? Beaten? Whipped? What?" Jackson inquired.

"All of the above, and then some..." Buck sighed, "He's a mess, busted arm, infected wound in his leg, ain't an inch of him that isn't cut or bruised...or burned. They whipped him...hung him...then...the...bas...bast..." His fury built up and he went outside, punching the porch post. He felt Nate move behind him and turned, his eyes burning. "...they buried him alive..."

"Lord God!" Nate swore, feeling his own wrath building.

"Josiah and J.D. caught Yancy. I found Adam with his Pa at Carson's place. Dale got away..."

"Chris know?" Nate asked and saw Buck nod.

"He won't go huntin' without me," the rogue answered the silent question. "Besides, his voice is the only thing Vin can hear. I've seen worse Nate," Buck whispered, "...and they've been dead."

"Okay, I'm gonna need more supplies. Ya been to Chris's...ya know what I need. Josiah's gonna be coming this morning. As soon as he gets here, ya get to town and get a wagon together." Nate paused, mentally making a list and then went back inside. He wrote fast and handed it to Buck. "I'll see to Vin..." It took him about five more minutes to gather his bags. He left Buck instructions to Ben's care and set off.

+ + + + + + +

Something woke him up. His head jerked and he sat up, letting his eyes adjust. The shack was almost too quiet. The sky outside the window was starting to turn to light blue, dawn was rousing. A few desperate crickets continued to sing outside and a scattering of birds were calling. Quiet. It was too quiet. He shook the cobwebs from his head and stared at still form on the floor. That's when he saw it, or rather, didn't see it. The chest wasn't moving.

"Vin!" He bolted from the kitchen table, knocked a chair over and dropped to his knees. His left hand landed hard on Tanner's chest, and opened the slack mouth with his right. He lowered his face and waited for...waited...nothing. Vin wasn't breathing. "Shit!" he knelt up and cupped the marred face with one hand, slapping it as hard as he could with the other. "Godammit, Tanner wake up. Vin! Vin!" he screamed and slapped hard again. Then the body convulsed, a horrid weak gag was born. The Texan's shoulders jerked and the mouth opened, gasping for air. A single blue slit appeared in the eye that did work. Vin's free hand moved feebly trying to push away air. "No!" Chris's heart dropped, "Jesus..." He realized Vin thought he was still buried, he couldn't breathe, because he thought his mouth was full of dirt. "Wake up! You're not in the ground, Vin. Vin!" he slapped the face again and heard a huge sucking sound. Then the chest began to move again. The body sagged against him weakly. "Christ, you scared me..." he mumbled, gripping the back of Tanner's neck. He didn't move for several minutes, content to hold Vin against him, almost afraid to let him go.

Nate stood in the doorway for a few minutes, watching the fear on Chris Larabee's face. He moved quietly into the room, set his bag on the table and moved to the hearth. He winced as the scarlet stripes became visible under Larabee's hand.

The raspy breaths trickled across his collarbone, where only a few minutes before, there were none. His hand trembled against Vin's neck and for a brief moment, he felt the faint beating of the tracker's heart against his chest. His soft reverie was broken by the appearance of dusty boots .

"Where the hell have you been? What took you so long? He damn near died in my arms!" Chris growled, his lean body shaking with fear and rage.

The tired healer didn't flinch at the trembling gunman's harsh tone. He found a small smile in the hand that still pressed Vin Tanner close. There wasn't many bonds like this one and he knew until the ill one was well, the other would be unsated. He rested a hand on the tense shoulder and bent over.

"Let me have him, Chris. Ya need to get back in bed. I'm gonna need all my strength to take care of Vin. I can't have ya comin' down with a relapse. I told ya, I've seen that happen and it can kill you quick."

"He wasn't breathing," Chris replied distractedly, " quiet...his chest stopped..."

Nate knelt down and tried to pry Vin away, only to be met by resistance. Sighing, he decided to let the faraway voice continue.

"I found him outside, got him this far. I couldn't get...the bed...was too..."

"That's okay," Nate interjected, "Ya done good, made a nice soft place for him by the fire. He's fevered, he needs to be kept warm."

"He was filthy, I didn't recognize him at first...I cleaned him up some. I had to pull dirt out of his mouth and nose....shit!" he gripped Vin tighter, "Bastards beat the hell out of him...took a wh...whip..." he swallowed his fury hard, "...used fuckin' cigar..." he raised his pained eyes to the deep brown ones. "they buried him alive...just now...that's why he stopped breathin'...he thought he was in the damn hole..."

"Alright," Nate finally got a flicker of recognition in the green eyes. The epiphany was done. "I need to tend to him, Chris." Finally he plied the strong arms away and lowered the unconscious man to the pallet. He took Chris's spot, noticing the legs remained by his side. He pulled the blanket down, letting his eyes do a quick assessment, while his hand sought the pulse. "Damn, it's weak..." Then he unwrapped the bandage on the leg and frowned at the inflamed edges around the seeping wound. His fingers found it hot to the touch. His nose confirmed what he already knew.

"I had to draw it out...with hot compresses and...then I doused it with whiskey." The leader sighed, "I got some of the medicine in his him to drink it..."

"Good thing ya did," The healer observed, "But this leg's mess. I'm gonna hafta open it up, pull the rest out..." He bent over Vin's face gain, one hand feeling for the fading pulse, the other trying to find the raspy breath. "It's not good..."

"What are you saying?" Chris demanded, more of the defeat in the dark eyes, than the tone of his voice.

"The truth!" Nate stormed, pulling the blanket up. "Whether you like it or not! He's been beaten, cut, whipped, starved and God knows what else for goin' on a week now. How he got here is nothing short on a miracle. He could die, Chris, that's what I'm sayin'. He's only got so much fight in 'im..."

"No!" Chris seethed, "Get that fuckin' bag and do something for him!"

"Now you look!" Nate rose slowly, using the several inches he had over the other man well. "I've spent the better part of the last two weeks savin' all of ya'll from the devil. I ain't seen a bed or had a decent night's sleep. I don't have time for that damn temper of yours. Now, I'm gonna do all I can to help Vin and you're gonna lose that tone of voice. Get your ungrateful ass in that bed, I got not time to be tendin' to you too."

Chris stared long and hard at Jackson and saw what Buck noticed. The circles under this eyes, the shadows on his face that only made his fatigue stand out more. He tore his gaze away long enough to give Vin a hard look, then he staggered to his bed. His legs nearly gave way, but he finally found the mattress. He was asleep before the flaring eyes of the healer pulled away.

Nate spent the next hour tending to his new patient. He got a large cast iron kettle and filled it, keeping it boiling on the stove. He filled both pitchers and a large basin with water. He lined up piles of bandages and also filled a tin mug with willow bark, goldenseal and some sugar. The watery diarrhea had him concerned. If Vin couldn't hold onto the fluids he was getting, all the bandages and carbolic in the county wouldn't save him. He bathed him first, gently washing the many wounds. He rubbed salve onto the horrid burns on the neck and pressed a cold cloth to it, hoping to take some swelling away. He treated the rope burns on the ankles and wrists as well, bandaging them loosely. Tipping Vin's swollen face, he noticed the wound over the eye and at the hairline. He cleaned them with carbolic and then sewed them. He turned him on his side, using a stack of folded blankets to support him. He carefully cleaned every vicious stripe with carbolic and pressed his hand over the horrid purple bruises at the base of Vin's spine. A soft moan confirmed his suspicions. "Sorry Vin..." He squeezed the pale shoulder and continued his ministrations. The ribs on his side were discolored; badly bruised but not broken. He gently moved Vin onto his back and reset the arm. The slack body never moved. Then he got his instruments from the boiling water. He opened the leg, pulled out a mess of muck and doused it good with carbolic. He wrapped a loose bandage around it, allowing the watery residue to drain out. He poured boiling water into the herbed mug and then took a cloth from the basin. He bathed the fevered, talking to him in a strong, soothing voice. He felt Vin trying to pull away from him, his weak body shivering. "I ain't gonna hurt ya, Vin Tanner. Ya listen up, It's Nathan. Settle down now..."

It was a place that knew neither darkness or light. It was a world of shadows and cloaking mists of mystery. Voices came and went, leaving him confused and wary. He was poked and prodded; his aching body pulled in all different directions. He hurt. Lord did he hurt. Every fiber of flesh and muscle screamed in agony. The hard voice was gone and that made his cold. He wanted to hear the shouting again. He trusted it...needed took the cold away. This new voice didn't frighten him. It wasn't a bad voice, it was deep and soothing. The words hovered close to his ear as a coolness bathed his face and neck. An image formed of brown eyes, brown skin and good hands. Strong hands....healing hands. He knew the had a name.

Suddenly the tension left and the weak body surrendered. The slack form rested against him trustingly. The one eye that could work, opened a crack and studied him. A hand reached out, shaking and weak to touch his face. The pale lips formed his name silently, the voice not able to get past the swollen throat. A smile creased his weary face, when he heard the silent call.

"That's right, Vin, it's me...I got some tea for ya." He pulled Vin up higher, tucking the matted head against his chest. He nudged the mug against the pliant mouth and smiled as the jaw worked. Like an infant, he sucked greedily, nearly spilling it. "Easy now...I ain't gonna take it away. That's it..." Finally the mug was drained and Vin slumped against him. He lowered him back down, pulled the blanket up and went to check on Chris. His hand found the sleeping face cool to the touch and he relaxed. He knew how weak Larabee had been and couldn't imagine the strength it took, or where he'd found it, to drag Vin inside and tend to him. He pulled a quilt over the deep sleeper and left the room. He brought one of the large tins of soup inside from the cold porch and set it on a low heat. A soft cry of pain took him back to Vin's side. His nose told him before he pulled the blanket back. "Damn..." he muttered softly, reaching for a linen cloth.


His head turned at the tiny voice. He cleaned up the watery mess and got rid of the towel. "Don't ya worry about it...we got more. Your bowels is a little worked up is all...we'll fix it..." He waited for the blue eye to shut and made more tea. He lifted Vin, nudged his lips and began again. He had a sinking feeling inside, one he hoped was wrong.

+ + + + + + +

It was late morning when Buck arrived in town. He left the rig he'd taken from Josiah at Johnson's, parked outside the livery, near Nate's. He eased off the seat and stretched his aching body. His eyes gazed almost lustfully at the hotel, where a soft bed waited with his name on it. Sighing, he eyed the dusty street, glad to see it full of life again. He spotted a trio of figures near the sheriff's office and aimed his body that way.


J.D.'s screech brought both Mary and Billy's heads up. The womanizer looked rough. He hadn't shaved and his eyes were swollen from fatigue. Mary smiled as Buck ruffled Billy's fair hair and gave him a wink.

"You look awful!" J.D. teased, recalling the first time he used that line in the Indian village. He got a wane smile and drank it in. He'd missed his best friend and didn't like the defeat he saw in the blue eyes. "How's Chris?"

"Holdin' on...barely..." he sighed, "He found Vin on his porch during the night, took him in, cleaned him up some. He's itchin' to hunt..."

"Billy, why don't you go to Mrs. Potters? I'll see you up there."

"Okay, Ma!" the blond happily ran up the boardwalk.

"How's Vin?" Mary asked, then saw the two men exchange a glance.

"I didn't tell her..." the sheriff replied. "I wired the Judge, he'll be here the day after tomorrow. I sent notice to the other towns in the territory, to be on the lookout for Dale."

"Buck?" Mary tapped his arm and saw the weary head rise. But in his eyes, that washed out defeat had her worried.

"He's bad Mary," Wilmington sighed, taking a few minutes to fill in the gory details. "I sent Nate over, but..."

"You don't think...he'll..."

"Die?" Buck finished the widow's thought. "I don't know, but he's barely holding on. That's the only thing keeping Chris from takin' after Dale. Once he...pulls through or...well...either way, I'm ridin' with him."

"Thank you," Mary issued quietly, resting her hand on Buck's bicep. She knew Wilmington ached for the blond, but at the same time, would protect him. She knew how haunted Chris would be until justice was done. There was no denying the deep bond the two men shared. She could practically see the rage simmering in his green eyes. "You're exhausted Buck. I'll get Gloria to help me pack the wagon. You get something to eat and get some rest."

"Yeah," Buck sighed, handing over the note from Jackson. "Ezra?"

"I told him," J.D. said, recalling how upset the gambler had been. "He's in the saloon..."

Buck's eyes went through the window, into the jail. He saw the two prisoner's and felt his rage build again. A vision of Dale Upshaws twisted face came into view, cruelly abusing a bound Texan. "Dale Upshaw made the sorriest mistake of his pathetic life..." he vowed, flexing both fists, before heading for the saloon.

"Come on Mary," J.D.'s eyes followed Buck, "I'll give you a hand over at Nathan's."

Buck ducked through the batwing doors and let his eyes roam. He managed to get to the bar and saw Inez lift a beer mug. He shook his head and sighed, taking his hat off and fisting his hands again. He moved again, taking the seat next to Ezra and the mug of coffee the owner offered.

"Are you hungry?," she said softly, resting her small hand on his. "I can make some eggs..."

"Yeah, thanks..." Buck said, squeezing her hand. "We found Vin." He saw the southerner's head lift and he spoke then, slow and haltingly of the horror Vin endured. Ezra went pale, his eyes flickered a deep pain and then he resumed shuffling his cards.

"...and the other villain?" he asked, resting his jade eyes on the rogue.

"Gone," Buck answered Standish. "As soon as Vin...well...Chris is only staying for Vin. Then we're going to head out."

"I shall be only to happy to join you."

"Thanks Ezra," Buck smiled, seeing the pain. "I know Vin would appreciate that, but I think this is one huntin' trip that's best left to me and Chris. You've never seen him like this and it ain't pretty. I know how to handle him."

"Or rather, how to duck?" He teased of the brief glimpses of the boiling rage he'd seen in the past on the gunslinger's face.

"Somethin' like that," the rogue grinned, "Thanks, Darlin'," he nodded as Inez set a large plate of ham, eggs, fried potatoes and biscuits in front of him. He gobbled up half and then looked at Ezra again. "I'll tell you what, with me and Chris gone. Vin's gonna be lonely out there. He's gonna be weak as a kitten. Might do him good if you took one of your books out there...spent some time. He's gonna be worried about Chris."

"Hmm..." Ezra smiled, thinking on how much he enjoyed exchanging banter with the crusty Texan. "Mr. Tanner trapped in that shack, unable to roam freely, under the blue sky." He shuffled the cards again. "Yes, that might require my skill..."

"Now you're talkin'!" Buck chuckled, finished his meal and gulped his coffee. He fumbled in his pocket, looking for a piece of silver.

"It's taken care of," Standish replied, "Now if you'll take your rather unsightly appearance from the lines of my vision, I'd be ever so grateful."

"Hell, Ezra, I didn't know you cared," Buck joked, winked and rose. "That bed is callin'..."

"Alone!" Standish warned and got he smile he angled for. Once Buck left, he let his guard down. His mind went back to the book of poems. The pages where Vin's soul was reflected so eloquently. He'd read each one several times, finding something new in the words at every reading. He wanted to give something back. He tucked the cards in his vest and headed for his room.

+ + + + + + +

It was late in the afternoon and Nathan heard movement in the bedroom. He stirred the soup, ladled out a full bowl, with a hunk of hot bread and some cheese. He placed it on the table, along with a mug of coffee. He poured another mug, full of soup, and knelt next to Vin. Every time he managed to get tea or broth in the injured man, it came right out. But it was a battle he wouldn't give up on just yet. Twice he was forced to rouse Vin from a nightmare. Like Chris stated, he stopped breathing and began to choke. Now he was on his right side, raised slightly and facing the fire. One blue eye was cracked open. " 'bout some soup?" The fever-dampened head shook negatively. "Come on now, Vin, ya ain't gonna get better until ya eat..." Again the head shook. Chris appeared and Nate took in the new man. He was washed, clean shaven and in new clothes. His hair was combed and his eyes were light. He looked much better. "You eat too!" he nodded of the steaming plate on the table.

Chris glanced at the food, the rich aroma causing his empty stomach to rumble. "Not yet..." he sighed, knelt down and watched. He heard Nate's plea and saw Vin twice deny the food. Once more Nate offered and the head shook. He pulled Vin and turned the stubborn face towards his own. "Quit givin' Nate a hard time! Eat the damn soup..." He saw the eye blinking and trying to focus. The lips parted and the tongue worked hard, trying to make a word.


"That's cause your throats all torn up. You still gotta eat, Vin." Chris directed in a stern voice. But the head shook and the weak body tried to pull away. "Quit fuckin' around and eat the damn soup!" he bellowed, but the sad blue eye pleaded with him.


"Aw, hell," Chris sagged, the lisp imparting of his name coupled with the pained eye nearly did him in. "I'm sorry, Vin, I know your throat hurts but..."


Chris closed his eyes and then sagged a bit, before opening them and staring hard at Nathan. The dark head nodded thoughtfully.

"It ain't the goin' in part that's hurtin' him..." the healer said softly, nudging Vin's lips with the mug. Chris held the trackers back against his chest, so Nate could access his mouth. "Everythin' I put in him, goes right through." He sighed "Come on's slowin' down some. Could be this will stay put."

"Do it for me, Cowboy?" Chris whispered against the wet, matted brown locks. He felt the shudder and then saw Nate tip the mug. Finally the mug was empty and Nate stood up. "Go on and eat Chris...he's sleepin'..."

Chris gently lowered his best friend back onto the mat. He pulled the blankets up and placed a new cloth on his hot brow. He managed to eat all the food Nate left, not tasting it as much as needed fuel. Nate was mixing more herbs, adding something to quell the diarrhea. Then Vin cried out and both of them froze. Nate dropped to Vin's side and pulled the blanket back. He sagged back relieved.

"It's stayed down." He moved over to where Vin's face was twisted in pain. "Where's it hurt?"

"...leg...back...on fire..." Vin hissed, free hand flailing. "God..."

The pain came in waves and this was a bad one. He screamed and reached out, something held his hand and held it tight. He panted and gasped, hearing a mixture of voices. Finally a black curtain dropped, ending the anguish.

"Jesus," Chris left the limp hand go and fled on shaking legs. He jerked the door open, seeking escape. He needed air...he needed to breathe...he needed Dale Upshaw's neck in his hands.


Chris blinked and looked down to where Mary Travis not sat on his porch. "I'm sorry, Mary, I didn't see you."

"I noticed," she took the hand up and saw the fury flying fast from the green eyes. "I'm sorry, Chris."

That was perhaps the best thing that could be said. His chest heaved and he bit his lip against the rage. He felt her hand on his arm and drew her into an embrace. It felt good to have her near and he released a pent up breath. Finally he pulled free, "Thanks..."

"Anytime, Cowboy!" she teased, but didn't get a smile. "Go take a walk. I'll see to Vin."

She watched him leave, not missing the fact both fists were clenched. He was barely containing himself. Would Buck's presence and voice of reasoning be enough to quell that beast that lurked within the taut frame? She worried about him...worried that if Vin Tanner didn't survive, that no man, not even his oldest friend, would prevent a tragedy. She waited until he was a dark speck and then took the first of the boxes inside. Nathan took over, and she dropped to Vin's side. It was far worse than she'd imagined. She rested a hand against his swollen, discolored, marred face and felt the fever.

"God, what did they do to you?" She whispered, tears springing to her pale eyes. She sat by his side for some time, then heard a squeak. He was lost in a nightmare, moving weakly and moaning. His features were twisted in fear and pain. She brought his head up, resting it against her and used the cloth to wipe his face.

"Shhh!" she soothed, "It's alright, it's a bad dream. You're safe." Not sure of how else to calm the jangled fear, she used the same method that worked for her son. She rocked, hummed, then began to sing. He relaxed and his breathing evened out. She pulled the tangled locks from his eyes and saw an eye bright with fever blinking at her.

The dirt was coming again and he couldn't move. It filled his mouth and nose, preventing air. He panicked, struggling against the inevitable. Then he heard her. A soft voice crooning low and easy. A cold cloth over his hot face and the voice penetrated. His heart quickened in the dark place. She was here...he couldn't believe was she here? Was he dead? It didn't matter. He relaxed and the dirt went away. He could breathe again. He lifted his face, but couldn't see her. Only the foggy, murky void. But he felt her hand, heard her voice and nestled against her breast.


Chris froze in the doorway. Mary hadn't noticed him and Nathan was asleep on the cot near the door. He watched Mary cradle Vin, caressing the fevered face and singing to him. He saw the fear leave and Vin melt into her arms. Then the small voice, a boy's voice, came out. A lost child who found his mother. He saw the tears running down Mary's face, meeting her sad smile. He moved closer, took out his handkerchief and wiped the pale woman's cheek. He cupped her face, bent and kissed her softly.

"Thank you, Sweet Lady..."

+ + + + + + +

"Living proof that there is a God," the tall man dictated from the porch of the Johnson home. The sky was ablaze in purples, pinks and blues. The clouds were dark purple and gray, making a startling contrast to the colorful heavenly palate. The ex-preacher took the wood inside and piled it next to the warm hearth. He moved to the stove and pulled out a roasting pan with chicken, potatoes and carrots. "Now that is a pretty picture..."

" that chicken don't think so..." Callie sniffed the golden bird as it passed her face. "I reckon she'd rather be back in the coop."

"Is your Pa up?" Josiah smiled at the child's logic and saw the golden head nod.

"Yeah...he's trying to put his shirt on. He sure got skinny..."

"Then we'll make sure he gets extra..."


"Yes, child?"

"If somebody dies and...he...they...were good, they go to heaven, right?"

"Sure do, God's waitin' of them with a big hug," he paused over the saucepan, where he was using flour and water in the pan drippings to make gravy. He watched her staring through the room, towards the bedroom. Was she still worried about Ben? He tapped the spoon and squatted down, meeting the solemn blue eyes. "Don't you go worryin' that pretty head of yours, Darlin', your Pa is doin' fine." She nodded absently and turned away. "How about gettin' the tin of tea for me. It's over on the table. We gotta make sure you Pa gets his medicine."

"Okay," she lisped and wandered slowly over to the tin, her mind elsewhere. Her stomach hurt and she was trying hard not to cry. The pain inside made her chest ache and she stifled a cry. She wouldn't cry...she wasn't no baby.

Josiah filled two platters and set them on the table. He found a smile as Ben walked into the room, weak and slow, but on his own. "Well, now that is a fine sight!" he boomed, winking at the infirmed man.

"I feel like I'm ninety, instead of thirty..." Ben whispered, sitting carefully and letting out his breath.

"Callie, supper's on..." The preacher called, noting her standing stock still. His brow furrowed at what could be bothering her. Death was something hard to explain to a six-year old. She'd watched her father nearly choke to death on several occasions. Now that he was better, was she wondering about the 'what if' possibility? "Callie?"

"Come on Sunshine," Ben called out, finding a small smile. "I need a hug..."

Taking a deep breath and swallowing the tremors, she picked the tin up and walked to the table. She handed the tea to Josiah and climbed into her father's lap, hugging him tight. She buried her face in his neck, squeezing the tears back.

"Hey now!" Ben remarked, stroking the golden hair, "That's what I call a hug." Then he frowned at Josiah, when she didn't let go. "Callie? What's wrong?"

"Nuffin'..." she choked, her eyes burning.

"It doesn't feel like nothing." He rocked her and kissed the top of her head. "Talk to me, Sunshine..." He waited and finally felt the vise-like grip on his neck lessen. "How 'bout sayin' grace?"

"I can't 'member the words..." she whispered, snuggling into her father's embrace.

"I think the Lord would rather you use your own words, right from your heart." Sanchez offered with a warm smile. "Just tell him what's inside..."

"Okay..." she took a breath, "Thanks for helpin' Nate and gettin' Pa all fixed up. He's the best Pa in these parts. Anybody who says different, I'll bust 'em real good..." Her face screwed up and both men smiled. "Keep an eye out for Buck, I like him and he took real good care of me. Thanks to the chicken for not mindin' gettin' killed so's we have dinner. Uh...thanks to Josiah for taking care of us. Tell Chris's little boy that I'm lookin' after his Pa. Uh...I'm sorry 'bout the swear words, I'm gonna try real hard to be a little lady, like Vin said..."

The prattling prayer came to a sudden halt. So fast was the end, that both men exchanged a wary glance. They couldn't see her face, she dropped her head and the pale hair fell over it.

"You all finished, Honey?" Josiah prodded and saw the head bobbing. As they ate, Josiah told them about the news from town. Ben was glad to get a wire from his wife. They be back at the end of the following week. While the men's plates were emptied, the little girl's was barely touched.

"You aren't eating," Ben tapped the shoulder. She was curled into his lap, her head resting on his arm.

"I ain't hungry."

"Are you okay?" Ben was concerned now, she was very independent and rarely clung to him like this. He could feel the tiny body trembling in his lap and saw the fear in the large blue eyes.

"I got a pack of frogs jumpin' in my belly..." She lisped, fighting the tears hard.

"You don't get any molasses cookies, if you don't eat dinner." Josiah tried, "Mrs. Potter sent over a whole tin full."

"Can I be excused?"

"Not until you eat more, Sunshine," Ben coached, "You heard Nathan, you need to eat to get stronger."

"There ain't no more room, Pa, honest. Iffen I put more in, I'm gonna throw up..."

"Okay..." He reluctantly agreed, "Is your stomach upset?"

"No." She kissed his cheek and then padded to Josiah, tiptoeing so she could kiss his cheek too. "Thanks for supper..."

"You're welcome, Callie." He ruffled the hair, "I'll warm it up for you, later, if you want."

She nodded and retreated up to the loft. She scrambled to the far corner, behind her mother's large trunk. She curled up on the thick old quilt and felt her throat tighten. The pain in her heart made her belly hurt. It made everything hurt. She rocked and bit her lip, but couldn't deny the tears any longer. They fell in a rush, spilling past the rosy cheeks and onto the blue calico sleeve. She muffled her face against the quilt, so they wouldn't hear. She tried hard all day, during her chores and when Josiah read her a story. But the words wouldn't go away. They stayed in her head and made it hurt too! Bucks words, from early this morning. She heard him talking to Nathan; she saw his sad eyes, when he said that Vin was dying. Vin was dying...he was going to heaven. He was leaving her for the other Callie. Her Vin was dying. She rocked and wept, until sleep overtook her shuddering form.

+ + + + + + +

It was late when Buck arrived at Chris's cabin. The first thing he noticed, was that the injured man was missing. The fire was strong and he walked over, warming his cold extremities. He heard a voice and moved to the doorway, watching Chris bending over the bed.

"Come on, Vin, it's almost empty..." Chris directed, holding the fevered man upright and tipping a cup towards his lips. The head turned away, the brows furrowed and the mouth made a line. "Dammit Vin! You gotta drink this, now open up!"

"Don't force him, Chris," Buck tried, realizing that maybe Chris was too close to see. "He might toss it back up."

"Nate and me moved him before he took Mary back," He eased the slight form back onto the bed and placed the nearly empty cup of water on the bed stand. "Get me that bottle of rubbing alcohol?" He asked and saw the dark head disappear.

"I got it," Buck answered, "You look beat. How's he doing?"

"He isn't," Chris's shoulders dropped. He ran a hand through his hair and then rubbed his tired eyes.

"He'll come around, Chris," Buck tried, pulling the blanket back and wringing out the cloth. He wiped the flushed face, neck and chest, wary of the bruises and cuts. "He's been through Hell this week, I reckon he's got reason to be ornery."

"He's dying, Buck, I got eyes..." Chris grunted, taking his pent up frustrations from the room.

Buck sighed and continued his work. He checked the bandages, changed two and saw Vin's lips moving. One blue slit appeared, then scowled at him. "Hey Slick!" He boomed, lifting the younger man's body forward and picking up a cup of water. "Here you go, I'm buying..." He felt the body stiffen and try to pull away. The eye was wide with fear, darting around the room. He was looking for Chris. Buck maintained his stance, leveling a hard stare. "It's Buck, Vin, I ain't gonna let anyone hurt you."

The desert spread in every direction, the sun burning his flesh. He stumbled on for miles, not knowing where he was headed and not caring. His leaden legs gave out and he dropped. He heard Chris's voice and felt him near. He drank for Chris, and felt stronger, able to go on. But now Chris was gone. He struggled to move, the sand was choking him, burning him and holding him down. He was so thirsty, his throat was on fire. Someone was near...someone was talking gently. Someone...he...knew...the voice had a face. A mustache and a wide smile, kind eyes...


"Yeah," the big man sighed, his heart warming to the nickname Vin used. He felt the muscles beneath his strong arms melt and the pale lips open for him. He tipped the cup and got the whole thing into the ill man. He watched the eye studying him and then the fear returned.

A myriad of images swirled in his head. People lying dead of a horrid disease. Choking on their own mucus. Some of their faces were familiar...dead unseeing eyes of his friends. Their voices haunted him, accusing him, invisible bony fingers poked at his chest. It was his fault...he'd done this..He turned away from them, and heard Buck again. Buck wasn't dead...Buck had to leave before he killed him too.


"What?" Buck puzzled, feeling Vin's heart pounding against his hand on his back. "Vin, you didn't hurt anybody. Hell, it would be a sad day when a Tanner took out a Wilmington," he teased, but the eye was frantic now. The feeble body pulling away. "Calm down!" Buck ordered, lowering Vin on the bed and taking his chin. "I'm fine, Vin..."

" 'em...m'fault...Oh God..."

"Jesus!" Buck hissed, knowing the futility of fighting a weak man lost in delirium. "Vin! Listen to me, you didn't hurt anyone. Nobody died...we're all fine. Vin? Vin?" He tapped the slack jaw, but the eye was closed now, the ragged breathing seemed even weaker. "Shit!"

"What's wrong?" Chris demanded, slamming the front door. He'd gone outside to get more water and heard Buck swearing.

"Bad dream," he replied, "I got a full cup of water in him, anyhow...I think he'll sleep awhile. Come on," he moved past Chris, "I need a drink..." He felt the blond stiffen and saw the clenched fists. Chris Larabee hated to see anyone he cared about suffer. His frustration was doubled, due to the fact he couldn't control Vin's fate. Nathan had done all that he could; the rest was up to Vin and God. "Come on..." he rested a hand on the tense shoulder and heard the sharp exhale.

"In a minute..." Chris pulled away, walking to the bed. He stared at the battered body of his best friend. Every bruise on the swollen face seemed to scream at him. Nathan's guarded eyes came back at him, along with the warning about Vin's state. Reluctantly, he tore his eyes from the discolored flesh and gazed at what was too hard to see. The blanket barely rising over the marred chest. His eyes burned from staring at that slight movement, afraid of what would happen when it failed to rise. He rested a hand on Vin's brow and frowned at the heat still rising. How much was he expected to bear? He'd been tortured far beyond what most men could endure. He'd survived being buried alive. What more could be asked? He gripped both hands into fists and raised his hot eyes to the ceiling. "Why?" He demanded, swallowing his pain, before seeking courage in a bottle.

Buck slid the glass across the table, but Chris rejected it, taking the bottle instead. He took a long chug, too long, and Buck sighed. It was going to be a long night. He watched the green eyes narrow, reading the label and smacking his tongue on his lip.

"What the fuck is this?" the blond inquired, watching the rogue raise an eyebrow and smile

"It's good fuckin' shit..." Wilmington crowed, taking his shot and Chris's as well, "Your virgin lips ain't used to such finery. It's not usually wasted on uh...uh..." his mind worked, thinking of the phrase the southerner used, "...plebeians like us..."

"Ezra's?" Chris grinned, eyeing the expensive label.

"All the way from Scotland...or so he claims." Buck noted of the imported blend. "Sure does go down easy..."

"He know you took it?"

"Well now, I figure I'm doin' Ez a favor. I mean, it was just sittin' there in his room, lookin' lonely and cryin' out to be saved."

"...and you bein' the generous soul, liberated it?" Chris grinned, "As long as I don't end up with an ass full of buckshot."

"Buckshot?" Buck poured another shot and then grinned. "Hell, Chris, that wasn't my fault."

"No, it was your buddy Jim Beam," he groused of the famous Kentucky bourbon.

"Well, he did help..." The rogue chuckled, sipped and laughed. "Hell, how was I supposed to know they plied that pie with bourbon." He recalled of the two vixens they met close to ten years before outside Louisville. The devilish beauties offered more than just sweet potato pie. Neither recalled much of the night that ensued. But being chased from a barn, half-naked, with an irate father firing a gun...that does leave an impression.

"If I didn't know better, I'd swear you gave them the idea..." Chris took another hit, "I wonder if Hector Bastilio's still alive?"

"Jesus," Buck chortled, "what made you think of him?"

"...ass full of buckshot..." Chris grinned.

"Lucky for me, he was nearsighted," Buck winced, recalling the close call. "The poor bastard was a walking disaster. How he managed to stay alive for the whole war, is nothing short of a miracle."

"Not for the poor bastards who served with him," The blond imparted with a smile, taking a another swig. "Remember Todd Harrison?"

Buck laughed and smacked the table, a vision of the poor private made an appearance. "Jesus, every time Hector got near that kid, he broke something. Two arms, a leg..."

"...fingers, toes..." Chris grinned, "that man was a born jinx..." he noted of Bastilio. "Hell, half the causalities we had the winter of sixty-three were due to him...shit blowing up, guns backfiring..."

"Yeah..." Buck sighed, "...Sixty-three...remember Christmas Eve? What was the name of that kid who had the great voice?"

"McBride..." Chris supplied, recalling the youngster from Ireland with the golden voice. For a few hours, they'd rested at an abandoned farm and left the war behind. They lit a fire, gave thanks to the Lord for keeping them alive and then the boy sang. By the time he was finished, there wasn't a dry eye in the barn. "Kid had a helluva voice..."

The night wore on and they basked in the warmth of memories only old friends can conjure up. Of lost loves and bloody battles; of lust and love; of births and deaths and of those intangible elements that bound them. For a few hours, Chris's pain dissolved and he grinned and laughed and embraced the gift that Buck offered. Finally , the dark head rested on folded arms at the table. Chris corked the bottle, stowing the rest for another night. He stoked the fire and picked up a blanket, carefully placing it around the slumbering man. He left his hand on the broad shoulder, his eyes burning. "How'" His voice, full of anguish and admiration, questioned of the tall man's fate. Good, bad, happy, sad, up and down, Buck had been by his side. Once again, death hovered nearby and once again, it was Buck who was standing by him. He gave a shuddering breath and squeezed the noble shoulder once, taking his eyes upwards and thanking the man upstairs for the gift the wore Wilmington clothes.

+ + + + + + +

Nate jumped from the wagon, the morning sun already high in the sky. He took a large box from the wagon and carried it inside. Josiah was reading his Bible, Ben was writing a letter to his wife and both looked up when he entered the room. He placed the bag down and rubbed his eyes.

"Mornin' Brother," Josiah stood and stretched, "Coffee?"

"No thanks, I ain't got time, I gotta get to Chris's." He moved over to his patient and tapped his shoulder. "Come on Ben, I want to get a look at ya, before I head out..."

Callie tugged her boots on, pulled on her coat and eyed the three adults. She knew Josiah would be leaving today. She heard him and Pa talking. Pa said he was fine and wanted Josiah to go back to town. Josiah said Nate would decide. So she waited...and listened, hoping her plan would work.

"Are ya sure?" Nate asked, snapping his bag shut. "Ya ain't so steady yet. That little girl of yours is a handful."

"I'll be okay, Nate. Callie's changed, this whole thing made her grow up some. Josiah's needed in town. You've already spent too much time out here..."

"It was worth it," Nate replied with a grin. "Ya finish all that medicine I left. Ya take that tea every four hours or so. Did you have any today?"


"I'll get ya some," he noted, "Ya rest in this bed, don't overdo it, ya get a relapse and it will kill ya..." he warned, "I'll be back this afternoon to check on ya..."

"Okay, thanks Nate" he said, then tugged the sleeve, "How is he?" He said of Vin Tanner. He saw the profound sadness in the healer's brown eyes and his heart sank. "That bad?"

"...I'm afraid so..."

"I'm sorry...God, that's awful..."

"Yeah, it is," Nate left his charge and went to fill the kettle. He told Josiah to go and updated him. Once the minister was gone, he mixed the tea and saw Callie lingering. "Ya gotta be a big girl. I'm goin' over to Chris's place, but I'm comin' back later. In the meantime, ya keep an eye on your Pa."

"Yes Sir..." She vowed, sliding the drawing she made under her father's plate on the table. She watched Nathan pour the boiling water and take it to her father. She scrambled up to the loft and waited.

"Callie!" Nate called out, eyeing the empty room. "I'm leavin' now..."

"...bye..." she hollered down. "I'm gettin' a book..." She waited for the door to slam and scrambled to the window, climbing down and running behind the wagon. Her head popped up, looking for Nate, who was still at the well. She easily made her way into the back, hiding under a blanket. The wagon moved out and she sighed, one step closer to her goal.

+ + + + + + +

Buck frowned and eyed the road, waiting for outline of the wagon to get closer. The pain from the hangover was nothing compared to the pain inside. Vin's breathing was almost non-existent and both men feared the worst. Chris was at the tracker's side, sitting on the bed. He hadn't spoken a word in two hours; he didn't have to, his eyes spoke volumes. Finally, he spotted Nate and waved frantically.

"Buck?" Jackson asked, jumping down. The other man shook his head and moved aside. Nate ran through the room and moved to the bed. "Chris, let me examine him." He asked, but the blond didn't move.

"His fever broke about dawn," Larabee said flatly, "We thought...maybe..." his hollow voice was painful to hear, and Nate flinched. "...but he's...not...he's...dying..." There, he said it, and it hurt like hell.

"Get me some fresh water?" Nate asked, and saw the blond reluctantly leave his friend's side. "Hey Vin..." he bent down and brushed the damp, dark tendrils of hair away, exposing a face that despite the bruising, look all too young. "I don't know if ya can hear me, but ya know this, I'm proud to call ya friend..." He gave the pale shoulder a squeeze and examined the abrasions, burns and wounds. The breath was shallow and slow, the chest barely moving. He hung his head, rubbed the tears from his eyes and went into the other room.

Callie poked her head up over the window sill and climbed inside. She tiptoed to the bed and got up, wiggling over to where Vin was sleeping. She furrowed her face; the bruises on his skin made her belly hurt. She tapped his cheek, but he didn't wake up.

"Vin...Vin..wake up..." she tried, then kissed the bruises. "I made it all better...Vin? Vin? Look, I made ya a star. " She held up the crooked, yellow creation, made from her mother's tablecloth, proudly, but he didn't wake up. "Ya ain't even lookin' at's better than hers." she demanded, sitting on his chest and frowning. She leaned way over, pressing her face close to his, and peeled his eye open. "Are ya in there? Vin? Vin? Get up..." she left the lid go, and he continued to ignore her. Frustrated, she got an idea. She put the star in her teeth and peeled both eyes open, so he could see her star...his star...but as soon as she left go, he went back to sleep. Now she was mad...and her eyes got hot. "She can't have ya...I won't let her...yer my Vin not hers...Do you hear me?" she screeched, "I won't let ya go to heaven to be with the other Callie...I need" she pleaded, tears spilling from her eyes. She bent over again, pressing her face against his and into his neck. "I love ya...Vin...don't go to heaven...please...." she sobbed.

"Chris, it's time..." Nate rested a hand on the blond's downcast shoulder. "I don't think it will be long..." He took a deep breath, saw Buck bite his lip and gave Larabee's shoulder a squeeze. "I'm sorry..."

"Yeah," Chris nodded, swallowed hard, accepted the hand Buck offered, and went to say goodbye to his best friend. He froze in the doorway, then strode over to the bed, where tiny child was clinging to his dying friend. "Where the hell did you come from?" he demanded, reaching down to lift her away.

"Noooooooooo!" she screeched in a voice that only a small, angry child can produce. The decibel of which can cut through any adult like a saber. Chris's whole body stiffened in pain, as the earsplitting scream penetrated his skull. Her tiny foot shot out and caught him in a rather delicate area.

"...the hell's goin' on..." Buck skidded to a halt, spotting Chris's mottled face and area of pain. "Callie, get offa Vin...Callie..."

"No!" she screamed, twisting away and catching the large man in the eye with a sharp elbow.

"Buck!" Chris hissed painfully, his voice stunned.

"I'm okay," Wilmington replied, rubbing his eye.

"" He gasped, still recovering from his 'injury'. He pointed to the bed and heard the rogue gasp in shock. Under the veil of golden hair, splayed by the small imp, were two blue eyes looking right at them. Under the tired eyes, was a weak Tanner smile.

+ + + + + + +

It had been a strange place, like floating in the night sky. Dark and cold, the silence both comforting and frightening at the same time. He could see and feel, despite the fact he was somehow not connected to his body. The voices drifted by, the pain contained within them, pierced him like shards of glass. Then a soft voice, a small voice, an angel's voice interrupted his disjointed reverie. The broken-hearted plea filled his entire being. He felt warm in the odd abyss; the fluttering of feather light kisses on his face stole his breath. He relaxed and tried to find the angel, then his silent repose was interrupted by a shrill shriek. At a dizzying pace, he was quickly plummeted through the dark pool, crashing back into reality. The sight that met his eyes, was one that he'd not soon forget. Two of his closest friends, men who were feared and whose swagger would buckle the knees of most, were manhandled by a tiny, heart-stealing bandit. One look at Chris's face and body language, coupled with Buck's eye, gave the would-be Lazarus a brilliant warm smile. The explosion of the life force within spilled through his lips, causing both men by the bed to furrow their brows.

"What the hell was that?" Buck stammered of the strange, choked, raspy, wheezing expulsion from Tanner's lips. "That's the sorriest, sad-assed laugh I've ever heard. That's downright embarrassin' Vin!" He eyed Callie snuggling contented against her hero, her blond head tucked under his chin. Her gloat was as bright as the locks on her head. "Oh, I get think that's funny? That that pint-sized hellion got the best of us?" He grinned as the shaggy head nodded once. Then he saw the smile fade as the weary blue eyes met the somber green ones. Chris had yet to say a word since Vin woke up. Buck sensed his oldest friend might need some privacy.

"I knew ya wasn't goin' go to heaven and leave me Vin. Did ya like my star? Ain't it as good as hers?" She held up the prize and spoke of the angel in the story Vin told her, and saw his head dip once. "Good, I tried real hard...when Buck said ya was goin' to Heaven, it made my insides hurt...I couldn't hardly breathe." She saw a tear slip out of his good eye and used her yellow star to wipe it. "Aw, hell you're cryin'..."

"Callie!" Buck admonished, " 'bout we go find Nathan?" He prompted, swatting the tiny rump, "...and then we get you back to your Pa. I'm guessin' he's about worried sick by now."

"I left a note," she answered crossly, "...sorta...."she snuggled closer to the injured man, tucking the star carefully over his bandaged chest. "'sides, I like it right here. I'm keepin' Vin's heart all warmed up..."

"Sort of?" Buck quizzed, lifting one tiny leg from the bed.

"Yeah...I drew pictures...I left it right out...he was sleeping. I figured I'd get back before he woke up..."

"You figured wrong," Buck tugged and saw the scream coming. "I bet Vin's worried about your Pa now...him being so sick and alone at the cabin. He was counting on you to take care of him. You promised, remember?" He saw the blond head flip back and then the face flush when Tanner nodded weakly.

"Well..." she wrinkled her nose and pouted. Reluctantly, she bent over and kissed the stubbled cheek. "Ya ain't mad are ya?" She saw him nod and hung her head. "I'm sorry, Vin...I was afraid ye'd be leavin' for Heaven and I didn't want her to have ya. Ya ain't her Vin, you're mine..." She sniffed and glanced down at the bruised face. "If I go back and tell Pa I'm sorry...will ya still be mad?" She cocked her head and saw him smile and shake his head. "Will I be your best girl again?" She felt the fingers of his good hand brush against her cheek and the head nod again. "Good!" She beamed and zipped off the bed.

"See where Nate got to," Buck advised and the small body skipped from the room. "You want a drink?" he asked the injured man and saw one eyebrow lift mischievously. "I meant water..." he quipped, moving to the other side of the bed. "Chris, see if...Chris...Chris..." he waved his hand in front of the silent specter, who flinched as if slapped.

It was if he was watching the scene from outside a thick pane of impenetrable glass. His legs seemed to have sprung roots, extending through the floorboards and anchoring him to the spot. His tongue was sewn to his gums, his eyes as cold as glass. In the briefest span of time, Vin's life had been snatched back from the cold fingers of a nameless phantom. The chest was rising and falling in a steady rhythm, the face wasn't quite so pale and the eyes, and all that mystery behind them, were sparking with life. He saw motion and noticed Buck staring at him hard.

"Huh?" he managed, getting a chortle from the rogue.

"You sound like J.D.!" Wilmington teased. "Water...he's thirsty. I'll lift, you get the mug. It's right there." He paused, the blond still remained glued in place, his eyes penetrating the bemused sky eyes on the bed. "Chris!"

"Yeah," he moved, flexing his fingers to get the quivers settled down to a manageable tremble. He filled the speckled tin mug and moved to the bed, sitting on the edge. He bit his own lip slightly, his wavering hand took the mug to the swollen tracker's lips. The jaw worked too quickly, prompting him to pull the cup away. "Slow down! You're gonna hurl all over my bed." He glared annoyed at the crinkles in the corners of Tanner's eyes, which were sassing him. "You got no manners," he steadied the cup and the light eyes scrutinized him over the rim. He'd never admit it, but it felt good, damn good, too damn good.

The water was so cool, so absolutely wonderful, it was as if it were spun from the grapes of the gods. It left him giddy and punch-drunk; so much so that he saw the color blue fall in front of him and felt his mouth drowning in naked delight. Amidst his rapture, he saw through the green gaze so close and felt the icy fear that lurked behind them. What those penetrating eyes didn't reveal, the slight tremble in the strong hands did. It was a feeling so deep and profound, it took his breath away. The cup was pulled back and the urge rose. An urgent need to speak that which was causing his heart to nearly explode. He raised a hand and touched Chris Larabee's jaw, he open his lips and tried to get the words out.

"Slow down Vin, I can't hear you," Larabee teased, seeing the lips moving over the trembling chin. He felt Vin's hand tremble on his jaw, slide to his neck and thump against his chest. Those cerulean eyes were bursting with need and the wispy breath picked up, increasing to a steady pant. It came out in short bursts, then the lips moved again and a loud belch came out. "Well, that was worth waiting for..." The blond's lip quirked and his eyes softened. Buck wasn't so polite and laughed outright.

"Spoken like a true Tanner!" the womanizer boasted, cupping the blushing, chagrined Texan's chin. He kept that smile and studied the emotive face. The light eyes stared at him hard, the depths of which were hard to deny. "You plannin' on stayin' for awhile?" He asked, not hiding his feelings. Vin's mouth opened and the tongue slipped out, licking the upper lip. The jaw moved, but no words were spoken. The eyes continued to penetrate and then the head rose up once and came back down, followed by a crooked grin. "Good," Buck whispered, his handsome face split by a winning Wilmington smile. He gave the chin a gentle tug and then winked. "I'll get Nathan and take Callie home."

Vin tried to look past Chris' broad chest, just as a short series of painful coughs emerged. The force and fury left his weak body numb and shaking in agony. He flopped against the dark green shirt, breathless and teary-eyed from pain. The voice was behind him, the guiding tone one he'd gotten so used to, he took it for granted. It engulfed him, embodied him and fed him life.

"Easy..." Chris waited until the heaving breaths slowed up. "You keep that water down?" he asked and heard an annoyed hiss. He smiled and pulled the pillows up higher, before placing Vin back onto them. He pulled the quilt up and then took a minute to study the confused face. "You're a mess, Tanner." He waited, watching the eyes roam around the room. "Dale Upshaw and some of his men got a hold of you over a week ago. They kept you prisoner and beat the hell out of you..." he paused and saw the flicker of recognition and the flash of molten fury. One weak fist balled up, striking the mattress. "You got away," he skipped the gruesome details, "and got back here..."

"...home..." Vin managed in a scratchy whisper, vaguely remembering riding Larabee's horse.

"Yeah," Chris agreed, watching the eyes blinking hard. "You got a lot of healing to do. Busted arm, bad infection in your leg, cracked ribs, cuts, bruises, burns, " he paused as the bandaged wrist made his way up to the bandage on his neck.

Vin saw the tiger's glint in Larabee's eyes and it frightened him. His fingers felt the rough bandage over the razors that seemed to be cutting the tender flesh of his throat with every swallow. His back was on fire, the pain engulfing him with every move. "...finish..." He demanded, narrowing his tired eyes over the wall of agony.

"They hung you, whipped you and..." He bit his lip, left the bed and stalked to the window, gazing out into the noonday light. Before Chris could finish, find the words to tell Vin he'd been thrown in a hole and covered with dirt, ate the dirt, breathed it in...a sharp hiss made him turn back. He didn't have to finish. The prisoner's horrified face and the staggered breathing told him it wasn't necessary.

"...fuck..." Vin choked, his wide eye darting over the quilt. The calico disappeared, the bed became a burial plot and he was breathing in dirt. It rained on his face and he could see Dale Upshaw's leer through the soil. "" He lost his air as the horror took revisited. It gripped him until he was pulled free, blinking into twin green pools of furious rage.

"He's a walking dead man, Vin," Chris vowed, "Adam and Yancy are already in jail..."

"...Yancy..." the Texan spat, recalling the abuse. "...starved me...used that fuckin' bad meat...made me grovel on the a pig...spit in it...shit..."

"That explains a lot," Nathan moved to the bed, just as the hatred exploded from the wrath of Larabee. "Welcome back..."

"...trip...I couldda skipped..." Vin tossed back, letting Nathan lift him and accepting the warm, medicinal tea. He coughed again, gripping the dark healer's arm as the pain washed over him. "...hell..."

"Ya got fluid in there," the ex-medic noted of the patient's lungs. "Ya gotta keep coughin' it out. I don't want ya gettin' pneumonia. I got some broth for ya...I'll heat it up." He eased the younger man back onto the bank of pillows. "It won't be easy, and it's gonna take a while, but ya got your grit back." He winked, "...and that's half the fight," he patted the good leg and saw the worry lines forming as the sky eyes lingered on the tense gunslinger's back. "I don't gotta tell ya, what's he's been through...Give him some time, Vin..." He pulled the blanket up and left the room.

Vin waited and frowned, the back remained hostile and threads on the shirt threatened to bust open. "Ya...okay...Cowboy?"

Chris's wall of rage melted, when the raspy, sandpaperish voice cut through his haze. He turned slowly, took a deep breath and walked to his dresser. He picked up two items and then went back to the bed, sitting on the chair next to the injured man.

"I...thought...ya was dead..." Vin recalled.

"That makes two of us," Chris met the twin look of hollowed horror and smiled grimly. "I got something for you." He popped the front of the object open and placed it in the sharpshooter's open palm. The sight of the eyes snapping open and the look of pure wonder and bliss was one he'd keep for a long time.

"How..." Vin gasped, lifting the watch and painfully recalling his grandfather's strong face. "It's all..cleaned's..." His mouth dropped open in stunned amazement. There was his grandfather's name, his name, staring back at him. He swallowed hard and saw the second hand sweeping around. "...fixed..." he grinned and let his eyes drink in every inch of the timepiece. "...looks...prettier...than....Bucklin's best filly..."

"Thanks," Chris's nose wrinkled, "I think," he grinned. "I used to fiddle around with watches and mechanical stuff when I was younger." He answered the silent question.

"...hangin' up yer colts..." Vin teased, caressing his watch.

"No," Larabee said solemnly, catching the grateful eyes, "I only tinker for family."

"Thanks, Cowboy," Vin managed, his already swollen throat nearly doubling.

"You can't have the letter back," the blond pulled out a small, brown leather valise. It was worn by time and care, every inch broken in by loving hands. "It...I...needed much as that quinine..." He paused and took a steadying breath, raising his eyes to meet his best friend's. He slowly opened the leather folds, revealing three yellowed letters. "You see..." He swallowed hard, his eyes caressing the paper, written in a woman's hand. "Sarah loved to write poems and letters. From the time I met her, she scrawl something and hide them. It might be a poem she read and liked, some words of her own, a memory, something we shared." He smiled, recalling her captivating kisses, "She tuck them away in my saddlebags, clothes, anywhere she could hide them. I kept them all..." He felt the tears stinging his eyes. " a box...I lost it...that night..."

"I'm sorry, Chris," Vin offered sincerely, "I didn't mean upset ya."

"...s'okay Vin," he hushed, tucking the poet's letter in with the other three. "The first night after Buck and I rode out, we were camped out and he was asleep. I found these...she hid them in my bedroll. They're all I have left of her..." He choked, forced out a harsh breath and felt the angry tears disappear. "...I treasure them, Vin...I'm keeping your letter...with hers..." He folded the leather pouch and held it almost in prayer. "I never...told...anyone...before..."

" stays here..." Vin pledged. "I'm honored, Chris..." he said of the home for his letter. "I wish I could have known her..."

"Me too," the blond replied, finding a small smile. "She would have spoiled the hell out of you..." he chuckled, "She had a wicked sense of humor...she'd have had you blushin' like a virgin..." They both laughed then, the release long overdue. Chris gripped the back of Vin's neck and gave a good tug. A motion that spoke volumes and filled the younger man with a surge of energy. The moment was broken when Nathan arrived, bearing a plate.

"I'll do it," Larabee offered, taking the large soup mug from the other. Vin watched the slight tremble of the hand on the mug and allowed a guilty pleasure to spread through his healing body. How long had it been, that someone had cared this much? His lips parted as the wavering spoon found it's true path.

"What?" Chris frowned, watching the wistful eyes trained on him ."Too hot?" He asked, eyeing the dish. The head shook negatively. "Cold?" The soft laugh gave him a smile of his own.

"No, it's just right," Vin managed, swallowing hard and smiling again, enjoying the flood of emotions. The bowl was drained in silence, each embracing the stolen moments of solitude. The blue eyes grew heavy and Chris pulled the blanket up.

"...m'okay..." Vin yawned, "...don't need ya hoverin'...I ain't a damn corpse...get...goin'..." But the body lingered, resting in the chair, long legs crossed at the ankles. Vin blinked hard, fighting the inevitable. "I'm fine..."

"I know," Chris answered, as the eyes finally closed. He tucked the yellow cloth star over the valiant heart and spotted the tip of silver showing through Vin's palm, where the watch was hidden. And he stayed, guarding the sacred trust, long after the tracker fell into a deep sleep.

Part 8

His face remained stoic, even though Dawn unfurled a new dress for him, shyly peeking over the horizon. He tightened the last cinch on his horse and glanced across his land. The cold morn left his breath in small, white puffs. The inner fire that burned would keep him warm while he was gone. He was fueled by a growing hunger, which would be sated when Dale Upshaw's neck was in his hands.

For three days he took care of his best friend, alone. He tended to his every need and fought through every nightmare. Conversation was short; Vin slept most of the time. Nate said to expect that, the injured body needed to heal. The bruises were fading to pale blues and the swelling on his face was nearly gone. The back and leg were still a problem, the pain refusing to let him stand upright. Stamina hadn't returned yet, the smallest of actions totally wore him out. But he'd turned the corner and it was time to leave.

The trail was already cold and if not for J.D.'s quick thinking, they'd have no leads. The youthful sheriff sent wires to most of the towns in the direction that Upshaw took. They had two positive sightings and a confirmation from a prostitute in Reading, a small town near the border. Just shy of New Mexico territory, the mining town's leading lady of the night confirmed the blond braggart gave her his name. That was yesterday and it prompted him to move. He discussed the trip with Vin, who was none to happy. Larabee knew just how he felt and sympathized. It wasn't easy letting someone else watch your back. He knew Vin wanted in on the hunt, but if they waited, Dale would disappear altogether. He pulled the collar of his long duster up and eased his lean frame back onto the porch. He ducked back inside his home and the combination of fresh coffee and hotcakes greeted him.

"He's up..." Josiah Sanchez answered the wind-reddened Larabee face. He drizzled syrup on both stacks of hotcakes and speared a section of ham. Neatly cutting it in half, he gave both platters to the gunslinger, who nodded and strode past. As he entered his bedroom, he saw Vin was sitting on the side of the bed. He placed both plates on the table and turned just as the injured man attempted to stand.

"Vin, you shouldn't...." he winced as the stubborn tracker wavered and flopped sideways, back onto the bed. " that," he concluded, shaking his head. He pulled a chair close to the bed and left briefly, returning with two cups of coffee. He pushed the blue-speckled mug towards the wheezing body on the bed. "Where were you headed?" he asked, stabbing a piece of ham and running it through the syrup.

"...had t'go..." Vin grumbled, waiting for the fire in his back and the intense throbbing in his leg to subside. The room finally stopped spinning and he blinked, trying to decide which of the two blond's was really Chris Larabee.

"So go," the other grunted, nodding to the chamber pot next to the bed. He saw the eyebrows draw in, as the scowl was born. A short huff and the good fist pounding the bed created a sigh of exasperation. "No," he answered the flashing blue eyes. "You can't even stand. That outhouse might as well be in Kansas." He noted of the privy on the edge of his property. "Besides, it's freezing out there. Time your slow ass got there and back, in that pretty nightshirt, Kojay and his clan would be calling you Little Numb Nuts." He heard a snicker and saw the tracker fighting not to laugh.

"Little?" Vin challenged, raising his eyebrows and cocking his head. He saw a flash of white teeth, before a hefty fork of apple cinnamon hotcakes drenched in syrup disappeared.

"Only passing on what I heard."

"Hah!" Vin choked, eyeing his own plate. "Well?" he snarled, causing the blond head to rise.

"What?" Chris answered, slowly licking excess syrup from his fork.

"Helluva nurse yer turnin' out t'be..." he frowned, leaving his fork in the center of the stack. "How my supposed t'eat this?" He winced, cradling his broken arm.

"Christ, there's no pleasing you!" Chris shot back, deftly cutting the breakfast meal with strong, sure strokes. "Yesterday you had a fit when I cut them first. Hollerin' some shit about not being a baby..."

"That was yesterday," Vin settled back happily, taking a huge forkful and letting the syrup land wherever it dropped.

"And?" Chris returned, watching the rich, sweet concoction running off the injured man's chin.

"...and what?" Vin asked, swiping his chin with his sleeve. "Damn, these is good. 'siah sure knows his way around the griddle."

"I give up," the leader decided, knowing Tanner logic wasn't something easily conquered. "We got a good lead, should be back in a week if things work out."

Vin's hand wavered and he set the fork down. He thought on the days ahead for Chris and Buck. He hoped the tall, mustached man would be enough to quell the beast. He'd seen Chris in action when he was angry and knew how dangerous he could be. What if he got carried away? What if he gunned down Upshaw? What if he got arrested or worse? What if...

"Vin?" Chris's brows drew together in concern, when the room was overcome by the pensive tracker's silence. The shadows on the younger man's face and the dark circles under his eyes, coupled with his poor color, displayed a body far from healed. But it was what lurked behind the ailing flesh and bones, that bothered him. "Spit it out, before you choke on it..."

Vin's eyes met the other's and then he picked up his fork and resumed his meal. He felt the green orbs burning into him and dropped the fork, scowling.

"Quit shoutin' at me!" he protested, his throbbing head only adding to the fear he felt. He saw the single sandy eyebrow arch, as if challenged. "Ya know what I mean..." he accused of the glaring gaze. "Ya do it by the book," he finally released, putting his good hand forward. "I want yer word."

"I can't do that Vin," Chris denied, "He's gotta pay and if the law won't help..."

"I want yer word!" Vin repeated, more determined.

"Dammit!" Chris jumped up and strode around the small room, "He's a animal, Vin. He beat you, broke your bones, whipped you, hung you, fuckin' buried you alive."

"It ain't bad enough I'm relivin' that every time I close my eyes," Vin seethed, rising unsteadily and holding onto the bedpost for dear life. "Ya gotta remind me?"

"Then why?" Chris raged, "How can you ask me to look the other way?"

"...because what he done," Vin clenched taking a few frantic steps and losing his breath. A pain shot through his leg and up his back, causing him to stumble. The image of his best friend being hung for murder created a whole new beast inside. "...can't compare t'ya gettin' strung up..."

Chris caught him as he fell, cursing under his breath and settling him back on the bed. The brief stint took all the energy the recovering man had stored up, leaving him breathless and sweating. He felt the shivering and held on a moment, knowing it was from more than cold. He sighed long and hard, wondering how God saw fit to trust him with this soul.

"...m'alright..." Vin mumbled, his head swimming and throbbing. He felt a cup nudged against his lips and drank the cool water. He laid back and felt the blanket pulled up. It took several minutes before he had his breath back. Finally, he opened his eyes and saw a calm green sea where once a storm raged.

Chris exhaled and studied the worried blue eyes. His mind flashed back on the night when he found Vin on the porch...then the fear when he thought he was dying. It struck him then and the irony of it made him chuckle. Both had the same thought- placing such high value on the other's life. "Alright Vin, I'll try to bring back alive." He paused and saw the worry lines forming in the pale Texan's face. "You trust me?"

"Ya even gotta ask?" Vin's tone was wounded and suddenly the breakfast was souring in his stomach. He leaned forward, sensing the parting of the road.

"Then leave it alone," Larabee issued, draining his coffee and rising. "I got a long road ahead, I can't tote your damn Tanner worryin' eyes with me..." He extended his hand, snagging the other's forearm. "I'll see you next week."

"I ain't goin' anywhere," Vin hissed, letting Chris ease him back onto the bed. "Chris..." he swallowed hard, studying the features hovering above him. He hoped it wouldn't be the last meal they shared. "I'm grateful..."

"You'll get my bill," the blond teased with a wink. Then he strode away, leaving the younger man to ponder on the long days ahead.

+ + + + + + +

J.D. was sorting a large pile of mail, when the door opened. He looked up and saw Buck and Chris stride inside. He paled a bit, when he saw the steely edge in the icy green eyes of the leader. A cigar was clenched between the tense blond's lips.

"Mornin' Chris," he greeted and got a nod. "You might want to read this, it's Yancy's statement." He turned the papers around and waited. Chris moved towards the desk, dropped his head and quickly read the documents. The only visible signs of change, were the jaw clenching tighter and a short hiss that escaped. Both of Larabee's fists went white-knuckle and he took several heaving breaths. Buck went to the gun cabinet, getting their ammunition ready.

"I got a map for you," Dunne pointed to the table, where the towns surrounding Reading were listed. "He's got to be in one of them. I'll keep checking, you wire from whatever town you in and I'll update you."

"Thanks," Larabee imparted, folding the map and stowing it in the inner pocket of his long black coat. He shifted his hips, letting both colts show. He stood on the other side of the bars, to the men inside, he seemed several feet taller than possible. "Open it, J.D...."

Adam met the peacekeeper's penetrating gaze head on, he never flinched or attempted to move, when the lean body walked inside the cell. He rose and stared straight back, not hiding his remorse. "Take it for what's it worth, Mr. Larabee, but I'm sorry. There's no excuse for what I did. I let Dale bully me for months and I changed. I had no idea how bad off I was, until that night in the cabin when I saw something in Vin Tanner's eyes. I realized then how wrong I was ...and how ashamed. I'll take whatever's coming, I deserve it. I want him to know, Vin I mean, how wrong I was. If he wants to even up the score..."

Chris weighed the boy's words carefully. He was a good judge of character and seldom wrong when it came to his gut feelings. They told him, as he stared hard into the boy's dark eyes, that he was truly remorseful. He blinked once and nodded slowly, removing his cigar.

"It's up to the Judge," he replied, "He's a fair man, I'm sure he'll think it out. Could be, you might not go to Yuma." He waited, watching the eyes wide and honest. He nodded and turned, his stomach curling up at the fetid creature on the other side of the cell. The words on the paper sprung to life. He felt Vin's pain, trussed up like an animal and beaten, whipped and tortured by this sadistic brute, then fed rancid meat. In his mind, he had a dull knife and slowly slid it inside the quivering man's gut. He twisted it, gently separating his intestines and pulling them out, draping the pink entrails like ribbons. He moved closer and Yancy fell off the end of the bunk, cowering on the floor and whimpering.

"You fuckin' pathetic dog..." Larabee hissed, his teeth bared. He gripped the man's head by the hair and slammed it into the wall. With his free hand, he blew on the embers of the cigar, until they glowed. "Ever hear the sound an eyeball makes when you scorch it? It sizzles a little..." he moved the throbbing cigar just a fraction of an inch from the exposed eye. His nose twitched as the scent of urine emerged, fresh from the trembling coward's leaking bladder. He pushed the ember closer still, "...then it goes..POP!" he lunged, burying the fiery object into the wall behind the screaming pile of refuse. He looked with unabated disgust at the quivering, yellow-bellied animal. He moved in again, his stomach turning. How many hours...days...did Vin endure this brute's horrific torment?

"Don't hurt me..." Yancy sputtered, drool running down his face.

"I wouldn't risk getting rabies," the blond returned, bending over the curled up snake. "Don't worry about that tight ass of yours. Where you're headed, it won't take long before somebody rapes the livin' shit outta you. Them guards at Yuma love fresh meat..." he curled his lips up in disgust, shoved the body with his boot and pressed the toe of it into the sweating man's throat. " not being a man only makes it sweeter. I'll be waitin' when you get out," he vowed in a low voice.

With a final grunt of disgust, he turned, left the cell and stormed into the daylight. He jumped on his horse and turned to meet Buck, who was already mounted and waiting. They were about to ride out, when a voice stopped them.


"What now?" Chris grunted, watching Zeb Upshaw approach.

"You won't get away with this! Don't think I don't know what you've planned. You'll murder my son in cold blood. I know your type...defendin' the likes of that savage-lovin' heathen..."

"Chris!" Buck cried out, as the black tornado flew past him. Before he could blink, Zeb Upshaw was thrust chest first against the side of the billiard hall. "Chris, let him go!"

"You listen up, Old Man," Larabee seethed, his rage pounding in both temples. "It's a fuckin' miracle that you managed to produce two sons who can walk upright. But that other animal you spawned made the biggest mistake of his fuckin' life when he messed with Vin Tanner. I made a promise to Vin, to bring him in alive. You see, that's the kind of man Vin Tanner is, not that you'd understand. He's a real man...not a fucked up old bastard like you."

"Let him go," Buck said quietly, trying to pull the leather-gloved fingers free from Upshaw's throat. "We gotta ride..."

"Not without me you're not...." Upshaw shoved Larabee's arm away. "I'm riding with you."

"The hell you are!" Chris bellowed, "Do I look like a fool to you?" He inquired, not trusting the irate father.

Zeb launched a counterattack, Buck added his two cents and the loud trio of voices was silenced by a shrill whistle. They all turned as Judge Orrin Travis approached.

"It's not even nine a.m.," he complained for the loud ruckus, "Chris, Zeb, I'm both sure you know Frank Lewis." He eyed both glaring hotheads, waiting for each to nod. Lewis was a former marshal, now living in the area. He was a good friend of Travis's, respected by all the townspeople and as honest and fair as they came.

"Look, Orrin, I don't need this turning into a circus," Larabee argued. "Buck and me can bring him in..."

"Lewis goes along, on my behalf. I brought the charges, I have that authority, Chris. He's representing the court." He turned to the white-haired Upshaw, "Zeb, you have a boy in that jail that needs you here. I spoke with Adam at length yesterday and I was impressed. He's made some serious errors in judgment and was man enough to own up to them. He told me he'll take whatever sentence I decide. He needs a father...don't let him end up like Dale."

"Okay," Zeb finally relented. He knew Lewis was honest to a fault and would be a good impartial party. "I don't like it, but I guess you're right."

"Where is he?" Buck asked, watching Chris simmering in the dusty street.

"He'll meet you at Drover's corner," He noted of the railway stop on their route.

Chris didn't say a word, he got on his horse and rode out, leaving Buck to take the judge's papers and directives. They rode long and hard, stopping only long enough to water the horses, pick up Frank Lewis and eat. The more miles they put behind them, the quieter Chris got. Buck wasn't sure what would happen, when they caught up to Dale. The first night, in the glow of the campfire, he saw so much pain in the green eyes, it ripped right through him. He knew the silent leader was thinking of Vin.

Frank was a tall, lean man in his early fifties. He'd worked for the judge before and knew the score here. He got his horse settled down, exchanged some small talk with Wilmington and then turned in. Buck took a walk in the woods and then dropped back down, next to Chris. He pulled out a bottle and uncorked it, offering it to his pensive friend.

"All that yakkin' of yours scared the wildlife away," he teased, seeing a stony profile.

Chris took a long draw from the bottle, sat it between his drawn up knees and stared into the flames. The dancing orange heat didn't warm him. He didn't feel anything, and that worried him. He sighed and groped the bottle, taking another drink and passing it to the right, to Buck. Where else would the giving soul be? Buck was always there...waiting to support, protect and defend.

"I got an itch I can't scratch, Buck," he sighed, rubbing the back of his neck wearily.

Buck smiled softly, shaking his head slightly at the perfect metaphor. He knew the man next to him smelled blood. He also knew if he gave his word to Vin Tanner, he keep it...or die trying. He also knew it would take someone as strong as this man to keep that promise. He heard the deep sigh and gave the broad shoulder a squeeze. Chris nodded once, stood and retreated into the darkness. Buck watched him go, hoping he would find the strength to tame the beast inside. He wondered what would happen when Chris found Dale. He took a drink, eyed the dark sky and wondered what the new dawn held in store for them.

+ + + + + + +

The dream was the same, but the bodies changed. It was Chris who was in the hole, wounded and bleeding, unable to move. Nameless faces kept putting shovelfuls of dirt over him. The feeble screams got weaker and weaker, until no more voice was heard. They held him back, the nameless ghouls, preventing him from saving his best friend.

The silence of the room, warmed by the afternoon sun, was cut short by a pinched moan from the bed. The visitor stood, walked over to the cot and watched the bruised body twitch. The handsome face contorted, sweat poured down ever bruised inch. The long hair was damp and matted, the result of the nightmare and the return of a fever. The chin trembled and the fist rose, waving weakly until it was caught. A loud gasp and two blue eyes shot open, with the chest heaving and coughing.

"Your resemblance to a drowned rat is quite striking."

"Ezra?" Vin croaked, blinking at the dual fuzzy images hovering over him. "Hell...two of ya..."

"A frightening thought," he smiled and offered a cold cup of water.

"Thanks," Vin managed to drink most of it and then took the damp cloth the southerner offered, wiping his face and neck. "Damn it's hot in here..."

"Your fever has returned," he sat down and waited for the infirmed body to lie back. "Not to worry, our good healer said that is normal. You are to remain in bed and drink fluids."

"Hell..." Vin sighed, "...feel like m'ass is sewed t'this damn bed."

"Of course, if you'd be more comfortable," the gold tooth glinted dangerously, "I'm sure Mrs. Travis would gladly give you a bath."

"Ye'd like that, wouldn't ya?" Vin grinned, "Ya ain't lookin' so bad..." he squinted painfully, his pounding head making his features pinched. "That damn coat of yers is got m'head poundin'..." Vin eyed the quiet room behind the gambler. "Ya alone?"

"I am," he nodded, "J.D. and Josiah will be joining us for supper."

"Supper?" Vin eyed the window. "What time is it?"

"Around four p.m." Ezra felt the change before he saw it. It was as if all the air left his body. The shoulders sagged in the large nightshirt. Vin turned over, hissing as his healing back protested. "Is something wrong?"

"I'm that alright?" Vin snapped, then slammed his eyes shut. "Dammit...Ez...I'm tired of sleepin' the day away..."

"I know."

Vin's eyes shot open and he looked hard at the other man. "I'm sorry, Ez. I didn't mean t'bite at ya. How ya feelin'?" He recalled how close the other came to dying.

"I'm fine, thanks to you," he pulled the small book from his coat and held it out. "I have something for you. It seems you left it behind when you took flight."

Vin took his precious book and let it rest against his chest. He had a urge inside and later, in the quiet of the night, when the house was still, he'd put it to paper. But now, he caressed the fine leather and thought on the contents.

"I didn't leave it behind," he said quietly, watching Ezra avert his gaze. "I left it t'ya..." He misunderstood the guarded face and felt stung. "I'm sorry...I guess I was wrong..."

"No," Ezra countered, hearing the dejection and feeling the sting. "Don't be. I was quite humbled by your gift. I was overwhelmed by your generosity. I don't know if I've recovered yet."

"It's where I keep my soul..." Vin whispered.

"I know," Ezra returned quietly, "...and I thank you for allowing me that privilege."

"Damn, my head hurts..." Vin gasped, trying to get comfortable.

"Then rest, my friend, I've got your back," he teased, watching one blue eye open and drinking in the shy grin. "I got a book of Keats, I could read some if you'd like."

"...'kay..." Vin yawned, letting the soft words flow around the room and lull him into an easy sleep.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was at the end of the bar, his lean body creating quite a stir. He eyed the crowded saloon, carefully scanning every face. Buck was covering the other side of the street. A hotel, the bathhouse, a livery, a few stores and the mining office were taking up his time. Frank was with the marshal. Reading was not a town to remember. Most mining towns weren't. He turned back, satisfied that the first two hours in town, asking questions about Dale, got the right attention. Some particular information would garner a nice reward. He was leaning his elbows on the bar and nursing a shot of redeye. Cheap perfume invaded his space at the same time a hand snaked inside his thigh and caressed him boldly.

"You like playing with fire?" he groused, feeling the full breasts press against his arm. She wasn't very pretty, average more or less, but she was put together well.

"I like eating fire..." she teased, nibbling his earlobe and biting his neck. "I think I got something you want."

"I bet you do," Chris's voice was clipped as his desire rose, courtesy of the well tuned hands and tongue. He slid his hand across the rounded curves of her hip and kissed her hard. "How much?" he asked, as her fingers unbuttoned his pants.

"Depends on what you're buying," She purred, "I think we can help each other. Say twenty-five dollars worth of extra help." She saw the eyes flicker, the heat nearly stung her face. "Upstairs...fourteen..."

He moved quickly, shoving her in front on him, taking the stairs two at a time. They moved inside the room, he kicked the door closed with his boot. She dropped to her knees, pulling him free and started to play. He jerked the flame color hair hard and pulled her up.

"Look lady, I didn't come her to get laid...I want some information."

"You're hurting me..." She whimpered, suddenly very afraid.

"Then you best start talking..."

"You'll have to excuse my friend, he has no manners." Buck eased his lanky frame through the window and moved to where the couple stood. He eased himself between the glowering hulk and the saloon girl. He pushed her from behind, guiding her to the bed. "Chris, close the barn door, huh?" he nodded to the open fly. "What's your name Sweetheart?"


"Well, that sure is a sweet name," Buck oozed, cuddling her. "I'll be a hard working gal like yourself could use some extra money. Twenty-five dollars would go a long way."

"It would get me out of this town," She pouted, "...course fifty would get me to San Francisco..."

"You don't start talking and I'll see to it you get to Mexico for free..."

"Chris!" Buck shoved the blond back, "Look Candy, if you anything about this man..."

"His name was Dale," She huddled against the dark haired man, the blond frightened her. "he had a...a...scar shaped like a triangle on his back...lower back..."

"...that's him," Buck said to Chris, knowing the scar was given to the free drinking ramrod after he got drunk one night and got branded by a saucy prostitute.

"Where'd he go? When did he leave?" Chris demanded, grabbing her arm hard.

"He...left...this morning...for...for...San Miguel."

"San Miguel? Are you sure!" The blond directed forcefully.

"Y...y...yes...he's meeting some men there. They used to work for him..."


"I don't know," She answered the snapping green eyes. "Honest...he got a wire late last night. That's all he said..."

"Thanks," Chris tossed the silver on the nightstand and headed for the door. "Buck?"

"You go ahead and update Frank and the marshal. Send a wire home and one to San Miguel," the rogue replied, pulling his boots off and tossing his coat on the chair. "You got poor Candy here all upset. Wouldn't be right to leave her alone..."

"Who said chivalry was dead?" Chris mused, eyeing his now half naked friend.

"No need to thank me, Chris," Buck grunted, as the expert hands coaxed him below the belt. "That's what I"

"Funny, that's now what it looks like to me," he winked and left the amorous pair.

"You don't gotta look so hard, I know I ain't pretty," she tossed, tugging his long johns off. She pushed him back on the bed and straddled him easy. His strong hands rubbed her back, sliding up and down and making her sigh. She bent over and kissed him.

"Darlin, the Lord gives us all gifts," Buck groaned, as he released her mouth. "...and he gave you twins..." he awed of her mammary majesties, "Lord a man could hurt himself in there..."

+ + + + + + +

"Dinner's almost ready, Ezra," J.D. stuck his head in the bedroom and winced when he saw Vin. He met the gambler's eyes and the older man shook his head. The youth's shoulder's dropped, Vin had been sullen and quiet all afternoon. The sun had set and Josiah was busy cooking. J.D. even brought a cake from Mrs. Schmidt's bakery in town. It was a German chocolate cake with loads of icing. He thought it would perk his friend up a little. But Vin barely noticed it when he brought it in to show him. He had a bad case of the blues. "You want anything, Vin?" The body never stirred, the lost blue eyes remained fixed and unblinking.

"I believe our youthful lawman is speaking to you," Ezra prompted, nudging the leg lightly.

"Huh?" Vin blinked, "Oh, thanks, Kid..."

Ezra motioned for J.D. to leave and sat back in the chair. "I believe a wager is in order."

"I believe wager is yer middle name..."

"Five dollars says that you cannot guess the color I'm looking at....within five tries..."

Vin painfully sat up and eyed the room. His eyes narrowed when they roamed over the walls and rested on the sly conman. There wasn't five colors in the whole room. "What's the catch?"

"Moi?" Ezra feigned innocence. "I've nothing up my sleeve."

"Yer full o'shit, Ez...what's the catch?"

"Five guesses...five dollars...five minutes..."

"Brown," Vin stated and the chestnut head shook negatively.





"Damn," Vin stared at the wooden walls and floor, the pants and shirt Chris left hanging on the peg. He sighed and looked at the table, white basin, white tin mug and white bandages. He spotted the bright coat and his eyes perked up. "Red!"


"Aw, hell...." he slumped, then looked around the room again. He caught sight of the slim volume that Ezra brought with him. "puke green..."

"Most certainly not!" Ezra huffed, laying out his palm. "I win."

"Well?" Vin demanded.


"I knew it!" he sat up and the whole room began to spin wildly, "Yer a crooked as a old crone with a broom. Ya fuckin' no account cheatin' bastard."

"I did not cheat!" Ezra stood up and steadied the irate Texan, before he fell. "Please contain your tantrums to the bed. If you fall and break something on my shift, Nathan will have my hide."

"Where is it?" Vin huffed, gripping the conman's arm hard and blinking at the blurry room.

"If you could see," the southerner sat him down on the bed and smiled at the eyes trying to focus, "it's right there."

"I said green!" Vin hollered, "I said right clear...puke green...ya cheated."

"It's not green, it's chartreuse..."

"There ain't no such fuckin' thing as shar truce...."

"There most certainly is and that is the precise color."

"Get off me!" Vin shoved the hands away. "I'm gettin' m'pants and gettin' the hell outta here...Man ain't even safe from swindler's on his death bed."

"You're hardly dying and I am not a swindler. We made a wager and I was the victor." He manhandled the weaker man easily, forcing him to sit down on the bed. He heard the gasping breaths and didn't miss the death grip the other had on his arm.

"The hell ya was...J.D.!!!"

"Jeez, you two are loud. I heard you shoutin' clear over by the coral. Boy that new horse of Chris's is a beauty. I never saw such a color."

"Reckon he's shar truce too!" He held onto Ezra and stood up, hissing as a draft hit him.

"What?" the youth perplexed, eyeing the irate face and half stripped body, "Vin your ass is hanging out. Where you going?"

"Away from him!"

"Sit down this instant," the gambler shoved the frail body down. "Stop whining and pay your debt."

"I don't have no Goddamn debt and yer fryin' my last nerves..." He glared, "J.D. ,what color is that book?"


"No it ain't, it's puke green."

"It's chartreuse,"

"What?" J.D. wrinkled his nose.

"See! Ya cheated, the Kid never heard of it neither."

"Pay up or I will..."

"Quiet!" Josiah boomed, his large body filling the door. "If you two can't play nice, I'm keeping you both after school." The preacher warned with a knowing wink to Standish. "J.D., get some cider from the porch. Ezra, give Vin a hand to the table."

"I ain't eatin' in a dress...I'm gettin' m' pants!"

"I know you're not talkin' to me in that tone of voice," Josiah loomed over Vin, whose scowl warmed his heart.

"Please 'siah...I'll be good...I just want m'pants..."

"Shit, pants, socks, no boots!" the minister agreed, patting Ezra's back on the way. "Nice work, Son. You done good!"

"Thank you," Standish grinned, picking up a pair of pants and moving to the bed. "Lift your arm so we can dispose of your charming gown."

"Yer enjoyin' the hell outta this..." Vin muttered, hissing as his leg and back throbbed. "God..."

"I'm sorry," Ezra winced, hearing the sharp intake of breath and feeling the fingers gripping his arm. He felt his stomach turn as his eyes raked over the stripes on Vin's naked back.

"Seen enough?" Vin growled, carefully lifting his legs into the pants and standing.

"I didn't mean to stare," Ezra apologized, holding the blue shirt out and easing the injured arm from it's sling. Vin tried not to cry out, but even the southerner's gentle touch was too much. It took several minutes and long drinks of air, but at last he was ready. He stood by the bed and waited, and the hand came up. "Would you like a hand?"

"Thanks," Vin managed, standing and taking a faltering step. "Shit...."

"Lean on me," Ezra suggested, "Don't put weight on that leg."

At last they made it to the table. Vin's stomach was doing flips. A large platter of sizzling steaks was offered. There was a big bowl of mashed potatoes and fresh green beans. There was a load of biscuits and pan gravy with onions. "Damn..." he hooted, then saw Josiah's arm in front of him.

"Here's yours, Vin." the preacher said, winking at J.D. who was next to the recovering patient.

"What the hell is that?" the Texan snarled, eyeing the mess in front of him.

"What's it look like?" Sanchez answered of the plate of grits.

"It looks like somebody already ate it," Vin tosses back, "I ain't eatin' this. I want real food." Then he saw the other three grinning and huffed. "I reckon ya thought that was funny...pickin' on an invalid..."

"You're not an invalid," J.D. gave Vin an empty plate and Ezra speared a nice sized steak for him.

"Double or nothing?" the gambler inquired with a wink, getting the crusty reply he sought and then winked. "Welcome back."

+ + + + + + +

It was almost noon when the arrived in San Miguel. A large monastery was on the edge of town, and there weren't many occupants on the street .The buildings were almost all Spanish in style and the weary trio pulled up in front of the sheriff's office. Frank went inside to get the lawman and fill him in.

Chris and Buck made their way toward the saloon, peering over the batwing doors. Their eyes roamed the room, which held about ten tables. Six men stood at the bar, eating boiled eggs and ham for lunch. About five others were scattered around the room. Then, in the back corner, almost out of sight, was the back of a familiar blond head.

"Chris..." Buck warned, seeing the dragon rising in the green eyes. His arm was shrugged off and he followed the lean man's strides.

"I'm tellin' you," Dale used both hands. "She was tighter than a drum. I never had such a fine piece of ass." He saw the stunned faces of the men across from him and sat up in his chair. His eyes grew wide as the dust on the table was scattered, when a blood-stained noose landed square in the middle. He knew before the words came, the signature on the rope told him.

+ + + + + + +

"Get up."

The voice was low and lethal. It was so cold and full of malice that is chilled him to the bone. For several seconds, he didn't move. Dale's worst nightmare had come true. His eyes were glued to the bloody noose he'd left on Vin Tanner's body. The devil caught up to him and was waiting to take his soul.

Buck stood sentry in the doorway, moving aside as the cautious patrons left the establishment. What Chris Larabee's deadly gaze didn't say, Buck's simmering eyes did. Once he was certain Chris was in not in danger, he moved to the bar. He kept his rifle drawn and nodded once to the barkeep. The pile of silver he sat on the edge, was more than enough to cover the upcoming damage. Two saloon girls huddled on the upper level, peeking through the spokes of the railing. One lone piece of paper drifted slowly down to the ground, then the air was deathly still. He motioned for the large beer slinger to move outside and noted Frank and the sheriff were on the boardwalk. At last the room was empty. He moved to the gunslinger's right hand, at an angle which allowed him to see the sneer on Upshaw's face.

"You boys know what's worse than a red-skin-lovin' breed?" the wavering Upshaw grunted, keeping his voice level despite the sweat running freely down his back. " that ain't got the sense to holler when you try to teach him some manners..." His sentence was cut off and he stifled a cry, when his face was slammed into the table. Blood spurted from his nose and mouth, and he felt a hot breath on his throat. His hand was trapped over his gun, someone's vise-like grip nearly broke his wrist.

"Go ahead, you fuckin' animal, gimme a reason," Buck growled, pressing the man's face even further into the table. "We've come a long way to drag your flea ridden' ass back to the Judge. My friend, he has a lot of patience, I don't. I'd rather blow a hold right through your mangy hide..." he felt the fingers wiggle in an attempt to get at the gun. "Oh, as much as I'd love to let you try that, I can't. You see, Chris here gave Vin his word he'd bring you in alive," He pulled the man's gun and backed up a little. "'course how alive wasn't discussed. Just remember, he gave his word, I didn't..." He rose and flicked took the rifle back from Chris and pointed it to the men who sat in stunned silence across from Upshaw. "...toss 'em on the floor, NOW!" he ordered and waited until the guns were dispensed. "Get out...GO!" Once they left, he tossed the guns behind the bar. He moved back to Chris, reached around him and took Dale's gun. Then he yanked him up by the collar and shoved his arms on the table. He frisked the large body, taking a knife and a pair of brass knuckles. Satisfied, he kicked the right kneecap once for good measure. He took the black and silver gun belt Chris unstrapped from his hip and draped it around his shoulder. With a lone nod to his oldest friend, he moved to the doorway. His large frame prevented entry or exit. It was Chris's show and he'd be damned if anyone would interfere.

For a moment, time stood still. Dale felt Larabee's eyes burning a hole right through the sweat-drenched shirt he wore. Suddenly, the chair was kicked from behind him, causing him to jump. He squared his shoulders and turned around, catching a right fist to his jaw. It staggered him and he moved back a few feet. He'd seen drawings of the devil before and the features bearing in on him bore a striking resemblance. Not one inch of the lean, brooding muscle machine in front of him wasn't coiled.

"Hold it," he sputtered, spitting blood from his lip. "This ain't your call. He had it comin'...lousy Indian lovin' bastard..."

Chris growled and cut off the sentence with a left hook to the chin and right to the gut. He pulled Dale up by the back of the blond hair, slamming him against the floor. He knelt over his back, pulled the head up again and curled up his lip in contempt.

"You maggot-eatin' polecat," he hissed, then grinned evilly, "I'm gonna teach you some manners-Larabee style!" he punctuated the sentence with a punch to the kidney and then got an elbow in his gut.

Upshaw picked up a discarded whiskey bottle and swung wildly, catching the side of the gunslinger's head. He saw the green eye blink and took advantage, springing full force at the dazed man. They tumbled and rolled across the floor, exchanging more blows. Larabee used Dale's face for a punching bag, then slammed him into the bar. The coward saw the irate, stormy features, now streaked with blood, sweat and grit, bearing on him. His fingers grasped under the bar for anything...he felt another bottle, only to have it shot out of his hand.

"Nice shot!" Chris grunted at his partner.

"My pleasure," Buck returned, tipping his hat. He leaned lazily against the doorjamb and hooked one thumb in his belt. "Hey Chris, quit playin' with 'im, I'm gettin' hungry..."

"You're...always..." Chris coughed, kicking the curled up monster in the neck, gut and groin, "...hungry or horny...or...b...both."

"Somethin' wrong with that?" The rogue laughed, enjoying every moment of the display.

"At your age?" the blond gasped, lifting the nearly unconscious man by the back of the belt and scruff of the neck.. He spun him around, letting the face and torso hit the bar, chairs and table.

"I'm in my prime," the womanizer crowed, watching Dale Upshaw's bloody face turn green. "You're just jealous..."

"...still...don't...make..." Chris heaved the body hard, sending it into the piano. "" he panted, grinned and fell forward.

"Now whose gettin' old?" Buck laughed, nodding to Frank and the sheriff as they ran into the room. "I remember you takin' down a whole saloon, havin' dinner and two woman before passin' out."

" whiskey..." Chris defended, watching Buck's face gettin' fuzzier and further away.

"Goodnight Pard!" Wilmington chuckled, easing the unconscious man up and over his broad shoulder. "Frank, you got this?"

"Yeah, Buck, get him to the hotel. We'll haul Upshaw to the jail..."

+ + + + + + +

"Sure is pretty," The large man observed of the sunset, watching the crimson and gold streaked sky. He eased his body onto the porch and sat on the floor.

"Yeah," Vin replied wistfully, the soft breeze taking his hair from his shoulders. "...never get tired of lookin' at 'em."

"Enjoy the next ten minutes, then you're going inside. It's too cold out here," the older man observed. He glanced upwards and saw the pensive face. Knowing the quiet tracker, he almost heard the mind spinning. "You're gonna eat me under the table tonight, you keep thinking so hard!"

"That obvious?" Vin chuckled, then frowned as Josiah's large hand pulled the blanket tighter around him. He settled back into the large rocker and sipped the herbal tea in the tin mug. "I been thinkin'..."

"I could see that," Sanchez grinned.

"That fella," the Texan paused, shifting his gaze to the horizon. "Ya know, the one who was spreadin' the sickness. What's gonna happen to him?"

"That what's been weighin' your mind down, Son?" He saw the shaggy head dip once and smiled.

"Can't help thinkin' about 'im. It weren't his fault, he didn't do it on purpose." He paused, swallowed hard, remembering the dark days when he wore that mettle. "I can' tell ya, it's a helluva thing t'carry."

His voice broke then and that slight crack tore right through the large man. He knew how deeply this man hurt for others. He also knew that know the noble heart was bleeding for a stranger. He took a deep breath and tried to put right words together. Somehow, he would try to ease the pain.

"How can they keep 'im in jail? He didn't do..."

"Vin," Sanchez interrupted, "It's not for you or me or any man to judge him. It's up to God now."

"God?" Vin turned sharply, staring at the older man's downcast features. "Whaddya mean..." then the words cut through him painfully. "Aw, hell, ya can't mean...God...he's dead?"

"Yeah, a couple days after they detained him at the Fort. He killed himself. I'm sorry, Vin..." He stood and rested a single hand on the hunched over shoulder. The head disappeared under the large blanket and he winced at the stifled sob. Vin was perhaps, the only man who understood those last dark hours that the interred man spent. He knew all to well what desperation and guilt of that magnitude felt like. "I'll get supper started." With a final firm squeeze, he left his young friend to mourn. As his heavy boots fell across the timbered floor, he thanked God for blessing him with Vin Tanner.

The stew was on the table and a plate full of hot biscuits were waiting. The plates, utensils and cider were ready. Josiah looked up as Vin limped slowly to the table, using a single crutch. He eased his weary body down, keeping his eyes averted. The preacher ladled out the meal and sat down across from the disheartened young man. He bowed his head and prayed.

"Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has not another to help him up." The verse from Ecclesiastes graced the table eloquently. The deep voice made the words all the warmer. He smiled when he saw Vin choke up and the tracker's Adam's apple bobbing.

Vin felt the preacher's words deeply. Was that the difference? Would this new family of his, these brothers, have lifted him up? The peace he felt inside gave him that reply. He had no doubt, the fire inside that started with a green-eyed gaze across a dusty street, spread among the other six. These men, these brothers, were all the difference. He tried twice, before he found his wavering voice. "Thanks, Preacher...ya sure do put a good spin on them words..."

"No, Brother, thank you." Josiah returned with a smile and gentle tug on the flannel sleeved arm. "That spirit He gave you sure does put a good spin on this old heart..."

+ + + + + + +

He didn't move right away, the pain prevented that. For a few foggy minutes, he felt sure a buffalo herd stomped on his face and chest. Something soft was under his naked back. Something warm was covering his battered body. Somebody near was chuckling at his curse-filled moans. He peeled one eye open, the only one that was working, and saw a blurry mustache.

"Jesus..." he groaned, rolling over and sitting up. He cradled his aching head in his hands and waited for the room to stop spinning.

"No, Buck Wilmington, at your service," the voice said with gusto, "but I can see where you'd make that mistake. Wouldn't be the first time..."

"Shut up, Buck," he moaned, every loud word hitting his aching head like an ax. He winced and licked his dry, split lips. "Water?"

Buck poured a mug of cool water and handed it to the suffering soul. Two mugs later, the empty cup dropped onto the mattress. One hand remained over the midsection another explored the bandaged head.

"Six stitches," The rogue relayed and saw the fingers fumbling on the taped chest. "Two cracked none broken." The battered face came up and he grinned, squatting in front of the suffering man. " sure do look pretty..."

"He still breathing?" Chris croaked, rising and taking an unsteady step.



"He's in the jail, busted all to hell. The Doc thinks it will be a couple days before he's up to ridin' out."

"Not a problem," the blond hissed, splashing his face with cold water. "...he won't be ridin'...we"

"The Doc said you shouldn't be on a horse for a day or two..."

"The Doc talks to much," Larabee grunted, eyeing the room, "Where is it?"

"In your saddlebag," Buck answered of the terrible token, "What are you plannin' on doin' with it?"

"Gift." the battered man replied, buttoning his shirt. "Boots?"

"Sit down, I'll get 'em on. You're ornery enough without a hole punched in your lung." After the boots were one, the gun belt came next. "Gift?"

"A necktie," the staggering body replied, squaring his aching body and heading for the door of the small hotel room. Right now, his stomach was growling and the blue twilight told him it was dinner time. "Coming? I'm starved."

"I guess that means I'm buying."

"Smart man." he grunted, gingerly taking the steps slowly. The hotel dining room was crowded and both men noticed every conversation halted as soon as they entered the room. Buck read the items scrawled on the chalkboard. Chris drilled his working eye on the telltale faces in the room, slowly undressing every amazed guest.

"Damn!" Buck laughed, flagging down a waitress, "It's like walkin' behind Moses..." he noted of the 'river-parting' power that his friend held. "Evenin'' Sweetheart, what's your name?"

"Emily." the petite brunette replied. "Are you ready?"

"Oh, Honey, my name's Wilmington," he winked and wagged his eyebrows, "I was born ready."

"Food...the order...I meant...dinner..." she stammered, totally undone by the melting smile.

"Steak, rare and thick, potatoes and biscuits, extra honey..." he winked and smiled again.

"Sir?" she turned to the blond man, wincing at the swollen, bruised and quickly discolored face.

"What kind of chicken?" he asked, trying to read the far away chalkboard with one good eye.

"It's all beat up..." she stammered, studying his face, "Uh...uh...I mean...meant....battered...dipped that is..." Silently berating herself and envisioning her upcoming unemployment.

"Something wrong with chicken?" Chris drilled, raking his pained eye over the dining area, when the silent crowd began to murmur loudly. This sent his dining partner into convulsive laughter.

"No Sir, it's quite good...coming right up...mashed potatoes and peas..." She left swiftly, as Buck's laughter increased, nearly choking him. Tears ran down his face and he slapped the table. He peeked up and saw Chris blushing, with one green eye glaring at him. That made him even laugh harder.

"Buck, if you don't shut up, I'm gonna tell Ample Amy that Nathan's treatin' you for a rash..." He warned of the loose-lipped saloon girl.

"Aw, hell, Chris," the teary-eyed rogue coughed and recovered, "You got no sense of humor." The waitress appeared, depositing the beers and a basket of warm rolls. She left to serve another and Buck couldn't resist "Somethin' wrong with chicken," he mimicked and scowled, laughing and breaking a roll in half.

"Buck, I'm warning you..." Chris felt his defense slipping. There was something very contagious about Buck's laugher. Coupled with the wet eyes and bright grin, it made for a dangerous situation. Plus, the womanizer was in rare form.

"Beat up chicken and black-eyed peas," he continued, eyeing his battered friend. He laughed harder, clutching his abdomen, "Hey, maybe I'll just change the blackboard to "Chicken-lickin' Larabee'"

"Buck, I swear," Chris started, but couldn't finish. It started as a quiver in his lip and ended with laughter. He drank in Buck infectious humor and felt damn luck to have such a friend.

+ + + + + + +

Hank Griscom looked up in shock when his office door opened at seven a.m. He knew the first two men, having talked to them the day and night prior. But the bruised blond he knew by reputation only. From the doctor's report, he was surprised the young man was able to walk.

"Get him ready," Chris said, staring at the gray-haired law man.

"Upshaw?" He stood and shook his head. "I can't...the doctor said he shouldn't be on a horse for..."

"Get him cuffed, I'll be outside," Chris turned and left, wincing as the sunlight pierced his throbbing head.

"Now wait a minute!" The sheriff started after the arrogant blond, only to hit a six foot wall of resistance.

"Now I thought Chris was real polite," Buck imparted, taking a sweet roll from the overfed sheriff's plate. "Me? I would have said, 'Get the fuckin' animal out here and hog tie 'im'." He popped half of the confection in his mouth and pointed to the cell. "Frank?"

"He looks fit to me, he ate dinner and breakfast and he's standing. Get him ready. We leave in five minutes."

Chris contained his grin, despite the pain it caused. Dale looked like raw meat, his face was red and swollen ,both eyes slits. Cuts adorned his chest, hands and neck. Frank and Buck got him in the horse and tied to the pommel. Chris moved his own horse closer and grinned evilly.

"Mornin' Fuckface," he chirped, pulling out the blood noose, "I got a little present for you." With two fast moves, the noose was on the protesting man's neck, tightened to the point of choking.

"You...can'" Dale stuttered, wincing as the raw hemp cut into his tender neck.

"RIGHTS!" Chris roared, jerking the rope so hard, the prisoner's face turned purple. "You got the balls to use that word! You go fuckin' rights you filthy animal!"

"Chris! That's enough!" Buck's arm snagged the tense maroon one and he relaxed only when those muscles did. He then turned to the prisoner, "You say one more word and I'm using the privy rag to gag you..."

They were about ten miles from town, when they stopped. Buck was as confused as Frank and Dale. He saw Chris stop and slide from his horse. Worried about the head injury and ribs, he got down and followed.

"You okay?" He waited and the blond head nodded once. "What are you doing?"

"Get down," Chris growled, yanking the rope until body fell off. "Untie him..."


"Do it, Buck." He released the rope, holding a gun to the prisoner, until the bonds were cut. "Get your boots off."

"Now wait a minute!" Upshaw protested. "You can't do this...I can't walk back to town...I got my ain't the law..." His words were cut off when he was thrown to the ground. His head was pulled up painfully by the hair and a sharp knife pressed against his throat, just above the bloody hemp necklace.

"I warned you!" Chris gritted, pressing the blade until a thin line of blood was showing. "You got the balls to talk about rights?" The brutal week of Hell Vin suffered through was displayed in his mind. " I got rights too and they're tellin' me an eye for eye is equal justice. How about if I send Buck and Frank home? You and me can camp out her for a week. I can strip you, peel a few inches of skin off each day...stake out over an ant hill and let them red fuckin' ants eat you alive. Then, for fun, I'll show you how good I am with a whip...then you can dig your own grave and I'll bury you ass up..." He finished, panting and sweating, his eyes bulging. "Do we understand each other? You got any more complaints? Good!" He was shaking with anger and got up in unsteady legs. "Get him out of my sight, Buck," he warned, clutching both hands into fists.

So ten minutes later, they started for home again. Buck in the lead, with Dale bound to him by the noose, jogging behind. Frank was next and Chris behind. They alternated letting him walk and ride, finally they stopped after dark, near a creek. Dale dropped to his knees, utterly spent, every inch of him on fire, especially his bleeding feet. He saw the stream and began to crawl, only to have a black boot stomp on his hand.

"Going somewhere?"


"I'll bet Vin didn't beg," Chris snarled, squatting down and eyeing the pathetic mass. "Not even when you fed him tainted meat you son-of-a-bitch." he backhanded him hard and felt Buck pull him away.

"Help Frank with the horses and get a fire started," Wilmington enforced, "Go on...I'll see to him..."

Buck shoved Dale ahead, "Get movin' dog..." while following at a close distance. He waited until both feet were in the creek. Dale bent over next, anxious to drink. Buck held his head under the water, until the weak man began to panic. "That enough water for you?" he pulled the head free and tossed the coughing man onto the bank.

"I want the rope off," Dale pleaded, the tight bond was cutting his skin raw and his throat was swollen.

"I want a million dollars, but we all can't what we want." Buck nudged him with his boot. "Get movin'"

"I want it off," he protested, not moving. Behind Wilmington he saw the fire blazing and Frank setting up dinner. Chris Larabee's back was still turned.

"Well now I'd say it looks real pretty around that red-neck of yours. You'll get used to it by the time we get home." He yanked hard, "You want to be treated like a dog? Fine, I'll walk you back..."

Dale started to follow, but collapsed, lying flat on his belly. He began to gag and vomit, frothy water spilling from his lips. His eyes widened and he realized he couldn't breathe.

'Aw, hell," Buck complained, pulling his gun, "Just my luck, the dog's got rabies..." He shoved Dale on his knees and loosened the noose. That's when the body turned, trapping his fingers inside the rope. "CHRIS!" He managed, before both of them tumbled sideways. He saw Dale's free hand with a rock and managed to duck, but not before it hit his forehead. The gun was under his body and he was too dizzy to move. He felt blood running and through a blur saw the rock move again.

"Buck!" Chris cried, spinning and spotting the bloody rock in Dale's hand. "Drop it!" He ordered, feeling Frank move beside him.

"Fuck you Larabee!" Dale growled, raising the rock over the unprotected Wilmington's face.

"Drop it!" Chris called out again, firing a warning shot, creasing the madman's arm. But he kept his grip and left the gunslinger no choice. The rock descended at the same time the fatal bullet was fired. For a minute, there was silence, then Dale's body toppled over.

"Buck, talk to me!" Chris ran over, throwing Dale's body aside. He saw Frank kneel down and shake his head.

"He's dead Chris," the retired lawman noted.

"I tried Frank, I warned him..." Larabee replied, cradling his unconscious friend.

"I know you did, Son. I'll see to the body. You tend to Buck. He okay?"

"Yeah," Chris said softly, wiping the blood away with a trembling hand. "Good thing it hit his head and not something important."

It wasn't a bad cut and didn't need stitches. Chris cleaned it and kept pressure on it, until the bleeding stopped. He ripped up an undershirt for bandages and propped Buck up against his saddle. Halfway through dinner, the blue eyes opened. They flicked to the now blanketed, tied-up corpse. Chris saw the handsome man's face flush with remorse. Their eyes met and the blond felt a lump in his throat.

"I'm sorry, Chris...I know you wanted him alive."

"Wanted you alive more," Chris returned, handing Buck a cup of coffee. The remorse lingered and Chris felt a tug inside. Nobody had a bigger heart than Buck Wilmington. He knew how important his word to Vin Tanner was. That was what was eating him up inside. "Thanks Buck," he whispered and saw the other nod. They ate in silence, with only the crackling of the flames for music. Chris was checking the horses, when he heard Frank over near Buck. The older man was covering the injured one with a blanket.

"You okay Buck?" Frank asked.

"Yeah, it was only my head," Wilmington replied, "Lucky for me, it missed anything important..."

The look on the retired lawman's face, coupled with Buck's bawdy grin and wink and the suggestive pat on his groin, gave Chris a good laugh. The sound spilled from his lips and he sat down next to his oldest friend, uncorked the bottle and drank in his luck.

The crest on the hill was a welcome sight and brought the trio to a halt. Buck took a swig from his canteen and cocked his head backwards. Chris became silent and sullen, barely speaking to them. Town was just ahead and he knew who would be waiting. They'd wired the Judge from the last railroad depot that they passed, so by now, Zeb Upshaw would be in town. He urged his horse over to the pensive gunslinger, whose face still bore pale bruises from the fight. The only sign of the rib discomfort, was a slight wince now and again.

"You want to head to the shack, I'll take him in, Chris." He offered and waited.

Chris thought on Buck's words for several minutes. As much as he needed to see Vin, he needed something else first. He sighed, took his hat off and wiped his brow, before replacing the wide-brimmed black hat. Sometimes it was just plain good to have Buck Wilmington riding by your side. He knew without a doubt, Buck would take the body in and bear Zeb's wrath alone. He also knew Buck would shrug it off. It was one of many things that he cherished about this man. He turned sideways and managed a small smile.

"Thanks, Buck," he let his tone bespeak his kinship, "But I gotta do this and...uh...after I need..."

"Need what?" the rogue frowned, eyeing the guilty face. "What's that for? Aw, hell, Chris, don't go questioning it, it's done."

"Is it Buck?" the blond whispered, "I might never know."

"It's gettin' cold," Buck replied, sundown was near, "How about we discuss this someplace warmer with a beverage of choice?"

"Beverage of choice?" Chris grinned, urging his mount into a trot, "It ain't gonna be offered, Big Guy, you're buying."

"Done deal!" Buck agreed, riding towards town.

"Dinner's ready Vin," J.D. ambled onto the porch and smiled. His friend was fast asleep in the rocker Josiah brought from town. Since Chris's wire arrived, he'd been spending most of his day waiting and watching. The wire only said they got Dale and were bringing him home. Mrs. Potter send a big platter of fried chicken, some mashed potatoes and corn. J.D. made biscuits and apple crisp. He picked up the cider jug and placed it on the table, where the hot meal waited. Then he went out and tugged on Vin's sleeve. "Vin...Vin..."

"Huh?" the sleepy man blinked, "Aw,'s gone already."

"Don't knock it," the youth teased, "There's nothing like a good afternoon nap."

"Hah," Vin scoffed, letting the younger man help him up, "Seems m'whole damn days is one long nap..."

"You need to heal." Dunne supported him, until he got the crutch steady. Then he walked next to the still recovering body. "You're getting good with that!" He teased, but didn't get a smile. Vin's moods were all over the place. The frustration at the setbacks in his healing were wearing him down. A reoccurring fever and back pain made him weak and irritable. Plus, he was worried about Chris, although he denied it.

"Looks good," Vin managed, settling himself uncomfortably at the table. The broken arm was aching today, coupled with the headache from the fever, he felt lousy. But the Kid went out of his way to keep him company all day and make dinner, so he'd put on a smile. "Ya didn't have t'go t'so much trouble."

"This isn't trouble," J.D. boomed, placing a hot plate of food in front on Vin. He then took the seat opposite. "This is eating!" He laughed when Vin took a long swig of cider and began to cough. "You okay, there, Vin?"

"...the hell's in here 'sides cider?" the Texan choked, eyes wide.

"A little of this and that..." The hazel eyes danced mischievously. "Ezra fixed it up...since Chris will be in tonight."

"Thanks fer the warning!" Vin pushed the cup away, "Think I'll stick t'coffee."

"Tea," J.D. corrected, "it's loaded with stuff and Nate says..."

"I'm tired of that shit!" the sharpshooter nagged, dipping his biscuit into honey, "'sides he ain't here."

"But I am," the sheriff pulled out his badge, "and on duty!" He saw Vin grin and continued ,"Besides, you won't even notice it, not with the apple crisp."

"Apple crisp?" Vin's head jumped up and his eyes raked over the steaming pan from the oven. "Damn J.D.! Thanks!" He knew the concoction would be loaded with sugar and cinnamon coating the buttery-flour dredged apples. Bubbling and brown, it would disappear to quickly. "Ya takin' Casey fer a ride tonight?"

"How'd you know?" J.D. gobbled up the potatoes and reached for a chicken leg.

"Yer all slickered up and ya got them cow eyes..."

"Kincaid's are havin' a barn dance," he noted of a nearby rancher, "I'm takin' Casey."

"Full moon tonight, sure be good fer uh...dancin'," he raised his brows and winked, causing the younger man to blush.

"I 'dance' just fine, thank you!" He scoffed, then hesitated, "Shame you can't go, a lot of folks from town are going." He felt the chill before he heard Vin's fork hit the plate. He frowned and tried to think of what he'd said wrong. Something put a shadow on the Texan's face.

"Did I say..."

"No, it's nothin' ya done," the sharpshooter replied, eyes on the table. "I ain't ready fer town yet..."

"Ready?" J.D. puzzled, then realized what his friend meant. "Nobody blames you for what happened Vin...that was all cleared up."

"It still don't set right, J.D., I mean, why Ez and not me? Maybe that fella wasn't the only carrier..."

"CUT THAT OUT!" the younger man charged, "It's over Vin, let it go. You saved Ez, Chris and the Johnson's by bringing that medicine in. You know, the army wired the Judge and apologized. That medicine got to folks up north and saved them. Why can't you see that?"

Vin thought for a moment, pondering on the young easterner's words. Then his head came up slowly and he found a smile."Maybe I just did, Kid, thanks." He picked up his fork, "Now how 'bout we make short work of this meal and I'll give ya some 'dance' steps."

J.D. laughed and tossed a biscuit at Vin, who responded with heaving it right back. The meal went down easy and the medicinal tea followed. He wanted to decline the bed, but realized J.D. wouldn't leave for the dance, until he was settled. So, after the third yawn, he hobbled into the back room. He was dozing, when a shadow crossed over. He felt a blanket added and pulled up and managed to peel an eye open.

"Thanks, J.D., get goin', 'fore ya lose that moonbeam," he yawned again and heard the door shut. As cozy as he was in the bed, he wanted to wait up for Chris, so he got up and went to the table. He took his journal with him and passed the time by writing. He noticed the container of apple crisp on the sideboard and hobbled over.

The town was quiet when they arrived. They paused in front of the hotel, Frank went in to get the Judge, who had dinner promptly at seven thirty. Usually he ate with Mary, but she was at the dance. Chris and Buck remained on their horses, turning as a southern drawl filled the night air.

"Good Evening, Gentlemen," Ezra strode over and noticed the body wrapped up, "The vermin Upshaw?"

"Yeah," Buck nodded, eyeing the empty street, "Where is everybody? It's awful quiet."

"The Kincaids are hosting a fete of sorts in their barn," Standish replied, noticing the solemn and unsettling Larabee face.

"A party huh?" the rogue smiled, "Talk about bad timing...all those nubile young ladies just itchin' to waltz with the master."

"Yes, well, as much as I would have enjoying filling their dance cards, I am on duty." The gambler grinned.

"You?" Wilmington grunted, "working upright? about desperate. Where's the Kid?"

"Our youthful lawman was dining with Vin, before escorting the lovely Miss Wells to the party."

"Hope he remembers everything I told him." Buck mused, giving Ezra a snort.

"Yes, one can only hope..." He paused as a loud voice was heard, followed by the large, menacing body of Zeb Upshaw. He'd been visiting Adam just outside the jail cell and saw the horses ride by the window.

"Dale?" He hollered, bolting for the horse. He lifted on end of the body up, exposing the lifeless face. He rested his hand on the pale hair and clenched his eyes shut. Then he gently replaced him and turned to the two lawmen. His dark eyes zeroed in on Chris Larabee.

"I wouldn't," Ezra stepped in front on him, spotting the older man's hand on his gun.

"I don't give a rat's ass what the hell you think," Upshaw bristled. "Get out of my way Standish or I'll shoot right through you."

"No, you won't," Orrin Travis appeared, sliding up to stand next to Ezra. "I've heard Frank's testimony and read his report. It was justifiable."

"Justifiable my ass, he was murdered!" Upshaw's fist shot out so fast, Ezra never had a chance. He lunged for Larabee, only to hit the side of a large gray bay. A gun appeared and he saw a dangerous glint in Buck Wilmington's eyes.

"Now you listen to me Old Man, it's done. You leave it alone or I'll bury you next to that vermin you sired. In the first place, he kidnapped and tortured Vin Tanner for over a week. Then he ran...he had a chance to come in, he decided not to...we had no choice."

"Bullshit!" He pulled away, pointing an arm at the silent figure in blank. "You murdered him! I knew it when you rode out. That red-skin heathen should be the one under a blanket, not..."

"Chris!" Buck hollered, as the statue came to life. Before they could blink, Larabee had Upshaw on the ground, a knife to his throat. Buck dismounted, dropping to Chris's side. He saw Zeb's hand on his gun and Chris bared a lip. The blond never uttered a word, he didn't have to; his face was a mask of rage and revulsion. He still saw Vin by the firelight that first night, bruised, battered and bearing the marks of a fresh grave.

"Chris, let him go...Chris..." Wilmington pleaded, gently trying to pull the iron-muscled arm back.

"Let him up, Chris," Orrin said, moving next to the trio. "Zeb, try to remember I am a law official and your family is already well represented in jail. Frank?"

Buck pulled Chris off the older man and moved aside, letting their escort get a hand to the grieving father.

"It's true, Zeb," Frank caught the man's eyes. "I saw it, Larabee gave him three chances to surrender, even winged him once. He was gonna kill Buck, we didn't have a choice. Take him home, Zeb, bury him next to his mother."

For a moment, silence reigned. Buck saw Ezra stirring and moved to help him up. Orrin's dark gaze was enough to make the wealthy rancher move. He took the reins of the horse bearing his son's body and moved away, pausing long enough to stare at Chris Larabee.

Chris saw the silent threat in the old man's eyes. He moved closer, jabbing his finger in the expensive suit coat.

"You so much as breath near him and them boys of yours will be orphans." He gritted, held the other's gaze for a moment, then felt the body move away.

"Come on, Chris, let's get a drink," Buck suggested, "Orrin, you need us?"

"Not tonight," he advised, knowing Larabee was out of sorts. He caught Buck's eyes and then gazed towards Chris. The rogue nodded once, interpreting the message.

"Saloon's open, Pard," Buck tried, taking his horse's reins.

"May I make a suggestion?" Ezra lisped, spitting blood from his lip onto an expensive handkerchief.

"You okay?" Chris turned, nodding to the southerner for his help.

"Never better," Ezra smiled and winced when the split lip widened. "Since our young Romeo has departed for the party, you might do well to purge your anxiety at your humble abode."

"Ezra's right, Chris, Vin's out there all alone. We'll pick up a bottle and head out, okay?"

"The spirits have been provided." Standish assured, catching a smile from Buck. "An old family recipe."

"Hell, I didn't know wolves could write." Buck grinned, spotting the glint of the gold tooth.

"Your humor leaves a lot to be desired," Ezra drawled, " and I would appreciate it if you went on your way." He saw the blond study him for a moment, then narrow his eyes toward the jail, where Upshaw had entered. "I'll be fine," he reassured.

"He won't try anything Chris," Orrin supported, "I'll even play deputy."

"Wonderful," the gambler lamented, "Aren't I the lucky fellow?" He pressed the cloth to his lip and saw the Judge walking next to him. "Perhaps I can entertain you in a game of chance?" He tried and saw the strange look. "Perhaps not. It will be a long night."

As soon as the horses were tended to, the weary travelers made their way into the cabin. They stopped in the doorway, both struck by the sight. Buck laughed outright, slapping his hat on his knee and tossing it aside. The coat came next and he shut the door.

"Now that's what I call a welcoming committee!"

A lamp cast a soft glow of light on the sleeping body. Vin's head was resting on his good arm, which was folded on the table. His mouth was covered with remnants of apple crisp. Cinnamon and sugar dusted his chin. A large, empty pan was beside him, along with his leather journal.

"You think he's gonna go Mark Twain on us?" Buck noted of the tracker's gift for writing.

"Vin?" Chris's voice was soft and he found his first smile all night. "In a suit? Not likely."

"Hey, look at this," Buck picked up the large jug of cider, uncorked it and sniffed. His eye nearly watered. "Damn! that boy knows his recipes." he spoke of the gambler.

Chris disappeared into the bedroom, returning without his hat, duster or gun belt. He pulled two mugs from the cupboard and handed them to Buck. He moved to the fire, adding timber and stoking it, until a warmth filled the room. He remained there, mesmerized by the flames. He felt his hand nudged and accepted the drink. "Shit!" he gasped, taking a sip.

"Gotta quite a kick," his friend laughed, "Hey, you think Vin had any? He's a piss and half when he lets loose." He noticed the somber expression and sighed. "You gonna tell me now? What the hell is eating a hole inside you?"

"I gave him my word."

"Well thank you, Chris," Wilmington's voice was sarcastic, "How's that supposed to make me feel?"

"I didn't mean it that way, Buck, I'm sorry." Chris took another sip and blew out a deep breath. "Why didn't I wound him?" He pained, shaking his head and dropping it. "It's just like Eli Joe again..."

Buck was about to disagree, but changed his motives, "Yeah, it is." He saw the head fly up and the green eyes were shocked. "and thanks to that, both Vin and I are still here. Eli Joe and Dale combined don't add up to ant piss. You didn't have a choice...or time to think about options. Would you be happier if Eli Joe was alive and Vin was in the cemetery?"

"That's a stupid fuckin' question!" Chris retorted angrily, draining the mug.

"...and yours isn't?" Buck asked, filling both mugs again. They stared for a moment at the sleeping tracker, his face relaxed and full of youth. "That," Buck pointed to the Texan, "Should answer any of your stupid questions. It was a good call."

"What if I was being selfish?" Chris wondered aloud, sitting next to Vin and studying his profile.

"No, Chris," Buck took the seat across the table. "Then you would have gunned him down in San Miguel. Trust your instincts, okay?"

"I still see him lying in front of the fire that night...I pulled dirt outta his mouth...Jesus!" He raked a hand through his hair.

"I know, Pard, I was there..." Buck said softly, reading the pain in the green eyes.

"I wanted that animal, Buck, I wanted him bad I could taste it."

"...and now?"

"I don't know..." he sighed, taking a swig and rubbing his tired eyes. He pulled the blanket over Vin, resting a hand on his back. "I gave him my word..."

"Then you got your answer," Wilmington smiled softly, "I know you, Chris Larabee, better than most. The fact that your promise to him is bothering you, is the answer. Put it to bed, okay?"

Chris thought long and hard, letting his mind shift through all the pieces. He nodded slowly, picked up Vin's empty mug and sniffed it. "Cat piss," he decided, "If he's been hittin' this all day, we won't them baby blues for awhile."

"Hey," Buck's eyes lit up and he grinned like a devil. "I got an idea."

"No!" Chris shook his head and pointed to his oldest friend with his mug. "I know you, Buck Wilmington and I'm getting a bad picture."

"Your getting old, Larabee!" Buck chuckled, clinking the cup. "You think he ate that whole tray?"

"I hope not," Chris took the empty pan to the sideboard and then went into his room. "Speaking of putting things to bed..." He moved behind the slumbering Texan.

"Yeah, that can't be good for his back. " Buck agreed, moving to the other side.

"Watch his arm, Buck," Chris warned, gently easing him upright. Between the two of them, they got Vin upright and got him to bed. "Hold him up," Chris dictated, taking a cloth and wetting it," He's not getting that shit all over my bed." He wiped away the appley mess.

Vin sat up and blinked, groaning as a dual pain assaulted him. The light from the window slammed into his head. His churning stomach caused him to sit up to fast, sending rippling pain up his back. He grimaced as his broken arm hit the bed, in his attempt to stand. He felt it coming and knew he had to hurry. Ignoring the crutch, he stood and hobbled painfully towards the other room. He stumbled and sent himself to the floor. His cry of pain caused another body to stir. From his angle on the floor, all Vin saw was bare feet and black pants. He sighed in relief as the hands lifted him, just before the thunder exploded.

"What the hell are you doing?" Chris growled, hung over, angry and housing a bad headache.

"I'm sorry...didn't mean t'wake ya...I ain't feelin' s'good. I'm headin' outside..."

"Shit, you gonna throw up? Godammit Vin, you and them fuckin' apples..." The green face gave him the answer and he tried to hustle the younger man to the door. They almost made it.

Vin remained in the rocker, wrapped in a blanket and letting the sun warm his face. He dozed for awhile, then heard footsteps. A mug was thrust in his hand and he took a sip. Hot tea, sweet and strong. He smiled gratefully.

"Thanks, Cowboy, sorry I missed ya..." He studied the haggard face and winced, then spotted the jug. "All of it?" The blond head nodded and Vin laughed. "...and yer walkin'? Proud o'ya!"

They remained silent for a moment, Chris sipping black coffee and Vin rocking and drinking his tea.

"It's over, Vin," the blond said simply, his eyes gazing on the horizon. He took a breath and let it spill out, short and to the point. "He's dead. I'm sorry, Vin, I didn't have a choice."

"I know," Vin returned quietly, peeking sideways from his blanket.

"Just like that?" Chris turned sharply, his voice rising. He saw the head nodding and walked closer. "How did you know? I haven't even told you what happened."

"I know you," Vin said quietly, drilling the pale eyes hard. "Ya gimme yer word...simple as that. Don't need t'know details."

Chris was amazed, not just at how much Vin's calm acceptance affected him, but at the ease of which the words came. The calmness of the fine features on the Texan's face, the ease of the smile and the light in his eyes. That peace, that was what he'd missed. He noticed the holes were gone...Vin's gentle spirit filled them. He heard Vin inhale deeply and watched the handsome face lift towards the new day. The smile came next, free and easy, giving him one of his own.

"I awake every morn lost in her grace. I thank God every day for Aurora's Embrace. Her gentle touch caresses my face. Her light fills my soul, a healing takes place." Vin said softly, tilting his face to the sun.

"Why the hell can't you just say Good Morning like anybody else?" A cranky voice responded from inside. The two on the porch laughed and laughed hard. Both had been empty, missing something and now, they were whole. "Who threw up in my hat?"

"Uh-oh!" Vin chuckled and wrinkled his nose. "It musta been all that hooch ya drunk Bucklin..."

"Oh really?" Buck appeared, looking worse than Chris. Unshaven, unkempt, smelling awful and eyes not nearly open. "Then explain why there's fuckin' apple crisp parts in here..." He hissed, waving the soiled hat.

"Yer eyes look like two pissholes in the snow, Buck." Vin chirped, worming closer to Chris as the rogue approached, hat in hand. "It was an accident...I was aimin' fer the door."

"Some sharpshooter! You ruined my hat!" Buck boomed.

"It weren't the right fit fer ya. I seen some real nice ones at the undertaker's...I'll take care o'ya."

"Oh, ain't you the generous soul, pickin' from a damn corpse!" He tossed the hat over the rail and hauled the smaller man upright. "Get up and give me a seat!"

"I'm ailin'..." Vin sputtered, "I ain't hardly healed...besides I'm hungry. Nate says I need lots o'food t' get me on m'feet..."

"Nate ain't here," Buck growled, sitting on the rocker and shoving the limping tracker forward. "You're not hung over, you're younger and you're cookin'"

"Man's got a point, Vin." Chris supported, leaning against the rail.

"Aw, hell, some friends ya turned out t'be...I'm can barely walk..."

"Didn't stop you from scarfin' down all that apple crisp." The gunslinger noted, as the body went in the door. "Bacon and eggs, Vin and biscuits..."

"I only got one arm, I can't cook!"

"We're not in a hurry!" Buck replied, easing back, and shutting his eyes. "Take your time." He and Chris both laughed as the banging of pans ensued along with a slew of colorful cursing. "He sure does cuss pretty!"

Vin stared at the pans on the floor, the broken eggs, the flour that now covered his bare chest and hair and sighed. Then he got an idea.

"Chris, I feel sick again."

"So?" Larabee replied, winking at the chuckling Wilmington. "Your hat's right there."

"Fuckin' smartass!" Tanner belted back, heaving a pan out the door.

"Cut that out!" Chris hollered, entering the house. "What the hell did you do to my kitchen?"

"Oh, now it's yer kitchen?" Vin sassed, limping to the bedroom. "Good, I'm headin' back t'bed. Yer kitchen...yer cookin'..."

Chris was going to reply, when he saw Vin freeze and waver.

"I'm fine...just got dizzy." Vin panted, as Chris moved him towards the bed. "Chris, I'm okay. I'm sorry about the mess. I'll clean it up."

"Here," Chris handed him a cup of cold water and pulled the covers back. "Get some sleep. J.D. left a note about your fever. Your supposed to stay in there and drink lots of water."

"That Kid talks too damn much!" Vin protested weakly, not stifling a yawn. The bed did feel good and he was tired. "I'll just rest m'eyes fer a minute."

"You do that," Chris hollered back, already cleaning up the kitchen.

"He okay?" Buck peered inside and saw Vin back in bed.

"We're both okay," the blond decided, then eyed his oldest friend. "You look like shit Buck!"

"Fuck you Larabee!" Wilmington returned, "...and move out of the way. I've seen how you massacre breakfast."

A week later:

It was early and the street was still quiet. A few proprietors were opening their stores. The sun was up and it promised to be a nice day. Buck ambled down the sidewalk, spotting Ezra in front of the hotel. He nodded and joined his friend, then inspected the street.

"Well, well," Ezra grinned, nodding across the street. "It would appear the mayor of Hamlin is back in residence."

Buck followed the arm and then laughed, as he saw them. A group of small children were clustered around Vin's wagon. A determined, sassy blond imp was in charge, standing on a barrel and peering inside.

Vin warm, lusty dream was interrupted by a tiny hand tugging his ankle. The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes, was the hand-made, yellow star. It now was attached to the backside of the canvas, so it was the first thing he saw every morning. The love with which it was made, filled him inside with a powerful light.

"Vin, ya awake?"

"No," he yawned, snuggling back down. His first night back in town, free of fever and Nate's wrath. He'd celebrated a little too long with the boys in the saloon. His aching head told him he wasn't ready for people yet.

"Yes ya are, I hear ya talkin'" Callie protested, hitching herself up and inside.

"I'm sleep-talkin'" Vin decided, laying back down. A moment later a little body sat hard on his stomach, causing both eyes to pop open.

"See, I knew ya was up." She smiled coyly, kissing his cheek, "Mornin' Vin! I missed ya."

"Mornin' 'rora, I missed ya too!"

"Rora?" She frowned, backing out of the wagon and dragging him with her. "What's that mean?"

"Aurora," Vin corrected, "Aw, hell," he hissed, covering his eyes as the sun blasted them.

"Good Morning Mister Tanner!"

"Hey Vin!" Buck boomed, clapping the tracker's back hard, "Lookin' good Slick!"

"Shut the..." he stopped, spotting the many sets of little eyes staring at him. "Get away Buck."

"Me and Vin are gonna be real busy," the small minx told the five boys she was with, "I'll see ya later, at the fishin' hole." With a nod from her, they departed.

"You look lovely today, Miss Johnson, the very picture of femininity," Ezra bowed to the confused child.

"What's that?" She demanded, tugging on Buck's arm. She kept her eyes for her hero, who disappeared inside the hotel to get cleaned up. She giggled when the large man picked her up.

"That mean's you're a pretty, little lady," Buck tugged on the blond braid and chuckled when the face screwed up. "Watch it, you gave your Pa your word, no swearin'!"

"I don't know iffen I'm ready to be a 'little lady' yet." She protested, wiggling to get down from Buck's arms.

"Why the new dress and hair ribbons?" Ezra inquired.

"Oh," she said smugly, "Vin's takin' me to breakfast."

"Is that a fact?" Buck smiled, "Does he know?"

"Not yet." She nodded, "It's a surprise."

"It'll be a surprise to the Vin too," Ezra supplied with a sly grin, "When he gets the bill." He noted, knowing the young man lost all his money at cards the night before.

Vin appeared, washed, groomed and in a clean blue shirt. He still looked a little 'green' and the two adults decided maybe food wasn't the best thing for him right now.

"Uh, it would appear your escort is not ready for his meal yet. Perhaps I could entertain you?"

"Huh?" Callie squinted at the handsome gambler then to Buck for help. "What did he say?"

"Vin's not feeling good and he'll take you to breakfast." The rogue translated.

"Oh," She eyed the southerner, "Thanks, but Vin and me will be fine, ain't that right Vin?"

"Huh?" Vin croaked, wishing that he was back in bed.

"More to the point, the bank has not yet opened and he is without funds."

"Huh?" Callie squinted again. "Why can't you talk right?"

"He means I ain't got money." Vin whispered, groping for a seat on a crate.

"Oh is that all?" she rolled her eyes and wormed herself next to Vin. She rested a hand on the side of his face. "Ya sure feel good where you're all scratchy." she noted of his stubble. "Don't worry about money, Mister Standish has buckets of money. Everybody knows that."

"Really?" the gambler astonished, ignoring Buck's loud laughter.

"Yeah, besides, most of it ain't yours, ya get it from them crooked card games. I heard so at school. So since ya didn't work for it, Vin should have it...right? Didn't he take good care of ya when ya got sick?" She decided.

"Sounds good to me, Darlin'" Buck winked at her and saw Ezra's face blanch. "Looks like you're the talk of the first grade, Ace!"

"As I am in a generous mood, today, perhaps we can all dine together?" Ezra offered.

"Can I get dessert?" She asked, "and extra whipped cream on my hot chocolate?"

"She's Vin's date , all right!" Buck laughed, "Cut from the same cloth! Lead on, Darlin'!"

"Ya go ahead, we'll be right there," She said, "and get a good table, one with flowers."

"Yes Ma'am!" The gambler bowed and headed off with Buck.

"So ya gonna tell me?" She asked, sitting on Vin's lap and looking at him. "about Aurora."

"It's a beautiful bunch o'lights that fills up the whole sky at night magic." The weary man explained, mesmerized by the large blue eyes looking at him.

"Ya seen 'roras?" she asked, playing with the scarf on his neck.

"Once a long time ago, when I was a little feller. Never seen anythin' so pretty..." He recalled, then thought of the star she made and the plea in the bedroom. Without that, he might not have made it back. She was his 'aurora' and he hugged her hard, "Ya put me in mind o'them pretty lights, Darlin', every time ya smile. Yer m'own little Aurora" Then he tickled her, drinking in the peals of laughter that embraced him. "Let's go eat. If Ezra's buyin' ya make sure ya get steak and eggs and extra everythin'..." He took the tiny hand and walked into the sunshine, basking in the warmth of Aurora's embrace.


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