Magnificent Seven Old West
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Carnival of Souls

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 One

The heels of his black boots tore up the roof as he scrambled towards the struggling figures. His alert green eyes consumed everything in sight. He ran towards the area where the distinct sounds of male grunts could be heard. His eyes caught the glint of metal arching over Vin Tanner's body and he never hesitated.

"Damn..." J.D. whispered as the lifeless body of Eli Joe landed in the alley off the street shortly after the deafening echo of the fatal shot.

Chris was still a bit out of breath and looked over Vin's slumped back to the street below. The eyes of the other peacekeepers rose up to meet his. He scowled at the lingering doubt he saw there. He was glad he couldn't see the stunned face of his best friend. For those emotive eyes would be pooled in a shade of blue so painful it would tear his gut. He looked away from the accusing eyes of the others below and shoved his gun into the holster. He stood behind Vin and silently offered his sympathy, resting a hand on the downcast man's back. The Texan's body jerked in repulsion and turned away from him. One haggard, raspy word so full of agony it rippled through both of them split the disturbed silence.

"Don't."

"I'm sorry, Vin..." Chris replied in his sleep, tossing a damp head on the flattened, sweat-soaked pillow.

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Buck Wilmington winced as the mumbled words came out again. The same nightmare his friend had been suffering for days was torturing him again. He shook the slick skin on the well-muscled shoulder and the body stiffened, one hand whipping out.

"Chris? Hey... Chris?"

He stepped back several feet and put up both hands defensively as shaken man's hand reached for his gun. The holster was slung across the bedpost and the first thing the the disturbed sleeper reached for. He'd come up to find his oldest friend who'd not shown up for breakfast, normally that wouldn't bother him. But since the shooting several days before the leader hadn't been sleeping or eating right.

"Whoa!" Buck suggested, still keeping his distance. "You awake? It's just Buck."

"Shit!"

"Sorry. This's gotta end, Chris. You're killin' yourself. You need a shave, a hot bath and good meal."

"Left my ma back in Indiana," Chris commented, brushing by the tall man to get to the chamberpot.

Buck sighed hard and watched a very shaky hand rake through greasy blond spiky hair. Accompanied by the unshaven face and dark circles rimming red eyes, it didn't make for a pretty picture - haunted. He found himself nodding in agreement, Chris Larabee looked haunted. And nobody knew better than he did, just how much pain that meant this man was in. He wasn't the type to spill his guts, he'd hold it inside until it ruptured. He knew the cause, they all did.

Eli Joe's death had cast a pall on the lean gunslinger. Buck knew how much Vin Tanner meant to Chris Larabee. The depth of that feeling was mirrored in every disturbed inch of flesh Chris Larabee wore. He'd found himself holding his breath that afternoon as Vin chased Eli across the rooftops. His heart rooting for the nimble Texan to finally catch the prey that had eluded him for so long. Finally, Vin Tanner would be able to clear his name. But all hope was dashed when Eli's body landed in the street. Like the others, he didn't mean to cast such a harsh look upwards. But the emotions shot out before he could curtail them.

The question still lingered. It hung in the air surrounding the brooding blond everywhere he went. It's garish whisper invaded Larabee's days and nights, creating a pain that liquor nor time seemed to be healing. It was the jagged claws of that cold echo caused the haggard body that was now before him. He wanted to help, to take the pain away. But he knew that was something Chris had to find for himself, for he was the one who issued the cold haunt.

"Say it, Buck." Chris's voice was clipped as he finished relieving his full bladder and tugged his pants on. "Before you choke on it."

"I'm not here to..."

"Shoot to kill," Chris supplied, grabbing his soiled shirt angrily and repeated the burning words that had tortured his days and nights. "Why did you kill him, Chris?"

"Nobody's sayin' that Chris," Buck lied and the blond knew it. He laughed coldly and turned away, grabbing his holster. "Chris, wait a minute!" Buck argued and caught up, grabbing the tense arm and spinning the disturbed man around. "Now, you're gonna listen to me. I've known you longer than anyone else, including Vin." He saw the pained eyes flinch and winced himself. They all knew that was the poison seeping through his system; there was nothing like guilt to eat away at a man's soul. Especially the soul he shared with the very man he'd hurt so deeply or thought he did. "You did what you had to do, Vin's alive."

"For how long?" Chris shrugged the arm off and sat down on the bed, shoulders slumped in defeat. He dropped his aching head into both hands and sighed hard. "I can't lose it, Buck. It's everywhere I turn. It's making my ears bleed."

"I know, pard," the rogue whispered and sat down next to his disheartened friend. He wanted more than anything to find the right words. To form that key thought or phrase that would lift the cape of misery from this strong man's shoulders. "He ain't blamin' you. He needed some time to himself is all. Hell, you can't blame him. He's been huntin' that dog for years."

"Yeah, and I killed him." Chris left the bed and stood by the window, watching the quiet town come to life. The sun was high and his eyes automatically went to the rooftop where the incident occured. The ghost of Eli Joe danced before him, grinning wickedly and twisted the knife of guilt in his gut."I might have cut Vin's heart out with that damned knife, it couldn't have hurt any worse."

"Look, we'll find a way to clear Vin. The judge is headin' for Eagles Bend to talk to Yates. He might be able to offer him a deal of some kind. How is you making yourself sick gonna help?" Buck tried but the body didn't move or react. Maybe it was time to get hard. He rubbed his jaw and hoped Nathan was up to stitching today. "You're supposed to be his best friend. Hell, you two are closer than brothers. How about acting like somebody who gives a damn about him?"

"Who the hell do you think you're talking to?" Chris turned slowly, his eyes narrowing in a simmering pool of anger.

"I don't know, Chris, why don't you tell me?" Buck leveled. "Look, it's done, over and that bastard's buried. How is this helping Vin any?" He waved his hand towards the unsightly body. "What's the one thing he wants?"

"You wanna preach, church's on the other side of town," Chris replied and turned towards the door.

"To clear his name," Buck finished and saw the lean figure halt. "That's what you can do for him. Yates knows more than he's telling. All the way over to Eagle's Bend when we were haulin' him and the others, I had a feeling he was hidin' something.. Ezra felt it too, he's stayin' on there until the judge shows up. I think Yates and Eli Joe go back some. I think he knows Eli killed Kincaid. What if he was there? Or he knows somebody who was?"

Chris's head cocked and his eyes narrowed as Buck's words pushed the others aside. The new words spun and swirled turning into a solid pattern of thought. An image of Vin holding the papers that freed his bound soul took hold. The look in the Texan's eyes as the realization of the freedom so hard sought not a reality was staggering. The blue eyes looked deeply into his own and flooded him with a powerful light. Why hadn't he thought of that before? Of course Yates was the key.

"Give him his life back, Chris."

It was just a few words but the first ray of sun that penetrated his dark prison since his bullet sent Vin's nemesis to this death. A role he felt himself assume since Eli Joe's eyes closed. He was the one who shattered any chance of Vin Tanner breathing free air. Buck was right, it was his duty to give that back to Vin. He owed him that much. And maybe, just maybe that cold echo would stop and those daggars would leave his heart.

"So talk," Chris requested quietly and watched a soft but steady Buck Wilmington smile appear.

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Cutter's Gulch, New Mexico Territory
October 24th

Vin Tanner rode slowly back towards the path that would lead him home in a few days. Home? He pondered on that thought a moment. When did that ragged collection of dusty buildings and opinionated citizens become home? But then home wasn't always four walls and a roof, rather it was where your heart slept the easiest. For the troubled Texan that was in the circle of the six. An unlikely bunch of men from all walks of life who'd met one fateful day at a near lynching. Fate brought them together that day and still cradled them in her hands.

He shifted in the saddle and paused to wipe his brow. It was only midmorning and the sun was already hot. He took a swig of water, drawing the liquid into his hungry lips slowly. His eyes were a bit clearer than they had been when he left. He was so full of shock and hurt he couldn't see straight. It was Buck's decision to have him come along and a good one. Somehow the mustached man knew that the lingering unsettledness that lived in the air in town needed to disapate. That couldn't happen with Chris and him both harboring odd feelings in the same room.

Buck had provided silent support these last few days. He'd given Vin his distance, letting him ride far behind the others. He hadn't gone into town with them, rather he camped outside under the stars which is what he prefered. Buck knew that and gave him all the room he needed . Vin came into town to see the charges drawn up and stared so hard at Yates that the older man stumbled and fell under the glare. His smile formed then, hearing Buck's laughter in his ears and feeling that clap on the back. Ezra had spoken aloud what caused the rogue to laugh.

It would appear that Mister Larabee's unique ability to render fear in the heart and a threat of bladder spillage is a shared talent."

They were good friends and that feeling that he felt in the courtroom still lingered. He thought back to that day when Eli rode into town seeking on taking his life. More precisely to that moment when his six friends stood taller than he thought possible. They'd offered to each ride alone, without the cover of the other's watching their back, to six different directions to find Eli Joe. Just that like, they'd offered to risk their own lives for him. He wasn't used to that unwavering support and the wave that washed over him that day had been overwhelming.

Then there was the warmth and sincerity in the voices and the hands on his shoulder when the wagon rolled out with Joe's corpse. Again they stood by him, offering their full support and strength. Suddenly the pain in his gut wasn't so bad. That dulled throb that began when Eli Joe sailed off the roof was now subsiding. That only left one lingering problem, one so complex he didn't understand how to solve it.

Chris Larabee

In the initial hours after the shooting, Chris appeared to be okay. Then as darkness fell, the black of the night sky seem to bleed into the fateful gunslinger's soul. His mood became as black as that night sky and he wouldn't hear of absolution. Chris had taken a bottle and disappeared, but the tracker found him. Vin tried to talk to him but it didn't work. He tried to say the right words but the falter in his voice gave him away. He cared for Larabee like a brother and would die for him, so the mixed feelings inside were difficult for him to sort out. For right over Chris's shoulder he kept seeing Eli's shocked expression as the life force left his body when it fell from the roof. The word came up again and again, even though he tried to drown it.

"Why?"

He knew the same question plagued Chris, it was written in every painful line on his tortured face. Why had the bullet been fatal? The question lingered between them, an unspoken albatross of lethal proportions. They'd danced badly around the issue, stumbling and tossing out other harsh words instead. Then after a sizzling moment when blue sparks met green on a darkened street, they each turned away, seeking comfort alone to heal the twin throbbing wounds.

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Vin had ridden with Ezra and Buck to Eagle's Bend to deliver the rest of Joe's gang. Yates was being held over due to the Federal Marshalls arrival. Impersonating a federal officer and kidnapping were both offenses that went beyond the local authority, in addition to attempted murder. Judge Travis had been on the other side of the mountains, hearing a murder trial. It was due to wrap up in a few days and they'd he ride to Eagle's Bend. So it would be a couple weeks or so until the charges were levelled. There were two federal marshalls keeping Yates under guard until the judge arrived. Nobody was allowed to see him. He didn't trust the lawman and with the choke of the noose still on his neck, who could blame him? Buck rode back to town to update Chris and Ezra stayed in Eagle's Bend to keep an eye out on things.

Vin couldn't stand the confines of the noisy, crowded town. The pain was too fresh and he needed the comfort of the only mother he knew. She was the blue of the sky and sweet breath in the air. She was the golden sun, the rippling river and the wild life roaming in the green hills. That's whose arms had comforted him these last few days on the ride home. This fork was split evenly between two small towns, Florence and Chester Springs.

The breeze kicked up suddenly and sent his hat down his back and his hair blew free. He paused, cocked his head and heard music. It carried on the wind, merging with laughter and other curioius noise. He urged his horse forward and paused on the crest of the hill. His eyes widened at the bright colors and lively sounds that painted such a pretty picture.

There below him spread out by the river was a carnival. A half dozen colorful wagons were in a half-circle painted in bright shades of yellow, red, blue and green. He couldn't read, so the words seemed like spiders to him but the pictures he undersood; they depicted the acts they presented. In the large area between the river and the wagons were a large spillage of men, women and children. Entertaining them were a couple dozen gyspies wearing bright clothes and wide smiles. Jugglers were entertaining a group of wide-eyed citizens. The dark haired men with shining eyes and bright red and yellow silk shirts and vests were tossing bottles and balls in perfect precision. A rope was tightly drawn between two trees and a very slim young man with tight black pants and a billowing white shirt walked deftly on the wire, leaving those watching gap-jawed in amazment. There was a line of women from one of the nearby towns waiting patiently by a green tent. Vin ducked his head and saw the image of a crystal ball on the side.

He leaned over his saddlehorn and smiled, watching a group of small childen, their eyes and hair as dark and full of life as their parent's. They danced to the music being played by a young man on an accordian. An old woman with several colorful skirts and a bright scarf tying her gray hair back kept time by clapping. His smile broadened when a large man wearing a red scarf, gold earring and multicolored shirt growled, hunched over and pretended to be a bear. He chased the children and dropped to his knees. They attacked him, tickling him causing an explosion of laughter. It tickled his ears to hear that sweet music; children surrounded by a loving family.

Family

That word caused his gut to stir a bit as he thought of his own 'family'. Suddenly, J.D.'s corny jokes didn't sound quite so bad. Josiah's deep voice and Nathan's broad smile were calling to him. Then a pair of clear green eyes appeared over the horizon and called him. With one sweeping glance at the happy scene below, he turned his horse and headed on the path for home. .

The old woman looked past her grandchildren to the rise on the hill. Her heart caught when the aged eyes saw the chosen one. She didn't have to see his features, she knew them as well as her own. Fair of face and eye, long of hair and lean, cloaked in the skin of the animal he will arrive as the Eve of All Hallows draws near. The words had been repeated for so many years from the mother of her mother's mother she knew when the first vision came it was him. The vision came every fall when Samhain drew near to those in the bloodline. A dark and troubling dream that fueled the hopes of her people. She'd accepted as a new bride from her mother and passed it to her son. Her granddaughter would also see the vision but only after her wedded night and that would be on the eve of the deed.

She'd felt the ripple in the atmosphere when the sun came up. She knew he was near; no one had to tell her. It was as the old one had prophesized many years before, when she herself was a new bride. Her heart soared and her eyes lit up in wicked delight. She smiled,tapped her chest and her wizened face nodded once. The wind changed and kissed her timeless features. Her gnarled hands moved to the amulet on her neck, one that was older than the time before which their ancestors were born. One that would free them when it was worn by the chosen one and drenched in his blood. At last the time had come.

"Soon... yes... very soon..."

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The sun was bearing down without mercy on the two workers. Twice the younger one paused to wipe his brow. His dark eyes went across the roof to where his partner was nailing shingles down. He shook his head, pushing the image of a beer in the much cooler saloon away. Their hammers created a distinct pattern of tapping as they toiled. Suddenly the sound turned to one hammer only. The bearer paused, spit the nail from his mouth and eyed the other man.

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"Somethin' wrong?" Nathan Jackson asked. When he got no reply, he crawled to the other side and followed the gaze of the smokey eyes next to him. "Ain't nuthin' down there, Josiah."

"It ain't natural, brother." Sanchez nodded to the far end of the alley where a group of birds were moving in a small puddle near the water pump behind the hotel. "Birds this close to town, gatherin' like that. I think it's a sign."

"Huh," Nathan snorted and rolled his dark eyes. "Everythin's a damn sign to yuh. Could be them birds was just takin' a bath. That puddle was any bigger, I'd be likely to join 'em."

"Could be," the ex-preacher replied, his smokey eyes thoughtful. "But the Lord does speak in mysterious ways."

"Yeah, well right now He's sayin' it's time for a beer," Nathan decided, putting his hammer down and rubbing his back.

"JOSIAH, NATHAN!"

"That boy sure does burn up a lot of energy," Josiah noted, watching the youngest peackeeper racing up the boardwalk.

"More like your ass is gettin' old," the healer replied and placed the tools back inside Sanchez's large metal tool box.

"Where's the fire, son?" Josiah asked, climbing down from the ladder.

"Might be tonight by the river..." J.D. gasped, finally halting by his two friends.

"Yuh run all the way from there?" Nathan asked, while the dark-eyed Dunne wiped his face with a kerchief.

"Casey and me were out riding and we saw them. A whole pack of them by the river. They're settin' up camp and that means trouble. We better warn everyone, no sense takin' any chances."

"Invasions always work up my thirst," Nathan decided, heading for the saloon.

"Especially river invasions," Josiah agreed, following his tall friend.

"HEY!" J.D. hollered, scrambling after them. "This isn't funny. We got trouble outside of town. "

"Trouble?" Buck's head came up at the table he was sharing with Chris Larabee.

"An invasion," Nathan said, taking a beer from Inez and leaving a coin. He took the chair beside Buck and stretched his long legs out.

"By the river," Josiah concluded, taking his own beer and joining his friends. "And you know how nasty they can be."

"Water invasion huh?" Chris perplexed, watching J.D.'s frustrations rising. Experience told him J.D. often got excited before all the facts were revealed.

"So are we talkin' frogs, fish or sea monsters," Buck added, shuffling a deck of cards and dealing each of the other three men.

"Hope it ain't that." Josiah took a look at his hand, frowned and tossed three cars back at the dealer. "I heard them green sea devils are hard to kill."

"Scaley bastards," Nathan agreed, electing not to take any cards.

"Are you all done makin' fun of me?" J.D. demanded, now at the table. He glared at Buck openly but turned to Chris. "Chris, you gotta do something."

"Sea monsters are a bit out of my territory, J.D." Chris replied with a straight face.

"Fine. Sit here and play cards. But when the town gets robbed blind and the women get stolen..." The disgruntled youth added, returning to the doorway.

"Stolen?" Buck sat foward, his handsome face wearing a smirk.

"Can't be," Nathan replied with a wide smile and nodded his head towards the rogue. "Buck's sittin' right here."

"Buck you steal somebody's wife today?" Chris quizzed the dark-haired man wearing a smirk..

"By who?" Buck chuckled and hollered after the very agitated Dunne. "What exactly did you see by the river."

"GYPSIES!" J.D. hollered back over the batwing doors. "Settin' up some kind of carnival, and that means trouble. If you won't stop 'em I will."

"Hell, J.D. shout it a little louder, they didn't ya in Texas."

"Vin!" the startled sheriff backed up as the weary sharpshooter ducked inside the saloon.

The tired tracker brushed past the young sheriff and ambled over to the table, nodding at the greetings he got from the others seated there. A boot moved underneath, pushing a chair out for him. The body that belonged to the booted foot that offered the seat remained rigid. The profile was trained ahead. Vin paused and eyed the somber blond whose face didn't reveal the answer he sought. A hand slid out, sending a glass then a bottle of whiskey. The offer was accepted and the thirsty newcomer took the first shot fast. He poured a second shot and slid the bottle back. The head turned and those penetrating eyes held his own. They were clear again and for now that was enough. He nodded once and got a small return of the same.

"J.D. you sure about this?" Buck asked, watching the silent exchange between Chris and Vin. It unnerved him at times how they seemed to say more without talking.

"No, Buck, I'm making this up. There's not a band of Gypsies a couple miles from here with wagons painted up and barrels of homemade wine."

"How many?" Josiah asked.

"One would be more than enough," J.D. answered and jumped a bit when Vin's shot glass his the table.

"Hell, ya best start warnin' folks t'nail their windas shut," Vin spat out tersly, "Afore they get their babies stole up and shoved on spits over a fire."

"Oh boy," Chris muttered, sitting forward and resting a single hand on Vin's very tense arm. He put a little pressure there and his efforts at calming the tracker were thrown aside along with his arm.

"All you all going to just sit around?" J.D. asked. "It'll be dark soon..."

"Ohhh," Vin stood up and waved his arms. "Sundown... they'll sprout wings and fly... snatchin' up innocent folks in their claws."

"Vin, calm down," Chris suggested rising to intervene. "J.D. you saw them setting up tents?"

"Yeah... and wagons. You should see their clothes. Red and yellow scarves on their heads, shirts all different kinds of colors..."

"...buckskins..." Vin hissed and saw the younger man flush with color.

"I didn't mean it like that, Vin, but they're not like us," Dunne replied. "You know how their kind are."

"Their kind?" Nathan bristled. "Yuh best explain that..."

"Hold it," Chris again tried to gain control.

"Why? Cause they're different?" Vin pressed his hot eyes burning intensly at the young Dunne. "Let me tell ya somethin' J.D. I been on the other end of that long nose yer growin'. I've had more than one boot and bottle took t'my body cause I weren't like the rest. Folks see this," he tugged on his buckskins, "and nothin' else. They don't know a damn thing about me. I been called names that would curl yer hair and spit on, cause I lived with the People. Jest cause yer dress different, talk in a different tongue and have different beliefs don't make ya the devil."

"It's not just me, Vin. Everybody knows how they are. If they weren't a problem they wouldn't have a reputation for causin' trouble."

"Oh yeah," Vin nodded thoughtfully. "Travelin' with their kin, tendin' t'their little ones, makin' folks laugh, takin' care of their old ones. Livin' off the land instead of bein' trapped inside wood and glass..."

"Vin, hold on," Buck interjected, "The kid has a point. Sometimes they do stir up trouble. They cheat their customers."

"So does Ezra and ya ain't runnin' him outta town," Tanner interrupted.

"Bad example, brother," Josiah added. "But he's got a point, Vin. Like any other group of strangers who are settin' up in near town, we should check it out."

"What's got you all riled up?" Chris addressed the fired-up blue eyed tracker. "Do you know these people?"

"I know bigots when I see 'em," Vin replied, then turned to J.D. "And ya outta know better than t'fan a fire like that. Could be they're jest folks earnin' their way. Ya keep flappin' yer gums and stirrin' folks up there will be trouble. Hell, it ain't like Conklin and his kind need any help."

"Point taken, Vin," Chris conceded and eyed his best friend. "But J.D. has a valid concern. We don't know these people or what they might do."

"They ain't gonna slit yer throat whilst ya sleep," Vin defended, staring hard at Larabee.

"No, but they might swindle some of the people who look to us to protect them. And they might do something that will provoke a fight. They're very talented in handling themselves, Vin, with knives and their hands. I've seen them pass through territories before and there's bloodshed. I won't let that happen here." He paused when the blue-eyed Texan snorted in disgust and rolled his eyes. "You callin' me a liar, Vin?"

The room grew silent and the others shifted uncomfortably, each pair of eyes shifting to the gunslinger and the tracker. For several very pregnant moments, not even the air dared to move. Neither man gave an inch, both sets of eyes locked on and refused to budge. Then the leader accepted the lack of reply for an opening and took it.

"I've seen it, Vin. When I was a kid in Indiana a band came through and while some of them were entertaining the folks outside town, the bank got robbed and three men were killed, one of them was my uncle. He identified them before he died. After Sara and I were married I saw it again in Eagle's Bend. They're fast with their hands and the gambling games found one too many hot-headed loser ending up dead." He saw a bit of fallback and pressed forward. " We're the peacekeepers in these parts and it's our duty to keep this town safe. So if the folks in town want to go to the carnival, that's fine. But we'll be there to make sure nothing happens. Okay?"

He held out his hand and waited.Vin's eyes never left his and he could feel the anger rippling beneath the surface. It wasn't like him to get carried away like this and he had a gut feeling there was something unspoken still hidden inside.

"Fine, I'm gettin' a bath and some grub, then I'm headin' out. I'll camp nearby, keep an eye out." Tanner announced and left the group.

"Vin... I didn't mean... Vin..." J.D. called after.

"Damn," Buck noted, watching Chris's hand remain unshaken when the buckskinned stormcloud left the room. "Boy's got a burr up his ass."

"Chris, yuh better go after him," Nathan suggested. "Josiah and me will ride out and have a look."

"Okay." Chris waited until only Buck remained. He felt the dark blue eyes before he turned to see them.

"You didn't change your mind?"

"No, but he's all fired up now. I'm still leaving in the morning, I'll stop by this camp first and get a better understanding of the situation."

"You gonna use your usual subtle charm?" Buck teased and got a half smile. "Don't mind J.D., the closest he's ever come to meetin' a Gypsy is in the pages of one of them damn dime novels he's always buyin'. We got it covered here, plus if there had been trouble in the towns they've been to, we would have heard.'

"Yeah, good point, Buck," Chris nodded, "Wouldn't hurt to send a few wires."

"Consider it done. " Buck rose and took his hat. "Give that boy some warning though. Vin's got a bad habit of shootin' first when ya sneak up on him in the tub."

"Really?" Chris raised an eyebrow along with his voice and got a solid laugh.

"Well now he does have a fine lookin' ass, but you know I'm a breast man, stud." Buck winked and headed for the Post and Telegraph.

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It was late afternoon and the little ones were napping. Most of the others were preparing for the new show. The tents were being readied and the costumes washed and sewn. At fifty-seven the tall well built leader of the clan could pass for a man ten years younger. There was no denying he was their leader. The short dark hair was just starting to silver and the deep set eyes held the commanding attention of anyone that caught them. He gave his wife's shoulder a gentle tug and headed outside the tent. He moved towards the small tent on the end, where his mother was waiting. Her eyes found his as soon as he ducked inside.

"Have you brought it?"

"Yes Mama," he deposited the bag on the table. Then he saw the golden bottle in her hand. One he'd only seen a few times in his life. His eyes widened and he approached her. "That's why you needed the herbs and blood."

"He is here. We do not have much time. Everything must go as the ancient one foretold." She rose and faced her only child. She carefully pulled out the amulet and held it up. "See, Alexi, see how it glows? Salbatore... it shines for him."

"The savior," he translated the meaning of the name, his eyes almost tranfixed by the green glow of the sacred amulet.

"On the night of my wedding, my own mother and grandmother both told me about Salbatore. It is as I have told you. I've worn this pendent since my wedding night. Never in all these years has it come alive." She took his hands and smiled up at him, her dark eyes shining. "I saw him today on the hill. He has come to us as it was to be," she caressed the glowing jewel. "and he be bathed in his own blood as it must be."

He gripped his mother's shoulders and stared at the near euphoria on her face. "Are you sure?"

"I feel it in my heart, but we must be certain. He bears the mark of the moon, so it has been fortold. We need to be certain and to protect him with the sacred oils. Nothing must happen to him before the eve of all hallows."

Alexi nodded and moved to the doorway, he peeked outside and saw his eldest child carrying water back from the river. Her beauty was breathtaking and the soft curves of her body drew the eye of many men. He nodded as a plan formed.

"Tomorrow by the fork in the river... we will find out." He turned back to his mother. "I have an idea."

Part Two

Chris took his time walking to the bathhouse. He ducked inside just as Vin's head disappeared under the water. It emerged a few seconds later and was quickly scrubbed with a bar of Pears soap. The quick and precise motions told the leader that the younger man wasn't in the mood for talking. He noted the second tub fill of heated water and that told him Vin would be pondering some. So he stepped back outside and kept watch, ensuring the troubled man would have his brooding time.

Vin scrubbed hard for several moments, until all the grime and dust he'd collected was swirling around him. He stepped out, took his mare's leg and moved to the other tub, full of steaming hot clean water. He laid the gun next to him on the rickety table and eased his aching body inside. He'd seen Chris from the corner of his eye and relaxed then, knowing his back was covered. He laid his throbbing head back and thought on his problems.

He knew the others had the right to be concerned, the group by the river were strangers in the area. But for too many years he'd been the one gawked at with accusing eyes. He'd buried too many members of his Kiowa and Comanche families because of those same unwarranted attacks by people who were on a bloodhunt. But maybe this time it would be different. Chris wouldn't let Conklin or anyone else cause trouble. He'd camp close to the Gypsy camp and keep and eye out at night, when trouble usually reared it prejudiced head. Something was nagging at him, causing a headache. He'd overeacted inside the saloon and couldn't understand why. The band by the river were strangers, he owed them nothing. So why did his blood boil at the thought of somebody causing them trouble?

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Chris was just finishing her cheroot when Vin emerged. The long hair was damp and curling around his face. The blue eyes weren't shooting sparks anymore, that was a good sign. He looked better; it seemed the steam soak did work a little. Chris tossed the end of the cheroot away and pulled his leg off the barrel where it had been resting. The lean younger man paused next to him, his eyes skirting the other side of the street. Chris knew what they were searching for and sure enough, the bruise blues rested on the sign over which the fatal bullet made it's mark on the pages of destiny.

"I can't take it back."

"Ain't askin'," Vin replied, keeping his eyes on the ghost of Eli Joe as it once again flew backwards. "It's done, leave it be."

"Yeah," Chris muttered, shoving his lean body off the wall and shaking his head. He sighed hard and began to walk away, towards the livery to get his horse.

"Chris?"

Vin turned more to the odd tone in the reply than the word itself. He looked at his best friend and saw the circles under the eyes. For the first time he saw just how drawn Larabee looked. Those shadows came from the troubled area where sleep dies and noctural demons attack. He knew the blond's subconscious was still throbbing with guilt, not allowing him to heal. He long strides caught up to the troubled soul, just as a saddle was being tossed on the horse.

Chris didn't turn around, he knew who was standing behind him. He tightened the cinches and adjusted the rifle securely. He paused then, resting his arms on the worn leather and let his shoulders drop a bit. That Vin was willing to move on meant a lot to him but the damned question still lingered. He turned around then and looked at the one man who knew him as well as he knew himself. He asked it of the one man who he could bare his soul to.

"Why?"

Vin didn't have to hear the rest, it was written in every fatigue line on the fair face and deeply etched in the painful eyes. Chris Larabee's soul was burning brightly through his painful eyes which were rimmed with red-hued guilt. He knew just how awful Chris felt and the need arose to erase that red mark. He also knew that answer to the question and hoped that Larabee would understand and accept it. He stared right back at the heated gaze and spoke in clear and true voice.

"'cause yer a gunslinger, it's what ya do."

"Jesus, thanks Vin!" Larabee snarled, "That was worth riding back for!"

"Let me finish!" Vin pressed. "Ya sayin' ya ain't? Yer faster than greased lightnin' and ya move on instinct, like ya got eyes in the back of yer head. Yer the one who seen him in the winda when he's fixin' on blowin' m'head clear off. Gift like that ain't nuthin' t'hang yer head on. Yer the best I ever seen with an iron. It's in yer blood, a part o'ya', will be 'til ya get planted.."

Chris turned away, not because he was angry but rather annoyed that Vin Tanner knew him that well. He was the only one who have the guts to get right in his face and be that brutally honest. Because Vin Tanner was right. It was true that a part of him had changed and he wasn't walking in the shadows anymore. But a part of him still got excited during the heat of battle when the scent of gunpowder filled the air. The heat that coursed through his bloodstream when his opponent realized who they were standing in front of.

"I know, Chris, it's in m'blood too. I can't change what I am. Ya think I don't get a rush when I'm starin' down that scope? Strokin' that rifle like a woman..." He moved and stood next to his troubled friend, trying to reach him. "'cause ya didn't act when that mangy dawg pulled that knife. Ya reacted... from yer gut, it's what's kept ya alive all these years." His voice changed then to a husky hint of a whisper. "This time... it kept me alive." He offered along with his hand. Chris's head came up slowly and turned, meeting his gaze. He saw it then, reflecting right back at him. That same thing he'd seen over the broom the first day they met and had ever since. He didn't question it, he just thanked God for it. "It's like lookin' in a mirror."

Chris stared at the hand and considered all it represented, both tangible and intangible. He'd never met anyone like Vin, never would again. If Vin died tomorrow he'd always have the best part of him inside. There was something to be said for fate and destiny, it brought them together and held them closely still. Vin was right, he was a gunslinger and his reaction had been without thinking.

"I could have hit his shoulder, I should have..."

"Couldda, wouldda, shoudda, " Vin huffed in annoyance. "It's all bullshit, Chris. Ya didn't wound him, ya kilt 'im. It's done, he's dead, I'm not." He tried and moved closer, so they were inches apart. He let all his emotions crest then and shine brilliantly through his eyes. "I'm wearin' yer boots, Idda done it. Put it behind ya and move on. Cause seein' ya this torn up is hurtin' me cowboy."

He was moved by that; despite all he'd gone through Vin Tanner was aching for him and not holding the fatal shooting against him. Maybe Vin was right, maybe it would be best to adjust and move on. Eli Joe was dead and that wouldn't change. "Just like that?" Chris asked at the strong conviction looking at him.

"Does worms yawn?"

"Huh? Chris's brows furrowed in confusion and somewhere in the back of his head, the echo of Buck's laughter warned him about 'Vin logic'. So he took a hold of the forearm and gave the tracker the grip of brotherhood reserved for him alone.

"Course," Vin released the strong arm and moved to edge of the stall, leaning against the wood. He selected a long piece of straw and slid it slowly between his lips. He cast a cocky grin then and smiled. "if we'd had to bury yer sorry ass, Idda had me a rite good pick o'proper mournin' attire."

"You keep your thievin' ass out of my closet." Chris grinned back. "Besides, the pants would be too big in the uh..inseam."

"In yer dreams," Vin bragged, tugging on his waistband. "yer boys ain't Texas growed."

"All this talk of my untimely demise worked up an appetite. Mrs. Connelly's making fried chicken tonight."

"Untimely demise?" Vin scowled and moved towards the doorway. "Ya been parkin' yer ass near Ezra t'long. Don't know 'bout chicken, I'm a bit short. I got some grub in m'bags."

"Since when do you pay?" Chris walked towards the boarding house and paused until Vin caught up. He changed his tone then, doing a perfect imitation of his Texas friend's unknowing charm. "Aw, hell, Ma'am, sher looks good but I don't git paid 'til next week. Naw, I couldn't, Ma'am, wouldn't be right. Well, if ya insist, I have chicken, taters, biscuits and some gravy... cake? Well, thanks Ma'am, ya sure are a kindly soul..."

"I ain't hardly that bad," Vin groused and smacked the mock-drawler's arm as they headed inside.

"You're worse, I can't do the blush thing," Chris retorted. "That woman is ready to marry you or adopt you." He noted of the kind widow who ran the popular boarding house. As if on cue the tiny woman appeared from the office door.

"Vin, you're back. I was worried about you." She paused in front of the two young men. "Chris, you look peaked. Are you ill?"

"I'm fine, Mrs. Connelly, just a little tired." Chris replied with a nod.

"Sit down," she ordered and and turned to her nephew George who usually helped with the evening meal. "George, two mugs of ale and a basket of hot bread."

"Vin, you've lost weight... I bet you weren't eating right. You sit right down and I'll fix you a fine platter."

Vin opened his mouth to reply when he saw Chris's devilish grin just as a single sandy browed arched up in triumph. Any attempt to reply then was lost in his throat. He tried not to laugh, he tried hard but it didn't help. It started as a chuckle but soon turned to laughter. He ducked his head twice but Chris's awful imitation wouldn't leave him alone. His blond friend was laughing too and it felt good. Whatever the future held, just knowing that this man was holding his soul was more than most men ever had. It was more than enough to hold onto and that was enough.

"You're both ill, I'd bet on it," she noted of the odd behavior and walked away.

"I'm gonna ride out and speak with the leader of the clan by the river," Chris broke a piece of hot bread off the loaf and slathered butter on it. "on my way to Eagle's Bend." He offered and saw the jaw working on chewing the savory bread pause. Pale brows furrowed over the sky eyes.

"Eagle's Bend?" Vin swallowed and washed the bread down with some ale. He swiped the excess from his lips with the back of his hand. "What fer?"

"I want to talk to the marshalls guarding Yates. And I want to see if they heard from the judge."

"Ezra's got all the covered," the tracker informed, eyes narrowing. "Why ya goin' to Eagle's Bend."

"I told you," Chris replied, meeting the questioning eyes. "I want to know if Yates told those feds anything.

Vin knew Larabee wouldn't lie to him but he couldn't help but think Chris wasn't telling all. But he knew better than to press the leader so he dropped it. He thought on Yates and what the arrival of the judge could mean. Would Yates reveal whatever it was Vin felt he was hiding? Or would the imposter keep his lips sealed? As he ate he considered the reason for Chris's trip. Larabee was known to be quite 'persuasive' when he needed to be. Was that it? Was Chris's mission to burn a path to whatever was hidden behind Yates smirk.

Chris finished his meal and another mug of ale. Vin hadn't said much during dinner and Chris knew he was tired. The emotional wear and tear of the events leading up to Joe's death would be exhausting enough for any man. But coupled with beating Vin suffered and the trauma of having his last hope of freedom shattered, the fatigue was warrented.

"Look, you're worn out, been a couple weeks since you've had a good night's sleep in a bed. Why don't you use the room unstairs? It's got a bed in it and all the comforts of home."

"Mebbe I will," Vin decided, suddently feeling the weight of his ride back home. "Jo'siah and Nathan'll keep things in line out there. Last thing them folks need is a herd of strangers stompin' all over their camp. I didn't mean t'snap at the kid but..."

"He didn't mean it the way it sounded, Vin. Sometimes we forget how young he is."

"That don't make it right," Vin tossed back, tucking the rest of the rolls in a large linen napkin. He'd have them in the morning, he was heading out early to look in on the tribe encamped by the river. Chris tossed some silver on the table and then they both stood. Vin followed the taller man out the door and gripped his arm again. "Watch yer back."

"Will do, cowboy." Chris nodded and disappeared own the street

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"Folks don't waste any time, do they?" Josiah noted as they rode into the camp. It was almost sundown and the sky was alive with explosions of pink, scarlett and purple. It only added to the festive atmosphere before them. As J.D. stated, the tents and wagons were already set up. A trio of musicians were practicing, several women were dancing and some of the others were huddled near a large pot. The aroma that teased the air was of a savory stew. Two young men were practicing walking on a rope tied between two trees and another young man was eating fire off a long pole.

"Gotta be an easier way of makin' a livin'," Nathan decided eyeing the fire-eater. Just as he spoke the music stopped and all eyes were trained on them. "Evenin'," the healer called out. "Name's Nathan Jackson, this here is Josiah Sanchez. We're from town, we keep the peace in these parts."

"I'm Alexi Miklos," the tall charasmatic man stepped forward, extending his hand to the dark-skinned man who'd spoken. "I can assure you my people mean you or the town no harm. We perform our carnival for a few nights and we move on. My family has been in this business for many years, since my father's father was a boy."

"Looks like quite a show," Josiah eyed all the tents and wagons.

"Come, sit by our fire and join us for supper," Alexi invited. "New friends should break bread together and share the wine, no?"

"Yuh don't have t'twist my arm," Nathan grinned, slid from his horse and smiled at the little boy nearby who waved at him. "How far yuh come? Yuh been travelin' long?"

"We left Romania a year ago, forced out by the invaders who came from over the border. Murdering butchers who raped and maimed," he spoke to the men in a hushed voice. "We were lucky to escape with out lives. We hope to settle in Mexico, the land there is very cheap. We will grown grapes and other fruits on the rich soil there."

"I know that part of the world," Josiah said, sitting on a bench at the long table. It was a series of boards set up over two sawhorses. The others adult males joined them and the women and children ate at a smaller table. He took the large bowl handed to him and ladled stew into a bowl. He passed the bowl to Nathan and turned to the leader. "My father and I passed through those parts when I was alot younger. We were missionaries. Dangerous place..."

"But a beautiful one," Stefan, Alexi's cousin noted. "One day we will be free again."

"How'd yuh do that thing with the fire?" Nathan asked the young man seated across from him.

As the men in the family welcomed the guests and drew them in, the old woman paused over her meal. Her wizened face turned south and the wind carried her straggly gray hair back from where it peeked out from under the colorful scarf. Her eyes sought the horizon and her hand moved to the amulet. The green fire that it had been illuminiated with suddenly began to die down. Anxious, she stood and walked towards the rise in the hill, just as a stranger rode towards the camp. Man and beast were both covered in darkness, the only thing she saw were two pale eyes glowering under a brim of a hat.

"Trouble... a disturbance in the force..." she whispered, dark eyes darting frantically. She didn't know how this man was connected to Salbatore, but the link was strong. For him to cause such a disturbance meant they must share the same blood. For only by that tie would such a ripple occur. No one would stop what had been foreseen, she must guard the chosen one and his path. She caught her son's eye and ducked behind the wagon that had her daugher-in-laws likeness telling the future in the tarot cards.

"Mama, what's wrong?"

"The stranger who rides down the hill, the one in black..." she panted frantically, pulling out the amulet. "Look, it's light is dimishing. He is a threat to all we've waited for all these years. I won't allow him to stop the ceremony."

"Calm down, Mama, let me find out who he is. He might be a stranger passing through."

"No, Alexi!" she hissed, "He has the power to do this!" She whipped out the pendant. "Only blood and soul ties have that power. You know I speak the truth. He is dangerous, very dangerous. We can't afford to lose Salbatore."

"We won't," Alexi reassured. "Let me talk to him. I'll follow him when he leaves. Don't worry. I'll take care of him."

"You mustn't kill him, not yet." She fingered the green amulet already losing it's heat. "If he has this much power, Salbatore too possesses it. He will sense the loss, he'll know somethings wrong. His mind and body cannot be torn, he has to focus on his mission."

"Alright," Alexi sighed. "I'll take care of it, not to worry."

"Chris," Nathan called out as the lean gunslinger arrived. He excused himself and moved to where the blond lingered on the outskirts of the camp. The body remained upright and rigid in the saddle, only the pale eyes slowly moved around the camp, taking in every face, tent and wagon. They lingered on the tall, well built man standing by the fortune telling wagon. The air in the camp seem to sizzle as the two leaders exchanging a smoldering gaze.

"So what's the story?" Chris asked Jackson.

"They're from Romania, got forced out during a bloody takeover o'some kind. They got a carnival set up, they're gonna move on in a few days. They're headin' south towards Mexico, gonna buy some land there. They seem okay."

Chris nodded once as the tall man approached.

"Welcome, I'm Alexi Miklos. This is my family. We're farmers who perform the carnival to make enough money to buy land in Mexico. I assure you, Mister..."

"Larabee," Chris replied. "Chris Larabee."

"Larabee," Alexi returned with a winning smile. "We are honest, hardworking people. We will not cheat or harm the people who live here in any way," He offered along with his hand.

"I'm holding you that," Chris warned, eyeing the camp again before letting his gaze settle on the leader. "Because I'm responsible for the people in this territory and if you so much as cheat a nickle off of a widow, I'll hunt you down. These are my people. Understood?" Chris gripped the hand and felt the same wave of strength as he gave back.

Alexi did understand and realized just how much truth his mother's words held. The power that rippled from the lean man's body was easily felt. This man was a force to be reckoned with and he didn't doubt for one minute that any wrongdoing would be met by physical force. He nodded and released the iron-like grip.

"There is no need for your concern, Mister Larabee." He motioned and moved his arm to where the others were eating. "Please join us for supper."

"Thanks, I ate," Chris dismissed. On the surface there didn't appear to be anything wrong. But appearances could be deceiving. The man seemed honest but he was still a stranger.

"Very well," he replied. "We'll be here for a few days, perhaps you'll come to our show. We have one in the afternoon and another each evening." The other man gave no reply and Alexi nodded, then returned to the wagon where his mother waited.

Chris followed the large man's back, then slid his eye to Josiah letting his silent warning go airborne. The older man nodded once and touched the cross on his neck. "Nathan, you and Josiah got this covered?"

"Yeah, yuh headin' to Eagle's Bend?" Nathan asked and saw the dark hat bob once. "How long?"

"Don't know," Chris replied. "I was gonna wait until tomorrow but since I'm this far out, I might as well go now. Vin' back in town, he's beat. Nothing a good night's sleep in a bed won't cure but..."

"I keep after 'im," Jackson agreed. "I'm sure he'll be out this way tomorrow. He'll be worried on trouble brewin'."

"Might be a good idea for somebody to keep an eye on Conklin. Vin's right, that man attracts trouble like honey to bees."

"Be more than enough with us, J.D. and the MacTavishs. I'll stop by Angus's on the way back."

"Good idea,' Chris noted, then eyed the road. "I'll be in touch. You wire me or send J.D. to Eagle's Bend if anything goes wrong."

"Will do," Nathan promised. "Yuh watch yuhrself."

Alexi and his mother watched from the back of the wagon until the lone rider disappered into the darkness. Within minutes the dying amulet began to glow again, it's pulse causing the heat to rise again in the cold gem.

"Did I not tell you?"

"He's riding away from the town, perhaps he won't return in time. He seemed confident his friends would be guarding the town."

"I have to be certain!"

"Alright Mama, I'll follow him, take care of it after dark. I'll be back in the morning."

He kissed her cheek and embraced her, then left out of the back of the wagon.

"I'm afraid the long day and the work have made me a bad host." Alexi paused before the two newcomers at the table. They were now eating spice cakes and tiny fried dough pieces dusted with cinnamon. Fruit and cheese completed the after dinner treat. "If you'll excuse me, gentlemen, I am going to me tent. I will be up long before the new day, so much to be done."

"Guess we'll see yuh tomorra then," Nathan replied.

"Sleep well, brother," Josiah imparted as the imposing man left.

As he quickly made his way to his tent, his daughter appeared from the edge of the camp.

"Papa, is everything okay?"

"Fine, child, nothing could be better," he reassured, hugging the pretty eighteen year old. Had it really been that long since he'd held her as a baby? "Go see that your two brothers aren't getting into trouble."

"Alright," she nodded, "Goodnight Papa."

"Goodnight, princess," he whispered. He watched her laughing and chasing her brothers and the fair face flushed in the firelight. Falling in love also brought that same flush to the cheeks. It was a wonderful time full of sunshine, light and laughter. But the dark clouds would cover her all too soon as she cradled her dying lover in her arms. He wondered how he would pick of the pieces of her broken heart then.

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As Vin rode out to the Gypsy camp the next afternoon, he thought on his future. He'd been planning dragging Eli Joe back to Texas for so long that he hadn't considered a plan 'B'. Maybe Chris would have some luck and certainly Judge Travis would try. He knew the judge could be persuasive and maybe he'd offer Yates a deal of some sort. It wasn't the road he'd counted on but he was not a quitter and not about to give up.

He'd planned on journeying to the carnival that morning but one of the ranchers came into town reporting rustlers. Vin spent all morning and most of the afternoon tracking them down. Two of the four were wounded during the brief gunplay that transpired when they were accosted. The other two collected their comrades and fled. Vin got the horses back and returned them to the very grateful rancher.

As he approached the outskirts of town just where the river forked, he saw a beautiful young girl. Her dark hair was tied in a single drop down her back. It swung slightly by her waist as she walked. The white peasant blouse set off her olive skin and he found himself watching the sway of her hips. He saw her pause by a box and struggle twice trying to lift it. He urged his horse down the path and approached her.

"Mornin'," he called out, tipping his hat as she turned to look up at him. "Looks like ya could use a hand."

"Thank you, you are very kind," she replied, peering intently at the features becoming visible under a floppy hat. His voice made her smile, the accent and tone were very warm. "The apples were not so heavy when I put them in there."

"Wagon?" Vin eyed the nearby open backed cart and she nodded. He took three baskets of apples to the wagon and then went back for the last and largest one. He grunted at the weight of it and shifted his hands to better grip the bottom and side. The weight coupled with his still healing ribs was too much and he shifted it and staggered. This caused something sharp to slice into his hand.

"OW!"

"Oh no... you're hurt."

"Nah." Vin winced and settled the last basket on the wagon before examining his hand. "Basket has a rough edge. Better my paws than them pretty hands o'yers." A good sized cut ran half of the length of his index finger. Before he could put the bleeding cut to his lips, two small and very soft hands gently cradled his own injured one tenderly.

"Sit, I will tend to your wound," she instructed. She liked the sound of his voice, a soft raspy sound that tickled her ears. It gave her a shiver up her spine.

"It ain't that bad, Miss. I'll be alright." He offered but sat down under the apple tree anyway. She took the brightly colored scarf from her neck and pressed it to the wound. Then she went back to the cart and got a jug of water. He studied her closely and was taken by how very beautiful she was . Her eyes were large and almond shaped, the color of pale jade. Every feature was perfect including a very pair of tempting red lips. She caught him staring and he turned away, flushing slightly.

"If you had not taken the time to stop and help me, you would not be shedding blood," she addressed. "Mister...."

"Name's Vin," he supplied drawing his head back up slowly. He then hissed when she dabbed the open cut with something yellow. "What's that?"

"Herbal balm, it will take the sting away. My grandmother makes it, this jar is fresh today. Filling and lifting the baskets, someone always gets a splinter or cut."

"Oh," Vin yawned, suddenly tired. "Scuse me, that weren't very proper, yawnin' in a pretty face like yers."

"You are kind," she said, staring into the bluest eyes she'd every seen. "You are also very handsome I think."

"I think ya been on the road t'long," he teased with a soft smile and took a mug of water from her. "Thanks. Looks like ya got quite a setup. I seen yer wagons yesterday."

"We will open tonight," she proclaimed, lifting her skirts to reveal a white cotten underskirt and a shaply calf.

Despite the water, Vin's mouth went dry when the silky olive skin was revealed. He watched her fingers deftly tearing strips of the cloth. He averted his gaze when she turned back to him and yawned again. The trek all morning and into the heat of the afternoon took more out of him than he thought. Also it had been a long time since he'd eaten at breakfast.

"Thanks, ya do good tendin'."

"Only for handsome strangers with kind hearts." She smiled and tied the bandage.

"Thanks fer that, Miss, I reckon there's a whole lotta folks who'd disagree with ya on that." He yawned again and blinked hard. "Damn ... sorry 'bout that. Ye'll be thinkin' I got no manners at all." Vin managed before his eyes dropped shut.

She was about to reply but frowned in concern when his head tipped forward and hit his chest. She tapped his cheek and got no response. She took the mug from the slack fingers and took his hat off. Then she gently laid him out flat on the sweet grass. Had he been taken ill? Should she ride for help? No, her father said to wait for her cousin to arrive. He would be here soon. She took her eyes to the hill and didn't see her young cousin yet, so she turned back to the man before her. She couldn't help herself, he was so very handsome . It wasn't often she got this close to a man without her father scaring them away. How would his skin feel against hers? What would those full lips taste like? Her mind began to spin and she felt hot and itchy all over. She traced a finger along his cheek and under that strong jaw. She moved her finger over those very fine lips and shuddered. She quickly sat up and eyed the hill again, just as a dark haired boy appeared.

"Antonina, what happened?"

"Dante, go and get my father... run quickly," she ordered of the twelve year old. "NOW!"

Only a few moments passed when her father, grandmother and the other four elders appeared. Her father tapped her shoulder and she rose obediently, stepping back. Her father knelt by her young friend's right side, her grandmother on his left. The others stood at his feet, sides and head. She watched nervously as her grandmother unbuttoned the cream colored pants and pulled out Vin's shirt. Once the red shirt was unbuttoned as well, she bent over, closely examining the skin on his neck, chest and torso. The gray head nodded once and the young girl saw her father pull the unconscious man onto his side. The gnarled old one's fingers moved along his back and she shook her head and rolled him on his back again. She was about to tug down his pants, when the wind lifted the handsome young man's long hair.

"There!"

"What is it grandmother?" Antonina inquired, peering over the small woman's shoulder.

"Alexi, come and look. Did I not tell you?" She moved and tilted the stranger's head, resting in sideways on her lap. Her fingers pulled his ear down and her dark eyes went to those gathered. "Did I not tell all of you? It is as the old one said when I was a bride. The chosen one will bear the mark of the quarter moon on his skin."

Antonina saw the crescent shaped reddish birthmark at the hairline over her blue-eyed friend's ear. She didn't understand all of what was being said, but she knew better then to disobey her father. He'd brought her out to this spot and told her to wait with the baskets until Dante arrived. But beyond that, she didn't know what this was about. As a child, she'd heard rumors in hushed whispers around the fire about the 'chosen' one that would save them. Something about the strange light in her grandmother's eyes as she stroked the young man's face gave her a chill. The elders had removed his boots under her intructions.

"What are doing to him? Don't hurt him!" She moved forward to protect him.

"Child!" Alexi barked, yanking her back as she attempted to interfere. "Remember your place. Look, your grandmother is annointing him with the sacred oil to protect him."

She nodded mutely but still felt a nagging fear creeping inside of her. Her grandmother spoke strange words as she dipped her thumb in a golden glass bottle and then made a small cross on the forehead, heart, hands and feet of the still slumbering man. Then she stood and handed the box to her son. She buttoned the unconscious man's shirt up and tucked it back into his pants, before buttoning them again. The boots were also put back on, so it appeared as if nothing was out of place. From the black box that was held out to her by an elder, she withdrew a black bottle and took the cork off.

"Drink, little dove and then kiss his lips. He will be drawn to you as no man has ever desired a woman. "

"Why? Why are you doing this? What is this about? I do not understand," she protested as the small flask was pressed to her hand.

"Do you dare disobey me?" The old woman snapped and saw fear in the light green eyes. The young girl eyed her father once and then very unsteadily sipped the liquid. "Kiss him... now..."

Antonina knelt over her kind friend and kissed him softly. But once their lips met it was if the sweet taste was overpowering and she kissed him deeper. A flame erupted in her chest and drew back, swaying slightly. His slack lips opened a bit and she couldn't resist, her mind wouldn't obey her heart. She kissed him again, deeper yet, letting her tongue explore the wonderful moist dark place inside his mouth.

"It works... the power of the berries and the sacred herb is potent," the old woman nodded, rubbing her hands together. "It will be as we have planned all these years... come, let us leave them."

Antonina didn't hear the others leave, she kissed his eyelids, cheeks and the soft spot on his neck under his jaw. She was hot all over and it took all the strength she had not to unbutton that shirt again. She wanted to kiss and nibble that skin on his chest and broke into a sweat when her groin ached to press against his. She kissed him again and he moaned, causing her to fall back. She wiped her mouth and nervously watched his eyes flutter open.

"...the... hell... happened..." Vin croaked, blinking at the sun through the trees. He smelled a very unusual earthy scent as the girl bent over him. He was transfixed, the sight of her took his breath away. She was like living desire painted before him and from where he was lying, he could see the swell of both breasts under her blouse as she bent over him. Like tempting fruit they ached to be sucked and caressed. A desire so strong rose in him he sat up to cover up the rising need.

"You fell asleep. I have been waiting for you to wake up. Here, drink," she offered, handing him the mug of water. 'Is there something wrong with my face?" She quizzed at the odd look she was getting. He had the most beautiful eyes she'd ever seen.

"Wrong? No... not hardly. Yer the prettiest thing I ever laid eyes on." He whispered huskily . Suddenly her face was just inches away and the red lips like cherries beckoning to him. He pulled her face closer, letting his fingers rake the silken stands of hair. He kissed her openly and deeply, attacking that hot cavern and battling her tongue. She fell on him and those very firm breasts pressed against his chest. He ran his hand along the side of her leg and over her firm backside. She moved then pressing closer and that caused his need to rise even harder. He broke the kiss and gently forced her off him. He sat up and shook his head, trying to conquer the roaring in his ears

Vin was very confused by the tangle of emotions waging battle inside him. He didn't fall asleep in the middle of the day. He also was never so feverish over a woman. It was all he could do not to pull her on him and devour every bit of her firm flesh. He wanted to claim those lips again and taste the lush breasts before explore the sweet valley between her legs.

"The hell's wrong with me?" he muttered, shoving himself to his feet and staggering. "I'm sorry... I had no call t'do that. I'd never force m'self... please fergive me."

"Do not be sorry," she replied, seeing the honestly in his eyes that his voice reflected. "I enjoyed it..." She offered with a tempting smile, running her finger over her lips slowly.

That only caused his blood to fire up again. His remorse lingered and he moved on unsteady legs towards his horse. "You are forgiven, sweet Vin. I must go now, I have been away too long and my father will come looking for me."

"Aw, hell, that's trouble I don't need," Vin issued, climbing on his horse.

"Here." She scooped his hat up and handed to him. "Will you come tonight? Perhaps we can get something to eat."

"Alright," Vin agreed, smiling again. She lifted her hand up to touch him and he took it, kissing it once. He was so mezmerized by her he was nearly dizzy. "I don't even know yer name."

"Antonina Rosella Maria Elena Miklos."

"Damn," Vin frowned, "All them names is likely t'git tangled up. Nina huh? It suits ya, real pretty..."

"Nina." She smiled reluctantly taking her hand back. She was tingling all over and couldn't wait to taste his lips again. She yearned to be near him, tasting and touching him. "Yes, I like that..."

"Good, I'll see ya then." He tipped his hat and rode on, heading for a secluded branch of the river where he could release his pent up need and cool his desire.

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Eagle's Bend
Midnight

There were few lights on in the large town when Chris Larabee arrived. His eyes moved on either side of the street, always on guard. Nothing was stirring, save the wind that churned and sent street debris past his him. The town he arrived in as a newlywed tens years ago had changed considerably. Where once had been one street and a scattering of buildings was now a growing city with several streets. Every time he came to Eagle's Bend he saw another new store opening. The houses that dotted the hills surrounding it had multiplied many times over.

After getting the horse settled in for the night, it was time to get a room. Now with his saddlebag slung on his shoulder and rifle in hand, he headed for the hotel. The only business in town with light spilling from the windows was the Saloon. He peered in the window and shook his head when a familiar red-jacketed gambler came into view. The bottle of bourbon next to the conman was one that came with a fancy label. The smooth taste Ezra's beverage of choice brought his boots up the boardwalk faster. He ducked inside the Eagle's Bend Hotel and rang the bell at the counter.

"Kinda late," Miles Perkins noted in a clipped voice.

"Maybe you need to change your line of work," Chris returned, signing the register. He didn't see Judge Travis's name on the list. But saw three names under Buck's and Ezra's at the top of the page. He noted the room numbers and made it a point to check them out. Buck said the marshalls arrived the day after they did.

"How long you plannin' on stayin'?"

Chris sighed at the annoying little man and shifted his weight, giving him a hard look. "Until my business here is done." He eyed the nightly rate posted and fished out some money. The beady-eyed man's mouth opened again and the tired rider leaned forward, "I'm not a man who likes a lot of questions, understand?"

"Number seven, first left at the top of the stairs." the clerk replied tersly then collected the silver coins that rolled across the table. "This only covers that room until the end of the week. And if you want hot water brought up..." He jumped when the door leading to the upper floor ended his sentence abruptly. "It'll be extra."

Neither man saw the stranger hidden in the shadows. The end of the week fit into the plan perfectly. By the time the pale rider in black rode out of the town, the eve of the deed would be arriving. He could take care of Larabee and arrive back in time to complete the long prophesized ritual that would free himself and his people.

"We will meet again my friend, "Alexi vowed, eyeing the light in the room where the new boarder was now located. "And I'm afraid it will be rather unpleasant for you and very painful." He turned to the slim man next to him and pointed to the room. "Nicolai, you understand what you are to do?"

"Yes, keep an eye on the blond one and wait for your return. If he leaves before you return, I will make sure he doesn't get home." Alexi's cousin drew out his jagged-edged knife and the moon gave it an unearthly glow. "Swift and quiet."

"Be careful, do not draw any attention to yourself. Stay in the shadows." With a shake of his cousin's hand, the leader of the band of gypsies stole into the night as quietly as he'd arrived.

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Ezra Standish looked up when the batwing doors swung open. He didn't have time to hide the surprise on his face at the arrival of Chris Larabee. He had not expected any of the others to come until he sent a wire announcing the arrival of Judge Orin Travis. A frown creased his handsome face when he wondered if something back in town had gone wrong, perhaps with body damage. He dealt the watch salesmen from New York another card and waited. The lean body slid into the chair next to him. No sooner had he hit the chair when a shapely saloon girl appeared.

"Hey sugar, what can Ivy do for you?" the redhead oozed, running her hands down his arm.

"I'll take a glass," Chris replied, reaching for Ezra's bottle. "Kentucky's finest. I do like your style. Nothing goes down smoother than fine liquor."

"Especially when the libation in question is free," the green-eyed gambler drolled as the expensive beverage moved. "By all means, help yourself."

"I said a glass not your ass," Chris hissed when the ample bottom of the scantily scan woman landed on him. He shoved her off gently and glared openly, which sent her moving.

"Charming as ever I see," Ezra laughed and poured them each a shot when the glass arrived.

"I think I'll...." the salesman started to lift his coin to toss into the pile when the stranger's harsh stare caused him to rethink his options. "...uh... call it a night. I fold." He tossed the cards in and collected the little money he had left. "Gentlemen," he nodded and quickly departed.

"You sir, are bad for my business," Ezra complained, raking the coins in.

"Business?" Chris accused, raising a sandy eyebrow. "Somehow your name in the same sentence as that word just doesn't add up."

"That depends on your definition of the word," Ezra poured them each a new shot of bourbon. "Fate can be a very persuasive mistress." He thought on his birth to the most profitable conwoman in the Confederacy.

"Especially if she's sleepin' with a conman carryin' a deck with two Ace of Spades." Chris snorted of Lady Fate.

"How did you..." Ezra began and tucked the cards away and ignored the green eyes bearing on him. The man missed nothing, a gift which was unnerving. The only one better at it was Vin Tanner. "Standish's do not cheat."

"That explains a lot," Chris grinned, "So what is your real name?"

"Larabee," Ezra retorted, "A distant cousin no doubt."

"My family wouldn't be that desperate." Chris picked up the bottle and examined the fancy label. "I guess swindlin' does have it's rewards."

"You didn't ride all the way here merely to insult me," Standish scoffed and took the bottle back. "Is there something amiss at home? Is Mister Jackson's clinic no longer empty?"

"Everybody's fine," Chris answered. "I had an itch to scratch." He paused when Ezra's face went pale and his eyes narrowed.

"I've been making the appropriate rounds and didn't encounter anyone who had you in their gunsights."

"Not that kind of itch," Chris groused. "You think I ride around lookin' to gun down old enemies?"

"Trouble does seem to find itself on your doorstep a bit too frequently." Ezra cocked his head. "Well? What brings you to this fair city?"

"Yates."

"That would not be in your best interest. I've tried several times to pry whatever secret he's hiding behind that smirk he wore the entire ride from town. The federal marshalls ended any further chances to parley any information. They have him in lockdown."

"Any word from the Judge?"

"Today," Ezra answered. "The trial has ended and he's enroute from Sandyford. With any luck he'll be here in a few days."

"That ought to be more than enough time," Chris decided, putting his hand inside his jacket and pulling out a deck of cards. He broke the seal and tossed a coin onto the table. "Nothing like a new deck, eh Ezra?"

"I think I should check for blood," Standish sniffed, patting his 'wounded' pride.

"Need a heart for that, don't you?" Chris dealt them each five cards.

"So your arrival here is to interrogate Yates to determine his full connection to Eli Joe?" Ezra saw the fair head dip once. "And if he won't see you?"

"That would be downright rude," Chris issued sternly. "I don't like rude."

"Moreover, the judge would be none to happy to arrive and find the object of his journey lying in the undertaker's cold room."

"Gimme a little credit, Ezra!" Chris snapped. "That bastard's hiding something and I'm gonna pry it from him if I have to cut his balls off to loosen his tongue."

"Ah, there's that Larabee charm again," Ezra retorted with a sly chuckle.

"Where is he?" Chris eyed the two cards Standish tossed down and dealt him two more.

"In the jail. The cells are located in the back at the end of a short hall. One of them is with him at all times." He paused then and drew out what he felt was the 'trump' card. "Your guilt over permantly ending any chance of Mister Tanner getting his freedom is clouding your logic." He backed up when the chair next to him scraped the boards raw and the gunslinger rose, looming over him.

"What's between me and Vin doesn't concern you and my eyesight is fine, understood?"

"Perfectly." Ezra knew his hunch was correct then. Larabee was intent on proving his best friend innocent of murder and freeing him from a potential trip to the gallows. Despite the outward signs of life returning to the haunted man, inside he was still wounded. Killing Eli Joe had put a noose on Vin Tanner's neck by his own hand. "And just how do you plan on arranging for this intimate little conversation?"

"That's where your unfortunate accident comes in," Chris supplied with a evil smile.

"..un..fortun..ate..." Ezra eyes narrowed and his blood chilled just a little. Larabee sat back down and took the bottle. The dangerous light shining from the other man's eyes gave him a shiver.

"Very unfortunate." Chris's grin widened as he spelled out the plan.

Part Three

Vin broke the surface of the water and celebrated the brilliant blue sky that met his eyes. The air was sweet and the harsh workout he'd put his body through in the crystal river was worth it. Every inch of his lean bronzed flesh was singing and he whooped and dove in again, swimming across to the other bank. His feet found the bank underneath and he stood, the water cresting just below his naval. He saw her then, like a vision entering the water on the other side. Her dark hair was down and loose, covering her to the waist. The thin chemise she wore left little to the imagination. When the water hit her thighs, she bent over and cupped her hands, splashing her neck. The drops of water slowly moved down her chest nestling between her ripe breasts. Vin's mouth went dry and his heart began to hammer. He couldn't move nor could he tear his eyes away. She lowered herself into the water and tossed her head back, moaning as the cool water ran over her. She dove underneath and his wide eyes followed her form as it made it's way towards him. She came up a few feet away, tossing her hair back and sending a spray of water into the air. The wet cotton clung to every ripe curve and became nearly transparent.

"Hello sweet Vin..."

"Nina..." he croaked, forcing his legs to move.

They met in hot rush of wet flesh and he kissed her hard, his fingers tugging on the reluctant wet fabric. His lips moved down her body, tasting and nipping every silken inch. He pulled her towards the bank and set her down, taking time to let his eyes devour her lush body.

"God yer beautiful..." he rasped, kneeling between her parted legs.

"Vin... Vin..."

The voice met his ears and he pressed his hot body on hers. He tested the waters and her resistance gave way. He moved his hips, needing to join her as one. Her hands came up to touch his face....

"VIN!"

He blinked and stiffened, then saw a very disturbing mustache hovering over him. The river dried up and his goddess disappeared. All that was left was his need and that was fizzling fast. The face formed over the mustache and that only sent his temper flaring more.

"GODDAMMIT BUCK!"

"Hey look, I thought you were sick," Buck defended, ducking as a fist came up at him. He jumped back as the irate tracker sat up and swung his legs over the bed.

"M'fine... the hell didn't ya keep yer interferin' ass outta m'room."

"Well hell, Vin, you were moanin' loud enough to wake the dead. I heard you from outside. I thought you were sick or hurt or..." The flashing blue eyes that blazed back at him along with the lean body shifting around gave him his answer. The stain on the tan pants cemented the theory. This gave the rogue a devilish grin and a 'not so contrite' apology. "Oh... sorry stud..."

"Fat lotta good that does me now. I was jest about t'..."

"I can see that. So who is she? Anybody I know?" Buck leaned in and the body rose, shoving him out of the way.

"What the hell time is it?" Vin asked, eyeing the darkening sky outside. He rubbed his eyes and tried to recall just how he ended up in bed in his room. He turned away puzzled and that didn't go unnoticed.

"You sure okay, Vin? It ain't like you to sleep this much at night, let alone when the sun's burnin'"

"How long..." Vin spoke aloud before he realized it and then clammed up. He walked to the pitcher and poured water into the basin under it. He splashed his face and rubbed the back of his neck.

"I'm not sure, all afternoon I guess. You ducked inside after lunch.I got back from Dancy's place and was comin' up the boardwalk headin' for the Saloon when I heard you moanin'. She must have been somethin' sweet the way you were..."

"Dancy's?" Vin interrupted, not wanting the all to real image to occur. He could still taste her lips from their brief encounter by the river. He still felt those firm breasts against his body. "Aw, hell..." he murmured as the need began to rise again. Buck was prattling on and didn't notice.

"His kid rode in, said he took a fall and couldn't get up."

"He okay?"

"Yeah, fell into his well, I got him out with a rope." Buck cocked his head and moved closer, seeing how flushed the tracker was. He put a hand up and felt heat, before it was slapped away.

"Git..."

"You totin' a fever?"

"NO!"

"What happened to your hand..."

"It got cut when the last interferin' jackass asked t'many questions and I cut his balls off."

"You always this pleasant in the morning?" Buck chuckled and ignored the angry Texan, ruffling his hair.

"I swear to God, Buck!"

"Alright, I'm goin'" Wilmington laughed and made his way to the door. "Hey, me and the kid are headin' over to the carnival. You comin'? Most o'town is already out there. Josiah and Nathan are stayin' here to watch over things."

"Mebbe I will," Vin agreed, recalling a promise of dinner in a quiet spot with the object of his curious affection. "Gimme twenty minutes, I need t'git cleaned up."

"Hell, that is pigs flyin' by the window." Buck wagged his brows and ducked when Vin threw a boot at him.

Buck was still laughing when he met up with J.D., Josiah and Nathan at the saloon. He ducked inside and ambled over to the table. The two older men were playing cards and drinking beer. J.D. stood as he approached.

"What's so funny, Buck?"

"Vin. I was comin' back from Dancy's and I heard him moanin' somethin' fierce."

"Dancy okay?" Nathan asked.

"Yeah, nothin' broke," Buck updated, signaling the barkeep that he needed a beer.

"So what's wrong with Vin?" J.D. asked, spinning his hat on his finger

"Well at first I thought he was sick, I mean it ain't like him to bury himself in a bed unless he's got somethin' wrong."

"But?" Josiah tossed two cards down and watched Buck's almost giddy grin.

"Oh he was in real pain, alright. I've been there myself and Lord does it hurt." Buck's dark blue eyes twinkled in mirth. He grinned even more and hoisted his mug in salute.

"Oh," the preacher caught on, then winced in brotherly understanding. "I think we've all shared that painful experience."

"What painful experience?" the green sheriff asked

"A wet dream." Buck relayed and then nearly choked when J.D.'s face screwed up.

"Huh?"

"Yuh can't be that young, J.D." Nathan replied over a chuckle. "Cause I sure as hell ain't that old."

"An intimate encounter with a lovely young woman that occurs when you sleep," Buck answered.

"You are sittin' in Ezra's chair," Josiah added to Buck of his choice of words.

"Oh," Dunne answered not clear on the connection. Then it occured to him and he flushed Tanner red. "Oh..." he repeated and his voice dropped and his eyebrows rose. "Oh."

"Speakin' of flushin'" Buck noted of the rising color his young comrade wore. "Vin's totin' some color, felt warm too."

"Well wouldn't you?" Nathan arched an eyebrow.

"Could be it was from that but he's got a bandage on his finger. It smelled awful..."

"I'll check on him," Nathan decided.

"I wouldn't hurry, Nate, could be he's pissed off a little." Buck decided, "Hell if you get shot down, who's gonna patch us up?"

"He won't shoot me," Nathan predicted.

"He's gettin' a bath, he'll be here in about a half hour or so," Buck updated. "Then he's gonna ride over with us to the carnival."

"Might do him good to get out and get some air," Josiah added. "He's been sleepin' all day."

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While his friends were enjoying a game of cards in the saloon, Vin Tanner found the coldest water he could to wash himself off. As he scrubbed, his mind never strayed far from the very pretty girl he'd met. He couldn't seem to rid himself of the image of her in the water. Then the lingering memories of the brief encounter under the apple tree rose up again. Those lips burned into his own and those mezmerizing eyes of hers haunted him.

"Hell's wrong with me?" He grunted, eyeing his haggard face in the mirror. He found a clean bright blue shirt and buff colored pants and put them on. He picked out a bright kerchief and tied it around his neck, before strapping his gun on. Just as he reached for his hat and buckskin coat, a knock sounded on the door.

"Vin?"

"Come on in, Nate."

The healer stepped inside and took a quick assessment of the tracker. Despite the many hours of sleep, he looked tired. Buck's eyes didn't lie, the handsome young man's face was flushed and there was something not quite right about his eyes. Nathan's gaze went to the skilled sharpshooter's hands and he found the bandaged finger.

"Buck said yuh got a cut." He nodded to the injured finger. "Yuh want I should take a look?"

"Yeah," Vin decided ."It's been sassin' me fer a spell. Don't think it's deep, though"

"How'd yuh cut it?" Nathan asked as Vin sat on the chair near the window side table. He turned the lamp up and unwound the cotton. His eyes widened when he realized it was a petticoat he was holding. "Yuh get cut haulin' yuhr ass outta a winda?"

"I look like Buck?" Vin replied with a grin. "Naw, I's ridin' out to that camp and spotted a girl totin' apples in a basket. There was t'heavy fer her. One of the baskets... OW!"

"Sorry," Nathan apologized when the last bit of fabric took skin with it as it left he finger. "Yuh cut it on the basket?"

"Yeah, mebbe I got a splinter'r sumthin'?"

"We'll find out," Nathan wrinkled his nose and waved his hand ."Vin, what the hell is that?"

"Hell if I know," he replied honestly. "The girl had it with 'er in th wagon, said her grandmother made it... herbal shit of somekind fer cuts and such."

"Well, I'm gonna clean it up with soap and water and wash it with carbolic," Nathan stated and saw the long-haired man's nose wrinkle. "It ain't so bad."

"No, reckon it ain't when yer the douser," Vin grumbled. His eyes went to the window and he caught the breeze that blew inside. The air was cooler, a sure sign that Autumn was here. It lifted his hair and he inhaled deeply, drinking in the refreshing breeze. He felt the hand on his face and didn't protest.

"Yuhr warm, yuh feel okay? Stomach okay?"

"Fine, jest tired," Vin answered and watched Nathan quickly redress his wound. He flinched when the carbolic hit the open cut. But he was glad Nathan seemed pleased with the wound.

"Don't look bad, Vin, just keep it covered for a day or so until that skin heals over."

"Okay, thanks Nate," he answered, waiting for the last bandage to be tied. He saw Nathan examining the petticoat again and felt his face flush.

"Oh," Nathan's eyes crinkled in warmth. "So that's it, yuh got love fever?"

"Course not!" Vin huffed, jumping up off the chair.

"Nothing wrong with enjoyin' a girl's company, Vin. Just remember she's gonna be leavin' in a couple days."

"I know," Vin deflected, shoving his coat on. "Buck and the kid ready t'ride?"

"Yup, J.D. got yuhr horse ready." Nathan walked down to the street with the Texan and they met the other two, who were already saddled up.

"Hey ,Vin, you feeling better?" J.D. asked and saw the shaggy head dip once as the lean body climbed onto the horse. "Okay, let's ride."

"Hold up!" Nathan moved in front of J.D.'s horse and moved his eyes over all three. "Yuh be careful out there. It's dark and there's a lot of ground t'cover. Conkin was drinkin' before he even left town."

"We'll keep an eye out, Nate," Buck promised and led the way out of town.

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Eagle's Bend
Nightfall

Ezra was sitting on the small balcony outside the room and settled in the small chair by the edge. He sipped some brandy and eyed the dark sky above. The plan should work and if anybody could make it a success, it was Chris Larabee. He envied the relationship the leader had with Vin Tanner. Gaining Chris Larabee's respect was one thing, having a bond that went far beyond brotherhood was another. He'd not seen the tense blond all day and wondered where he'd gotten to.

Chris Larabee's silouette was barely visible at the edge of town. He'd spent most of the day keeping tabs on the federal marshalls. Always wary of his surroundings, he was especially observant today. This plan had to work, he needed to redeem himself. Giving Vin his life back, taking the noose from his best friend's neck was worth the risk. To see Vin walking straight, without looking over his shoulder would be worth it. It was the least he could do, taking Eli Joe from Vin still haunted him. Although the younger man's sincere acceptance had given him the strength to carry out this mission. His eyes followed the sound of a door opening. Two of the federal lawman left the jail and headed over towards the cafe for dinner. Chris slowly moved out of the shadows and onto the street. He raised his head once and found what he sought. With a single nod, the plan was activated.

"Courage, Ezra, courage," Standish muttered, returning Larabee's nod and rising from his chair. He drained the liquor and entered his room, put on his red jacket picked up his hat and departed.

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The early night air was refreshing and crisp as the trio rode along. A full yellow moon kept them company while the tred of the hooves stirred up some of the dead leaves that lie in the path. While two of the riders engaged in animated conversation, the third was lost in his thoughts.

"I'm tellin' you kid, you're wastin' a prime opportunity. Full moon, cold nip in the air and the sounds of that carnival. You have some fun with Casey and then offer your jacket to her, suggest a stroll under the moon by the water." Buck wagged his eyebrows... "There's nothin' like a full moon to entice a couple of young lovers..."

"Well if you're such an expert, Buck, how come me and Vin are the ones you're riding to the Carnival with?" Dunne inquired.

"Hell, son, I'm no fool," the older man winked and thumped his chest. "Gypsy women are full of fire and you know Old Buck has just the right medicine to put out those flames."

The conversation ahead of him was a buzz in his ears, he didn't hear the words. Vin kept his horse going but fought hard to maintain his concentration. He didn't understand the urgency he felt to meet Nina again. It was all he could do to maintain control and that wasn't like him. His blood was on fire and his heart racing. A cold sweat was beading up under his clean shirt and his throat was dry. The roaring in his ears grew stronger as the outskirts of the camp drew near. The sounds of music and laughter drifted by and as they crested the hill, the bright colors of the wagons and tents exploded.

"Wow!" J.D. marveled and got a clap on his back.

"Didn't I tell you?" Buck said, eyeing the crowd as they rode closer. His gaze scanned the various gatherings and he zoned in on Conley and Bates, two potential trouble makers. Noting where they were, he scanned again and spotted Casey with Mary and Billy Travis. "There she is, son, go on now, you remember what I told you."

"To think I learned to walk, talk and ride before I met you." J.D.'s voice was edged in sarcasm.

"Hard to believe isn't it, Vin?" Buck replied and frowned, eyeing the straggler. "Vin you okay?"

"Huh?" Vin croaked and blinked , seeing Buck invade his vision. "Oh... yeah..."

"Look, I'm gonna go shadow Conley," Buck appraised, "Why don't you get something to eat?"

"Okay, " Vin managed, heading towards a thicket of trees where the horses were tethered.

After securing his horse, Vin caught up to J.D. The young man was chatting with Casey and Mary. Billy spotted him and waved, then pointed towards a large circle of people nearby.

"VIN!"

"Hey Billy," Vin replied, ruffling the boy's fair locks. "Ya havin' fun?"

"Yeah, they gots jugglers and a magician and man who walked in the air on a wire and a man who eated fire on stick!"

"Wow," Vin grinned at very excited voice and animated little face. He turned to Mary and Casey who also seemed very relaxed. "Evein', Mary. How ya doin', Casey?"

"Good Vin," Casey replied. "We were just talking about you."

"You're not sick are you Vin? I saw you head to your room after lunch and..." Mary paused when Vin shook his head.

"Naw, jest wore down a bit, could be everythin' catchin' up with me." He nodded. "But thanks fer worryin'."

"Have you eaten?" Mary followed up and saw his slim fingers move over his abdomen. "They have some wonderful food in the tent over there. We were just going to get some supper."

"Not yet, think I'll have a look around first." He caught the brim of his hat and nodded at the invite.

"Okay," Mary's brow furrowed at the distant sound in his voice, it was as if he was searching for someone.

"See you later, Vin," J.D. exclaimed, taking Casey's arm and heading to the food tent. Mary and Billy followed them, leaving the Texan to his troubled thoughts.

Vin walked slowly around the carnival, the voices of the visitors mingled with the more exotic accent of the workers giving the air a strange flavor. The heady scent of roasted meat sauntered from the open flap in the food tent. His stomach growled and reminded him he'd not eaten since breakfast. His sky eyes darted to the high wire act and he watched in admiration as a young man using a pole for balance walked overhead on a rope suspended between two trees. As the clapping of those watching ensued, he moved on. He saw Buck's tall frame by the wine barrels and found a smile. There were three pretty gypsy girls around him and they were all laughing. The sweet-talking rogue sure did have a way with the women. Females seemed drawn to him like bees to honey. He caught the dark blue eyes and let his own stray to where Conklin was drinking a few feet away. Buck's dark head nodded once, reassuring him that he had the situation under control. Satisifed, Vin moved on, his eyes scanning the colorful skirts of the young girls in the camp. He didn't see their faces, there was only one fair face he sought and desperately needed to find.

"Ah, a handsome young man seeking his fortune..."

"What?" Vin blinked, eyeing an elderly woman wearing a purple and red scarf on her head. She seemed to appear out of nowhere. He tried to backup, there was something unsettling about her.

"Your hand," she took his wrist and was not surprised at the strength that met her grip. She turned over the protesting hand and let her fingers run on his palm. She knew before she saw the fated lines appear what she would find there. "I can see your path very cleary... what lies ahead..."

"Naw, I really don't..." Vin rasped, surprised at the dizziness that suddenly enfolded him. He wanted to pull away from her but couldn't. His feet wouldn't move and his tongue died. It was all he could do to remain upright. He felt his head nodding as her finger moved over his skin, causing his bones to shiver.

"Your destiny is near, your heartline and lifeline will cross soon. You will find that to which you were born to do. It lies near your heart, follow your heart... follow your heart..." She coached, stroking his palm and watching his eyes glaze over. He swayed a bit and she let his hand drop, slipping away into the shadows.

"Vin?"

"Huh?"

He blinked and stared into darkness. Where did the old lady go? He looked at his palm with an odd curiousity, almost expecting a picture to appear. Follow your heart? What could that mean? He dismissed the old woman's words and tried to chase the echo of them that now burned a path in his head. He turned to see the object of his affection. His heart began to pound so hard his chest hurt and he flinched. His mouth went dry and he swallowed hard as his eyes devoured the vision of lovliness before him. She was wearing a cream colored peasant blouse that enhanced her very ripe bosom. The skirt was several colors and she lifted it as she walked closer, exposing a shapely calf. Her eyes were so large and expressive, the moon turning them into a nearly mystical shade of green. Her hair was gathered back, tied with a golden scarf. She was breathtaking.

"Nina..."

"My sweet Vin," she whispered, holding up a basket. "I have brought dinner. There is a spot nearbly away from the crowd..."

"Yeah," he replied huskily, taking the basket in one hand and her small hand in the other. He nearly jumped when their skin met, a flame shot through his wrist and engulfed him.

"I have been looking for you, I was afraid you would not come," she peeked up at the handsome profile. He was so easy to be with, oddly she felt she'd known him forever. She wanted to be near him and feel him hold her again. She loved his eyes and the strong jaw, he seemed to her to be perfect.

"Ya look beautiful," Vin whispered, letting his legs follow the path she moved on .

"You look beautiful as well," she replied, pausing to let her free hand run over his chest. "This color brings a fire to your eyes."

"It ain't the color... shirt... what's doin' that," Vin groaned, dropping the basket under the tree she'd pointed to. There was already a blanket there and the moon basking them in a silvery glow. He pulled her close, tugging the scarf away and letting her hair fall. His hand went from the nape of her neck through the long strands. "God, it's like silk... I could drown in it... feels s'good."

"Sit," she replied, stealing a soft kiss. "We will eat. I will feed you..."

"No call fer that," Vin said shakily, grateful when the solid ground absorbed his trembling limbs. "I can..."

"It's my pleasure," she cut him off, opening the basket and taking out several plates. She picked up a tin and opened it, taking a spoon as well. "I think you like spicy..."

"Aw, yeah," he managed, his eyes going to the twin peaks rising and falling before him. His lips parted for the spoon and the hot soup was greedily consumed. They also shared some sweet fruit cider from a single earthen jug. He remained a muted slave during most of the meal, listening as she told of her home far away. He told her of his life, losing his mother young and the hardship that followed. He moaned in appreciation and she smiled at him as the last of the soup disappeared.

"Did you like it? It's my mother's favorite. I made it for you. It has some spicy sausage, bits of potatoes and vegtables and..." she paused to pick a bowl with tiny bits of fruit cut up. She picked up a sliver of pear and put some honey on it, slipping it between his lips.

"Sweet..." Vin choked, chewing the tasty morsel. "...reckon I outta return the favor..."

His eyes met hers and the pretty girl nodded. He picked up a strawberry and dipped it in the warm honey, then slipped it between her parted lips. She accepted the fruit and he swallowed hard as his fingers nearly melted in her mouth.. She sucked on them slowly, nipping at them a bit and causing him to gasp. He pulled his fingers away and it was her turn to feed him. With each passing offering, the blood within each of the young people began to boil. Vin picked up the last sliver of apple and scooped up the honey, then held in with his teeth. She smiled and leaned over, accepting it and biting off half. Her eyes found his and she swallowed the sweet fruit, taking a piece of his heart with it.

For a few awkward moments, neither moved, the only thing that stirred was the night air around them. The noise of the carnival died away and the drumming in his ears increased. He pulled her onto his lap and kissed her hard. It was long and wet and sloppy, his tongue went on a rampage inside the dark cavern it found waiting. He pushed her onto her back on the soft blanket and moved his body over hers. His right hand tugged the blouse from the waist of the colorful skirt and his hand moved up her hot flesh. His fingers found a ripe bud and began to worship it. He moved his mouth to the soft spot on her neck and began to taste it, using his teeth and tongue in expert precision. Her cries of pleasure became the music the drew him in further, like a wicked flute from Hamlin. His pants were quickly constricted and he impatiently tugged on the buttons, then felt a smaller hand assist him. He groaned sharply, his head arching back as her fingers began to play

"Nina, I want... I need... ya... I can't stop..."

"I want you inside of me, Sweet Vin." She offered, lying back and tugging on a string at the waist of her skirt. "Love me... please..."

Vin's mouth went dry when the skirt fell away, revealing the shapley thighs and the heated area between them. He parted them and kissed her tenderly, caressing her face and cheeks. She was so very beautiful and seemed to have a hold on him he couldn't and didn't want to explain. All he knew was that he wanted her and needed to be with her. He kissed her neck and savored each rosy tipped breast, then moved to worship the valley between her legs.

Antonina was on fire. In all of her eighteen years she had never felt such freedom. Nor had she ever wanted anything more than she did now. She wanted them to become one, share one breath and soar to the heavens, claiming their own star. She loved the taste of him, the feel of his hands on her and that wonderfully talented mouth of his that made her vision explode into brilliant colors.

"Vin... oh my love... yes..." she whimpered and pushed her hands through his hair, encouraging the magical exploration. He shifted then, moving back up to face her. The kiss was long and she felt him pressing, then moved her legs apart to accept the gift.

"Antonina! Daughter where are you?"

"Papa?" Nina sat up and turned at the very odd and strangulated sound that came from her would be lover. His face was nearly purple and his eyes were rolling. "Are you okay? What's wrong?"

"Nuthin'" Vin gritted, rolling over, grinding his teeth and shoving his need away. He found his legs and managed to stand, shoving his shirt in his pants and buttoning a couple buttons.

"I am to do the dance of flames, I forgot," she whispered, ducking in front of him and fixing her blouse and skirt. She picked up her scarf and tied her hair back, before peeking up at him and seeing an odd look of pain. "Did I do that?"

"Ya sure did, darlin," Vin smiled, catching her cheek and caressing it with his thumb. He felt her shiver under his touch and felt the repercussions in his own tormented body. "A real sweet pain..." He paused to kiss her bruised lips again and then her forehead. He pulled her close, holding her loosely and enjoying the way they felt together. His fingers traced a lazy path up nad down her spine, giving them both a soft gasp.

"Daughter! Answer me now!"

"Hell, I don't need yer Pa puttin' buckshot in me," Vin mumbled, reluctanly shoving himself away. Then he grabbed his coat and hat. "I'd never hurt ya, ya know that. Mebbe yer Pa came jest in time. Yer leavin' and I gotta stay. It ain't right, spoilin' ya fer the man ye'll marry one day. I'm sorry.." He caught her chin and flooded her eyes with his sincerity. "Ya'd be better off without me..."

"No, don't say that," she pleaded, grabbing his arm. "I love you. We can... find a place... to be..."

Vin didn't have time to reply, he saw the huge man in the shadows approaching fast. "Go on, I'll clean up here, ya can come back later fer the basket." He offered, shoving her towards the river path.

He waited until she was gone and cleaned the basket up. He sat down by the river and pulled out the jug of homemade cider they'd shared. There was half left and he drank it slowly, wondering on her words. The sweet juice left him dizzy with desire and thoughts of her flooded him. He was consumed with her, his blood on fire and he ached to love her. He wanted and needed to claim her as his own. His eyes caught the river forking in the bend, with two arms reaching into different paths. Could he forget her? Would he always be haunted like he was now, unable to rest without dreaming of her? Could he ask her to give up her family? The moon even deserted him, slipping behind the trees and leaving the heartbroken lover in total darkness.

But he was not alone.

Alexi smiled and kept the emotive young man's face in his mind. The plan was working and soon it would come to fruition, causing a celebration long awaited in their tribe. Just a few more days until the night of All Hallows, where the troubled young man would meet his destiny. His blood would wash away the curse and free them their bound souls. As the moon left, he turned, keeping his smile as he met his brothers in the shadows. Tomorrow night they would be leaving and he would be their guest, willing or not.

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Eagle's Bend

Ezra entered the crowded cafe and his cool jade eyes skimmed the interior. The two agents were seated at a table near the entry. The table next to them was vacant. He sauntered over and took the seat, unfolding several yellow papers as he saw the waiter approach.

"Good Evening," he nodded and was handed a menu

"Getcha a drink?"

"Bourbon please," Ezra replied and read the short menu.

The two agents weren't from the area and that would work to the advantage of the plan. Ezra ordered a bowl of chicken and dumplings and unfolded the first yellow paper as he sipped his drink. It was a forgery of course, one of several he carried in case he was ever cornered by the law. One of the many scams he'd successfully used in the past was that of a privately hired agent . seeking wanted felons

"Mister Franklin," Standish murmured, scanning the sheet that listed a fair-haired, fair-eyed man, six foot in height and lean, wanted for robbing a train and killing some of the crew, a federal offense.

"You sir have made a careless error in judgement." He placed the papers to the side as the food arrived. As he ate, his always keen sight didn't miss the two agents trying to read the papers. Leaving silver for the meal and a hefty tip, he stood to gather his things and leave. The paper slipped out, landing at the federal agent's boot.

"I beg your pardon," Ezra nodded graciously when the paper was returned. "Thank you. Enjoy your dessert."

"You huntin' this guy?"

"If I should happen to encounter Mister Franklin on my travels I would indeed apprehend him." He answered the taller of the two badge bearing lawman.

"Not if he's in this town, it's our business, those are federal crimes." The other agent replied.

"I was contracted by a private source, not the government, my fee is much higher." He paused and saw the bait planted. "But all is fair, gentlemen, should you find this cretin first, you can be responsible for taking him back to Newark, New Jersey."

He strode out before they could reply. He went to the saloon and scared up a game of poker with a newspaper reporter who was passing through. They were in the middle of the game when the bat wing doors flew open. Ezra's hand never wavered, nor did his eyes leave the game but his heart clenched. He rallied his fleeing nerves and tossed his cards down.

"I fold, it's your lucky night, Mister Parsons."

"I'll say," the greedy reporter raked in the coins. "I didn't have shit in my hand."

Ezra headed for the doorway, stepped outside and eyed the cafe. Sure enough, the two federal agents were headed towards the Saloon. He knew they would snatch the bait and follow him. They saw him and he turned, peered into the window and pulled the paper out, then entered the saloon. He made his way over to the bar where Chris Larabee was downing his second shot of whiskey. . He paused behind the lean gunslinger whose dark clothes and unshaven face only added to the element of danger that existed wherever he appeared.

"Your flight from justice has ended, Mister Franklin. I must ask you to surrender your weapons and..."

"I must ask you to shut the fuck up," Chris replied, turning and hitting Ezra in the gut then shoving him hard into the table nearby, breaking it. He ducked as Ezra's hidden gun appeared from his sleeve. The bullet went right where the conman aimed, just above his head. He then kicked the arm and sent the gun flying. "... woman's gun... figures... you wearin' lavender underwear?"

"Why?" Ezra coughed, then launched himself at Larabee, sending the taller man into the bar hard. "Does that... in...ter..est... you?"

"What interests me." Chris sent a punch at Ezra, who ducked and replied with a volley of blows that landed on his face and mid section. "Is cleanin' this floor with your face."

"Hold it, Franklin."

Chris had Ezra's collar in his left hand and was ready to launch his right fist when the voice came from behind. "This don't concern you," he replied to the voice behind him.

"Wrong answer," the first agent growled and delivered a rifle blow to the felon's back. It sent the blond stranger to his knees and he yanked him hard by the collar, then shoved him face down onto the floor. "You're under arrest, you murderin' dog."

"For what?" Chris struggled but a knee in his back ended any attempt at escape.

"Murder and robbery on a train in Jersey, Franklin."

"I ain't Franklin," Chris argued, spitting a wad of blood out from his mouth. "You got the wrong man."

"Shut up!" The fed shoved a filthy rag from the bartop into the prisoner's mouth. "Save your breath for the judge, he'll be here in a couple days."

"You okay?"

Ezra was bleeding from a cut over his eye and from a gash in his lip. He was out of breath and sore, but Chris had played the part well, not hitting him hard enough to do damage. Head wounds always looked worse, so he acted the part, completing their teamwork. So as the question from the lawman came to him, he made his move. He attempted to reply, fluttered his eyes and 'passed' out.

"He's bleedin' bad, you better get him over to the doc's office. It's at the end of the street," Matt Cosgrove, the agent who was handcuffing the struggling blond man suggested. "I'll get his guy locked up."

"You sure?" Tim Wells nodded to a man nearby who came over to help him with the 'unconscious' man.

"Yeah, go on." He rolled the prisoner over and didn't duck fast enough when the gag was sent back at him, followed by a pink wad of phlegm. "You are a stupid bastard, aren't you?" He swiped his cheek and backhanded the man hard, then stripped him of his gunbelt and knife. "By the time your ass gets back to Jersey, I'll learn you manners... let's go!"

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The five remaining peacekeepers had been busy all day. A fire in one of the stores had taken up most of the afternoon. After putting the fire out, Nathan treated the injured shopkeeper and his wife while Josiah took the couple's youngsters to a neighbor's house where they could stay. J.D., Buck and Vin were cleaning up debris and taking what had been salvaged of the inventory to a vacent store for storage.

J.D. elbowed Buck and nodded in the direction where the third member of their team was sitting and staring into space. The box at his feet remained full, instead of the contents being placed on the shelves next to him. The body language displayed indicated their tracker was not himself.

"Yeah," Buck nodded, swiping the sweat from his brow. He jumped down from the stepstool and paused next to his young friend. "His mind's been wanderin' all day."

"Think he's worried about Chris?" J.D. guessed and saw the dark head shake negative.

"Nah, that ain't worry son," Buck grinned, "That's a distraction of another kind , the soft and curvy kind."

"A girl?"

"I hope so," Buck chuckled. "I seen him and a sweet-lookin', dark-haired gal head out with a basket last night. Looks like Cupid's arrow hit our sharpshooter."

"A girl from town?" J.D. reasoned and saw Buck shake his head again. "One of them?"

"J.D.," Buck sighed hard and put the last box of mason jars on the shelf. "You were out there last night, you had a good time. You seen any of them gyspies causin' trouble, actin' out of line?"

"Well no, but..."

"No buts," Buck decided, 'They're leavin' tonight after the show, life goes back to normal."

"Tell Vin that," J.D. eyed their friend again, still staring at the road outside the window.

Buck didn't reply, rather he walked over and tapped the younger man's shoulders. "You okay, Vin?"

"Yeah," The shaken Texan answered and blinked, spotting the other boxes already unpacked. "Sorry, didn't realize I's gatherin' so much wool."

"That's okay, Vin." Buck looked back over at J.D. and then back to the Texan."You finish up in here and get cleaned up some. We'll ride out to the carnival and..."

"Ya might as well go ahead," Vin rasped, "I ain't goin', I'll stay here and keep an eye on things. Josiah ain't likely t'be back until mornin' and Nate's busy at the clinic."

"What's her name?" Buck sat down and saw the painful eyes regarding the question.

"Shows that much?" Tanner replied, dropping his gaze.

"Not to the untrained eye." Buck knew just how hard this was for Vin, he'd been in similiar situations. "She's leavin' and your heart's all busted to hell. You want to ride out there and sweep her off her feet, carry her to a nice place under that full moon..."

"I can't think on anythin' else, Buck," Vin admitted, running his slim fingers through his tangled hair. "I been with other women, none of 'em come close t' Nina."

"Pretty name," Buck complimented and smiled softly. "Pretty girl."

"She's beautiful," Vin decided, still hungry for more of those lips and flesh. "Kissin' her, touchin' her, feelin' her under me..."

"Under you?" Buck sat forward and his tone grew somber. "Vin, you didn't..."

"Naw, but I came closer than I should... t'damn close." Vin shook his head. "Her Pa came huntin' her jest as I was about tah..."

"Ouch," Buck winced, tapping the light-clothed covered knee. "You sure you don't want to say goodbye? Wouldn't be right, you two bein' that close and you not even sayin' goodbye."

"Ya don't understand." Vin turned and gave the mustached man with his voice matching the sincerity his eyes reflected. "I get anywhere near 'er and I won't be able t'control m'urges. I'm tellin' ya, Buck, I've never had such strong desire. It's like I'm on fire... I gotta have 'er. What the hell's wrong with me?"

"You're in love, son," Buck suggested and saw the normally tanned face blanch. "There ain't no rhyme or reason to it, you can't set a clock by it or arrange it. It just happens... you're fine one moment and then 'boom' struck down in the prime of your life"

"What am I gonna do? I can't go with her'n I can't ask her t'leave her people. Jesus..." Vin stood and walked to the window, hoping to find the answer waiting on the dusty wooden sill. He felt a strong hand on his shoulder and let a deep sigh escape.

"You say goodbye, you tell her you'll never forget her and you ride away." Buck waited and gave the downcast neck a tug. "It'll hurt like hell for awhile, but it'll get better, Vin. You wanna ride out for a few days, we'll understand. Chris ain't likely to be back until the end of the week, his place is quiet. "

"Yeah," Vin decided, seeing Larabee's retreat in his mind's eye. "Mebbe I will. Untrained eye, huh?" He turned away from the window and gave the big-hearted man a half grin. "Guess all them animal maggots ya tote around count fer somethin'"

"Magnetism!" Buck corrected and ruffled the tangled hair. "And you know when it comes to affairs of the heart, old Buck's the expert, huh?"

"Reckon," Vin agreed and gave the other man's arm a pat. "Thanks Bucklin."

"Anytime, slick," Buck waved to J.D. "Come on, Kid, let's get cleaned up. An hour okay?"

"Yeah, I'll meet ya by the livery," Vin answered.

He finished unpacking the boxes, locked the store up and headed for his room to get washed and find a clean shirt. He hoped he'd have the strength to do as Buck suggested. His mind argued against his uncertainty, suggesting he could ride away, but his heart was another story.

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John Yates looked up when the latch to the cell next to him was unlocked. He sat up and narrowed his gaze as a man was thrown onto the floor. He winced when the federal agent's boots hit the downed man's unprotected groin from behind. The handcuffs were undone and then without a word, the fed left the cell. He motioned for the guard outside to join him in the sheriff's office. The man on the floor didn't move and Yates moved over, peering into the dark cell closely.

"Hey, you okay?" he asked and waited through several groans and grunts for several moments until a reply came.

"Water?"

"Sure, hold on," Yates replied to the croak and got the tall mug from his dinner tray. It was still half full. "Here, sit up I can..." Then the body moved and sat up, giving him a clear look at the other man's face.

"No, you... it can't be..." The mug fell and spun around, sending water in every direction. What the hell was Vin Tanner's friend doing here? What was wrong with that guard? Didn't he know? No, he arrived afterwards. Suddenly Yates, bowels turned watery as he recalled the venomous look the blond had given him when they left town.

"Small world, isn't it?" Chris groused and moved quickly to the bars.

Yates tried to turn away had no time to react as a hand shot up and grabbed his throat . The well muscled forearm was brought back across his throat cutting off his air. He struggled and wiggled, trying to worm his way loose to no avail. His eyes bulged as the stars and spots appeared as his breathing was cut short.

"Help..." He squeaked, clawing at the strong arm holding him.

"Shut up!" Chris barked, spitting a wad of blood down the side of Yates's face. "Now you listen hard, you lyin' sac o'shit, cause we're gonna have us a little talk, comprehende?." He released his hold enough for Yates to reply. Coughing ensued and finally the dark head nodded. "Okay listen up, fuckface, cause I'm only sayin' this once. When that judge gets here, you're gonna tell him everything you know about Eli Joe and how he murdered Kincaid." Chris felt the other man stiffen and played his trump card. "Yeah, I know you're holdin' out and that's gonna change."

"Why... would... I..."

"Have a change of heart?" Chris filled in the rest, letting his handsome, marred face crease into a sneer.. "Cause if you don't come clean and tell what you know." He intensified his grip on the other man's throat and used his free hand to grab the thick hair and slam it against the bars. He pressed his lips between the bars near Yate's ear and made his intension known. "I'm gonna cut off your balls, fry 'em up and make you eat 'em, then I'll tie what's left of your yellow ass onto a red ant hill and dip that worm you call a prick in honey." He paused long enough for the threat to take hold and the smell of warm urine gave him his reply. A cold smile played on his lips, "Good, I see we have an understanding."

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The carnival had been a rousing success, pleasing both the customers and the entertainers. J.D and Buck helped the departing clan pack up their wagons. This way, they would be ready to move out by the break of the new day. Alexi thanked the two peacekeepers from town and offered them some wine. The younger one refused but the older on accepted and they shared some colorful stories about women and wine.

Vin had remained on the outskirts of the celebration all evening. He'd remained on the high part of the hill, watching the colorful show. Now the crowd was gone and only the flickering fires from the camp remained. He heard Buck's deep laugh and followed the sound, watching as the gregarious man entertained his new friends with what he'd guessed was a bawdy tale. He spotted J.D. talking to a young Romanian man about the same age by the horses. The kid sure loved a good horse and they were both admiring the fine animal. The voice came to him from behind, the soft accent carressing his ear as a warm hand touched his face.

"I thought you would not come," the pretty gypsy whispered, drawing next to her handsome would be lover. "I have been waiting all day and night."

"Ya shouldn't have come," Vin croaked over his thundering heart. When she pressed against him he remained rigid, trying to fight the fire in his blood. It heated him like an inferno, causing his pulse to race, his mouth to go dry and his need to rise, fighting hard against the cotton pants that constricted it. "Nina... I ain't never felt his way about a girl b'fore. Yer in my head all the time, I want t'taste ya, touch ya... love ya..."

"I know..." She whispered, moving in front of him and unfolding the cape she wore.

"Aw, God.." Vin groaned, eyeing his naked goddess bathed in the silver moonlight. "Please... go Nina... afore it's t'late..." His words were cut off when she moved closer and he moved backwards to escape, causing him to stumble and fall. She landed on top of him and found his lips quickly. His hands moved up the silken flesh of her backside and he kneaded each globe, letting his fingers move to the soft spot between her thighs.

"Let me love you... sweet Vin..." she whispered huskily in his ear, nipping the lobe and his neck, as her hands moved to his buttoned pants.

"No!" Vin managed, sucking up the longest air he'd ever gulped and pushing her off. "Please.. we can't do this, ya know this ain't right. I love ya, Nina, more than anything I want to share yer breath and make love t'ya under a bunch o'dancin' stars. But we're from two different places." He fumbled and got the cape, covering her up. He let his fingers caress one rosy-tipped breast and kissed her forehead. "Ya need t'save yerself fer the fella ye'll marry one day. I don't b'long in yer world, I ain't carryin' the blood, I know yer Pa wants the blood t'be pure fer his grandchild. I'd never take ya from yer kin, it'd break ye heart."

"You can join us, learn our ways..." Nina pleaded, enfolding herself in his strong arms. She felt his hands moving up and down her spine and it caused her to shiver. She felt his heat throbbing against her groin, matching that of her own body. "Please... I love you..."

"Don't, darlin'," Vin hushed her with his finger on those sweet lips and tipped her face up. He studied every feature and swallowed hard. Then he saw the tears spilling from those pretty eyes and kissed each trail as it went down her face. Finally, the salty drops landed on her lips and he kissed her one last time. It was slow and deep, one that caused them both to draw apart shaking badly. "I'll never ferget ya, Nina..."

"Vin?" She called out but he was gone, swallowed up by the black night. "No... no..." She fell to her knees and wept bitterly, her heart in pieces scattered around her quaking body.

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"You seen Vin, Kid?" Buck asked, hands riding his hips as he studied the camp. "We outta head back to town, it's close to midnight."

"He's up there," J.D. answered and nodded to the hill where he'd been watching the solitary figure all night. "Well he was a few minutes ago..."

"Alright, well maybe he's on the road up there, waitin' on us. Could be he saw us say goodbye and headed down hill. Take him a few moments to get to the road." He clapped the youthful sheriff's back and climbed on his horse.

It did hurt, as Buck warned it would but he'd not been prepared for the unending throbbing inside. Leaving her in tears had been the hardest thing he'd ever done. His nerves were raw and his guts shredded to pieces. The gnawing pain inside would not be one that would be healed with food or drink, rather it would take a stronger herb. Maybe Buck was right, maybe he'd head to the hills around Chris's cabin for awhile and talk to the guiding spirits that his youth with the Kiowa had taught him about.

Buck was in the lead and spotted the lone figure by the edge of the road. The slump of the Texan's shoulders told him before he even uttered a word. He paused a few feet away and the long-haired man's head came up slowly and very painfully. Buck winced and shifted on the saddle, trying to find the right words. He rode close and gripped Vin's shoulder once and gave a solid tug. Their eyes met and Buck flinched again, as the waves of pain rolled off the emotive blues.

Vin nodded back once, giving Buck's arm a light tap in thanks. He sat up and sighed hard, then let his gaze roam to the river. Across the water a short ride away was a hot springs in the heart of the mountains he'd come to embrace as his true home. It wasn't far from Chris's and maybe the right place to purge the demons stabbing his heart. There in the arms of Mother Nature, he'd weep and let her heal him. He jerked his head once and caught Buck's eye, the older man nodded back, clapped his back and sent him on his way.

"What'd I miss?" J.D. asked. "What's wrong with Vin?"

"Broken heart," Wilmington replied. "Gonna take him some time. Come on, let's give him his space."

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Vin rode hard across the open field, letting the cold wind wrap it's icy fingers around him . The power of the animal moving under him caused the night air to slap his face hard. It was a pain he welcomed as he tried to exhaust his tormented body. He was nearly at Chris's went the shot rang out. He pulled the reins in and slowed down to a trot. The second shot was closer, kissing the tree nearby and taking a chunk out of it. He jumped down and ran for cover, taking his mare's leg with him.

He almost made it.

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Nina woke up and sat up on the mat she slept upon. The wagons had stopped moving and she sensed something was wrong. The decision to leave at midnight surprised her but she knew better than to question her father. She had no idea how many hours they'd been traveling. A bad feeling snuck inside the tent and snaked up her back, tracing icy fingers on her spine. Something was wrong. She crawled past her mother and brothers to the end of the wagon and stuck her head through the flap. The shadowy figures of three men appeared on horses. One of them was holding something in front of him on the horse. She recognized her Uncle Gregor, due to his large height and weight. Then she heard her father's voice giving instructions and the bundle her uncle had been carrying was handed down. The bundle was a man and he wasn't moving. Had one of her cousins been injured? She started to climb out of the tent when her grandmother appeared out of the shadows and pushed her back inside.

"You should be sleeping, Antonina."

"But someone has been hurt," she replied, not liking the tone her grandmother used. It wasn't a question, it was an order. She old woman gave no chance for any other option.

"Your father has taken care of it, go back to sleep."

Before she could answer, the tent flap was shut in front of her eyes and the laces on the outside tied it in place. She scrambled to the front, but couldn't get past her mother. Frustrated, she went back to the end of the wagon and wormed her finger through the laces, freeing a tiny end. She peered out, spotting her grandmother entering the wagon she used to tell fortunes, one she also slept in and used to prepare her herbal remedies. Despite the old woman's assurances, she was not so sure. Her small hand moved to her belly where tingles of apprehension formed and began to dance. She looked closer but the night was still again and then the wagon jerked as weight came to the front. Within seconds, it was moving again. Exhausted from her unending tears, she curled up and closed her eyes, tracing a finger over her lips, trying to recall every wonderful moment she'd spent in his arms.

"I'll... always... love... you... sweet... Vin..."

As if the whispered words of his lover found their way across the wagon train, Vin Tanner stirred briefly, his pale brows furrowing. A small sigh escaped his lips when something probed his tender side causing him to cry out. His eyes opened and he fought to speak, his lost gaze roaming wildly. Unfamilar faces and strange sounding words surrounded him. His heart beat rapidly and he tried frantically to understand where he was. His head was lifted and a soft voice urged him to drink, pressing a cold mug to his lips. He turned away, blinking and trying to find the cause of the pain. The lamp on the small table beside him shed light on his bloody hip. Just above his right hip, a gnarled hand was pressing hard, causing blood to run out. Through the haze of pain and confusion, he knew something was wrong. He was in trouble and these people were trying to kill him.

"N...n....o..." he argued weakly, trying to move his hand. "...doin'... s...s...t...o..p..."

"I am sorry, Salbatore, but this is necessary," she replied, grinding her hand into the wound and causing him to issue a silent scream of agony, then buckle and go limp. "You did well, Alexi, the wound is not serious."

"But then why the bloodletting?" her son asked.

"I need him weak and helpless for a few days. The fever and blood loss will leave him in a state that is required for the ceremony to be successful. You will see, my son. Get the knife, the bullet has been inside long enough." She picked up a cloth soaking in water and wiped the blood away. The restless body beneath her hands was stronger than she anticipated and he fought against her, moving and trying weakly to rise. His eyes opened halfway, unseeing and glazed as his lips tried to call out for help.

Vin's side throbbed without ending and he was lost. He didn't know where he was or why he was so afraid. The fire in his side was now moving, causing his whole body to feel as if tiny flames were licking his tender flesh. He wanted help, he wanted someone to take the fire away. Where was Nathan? He needed the healer. He tried hard to call out but no words came. Then, soothing words found his ears and a trained hand stroked his face. A mug was pressed to his parched lips and he was told to drink. He accepted the drink and frowned at the sweet taste. He wondered briefly what had happened and where he was, just before his eyes rolled and his head lolled. He surrendered to the velvet black sea that was carrying him.

He remained limp and unaware as he was undressed. He didn't flinch when the seasoned hands probed the wound in his side. He never moved as the metal blade drew the bullet out and something sticky and smelly was applied to the wound.He didn't feel the course bandages that were wrapped around his slim waist and tucked between his legs securing them. He didn't feel the hand that lifted his head to slip a pillow under it or feel the soft blanket that was drawn up to cover him.

She stayed by his side the whole night and bathed the fever. WHen those large blue eyes opened and that handsome face that was bathed in sweat implored her for an answer to the pain, she gave soothing words spoken to a loved one. As the hours went by and aided by the narcotic in the cider given to the thirsty patient, the tide turned.

"...hurts... hot..." Vin slurred, his heavy eyes only able to open halfway.

"I know Salbatore, you were injured but you are safe now. Your grandmother is right here."

"Grand... moth...er..." Vin's confusion at the strange word was quickly dissolved. His head was resting in the soft folds of a skirted lap. Tender hands used a cold cloth to bathe him and lifted his head to offer a cold drink. It was so good and so sweet.

"Yes, my handsome one," she encouraged, using her fingers to wipe the curling brown hair plastered to his forehead. He was terribly weak and totally dependent on her to tend to his every need. That is exactly the path that would solidify their relationship. By the time the fever left, he would be calling her grandmother and meaning it. All traces of his past life would be wiped away. "I am here, I love you as I always have. Rest my beloved one, rest... rest..." She moved closer to his face and kissed his cheek. The trusting eyes tried to focus on her and a weak fluttered up to reach out to her. She took the hand and pressed it to her face. The blue eyes darted back and forth, as if seeking something. She held that hand and bent lower, so he could focus on her. "It is I Salbatore, your beloved grandmother. I have raised you since you were a babe after your mother and father died. We are very close and I love you dearly. Remember Salbatore, remember your grandmother loves you... your family is here, we all care for you."

"...re...mem...ber..." Vin murmured, relaxing in the tender hands. The cold kiss on his face caused him to shiver but the voice echoed over and over. With every bath of water on his fevred flesh and every cold drink the old woman's voice penetrated deeper and deeper. Finally he surrendered and snuggled back into the soft skirt, inhaling the pungent scent of herbs and spices. He saw the wrinkled face under strands of gray hair and a colorful scarf. Feelings overwhelmed him, causing his emotions to rise. He lifted a hand up to find her and moved his lips, . "Grand... mother..."

"Yes, my child," she eased herself from under the limp young man and pulled the blanket down to clean his wound and change the sticky bandages. "I am right here as I always have been. You know I love you, grandson, my beloved Salbatore." She rolled him over onto his side and put clean bandages over the wound and secured it, before easing a clean sheet under him. Then she pulled a blanket up over his hips. "Sleep and rest, you are safe with your family"

"Safe."

She smiled as the whispered words and the ease at which it came from the pale lips. She bent down and kissed him, confident the worst had passed. He was hers now and that bond was vital for the sacrifice to work. She moved to the end of the wagon and peeked out at the new day rising. They were only a couple days away from arriving at the sacred place where the altar would be erected. She stroked the amulet on her neck and watched is glowing with luster.

"Today," she predicted, watching the sun waking up. "is a very special day." The gnarled fingers stroked the amulet with an almost passionate pace. "The time has come for us to meet our destiny at last." She turned back and watched the handsome young man sleeping, his chest covered with the fine sheen of fever. "You are strong as I knew you would be." She wrung the cloth out and sat back down, moving it over his hot flesh. Her hand paused over his heart, pressing down and feeling the life pulsing. She envisioned it still pulsating with vigor as it was raised above his body, dripping the sacred blood on the amulet covering his corpse.

Part Four

Eagle's Bend
October 28th

Orrin Travis hated stagecoachs. He avoided them unless there was no other way to transport himself to whatever town that required his judicial services . As he crawled out of the stage late in the afternoon, the scowl he wore due to his back feeling the effects of every rock in the road that the driver seemed to go out of his way to hit. He tossed a coin the urchin in the street to bring his bags to the hotel. He was in his room enjoying a whiskey and waiting for the clerk to advise him on the ready state of the private hot bath he ordered, when a rap sounded on the door. He closed the folder in front of him, that held the briefs he'd received on the prisoner in the jail.

"Who is it?"

"I thought the sun would never rise on this day," Ezra murmured of his vountary stance at the door of the powerful territorial judge. "Mother would be appalled."

"Your mother isn't in one place long enough to be appalled," the terse reply came as the door opened.

"A pleasure as always." Ezra entered and made his way to where the bottle of whiskey sat. "May I?"

"Lose your fancy flask?" The judge nodded and returned to the table where the information on Yates was waiting. He didn't miss the black eye the southerner sported, nor the stiches over the eyebrow above it. "One of these days your luck will run dry and the undertaker will be cleaning your pockets."

"Much as I hate to disappoint you," Ezra sipped the drink and turned. "My slightly marred appearance is not due to the normal game of chance."

"Not normal how?" Travis turned the page and sipped his whiskey.

"You'll find out soon enough," Ezra supplied. "The federal marshalls await your presence in the jail."

"I got their note," he held up a paper that was waiting for him when he checked in. "Who is this Yates character? What's his connection to Vin?"

"It would appear that he knew of Eli Joe and was a part of the initial ruse."

"Initial ruse?" the graying head came up and eyed the conman sharply. "You think he's tied to Eli Joe and Kincaid?"

"I do," Standish nodded. "His demeanor on the entire trip over here did not go without notice. Both Buck and I felt he was hiding something. By his mannerisms and a few remarks, it would appear he was involved in the murder of Mister Kincaid or at the very least, witnessed it or was privvy to the planning of the deed."

"And your here to find out if he can clear Vin Tanner's name?"

"That my dear man is your job," Ezra noted, wincing and dabbing his sore eye. "Furthermore, as my efforts here on behalf of the justice system and since you are the head of that system and I've incurred some rather nasty injuries..."

"No." The judge cut off the rambling man's not-so-subtle request for more money and motioned towards the door. "I'm busy and I'm running late. You took a risk coming here, if they saw you this whole case could be compromised. I appreciate the information but it would be better if you left town."

Ezra frowned and huffed in annoyance as he made his way to the door. "Not to worry, my trusty steed awaits. I'll go out the back door and take the road home. " He almost told the judge about Chris, but then when he saw the leader in the jail the element of surprise would be lost. THe keen eyes of the federal marshalls would perhaps become suspicous.

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Rio Grande area near the New Mexico-Mexican border
Dusk

She watched him sleeping, her skilled hand rubbing healing balm into his side. The wound had given him quite a fever and coupled with the blood loss, he remained weak and totally in her hands. It was her he sought in his fevered dreams, seeking water from the brutal thirst. It was her he thanked when his glazed eyes opened during the throes of the battle. Now that the fever finally broke, it was her hands that fed and bathed his weakened body. She pulled the blanket up and brushed the hair from his face. He was so very handsome and she regretted that her granddaughter would have such a short time of happiness. His eyes fluttered open at her touch and she smiled as the weak hand fought to rise. She took his hands and let his slim fingers intertwine with her own, resting them against her cheek.

"At last you have come back to us, Salbatore, my beloved grandson."

"Grandmother?" Vin rasped weakly, grateful for the healing powers that saved his life. "Thirsty.." He fought to rise and his head fell back weakly.

"I will get you some cold water." She poured a cup of water and eased his head up., allowing him to drink. "Your aunt has made some rich broth and we have hot bread and some cheese. You need to get your strength back."

"Aunt?"

"My daughter," she replied, smiling down at him. She stroked his face and was glad when he leaned his face against her palm and those trusting eyes melted up at her. "Not to worry, my handsome boy, you will be well enough to take your vows tomorrow."

"Vows?" Vin frowned.

"Your wedding day will be dawning tomorrow. You and my sweet Antonina...so much in love...will at last become man and wife as it should be."

"Nina..." Vin murmured and laid back, his troubled and muddled mind drawing up an image of a beautiful dark-haired girl.

"Yes, she will be here later. She's been very worried about you. Perhaps I will let her feed you your supper if you wish."

"Yeah...I'd..." Vin's voice trailed off and his brows furrowed.

Although the image of the young girl stirred his loins and brought up feelings of intense passion, he had no other memories. He struggled hard to remember where he was or even who he was but the only image he had was his loving grandmother by his side. Where were they? What had happened to him?

"Grandmother?"

She turned by the edge of the tent as she prepared to exit. "Yes?"

"What happened to me? Where are we?" Vin's eyes darted back and forth and he began to play with the edge of the blanket.

"We are travelling to Mexico to settle there in a farming community. We've come hundreds of miles across this land of the Americans. We came from Romania, many many years ago, before you were born. You were wounded a few days ago while you were out hunting. Alexi and Gregor found you."

"Who? Hunting?"

"Rest now," she patted his leg. "You are with family, you are safe."

"Yeah," Vin sighed, closing his droopy eyes. "Safe.."

"Sleep now, my beloved grandson, know that I love you."

"...love you...too...grand...moth...er..."

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Sheriff's Office
Eagle's Bend

Matt Cosgrove was preparing a report to send by courier to Washington when the door to the sheriff's office opened. A middle-aged man with graying dark hair wearing a wrinkled but expensive suit entered. The federal agent's eyes went to the leather valise the man carried and he didn't miss the expensive pocket watch peeking from the vest pocket. Experience told him this was no ordinary businessman.

"Can I help you?" he asked, sitting forward behind the desk.

"I'm Orrin Travis, the appointed judge for this territory." He withdrew his papers from his inner jacket pocket and handed them over. "I am here to interview John Yates, a prisoner you're holding. If you could provide a clerk to take notes?"

"Yeah, my partner Tim does that," Cosgrove replied, scanning the judge's credentials. "Looks good. I'm Matt Cosgrove, my partner is in the back. The third marshall just left to get some grub" He rose, handed the papers back and knocked on a locked door at the center of one wall. "The corridor goes back to the cells, we keep this outer door locked. "Tim!"

"Yeah?"

"Open up, the judge is here."

Orrin stepped up a few feet when the jangle of keys produced entry. The second federal marshall was younger than the senior one and extended his hand. He shook it and stepped back as the young agent moved into the inner office.

"Tim, the judge is going to need you to take notes," Matt assigned and watched as his partner walked to a briefcase next to the desk. "He'll be right along, he's gettting his stuff. Follow me judge."

Both prisoners looked up when footsteps echoed down the hall. One remained rigid, sitting on the bench inside the cell, tension painted on every feature right down to the white-knuckles gripping the edge. The other prisoner casually tossed a stale crust off bread at a mouse sitting on his dinner tray and watched with disinterest as the rodent skittered off the plate. He stretched, yawned and sat up lazily reaching for a mug next to him. He finished the lukewarm swill masquerading as coffee and eyed the visitor peering at him in shock.

"Evenin' judge," Chris greeted, rising and approaching the bars.

"Larabee?" Orrin replied before turning to the lawmen next to him. "What's the meaning of this?"

"His name's not Larabee, it's Franklin. He's wanted for murder and robbing a train back in Jersey. He'll be held over in Texas until I'm done unloading Yates and I can escort him back to stand trial." Cosgrove updated and frowned when the blond prisoner grinned at him and the judge seemed to bristle.

"Barfight," Chris answered the judge's penetrating stare. He knew Travis was pissed off but too bad, it was warranted. He also knew by the stunned look on Travis's face that Ezra didn't spill the beans. "I tried to tell him he fucked up the other night when he broke up the fight."

"You sayin' he's really not Franklin?" Cosgrove addressed the famliarity the two appeared to have.

"I believe he stated it better," Orrin replied which gave Larabee a grin.

He stared hard at the younger man until the grin faded. Whatever his two peacekeepers cooked up was a plan to get Larabee near Yates. Yates didn't look battered physically but one glance at his eyes showed the fear that they held. Chris Larabee's greatest weapon was the aura that surrounded him. That pressure was not felt any stronger then when Vin Tanner was involved. The two men shared an uncanny bond and Travis knew that was the reason Chris Larabee was standing on the other side of the bars.

"His name is Chris Larabee, he's the leader of a group of seven peacekeepers I hired to protect this terrority. Release him." Travis ordered.

"But, he can't be..." Wells stammered.

"Young man," the irritated judge addressed the second agent, "I hate stagecoachs and the thought of enduring another bumpy ride through hell transporting your prisoner to Texas will already delay me returning to my wife and home. This man protects the people in this territory while I'm elsewhere, locking up the two-legged animals who roam all too freely. You keeping him behind bars is preventing that from happening. I don't like upsetness and seeing the best protection the in territory out of commission makes me very upset. Do I make myself clear?"

"Crystal," Cosgrove muttered, unlocking the door. "That private eye swore he was wanted. He looked just like the description."

Chris paused in the celldoor and caught the blazing eyes of the judge, who was truly angry. He knew Travis probably felt that he threatened Yates and feared that justice would be upset, the process would be marred. He lifted his head and caught he dark eyes, nodding once to assure the older man he'd not done anything wrong. The stoic face didn't reply, the eyes didn't even blink. He thought that maybe in his younger days, Orrin Travis was a force to be reckoned with, a tough hombre.

"Have a safe trip now, Yates," Chris offered with a leering grin that grew wider when the other prisoner paled.

"Get out," Wells shoved the blond man into the outer office. "The judge has private business here."

"My guns?" Chris demanded and Cosgrove appeared, locking the door behind him.

"Next time I won't be so friendly," Cosgrove warned, handing the gunbelt and knife back to the freed man.

"Next time," Chris drilled, stapping the weapon onto his slim hips and releasing a cold hard stare. "I'll part the hair on those mangy balls of yours if you fuck with me again." He held the other man's stare until the marshall turned away and then he strode out of the door.

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"Grandmother!"

She paused by the large kettle, before resuming her motions. The soup was rich and flavorful, just the right medicine for a wounded man. The tray nearby was waiting, with a jug of sweet wine, a loaf of crusty bread and a crock of honey. She ladled the hearty broth with bits of meat and vegtables into a deep bowl.

"Ah, my little dove," she said, placing the bowl on the tray.

"Who is the wounded man you're hiding? Tell me!" Antonina demanded. "I heard him calling out last night. His voice, I know it's him isn't it? It's my Vin."

"Yes, child." She turned and gripped the pretty girl's shoulders. "He was wounded and left on the road, your uncles found him. He said some things in his delirium about the two of you. If your father finds out that he touched you that way..."

"I did nothing wrong," she defended but her face betrayed her.

"You showed your body to a man you're not betrothed to and allowed him to become intimate with you. This young man could have put his seed in you..."

"He didn't touch me that way, I wanted him to but he wouldn't allow it. " She grabbed her grandmother's hands as the realization of her actions loomed before her. "My father will kill him, you mustn't tell. Please, I beg you, grandmother." Her tears began to well then, spilling down her cheeks. "I love him...I love him so...my heart is breaking. If he dies, I can't bear to think of how I'll live with myself. Please..."

"Stop whining child!" the old land ordered, nodding to the tray. "He's very weak and needs to eat. You take the tray to him, fed him and stay with him. I'll talk to your father and arrange for a wedding on the new dawn. You have no other choice, he's spoiled you for any other man."

"Thank you...thank you..."

"One thing, Antonina, and I warn you. He has no memory of his past and nearly died. I told him I was his grandmother, that he was with family here. That gave him the comfort needed to break his fever. He believes that and if he is to remain alive and well, you must encourage that. He was orphaned as a boy and raised with us, you two are very much in love and that will help. But if he finds out the truth, he'll leave you..."

"No...no he can't, I won't...I love him. I'll do anything to keep him safe." She vowed, her heart soaring.

"Good, child, now go to him," the old woman turned the young girl towards the waiting wagon.

She put the tray down and her hands were shaking so badly she nearly dropped it. She bent over him and let her eyes devour every inch of him. From the curls of dark brown hair that clung to his face to the fine features, that square jaw and those sensual lips he was so beautiful. Her hand moved to his chest and over his abdomen, letting the slow rise and fall of his breathing move her hand. He was warm and her skin felt the heat returning that they shared only a few nights ago. He turned his head and sighed, his lips parting slightly. She couldn't resist and bent down, kissing him tenderly.

Vin's eyes fluttered open and the goddess he'd been dreaming about was revealed to him. Was she real? Was that sweet kiss real? Or was he still dreaming? He reached up and touched her face and she began to weep. The tears spilled down her cheeks and over his trembling fingers. He moved his hand behind her neck and pulled her head down, kissing her back. The fires that now claimed him, nipping ferociously at his eager loins were not to due a physical fever.

"You'll hurt yourself," she pulled away, wiping her throbbing lips. She never wanted to leave him again and touched his cheek, letting her fingers move over his face. "I love you, Vin...I love you so very much."

"Is that my name?" he asked, watching her move around behind him. "She...my grandmother...called me somethin' else."

"Salbatore," Nina repeated, "Her nickname for you. To me you are my sweet Vin who I love very much." She hesitated then, wondering if that had been a a mistake. She gently eased him upright, settling him back against a large group of pillows. "There, is that better?"

"Yeah, I sure am hungry."

"You will sit and I will feed you. You will see, I will make you well again," she promised, scooting to sit by his side, facing him.

"Ya already done that," Vin said, moving his hand onto the exposed calf and thigh where her skirt parted, exposing her leg. She felt so good and that silken flesh burned under his hand, now cupping the underside of her firm backside.

The spoon came up and his lips parted but his eyes never left her face. She saw such love and emotion there it caused her heart to beat wildly. He was the most handsome man she'd ever seen and he had such a kind heart. She knew they would be happy and looked forward to their wedding night and all passion they would share. She loved his eyes and could drown in them, they were full of such emotion.

With every bit of the soup consumed, Vin felt a bit stronger. It was a rich broth and the meat and vegatables were a bonus. He savored every bit and shared the sweet wine with her. She broke the bread into bits, dipped it in honey and fed him by hand. When the last bit of bread was done she moved the tray away and he held his arms out.

"I'm still hungry, Nina."

She smiled at the hoarse voice and settled next to him, wary of his wounded side. She rested her head against his shoulder and nuzzled his neck, biting the hot skin and letting her tongue and teeth play with the tender area on his neck. She moved closer, kissing him passionately. She moaned softly when his hand moved up her leg. She shifted a bit so his talented fingers could part her thighs and tease her. They both groaned under the assault, her eager body moving into his touch, needing more. She felt him break away and they parted, she saw him flinch and realized it had been too much too soon for his healing body. So she kissed his cheek and moved the pillows away, gently easing him down. She didn't want him to injure his side, so she smiled down at him, brushing the hair off his forehead.

"Rest now, I will keep you warm and safe." She vowed, unbuttoning her blouse and snuggling against his bare chest, savoring the warmth that their bodies brought when they were together.

"I love ya, darlin'," Vin whispered, drawing the blanket up over them and content for now to have her close. He drew lazy circles on her naked back until his own eyes wouldn't stay open. As the sun set, the two would be lovers slept peacefully, unaware of the bloody events that were lurking on the horizon.

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Eagles Bend
10 p.m

It was late when Orrin Travis finally got back to his hotel room. He locked the door and placed his valise on a table by the window. After putting his hat on the spare chair he made his way to the closet to hang his jacket. He placed his gunbelt over the bedpost and moved to the window, opening it to allow air in the very stifling room. His anger at Larabee and Standish had diminished very little. After interviewing Yates, he was glad to see that the facts the prisoner produced matched that of the crime he'd already gathered notes on. As Standish and Wilmington originally suspected, Yates and Joe did know each other prior to the day they tried to hang Vin Tanner.

He moved across the room and poured himself a drink. The first shot of whiskey went down hard and burned a bit. He poured a second one and made his way over to the table by the window. Setting the glass down, he opened his valise and took the folder out, scanning his notes for the report to be sent by courier to the Federal Office in Texas. Yates had met up with Eli Joe a few weeks before Kincaid was murdered. Vin Tanner was hounding Joe and had nearly caught up to them several times. Eli Joe was wanted for murder and Vin Tanner was determined to bring him in. Tanner's bulldog tenacity was preventing Joe from his usual trade and living on the run was creating problems. It was Yates who suggested that the two shared similiar coloring and if Joe let his hair grow long like Tanner's and he picked up a buckskin coat from the trading post from a distance he'd pass for Tanner. If 'Tanner' shot down an innocent man and the law turned their sights on him, he'd have to abandon Texas and Eli would have his free rein again. He was finalizing his report when a voice from the balcony outside split the still night air.

"Yates give you enough to clear Vin?"

"He did, no thanks to you."

"I did what I had to, I won't apologize," Chris answered, remaining in the shadows outside the window.

"You could have jeopardized the whole case," Travis snapped.

"I had to know," Chris answered. "Standish has his faults, but he's a good reader. Once Buck told me they thought Yates was holding back, I had no choice."

"You always have a choice. I'm the seat of justice, not you. You tampered with a witness..."

"Bullshit!" Chris defended. "I didn't have to say much, he pissed his pants as soon as he saw me. My gut told me he was lying, I was right."

"I understand why you felt compelled to act so irrationally." The judge shifted in his chair and took a sip of the whiskey. "I'm not blind, I can see how close you and Tanner are but..."

"With all due respect, Orrin, you don't understand," Chris hissed and tossed his cheroot away. He sighed hard and raked a hand through his hair. "If Vin hadn't agreed to stay all this time to help protect your territory, he might have caught Joe a long time ago. So you owed him that. I killed the last chance he had. I couldn't have hurt him worse if I shot him. That's what I'm doing here, I'm giving him his life back, nobody deserves it more."

Orrin didn't reply right away, what he heard between the lines affected him as much as the words spoken. He considered the actions that transpired and albeit not entirely legal at times, Chris Larabee did have his own unique way of brandishing justice. Still he couldn't have Chris or any of the others running around the territory revenging wrongs on their own.

Chris took a few moments to think back on the last few days. He knew as soon as the judge saw him, he'd be released. But his stay was filled with doubt and unrest. A nagging fear crept upon him and took a hold of his gut. He couldn't rest and shake the cold feeling that something was very wrong. Usually that feeling only came when Tanner was in trouble, like the night Yates arrived. He'd had a simliar experience that night as well. But this was much stronger, so much so it scared him a bit. He couldn't shake the feeling that Vin was in grave danger. The sooner he got back to town, the better.

"So it's solid? Vin gets his name back?" Chris finally broke the silence. The wind was kicking up on the chilly night and he pulled his duster closer.

"He gave more than sufficient information about the Kincaid case and his involvement. His statements regarding his relationship with Eli Joe and the murder are more than enough to clear Tanner. I'm going to ride to Texas to meet with the Federal judge there. I'll bring Vin's papers back with me."

"He outta be there, he has the right," Chris thought aloud.

"It's not safe for him there, Chris, you know that. Until it becomes public that he is not a wanted man in Texas, every yahoo with a rifle with be gunning for him."

"Yeah, I guess," Chris moved away from the building and eyed the end of the porch where a stairway led to the ground level "You need me? I want to head home."

"Now? Why not wait until morning?"

"I gotta find Vin, somethings wrong, I got a bad feeling. I'd rather push through."

"Very well," the judge relied. "Tell Mary I'll stop by on my way south, to see her and Billy."

"Will do," Chris said, taking several short strides to the stairwell.

As he rode out of Eagles Bend, with every passing mile the intense feeling got stronger. He paused at the fork in the pass, where two choices awaited. Left meant the shorter road which would bring him home by dawn. The road to the right lead to the Rio Grande and skirted the border to Mexico. The wind picked up and he tilted his head, scanning the unknown path ahead. This caused his whole body to be consumed with tiny needle pricks and he shivered as a cloak of foreboding settled on his frame. He turned to the right and headed for the border. Whatever trouble was calling him,it was ahead and it had Vin's name.

The air grew cooler as he got closer to the river, he heard the rush of water and the cold fingers of danger stroked his gut. A shot rang out, startling both man and horse.

"Whoa...easy...boy...whoa..."

Chris urged the frightened beast who bucked and kicked his front legs up. But the second shot came before he had time to adjust his precarious position on the saddle and the horse bolted, tossing it's rider to the ground. He cried out when his ribs protested the rock he landed on. All his breath was stolen and he rolled onto his knees gasping desperately and cradling his burning right side. His severe coughing and wheezing was silenced by a sharp blow to the head.

Nicolai dropped the club and bent over the now stilled blond man. As he was ordered to do, he remained in town until the blond man left. His fears increased when the rider took the wrong turn, Instead of heading back to where he came from, he was headed right towards the area where the clan was camping and preparing for the ceremony. A desolate area just over the border by the river where fate would cross paths with the young blue-eyed lamb whose blood would be their salvation. He rolled the unconscious man over and frowned, hoping he hadn't hit him to hard. Tante Anya ordered that this man not be killed due to the soultie he had to their prisoner. Seeing the rider turn at the fork told him that was true. They couldn't risk a break in the force that held him under their power. His hand moved over the face sticky with wet blood and his found a pulse.

"Not to worry my friend," he issued, tapping the bloodied face once lightly. He rifled through the limp man's pockets, taking the money he found along with the gunbelt and knife. "You'll see your friend soon enough, you'll both be in Lucifer's kitchen in a few days time." With that he stood and dragged the unmoving man to the edge of a steep hill and used his boot to roll him over. He watched as the man called Larabee hit several rocks on the way down until the body rested in a bloody heap at the bottom.

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Cold

Wet

Pain

For a few moments, the bruised green eyes peered up at the star filled sky and he wondered who was breathing so heavily nearby. Someone was gasping and wheezing, fighting for air. He coughed hard and the echo came back to him. He then realized he was the one who'd been sucking on the cold night air. His eyes roamed again, trying to find a familiar landmark. Nothing came to mind and he closed his eyes, moving his right hand to feel his face. Dried blood seem to cover most of his face. He was on his back, lying at the bottom of a strange hill.

Gingerly, he moved his left arm, wincing as his shoulder began to throb. He was able to move it freely, dispelling the fear of a broken bone. The hot pain that gripped his chest identified an injury of some sort to his ribs. Carefully, he moved both legs, crying out as a spear seemed to find his left lower back right over his butt. Once the red haze moved from the front of his vision, he pushed himself into a sitting position. His stiff fingers explored the area on the back of his head where he felt sure he'd find an ax. Instead there was a good-size lump, a very sticky lump. Cradling his throbbing ribs, he hunched over, shivering badly. His muddled mind tried to put the pieces together. He pushed past the throbbing aches in his head, chest and back to reach out and snatch the missing pieces of the night.

Cold

Wet

Pain

Ambush

"Fuck!"

Chris Larabee spat out a mouthful of blood with his angry edict as the fog lifted. He'd left Eagles Bend after talking with Orrin Travis. He'd been driven by a very strong feeling that Vin was in trouble. The silent call led him to dark side of the fork in the road. The familiar path would have taken him home. But he'd chosen the path where the lure was stronger and laced with danger. A dark, strange road that bordered a river that would lead to Mexico. The call had been so strong he'd not heard his attacker approach. He fumbled and found his gunbelt empty. The horse was probably gone to and his eyes travelled to the steep incline above. His eyes shifted left briefly, where the road would lead back to the fork.

"Goddamn Texan," he grunted, shoving his battered and bloody body upwards.

As he took the steep hill, painstakingly and by inches, he thought of Martin Everman, one of his instructors at West Point. He'd taken a group of very wet behind the ears kids and molded them into officers, most of whom saw duty in the War between the States. 'Dogged Determination' was one thing he'd drilled into his recruits, over and over. With every hill they tackled, every obstacle course they'd been forced to endure and every river they'd crossed with heavy sandbags strapped to their backs, he'd screamed at them, pushing them beyond the point where endurance dies.

Chris pressed his face against the soft earth and felt the loose gravel and dirt run over him. Every inch of his tortured flesh cried out for mercy. His trip down memory lane with the crusty commanding officer had pushed him halfway to his goal. He raised his throbbing skull and blinked at the darkness above. Studying it hard, he saw the line where earth met sky. Sucking air past his burning ribs, he pushed his boot off of the rock it was close to and ignored the waves of pain shooting into his hip. Hand over hand, inch by inch he made his way through Hell. Finally as the pitch black sky bled into dark blues, he crested the hill.

'...fuck... in... God... damn... track...er..." he cursed, allowing himself the luxury of a short rest to restore his very ragged breathing. The air kicked up, sending an icy caress on his face. But what chilled him to the bone was the air of foreboding that surrounding him. The feeling that drove him from town now was nearly smothering. Vin was in danger, of that he was sure and didn't question the 'why' and 'how'. Then he rolled over, pushed his way to his knees and then rose. Wobbly at first, he wavered badly, nearly letting sheer exhaustion claim him. He groaned and closed his eyes as a nasty wave of nausea threatened him.

"You have balls in there, Larabee or not? Maybe you'd rather be makin' a quilt with the other pantywaisters back in town."

"Shut... the... fuck... up... Ever... man..." he growled, squaring his shoulders and taking a very unsure first step. The second was easier and he didn't stagger so badly. The third and fourth, and the next dozen or so were a bit steadier. The one thing that pulled him along with unwavering faith was a set of bruised blue eyes and a soul with a lance through it.

"Hold... on... cowboy..."

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Anya smiled at the sight that met her eyes when she peeked into the back of the tent. The two would be lovers were sleeping peacefully, Antonina's dark hair covering Salbatore's chest like a silken blanket. His hand rested easily on her back and a contented smile graced his handsome face. That their hearts had found each other would only make the upcoming ceremony all the more powerful. Her gnarled fingers caressed the amulet and it throbbed in lusty shades of green. There was much to be done and she gently tapped her grandaughter's leg. The dark head came up and two sleepy eyes blinked and the small hand reached up to touch the wounded man's face.

"Ummmm..."

Softly she moved to answer his moan, kissing the tempting lips. He began to stir just as the dark-haired girl felt her leg tapped again. Turning slightly she saw her grandmother and blushed, pulling her blouse closed. She scurried to the edge of the tent, peeking out to see if her father was nearby.

"He sleeps," the old woman answered the frantic eyes roaming.

"We did nothing, only cuddle. I wanted to be near him. I couldn't help..."

"Shhh!" Anya eyed the blues changing in the sky. "The sun will soon rise and we have much to do." She leaned in and took the pretty girl's face in both hands. "Today is your wedding day, child. Your heart, it shines through your eyes."

"I love him... so much," she whispered, turning back to look at handsome man who soon would share her life.

"Come, your mother will be looking for you. Get back to your own bed. You will bathe and dress for your wedding. We will feast all day, dancing and singing." She paused and brushed a stray lock of dark hair from the lovestruck girl's face. "Then we will leave you and your husband alone in a pretty spot by the river."

"Alone," Antonina sighed, turning again to gaze at the sleeping man behind her. Visions of being lost in his arms and alone to share their love gave her a flush.

"Go child... I must prepare him." She shooed the girl on her way and entered the wagon. Keeping an eye on the sleeping man, she opened a trunk and took out beautiful white shirt. It's billowing sleeves and deep cut neckline would tuck into tight dark pants separated by a scarlet sash that would hug his slim torso. Her fingers paused on the item under it, folded neatly and waiting for use. It was cut from the same material as the shirt the groom-to-be would wear on his wedding day. The rich, creamy fabric would grace the altar that his body would lie upon when the full moon rose on All Hallow's Eve.

"Gran'mother?"

"Yes, my beloved grandson?" She shut the trunk and turned, holding up his shirt. "Do you like it?"

"Kinda fancy..." Vin eyed the tiny buttons on the wrists of the finely made shirt.

"You want to be handsome for your bride, do you not?"

"Bride?" Vin sat up, moving his hand over his face as the area in front of him spun a bit.

"This is your wedding day," she informed, helping him sit up. I brought you some coffee and a sweet roll. You eat and I'll be back with some breakfast for you. You need your strength."

"Feel pretty good," Vin admitted, "Jest a bit dizzy. Can I git outside? M'eyes are hankerin' t'see the sun."

"Alright," she pulled a pair of black pants and a red shirt from the pile of clothes at the foot of the mat. "I will help you put..."

"No, thanks," Vin took the clothes and blushed. "I'm grateful fer yer tendin'. I know ya took care o'me when I wasn't aware. I'm okay now, I can dress m'self."

"Very well, but be careful of your side."

"Don't worry, I got plans fer tonight," Vin smiled and thought of his bride. "M'weddin' day..."

He kept that thought in his head as his slowly eased his injured body into some clothes. Barefooted, he eased his lanky frame from the wagon and slipped down onto the soft earth. The camp was quiet and he reached back into the wagon to get his coffee and roll. He limped over to a crate and barrel, sitting on the crate and making a table of the small barrel. As he ate, he watched the sun rising and felt a warmth inside. He was transfixed by the colors displayed and the feelings of hope and rebirth.

"Sure is pretty," he murmured as the wind kicked up, sending his long hair of his shoulders. A single word carried forth, interrupting his date with Dawn. It was crystal sharp and clear, and slipped into his ear. He gasped and rose in alarm, nearly dropping his mug.

...cowboy..."

"What?" He whispered, blinking and staring hard at the river and the road the bent behind it. But there was noone there. "Fever's got m'brain addled."

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Chris woke up with a start, his pulse racing and his heart pumping so hard it hurt. Sweat pooled under his arms and behind his neck. He sat up and groaned, gritting his teeth against the pain in his side and back. The headache wasn't roaring anymore, just a constant dull ache that seemed to make his eyes heavy. He eyed the pile of vomit in the dirt next to him and frowned. His mouth was well point the point where 'sour' ends and he sought water to kill the fire in his mouth. He pushed himself off the ground and wavered a bit , before making a haphazed path to the river. He looked like a drunk as he tried to navigate the narrow path to the water. As he dropped to his knees and dunked his head, rinsing his mouth and drinking, he tried to recall where he was. The set of the sun told him it was well after midday. He vaguely recalled staggering badly as the heat of the day rose until the sun took him to his knees. He'd lost several hours and needed to make up time and find some food. He knew the border areas that dotted the rivers often had deserted line shacks, used by drovers when they pushed their herd through. Maybe he'd get lucky and find some shelter for the cold night approaching. Without food and rest, he'd never find Vin in time.

And Chris Larabee wouldnt' be denied; his quest was true, that he knew.

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"It's beautiful here. I wish we could stay forever."

"Don't matter none where we are, s'long as yer with me, that's home," Vin whispered, easing his arms around his pretty bride's waist.

They were sitting in a quiet spot away from the loud music and dancing just beyond the trees. She was resting in front of him, leaning back against his chest. He laid his head back, resting his eyes and wondering on the magic of the last few hours. The ceremony was confusing to him, he knew he must have been to others, having lived with these people. But he felt like an outsider, despite their warm welcome. After declaring them man and wife, he'd kissed his bride briefly before they were separated and the party began. There were many kinds of dances, with scarves of colors and clapping and flames dancing on torches. The food was wonderful and spicy, the wine was sweet and although he should be happier for the occasion, something inside caused him sadness. He felt he was being untrue to someone. Like he was lying or stealing something. Maybe it was the blood loss and fever?

"Did you hear me?" She turned to see his eyes closed and frowned. "You are sleeping on our wedding night? Am I that ugly?"

Vin's lips turned up and one eye peeled open. She turned and sat on his lap, running her slim fingers behind his neck, rubbing the base of it gently. She looked beautiful, smelled wonderful an felt even better. He pulled her close and kissed her moving his hands along the lace that covered the material on her dress.

"Was jest restin' m'eyes..." Vin mumbled, moving his lips to her neck to nibble a little. "Don't ya worry none, Darlin', I ain't plannin' on sleepin' for a day'r so. I'll be t'busy."

"Busy?" She moved again, pushing his hair from his brow and tracing a path down his cheekbone, over the strong jaw and then the sensual lips. He parted them and captured her finger, slowly sucking on it. "Yes, I'll kee you busy, my new husband..." she shuddered when his hand moved over her breast, causing the lace to rub against her. "...very busy..."

It seemed like forever until the last of the clan departed, leaving the lovers with a decorated rounded wagon, food and wine. They weren't far away, just far enough to give the couple their privacy. It was a beautiful private spot on a pretty river with trees all around them. Vin put the blanket near the fire and eased his slightly aching body down onto it, next to a jug of sweet wine. He took a sip just as she emerged from the wagon, wearing a thin almost tranparent gown . He swallowed so hard he sent the wine dribbling over his chin. He absentmindedly swiped at it, unable to tear his gaze from the goddess approaching. By the time she joined him, his fingers were moving over the silky fabric, causing them both to shudder. The rose silky garment was forgotten in a tangle of eager limbs. Lips, teeth and tongue traveled quickly and skillfully over peaks and into valleys. She tasted wonderul, her kisses were sweeter than the wine and his lips made a hot path down her ripe body. His exploration left them both gasping and covered with a fine sheen of passion. Vin kissed her forehead and each eyelid, the rosy cheeks and then those full lips, using his tongue to teach hers a wicked lesson. Then with only the lusty moon as a witness, they were engulfed by the flames of their love.

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Early Morn
Oct 31st

Billy Travis didn't know about the other kids in school, but he was sure looking forward to the party today. Halloween would be celebrated by a half day at school. The afternoon would be spent bobbing for apples, carving Jack-o-Laterns and eating the spice cakes, oatmeal cookies and other treats the mothers of the students were providing. He was outside of his mother's shop, waiting for her to walk him to school when a dust cloud down the street caught his eye. He stood and watched as a figure appeared, turning into a brown stagecoach. It stopped at the depot down the street, where the driver hopped down and hauled the door open,. The lone figure to emerge caused the little boy to yelp in pleasure.

"Grandpa!"

'Hello Billy," Orrin accepted the hug and ruffled the boy's fair hair. "You look well."

"We're havin' a party at school today, you wanna come? We're havin' apple bobbin' and cookies and Josiah is gonna help us carve a pumpkin and..."

"Judge?"

"Mary you sound surprised." Travis greeted his daughter-in-law at the door to her shop.

"I wasn't expecting you." She turned to her animated son. "Billy, do you have your books? I know you're excited about the party but you still have school work."

"Yes, Ma'am," Billy replied, ducking inside to get his books and slate.

"Didn't Chris tell you I'd be by?" Orring quizzed, out of the boy's earshot. "I told him specifically to let you know I'd only have time for a short visit on my way to Texas for Yate's trial."

"Chris?" She shook her head and thought hard. "No, I haven't seen him in, oh about five days I'd guess. I thought he was still in Eagles Bend."

"No, Mary," the judge frowned. Something wasn't right; Larabee was very reliable. He recalled that Larabee had that strange premonition that something was wrong with Vin Tanner. Was the gunslinger's gut feeling correct? Had something befallen them both? "He left Eagles Bend three days ago."

"Three days." She shook her head as Billy reappeared, strapping his books together. "That's funny, even if he went to the cabin, he would have stopped by to tell me..."

"One way to find out," Orrin suggested. "You get the boy to school. Where are the others?"

"Where do you think?" She answered, nodding her head.

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"Hey Judge!" J.D. jumped from the chair, his yelp causing Buck to spill his coffee all over his clean shirt.

"Goddammit JD!"

"Sorry!" The youthful sheriff replied, standing and grabbing a napkin. "Look whose here..."

"Gimme that!" Buck took the red checked napkin and blotted the coffee as Judge Orrin Travis appeared at their table. "Judge? How'd it go? Did Yates sing? What about Eli Joe and Vin?"

"Somethin' wrong, Judge?" Nathan exchanged a worried look with Wilmington when the older man didn't answer. Coupled with the grave expression he wore, it hinted of bad news.

"Where's Josiah?" Travis finally spoke, eyeing the plates of half eaten eggs, biscuits and ham that lingered.

"At the church, why?" Buck stood up and tossed the napkin away.

"Standish?"

"Had a long night, " Nathan answered of the gambler's late night poker session. "He ain't up yet..."

"Get him up," Travis ordered then turned to Dunne and wiggled his fingers at the coffee pot "Get Josiah here."

"Yessir," J.D. answered, quickly pouring a mug of coffee and handing it to Travis.

"Alright enough mystery." Buck's hands rode his hips. "What the hell is going on? Did that bastard Yates escape? Did those feds screw up?"

Orrin sipped the coffee, put it on the table and eyed each curious face. His dark eyes lingered on each one, before going to the table that Larabee and Tanner usually occupied. Chris always took the chair by the wall, so he could see the whole room. Vin was usually at his right side, which seemed fitting. The saloon seemed oddly off balance without the gunslinger and tracker. He turned gaze again, directing the answer to all but setting his eyes on the anxious blues of Buck Wilmington

"Chris is missing."

Part Five

If his world could be described in color, Vin would paint it pink for pure bliss. He'd never known such happiness could exist. For the last three days, he and his lovely bride had tested and plunged into the waters of love. They fed each other, drank wine and danced under the stars. They bathed each other in the blue water of the river and then made lazy love next to the fire. She sang for him; sad stories about starcrossed lovers from centuries gone by from her native land. They explored the woods, marvelling at the beauty of Mother Nature. He smiled down at her, she was sleeping on their mat in the wagon.... Her lips still swollen and bruised from the assault he'd given her just earlier. He picked up the crown of flowers he'd made for her that morning and placed it on her head. He bent down and caressed her breast, using his tongue to cherish the rosy tip. The thundering of hooves nearby drew his head up. Blue eyes went on alert and he tugged his pants on quickly. He pulled a blanket over his wife and picked up his gun, easing himself out of the wagon. He relaxed when the riders appeared.

"What's wrong?"

"Where is Antonina?" Alexi demanded, eyeing the slightly disheveled state of his son-in-law.

"She's asleep," Vin replied. "Tell me what's wrong."

"Pack your things, we are leaving."

"Leavin'?" Vin shook his head. "We got a few more days o'campin' planned. I ain't leavin'."

"You will do as I say!" Alexi ordered, leaning over the pommel of the horse... "There is trouble here. The locals have found out about us and are on their way to the camp. They have guns and more numbers than we are prepared to... handle. The little ones, the children, could be shot or worse..."

"Aw, hell," Vin hissed, still seeing the pretty faces of the small children he'd danced with on his wedding night. They were his family and he'd protect them. "Alright, I'll pack up and bring 'er back to the camp."

"I am sorry, Salbatore, but there is no other way. We must move on and cross into Mexico tonight if we are to escape with our lives."

"S'okay." Vin nodded, raking a hand through his tangled long hair. "We got a lot o'ground t'cover iffen we're gonna cross that river by dark. I'll be there in an hour."

"Good, I think maybe we should send four or five of the men to take the women and children ahead. That way if they catch up, we can remain behind to fight."

"So they can be safe." Vin thought of his pretty bride at the brutal hands of some of the bigots in the territory and shuddered. "We should be able to git 'em over by sunset." Vin offered with his hand.

Alexi just nodded ,shook the hand given and turned away, riding a short distance into the woods. He turned back at the crest of the hill and watched the handsome young man packing up their camp. It was true that his cousins were escorting the woman and children across the river first. What the unsuspecting chosen one didn't know was that the elders along with his mother would remain behind. They were preparing the altar for the ceremony to be performed at midnight. All his life he'd waited for this moment and the rush of excitement it caused stirred his blood.

"For you my son, I hope you enjoy the sun leaving tonight, for it will be your last sunset."

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Judge Orrin Travis was still documenting the Yates investigation when a knock sounded on the door. He pushed his spectacles back and picked up his pocket watch. He was at his daughter-in-laws house using the desk in the spare room he stayed in. It was almost four o'clock and he'd been waiting all afternoon for word to arrive back from one of the peacekeepers about their missing leader.

"Who is it?"

"It's me, Orrin."

"Mary?" He rose and crossed the room, opening the door to reveal his Mary's worried face... "Any news?"

"Not yet," she replied. "You've been working all afternoon. You need a break, I have fresh coffee."

"Alright."

He followed her into the kitchen and sat at the table. In the corner was the small highchair his son Stephen made for Billy when he first learned Mary was expecting. He missed Stephen terribly, more so that he would ever admit to anyone. He wasn't one to show emotion and the loss of his only child was very painful....

Mary turned to see her father-in-law's hand tracing the delicate curves in the back of the highchair . She'd never part with it, it was much to special to her. She still recalled the glow of anticipated fatherhood in her husband's eyes when he'd presented it to her. She turned back, giving Orrin a chance to grieve again. Often she'd see him pick up something of Stephen's and examine it, the look in his eyes was too painful to visit. She couldn't imagine burying Billy...

"I'm sure Chris is okay, maybe his horse went lame. It's along walk, he'd have to camp out."

"Maybe." Orrin retracted his hand and folded them on the table loosely. "But three days is a long time."

Mary nodded mutely, watching out of the window to the road that led out of town. After updating the other men earlier that day, they'd split up. Nathan and Ezra were taking the main road back to Eagles Bend, retracing the path Chris should have taken. Josiah was taking a short cutoff from the main road that skirted past the ranches in the outlying areas. If Chris had been hurt, he might have sought help there. Buck and J.D were going in the opposite direction, heading out to Chris's to talk to Vin. Maybe Chris was injured and road home. Maybe Vin was caring for him and couldn't leave.

"Maybe." She shook her head, her light eyes full of worry. "...but maybe not..."

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"VIN!"

Buck eased off his horse and followed J.D.'s call into the cabin. The young sheriff called out to Tanner several times. The rogue paused by the side of Larabee's cabin and frowned. He moved to the sideyard and found Vin's horse grazing in the coral. It was a small and sturdy one, Vin and he had both helped Chris build it, along with the barn that now stood next to the house. The rogue's long strides quickly took him to the barn. He thrust the door open and peered inside but found it empty.

"Buck, he's not here," J.D. called out from the back door off of Chris's bedroom.

"Maybe he's down by the creek," Buck offered, striding towards the back door.

"I don't think so," J.D. answered, moving back towards the kitchen with Buck on his trail. He squatted by the hearth and moved his hand into the fireplace. "It's cold Buck, no ashes, no cinders... no fire in a long time. It was freezing last night, he'd never have slept here without a fire."

"He's got to be here," Buck supplied, moving to the small table nearby. He picked up the familiar hide coat in one hand and the mare's leg in the other. "He'd never leave these behind."

"Unless he didn't a choice."

"Damn," Buck sighed hard at J.D.'s answer. He put the items back down and shook his dark head. He knew all to well the weight of the bounty that Vin bore and just how many bloodthirty bastards would kill him for that money.

"What the hell's going on, Buck? First Chris is missing, now Vin?"

"I don't know, Kid," Buck answered, "but I aim to find out. You ride back and update the judge. Then head out to Harper's, Josiah outta be there by now, it's the last ranch. You get him and let 'im know what's goin' on."

"Okay," Dunne exited the cabin and walked toward their horses. "Where you gonna be?"

"Only road left is the one that leads to the river near the border."

"You think some of them enemies Vin's brought in when he was bounty huntin' caught up to him?"

"Maybe," Buck stated, checking his saddle bags. "I'm gonna get some of the bandages, food and stuff from the cabin. I might need 'em. You and Josiah get back here and pick up my trail as soon as you can, okay?"

"Okay," J.D. tipped his hat and road back to town.

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It was nearly dark when Ezra and Nathan met up with Josiah on the main road... The traveling pair had journeyed to Eagles Bend and inquired in town about Larabee, but noone had seen him. So they ate a fast dinner and were halfway home when they saw the large form of the preacher approaching. The trio halted in the middle of the dusty trail.

"Anything?" Josiah asked the pair who shook their heads.

"Nobody's seen 'im," the healer replied,. "I don't like it. I got a bad feelin'"

"I'd have to agree with Mister Jackson's premonition, however premature. I fear something indeed has happened to our fearless leader," Standish supplied and eyed the silent preacher. "Suggetions?"

"Well none of the ranchers have seen him and he didn't come this way," Sanchez answered. "Maybe Buck got lucky."

"Since none of us have encountered him on any of the roads taken, I suggest we head back in a new direction."

"Ezra you got a good point," Josiah replied. "There's a fork ahead about ten miles or so. It skirts the border area and the river."

"It might be that Chris was attacked by the unsavory elements who thrive in this area," Standish agreed.

"Could be he's hurt, unable tah git tah help," Jackson surmised...

"Let's ride," Josiah echoed, leading the others towards the path that none of them could know was the same one their missing leader disappeared on.

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It was twilight and the sky painted a rich shade of deep blue. In the background, the wagons bearing the women and children were pulling out, preparing to cross the river. A handful of men, including Vin and his father-in-law were remaining behind to safeguard their departure. Vin took Nina's hand and led her down a path to a private area near a group of trees. He brushed the hair from her face and caressed the top of her cheekbone with his thumb. Her sharp inhalation of breath was his open invite. He kissed her long and hard, pulling her close and molding her against him. His hands cupped her firm backside, kneading each globe and causing him to groan. Finally, they broke apart.

"Ya mind the little ones and watch out fer yerself. I'll come over as soon as we're sure it's safe. Yer Pa seems awful worried about trouble."

"He is responsible for all of us, it's a large burden to carry. We've buried too many of our family at the expense of small minded Americans with loud guns."

"I won't let nuthin' happen t'ya, ya got m'word. I'll kill the first bastard who even looks at ya crooked." Vin vowed, holding her close and breathing in the sweet, musky scent that clung to her. He moved his lips to her neck and nibbled a bit, letting his hand move under her blouse. That was followed by another lingering kiss.

"I got somethin' fer ya," Vin rasped huskily, swiping saliva from his lip... He patted his pocket and frowned. "Hell... left it at the wagon. Ya wait right here!" He tapped her nose with his finger and grinned. "I lined up this moonbeam just to bathe ya in."

"Do you know how much I love you?" she replied, kissing his palm and earning a blush. "Go... I grow hungry for another kiss." The smile he left her with and that devilish glint in his blue eyes promised a very passionate reunion... She kept a twin smile as she watchd him disappear into the brush.

"Vin?"

The weak call of her husband's voice from behind alarmed her. She turned slowly as a haggard, dirty man with a grubby beard staggered out of the brush... She backed up, her eyes darting to the path where Vin had gone just moments before. The man met her eyes and although he was clearly sick or injured, there was nothing but danger shining back at her from two piercing green eyes. The glint grew more ominus as he approached, causing her to back into a tree.

"Please... leave... do not come any closer..."

"Talk to me lady... what the hell is going on here?" Chris demanded. "That was Vin Tanner. What's he doing here?"

Chris had paused to catch his breath, holding onto the tree in order to remain upright. He'd seen Tanner kissing and touching this pretty woman. He'd heard enough to theorize that Vin was not escorting them to the border, he'd joined them. The gnawing sensation in he belly intensified and he knew something was terribly wrong. He didn't trust these people and had to find out what Vin was doing. He was relieved to see his best friend alive but puzzled by his strange actions.

"Leave now, I warn you. He will not like it, if he returns and you are here." She urged, pushing against his chest and trying to steer him clear...

"Look lady, I've been bushwacked and beat up, walkin' on this road for God knows how many days looking for Vin. I know he's in trouble, something's wrong. His life is in danger. Now just what the hell have you done to him?" He saw her eyes shift and experience told him she was hiding something. "Don't even think about lying, I can smell it..." He growled, grabbing her arms.

"Please, my father is close by, he has a terrible temper. He will kill you if..."

"Alexi Miklos..."

"You... you... know my... father?" She was surprised

"I warned him what would happen if he messed with my people." Chris growled, "Now I want some answers. Did he hurt Vin? Is he responsible for Vin going to Mexico with you? Do you his life isn't safe there? There are lots of men living there that want to kill him?"

"No... no..." she denied, but was so afraid of the strength this man possessed it caused her to shudder. Tears filled her eyes as she thought of the sweet days she'd shared with her beloved. "Please," she begged. "He is so happy with me, leave us alone. We will not bother you. My people can protect him... no one will hurt him. Just go and leave us..."

"You are lying," he accused and saw the light of deceit in her eyes. "I'm gonna ask you one more time, lady. What the hell have you done to him?"

"My father was right, you and the other people from the town want to kill us. You're animals."

"Town?" Larabee's weak voice rose in incredulation. He shook her slightly, as the shadows in the night spelled trouble for his best friend. Once again, his gut feelings had proven true. Maybe Miklos saw Vin's face on a poster on their way across the west. Five hundred dollars was a lot of money for a man supporting a whole tribe. Or maybe a private hunter in Mexico was paying more. Whatever the gyspy had planne, the determined gunslinger was going to find out. "The only towns near here on the other side in Mexico. Your father lied... He's getting you out of the way so you won't see what he is going to do to Vin."

"You are hurting me!" she whined, tears lining her cheeks.

"I haven't even begun to hurt you yet and I want an answer."

Vin was still wearing that lovestruck grin as he walked quietly back to where he left his wife. The word still sounded strange to him and the idea of being a husband hadn't had time to settle in. Seeing the small children in the wagon led him to a thought in the distant future. His beautiful Nina nursing their own child with him holding them close. He examined the wooden heart he'd carved for her and suspended from a leather boot lace. It wasn't fancy but he'd but his heart into it. He'd even smoothed it out so it felt as silky as her hair. He paused at the edge of the break, just as the threat hit his ears. A fire exploded inside of him the likes of which he'd never known. Animal lust took over, creating a passion in him and a feral beast inside. A strange man was roughing up his wife and threatening her. His father-in-laws warning came back, echoing in his ears.

"I'll give ya an answer."

Chris's blood chilled to the bone when the Texan's voice hit his ears. Not just any voice, one as sharp as a knife and twice as deadly. He turned around slowly, not releasing his grip on the terrified girl, she was his only bargaining chip. He'd known this man long enough to feel and sense most of his moods. He'd seen those emotive eyes go from warm blue to icy steel. The hue that possessed them now was as dangerous as any predator he'd ever encountered... The slim fingers were gripped on the hilt of a long, curved blade. One that Chris knew Vin would not hesitate to use to defend the woman he now held..

"I'll carve in yer back," Vin growled, slowly raising the blade. "Git yer filthy paws off 'er."

"Look Vin, take it easy, I won't hurt either of you. It's me, Chris. Vin look at me... you know me..."

"I won't warn ya again ya mangy bastard," Vin seethed, moving closer. "Ya let 'er go or I'll carve ya from yer neck to yer balls."

"Okay, Vin," Chris said, moving back and taking the girl with him. But he stumbled on a rock and lost his balance. That was enough for her to shove off and run to Vin.

"He hurt me... he hurt me," she sobbed against his chest...

"Here," Vin used his left hand to drape the heart around her neck. His fingers moved her peasant blouse sleeve up and the distinct mark of a man's hand was imprinted on her. He kicked the struggling man hard in the gut, causing him to fall again. "Go git yer Pa, looks like he was right."

Nina wasted no time in scurrying back down the path. Vin knelt down and turned the man over, straddling his chest. His lip curled up in anger and disgust. He yanked the matted blond hair hard, hitting the head against the ground. He pressed the blade of the knife against the man's throat, causing a pearl drop of blood to be born.

"Who the hell are ya?" Vin demanded, wondering how the man know his name.

"You tell me, Vin." Chris choked, trying desperately to figure out a way to get through to the virtual stranger. He never realized until this moment just how deadly a force Tanner was. But his plea fell on deaf ears. Vin had pinned both his arms down with his knees so there was no way to grab a rock or tree to dispell him. Too many days of walking injured living on berries and small game left him too weak to throw the irate Texan off. "Larabee." He waited but there was nothing but contempt in the eyes looking at him. "Chris Larabee... Don't do this, Vin. These people are using you, they're gonna kill you..."

"Shut up!" Vin snarled, flicking the knife along the prisoner's collarbone and causing a cry of pain and a welt of blood. "Now I ain't in a good mood and yer fryin' m'last nerve. Badmouthin' m'family weren't yer brightest moment," Vin snapped, then thought of the marks on his wife's arms that the brute left. "Yer first mistake was wandering in here where ya don't belong, threatenin' m'kin. Yer last one was markin' my wife." Vin accused, slicing the neck of the ragged shirt open with one deft flick of the wrist.

"Wife?" Chris's gasp came in a stunned voice laced with shock, which was reflected in his widened eyes. "Vin... no..." was all he uttered. The eyes above him were black with lost rage and that of a total stranger. Chris was so stunned by the events, he didn't see the blade until it was too late and the pain exploded...

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Buck Wilmington shivered and pulled his heavy tan coat closer, closing the top to protect his exposed throat. The wind kicked up and howled over the full moon. He was grateful for that, it bathed the path in a bright silver light... This area along the river that bordered Mexico was as dangerous a place for a man riding alone. Coupled with the fact it was Halloween didn't help. He' been riding for several hours and following a trail. Just as the wind picked up again, screaming at him, something appeared in the road ahead. He urged his horse forward and halted by the crumpled item...

"What the hell?"

Buck knew that duster before he had it in full view. It was as familiar to him as his own clothes. He checked it carefully, glad to see no bullet holes or knife marks. But the rough stain by the back collar and down onto the shoulder to him looked like dry blood. He bent down and peered closely at the ground, then saw the mark of a man's boots. Had Larabee been attacked and forced to walk? Or had he fought off his assailants and was seeking help. Had he been robbed and left for dead?...

"Only one way to find out," he answered his errant thoughts and tied the duster to the horse before setting out to follow the trail.

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A strange male's scream of pain followed by his mother's cries of distress brought the leader of the gypsy's feet moving swiftly ahead. Alexi got to the clearing just in time to see a bloody knife rise just past his son-in-law's shoulder. His mother had met Antonina first and come ahead. She was now behind Salbatore, tugging on his arm. Somebody was pinned beneath the angry young man and the path the blade would follow next would be a fatal one...

"Salbatore you must not do this, I beg of you," the old lady again tried to pull his arm.

"Git offa me," Vin shoved her aside and eyed the unconscious blond man beneath him. "He attacked Nina, he marked 'er. I'm gonna cut 'im open and lay 'im out."

"No, Alexi, you must stop him. That is the other one, the bloodtie. If he dies by Salbatore's hand, all could be lost. Do something... quickly."

Vin yelped and grabbed his wrist when a sharp hand grabbed and twisted it... He was yanked to his feel and pulled back hard by superhuman strength. He struggled in vain and the arm now wrapped around his waist was cutting off his air, nearly crushing him. He fought hard but felt himself growing weaker, as the stitches in his healing side began to pop open. He dropped the knife and was released, dropping to the ground on all fours. For several moments he sucked air noisly, heaving as black spots danced before his eyes...

"We will deal with him later," Alexi warned the shaken body by his feet. "Did I not tell you they would be coming? We can question him and find out how many there are and where they are. Your job is to make sure the woman and children are safe. Did I not tell you?"

"Yeah, but," Vin gasped and tried to get the knife again. The dark boot that kicked it further away had an owner with equally dark eyes. For a moment, Vin swore they glowed red. He shook his head and blinked, dispelling the odd sight. "He hurt Nina, nobody cuts 'im but me."

"Very well, just get back to the camp. We will tie him up and bring him. Go now, you have work to do.."

Reluctantly, Vin stood and walked past the stilled figure in black rags. He cocked his head and felt and odd tingling sensation in his gut. For a fleeting second, he wanted to reach out when the body was turned over and the hands mercilessly tied behind his back. But then it was gone, he moved past without looking back.

"That was close," Alexi warned his cousin, backhanding him hard enough to send him spinning. "I thought you took care of him many miles ago. What happened?"

"I did," Nicolai replied, "It is impossible that he survived. You saw his horse, you know how far away I left him. With the fall he took it is not possible for him to have done this."

"Yet he is here!" Alexi thundered, jerking a finger at the other man. "Once the ceremony is done, you will slit his throat and I will have no more excuses."

"Still he bleeds too much." Anya updated her son from where she peered down at the stilled blond man. "You need to close the wound, he cannot die yet."

"The fire at the camp will take care of that." Alexi ground his hand into the wound, grinning when the unconscious man cried out. He licked the blood from his hand and stood up. He nodded to the other men nearby. "Take him to the camp and keep him covered. The other one must not see him,understood?"

"Yes, yes," Nicolai and two other men lifted the prisoner and took him away.

"Your cry startled him," Alexi noted of the wound near the man's shoulder. "or this would have been fatal."

"Come, my son, it is time to prepare." Anya turned back towards the camp. "You will feed Salbatore and give him the sweet water. I will prepare the altar and the sacred cloth. Then you will bring him to me and we will dine on his blood."

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The night wore on and the sky was now pitch black. The only light guiding the long traveler on the deserted and dangerous road was the largest silver moon he'd ever seen. Buck Wilmington was a not a religious man but he was praying as he rode along. Something was not at all well in the air tonight. He felt... a chill in his bones like he'd never experienced . It seemed the woods around him were alive and every sound was magnified. He paused by an old shack and dismounted, quickly entering the rough hewn building...

"...ain't been long..." he noted of the cooled embers in the crude fireplace. The bones of a small animal were lying in a heap. An unidentifyable pelt was tossed in the corner. He squatted just outside the door and stared at the boot mark. It was the same and looked to be the size of Chris's foot. If it was Larabee, he was still alive or had been not to long ago. As he approached his horse the silence was torn by a gut-wrenching scream in the distance. The still of the night and the wind carried it to him.

"What in the name of all that's holy..." Buck whispered, stunned by the scream of agony. It could have been his overworked imagination, but he felt sure it was Chris Larabee's anguished call that split the night air. He wasted no time in mounting his horse and speeding ahead.

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Buck was not the only one disturbed by the scream. Vin vaulted to his feet and ran to the tent where he'd seen the prisoner had been dumped. He tried to enter but three guards stood in his path...

"The hell did ya do to 'im?" Vin demanded. "He's mine, I claimed 'im."

"He lives still. The wound was bleeding too much. Alexi closed it with gunpowder and fire." Nicolai updated. "Your dinner waits, you are not yet healed and need your strength."

Vin wasn't entiretly sure that the other man was speaking the whole truth, but he was hungry. He'd not eaten since breakfast and it had been a long day... He gingerly rubbed his side, where the healing skin had split. Although he didn't think it had bled, it was a little sticky and sore. His whole ribcage was sore from the brutal grip of his father-in-law, although not broken his ribs were badly bruised. He'd have his grandmother look at it later. He paused by the fire and ladled himself a bowl of stew. He grabbed some bread and sat down near the fire to eat. He thought it was odd the others were not closer to the fire. It was a cold night and he basked in the warmth the fire gave. They chose to remain further away in the shadows.

As he ate, he thought on the last few hours. The woman and children were across the river in Mexico, escorted by the younger males. Except for him, the men remaining were all older; the next younger to him was by his eye, well past forty. They seemed especially restless, moving about in the dark and stirring up the brush. He had a feeling something was going to happen very soon; the air seemed tinged with a life of it's own....

He paused during the meal and eyed the jug of cold water his father-in-law left. He uncorked it and took a swig, killing the fiery aftertaste of the very spicy stew. The water was very sweet but Vin was so thirsty he didn't care... By the time his meal was done the jug was empty. He felt so tired, he feared he'd drift off to sleep so he stood up, stretching and yawning. As he moved around to stir some life in his bones, his eyes went to the prisoner's tent again...

Since the raggedy man had been tossed inside the tent, he'd been unable to shake the pins and needles that nipped at his neck and spine. Try as he might he couldn't lose the odd feeling in his gut that the echo of the raspy voice left him with. The fever-laden green eyes haunted him, as did the name. He repeated it over in his mind, rolling the words around. As his legs grew heavy, he found a spot by the nearest tree. He rested his back and a sharp flash in time caused him to gasp. The same green eyes over a clean-shaven, handsome face half hidden under a wide brimmed black hat. The lean body was eased against a post outside a saloon. The lips turned up into a crooked grin and two words were issued- words that cut hard into him and caused his heart to tremble.

"Hey, cowboy"

"Chris..." he gasped in a slobbery slurred voice, his half-closed eyes flickering with shock...

He slid sideways and landed on his back. He tried to stand but found he couldn't move at all. His bleary eyes rolled left and right as the shadows grew taller and the figures approaching more distorted. His brows knitted over his confused blues as someone knelt over him. He squinted weakly, repulsed by the beast's features. The dark eyes of the hairy thing seemed familiar and the features under the hair were human but the yellow fangs and long nails on the hairy fingers weren't. Had he fallen asleep? Was this a nightmare? It had to be for these creatures could not be human...

His breathing became labored and his fine features were covered in a thin sheen of sweat. He struggled so hard to move, his heart hurt but the only thing he could do was blink. He tried to pull away when the hairy paw ripped at his shirt, tearing it from his chest. His eyes darted frantically as other man-beasts surrounded him, their eyes glowing red. His jaw trembled and his lips moved, trying to call out for help. He blinked stupidly at the beast, wondering what it wanted. He was helpless and unable to move at all; totally at their mercy. He was dizzy and felt sick, bile rose and he coughed weakly, gagging on his supper. With a flick of it's paw, the man-beast flipped him over one huge arm, allowing the vomit to exit. His head hurt and he felt himself falling into a dark pit. He was only vaguely aware of being carried, his blurred vision only saw the moon peeking through the trees. He faded a bit and then pulled his eyes into slits when he was placed on something hard and cold. He was dimly aware of his boots and pants being removed. He began to shiver and... saw the old woman bend over him, stroking his head.

"Soon you will sleep, Salbatore, but now you must be readied before the full moon crests directly above. This night of all souls during the full moon is one which your fate will be sealed.. For you are the chosen one and this is the altar on which you will be sacrificed. Your blood will fill the sacred cup, your heart will be devoured and your soul will be taken as it was fortold."...

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Like a limp ragdoll, he was unable to do anything as the old woman spoke. He heard every word and his his heart was pounding wildly. His frantic eyes moved to the hairy beasts with red eyes and steely long talons that circled the odd stone table on which he rested. By his eye, they stood ten to twelve feet tall, thrusting their heads up and howling to the moon.

"Ah, the full moon," she answered of the fear mixed with curiousity in the dulled eyes moving to the pack around the altar. "that is why the woman and young ones are not here. Only the males in the clan over the age of twenty are affected by the curse. We have survived these many centuries drinking the blood of the valient and harvesting their souls. But you," she paused to stroke his face again, then rested her hand on his heart. "...are the Salbatore, the chosen one we have waited for. I will annoint you with the sacred oil and then we will begin."

Vin's confused mind couldn't determine if this was real or not. If it was a dream, he wanted to fade away to a dreamless sleep and end the horrific sight. But he remained in a semi-conscious state, totally paralyzed. He felt the old woman's hands moving over him and the oily substance she pressed into his skin was warm and had a bitter smell. By the time she touched his heart with the strange oil, he was barely awake. His heavy eyes watched as the creatures surrounded the crude altar. Their matted heads tossed in excitement and one bent down to lick the blood that seeped from his wound. The beast was harshly corrected by the tallest and darkest one, who growled and hit him hard...

"Now Salbatore, the ceremony will begin," the old lady brushed the stray hair from his handsome face. "It will be better if you relax, your fate it sealed and you need not worry anymore," she reassured, pulling a silken blanket from his ankles to his chest. There were holes cut out by his midsection for two of the six annointed areas. The others were above and below the sacred cloth.

Maybe he was already dead. That had to be the answer. This couldn't be real. It seemed all his senses were closing down. The only sound he could hear was his own heartbeat and harsh breathing. Heartbeat? He wasn't dead then was he? It was all so confusing and he was so tired. He wanted to go to sleep but his eyes just wouldn't shut. His fuzzy eyes followed a golden cup as it was lifted above his chest. The words she spoke were strange to him and very gutteral. The other creatures grew excited, howling and moving about. He felt a pinch of pain by his ankle and felt his foot lifted. His eyes widened a bit as blood seeped from the wound into the golden cup. He moved his eyes above then and began to pray for God to forgive him. He felt the cold hands of death gripping him. The mangy blond man reappeared in his mind's eyes and those green eyes ripped into his heart. His mind sent out the heartfelt apology his lips were to weak to utter.

"I'm sorry cowboy."

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"Josiah, hold it," Nathan hollered over the loud wind...

"What?" the preacher called back and saw Ezra standing by a small tree

"This is Buck's," Standish called out, shivering under the cold wind. "I might add this is a night not fit for man nor beast to be outdoors."

"You don't have anything to fear, brother," Josiah teased as he walked over... He clapped a hand on the bright green coat and winked. "The undead won't be intersted in your soul, only pure ones."

"Your humor is in a sadder state than my freezing assets," Ezra muttered... "He's been here, this is his."

"You sure?" Josiah untied the long red cloth...

"A gift from a paramour of the night," Standish replied, flipping over the end. "It was made from her 'lucky drawers' as Mister Wilmington bragged."

"I told yuh that boy was lucky," Nathan observed. "He must have found Chris..."

"...or he's trying to..." Ezra moved away from the tree and lit a match. He held it over the road where fresh marks by a horse were following a pair of wayward boot marks. Before any of the three could comment, a bloodcurlding howl chased over the wind.

"What the hell is that?" Nathan's head turned and he eyed the blackness ahead through a thick patch of woods. "They got wolves here?"

"Don't sound like any wolf I've ever heard," Josiah noted, climbing onto his horse...

"Nor I," Ezra managed, as the odd howling continued and caused him to shiver. "I don't know if we're adequately prepared to encounter that unearthly breed."

"And you being an expert on all that's unearthly?" Josiah shook his head. "You want to stay here alone, go ahead. We'll collect whatever's left of you when we come back." He turned and followed Nathan, glancing back once when Erza's soft curse as he got back on his horse ensured they would remain united.

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She crept from the river, having skillfully crossed on a shallow path of rocks that jutted through the dark water. She waited until they were all asleep and followed her heart. The words of the stranger troubled her greatly. Why would this man come into their camp unarmed? He had to know it would end in him being killed. Why would he sacrifice so much for Vin? Someone who would give their life like that only came from a heart that loved greatly. Her father's odd behavior and her grandmother's strange actions over the last week troubled her as well. Was the stranger right? Was her beloved in trouble? She had to find out what they were hiding. She paused by the place where the camp had been and frowned. It was empty but she heard strange chanting and growling noises. She crept through the woods and paused in shock at the scene across the way. Her beloved was lying on a rocky altar and surrounded by horrid beasts. She saw her grandmother holding a golden cup over him and she closed her eyes, shaking her head. It was true, the whispered tales she'd heard and never dared repeat about the curse of the full moon. She wouldn't let them kill her beloved. She moved closer to hear what her grandmother was saying.

"...once the six annointed points have been cut and blood drawn, we will drink from the cup. Then it will be time to cut out the heart of the chosen one and eat it, thus releasing the curse of the moon. As for his widow," she picked up an ornate box red and gold with many jewels on it. "My magic is strong and once she breathes in the mists of time in this box, she will forget him and all else. Thus we begin..." She held a jeweled dagger and moved it deftly over his right ankle, gashing it....

"No... no..." Nina shook her head and her beloved Vin's stuperous face. He'd been drugged and was unable to escape. She couldn't let him die, but she couldn't get to him. Unless...

Chris blinked and moaned when his face was slapped hard. He scowled and tried to blink past the badly tied scarf on his eyes to see which of the gypsies was back to torture him. His shoulder was throbbing and raw where the stab wound was burned shut. His lower back felt like there was a large knife embedded in it and his chest hurt. He turned his face away when the blindfold was removed and blinked quickly, adjusting to the near darkness. He felt his bound hands untied and someone with very small hands rubbing his wrists.

"Please... you must not sleep. They will kill him... please... I beg you to forgive me. Do not let him die... please..."

"Who... what..." Chris croaked, his throat on fire...

"Here... hurry... we have no time." She eased him up and held a canteen to his cracked lips. "You were right. I am so sorry. My father... is cursed. He and the others..." she helped him to stand and steadied him, then handed him a gun. "It's all I could find, it has only three bullets. He's not moving... they have cut him to drink his blood and..."

"What... the hell... talking about?" Chris slurred, fighting waves of nausea and a fever....

"I told you," she led him towards the odd sight. "They are cursed, the men... at the rise of the full moon. They turn into beasts. Tonight is the night of All Hallows Eve. We, the women , were never told but we heard whispers... When All Hallows Eve falls on the full moon at midnight only can the curse be lifted. I'm not sure why the took my Vin but... they are going to cut his heart and eat it."...

"Like hell they are!" Chris sucked a long breath in, squared his throbbing shoulder and tried to steady his grip on the gun. "Jesus..."

Although he'd only half believed the story she told, he had words for the sight a few yards before him. Indeed, Vin was lying helpless and unmoving on a group of flat rocks. He was bleeding from twin wounds on the outside of each ankle and just above his hips. The blade fell again then as he watched, just at the top of Vin's shoulder. The heavy-lidded eyes didn't flinch, nor did his best friend move. He'd apparently been heavily drugged and was unaware of much of what was going on...

The creatures around the table were about ten feet tall and very restless... They shook their shaggy heads and howled, tossing their taloned claws in front of them. He could see humanlike features on their faces and they stood upright like men, but were covered in thick dark fur. Even if he was close enough, three bullets weren't enough and one swipe of the talon would rip Vin's throat out. He sagged against the tree, desperately trying to figure out a plan before it was too late. The old lady was pressing each of the wounds and filling a golden cup. He knew the next step was the last one, where Vin's heart would be carved out.

"Please... stop them."

"How?" Chris hissed, waving the gun. The tears running down her face and the raw emotion in the dark eyes told him whatever the story was, she really loved Vin. Hell, she was willing to see her own family killed to save him. He needed an allie like that if they were to get out of this mess. "Three bullets wouldn't stop them. Even if I hit three of them, your grandmother has the knife at his throat, not to mention those claws."

His words were to her but his eyes never left the body on the rocks. Vin's life was about to end in the most horrible way possible and he would be forced to witness it. Three bullets... three lousy bullets against a pack of hairy wolfmen. It came to him then and he cocked his head, then grabbed her wrist.

"I got an idea but we need to move fast!" He whispered, eyes flicking to the knife now poised over Vin's bare chest. "Hurry," he hushed, leading her back to the camp.

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Weak and dizzy, Vin was unable to hear the voices anymore. The knife above his eyes seemed very far away. The aged face of the woman holding it began to disappear into a tunnel. He didn't feel the mark of an 'x' in his own blood cross his heart. He didn't hear the howling of the manbeasts that encircled him. He didn't see the gleam of naked desire in the old lady's eyes as the knife was waved three times around his head. He was mercifully unconscious.

Just as Anya made the first cut of flesh above the chosen one's heart, a flamed torch sailed through the air, hitting the pelt of the guardian by Salbatore's feet. He screamed as his body began to burn and caused the others to scatter from the circle. Two more flamed torches hit the figures and she began to scream at them.

"No... no... do not panic, the circle must not be broken!" She turned to her son who was leaping as flames danced by his feet. "Alexi, hurry..." she implored, turning back to her work. But something very hard hit the back of her head, causing the knife to skitter off the side of his chest by his arm and fall to the ground. She fell over, hitting the ground hard and staring in disbelief at her granddaughter. "You foolish child, you do not know what you have done!"

"I have saved the life of the man I love," Nina replied, hovering protectively over her bleeding husband. She turned with fear in her eyes when a huge beast backhanded her hard, ripping her throat out and sending her to the ground...

Chris didn't have time to react to the grissly act he'd just witnessed. The acrid scent of the burning animals filled the air. Two were bent over Vin, each sucking at the blood flowing. The largest one now held the knife over Vin's chest. Chris didn't have time to think, he sucked in all the air he could and moved in one fluid motion, leaping at the creature as the blade fell.

Part Six

Buck swallowed his fear as the unearthly howling increased with every mile he passed. He came to a clearing where a tent stood and a fire glowed. As he began to climb down to check, he heard screaming and smelled the unmistaken odor of burning flesh. He jumped down, grabbed his rifle and ran ahead, following the hair-raising sounds. He paused at the edge if the camp, his stunned eyes not sure where to rest. His mouth gaped in shock and horror and the hideous side before him. Numb with disbelief, he quickly recovered when he saw two familiar bodies nearby.

Vin Tanner was lying on a crude altar, covered in a bloody cloth a trio of hairy beasts were pawing at him. They looked like wolves but stood upright like a man. The largest of the trio turned to stare at him, it's eyes glowing a feral red. Chris Larabee's body was covering the Texan's chest. A golden dagger with jewels on the hilt as sticking out of Chris's back near the shoulder. In the span of a few seconds that Larabee had perhaps given his own life to save his best friend's.

"Jesus... sweet Jesus," Buck muttered, backing up and raising the rifle.

He fired twice but the beast just paused as if they were pebbles. Buck continued to fire, even after one of the others launched itself at him, gashing his thigh with it's steely claw . This caused him to stumble and send a bullet into Tanner's leg. He swung his rifle at the smaller pair, who were each clawing at him. He grunted and swung the rifle hard, hitting one in the head and stunning it. His eyes saw the large leader pull the knife from Chris's back and shove the blond man off of the altar with one mighty swipe. Buck's eyes saw the odd mark on Vin's chest and the line of blood running from it. He knew where that knife was headed and why it had been embedded in Chris's back. He charged the animal, using the only weapon he had - himself. It only stunned the beast, who flicked him off like a fly. Buck's frantic eyes took in the ground near where he lay. He picked up a burning torch of sorts and pulled himself up, ignoring the blood running down his thigh.

"Get away from him you hairy bastard!" He screamed throwing the torch into the beast's face. It was enough to startle the large creature, who dropped the knife to shield it's eyes. The both stared at it for several seconds, eyes locked and chests heaving in effort. Then Buck made his move and the beast moved too, picking up a large box and hurling at him. It crashed into the altar at the same time the bleeding rogue got the knife. Thick blue smoke filled the air, causing a bitter cloud that choked him. He grabbed the knife and turned, holding it up to protect himself just as the beast hurled himself at him, embedding himself on the knife. Buck only saw the animal stagger briefly, before it's piercing scream filled the air, just as an explosion sounded, sending him into oblivion.

The curse had indeed been broken but not as the people seeking it had thought. The greatest sacrifice a man can make is to give his life for his brother. By offering the ultimate sacrifice, Chris Larabee had broken the curse and released the trapped souls of the cursed tribe. When that box shattered and the knife pierced the heart of the head of the clan, they disappered leaving only the traces of blue smoke in their wake and three bleeding humans.

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"What the hell was that?" Nathan screamed at the others.

"Explosion and close by," Josiah replied, urging his horse forward.

"There... there... What on earth?" Ezra puzzled at the large amount of bright blue smoke rising above the area ahead.

"Not likely from earth," Josiah answered, "not on this night..."

They rode into the camp and through it quickly, finally stopping at the staggering sight before them. The missing man along with his two closest friends were lying in a bloody heap. Buck was face down, his left thigh saturated in blood. Chris was on his back, nearly unrecognizable. His dark clothes were tattered and filthy, his face covered with blood, bruises, grime and a beard. But it was the unmoving nearly naked form of their tracker lying on a crude altar with a bloody cloth on him that rendered them speechless.

The shook off their shock and each dismounted, taking the shortest path to the nearest victim. Three sets of concerned faces wore determined masks as they gently examined their injured friends.

Josiah was disturbed by the altar and on this night, what Vin's body represented. As he bent over the stilled form of Chris Larabee, he flicked his eyes to the healer whose skilled hand now rested on Tanner's throat. He saw Nathan close his eyes and sigh in relief, upon finding the pulse he sought. The preacher also found life's blood running through Chris Larabee's veins and raised his smokey eyes skyward, giving thanks to a higher source. One he felt sure protected his friends on this unholy night.

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"Good Lord," Ezra cried out, jumping from his horse and racing to Buck Wilmington, who was the closest to him. "Buck?" He turned the body over and found the thigh sodden with blood. His hand went to the throat and he sighed. "He's alive, but bleeding badly. Nathan?" He asked of the healer now bending over Vin Tanner.

"Alive, cut up good and he's got a bullet in his leg, but he's breathing good." He paused, examining the odd bleeding marks. He knew the rocks the naked tracker was lying on was an altar. "Sacrifice on Halloween. What the hell did they stumble into?" He took off his kerchief, ripped it and retied it around Vin's leg.

"What hell did you go through my friend," Josiah asked quietly at the bloodied body of Chris Larabee.

He had a bleeding wound on his back and another that had been cauterized on his shoulder. But what caught the large man's heart, was the desparately worn face. The matted hair and beard, along with grime and filth covering every inch of him. He gently laid Chris down and picked up his hand. The fingernails were broken and torn painted with dried blood. He'd no doubt that Larabee had journeyed through Hell to get to Vin Tanner. He wondered about that gift the two shared, each seeming to be connected to the other's soul. He eyed the odd scene and thought that maybe in the end, that is what saved them. Somethings are better left to a higher source to answer. They were all alive and that was enough. He gripped the warrior's battered badge of honor with pride and took pause to reflect on courage displayed so nobly. It wasn't often he had the opportunity to witness such a sight and it humbled him.

"My God," Ezra observed, standing over Josiah's shoulder. "It appears as if he battled the devil himself".

"Brother, truer words were never spoken, " the preacher answered, laying the hand down and turning Chris over to examine his back a little better. "Nathan, Chris is in a bad way."

"I have applied a tournequet to Mister Wilmington's leg but it needs stitching." Ezra moved to where Nathan was peering at Vin's face. He quickly observe d the wounds the tracker bore and although odd and chilling as to the matter of them, they were not serious. Shallow enough to draw blood but not deep. Yet the look of concern on the healer's face was alarming. "His wounds aren't fatal. What's wrong?"

"That smell." Nathan cupped Vin's slack jaw and moved his face over the open cavity of mouth. "Sweet... I know that smell, I just can't place it." He lifted Vin's eyelids and frowned at the pupils.

"Well perhaps whatever madman did this, used a drug on him. He's been rendered unconscious so that they might carry out that horrific deed."

"I hope that's all it was, Ezra." Nathan sighed hard and looked to where Josiah was kneeling between Buck and Chris. Both men were badly hurt and Chris especially so. "We need tuh get 'em tuh shelter, they need doctorin'. We're in the middle of nowhere..." He gave Ezra's shoulder a pat and moved to examine the others.

Ezra kept vigil by Vin and frowned, following Nathan's lead he too sniffed the younger man's mouth. He heard Nathan's words again and revisited the fear in the dark-skinned man's eyes. He then listened for Vin's breathing and took his pulse. He took his jacket off and laid it over Vin's upper body, covering him to the knees. He took his vest off and his shirt, ripping the sleeves. "Nathan?" He approached and handed the bandages down. "You fear he's been poisoned?"

"I do," Nathan replied of Vin without pausing his work on Larabee. "I can't worry on that now. Chris's is doin' poorly, he's lost a lot of blood and he's got more bruises and wounds than I can count and a bad fever comin'." He eased the torn short up and winced at the black and purple bruising by the gunslinger's hip. "Nasty," he muttered, running his fingers over it. "Had tuh hurt like hell just movin'. Lord knows how he got hisself all the way here." He eased Chris onto his side with Josiah's support. The wound in the back was high, near the top of the left shoulder. He pushed at it a bit and frowned. "I don't think it caught bone but can't tell 'til I check 'im better. Leastwise it's on the same side as the one that was cauterized."

"I'll patrol the perimeter to insure whatever demons did this are no longer present." Ezra said, taking the gun that Josiah handed him..

"Get my bag, Josiah." Nathan grabbed Chris and gently laid him on his belly. He cut the shirt off the wound and took the canteen handed down to him. He washed the wound on the back and pressed a cloth into it, hoping to stop the blood.

"There's some supplies here," Josiah said, dropping Nathan's large medical sac by his feet. "I found Chris and Buck's horses. There's extra clothes, some tins of food. We can move them closer to the fire."

"It's t'cold out here," Nathan addressed, and eyed the dark wooded area. "and not the safest place." He nodded for the large man to kneel at Chris's head. "Hold 'im, he's gonna buckle."

He waited until Sanchez's strong hands were gripping Larabee's neck and shoulders. Then he doused Chris's back with carbolic and dusted the area, taking as much debris from it as possible. The green eyes shot open for a moment with a soft cry of pain, then shut again. He placed a clean square of cloth on the wound and bound it with long strips, securing it temporarily.

"They need shelter, food, rest..." The frustrated ex-medic cursed and shook his head, angry at the inability to provide the care his friends required.

"Well we don't have that option, Nathan," Josiah replied, "We can make a camp here and once they're stronger..."

"Buck and Vin might be alright, but Chris needs to get inside, he's sick, Josiah and weak. It's too damn cold here." He pulled his coat off and laid it over Larabee, before turning his attention to Buck Wilmington. "Do me a favor? Clean them wounds on Vin and cover 'em." He untied the crude bandage Ezra had placed on the torn up thigh and examined it. "What the hell did this? Only thing I ever run across with claws like that is a mountain lion, but the marks is all wrong." He eyed the four long gashes, two of which were still bleeding. After washing each cut with soap and water, he drew the Carbolic over. He looked up just as Ezra reappeared. "Hold his leg for me..." He waited until Standish had secured the injured leg and began to slowly pour it onto each one. Buck only flinched once and gasped but didn't open his eyes. "Give it tuh Josiah, I'll sew these up."

"Done," Ezra replied, taking the Carbolic over to the preacher, who'd washed the wounds on Tanner's ankles and side and was now dabbing at the odd circle by his heart. "Is that what it looks like?"

"I'd guess." Josiah nodded to the exposed feet. "Dab 'em good and cover 'em. I've seen some strange things in my days, brother. There are those who believe in the dark side, worship the Prince of Darkness. Halloween night is their favorite feast day and there are some who do perform human sacrifice."

"It would appear Buck got here just in time," Ezra thought aloud, tying the second bandage and moving to Vin's midsection.

The gambler's eyes traveled over a few feet to where the healer was stitching Wilmington's leg. Thinking on the concerns that Jackson noted on the need for shelter, a thought occured to him. He furrowed his brow and cocked his chestnut head as his mind stirred up some recent news in the Clarion.

"A hand?" He asked the preacher, tugging the sheet off of Tanner and waiting with a roll of bandages. He unrolled the cotton across the lean naval and waited for Josiah to catch it. The taller man lifted Vin's hip tucked it under. Ezra follwed suit, until the bandage came back to him. Two passes later, the bandage was secure. The quiet Texan never stirred. "I believe I may have a solution to our housing situation." His jade eyes lifted to meet each of the others and he nodded to the road. "If I am not mistaken, didn't the McTavish clan build a rough lodge of sorts out here? Something about moving their herd to Mexico and nowhere to stay?" The large and very likable clan of Scotsmen were thriving ranchers and sold their cattle frequently to Texas and Mexico. "I'm sure I read a transaction of sale in Mrs. Travis's paper."

"He's right," Nathan sighed hard and dropped his head. "Thank God. Ezra, yuh think yuh can find it? We're gonna need a couple of wagons."

"If I recall correctly, the area in question is just north of here, perhaps an hour's ride. I'll waste no time." He covered Vin up again and watched as Josiah finish up with Vin while Nathan bandaged Buck's leg. The preacher gave Vin a blessing, moving his thumb over the fallen man's forehead and heart while praying in Latin. Then he left to do the same to the stilled blond figure next to him. Ezra looked down at the tracker, the echo of the warm drawl that all too often filled the air with extremely dry wit came to mind. He smiled softly, resting his hand lightly on the handsome man's cheek.

"Stay with us, my friend."

Three days later
McTavish Lodge

"VIN!"

"Jesus!"

The sharp cry in the still of the night brought the healer to his feet with a soft swear. Nathan didn't stop for boots, he scrambled from the bunk he was resting on and quickly found the first door. He adjusted his eyes to the dim light and sighed hard when he saw he was not the first to arrive at Chris Larabee's bedside. A tall figure struggling with one hand on the distressed blond's slick chest and the other on his crutch was calling out to the nightmare-bound victim.

"I know damn well I ain't dreamin'!"

"I couldn't sleep anyway," Buck replied of Jackson's dressing down of his appearance at Larabee's side.

"Yuh need tah rest that leg, Buck. I ain't gonna tell yuh again," he hissed of the big-hearted man's frequent trips to the spot at Larabee's side. "Yuh need tah keep it raised." He handed the fallen crutch to Buck and watched as the injured man manuevered across the room to his own bed. "Both pillows," he directed as Buck eased his leg onto a pile of white cotton.

Buck was exhausted, truth be told. The dull ache in his leg and nagging headache could be quelled from laudenum, but that made him sick. So he was enduring the pain, plus he wanted to be alert in case Chris needed him. Nathan looked awful; the former Union medic had seen little to no sleep in the three days since they'd arrived. He'd spent most of that time tending to Chris Larabee, whose injuries were serious and nearly life threatening. Although the filth and grime had been purged with soap and water and the beard shaven, the lean body was marred by cuts, wounds and serious bruises. Chris was fighting a fever and doing so loudly, thrashing about, cursing and screaming for Vin.

The rogue's dark blue eyes strayed to the wall next to him. Vin was resting in a small next to them, separated by a door. He'd been as still as his bed friend was disturbed. Nathan didn't know it, but he'd snuck through that door to check on Tanner and the unmoving pale body distressed him greatly. The Texan's chest rose and fell but his breathing was uneven and he knew Nathan was worried. The longer Vin remained unconscious, the greater the fear that he wouldn't awaken. Nathan had been honest with him, when he'd asked about his two injured friends upon awaking that first day. He didn't know what was causing Vin to remain so still and lost, and he did mention poison. The one thing, the only thing that Sanchez, Standish and Jackson has askd of him was what had happened? He sighed hard, raked a hand through his hair and leaned his head back against the headboard. The blackness that met his own internal inquistion was troubling.

Nathan glanced over while ringing out a wet cloth to rub down the hot body in the bed next to him and shook his head. Buck's eyes were full of worry and guilt. He knew the mustached patient was punishing himself of his inability to recall just what occured under the full moon on that unholy stretch of road. Although they had no witnesses, he suspected Josiah's theory to be correct. Somehow Vin had been abducted by a band of devil-worshiping cutthroats who were intending on sacrificing him. Chris either found the tracks or stumbled into the pack on his way back to town and tried to stop them. Buck's only memory was finding Larabee's duster and hearing him scream. Whatever happened it was over now and the three men were all alive. He intended to keep them that way.

"Easy Chris," he soothed of the bright green eyes that roamed unseeing around the room.

After a thorough exam of the back wound, he'd found no broken bones but the muscles were badly damaged and so the left arm was bound to his chest, preventing furthur tearing. Chris's right hand came up and lashed out at some invisible demon, who was torturing his best friend. The ragged, torn fingernails had been cleaned up and some had to be bandaged. Josiah stated that they were badges of honor, for whatever Chris fought through to get to Vin had been a journey through Hell. A battle he was still waging in his delirium.

"...fuck... away... from... him... bas...tard..."

"Come on now," Nathan tried again, grabbing the weak right arm and pushing it back down. He cupped the fever-slick chin and tried to find that lost soul. "Yuhr safe now... Vin's fine. Yuh hear me? Quit fightin' and get some sleep."

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The flames were everywhere, rising around the circle of man-beasts who surrounded an altar or rocks. Lying, helpless within the horrific circle was Vin Tanner. The slim tracker was covered in blood and his eyes were open but not blinking. Chris saw the knife rise in the moonlight, crimson slick over lethal silver. As it descended again, he screamed and tried to raise his own broken body to stop them. He reached out just as the largest wolf turned to him, it's yellow eyes gleaming in victory. One meaty paw held the prize, Tanner's heart ripped from his open chest. With a glorified howl, the animal sucked the dripping blood on the still pulsing organ and then devoured it. That grisley sight caused his spirit to dissolve and his agonizing scream was cut short by the gurgle of his own blood filling his throat.

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"Chris?" Nathan bent over as the frantic eyes suddenly went dull and the tension left him. He swabbed him down again and pulled a fresh, clean cotton sheet over him. He waited until the distressed man was breathing evenly and shook his dark head. "Man's gonna fret five pounds off him fightin' like that."

Who had attacked Chris and Vin? What had caused his two friends to be left in a bloody heap? Buck searched again, reviewing the memory for the hundredth time it seemed. He was riding from Chris's, he picked up a trail and found the legendary black duster. Then he'd heard the awful scream... Chris's scream as if the devil had him by the balls. He'd jumped on his horse and... and... and...

"Goddammit!"

The frustrated curse hit the air as a fist met the bed hard. He then revisited what Nathan, Erza and Josiah told him, that he'd been the last to arrive. Apparently, he'd stumbled into the middle of what appeared to be a sacrifice. That he arrived in time was a comfort, his friends were still alive. But that he let whatever sick gang who'd tortured his friends escape, bothered him. It bothered him alot, he'd failed them in that respect. Where the vile animals still lurking in these parts? Or where they as Josiah theorized from Mexico and already back over the border? Wherever they were, they were still breathing free air and that upset him. He'd seen the abusive treatment that Chris's body suffered and Vin's body had odd wounds, where blood had been drawn. He must have failed outright, for no trace of the butchers who did the deed was found.

"Yuh keep frownin' and yuh'll put creases in that pretty face o'yuhrs." Nathan teased, holding out a mug and sighing hard. "Buck?" He waved his hand in front of the unblinking, sorrowful eyes and then snapped his fingers. "Hey... yuh with me?"

"Huh?" Buck blinked and saw a mug in front of him.

"Cut that out, Buck, it ain't yuhr fault." Nathan offered with cold cider. "Yuh drink that down, yuh need fluid."

"Ain't anybody elses," Buck toasted, draining the cold apple drink. He handed the mug back and Nathan refilled it from the large jug on the table by the window. He sipped the second mug slower, still trying to find the missing pieces. He saw Chris was quiet for a moment and eyed Jackson. "He wake up? He hear you?"

"Nah." Nathan shook his head. "He ain't back yet, them eyes ain't seein' nothin' but nightmares. He's weak, he can't focus yet. He's close tah bustin' out though, I think he's got the fever nearly beat. " He studied the handsome man's face and took the now empty mug. "Yuh ain't answered m'question."

"Get some sleep, Nate, you look awful," Buck replied, dodging the issue and sliding down flat and closing his eyes.

He waited a long time, until the quiet of the night seem to scream in his ears. Then he rose, got his crutches and slowly made his way through the small door and into Vin's room. Nathan had separated the two injured men on purpose. He felt until Chris was out of his delirium it was better this way. He wasn't sure how the injured man would react if Vin were nearby. If he tried to get to him, he could injure his already precarious shoulder, hip and back. So until he was fever free and clear headed, Buck occupied the bed in the room with him.

He passed the window and then found the small bedside table and chair. Easing his throbbing body down, he hissed, bit his lip as pain roared in his thigh and skull. Finally the waves of purple and red agony washed away and he could focus again. He quietly put his crutches next to him and turned the lamp up. He leaned over and studied the face closely, marvelling at how young Vin looked when he was relaxed in sleep. The fine features were way too silent, even the skilled hands now lie limp and it unnerved him. His eyes flicked in pain when he saw those talented fingers that used a rifle so well and gripped a hand in friendship with a true and loyal hold now lying useless, uncurled and way too still.

"Vin..." he whispered, leaning over and picking up that empty hand. He watched Vin's chest rising and falling under the blanket and tapped the stubbled cheek with his free one. "Hey slick, it's Buck."

Nothing. It was if he was a breathing corpse.

He pressed the hand to his own chest and tears formed in his eyes. The word 'poison' lingered and burned a hole right through him. Why hadn't he gotten there in time? Why couldn't Vin wake up? What if Vin never woke up? How would that wound permantly affect Chris? How could he explain any of this to Larabee? How could he even try? He already saw the shadows lingering in the eyes of the others.

"I'm sorry..." he offered with all his heart and turned his burning eyes to the single star outside the window. "Don't let him die, please."

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Dawn entered quietly, tiptoeing past the slumbering man and lightly stroking his face. As her dark blue cape unfurled revealing a gown of shimmering gold and pink, she sighed and send a light breeze into the stuffy room. She waited until the injured man stirred, groaning slightly and moving his damp body. The as the door opened, she retreated leaving the room bathed in a soft light.

Annie McTavish entered the room and saw the first signs of the new day being born outside the window. She set the large pitcher of cold water down and sat on the edge of the bed. She bent down and kissed the forehead of the blinking body and smiled.

"Still the best way to check for a fever." She brushed her fingers through his damp, spikey blond hair. "Ye finally put that beast to bed. It gave quite a fight, but it was no match for Chris Larabee."

Chris blinked fuzzily at the pretty woman beside him and drew his brows together in confusion. The musical accent told him it was someone he knew but he couldn't put the name to the voice. He knew he was safe and that was enough for now. He moved a dry tongue over his equally dry mouth and coughed. His face screwed up in distaste and the residue of whatever lingered in his mouth remained. Before he could even formulate a plan to put words together and force them through his cracked lips, a hand drew his head up. A cup was offered along with a soothing voice.

"Water," she whispered to the confused soul. He quickly drained two mugs, burped and his eyes began to fight to stay open. She laid his head back down and moved a cool cloth over the distressed features. The soft sight of contentment heard brought a smile. She rested her hand on his face and smiled. "It's sleep ye need lad, go on now ye've earned it."

Chris nodded once that sounded like a good idea to him. His eyes felt like weights were pressing on them and although there wasn't a part of him that didn't hurt, something had changed. He wasn't swimming in fire anymore, he was resting now. So he closed his eyes and surrendered as his nurse drew a clean sheet over him and cast her eyes to the next bed. It was empty and that caused a frown.

She knew where he'd disappeared to and easily moved through the connecting door. She shook her auburn head and walked over to the bed. First she checked on the patient, moving her face close to his slightly parted lips. His breathing wasn't as shallow, she brushed her fingers though the wavy brown locks and said a prayer. She liked Vin Tanner and she hoped he'd make a full recovery.

"Come back to us, laddie, I miss yer pretty blue eyes and that lovely voice," she issued, rising and casting a stern face at the guardian in the chair next to the bed.

"Buck Wilmington!" she tapped his knee and waited, her green eyes bearing down on him.

"Hmmm?" Buck whispered, cracking his eyes and seeing only a shaply body and long, reddish hair. "Sorry, Darlin', " he yawned and moved his hands around her waist, pulling her closer and caressing her firm bottom. "Where'd we leave off?"

The sound of her laughter and a hand on his cheek brought his eyes fully open. He dropped his hands as the vision cleared up, revealing Annie McTavish, Craig's wife. Their host and his bride of twenty years were solid members of the community. They were good people, raising a brood of seven and fully dedicated to each other.

"Aw, hell, sorry Annie," he apologized and was rewarded with a kiss on his cheek.

"Don't be, it's the best offer I've had all mornin'," she grinned. "If me husband and seven babes weren't standin' in the way..."

Buck sat up and leaned over the bed, his hand hitting the tracker's rising chest the same time pain shot through his leg. He closed his eyes and grabbed his thigh, hissing as the pain continued to explode.

"Jesus... aw Jesus..."

"I'm not feelin' the least bit sorry fer ye, Buck," she chastised, handing him his crutches. "Ye know better than to be roamin' around on that leg. It's the bed ye need, now move.":

"I just wanted to be close to him... to say I was sorry..." Buck admitting, reaching for his crutches.

"Ah laddie, yer breakin' me heart." She gently cupped the chin on a face full of anguish. His dark blue eyes were saddened and she knew that heart of his was cracking. She waited until the woeful eyes met hers. "Are they not breathin'?" She spoke of his two injured friends. "Was that not yer doin'? Ye saved them and nearly died yerself. It's enough, Buck, let it go, there's no place for that in this house"

"Yeah," Buck managed, not entirely convinced. But these people were good friends and he wouldn't worry them on the others, so he buried his sorrow. He shifted in the hard chair and took the limp hand of the Texan. He gave it a tug and watched the fine features before him. "I'll be back later Vin, you keep fightin'."

"Yer bed, Buck don't make me get me strap," she ordered, seeing a hesitation on his face.

"Yes, ma'am," Buck replied, rising and slowly making his way into the room he shared with Chris Larabee. He went to Chris's bed first, paused and saw the change.

"His fever's gone and he's worn out. Ye won't be seein' those pretty green eyes all day. It's sleep he needs and yerself as well."

"Thanks,Annie," Buck spoke softly, taking a mug full of cold water and draining it. He eased his tall frame onto the bed and closed his eyes. He felt a quilt drawn up and a soft tap on his cheek

"Yer welcome, lad," she whispered, eyeing both recovering men before departing to make breakfast for her family.

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The dream was the same and the bearer of the dreaded night vision was full of distress. His heart was beating so hard against his ribs, it hurt. Sweat formed on his brow and his eyes moved rapidly trying to dispell the awful sight. Horrid, hairy beasts were surrounding a bunch of rocks upon which Vin Tanner was lying helpless. Then the largest one turned and held up a bleeding heart, licking the crimson streaks that ran down his dark arm.

"Noooo..."

"Hey now." Nathan moved his hands to keep Chris from turning onto his bad side. The eyes shot upon wide and full of anger. The brows furrowed and the right fist formed trying to strike out. "Yuh ain't gotta enough sparks tah shoot down a fly. Yuh cut that out now. Chris. It's Nathan, Chris?"

Chris relaxed when the familiar voice broke through. He continued to pant and collect his ragged breath while two strong hands drew him up and placed him against a bank of pillows. Now reclining comfortably against the backboard of a bed, he eyed the solid walls and beamed ceiling. Twice a mug of water was offered and twice he drank. Two lamps were lit, bathing the room in light. A fire in the corner stove warmed his skin.

"Ezra, go get some soup and bread. He needs tah eat."

Chris blinked at the name of the gambler and caught a flash of a red vested slim figure as it disappeared through the doorway. He laid his aching head back and caught another body in a bed nearby. His eyes narrowed and he cocked his head, trying to figure out what was going on.

"Buck's leg got tore up some, but he's gonna be chasin' skirts in no time," Nathan reassured and got a nod back. "How yuh feelin', Chris?"

"Like a building fell on me," Chris croaked and creased his face up. "...hell is that my voice?"

"Yuh've been fightin' a fever for almost four days," the healer noted and saw confusion remaining as the anxious eyes again roamed the finely appointed room. "McTavish lodge near the river.

"Evenin' brother, good to have you back with us again."

"Preacher," Chris replied, nodding once and eyeing the large man bore. Suddenly his stomach reminded him he was starving and it roared, giving both his nurses a laugh.

"No!" Nathan moved in when Chris began to fight the bandaged left side binding his arm to his chest.

"What the fuck is this?" Chris demanded, then moved again and sent an agonizing pain rippling through his hip and back.

"Easy now," Nathan grabbed him and pressed him back, holding on until the last curse died and the tension left. "Yuh got hurt bad, Chris yuh damn near died. That shoulder's wounded from both sides, nothin's broke but it's gonna be a long time healin'. It's gotta stay tied up tah give them muscles time tah heal."

Chris nodded mutely and tried to find a way to get comfortable. The pain in his back and hip were agonizing. He closed his eyes and pressed back agains the pillows, fisting the quilt in his right fist. His breathing was ragged and harsh and his chest heaved with the mere effort of drawing some air. He felt a strong hand grip his naked shoulder and he forced his eyes open, spotting concern in a pair of smokey eyes.

"That hip was bruised good, it's a nice shade of dark purple," Josiah answered the silent question offered."

"Near as I can tell," Nathan filled in. "Yuhr left shoulder was stabbed twice, front and back. The front wound was cauterized, the back was open when we found yuh. Yuh got bruises from head tah toe, and yuhr fingernails was damn near ripped off. Yuh got a lump on yuhr head too."

"Welcome back to the land of the living, Mister Larabee," Ezra offered with a slight nod. He was sitting by Buck's bed.

Chris allowed Josiah to shift him again so he could accept the tray over his lap on the bed. Once the tides of pain subsided, he nodded once, indicating he could feed himself. The aroma of the savory soup was beyond tantilizing. A rich brown broth with bits of steak, potatoes, green beans and carrots was accompanied by several warm slices of brown bread slathered in butter. A large mug of cider and a mug of something hot finished off the meal. He was so starving he was shaking and for a few moments, he buried all his thoughts and devoured his meal. Finally his shakes left as his demanding body was rewarded. He wiped his mouth and picked up the hot mug, sniffing at it.

"Cat piss?" He guessed and saw Nathan nod. He had one sip when the inventor of the term for Nathan's medicinal tea appeared before him. "VIN!"

"Sleepin' in the next room," Nathan offered, hoping that would be enough

Chris put the mug down, swallowed the bitter black liquid and leaned back. He carefully moved his eyes around the room, taking careful aim on every feature. The blank faces told him something was missing. So he fixed his gaze on the on the one face that couldn't lie to him.

"Talk to me, Buck," he asked of the lean body now sitting up and moving his legs gingerly over the side of the bed.

"He's uh... sleepin', Chris," Buck tried but the stone silence and that lethal gaze told him Larabee wasn't buying what he was selling.

"Don't lie to me," Chris requested, flicking his eyes back to Nathan. "What's wrong with Vin?"

"I ain't sure what's wrong with 'im, he won't wake up. Can't find signs of head injury," Nathan answered. "He's got some minor cuts, a healin' wound in his side and a new one in his leg. But they ain't enough tah make him sleep like this. No fever but his breath smelled funny when we found yuh."

"Funny how?" Chris asked, lifting the last bit of soup to his mouth

"Can't be sure, but he may have been poisoned." Nathan flinched when the utencil was dropped and hit the bowl. "I'm sorry, Chris."

"No... aw shit..."

The blond sagged back, eyes closed and defeated. Vin couldn't die on him, not like that. Given the rough lives they lived and the job they had, a bullet would be hard enough to accept if the valiant tracker's life was to be stolen brutally from him. But poison? No, he couldn't accept that.

"I said might be, Chris." Nathan tried to reach through the defeat now displayed before him. "Could be he just got doused with a strong drug. He's breathin' easy and his heart's good."

"How long?"

"Four days," Josiah answered their leader. "I've seen poison before Chris and it can't be that. He'd be dead by now. Whatever they gave him, it was strong. He's lost some blood, could be his body is just worn a bit."

"No!" Nathan answered when the green eyes bore down on the door separating the anxious man from his best friend. "Yuh wouldn't make it off this bed, that hip is tender. It needs tah heal. Movin' yuh around could hurt it worse and yuhr back. Yuh stay put."

"Fuck that," Chris dictated, fighting to sit up. "Move."

"No!" Nathan shoved him back and didn't pull the punches. "Yuh listen tah me, Larabee. I used every trick I could think of tah save yuhr ornr'y hide from dyin'. Yuhr busted up good and yuh need tah heal. Stop bein' so selfish," he paused when the eyes glared up at him in annoyance. "Yeah, selfish. Buck damn neard died savin' both of yuh. Yuh keep yuhr ass in that bed or I'll douse yer food."

"You would too, Chris snapped, jerking his arm back and sitting back. "When?"

"When yuhr stronger, I promise," Nathan offered with his hand and got a shake.

"...shit... shit..." Chris hissed when his full bladder threatened to explode. His eyes moved around the room frantically, zoning in on the chamber pot by the foot of Buck's bed.

"Here yuh go." Nathan holds out a strange shaped obejct. It was a mug with a leather handle and a spout at one end.

"What the hell is that?" Chris asked when the object was handed to him.

"Your own portable piss pitcher." Josiah bragged. "Old Angus's invention," he noted of the patriarch of the likable clan.

"What goes in, must come out," Standish supplied with a grin.

"Yeah , fine," Chris grabbed the object and nodded to the door. "This look like a train depot to any of you?"

"I think I'm offended." Ezra tapped his chest and moved toward the door, Josiah behind him.

Nathan gave Chris a moment alone and moved across the room to change Buck's bandages. The tall man never even flinched as the wounds were redressed. He tied up the last strip and then helped the injured man into some clean clothes. The silence was defeaning, especially for the likeable rogue who loved to talk.

"Buck?"

"I'm okay, Nate."

"I ain't that blind," Nathan answered, helping him stand and handing him crutches. "Yuh ain't had anything tah eat all day. I'm gonna get yuh some food."

"Okay," Buck agreed, he wasn't very hungry but he didn't have the energy to fight the very determined healer. He made his way to Chris's bed as Nathan took the portable potty away to be emptied.

"Just you and me, Buck," Chris addressed of the sorrowful face next to him.

"I'm sorry, Chris," Buck offered and eyed the concerned face next to him.

"You didn't do this," Chris answered of his injuries. "Nathan said you nearly died savin' me and Vin."

"But they got away... you don't know what they did to Vin. I let them... escape..."

"Vin?" Chris furrowed his brow and came up blank. "What did who do to Vin?"

"I don't know who did it," Buck said, raking a shaky hand through his dark locks. "I don't know a damn thing. Josiah, Nate and Ez found the three of us on a dark road near the border. Vin was lyin' on a bunch of rocks, naked and bleeding from his ankles, sides, shoulders and over his heart."

"What?" Chris' voice rose in horror. "What the hell do you mean?"

"Human sacrifice, that's what Josiah's guess is. He says there's folks down in Mexico in the hills that practice devil worship. It was a full moon on Halloween at midnight..."

"Jesus," Chris hissed, shaking his head. He didn't remember seeing Vin at all. "I was there?"

"From what they told me and I saw from your tracks, you must have followed them on foot. You either got caught by them animals or got there just as they were about to sacrifice Vin and tried to save him. Nate thinks that's how your back got stabbed, you hurled yourself over Vin to protect him."

Buck saw the horror washing over Chris as the others filed back in the room. Nathan had two small tables which he placed down. One went in front of him, the other by the vacant chair. Josiah and Ezra arrived next bearing trays of food and drink. Buck didn't speak, he took the plate of roast beef, golden roasted potatoes and carrots and ate. He finished the whole meal, two slices of bread and two mugs of cider. The whole time they had been eating, Chris Larabee hadn't uttered a sound. He'd been relaxing against the pillows with his eyes closed. Suddenly, the eyes flew open

"Goddammit."

"Chris?" Josiah moved closer but the leader put his hand up waving him off. The preacher handed him some cider and moved back to his own chair.

"Why can't I remember?" Chris drilled, eyeing Buck. If the horrific scene that his oldest friend painted was true, he should remember something. "Some maniacs decide to carve up Vin and I was right there? I can't... see... that... I just..."

"What do you remember?" Ezra asked quietly, flicking jade eyes on pale greens.

Chris took a sip of cider and set it down next to his hip, then placed his right hand over throbbing head. He sighed hard once, pressing the vault in his head to open. Memories filtered through slowly, wary of the injured brain. The first image was himself on a porch on the second floor of a hotel. The judge's voice was drifting through and open window.

"Orrin. He was in Eagles Bend in his room. It's late and I'm on the balcony. We're talking about Vin."

"You were outside? Why?" Josiah asked.

"Didn't want anyone to see me, compromise Vin's case. He's gonna clear him, Yates owned up."

"That's good news," Nathan addressed, "Damn wait until Vin hears that."

"He was gonna go to Texas to take the statements and his report to the judge ." Chris hissed and grimaced when his back began to throb. He moved his hand down and took another sip of cider.

"You stayed in Eagles Bend until he left?" Ezra asked.

"No, I left that night, I had to go right away, Vin was in trouble." Chris stated and tilted his head. "Yeah, that was it, my gut was churning. I could feel his danger. I had to go... right away. It was like he was calling me."

Buck smiled softly at that and felt a pang of envy spring up in his gut. He admired Chris Larabee very much, he always had and he cherished their friendship. The memories of the many adventures they shared over these last dozen years would remain with him forever. In good times and bad, they'd stood by each other. That was something to be held close and he would always be there for Chris. But the relationship that Larabee now shared with their tracker was rare. He didn't understand the uncanny ability each of them had to feel the other's pain, sense their moods or silently reply to hidden questions. But if that bond, as uncanny as it was, had saved Vin's life than the envy he felt was justified.

"How'd you end up on river road?" Josiah asked, holding his mug for Ezra to add some 'spirits' to the cider.

"Got to the fork," Chris answered. "I couldn't go home, I knew he was down that road and I never hesitated."

"And?" Nathan pressed, watching the fist clutch the sheet again. Thin lines of pain formed near Larabee's eyes and the healer stirred something in his cider to help him sleep.

"Bushwhacked," Chris grit and thumped the bed.

"So some predator attacked and robbed you? Left you for dead?" Ezra guessed.

"Yeah, I guess," Chris whispered, the pain in his head was increasing and his hip was on fire

"What next?" Nathan asked, moving the mug into Chris's hand. He watched as the gunslinger sipped the cider and thought hard, but then sadly shook his head.

"Sorry... that's it until I saw you earlier."

"Well Vin was riding out to your place when I last saw him," Buck added. "We found his horse and his coat but he wasn't there. I sent the kid to get Josiah and followed the road to the river."

"So maybe Vin got attacked at my cabin?" Chris guessed. "Bounty hunters?"

"Maybe," Josiah replied. "When you didn't arrive in town and Orrin told us you'd left we split up to find you. I met up with Ezra and Nathan and we found you three near the border."

"So Buck found your tracks and that led him to you and our fallen sharpshooter."

"Yeah, I guess Ezra, " Chris replied. "Buck?"

"I heard you scream... it was unholy... that's the only way I can describe it, it went right through me. That's the last thing I can think of, chasing that scream down a dark road."

"You arrived on the awful scene just as the predators in question were about to cut out Vin's heart. You either scared them off, shot them or possibly they lost their window of opportunity"

"How's that?" Buck answered Standish.

"What Ezra means is that for some of these devil worshippers, timing is crucial. If they had to conduct the sacrifice at the stroke of midnight and you arriving, shooting at them, attacking them, whatever," Josiah answered. "Might have been enough. They can be funny that way, if ten or fifteen minutes went by, the window would be closed, midnight would have gone past."

"I guess," Buck sighed hard, "I just wished to hell I'd killed at least one of them."

"You're here, I'm here, Vin's here," Chris saluted quietly, gripping Buck's downcast shoulder.

The hand brought warmth to the coldness that had been enveloping him. Buck sat up straight and caught the clear green gaze and felt his strength renewed. Maybe it was enough. He found himself nodding and for the first time in four days, since he'd woken up, he felt healed. He found a short smile for the concerned blond and nodded once.

"Thanks, pard," he whispered at Chris and got a nod back.

Chris then turned his face to the healer. "Please, Nathan?"

"I know how bad yuh need tah see him, Chris, but yuh need to rest. Yuh ain't strong enough tah handle a relapse." He saw the shoulders sag in defeat and anger. His eyes lingered on the cracked and broken nails on Chris's right hand. Hands that fought the devil for the soul of his brother and won. He didn't like to disappoint the upset man and like the others, he knew how much the blond needed his friend. Maybe Vin needed him more. "I'll tell yuh what, Chris. Yuh get some sleep and tomorrow we'll move Vin in here , okay?"

"Yeah," Chris rasped, moving so the extra pillows could be removed and his body lowered.

He closed his eyes and let the drug work, easing his body into a deep sleep. He was vaguely aware of the others nearby, talking and keeping vigil. Their words about the Mexican gang taking Vin and trying to sacrifice him rolled back. That would explain the odd dreams he kept having. A gang of darkskinned Mexicans with long dark hair and beards to a badly injured and concussed man might appear to be animals. That was what must have happened and what he kept seeing in his dreams. That had to be the explanation of the animals he kept dreaming of eating Vin's heart. With that last though reassuring his troubled inner self, the fallen man relaxed totally and let sleep claim in, chasing the clouds of confusion away.

Part Seven

Craig McTavish was a tall, well built man of forty-five with a head full of reddish-gold hair and bright blue eyes. He sipped on a mug of coffee in front of the large stone fireplace in the living area of his lodge. As the golden flames flickered on his face, he eyed the rust colored stone in the center of the hearth. It was from his father's home in Inverness and it's twin in th wall over his fireplace of his ranch. It was hard to believe the years had gone so quickly. He'd come to America with his new bride and his widowed father some twenty years ago to pioneer into the American West. He had no complaints of the journey and the path he'd followed. They'd lived in the wilds of Canada during their early years, where their family grew from the first born, Ewan now a strapping nineteen year old to the youngest of the seven, five year old Alex. But his father's lung condition required a warmer, drier climate so they'd moved south, into the New Mexico Territory just before Alex was born. He'd made a good life for himself and his ranch was one of the largest in the territory.

"Yer up late, love."

The lyrical warm voice always stirred his heart. He smiled and opened his arms, letting his wife settle onto his lap. Time if anything had just enhanced her beauty. The silken hair framed a heart shaped face with gorgeous green eyes, like emeralds. He caressed her lightly and nuzzled his lips into the soft spot on her neck.

"I'm a good girl, ye know," Annie teased, moving his hand away. "I'll not have ye spoilin' me reputation."

"Mores the pity, woman," Craig caressed the back of her neck and felt her shudder under his touch. "For the hour grows late and I'm hungry." He emphasized his point by pulling her close and kissing her.

"Well, it's a good thing I've come along then," she replied with a glint in her eye, moving her hand over his strong face. "Ye need some help in the ways of pleasin' a woman."

"Help is it?" He arched an eyebrow and pulled her closer, "Ye've a fresh mouth, girl, I may have to punish ye."

Annie giggled and relaxed under her husband's touch. She almost felt guilty being so much in love with him after all these years. With the birth of each child, seven miracles sent from heaven, she felt that love reaffirmed. He was good man, strong and true and very loyal. He was raising his sons with equal measures of love and discipline and she was proud of her boys, so much like their Da.

"I may have to put off me penace for a day or two," she yawned and settled her head on his shoulder. "I'm feelin' every bit of me age tonight."

He didn't reply right away, rather he traced lazy circles on her back content to have her close to his heart. She was the light of his life, a partner he was proud to call his best friend and a wonderful mother. She'd gotten little sleep these last four days since their unexpected houseguests arrived. But she had a mother's heart and considered the ailing men 'her boys'. Tending to them and taking care of them came easy for her.

"Did I ever tell ye about me bride? The finest woman God graced this earth with?"

"No..." she smiled, sitting up and taking his hand.

"Well." He moved her so he could rise, wrapping his arm around her waist. "If ye look into the eye of the rainbow, ye'll find her smile. If ye've ever watched the sunrise, ye've felt her heart." He paused at the entry to their bedroom and kissed her , then pulled backand let his finger encircle a long tendril of silken auburn hair. "And if ye've seen her nurse me babes at her breast, ye've seen her soul."

"I love ye, husband," she whispered, enfolding herself into his embrace.

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Nathan looked up from his book just as the host and hostess were exiting on the other side of the house. They passed by the kitchen and headed down the hall. Despite his weary state, he found a warm smile for the likeable couple, still so much in love. They were a solid team and never failed to support he seven whenever the call was needed. Craig often stood shoulder to shoulder with them in battles and he admired that. He moved through the large kitchen and put on a new pot of coffee. Then he cut up an apple while he waited for it to boil.kitchen.

The large medical volume that Josiah had brought from town with the supplies that morning was still on the table. He settled at the table and continued his search. He felt somehow that within this new volume, just arrived a month ago from New York Medical College, there might be an answer to his puzzle. Somewhere in this large book had to be a way for him to pull Vin back to life.

"Ye need sleep, man, go find yer bed."

"Once Vin wakes up, I'll sleep fuhr a week, Angus," Nate replied to the elderly man. Craig's father was the very forceful head of the clan and Buck especially was taken with the old man's tales of years gone by. "Yuhr up late."

"Me bones ache some nights." He settled close to the fire and relished the warmth. "Don't get old."

"I'll try not tah," Nathan grinned and went back to his reading.

"Do ye think ye'll find somethin' in there ta help the lad?"

"I don't know, Angus, but I gotta try."

"Aye." the old man nodded, then rose and moved past the weary healer, tapping his back. "Yer a good man, Nathan. Good friends are worth more than gold."

"I know that," Nate reflected. "Vin didn't know me that day he put his neck out. Him and Chris stood down that whole lynch mob fuhr a stranger."

"A sorry lot they were," Angus noted with anger and raised his fist. "I'd have liked to given them devils a bit of me mind."

"I bet yuh would," Nathan smiled and nodded. "Thanks, Angus." He saw the old man rubbing his legs and frowned. "Yuh want somethin' fur that leg? Ta help yuh sleep?"

"Thanks," Angus declined. "That's a temptin' thought, but I'm afraid I wouldn't be up in time ta help with the wee ones. Annie has her hand full and keepin' them from underfoot takes all me energy."

"I don't envy yuh that," Jackson agreed. "Them young fellas do seem tah find trouble."

"Aye," Angus nodded, then smiled. "But they're McTavish's, every inch..."

Nathan marked the spot in the large volume and rose to get the coffee. He poured two mugs and nodded to the old man, leaving him by the fire. He walked through the sprawling house until he came to Vin's room. He gave up trying to convince Buck to stay put. At least the recovering man had slept for quite a while this evening, having woke up an hour ago. He let the rogue sit with Vin so he could read in the kitchen. He moved inside and put a mug down on the bedside table. He turned the lamp up a bit, so he could see the tracker clearer.

"How's he doin'?"

"No change." The sadness that lingered in Buck's voice echoed in the room. He saw the frustration and doubt shadowing Nathan's face and caught the dark eyes. "He's got the best man on the job right here."

"Thanks, Buck but I don't feel much like a hero," Nate sighed, taking the stool at the far side of the room and stretching his legs out. "I was hopin' I'd find somethin' in that book but..."

"Well maybe," Buck thought, lifting the mug to get a sip of coffee. "You can..."

"Buck watch that handle it's hot!" Nathan warned as the mug tipped over, spilling onto Vin's arm.

"Jesus!" Buck put the mug down and froze, while Nathan moved in to wipe the coffee away. "Did you see that?"

"Hell, yeah, hard tuh miss. He's lucky, I don't think it burned him."

"No... no..." Buck grabbed Jackson's arm and pointed to Vin's face. "He flinched. His face twitched and his arm moved. Nathan, he felt that!" He saw doubt on the other man's face and remained strong in his resolve. "I'm tellin' you, Nathan, he moved!" Wilmington exclaimed, then reached down and pinched the side of the sleeping man's arm. "See!"

"Damn!" Nathan's hope rose for the first time since he'd found the stilled Texan. At Buck's touch, the arm jerked. "Stay here," he said to Buck, "I'll be right back."

Something was very wrong and a great disturbance disrupted the calm dark place he was resting in. Vin was trapped in total darkness so vast and deep it left no perception of time or space. The deathly quiet was shattered by loud rumbling sounds like distant thunder. Pain shot through him and he sensed a change. He confusion only grew as he began to move quickly through the darkness to a place he knew not where.

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Nathan moved through the hall and into the large living area. His eyes skimmed the room until they found the large basket next to an ivory wool pile. Annie was making a throw blanket for the sofa near the hearth. His nimble fingers found a large needle used to knit wool and he went back to the room. He pulled the sheet away revealing Vin's bare feet. He held onto the left foot and pricked the sole. Buck's loud whooping call of joy followed Vin jerking his foot and grimacing.

"What the hell's going on?"

Nathan didn't need the whole house awake and warned Buck with his hand as he moved to answer Chris's loud call. He opened the connecting door and the light from the low lamp next to the bed revealed a disheveled blond hair and a pair of fuzzy, albeit anxious eyes. Two curses, a grimace and a scowl accompanied the injured body trying to rise too soon.

"Stay in that bed!" Nathan warned, "Vin's reactin' to pain."

"He's awake?" Chris's hopes rose but Nathan's guarded features gave him the answer before the words came.

"No, but he can feel pain, that's a change. He ain't felt nuthin' in all these days."

"What?" Josiah yawned, stumbling into Chris's room. "What's wrong?"

"A sign brother," Nathan answered, clapping the preacher's back and nodding to the now pensive Larabee. "A sign!"

"Look!" Buck exclaimed as Josiah and Nathan came towards the bed. He took his fingernail and pressed it into the underside of Tanner's jaw. The fine features drew together in annoyance and the long-haired man moved his head away. "See?" Anxious, he leaned over and cupped the sleeping man's face. "Vin? Come on boy wake up! Vin! Vin!"

"Buck, take it easy," Nathan addressed, moving next to his silent patient. His dark eyes met Sanchez's smokey ones over the bed. "That's new. I changed his dressings this mornin', doused his leg good with carbolic. He never moved a muscle."

"Well then maybe we need to test his other senses," Buck thought aloud, gripping the limp hand lying on the bed. "Vin? It's Buck." He spoke loudly and gave the hand a hard tug. He waited and although it was weak, the fingers replied. "Yeah Vin, that's it!"

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As if the journey to the unknown place wasn't upsetting enough, the blackness was now streaked with explosions of red, gold and orange. The coldness began to disappear and he was engulfed in a wonderful warmth. The voice was deep and welcoming, like being embraced and comforted. He needed that, he sought it out and reached out to find it. Something touched him and a shock of fire hit him inside. He held onto that fire hard and fast, letting it guide him. The colors with the voice gave him strength and lit the way for him.

"What's goin' on?" Chris demanded and tried again to get up.

"Josiah, go hush him up before the whole house wakes up," Nathan directed.

"Hey Nate?" the preacher paused in the doorway, so he could signal Chris and keep and eye on the medic. "You got something that would smell so bad it would gag him?"

Nathan drew his head up slowly and his eyes widened as he thought hard. He nodded slowly and found his glimmer of hope growing larger by the minute. Although he didn't know what the sharpshooter had ingested to cause his coma, if he was reacting to stimuli, maybe a strong dose would shock him back to life. It couldn't hurt to try.

"Not with me, but I know where tah get some," he answered.

"Some what?" Buck said, still amazed that Vin had 'answered' his call. He squeezed the slim fingers again and smiled when the small touch answered his strong one.

"Stinkweed."

Jackson had seen the doctors in the field during the war use the stems of the four parted flowers to draw unconscious men back to life. The green rounded seed pods had ear-like lobs surrounded by a broad winged border. When crushed, they give off a very rank, offensive odor that can cause the strongest stomach to rebel.

"Aw, hell," Buck wrinkled his nose. "He'll puke all over."

"Could be just what the doctor ordered," Josiah decided. "It's worth a shot. I know where I can get some, but I'll be gone a couple hours."

"Not in the dark. Best yuh wait until daybreak. " Nathan pulled out his stethescope and tugged Vin's sheet down, revealing the pale chest rising and falling. "Buck, talk to him again, squeeze his hand." He lowered the hearing tool over Tanner's wounded chest and waited.

"You look like shit, slick!" Buck used his normal greeting that irritated Tanner and squeezed the hand again. Once again the hand squeezed back and the pale brows furrowed at him over closed lids. "You best not be cussin' at me, Vin."

"He can hear you." Nathan sat up and sighed hard, rubbing his eyes. "His heart rate picked up when yuh talked to him. Damn, he's comin' back."

"I'll be right back, Vin, okay?" Buck said close to Vin's ear and squeezed, waiting for the smaller man to reply. Once he got that tug, he reluctantly gave up the hand to get his crutches.

No... no... no... no... Vin screamed at the departing warmth. The colors left and he was once again trapped in icy darkness. He needed the voice back and the warmth of the touch. He needed the guiding force. He fought desperately to find it, pushing hard and braving his way through the strange silence alone.

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"Buck?"

Chris was almost upright when Buck limped towards him. He sat back, his pale eyes searching the handsome man's face for answers. The soft smile and the reappearance of the light in his dark blue eyes gave him hope. He swallowed his fear as Buck eased his lanky frame into the chair and gave his arm a pat.

"He heard me! I talked to him and squeezed his hand, he squeezed back. Dammit that boy's got balls... no damn devil worshipers can kill him."

"He's a Tanner, Chris sank back, closing his eyes and giving thanks.

While Buck spent a few moments talking to Larabee, Nathan sat on the side of the bed and tipped Vin's face. He picked up the limp hand and gave a tug. Frowning at the lack of response, he worried that maybe what they experienced was a reflex or a series of them. Had Vin really heard Buck? He'd seen the hand tug back onto Wilmington's.

"Vin? It's Nathan? Can yuh hear me?"

Vin paused and saw the blackness change again, ribbons or rich browns, bronzes and rusts rippled through his world. This confused him and he didn't understand the change. Another voice chased him but he didn't reach out right away, it wasn't the same forceful burst of fire that the first one had been. So he continued his trek, following the odd colors ahead cautiously.

Nathan took the opportunity to examine Vin and change his bedding. He spoke to him the whole time, but the pale features didn't move. Finally, as he pulled a clean sheet and blanket up to the tracker's upper chest, the distinct sound of wood hitting wood told him Wilmington was back. He watched silently as Buck began to speak in a loud booming voice as he sat down.

"Hey slick, you're sleepin' on the job!" Buck boomed, ruffling Vin's hair. He then adjusted himself in the chair so his leg could fit onto the small crate Nathan provided. "You plan on lyin' in bed this long you outta have the sense to be sharin' it with two or three women!"

Buck was still looking down, watching him as he lifted the injured leg up. Nathan was about to ask the gregarious man if he was sure he didn't want a pain killer, when his eyes saw movement. Two of Vin's fingers were brushing against Buck's arm.

"Looks like yuh got the magic touch, Buck." He nodded and saw a wide Wilmington smile break open as Buck watched the weak fingers lifting. "He didn't answer me, didn't move at all."

"Well, hell Nate," Buck replied with a wink, taking the tracker's hand into a solid grip. "You know the Lord only had so much charm and charisma to gift out, we all can't be Buck Wilmington. Ain't that right, Vin. You love me, dontcha?" He leaned over and cupped the stubbled chin, gripping it hard and grinning when a soft sigh slipped through the parted lips and the hand within his own tugged back. "Attaboy, you hang on, son, old Buck is on the job."

Yer back... yer back... don't go... I need ya here... Vin latched onto the brilliant show of deep reds and golds than now enveloped him. The voice was so strong and warm it carried him along in a river of scarlett, yellow and bright orange. It was so warm and rich it eased his soul and fought hard to hold on. He didn't want this feeling to end.

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The house was quiet and Nathan took the opportunity to eat a hot breakfast. Actually it was closer to lunch but he'd been up most of the night and hadn't gotten to sleep until pre-dawn. So the eggs, thick slices of ham and hot brown bread were going down easy. The coffee was strong with a hint of cinnamon and the biscuits were worth savoring. Craig had taken his family into town for church and to get some supplies. They wouldn't be back until after dark. Josiah had left several hours ago in search of the needed plant, Ezra had accompanied the McTavish's and would update Orrin and J.D. His three patients were asleep so he took the opportunity to eat.

As he cleaned up the dishes, he thought on the odd events of this past week. He'd seen a lot of strange things in his time, some he couldn't explain but this took the cake. There were things he couldn't explain no matter how hard he tried. He placed the dried dish into the cupboard and poured himself another cup of coffee. He moved to the large main room and settled by the fire. As he watched the flames dance, the questions returned. He sipped slowly and furrowed his dark brow, trying to put the puzzle together.

Buck's leg wound. The gashes were caused by an animal's claws, of that he was certain. But the length, shape and number didn't add up. The only animal he knew that could make marks like that were a large cat. But even then, they wouldn't fit the markings he'd found. He examined his own hand and 'raked' the air in front of him. It matched a man's pattern but the slashes were definately animals. How could that be possible?

Vin's wounds. The odd marks on the tracker's ankles, sides and shoulders along with the cut over his heart were probably as Josiah theorized. He'd heard about such things when he was a boy in the south. Parts of Louisanna housed those which practiced 'dark arts' and worshiped at a different altar. And being so close to the border, it was possible that some band of such devil worshipers had taken Vin for the sole purpose of sacrificing him. But then why would they have taken time to sew the wound in his side?

Chris' wound. The battered blond gunslinger had not one inch of his flesh not blue and purple with severe bruising. The most severe area was the lower back and hip, which would take awhile to heal. The dual wounds in the left shoulder and back were from a blade. But why was only one cauterized? Why would they have done that?

"Unless Vin done it," he mumbled.

Could that be it? Had Vin somehow escaped from his captors and tried to make his way home? Had Larabee been traveling on foot, after being ambushed and the pair met on the road? Had Vin seen the bleeding wound and being too far for help, sealed it? Maybe Chris had collapsed forcing him to make camp and he'd been recaptured?

"Buck wouldda found 'em," he decided, knowing the the rogue had been hot on the trail. Besides the evidence Buck found indicated Chris had been traveling for some time on foot alone. He could not do that and be bleeding badly. And that still didn't expain Vin having an older, healing wound in his side.

"You gonna hurt yourself thinkin' hard like that." Josiah entered the living area, put his sachel down and waited but the pensive healer never stirred. He walked over and laid a hand on the tall man's shoulder and the body jumped up from the chair. "Easy, brother."

"I never heard yuh..." Jackson admitted, eyeing the sack. "Yuh got 'em?"

"Got plenty," Sanchez answered, "You wanna check on the patient and get that weed ready? I'll get some grub. I could eat a horse."

"Okay, just don't eat the soup, I need it fuhr Vin. There's plenty of ham and some fixin's, coffee's fresh."

"Fifteen minutes?" Josiah asked and saw the dark head nod as the healer grabbed the bag and left.

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Nathan chuckled evilly when the dormant body in the chair next to Vin Tanner's bed sprang to life. The dark blue eyes bulged and the still half stuperous Wilmington nearly fell off the chair he was perched on. The ex-medic continued to break open the plants now settled on Vin's exposed chest. Buck was coughing and gagging, leaning as far away as he could and tugging on his shirt.

"Jesus, Nathan you got a mean streak in you a mile wide!" Buck accused, coughing and pulling his shirt over his face. "Hell that'll wake the dead."

"Give you a hand, Buck," Josiah stated under the kerchief covering his lower face. He went to assist the injured man, clinging to the bedpost and keeping his wounded leg off the ground. But a hand went up and warded him off.

"I'm stayin'," Buck wheezed, his eyes tearing. He gagged twice and saw Nathan's head come up.

"Yuh gonna heave, yuh best leave." He warned Wilmington and then nodded to Sanchez. "Best get me a basin, in case Vin throws up."

"I ain't gonna throw up." Buck turned toward the other bed where Chris Larabee was sound asleep with only a bit of spiky blond hair visible. Nathan and Josiah moved the comatose Tanner into the spare bed next to Chris at daybreak.

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"I doused him before we moved Vin," Nathan answered of why their leader was silently sleeping. "He had rough night and that hip and shoulder was painin' him good. He won't be awake for awhile.

"That why his head is turned away?"

"...and covered..." Nathan added of the blanketed body. "Hey, it's workin'!"

"Damn!" Buck wheezed, gulping air through his mouth as his eyes watered. "Don't take your time Vin, please? Get them eyes open before mine close." He paused when the frail hand in his began to twitch. "Hey... hey... that's it..."

"Come on, Vin," Nathan encouraged as the tracker's nose twitched, the pale lips pursed up and the eyebrows creased . Then the whole face screwed up in protest and the toussled head began to move around.

"That's good, right?" Buck coughed, wondering why Nathan wasn't happier.

It was all too confusing for Vin. He didn't understand the twirling colors that now mixed and danced wildly all around him. The lusty reds and yellows were piercing the subtle browns and bronzes. All around him there were loud sounds and a strong wind. The scent riding the hearty gust was foul. He wanted to turn and run away, to seek the quiet place he'd left but he could not. The voice was pulling him and he was afraid to let go.

"That's it, Vin, come on... get them baby blues open for Buck," Wilmington pleaded, moving to sit on the bed. The stench was so foul it caused his eyes to sting with tears. Impatient and now in danger of throwing up, Buck grabbed the offensive weeds and thrust them right under Vin's nose.

"No!" Nathan grabbed at them and got and elbow in his side. "Yuh just can't do that. He might not be strong enough to..."

"Vin!" Buck hollered when those long dormant eyes shot wide open. "Easy now, I gotcha." Buck soothed of the coughing, gagging body he now held. He moved closer and lifted Vin, so that the Texan rested against his chest. "Josiah, get that basin over here!"

"He ain't gonna throw up," the preacher noted, moving to the bed.

"Wasn't worried about him hurlin'," Buck gagged and grabbed at the bowl. The smaller body in front of him was jerking weakly and the hand was desparately clinging to his free one. The frantic breathing and severe trembling nearly broke his heart. "It's okay, Vin. You've been sick, but Nathan's on the job. Just take it easy."

"Hold on Buck," Nathan scooped the weeds up and put them back in the bag.

Josiah moved and opened the windows wide, sending chilly autumn air into the room. He looked up as Nathan tossed him the bag holding the offensive weeds and tossed them out the window. Then he got a quilt from the bench at the foot of Chris's bed and covered him up.

"Easy now, Vin, you're safe. Calm down, just... Vin?" Buck moved the bowl when a tiny gagging sound came from the new Lazarus. He winced when the shaking body tossed up a mouthful of water and phlegm. "Hey, Nate... I think he's chokin'."

"Lemme see."

Nathan moved to the other side of the bed and studied the sweating , pale face before him. Although the eyes were now wide open, they didn't blink when he moved his hand in front of them. In a few more moments the room would be void of the stench and they could close the window. It was unnerving to see Vin's eyes open but without any signs of activity. The tracker was indeed gagging and he pried the mouth open and stuck his fingers back as far as he could.

"Get that bowl up!" He ordered and grabbed it from Buck as more watery-phlegmish mix erupted. "Damn he don't need that, not now."

"What?"

"Fluid in his lungs..."

"What ain't you sayin'?" Buck didn't like the odd look on Nathan's face. He was behind Vin, supporting the weak man by holding him up. The still trembling body was resting against his chest. But he moved Vin slightly when Nathan rose to get some water. "Aw, hell..." Buck's sholders sagged in defeat as his spirit fell to the floor. Those usually emotive eyes were wide open and dull. The unblinking orbs were without life at all. "Vin?" He requested quietly in a voice echoing of a bruised prayer. He gently rested his hand against the wheezing man's cheek and felt his gut stabbed when the face nestled into his palm.

"Give 'im over, Buck," Nathan requested quietly, resting a hand on the visibily shaken rogue's shoulder.

"Come on... V...v...in..." Buck managed, cupping the square chin in his hand. The eyes never moved, they were fixed on a sight far beyond the room. "Hell, son you're breakin' my heart."

"Let me have him, Buck" Nathan directed just in back of the tall man who held onto the puppet-like Tanner protectivly.. Although it appeared Vin couldn't see them, he had relaxed and the fear was gone.

"I'm okay," Buck stated in a flat voice. He turned again so Vin could rest against his back. "Maybe you can get some water in him."

"Okay."

Nathan poured some water in a mug and picked up a spoon. He nudged the slack lips with the spoon and waited, but they didn't move. Rather the face remained blank and without any emotion.

"Vin, it's Nathan, yuh need tah drink. I got water... come on and open up." He tried to work the spoon successfully but the lips remained closed.

Vin didn't understand any of this. He didn't understand the strange place where he was or the voices talking at him. All he knew was that he hurt and hurt bad. His head hurt and his stomach felt awful. He couldn't see anything, he was surrounded by a weird gray mist that circled and curled around him. He was cold and sick and wanted to go home. That word lingered and caused him to forget his pain. Home. Home Home. Like a mantra, he used it to force himself through the odd clouds and towards... towards...

Home.

The voice was back and it was so close. The strong warmth was right next to him and he grabbed out for it. He felt something strong holding onto to him and speaking to him. He trusted the voice and needed it. He didn't want to be alone in this weird place. He wanted to be... home. Something cold hit his mouth and he panicked. He wasn't alone in this place. He didn't know who they were or what they wanted. He didn't want them poking at him anymore. He just wanted to go home. The voice was back and it was mad. He didn't want the warm thunder to leave him again so he obeyed and clung to the voice as hard as he could.

"You best drink that Vin or Nathan'll make you drink cat piss. Get that Tanner mouth open, " Buck ordered harshly and then grinned triumphantly when the jaw moved, the lips parted and Nathan got a spoonful of water inside. Vin swallowed and they slowly repeated the steps until the whole mug was gone. He felt the desperate grip Vin had on his hand and that only made the sight before him more agonizing. Would Vin ever wake up? Or would their cocky tracker be lost inside this shell forever?

Good. It felt good. The cold metal thing that hit his mouth took the fire from his throat. He needed more , he wanted more, he had to have more and he would have more. He pouted, fought againt the voice holding him and demaned more. He opened his mouth and waited but not metal came back.

"Damn, slow down son," Buck laughed as Vin's mouth opened and the brows furrowed in annoyance when no water was rewarded. 'Quit cussin' or Nathan'll douse ya."

"He's mad," Nathan chuckled at the scowl he knew all too well. That was a good sign, the slack features weren't void, they were angry. "That's good, he's pissed off. He can feel, Buck, he ain't dead in his head. He's thinkin'."

"He's gotta wake up , Nate," Buck pleaded as Nathan stepped aside to let Josiah past.

"Here, I'll take him and yuh get that leg elevated. Why don't yuh get into the bed next door and take a nap," Jackson suggested.

"I don't know," Buck hesitated, but his leg was throbing and Vin was getting heavy.

"Come on Buck," Josiah stated, nodding to Nathan who took Vin . He eased Buck upright and steadied him then handed him the crutches.

"Hey, cut that out... Vin calm down."

"..mmm... mmm... mmm..." Vin cried out when the voice was suddenly taken away. The warmth left and he was freezing. He couldn't find his way through the thick gray mist. Where was his guide? He tried to run and fight his way through the mist, seeking that sun that held him.

Josiah and Buck were both stunned by the small weak grunting sounds that the glassy-eyed man was making. That he was fighting back was a good sign but he was clearly upset. Both arms were moving weakly and one fist hit Nathan on the face. The tracker's fine features were covered with a thin sheen and clearly angry.

"I think he misses you," Josiah said as Buck sat on the bed facing Vin.

"Everybody loves Buck," the shaken Wilmington stated.

"Actually that usually only applies to desperate females in bed," Sanchez answered and winked at Nathan.

"or blind ones," Nathan added.

"Whoa, slick, you're workin' up a lather there," Buck oozed and took the flailing hand, holding it tight. The body before him sighed and sagged, flopping forward and hitting his chest. "Uh... uh..." Buck began but had no idea what to do. He cast his eyes at Nathan who was wincing as the garbled grunts again emerged.

"...mmm... nnnn... pppp..."

"Just talk tah him, Buck," Nathan suggested. "For some reason, yuhr the only one he can hear and feel. Could be he's got no idea where he's at..."

"...and you're his lifeline." Josiah concluded, watching Buck's large hand moving down Vin's back.

"Okay, Vin, that's enough, you're fine. You better not puke on me, I ain't gotta another clean shirt. " He paused and winced at the frantic breaths hitting his neck. "Cut that out, now. You're safe now, Nathan, Josiah and me are right here. But you need to calm down, okay? Okay... Vin?"

"His eyes closed." Nathan peered at Vin's damp head now lolling on Buck's shoulder. "He either passed our or wore hisself out. Either way, he's sleepin' again."

Buck's leg was throbbing wildly now and he didn't argue when Nathan took Vin from him. He let Josiah lift him and hissed audibly, clutching his thigh. He leaned heavily against the larger man and cried out in pain.

"Get him into the bed next door," Nathan ordered while easing Vin back down. "Vin? Vin?" He tapped the slack face and the silent man sighed deeply and continued his slumber. "Good, maybe he'll stay put for awhile, Buck needs to sleep."

"Something tells me that won't be a problem," Josiah replied as he returned from getting Buck down. He cast his smokey eyes at the other bed where Larabee was still sleeping. "If anyone can find Vin and bring him back, it's that man."

"Amen tah that," Nathan agreed. "Yuh got this? I wanna get some laudenum into Buck before that fool gets a crooked notion and hobbles back in here."

"Go on, Nate," Sanchez settled next to Vin and opened his bible. "Cup of coffee would be good. Me and the boy'll be just fine, keepin' company with the Lord."

Vin didn't understand the words that now circled around him but they sounded good and he liked the feeling they left him with. Easy and light, they gave him hope and he grabbed onto them, using each one to pull himself forward towards home, one step at a time.

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The sun was beginning to set when something tantilzing tickled his nose. He moaned and blinked as the wonderful scent of roasting meat assaulted him. He empty stomach growled loudly and he peeled both eyes open. The dark blue told him he'd slept the day away and that would explain his headache. Too much sleep and not enough food. A thought occured to him then and a vision formed of a very sneaky healer.

"Goddamn cat piss..." he mumbled. "Nathan!"

Before Chris's bellow had a chance to bounce out of the room and down the hallway, it caused a great reaction within the room. He was unaware that two of his missing friends were sleeping and the third outside and out of earshot. He turned to get a mug of water and his green eyes shot wide open. The bed next to him was not occupied with the tall, lanky womanizer, rather a startled wide-eyed tracker. His best friend was sitting up and staring straight ahead, fisting the blanket now pooled at his hips. The sweat running down his face and the frantic motion of the bobbing Adam's apple told the gunslinger he might have roused his friend from a bad dream.

Then it dawned on him, creeping slowly through his body. It began as a tickle in his feet and now the crafty hands of fate snaked up and over his legs and torso. Every hair stood on end and those icy fingers danced on his spine. He wanted to call out to the others, to move off the bed or even to speak but he couldn't. His heart was hammering so hard against his bruised chest it hurt. Vin was awake. He wasn't in a coma, those damned eyes were wide open.

"Vin!" He choked, eyes cast on the pensive profile. "Vin, you scared the shit outta me. Christ, I thought you were gonna die on me."

But the rising of his heart ended abruptly when the usually emotive blues remained unseeing and focused on something far away. His heart shot down so fast it took his breath as it dropped and flopped in his stomach. He felt those cruel hands of fate shredding his gut like ribbons. It wasn't fair. This wasn't Vin. It was an empty, useless fleshed out frame void of life. He'd rather bury Vin than have to see him like this every day.

"Vin... look at me. Dammit, Tanner I'm talkin' to you! FUCKIN' LOOK AT ME!" He accused angrily and hurled the water mug across the room. It flew past Tanner's face and he never flinched. "Shit... aw... shit..."

Despite the fire of agony rising fast through his dormant legs, he swung them over the bed. He cried out and bit his lip when the circulation long denied coursed through his veins with a wicked vengence. The swift fire of pain in his legs was so great it caused tears to be born hard in his eyes, clinging to the lashes with fierce loyalty. He used his right hand to cling to the bedframe and rocked slightly, praying for the agony to end. Gasping and wheezing, he tried to stand but a hot knife slashed at his hip and back, causing him to collapse back on the bed and cry out in pain. Frustration settled hard onto his features, but clarity prevailed. If he fell and broke his good arm or that tender hip, he'd shoot himself. Either way, it wouldn't do Vin any good.

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Someone was hurt. Someone was hurt bad. Vin's colorless world filled with a burst of beautiful light. It was so beautiful it nearly crippled him. Glorious shades of blues and greens met and married into a color that defied words. He was mezmerized by it and moved towards it, letting it embrace him. Within the powerful cloud of color he felt his fears leave and his hope was restored. This place... this was it... he was home. Home. Home. Home. Then the scream sounded again and he frowned, clutching his hip. Someone was in pain. Someone was hurt badly and needed him. He felt the pain as if it were his own. Rippling waves of hot agony slashed at his hip, back and shoulder. The glorious healing light he was wrapped so securely in began to shimmer. He wouldn't let the pain win and stood firm. Someone needed him... someone he needed. He reached out to find the person and take the pain away.

Chris swiped his wet eyes and gulped air wildly as the throbbing in his body refused to yield. Through the blur in front of him, he saw a frail hand reach out. A glimmer of hope was born inside of him and he stoked it, causing the fire to build. It was perhaps the most vital fuel he needed now, for without it, he and Vin would both be lost. The hope was the light in the darkness. As he studied that wavering hand he hoped it would be enough to guide Vin back home. He studied those large eyes and wondered what they were seeing. Was this as awake as Vin would ever be? Or was he still on a journey back to the land of the living? Could he live with this silent spectre? Or would seeing the valient spirit trapped inside a broken shell be too painful to bear?

"Vin?" He waited and the shaggy head cocked, sky eyes quizzical. "Vin? I'm right here. Look at me, I'm right here." He paused, swallowed hard and gathered up his faltering courage. "Please..."

Josiah stood in the doorway and watched the bittersweet scenario before him unfolding. His heart went out to Chris Larabee whose eyes shone with the deep feeling he had for Vin Tanner. He prayed Vin would return to them for in a way he completed Chris Larabee. The two seemed to be like separate sides of the same coin, joined by fate. He watched Vin's head cock and the face furrow hard in concentration. One frail hand lifted and sought to catch and capture the essence of the missing half of his soul. Perhaps that was the missing piece of their puzzle. He thought a moment and got an idea.

"Gimme a minute, Chris," he said and saw the blond glance at him for a moment and nod.

He returned a few moments later carrying a large rocking chair. With a bit of difficulty, he managed to get it through the door and settle it next to Vin. He then got the spare quilt from the top of the closet and lined the rocker well. He paused then to rest a hand on Tanner's shoulder and the audible gasp and shiver gave a smile.

"Easy, brother, hope is on the way. You hang on Vin, I think I have the key you need." Josiah then moved to where Larabee was already trying to get up. "Hold on, CHris. you need pants and a shirt. " He rumaged in the bottom drawer where Craig left some old clothes and got a flannel shirt and a pair of pants. He grabbed socks and the spent several moments easing Chris's bruised and battered body into the loose clothes.

"...not ready..." Chris panted, taking the cloth the preacher offered and wiping his face. The cold cloth felt good and his rubbed his neck and open throat as well. The pain was pulsating and reaching a crescendo, he gulped down two mugs of cold cider and bit his lip, waiting for the white hot ripples of agony to subside. Finally he nodded and lifted his arms. He didn't bother to surpress the cry of pain that snaked through his clenched teeth as Josiah hauled him upright.

"Should be real comfortable for you over there," Sanchez added, taking Chris's good arm around his neck and wrapping a strong hand around the slim man's waist, looping his fingers through the belt loops. "Cause Nathan's gonna plant me right in that bed."

"...God... Jesus... God..." Chris hissed, throwing his head back and clenching his eyes closed as the agony washed over his chest, hip and side.

"Maybe this wasn't a good idea..." Josiah fretted but that only seemed to spur the resolve of Larabee who sucked in a lungful of air and nodded. Slowly he supported the injured man and half-carried him to the rocker. By the time he got Chris settled, they were both covered in sweat. He knelt down and rested a hand on Chris's shoulder, waiting for the panting and very pale man to open his eyes. He was trembling badly and Josiah began to doubt his idea. The blond hair was soaked in a crown of proud achievement and an annoyed grim line appeared on the gunslinger's lips.

"Goddamn tracker's gonna kill me..."

"Yeah," Josiah grinned, giving the damp shirt a tug on the shoulder. He moved away briefly to soak the damp cloth again and fill CHris's mug. He handed the cloth over first and the trembling hand took it gratefully.

"Thanks, Josiah," Chris rasped and then caught the smokey eyes. "I'll come to your funeral. Hell , I'll even bring a couple people." He teased of the death threat he knew Nathan would issue.

"Some weepin' women would be nice touch." Josiah grinned and covered Chris's now propped up legs. He moved the pitcher, mug and spoon onto the table so Chris could reach it. "You hungry?"

"I was tempted to eat the chair."

"There's a roast in the oven, won't be done for awhile yet. But I can bring you a bowl of soup and some bread, cheese and ham."

"Thanks," Chris said, taking the hand extended. He wasn't talking about the food and they both knew it. He held the older man's gaze for a moment until the large man released his hand and headed for the door.

"You're the one he's waiting for, Chris. Lead him home."

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The swirling mix of brilliant turquiose, blue, green and aqua left him drunk and giddy. He didn't want to leave this place for he felt himself healing here. But someone very close to him was hurt and calling for him. The pain was so great within his chest, he felt his heart would break. Then he lifted his eyes to the top of the swirling vortex and saw a brilliant white light. A soft voice from within his lost soul called to him.

He's there... he needs you... go to him..."

Finally the waves of pain subsided and Chris felt his breathing begin to level out. He felt a light tap on his left and some odd mumbled grunts. He peeled his eyes open and took the wavering hand that was lost and searching. The blue eyes were wide and moving rapidly, looking for help. Josiah was right, he felt it as soon as flesh hit flesh. He held onto that hand for all it was worth and drank in the soft sigh of contentment that followed. Vin's jaw moved and his lips parted, he was trying hard to speak. Chris couldn't seem to find his voice and had to wade through a river of mired emotions in his twisted gut.

"Vin, it's Chris. I'm right here, you're not alone. You hear me, Vin?" He waited and watched the eyes began to dart frantically and the bandaged chest began to move as his breathing increased. The he felt the hand he held onto tugging back. The other hand began to move from the sheet , rising and reaching out, as if to touch. "That's it," he grinned, relieved that his words were felt and heard. "I'm right here, Vin and I won't let go. You need to come back." He thought on the words his silent friend had offered in the barn a morning that now seemed like a hundred years ago. He found them and sent them back, adding a dash of feeling emphasizing the need ."Cause seein' you this torn up is hurtin' me. You're a part of me, Vin, maybe the best part. There used to be only shadows, not there's light and color. Hell, look what you did, you got me soundin' like a Goddamn Tanner poet."

Chris. He knew that name. The fear was gone then, chased away forever with a mighty thrust of a vocal sword. Hope and Faith embraced him with the grace only found in a pair of clear green eyes and an open hand. He knew that voice, he knew where his path was and he realized he wasn't lost anymore. Chris. Chris. Chris. He screamed the name and waited for the swirling colors to give way so he could find his brother.

"I need you," Chris plea's was a raspy whisper, his gut rippling at emotion flashing in eyes that still didn't see. He let go of the hand and moved his hand to grip the back of Vin's neck. At the sound of his voice, Vin turned to him searching and seeking. The grunts emerged again and the eyes were shining now, sending tiny blue flames into his heart. He gave that neck a solid tug, while keeping his hopeful eyes trained on the lost, soulful blues. Vin's fumbling hand hit his chest and thumped over his heart. That gave him a grin and he felt something tugging inside and waging war to be left out. So he unlocked his heart and let it sail free. "cowboy."

One word. Not just any word but one that bond his soul to another. It pierced his heart and healed the wound. It newed his soul and restored his faith. With hope as his cape and faith as his shield, he lifted his face to that golden light above and raised his arms as the light exploded all around him, showering him in a healing rain.

He was going home. He knew who was on the other side of the storm, the explosive force that rocked his world. So he held on tight and called out to the brother he knew was guiding him.

"Chris...."

Part Eight

Chris sighed deeply and waited for the medicinal tea to kick in. He didn't know what Nathan used but it was working. The last two nights he'd been free of the strange dream. There was no hairy manbeasts hovering over Vin and cutting his heart out. The yellow eyed monster with dripping fangs eating Vin's heart was gone for good he hoped. Something about the dreams was troubling him they were vivid, too vivid. He'd never experienced anything like them before. His logical half dispelled what his heart was trying to vocalize. What if they weren't dreams? His eyes were half closed when he heard small footsteps, too light for an adult. He hitched himself up and peered over the low light of the lamp. A small child with reddish-gold curls and wide green eyes was standing next to Vin. He knew it was Annie and Craig's youngest and struggled to think on the name.

"You okay, son?" he inquired, drawing a blank on the name. The small head nodded once, but the large eyes told him different. He'd seen that same look in his own son's eyes. "You sure?" Again the head nodded. "It's kinda late, you ought to be in bed." The solemn face regarded him for a moment and then the small hand moved. Chris saw something dark blue with green and white plaid on it next to the long nightshirt. "You got something for Vin?"

"Dis," Alex whispered, holding up his most prized possesion. The blanket he'd had his whole life. The one he slept with and took with him most places. In all of his five years, he'd not been separated from it, until tonight.

"Oh," Chris replied, swallowing hard.

His mind went back in time and the little boy in the room changed to his own son, Adam. He knew all too well how much that blanket meant to the boy and how hard it was to part with. He watched as the small boy gently unfolded the tattered blanket, which by the looks of it was loved very much and nearly frayed to bits. The small hands smoothed the item out on Vin's chest and the little boy stood on tiptoe, carefully examining Vin's face. One small hand moved up to touch the sleeping man's cheek.

"He's just asleep," Chris updated when the large eyes became fearful. Vin was a favorite among the kids in town. Like the damned Pipe Piper, they were fastenated by his clothes, lifestyle and the fact he lived with Indians. With adults, the legendary Tanner temper was evident all too often but not with children. He has the patience of a saint and never talked down to them. "Might be a good idea for you to go to sleep to."

"Otay," Alex whispered, but his hand moved to the blanket again. He swallowed hard and tears formed in his eyes. His chest hurt and he sniffed once, trying not to cry. His brothers would tease him if they found out. "I not a baby," he spoke up, feeling the need to justify his tears.

"No,of course not," Larabee reassured strongly. "You're a brave little boy. Do you know what a sacrifice is?" Chris spoke quietly and waited for the struggling child to turn to him. The toussled head shook 'no' and the wise father proceeded. "It means loving something so much, you give it away to help someone who needs it more. It's very courageous and brave. Your mother and father would be proud of you, I know I am."

"...hults..." Alex admitted, biting his trembling lower lip.

"Come here," Chris asked quietly, painfully sitting up. Once the small boy reached his bed he draped a single hand on the small shoulder nearest his hand. With every hard shuddering breath he felt just how much this boy was struggling hard not to cry. "I know it hurts, son. But you know what? I think it's helping Vin alot. It's just the right thing to make him better. See, his face is peaceful now, not like before, that's because of your sacrifice. I want to thank you for being so brave. You'd make a fine soldier."

"...Vin get bettel?" Alex hiccuped, casting wet, wide eyes upwards. "...pwease..."

There is nothing quite like a heartfelt plea from a kid to wreck his gut. He swallowed hard and gathered up his own courage, giving the small shoulder a good tug. He nodded once, moved his hand to the trembling boy's back and made several steady circles on the flannel. Any other night prior to this one, he would not be able to make such a promise, but now he felt different. Something changed when Vin called his name and looked at him. He felt a charge when that frail hand gripped his own. Vin would recover, he knew that now. He felt his own cold soul growing warm again, the dying embers stoked by a pair of twin blue flames.

"You bet," he vowed. "It's okay to cry, if you want. I know it hurts. It'll be just between us."

"...no ca...ca... why..." Alex huffed, swiping his eyes. He hiccuped again and sighed hard, trying to control himself.

"You need some water?" Chris asked but the small head shook no. "You gonna be okay getting back to bed?"

"...yeth..." Alex replied, slowing walking toward the door.

Chris flinched and felt a pain when twice the little boy stopped and the right hand flicked, the fingers itching to grab the beloved garment. But he remained strong and got to the door. From the eldest to this youngest, Annie and Craig had done an outstanding job. Each McTavish was full of the right stuff and the effort this sacrifice took showed that.

"Hey kid," Chris called out and the boy turned. "Thank you, from me and Vin." The toothless smile that was his reward paved his way into a deep sleep.

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Nathan stood in the doorway and his eyes went from one bed to the other. Both recovering men were sleeping peacefully and that was enough for now. His initial anger at Josiah for moving Chris and potentially doing more damage to the healing parts of the battered body were dismissed when he arrived to find Larabee patiently spoon feeding Vin some broth. What startled him more than the fact that Chris was sitting next to Vin and not in his bed, was that Vin was seeing Chris, not just looking at him. The blues were blinking and the weak head nodded in silent reply to the quiet words spoken by one-armed nurse. When he approached the bed, Vin looked up at him and smiled, croaking his name in a tiny whisper. That was the only word he spoke but it was enough.

"All the lambs are sleeping, time for the shepherd to lay his head down."

"Hmmph..." Nathan gave one last glance to the duo and then turned to his best friend. His dark eyes didn't display the anger his tone held. "Don't think I forgave yuh yet for pullin' that stunt."

"And here I was going to buy you a libation," Josiah offered with a crooked smile.

"Libation?" Nathan frowned, "Yuh sound like Ezra. Nightcap might be a good idea."

It was late and the rest of the house was sleeping. The two friends shared a whiskey by the large hearth, letting the amber and orange flames dance before them. Each lost in thought, mulling over the same puzzling events and wondering about what lies ahead. But that's where the two men differed. Josiah was a man of faith where Nathan was a man of science. The preacher eyed the healer and saw the flickers of doubt remaining.

"Some things are better left to the Lord. Let it go, Nathan."

"Yuh think I ain't been tryin'?" Jackson returned, downing his shot.

"I think, like Thomas, you need to touch." He noted of the apostle who questioned Jesus's resurrection.

"None of it makes any sense. THem marks on Buck's leg... what the hell did that? Them wounds on Vin's side..."

"It could be in the next few days as Vin regains his strength, you may get your answers. But if he was drugged, he may not remember anything. It won't change the outcome. Let it go, Nathan. We're still seven, that's worth rejoicing in."

"I guess," Nathan stood, rubbed his neck and stopped by the man of faith. "One thing we can agree on, Chris brung him back. All my medicine couldn't do that."

"Teamwork," Josiah decided, rising and clapping the younger man's back. "Don't sell yourself short. I think he'll need Chris in these upcoming days, I just hope Chris is strong enough to carry him."

"After seein' what he put hisself through to find Vin," Nathan stated with admiration, "Totin' Vin for awhile won't be work. Besides, I think Chris needs Vin just as much. Somethin's botherin' him, them nightmares are still houndin' him."

"I reckon they will be until he heals inside as well," Josiah decided, yawning and sitting on his bunk. "Goodnight, Nathan."

"It was a good one, wasn't it?" Nathan replied, letting his own weary body down.

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The first thing he noticed was how pink the sky was. It was a undescribable shade, a glorious mixture of pinks and peachs. He couldn't take his eyes off of it and watched for some time until the blue took over when the new morn was born. He lifted his head a bit and concentrated hard on finding the body across from him. He kept his fuzzy eyes on the faded quilt rising and falling. He strained hard to find Chris Larabee's face and studied the features. Soft and relaxed, not troubled or disturbed. That was enough and Vin laid back, letting his head rest on the soft pillow. His bleary eyes traveled around the room. It was unfamiliar to him, too big for the boarding house or the hotel. Handcrafted furniture and homemade quilts meant it was a private home.

He moved his arms and legs and bit his lip in pain. Although nothing was broken, he was stiff and sore. His chest felt heavy and he wished he could cough, he was wheezing badly. His head hurt and his stomach was terribly disturbed. He closed his eyes and tried to figure out what could have happened. He and Chris had both been injured. He had vague memories of Chris feeding him recently. He couldn't recall the words, but he knew the voice was like a healing force for him. He thought hard and everything was blank. He was lying on his side with pillows behind him and he thought maybe that was Nathan's doing. He coughed several times and fumbled , grabbing a cloth that was lying on the bedstand. He gagged and dispelled a mouthful of something very thick and green. He wrinkled his nose and dropped the cloth on the floor. He wanted water, he wanted food and most of all he wanted the pain to go away. But his heavy eyes protested any further action and he kept the heavy orbs focused on the sleeping blond until he drifted off as well.

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"Move over, I can't see."

"Hush up Ian! You'll wake him up!"

"Will not and quit bullyin' me. You ain't my boss."

"I'm bigger'n you, I'm nine and that means I am the boss."

"Where's the hole Aidan? Don't bullets make a big hole?"

"Yeah," the older boy replied, peeling the blanket down. "He ain't got any holes. Maybe Nathan fixed it? Or maybe it's on the other side."

"He's breathin' awful funny." Ian decided, eyeing the sleeping man carefully. "His mouth is all open like them fishes we catched."

Vin coughed softly and frowned when voices interrupted his slumber. Young voices surrounded him and small touches on this chest told him someone was nearby. The shushing noises were loud and too close. He moved his head away from a deafening order given from one visitor to the other.

"Look! See what you did," Aiden accused, "You woke him up!"

"I did not"

"Did too"

That last set of accusations brought his eyes open too quickly. Bright light assaulted him and he cried out, blinking as the blinding rays pierced his skull and seemed to skewer his eyes. Through the haze of pain, he saw two small faces. Each possessed a shock of curling reddish hair and bright blue eyes. His chest was so heavy he was struggling to breath and that didn't help the mass of confusions surrounding him.

"Vin!" Aiden grinned, leaning over and tapping the blinking man's face. "See I told ya he wasn't dead."

"He looked dead."

"Did not"

"Did too"

"S...s...t...o...p..." Vin whispered, his delicate head couldn't handle these vocal bullets. He coughed and gagged then as his stomach protested as well.

"Move back, Ian, he's gonna throw up," Aidan exclaimed but his brother didn't move.

"I ain't gettin' throwed up on!" the smaller boy declared and stepped back.

Usually when he was sick or hurt, he was a cranky patient. He didn't like being confined indoors and he didn't like wasting time. Being sick meant lying in bed all day and he hated that. He especially didn't like Nathan fussing over him-poking ,prodding and plying him with foul tasting medicine and oatmeal. But now he would welcome the healer as he would dispell the twin demons that were attacking his aching body. His woeful eyes went to the door and he prayed hard for the tall man to appear.

"Vin you got shotted." Ian moved up and took the confused man's chin in his two hands. "Can you hear me okay:? " he spoke louder. 'Your eyes is all funny."

"...God...": Vin managed, unable to add the 'help me'.

"He's all mixed up, he thinks he's in church," Aidan whispered.

"You ain't dead, Vin, you're at our house. You was all bloody and we thought you was dead but Sean said you wasn't and he's bigger n' us. "

"He's sixteen," Aidan added while watching the injured man's foggy blue eyes try to focus.

"He's got a girlfriend... they kiss.." Ian wrinkled his nose and shook his head. "That's 'scusting."

"I'm tellin' him you said him. He's gonna bust you." Aidan boasted.

"You better not or I'll tell Pa you was playin' with your peestick." Ian accused and saw his older brother's face turn red. He backed up when the taller boy grabbed him and shoved him hard, hitting the bed and patient.

"...please..." Vin rasped, fisting the sheets and thinking for sure this was a penace of sorts. He'd heard Josiah speak of the place between Heaven and Hell that you stay in to repent. Just as he thought for sure he was suffering in such a place, a deep voice boomed above, rescueing him.

"There ya are ya little devils. Did I not tell ye to keep out of here and leave Vin to his rest? Weren't ye warned? Did ye want yer backsides tanned? " Angus threated, shaking his cane at the twin terrors.

"No sir. We was just checkin' to make sure he wasn't dead," Ian answered.

"He ain't dead," Aidan updated, leaning over and prying the halfmasted blue eyes open "See, his eyes is open but they look awful funny like Uncle Mike when he's had too much whiskey."

"Enough of yer fresh tongue, ye tell Vin yer sorry now. Then go and find Mister Jackson and tell him to come right away."

"Sorry Vin!" Aidan offered, giving the bare shoulder a solid thump and causing a small groan.

"Yeah we come back when ya ain't shotted up so bad." Ian vowed, patting the blanketed knee.

"Off with ye now!" Angus ordered as the pair of scamps left the room.

Vin spent several moments just rejoicing in the bath of silence in the room. His eyes drifted shut and he felt a strong pair of arms lift him and adjust the pillows behind him. He was sitting up now, resting against a bank of pillows. The fuzzy features of the old man cleared up, revealing a tall figure with thick gray hair and bright blue eyes. He knew the man but couldn't think of his name.

"Well are ye back then lad? Ye gave us a good scare and that's a fact. Here now, I bet you throat's drier than Maggie MacPherson's hootie." He saw the young man's eyes were bruised with a deep shade of confusion as he lifted his head. "Ah, slow now, there ye are..better?"

Vin nodded and sighed hard, the water was good. But his head and chest hurt badly. He couldn't recall ever feeling so very sick and weak. He didn't think he could lift his hand if he had to. Panting and gasping from the effort of merely drinking had him worried. He cast his eyes up again and tried to speak. But all he did was cough and cry out when the pain erupted in his chest.

"Easy there, lad. How do ye feel ?"

"...diz...zy... sick..." Vin managed in a scratchy whisper. He didn't recognize his own voice. He took several more breaths and tried to finish. Then he thought on the conversation he'd heard between his two little guests, "...like... I... got... sh..sh... shotted..." He winced hard and moved a shaking hand to his throat which felt like razors were lining the inside. "...hurts..."

"Aye, the wee lad spoke the truth," Angus noted, lifting another mug to assist the patient in drinking. "Ye were shot and the devils that did it, used a knife as well. When Nathan and them brought the three of ye in, none of ye were movin' a bit."

"...three..."

"Aye, Buck was bleedin' from the leg and out like a light. And himself was a bloody mess. He was lyin' on top of ye, that's what Josiah thinks. He took one in the shoulder for ye so them bastards couldn't steal yer heart."

"...self... him... who..." Vin wheezed and saw a plaid cloth draped on his chest. His fingers moved over it and he frowned.

"Chris Larabee of course," Angus answered and saw the frail fingers moving weakly on the fading colorful cloth. It was an old part of his own tartan cape, cut down when his youngest grandson was born. Putting each new babe that bore his name in the colors of the clan was an important tradition for the patriarch.

"What... this..." Vin whispered weakly, fingering the colorful blanket.

"It's the kid's wubby," Chris croaked without thinking as he was not yet fully awake. Then he sat up, yawned and rubbed his eyes.

"Huh?" Vin rasped and peered over as his best friend.

Despite his headache and the fact he felt very dizzy, he forced himself to sit up better to look closer at Chris. He moved his arm and caught the old man's, who supported him while he waited for the blond to meet his eye. Chris looked awful, much too thin and pale with dark circles rimming his eyes. His chest was bruised badly, straight down to the point where the battered bones disappeared into flannel pants. His face was marred as well and his left arm was bound across his chest. Finally the green eyes met his and Larabee's lips turned up and the eyes creased in warmth. It was enough and he gave a small nod back, before collasping back onto his pillows.

"Wubby?" Josiah smirked of the very unlikely word coming from a feared gunslinger's mouth. Like the others gathered in the room, he'd seen the silent transaction that seemed to be exactly what Vin needed.

"That's what the man said," Nathan grinned, moving to check on Larabee's bandages. "He must be an expert."

"Adam had one..." Chris defended gruffly and thought of the late night visitor's sacrifice. "That little kid has guts. You should have seen his face, how hard it was for him to leave it."

"Aw, hell..." Vin's fingers trembled as they moved over the cloth.

"None of that lad," Angus gave the shivering man's naked shoulder a tug. He saw the emotion welling in the blue eyes and thought perhaps the weak man was overcome. Waking up after so many days is confusing enough. Being in a strange place with too many faces gawking at you didn't help. "Wee Alex has a good heart, tis a fine deed he did and he'll be all the stonger fer it."

"It worked," Chris complained, shoving Nathan's hand out of the way. "I'm fine, Nate. Scare up some water?" He requested then turned his gaze from the healer to the tracker. "You've been keepin' me up, coughin' up Tanner spit balls for hours." He compained and waited, keeping his eyes on Vin. Then the blue eyes narrowed and the face screwed up in protest. The pale lips parted and that peppered tongue was about to issue a sassy reply but only a weak series of coughs came back. That only made Vin angrier and his fist balled up. He grinned then, feeling the healing light deep inside him. Vin was back where he belonged. "I'm okay, Nate, see to Vin." He whispered when the strong hand began to move under his sling.

"I'm gonna have tuh change 'em today," Nathan spoke quietly and saw Chris's eyes flinch just a bit. Changing the bandages was extremely painful and he knew that seeing and hearing Chris's distress would upset Vin.

"Yeah," Chris nodded, understanding the silent transmission. Vin was clearly very weak and would undoubtedly sleep most of the day. "Maybe later?" He requested, nodding slightly to Vin who was already fighting hard to stay awake.

"Okay," Nathan smiled and gave the blond's shoulder a pat, then handed him a mug of cold water. "In the meantime, yuh need tah eat."

That was an easy decision. The food that Annie and Nathan prepared was good and hearty, he felt his strength returning every time he woke up. He needed to be strong, so he could heal faster. Vin needed him, despite what Nathan said he was worried about the cough and the extreme frail figure before him. He'd seen worse bodies and they were in coffins. But with the help of his brothers and the good grace of God, Vin Tanner would heal. He would make certain of that and made himself a silent vow to be there for his best friend. He'd bury his own troubles and the snakes of discontent that grew every day in his belly. With every day that his physical strength grew, his insides still festered with the troubling vision of that dark night.

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"Vin?"

He'd been drifting for a few moments, letting the wonderful sounds of his friends teasing voices warm his heart. The call of his name and a gentle touch to his face drew his heavy eyes open. He blinked hard and saw a familiar brown face and two worried dark eyes. The hand paused a moment cupping his chin and those warm eyes winked at him.

"Good tuh see them eyes open," Nate spoke quietly, moving his hand to the medical satchel that he put on the bedstand next to Vin Tanner.

"Nate," Vin whispered, frowning at how very awful his own voice sounded. Talking was hard and the pressure on his chest was awful. He tugged on the arm now reaching for his blanket and cast his eyes up. He wanted to ask about his injuries and why he felt so sick. But instead all he could do was gasp for breath and cough.

"Yuh gave me a whole new set of gray hairs," Jackson scolded lightly of the very worried eyes pleading with him. "We found yuh by the border near the river. Yuh been shot twice, got some small stab wounds and yuh been drugged. Yuh damn near died." Nathan felt the body sag and Vin melted into the large bank of pillows. He pulled his scope out and moved the metal cup over Vin's chest.

"...t'heavy... chest..." Vin managed, "...can't... breathe..."

"Congestion," Nathan updated, taking time to address the worried eyes. "Yuh been lyin' here for goin' on week, Vin, that happens sometimes. Yuh ain't gonna die, I got a poutice in the kitchen. It don't smell good, but it'll work. Later on we'll get yuh under a steam tent."

"Sor..ry..." Vin replied as the dark eyes only increased their warmth.

"Don't be," Nathan answered, "Man ain't much if he can't help a friend."

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Vin shivered when the blanket was drawn down to his waist and the gentle hands began to examine him. That crazy thing that Nathan used to listen to his heart was now trained on his chest. Then more bodies spilled into the room, framing the bed. Josiah, Ezra, Craig McTavish and his wife all were greeting him, wearing relief on their faces. He tried to concentrate on what each one was saying but it was too hard. There were too many of them way too close to the bed and he felt the little air he could find being stolen. He began to panic and that only made his breathing worse. His wide eyes traveled over all of them, flinching slightly as their cachophony of greetings caused his head to pound.

"...m'fine... not in coffin... gawk... fer..." Vin wheezed badly, coughed twice and then unsuccesfully tried to duck when a hand swiped the spit from his chin. "...git..."

"Fine thing you worry on a man, pray over him and tend to him. First words out of his mouth in five days are cranky.," Josiah issued warmly, cleaning up the disgruntled face.

"Welcome back, lad, you gave us a good scare," Craig greeted.

"It's good to see those pretty eyes lookin' back at me," Annie cooed, bending to kiss his cheek. '"I missed ye so. Ye'll be fine now, I'll take good care of ye."

"...nneee..." Vin found a weak smile for the concerned woman.

"Come one now, love, let's leave the boys to their visit." Craig suggested, lo osely encircling his wife's waist.

"I'll be back later with some soup. We'll have a grand visit, Vin," she promised, giving his hand a squeeze. "Chris I'll have yer breakfast done right up." She moved from Vin's side to stand near Larabee's bed.

"No rush, Annie, you spoil me as it is," Chris teased with a winning smile. "I won't fit into any of my clothes."

"Ye won't find me complainin' about that," Annie winked and saw the blond man's face flush slightly. "Yer fine cut of a man, Chris Larabee."

"You're married," Chris sent back, then saw the pretty hostess arch a brow and pause by the door.

"Maybe it's Buck I need to speak to then," Annie chased back and got a laugh.

"Well, hell darlin'" Buck boomed and paused to cast a Wilmington killer smile on the charmer. "You know my address. I'll give you a whole new way to sigh." Buck only grinned wider at the groans issued by his friends.

At the sound of the steady thumping, Vin began to move around. He tried twice to see past the others at the side of the bed. The deep voice drew back the cobwebs in his foggy brain and an odd sensation washed over him. Multiple echoes of that same strong voice now bounced around in his head. He couldn't reach out and grab them, to study what exact words they were, but that wasn't important. Somehow he knew that Buck Wilmington had been a key player in the game that had been the fight for his life. By the time he gathered his scattered wits about him, the tall body was next to him. He peeped up and saw that killer smile being born just for him.

"You look like shit, Vin." The rogue boomed and ruffled the damp, shaggy head. Tanner hated to be touched and he just couldn't resist.

"...f...f...f...awk... yer... s...s..or...ry... ass... tah... tah..." Vin coughed, totally spent and tried unsuccessfully to complete his reply with his hand.

"Damn you must be bad off, even your trigger finger ain't workin'" Buck laughed and gave the blanketed knee a pat.

It was good to hear Vin's voice again. He kept his smile when those eyes looked at him hard and he swallowed down his own emotion. Tanner gratitude was something he knew all too well. It was the shimmering hope and faith that crested on a hue so blue it took your breath. It wasn't often he felt this good and he savored every moment. He felt perhaps he'd played a role in bringing Vin Tanner back from whatever hell those animals left him in. The circle that had nearly been broken apart was now complete again. Yeah, it felt damn good. Then he saw the blinding light of thankfulness fade into shades of worry and sorrow. A weak and very shaky hand reached out to touch his bandaged leg.

"H...h...h...urt... Buck...lin."

"Hell son, you know the ladies love a battle scar" He winked to reassure the younger man, but the worried features remained intact and hurt to look at. He handed Josiah his crutches and settled onto the side of the bed. Then he took that frail hand, recalling all too well the silent messages he'd shared with the then comatose patient. Too close, way too close to losing a good friend. He kept a good grip on the hand and smiled at the totally confused but semi-alert tracker. "Quit worryin', you'll give that pretty face of yours creases. Sure is good to see them baby blues roamin' around. You got busted up a bit, but you're gonna be fine."

Vin kept his grip on Buck's hand as Nathan completed his examination. He winced a few times and held on fast when his wounds were cleaned . He let Wilmington's soothing voice calm him and gratefully took the strong tea Nathan offered. That was followed by some broth and then finally he was able to lie back and just concentrate on breathing. As the words issued by the others took hold he thought on what the old man said. That Chris had offered his own body so that he wouldn't be killed. He didn't know who had attacked them but that Larabee would give his life up for him was very humbling. Then it dawned on him he didn't know how badly Chris had been injured. He struggled hard to see past Buck's broad chest to where the blond was eating some breakfast. He knew the fact that the bandaged arm was also bound to his chest meant it was a serious injury. The varying shades of purples, blues and scarlets covered every bit of flesh he could see. He was too thin and that meant he'd been possibly near death himself.

Frantic eyes tried to see more and he wanted to ask Buck or Nathan, but his voice couldn't produce a word. He caught his breath and tugged on Nathan's sleeve. But his request took the shape of a violent coughing fit. Mouthfuls of water and muck came up and choked him, turning his face red with heaving effort. His eyes teared and the voices above grew distant. He heard Nathan shouting at Chris to 'stay put' and felt Buck's words close to his ear. The strong arm holding him was Wilmington's. Finally the attack ended and he collapsed, letting several hands clean him up.

"Vin?" Nathan asked and saw the wet eyes open. "I know that's scary, that shit got stuck in yuhr throat. But yuhr coughin' it out and that's a big step. Yuh listen up, yuh won't be alone, whenever yuh gotta toss that crud out, one of us'll be right here, okay?"

Vin nodded and sagged back against the pillows. He was so weak he couldn't protest when Buck wiped his damp eyes. He gasped for several moments, wincing at the pain in his chest and opened his mouth on command when someone warned him about water. He drank slowly and finally peeled his eyes open. Buck's grin was the first thing he saw and despite the gentle smile, the dark blue eyes were worried. He frowned and moved his hand, sliding it along the blanket until he felt a button. He gave the lean man's gut a pat and nodded once.

"Don't worry," Buck replied with a wink, "I'm keepin' track, you're workin' up quite a tab."

Then Vin realized he still had to know about his best friend's injuries. He eyed both Buck and Nathan and fixed his heavy eyes on the healer, who now was putting that heart listening gadget onto his chest.

"...how... bad... risss... cr...is... hurt...."

"Shhh! Yuh hush up I can't hear yuhr heart."

"...hell... I'm breathin'... it's tickin'... how he is..." Vin huffed and furrowed his brows in annoyance.

"He's got some healin' to do, but he's okay," Buck whispered, moving slightly and tipping the square jaw so the profile of the now slumbering Larabee could be seen. Sleeping was a big part of healing and the smallest effort caused the blond to lapse into small naps. Buck smiled at the unwavering emotion that shined from the Texan's eyes. He didn't speak, he didn't have to, it was eloquently spoken by the emotion cresting in the telltale orbs.

"He's sleepin, which is what is just what yuh need to do." Nathan put his tools away and stood up.

"...jest woke up... no tired... let me go.." Vin struggled weakly to rise and hand two sets of hands and a duo of loud voices chorused a denial.

"Now look, I ain't slept more than a few hours in almost a week tendin' tah the three of yuh. .I'm tired and after gettin' some grub, I'm gonna take me a nice long nap. There's no fevers to chase, no infection' to draw out and no throw up or shit tah clean up. Yuhr gonna stay put if I have tah nail yuhr ass down." Nathan drilled . "Chris's sleepin', he's wore out, he fought a fever hard and lost a lot of blood. He's gonna be fine but yuh both need tah rest. He ain't goin' a damn place and yuh can see 'im fine from here."

"...grouchy... healer... cold handed cran..ky...." Vin shoved the hand away and eyed the room again. "...where's m'clothes..." He scowled when Buck laughed so hard next to him he began to choke. "...serves... right... laughin'... at... invalid..."

"Got a new shirt and pants waitin for you, Vin." Josiah grinned, leaning into the room from the hallway. "and they'll be ready in a week or so when you are."

Buck took the large mug of coffee Josiah brought him and let the preacher settle his leg onto Vin's bed. He grinned over the mug when Nathan began spreading the smelly herbal mix onto Vin's now exposed chest.

"...fuck... is... that..." Vin wheezed, his nose wrinkling in distaste. "...clean... shit... house..."

"Yeah, Vin, that's m'secret," Nathan groused, smearing the warm poultice liberally. "This'll help loosen that mess in yuhr chest up. After yuhr nap, we'll get yuh in a steam tent."

"Go on Nate, I got this," Buck settled back in the rocker, savoring the rich coffee.

"Okay, I'm goin'." Nathan eyed Vin and waited for the fuzzy eyes to focus. "Yuh feel anythin' comin' up, yuh let Buck help. Don't swallow it'r fight it, it'll make it worse."

"...ain't... child..." Vin pouted.

"Ain't he cuter than a Junebug when he's gets riled up?" Buck boomed, ruffling the damp locks and getting an irate blue glare.

"Josiah'll be back in couple hours to sit in," Nate warned the rogue who he knew would overdo it.

Buck nodded and spent a few moments quietly reflecting on how lucky they had been. Vin and Chris should be dead but they weren't. Hell, he should be dead and he still didn't know why he was alive. He noticed that Vin was fighting hard to stay awake. The unbalanced wheezing and small coughs were hard to listen to. Vin was so very weak and fighting against the healing measures. Then he saw the reason why. A very worried set of blue eyes were fighting hard to see Chris Larabee. The pale lips parted and he bent over a bit to hear the frail whispered words

"...what... hurt... Chris..."

"I wish I could answer you, Vin," Buck admitted truthfully. "I ain't so sure myself what happened out there. Somehow you got kidnapped from Chris's shack. He was in Eagles Bend and instead of heading home, took the road by the river. He had a gut feeling you were in trouble." He paused and saw the handsome mans' face trained so hard on the body in the next bed that it hurt to look at. "He was right. I picked up Chris's tracks, it was late, damn near midnight I guess. It was a dark road, the wind was howling and I heard him scream." He put a reassuring hand on the tense arm on the bed. "Next thing I know is waking up here. Josiah , Ezra and Nate found the three of us near the border by the river. You were lyin' on a pile o'rocks all cut up and barely breathin', Chris was next to you and Nate said by the wound on his back, he threw himself on you. He's got another wound in his shoulder and his hip and back got bruised good. His arm'll heal but it's gonna take some time." He saw the now overworked eyes move to his leg. "This? Hell, I don't know what did this. Claw marks, deep ones, tore up some muscle. A big cat maybe? A wolf?"

That Chris willingly was ready to die to save his life moved the now somber tracker. He laid back and kept his eyes trained on Larabee as he tried to remember anything of what Buck said. A gang? No he didn't remember anyone taking him by force. Cuts and wounds on his body? No, he didn't remember that either. A cougar or wolf? No, whatever happened to Buck was also a mystery. But what he did know was that he was he was blessed by the bounty of such good friends.

"...luck... bastard..." Vin rasped, his throat tight. He saw Buck smile and nod once.

"I reckon he's a lucky bastard too,Vin," Buck lauded quietly. "You'd have done the same." He saw the eyes change then as Vin accepted the news and decided to relax. "That's part of the magic, slick. How I see it, God put you and him in the same place that day Nate damn near got lynched. It was meant to be, you know?"

"...know..." Vin agreed and fought hard to speak. He wanted to thank Buck Wilmington for risking his life to save them. Things like that came easy to Buck, he didn't know anybody with a larger heart.

"He knows too, Vin," Buck replied and then puzzled when the hand reached out. He went to take it but the fingers moved up, gripping his forearm. He swallowed hard then, not wasting the heartflet gesture of brotherhood normally reserved for Larabee alone. He grabbed the trembling forearm and smiled, nodding his head once. He kept that until the overworked blue eyes shut. Then he gently placed it down and pulled the quilt up.

"Yeah, some things were just meant to be," He decided of the unique bond his two friends shared. He basked in the warmth of that thought and kept vigil on his two friends.

Part Nine

There was not worse to him than feeling totally helpless. Although he knew the steam tent was necessary to rid his ailing lungs of the congestion, Vin hated the fact he was too weak to handle it on his own. The rising heat surrounded him like a thick blanket, invading every pore and fiber of his aching body. His head felt like it weighed a hundred pounds and he gave up trying to hold it up. He surrendered it to the chest and shoulder of the body holding him. The weakness and disorientation weren't bad enough, he was so spent he couldn't hack up the muck that was trapped in his throat. Then he'd panic and and fight the steam, causing the healing team to move into action.

"Easy, Vin," Josiah soothed as the weak body he held began to fight. He moved forward, lifting the younger man effortlessly and holding his upper body over a large basin. "Let it out, come on now, just one more. I know you're tired."

This was the third session in as many days that Nathan felt necessary to clear the infection that had taken a stronghold in Vin's lungs. The first two were a painful experience in that Vin coughed so much he vomited and then collapsed. This time he was stronger and they'd cleansed a lot of fluid from the lungs, but the effort left their tracker utterly spent. He was now lying limp and unable to lift as much as an eyelid. They were in the bunkhouse next to the main lodge. The large room had a section now walled off with canvas. Inside the 'tented area' the strong arms of the preacher held the ailing man with several large pots of steaming water, some with herbs that helped to break up the congestion inside Tanner.

"Nathan, he's had it," Josiah hollered and waited for the flap to open . "You got 'im?"

"Yeah." Nathan bent to examine the wheezing patient whose blue eyes were dulled and half-open. "Vin? Yuh done good. We'll get yuh cleaned up and back to bed, okay?"

Okay? Hell, it sounded like heaven to him right now. He'd do anything to get free from the confining area full of hot steam. He managed to nod his wet head and closed his eyes. He felt them lifting him and then the wonderful caress of cool air on his body. He was lowered into a tub where he was cleaned. He sighed in contentment as his ratty head was washed and then toweled off. Clean sleeping clothes were next and then the luxury of being laid on a soft mattress. He heard buzzing in the background and realized it was their voices. He was too exhausted to ply through the heavy cloak to hear the words. He didn't need that, he trusted these new brothers of his to care for him. He felt the cold metal thing hit his chest and it startled him. He pried his eyes half open and saw Nathan above him. He looked exhausted and Vin wondered how much sleep he'd gotten over this past week or more. He wanted to thank the generous man and tried to move his tongue inside his gaping mouth but no words wouuld come. That angered him and his brows drew together over a pout.

"Hey now," Nathan chuckled, seeing the telltale Tanner temper emerging. "No cause fuhr that."

"...th...th...an..th..k..."

"Yuhr welcome, Vin," Nathan replied softly, removing the stethescope. "Yuh sound a lot better, all them crackles is gone."

"...done..." Vin hoped, he hated the steam tent.

"Yeah," the healer reassured and saw the eyes move towards the door.

Nathan didn't need to hear it, Vin spoke it clearly without uttering a word. For three days he'd been separated from Chris. He was too ill to be moved out into the cold fall air so the decision was made that until the worst of the infection was out, he'd remain near the tent. But now those green eyes were the healing balm the weak Texan needed. He rested a hand on the anxious shoulder and let his grin broaden.

"Yuh miss that green-eyed cuss huh?" He found a weary grin when Tanner nodded once and kept those sad blue eyes trained on the door "Vin, I got some lunch fuhr yuh. After yuh eat, we'll take yuh back. How's that sound?" The deep sigh that replied was warming to the healer.

Josiah arrived at his side still buttoning a clean shirt as Nathan was putting together a bowl of chicken and dumplings for his weak patient. Along with the tasty dish, he put biscuits and honey and some medicinal tea onto the tray.

"You better hurry, brother," Josiah noted while gathering his own lunch. "He's fading fast."

"Hah!" Nathan cast a quick eye to the bed where the sharpshooter was dozing. "That boy can eat in his sleep. Yuh watch how fast them eyes pop open."

Josiah settled at the table, watching Nathan approach Vins' bed. Sure enough as soon as the tray came down on the small bedside table, the curling brown head popped up. Two owlish blue eyes were riveted on the dish and the mouth opened before the spoon hit the bowl. His grin broadened when Nathan flashed him a triumphant 'told you so' grin. He'd completed his lunch and was washing down some spice cake with coffee when Jackson returned.

"I doused 'im," Nathan updated as he settled at the table with his own lunch. "He won't feel anything fuhr a spell. Soon as I get done, we'll take him back."

"Yeah," Sanchez agreed, thinking on how quiet Larabee had been the last few days. "Best medicine for both of them."

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A snail's pace gave way to that of a turtle which morphed into that of a toothless toddler. Now bathed in a light sweat and bearing more than a bit of pain, Chris Larabee walked slowly through the living area of the lodge. He'd journeyed from his room to have lunch with Buck in the warm kitchen. He'd rested for a bit and filled his belly, leaving the dozing womanizer on the large leather sofa, he was now headed back to his room.

"...fuckin'... old man..." he panted of his slow pace and extreme exhaustion.

Adding irritation to his list of compliants, the annoyed, tired and damp one-armed gunslinger kept his burning eyes trained on the door. His legs were weak, his hip was screaming and his back was protesting loudly as well. But he wouldn't be defeated and pushed onward, the fruit of his labor pouring from every pore. He was breathing heavily, his knees were shaking and he felt the room tipping a bit but he pushed onward. Finally the doorway appeared and he got a surge of energy when he saw the waiting rocker.

He staggered.

He swayed.

He trembled.

He gasped.

He buckled his knees.

He arrived.

He succeeded.

For several moments, he could do nothing but concentrate on regaining his lost air and waiting for the room to stop spinning wildly. He shook his head and let the sweat fly, before raising his damp hand to his face to wipe it. Finally he trusted himself to reach for the water by the bed. He didn't bother with the mug, he lifted the pitcher and drank greedily, letting the excess cool is hot neck.

"...sweet..." he gasped of the liquid refreshment and put the pitcher back.

He could have gone to his bed and surrendered to the exhaustion plaguing his body. But he denied the protesting flesh and muscle that screamed at him. Although Nathan warned him that his body would need several weeks to regain the strength the loss of blood took away, it frustrated him. Merely walking down a hall to eat and returning felt like twenty miles through the desert, but it was a start. He stretched his legs out, wincing and biting his lip in pain as the healing hip argued with him. The bed, rest and a soft mattress versus a wooden rocker with no mercy . Easy choice, he eyed the window and waited, still hearing the whooping call Buck made when he'd seen Josiah signal from the bunkhouse.

Vin was coming back.

Josiah opened the door and then reclaimed his half of the precious cargo. He kept Vin's well wrapped upper body against his chest as he and Nathan made their way into the house. He found a fast grin at the healer's keen gaze. While keepig pace, Nathan's dark eyes shot over to the large pine table where two empty plates remained along with abasket of crumbs were bread should be. One body was resting on the sofa, snoring softly.

"He ain't got a lick of sense," Nate grunted of Buck's partner in crime.

"You know Chris has got a stubborn steak in him," Josiah replied.

"Ain't much on his ornr'y hide left to patch up," Nate grufffed, following the preacher into the bedroom.

Any anger he had for Chris Larabee was disspelled when Jackson saw the raw emotion shining back at him in a body throbbing with pain and drenched in exhaustion. He saw the hope wavering there displaced by fear when Vin was laid down and uncovered. The tracker was pale and had lost weight in the time they'd been apart. He looked frail but the wise healer knew different. He rested a single hand on the damp shoulder and shook it slightly to get the damp blond head that was riveted to Tanner to turn.

The smile said is all and Chris slumped back in the chair in relief. He covered his throbbing eyes and took several breaths to calm his nerves. Vin looked awful and for a brief moment when he was uncovered, he was so pale and still he appeared lifless. That was a dark place Larabee wouldn't revisit. But the toothy grin Jackson displayed took his fear away.

"Damn infection gave 'im a good fight, but he beat the hell of it," Nate boasted. "He's worn out, Chris, he be sleeping a lot over the next few days."

"He looks awful," Chris replied. "He's so weak..."

"Nothin' my fine cookin' won't fix," Josiah boasted, pulling a quilt over the sleeping Texan.

"I'm fine," Chris replied before Jackson could ask what his eyes were formulating. "I'm stayin'"

"Okay, but you can't help him if you push t'hard and make yuhrself sick," the healer warned. "Chris?"

"I heard you, Nate," he replied leaning forward to inspect Vin a bit closer as Josiah and Nathan left the room. The ill man's face was turned away and he reached over taking the square jaw in this hand to tip the face towards him.

Vin remained limp and lightheaded until he felt the soft mattress under him. He turned his head and fought to open his eyes when the quilt was pulled up. Then a hand touched his chin and he forced his heavy eyes open a quarter. Through the blue slits he saw pants and then he saw a sling. The slight move of his heavy head caused him to lose his breath. He pried his thick tongue loose and greeted the concerned but very warm green eyes looking down at him.

"...cow...boy..."

"You callin' me a cowboy?" Chris teased and saw the drowsy head bob. "Them's fightin' words, Tanner. Course your ass is a mite scrawny now but..." He chuckled then when one finger moved on the quilt. "That's my sharpshooter," he bragged with a grin and settled back in the rocker.

But the anxious eyes were blinking rapidly trying to focus on him. One hand moved over the quilt and along the mattress. The pale brows were furrowed in concentration and he moved to take that hand. A soft sigh, the troubled features relaxed and he was awed by what power that simple gesture had. He felt his gut clench and realized just how close he'd come to losing the best thing in his life. He gave a short nod of his head and gave the hand a tug.

"I'll be right here, Vin."

That was all he needed and more than enough. Vin spent several minutes regaining his lost breath and regulating his racing heart. He knew he'd come through the worst of the storm and he was now on calm seas. He was weak and still had a long way to go, but his mast was full and the clear-eyed blond captain was by his side, steering the ship. So with a single contented sigh, he fell into a deep, healing sleep, safe and secure .

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The feral yellow eyes turned towards him and the hairy beast roared in defiance, baring it's fangs. The others followed suit, but that wasn't as chilling as the knife arced over Vin Tanner's chest. Without a second thought, he shoved his battered body forward covering his unconscious best friend's unprotected chest. Pain ripped into his back and he screamed, when the hot blade cut through muscle and flesh.

The sharp gasp that followed brought the dozing man's eyes open. Sweat covered his face and upper torso. Gingerly he raised himself up and brought his legs over the side of the bed. He'd been getting stronger every day and now was confident he wouldn't fall and break his good arm. Josiah and Craig had been helping him walk short distances to build himself back up. Weary green eyes found the bowl of water near the towel on the small table by Vin's bed. With a heavy sigh, he slowly rose and carefully walked over.

As he bathed his tormented features in cool water, the thought on the odd dreams. They didn't scare him anymore and that worried him. The fact that they were so real, so stark and absolutely so terrifying was causing him to wonder. The vivid details went far beyond where a dream ends. Josiah's words about the unholy acts commited on All Hallows Eve played over again in his mind .

"Now that's what I call a fine lookin' ass, not a Tanner ass, but not bad."

"You've been house bound too Buck, you're beginning to worry me," Chris replied, turning to find the usual broad smile plastered on his oldest friend's face.

"Desperate men sometimes resort to desperate measures," Buck replied, limping to the chair by the window.

"You come near my ass and they'll be calling you Lefty," Chris shot back and studied the darkness outside. It would be several hours before dawn arrived and he wondered why his oldest friend was roaming around. "You okay?."

"Yeah," Buck hissed, yawned and stretched his leg out, rubbing the injured limb. "I'm weanin' myself off the painkillers. Leg's throbbin' like a bitch."

Buck cast an eye at the back of the other man, whose face was haunted. The shadows that played on Larabee's face were disturbing. The eyes that were usually as clear and sharp as any he'd encountered were now clouded with doubt. He furrowed his own brows and thought hard on to what could be bothering Chris. He shifted his gaze to the third occupant of the room. Vin's chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm and the horrid, thick panting that had been caused by the fully congested lungs was nearly gone. A soft snore was barely audible and the face was relaxed in sleep.

"He sure sounds better," Buck commented, keeping his eyes on Tanner.

"Yeah, Nathan and Josiah did a helluva job with that steam tent," Chris replied and made his way to where the cup and pitcher were. He held a cup up and saw Buck's face screw up.

"Water?" Buck shook his head.

"Sorry, stud, bar's closed." Chris poured himself a drink, drained it and then took the chair next to Buck. His eyes traveled over to the sleeping body of his best friend. "He's lost some weight."

"Hell, you wait until we haul his skinny Tanner ass into town," Buck snorted and shook his dark head. "He'll get that 'Ma'am and blush' act into gear and every female in the territory will be linin' up with muffins, cakes, cookies." He paused to think on the charm that the tracker issued without trying. "Mrs. Connelly's gonna lock him in that room for a week and fatten him up." He chuckled at the strong attachment the boarding house widow had for Tanner.

"Buck?" Chris paused, studying the lines the wood pattern made in the floor. "You still don't remember much of what happened?"

"That what's botherin' you?" Buck replied, turning to study the profile now aimed at the floor. The blond head dipped once and he sighed hard. "Aw, hell Chris, I'm sorry. I've pushed my brains as far as they'll go, I wish I could remember more but..."

"No, Buck, it's not you... I didn't meant that. I just..." he paused again and compared his troubled dreams to the theory Sanchez provided. "How much of Josiah's theory do you buy?"

"You mean about the devil worshippers?" Buck answered and saw the head turn towards him. The eyes that looked back weren't asking a question, rather they were looking for support. "I ain't gotta a better answer. I've heard about weird stuff that happens on Halloween." He shivered as the echo of a scream carried on the wind on a dark night revisited. "I do remember hearin' you scream... scream like the devil was twistin' your balls."

"I've been having dreams, Buck, bad ones..." Chris's voice trailed off and he sat back, winced as his healing ribs protested and chuffed out an annoyed breath.

Buck waited but no more words came. He watched as Chris's face changed from confusion to fear and anger. "Get it off your chest, pard," he requested softly.

"I don't know if..." Chris paused, trying to find a way to make Buck understand the odd nightmare. "it's what Josiah told me and my mind's workin' on that picture or if it really happened."

"Devil worshippers tryin' to carve Vin's heart out?" Buck asked and got a half-grimace, half nod in return.

"They're not..." he faltered, wondering if he should tell Buck about the beasts that terrorized his nights.

He sighed hard, shook his head and raised his tortured eyes to the ceiling, walls and finally to the window. The darkness that met his tormented gaze matched the cold fear that resided inside his aching body.

"They're not what, Chris?" Buck pressed, eager to fix the hurt he saw.

"I don't know, Buck. I just don't know. Every night I have the same dream but it's so clear and sharp, it seems real."

"About the animals who took Vin and hurt him?" Buck guessed and watch Chris's eyes dart fearfully around the room. "Jesus, Chris, what's got you rattled?"

"Josiah said... he said he thought maybe..." Larabee faltered, stumbling on the choice to spill his guts or not. "A group of religious nuts from Mexico got a hold of Vin, drugged him so they could cut out his heart."

"Yeah... and... that's not what you're dreaming about?"

"Yes... no..." Chris sighed hard, raking his hand through his spiky blond hair. This was harder than he thought. He didn't want Buck thinking he was nuts. Wouldn't that be his first thought if Buck told him he 'saw' large wolf-like men eating Vin's heart? That his gut told him he wasn't dreaming, he was reliving what actaully happened.

Every time he closed his eyes the scene replayed in stunning reality. A group of ten foot tall hairy man beasts shaking their shaggy heads, howling and licking blood from Vin Tanner's body. Then the largest and darkest beast raised a knife and he moved on instinct protecting Vin's life with his own. The pain of that hot blade slicing his flesh caused him to wince again and the fetid, foul and disgusting breath of the wolfman moved over his face. Smell, sight, sound... it was too real, it wasn't-couldn't be a dream. But that left a lone possibility and the reality of that left a cold fear inside of him. Man-eating beasts? The impossibility of his fragile position boiled over and spilled out.

"Dammit!"

"Chris?"

"Go on back to sleep, Vin," Buck gently replied to the mumbled name called out by the sleeping man. The fine features were distressed, sensing Larabee's discomfort. Buck kept his hand there, shushing the troubled sleeper until the body was once again relaxed.

"Ever notice how young he looks when he's asleep?" Chris asked from where he now stood by the bed.

"I don't think Vin was ever young," Buck answered in a sad voice, recalling the few bits and pieces Vin shared with him about his hard early life. "That bothers me."

"Yeah," Chris answered, knowing that Buck had a happy childhood and it tore him up that Vin's was so hard and lonely. He tugged Vin's blanket up a bit higher, inspected the face to make sure his friend was sleeping contentedly and then gave Buck's shoulder a tug. "See you in the morning"

"Chris?" Buck turned as the recovering man slowly and gingerly walked back to his bed and settled on it. He wanted to pull that festering puss from whatever wound was imbedded deep inside of the troubled blond.

"Goodnight Buck."

Buck winced as the invisible 'door' slammed in his face. He knew his friend long enough to read and be forced to accept the finality of the tone that shut the door on all discussions. He's lost this battle to Larabee but the war was not over. He'd continued to fight on until he purged the mess that was causing his friend such pain. He sat between the two for a long time, then rose and limped to where Chris lie sleeping.

"Damn your Larabee pride to hell," he whispered, "You won't win this time. You got Buck Wilmington's word on that," he vowed and left to find his own bed.

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It was a chilly November day with a gray sky, howling wind and rain pattering against the windows. In the two weeks that they'd been guests of the McTavish's at their large lodge, the season had begun to change. The colorful air of autumn was changing to the cold breath of winter. Thanksgiving was just two weeks away and just behind that was Christmas. Another year come and gone, just like that. The echo of his father's words he'd heard many times growing up drifted by.

"Time marches on."

"You say something Chris?" Buck yawned and stretched his long legs out by the fire.

"Six weeks and another year gone," Chris commented from where he was resting on the large leather sofa. A leather bound book was by his side and a large mug of coffee was warming his hands.

"Can't speak for you, stud, but this old dog ain't gettin' any older," Buck winked and sat back wearing a bawdy grin. "There's still too many cats out there just itchin' to be tamed."

Chris had to grin at that and hoisted his mug in tribute to his gregarious friend. Buck's womanizing was well known to most in the area. But what Chris knew, what the inner circle knew was that this men had a heart second to none. He'd fought be Buck's side in battle and had seen first hand just what courage looks like in full living color. He was glad Buck was back by his side, there was a comfort there he didn't get from anyone else. Keeping his smile, he turned his face towards where Nathan was exiting the kitchen and heading up the hallway.

"Where you going?" Chris asked when Buck stood, his eyes on Nathan's retreating back and hobbled to a chair closer to the hallway.

"Can't hear from over there, too far away," Buck replied.

"Hear what?" the perplexed blond replied. But before Buck could answer, another voice replied for him, a very cranky drawl exploded.

"Christ yer hands is cold, m'heart's likely t'shoot the hell outta m'chest! Git away... was havin' me a nice dream, yer interferin' paws weren't needed."

"That!" Buck chortled, as Vin Tanner's raspy voice floated down the hall.

The last five days had seen Vin sleeping alot, rising only to eat. His color was better, the weight was coming back and Nathan's hawk like stance had played a large role in that. He was still very weak and just walking from the bedroom to the living room took all his breath and his legs. But it was a start, he was on the road to recovery. Their healer felt sure by the next morning, if the rain left and the sun returned, they could bundle the phlegm-ridden Texan up and transport all three back to town.

"Yuh hush up, Vin Tanner, I ain't in the mood fuhr yer ungrateful mouth. Yuhr still wheezin' and hackin'." Nathan decided, pressing the stethescope to the wiggling man's chest. "I think yuh need more dousin'" He decided, replacing the hearing device and picked up a dark bottle and spoon.

"Stick that fuckin' spoon up yer ass. All that shit does is make me sleep. Hell I'm gettin' blisters on m'ass," Vin fired back.

"How you doin' in there Vin?" Buck hollered up the hall. "That pretty little ass of yours need a hand with them blisters? ."

"Shut the fuck up Buck!" Vin hollered, sitting up and trying to get by the six foot six wall of resisitance. "Git outta m'way, I aim t'teach that mustache totin' polecat a lesson."

"Sit!" Nathan ordered, shoving the flailing limbs back down. "Yuh get ornery'r than a cross-eyed, constipated mule when yuh got a Tanner cold."

"Look here Nate, I..." Vin opened his mouth and the spoon went in. He grimaced and coughed, exaggerating as much as he could to 'painfully' get it down. That effort sent him into a coughing fit and he his back was clapped. A mug of cold water was shoved in his hand. "...all o'ya take turns pee'n in that bottle?" Vin drained the mug, ignored Nathan's smirk and made a wobbly trip to the table by the window. There was a large tray with several dishes waiting for him.

"Like a damn prisoner... can't even eat in the kitchen."

"Yuh slept through lunch and I don't need yuh coughin' up that mess in Annie's kitchen. She's got seven younguns and don't need 'em catchin' no damn Tanner cold."

"Humph," Vin grumbled, sitting down and inspecting his tray. "Seen snakes with more compassion." There was a hot, crusty loaf of bread, a crock of creamy butter and a tub of warm honey. A jug of cider, a muffin and a covered plate. His face screwed up in distaste when he lifted the cover. "...hell's that? I ain't eatin' that, there's green shit floatin' in it."

"...it's beef barley soup... they're vegetables," Nate replied, pointing to the steaming bowl. "Unless somethin' with six legs climbs outta that dish, yuhll eat it an be happy about it or I'll put yuh back on porridge."

"Porridge?" Vin scowled "I ain't eatin' no more o'that, already decided. Yuh come near me with one more bowl o'that shit..." he paused to slather a piece of hot bread with butter before dipping it into honey. "well, yuh best not turn yer back, I'm likely t'use it t'patch up that crack in yer ass."

Nathan paused by the door and smiled. The smile turned into a broad grin as the familiar pattern of tossing barbs with a his favorite and most frequent patient came back to where it belonged. It was a game they both played and each knew it meant Vin had passed through the worst of the storm. The wise healer knew that the outdoorsman hated being confined and the walls in the gracious lodge were closing in on him. The long days and nights where Vin had lain too silent, too pale and nearly unmoving still haunted him. Now the long-haired Texan was back to sassing him and issueing any complaint he could find. It sure felt good.

Vin heard a chuckle and looked up to find Nathan with a warm smile. He caught that grin and gave it a wink, before turning to his meal. Where for too many days those brown eyes were weary and the face haggard, now were shining eyes and a healthy glow. Vin realized why Nathan was grinning and felt the flush rise. It came with the rush of blood that these brothers of his shared with him. This man had saved his life yet again and he was well on his road to recovery. He too enjoyed the warm banter they shared. He picked up the spoon, gingerly stirred the soup and wrinkled his nose as something green floated over it. He cast his most woeful face, full up large blue begging eyes at the warden.

"I can't eat without m'pants," he decided and frown when both Larabee and Wilmington laughed at him from the other room.

"That's weak, Vin!" Nathan laughed, "Yuh eat all o'that now. I got some tea fuhr yuh."

"All hell," Vin replied already seeing his body sleeping again. "Ain't I the lucky bastard."

"You want some company Vin? You need a little cuddle during your nap? Hell between them long curls of yours and that pretty nightdress..." Buck hollered and then laughed when the reply came peppered with curses in Kiowa, Spanish and Tannerfied English.

"Spoken like a true Tanner." Chris saluted when a boot sailed from the open door into the hall.

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"He's doin' a lot better," Nathan replied to the green eyes that followed him to the hearth. He grabbed a spot next to the leader. "That sun comes up tomorrow, we can head back."

"Good," Chris answered, casting a grateful eye around the inviting lodge. As fine as it was, it wasn't home. Until now he didn't realize how that cabin he'd built had some to mean so much. "How do I thank Annie and Craig? How do you possibly repay a gift like this?"

"Yer well, lad, that's thanks enough," Annie replied, entering the house and taking her coat off. "Sure it wouldn't be much of a hearth if there wasn't a spot near the fire for a friend." She bent over and patted his shoulder. "Ye look better, yer eyes are bright again. How's me darlin Vin?"

"Cranky," Nathan replied, inspecting Chris's profile and deciding the needed to examine the back and hip. He rose to get his bag where it was in the kitchen.

"Cussin' up a storm," Buck saluted.

Chris opened his mouth to add his own thoughts, when a loud belch sounded from the infirmed man's room. "Ever the gentlemen." the blond grinned and sat back keeping the wide smile. "At least it didn't come out the other end."

"I'll drink to that," Buck said, limping over to the sofa and handing Chris a mug. He picked up the jug that was tucked away under the large arm of the sofa on the floor. He poured each of them a mugful. He raised his and tapped Chris's, then took a small swallow.

"Damn!" Chris's green eyes bugged out and he began to sputter. He felt a hand clap his back and he wheezed hard, trying find his breath.

"Old Angus's special blend, it has a bit of a kick!" Buck winked and waited for Chris's eyes to stop spinning.

"...just... a... bit..." the blond gasped, his lungs on fire.

"I'll bet that old man was a real hellion his younger days," Buck noted, amused by the flush of red that the homebrewed liquor brought to Larabee's face.

"...was..." Chris arched a brow and waited for the room to stop spinning.

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Annie smiled and walked up the hall to the open doorway. "Was that yerself, then? Shakin' the timbers of me house? What do ye have to say?"

"'scuse me, Annie," Vin answered, blushing slightly. "I didn't knew ya were there."

"Look at me darlin Vin!" She praised, entering the room and bending over to cup his chin. She raised the handsome young man's face and smiled. "Yer roses are back and those pretty eyes are smilin' at me."

"Hell, man hafta be dead not to smile at ya, Annie," Vin returned as she moved her fingers through his hair. He immediately stiffened and dropped the spoon. For a split second, it was not his kind hostess's hand that moved through his tangled locks. There was no picture of her, just a vivid scent that sent chills through him. He inhaled a sweet, musky scent the distinct combination created by a female bathed in lovemaking.

"Ye need a haircut, lad. Those pretty locks will be tied up like rat tails. I'll just cut off a bit and..." she paused then when she saw his face. The eyes were full of a deep sadness and his lip was trembling . One hand, shaking very badly, moved up to cover his mouth. The lost blues were not blinking and definately not in the room. They held such a deep sadness it hurt to look at them. "Vin? Vin? What is it? What's wrong?" she spoke low, so as not to worry the others. She knelt and took his face in her hands turning it towards her. "Vin!"

"Huh?" Vin blinked and began to breathe heavily.

He shook himself free of the awful coldness that cloaked him. He felt a sorrow so deep and profound if he didn't know better, he'd swear he was standing by Larabee's grave. Grief enveloped him, giving him a chill and a heavy heart. He had no idea why , but he felt a need to weep and dig his hands in the fresh dirt of a grave. Grave? What grave? No one died, yet the pain engulfing him was too much to bear.

"Oh God, Annie, I..."

"Vin, ye put the worry in me," Annie fretted, not liking this at all. She moved again, drawing his head onto her shoulder. She did what any mother would, she wanted to chase that fear away. "Ye've been through hell and back, lad. It's alright then, yer fine. I've got ye now, yer safe." She cooed, hearing him gulping air and fighting hard not to sob. She wasn't sure what caused this but knew sometimes when someone came close to dying, they did have a sadness after. "Whatever's twistin' yer heart, darlin, let it out. Shh... shh... it's alright then... I've got ye."

Vin melted in the tender hearted embrace of the strong mother. He let her soft words and strong hands chase his chill away. He hung on tight, letting the muscial sound of her voice while she crooned a lullaby chase his blues away. He closed his eyes and felt her hands moving on the soft cotton of the nightshirt, the steady rhythm warming him. He finally felt the worst of the horrible sensation leaving.

While Nathan was examining Chris, Buck moved down the hall to see why the silence had interrupted his show. He paused just as Annie decided to offer to cut Vin's hair. He saw the tracker's face change and the sorrow it now held was beyond heartbreaking. He didn't like this at all and hoped whatever caused it would flee at the gentle touch the kind woman was now dispensing. There was nothing quite as heart-wrenching as Vin Tanner's eyes when he emotionally undone. He moved away, giving them their privacy but keeping that haunted face inside his heart. He wouldn't let Vin suffer, the boy had suffered far too much as it was.

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A rich green meadow lie before him, the soft breeze sending the beautiful grass into a sultry dance. The aroma from the flowers she wore joined into the mix and the music of the nearby rushing river was a powerful elixir. He rode his horse full out and hard, pressing his knees into the fine animal's side. Mother Nature opened her arms and he fell into them. He finally stopped by a large apple tree and slid off the panting horse. The wind stole his hat and he closed his eyes, letting the warm breeze caress his body. The perfume rose up, musky and sweet. His lips itched to taste it. He knelt beneath the tree and kept his eyes on the pretty meadow. They gazed over every inch and his face broke into a wide smile. He waited... and waited... the sun disappeared, the sky turned from bright blue to accusing black and then growled and rumbled in displeasure. Large drops pelted him and he began to panic, his smile faded as the rain soaked him. He felt his heart shattered and his soul bared. Frantically he dug the fingers of both hands into the dirt, raking the muddy mix. His eyes beseeched the scolding heaven, seeking an answer. Both blackened hands moved over his head, his eyes were screaming in rage and his heart shattered, dropping in bloody pieces by his feet. A pain he'd never known gripped him with such intensity he couldn't move for the agony. His broken voice was carried into dark storm.

"Why?"

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Vin woke up in a burst of coughing. His lost eyes roamed the room but there was no meadow here. His fists were gripping sheets, not dirt. He sat up, finally ended his coughing and wiped his sweating face. He rose on shaky legs and noted the empty bed where Larabee should be. He managed to get to the bedstand and poured some fresh water into the basin. He washed his face, neck and chest, cooling his hot flesh. The dream was so real, so vivid it frightened him. He shook off the pins and needles nipping at him and slowly raised his face. He peered closely at the man in the mirror and realized the truth.

"...weren't no dream..."

He'd had visions before, his many years living with his Native American brothers taught him well. Something had happened in the pretty meadow by the apple tree. He knew that spot, he'd passed it often during the months he'd lived in the area. It was by a fork in the river and the area was perfect for a picnic. The large tree was heavy with fruit and the soft earth under it perfect for stealing kisses . But he'd not taken a woman there. The vision puzzled him, he didn't understand what that deep grief meant.

He stared hard into the blue eyes of the man looking back at him but found nothing there to hold onto. He sighed, dried his face and eyed the empty bed again. He took a steadying breath and the wonderful smell that met his nose caused his hand to move over his growling belly. He spotted some clean pants and a shirt lying in a heap by the bed. He eased his healing limbs into the clothes and padded barefoot down the hall. It was early, the sun wouldn't rise for an hour or so. Chris didn't usually get up this early. He wondered if something were troubling the pensive blond. He paused the doorway to the kitchen, watching in frustration as his one-armed friend tried to get the heavy coffee pot from the stove to the table.

"Give ya a hand, old timer?" Vin drawled, entering the warm room.

"...trussed up like a fuckin' turkey..." Chris grumbled, turning and slowly made his way to the bench by the large pine table.

"...move like one.." Vin countered, chuckling when Chris used his good hand to reply.

He poured two mugs of coffee, taking time to dump sugar heavily into one mug. He made his way to the table and put each mug down, before moving to sit next to Chris. The pensive face told him someone was wrong. He frowned when Chris moved away from him, so he tried to sit again and once again the blond moved further away.

"What the hell's wrong? Yer ass gotta wicked itch?"

Chris didn't reply. He paused and looked carefully at his slightly disheveled and very wrinkled friend. He then moved his eyes to the bench, wrinkling his nose while sliding further away.

"Fine, squat yer fussy ass on the porch!" Vin sassed, furrowed his brows and paused just before he went to sit. "This okay yer high-falutin' Highness?" The blond head shook negatively and Vin scowled. "How far?"

Chris sipped his coffee, slowly moved gaze to where the annoyed Tanner was standing and cooly replied, "Tucson ought to do it" He bit back a smile when the smaller man glared at him and whispered something in an anciet dialect. He couldn't decide if he was being cursed at or a curse was being placed on him. "You're ripe, Vin, how long's it been since you or them rags had a bath?" He spoke of the clothes Vin had been wearing all week.

"Fuck yer crippled ass t'hell Lar'bee!" Vin roared with great indignance. He took his mug and shuffled to the other side of the room, taking great pains to limp. He settled in a chair between the kitchen and living room. "Fine thing, draggin' m'self offa m'death bed... could barely get m'air time I got here.."

"Save it for the Opera house in town," Chris dispelled the 'actor', moving his good hand up. "And you need to work on that move, Vin. You're limping on the wrong side."

Vin rested a moment, taking slow and steady breaths and finally feeling a bit stronger. He lifted his face and caught Chris before the mask went back on. The eyes were haunted, harboring something very dark and if he wasn't mistaken, fear lingered there. He couldn't think of much that would scare Chris Larabee. He was not a believer in beating around the bush.

"What eatin' ya?"

"I'm not sure, Vin," Chris replied honestly. He sighed, scrubbed a free hand over his face and rubbed his aching eyes.

"Seen fitter lookin' scarecrows," Tanner returned. "It's jest us, cowboy."

"I know, Vin," Chris answered softly, letting the concern in the blue eyes regarding him shelter him a bit. "You can't remember anything?"

"Jest ridin' to yer place," Vin said and creased his brow thinking hard. "Then nuthin'... jest a big blank 'til I woke up here."

Vin saw the haggard leader turn away then, his shoulders sagging in defeat. That hurt, it hurt alot. He was closer to this man than anyone breathing free air. He'd die for him, he'd fight for him and he'd kill any bastard who would dare to hurt him. But to see his best friend- a brother - torn up like this hurt worse than his healing wounds. He'd take on all that pain again, if it meant remembering whatever it was that Chris needed to hear, to see. What had happened in the darkest of places on the unholiest night of the year? What was putting that trace of fear in the green eyes that were usually so steady? Why couldn't he remember? Why couldn't he give Chris the one thing he was asking for?

"I'm sorry, Chris."

"Thanks for that, Vin," Chris answered, he knew Vin felt his pain and that meant more to him that he could voice.

It wasn't as much the words, but the break in the raspy voice. The heartfelt crack that spanned more than anything physical and penetrated inside. It touched him deeply, that whispered plea found a place inside that was reserved for Tanner alone. Nobody else felt his pain, shouldered his storms or shared his spirit. Nobody even came close and it was something he'd come to revere. He held that trust in a sacred place where he went to restore the shattered pieces of his soul. It was a shining place, full of hope and grace; someplace he needed to survive as much as he needed breathing.

"I've been having dreams... bad ones... about that night." He paused to sip the strong brew and draw strength from the unwavering blues trained on him. "Josiah said... those animals who took you wanted to sacrifice... cut your heart out."

"What is it, Chris?" Vin pressed, watching the man before him struggling to bare his soul. "Git it out or ye'll choke on it."

He struggled, he sighed, he drew in a deep painful breath and moved his eyes to the window. The wind howled again, the room changed into a barren spot an icy river. The came again, as they always did, shaking their hairy heads and baring their yellow teeth. The unhuman sound that sprang from the fetid fangs caused him to shiver. And then Vin's heart was raised and the blood dripped onto his face.

"Chris!"

He shuddered, cried out once and blinked. He felt a strong hand on his shoulder and looked up to see a very concerned face. He didn't even see Vin move across the room. He dropped his head in his hand and left it there .He felt that hand move from his shoulder to grip his neck lightly. How on earth could he tell Vin? How could he make anyone understand what he was 'seeing' was no dream?

"Don't hide from me."

"I'm not," Chris replied and nodded, indicating he was fine. "They don't make sense, Vin. You're on a bunch of rocks, there's animals all around you, hacking at you..."

"Jo'siah explained that," Vin's voice was a rough whisper. He didn't like the worry lines around Larabee's eyes. "Some religious nuts from Mexico practicin' witchcraft'r somethin'. Is that it? Yer seein' them cuttin' me? That's what tearin' ya up?"

That would have to be enough for now and it wasn't a lie, it was what he was experiencing. Vin was a deeply spiritual person, he'd learned that from his years with the Kiowa and Commanche. Maybe when they got back to the cabin, a place he felt closest to Vin, when they shared a sunset, he would bare his soul. If anyone could reach him, cure him of this awful thing, it was Vin. But it wasn't time yet, his gut told him that. So he gave his head a nod of yes and heard a sharp intake of air. He turned to see Vin's eyes fill and the chin waver a bit. The younger man didn't say anything but the new tug on his neck told him how much it meant. Maybe that was part of the cure; undoubtedly the very best part.

"Could be ya gotta take yer own advice," Vin finally recovered his voice. "Ya told Bucklin t'let it go. It was eatin' a hole right through 'im ya said."

"Yeah, I guess, Vin" Chris sat up and regained control. "Could be going home will be part of that cure too."

"Hah," Vin replied, giving Chris's shoulder a final pat and turning back toward the kitchen. "Ya outta count yer blessin's it ain't jest anywheres I park m'ass."

"Yeah," Chris smiled and watched at Vin's head kept moving, the keen eyes scoping out the room. He saw the tracker's nose rise and twitch and he frowned. Then the bedraggled figure turned, moving slowly around the kitchen. He watched the master at work, sight and smell working in unison to zone in on the target. The hawk-like gaze zoned in on one spot, a tall cupboard on the far side of the room.

"Damn, Tanner, was your father a bloodhound?" Chris remarked at the limping body moved towards the target. "What the hell are you doing?"

"M'belly's emptier than Bucklin's drawers on Saturday night," he complained, moving an old stepladder over next to the tall cabinet.

"Vin, I don't think that's a good idea." Chris warned.

"Don't recall askin' yer opinion."

"Fine, break your fool neck," Larabee answered when he spotted someone else enter the room.

"How yuh'd get up there?"

"Your goose is cooked, cowboy." Chris grinned wickedly when the nimble sharpshooter froze in place. He turned and shook his head when the tall healer swooped into the room, zoning in on his prey. He made his way over to where Vin was precariously tettering on the wobbly stepstool. "You best grab a big pan while you're there, cause Nathan's fixin' on fryin' your balls."

"Hey Nate!" Vin grinned down at the dark eyes beneath him who were clearly not happy. He moved his hand up the cabinet and inched his fingers toward the knob, while not breaking his gaze.

"Get down from there!" Nate growled, slapped the hand and grabbed the wobbling Texan, easing him back down. "Yuh lost what little brains yuh got? There ain't much more than a wing and a prayer holdin' yuh together now."

"I got hungry, I smelt cookies... I's fixin' on havin' me some."

"Yuh slept clear though supper, yuh ain't tossin' sweets into that empty belly."

"All hell, why not?" Vin replied sharply, "them's m'favorites."

"'cause that gut of yuhrs is fickle enough, I don't need yuh pukin' all the way home," Jackson replied.

"Ain't nuthin' wrong with m'innerds," Vin declared, "Everythin's goin' in and comin' out fine."

"Thanks for that update Vin," Chris grumbled, shaking his head.

"What cookies?" Nathan asked, he knew the tracker had been sleeping while the hostess was baking. "Yuh don't even know what Annie made."

"Oatmeal cinnamon," Vin replied with great confidence, pausing to sniff the air and narrow his eyes. "could be a raisin'r two in there, mebbe a nut."

"The only nut in this room is you," Chris shot back back and then winked at Nathan. "How about a nice mug of cocoa spiked with laudenum, Nathan?"

"How 'bout ya mind yer own damn business, Lar'bee!"

"Don't worry, Vin," Nathan reassured while steadying the now wobbling Texan's legs and getting him to the chair by the fire. "I'm gonna make yuh some hot chocolate for the wagon, a special mix."

"I'll bet," Vin soured, squirming at the chuckle his two friends shared. "Ya ain't gotta be so happy about it."

"Look at yuh!" Nathan held up Vin's arm. "Shakin' like a virgin on her weddin' night. I'll make yuh some ham, eggs and fry some potatoes." He moved away and put fire under a pan on the stove.

"I ain't so sure I'm hungry anymore," Vin pouted.

"Yeah, right," Chris snorted, picking up his coffee mug. "You'd eat catshit if there was chocolate covering it."

Vin ignored the comment and watched as Nathan took out a slice of pink ham, three eggs, a hunk of cheddar cheese and several small potatoes. The deft hand moved to uncover the tin of bacon fat and the sizzle of it as it hit the hot pan. His stomach already saw the succulent meat cooking and that cheese melting into the eggs. He licked his lips and craned his neck to see if Nathan were dicing onions into the potatoes. "Mebbe a little."

Chris had to laugh then, Nathan paused to laugh as well and Vin got caught up the moment, soaking up the wonderful sound. He let his own infectious laughter join theirs. The warmth in the room had just as much to do with the men who'd become so much more than friends as it did with the fire. He sipped his coffee and caught the biscuit Nathan tossed at him. He dunked it in his coffee and savored each bite, suddenly looking forward to the trip home. That was how he thought of Chris's shack. It was a place they both needed in order to heal fully. Neither knew the emotional strain each was feeling, but that would change.

Part Ten

Although the early morning breath of November was chilling indeed, the sunny smile she wore as the noon hour approached basked the two men in glorious warmth. They sat silently side by side, each contemplating what the path at the end of the road would bring. Two sets of eyes seeing beyond the horizon, each trying to understand the meanings of their fractured memories of the ghoulish night that left them both near death.

Oddly enough, the dreams were fading away but the nagging fear inside wouldn't let Chris Larabee rest. He knew what he was experiencing at night were not dreams, rather they were revisitations to the grisley event. He sighed hard and tried to make sense of it, but he couldn't. He knew that there were not ten foot tall man beasts with long yellow fangs. Yet he also knew what he saw was very real. As real as the scars he now bore on his body as a result. Maybe at home within the confines of the cozy cabin with Vin he could open up. Would sharing the vision help? Vin knew about visions, his experience with the Indians dictated that.

Vin's dreams were as emotionally letting at his best friend's but in a different way. He had no terror, no horrible images of beasts and bloody hearts. He had a beautiful meadow full of flowers, with a very special apple tree near a rushing river. He had the same picture of him waiting and full of want, need and desire. So strong was the sense of loss he woke up shivering and weeping with his heart broken. But why? No one died, Chris was safe. What was causing his emotional upheaval? The pain was throbbing inside of him, an ache he couldn't reach. He sighed hard, looked away from the horizon and studied Larabee's troubled face. Whatever his own problems were they weren't as painful as Chris's. He would bury his hurt; he didn't want Chris to sense his upsetness.

"We flippin' fer the bed?" Vin asked, trying to break through the pensive features. He didn't like the exhaustion he saw or the lingering clouds in the green eyes. His reply came in a sour face, a single raised sandy brow and an annoyed snort. "Helluva thing, puttin' yer guest on a cold, hard floor."

"It's the Tanner suite," Chris replied, knowing what Vin was trying to do. The last thing he wanted was to have his best friend upset. The horrid visions weren't Vin's fault. "That means it's reserved for your ungrateful ass only."

"Hmph!' Vin grumbled but managed a smile tucked under the floppy hat he wore. He shifted in the large chair, then he 'moaned', grimaced and hissed. He peeked over but the green-eyed Sphinx wasn't buying. He waited several more moments and peeked up again. "So we ain't flippin' fer the bed?"

"That Tanner cold settle in your ears?"

"Iffen ya change yer mind, I got m'lucky eagle with me," Vin replied and heard the snorted chuckle

"It's got two heads," Chris managed, trying not to laugh.

"Increases m'odds," Vin replied with an impish grin and a wag of his eyebrows. He pulled out the coin and waited, his eyes shaded blue with mischief.

Chris started to reply but the animated face and those teasing eyes did him in. He turned away but not before a chuckle slipped out. He did see Vin retreat back into the chair, hunker down under his blanket and pull that damn hat down. The door opened just then and a small McTavish came outside, his upper lip covered with jam. Two small hands were wrapped around the remaining piece of brown bread with the same homemade jam.

"Hey there." Chris turned as Annie and Craig's youngest appeared on the porch. His eyes didn't miss the fact that the familiar, worn plaid blanket was once again securely wrapped around the boy's shoulder.

"Ya want some?" Alex offered up and the blond men shook his head no. He watched as the tall man shifted in the chair and flinched, his good hand moving to his hip. "Does it hult alot?"

"No so bad," Chris replied and saw the concern lingering. "Nathan's a good fixer-upper. It's just going to take some time."

Alex nodded and sat down on the step next to the legendery gunman. He'd heard his older brothers talking about Chris Larabee and he knew that this man was famous. But he didn't understand most of what they older people said. Especially the ones in town who had funny looks on their faces when the looked at Chris. All he knew was that he liked him and he felt safe with him. He continued to munch on his treat, glancing over at Vin Tanner who seemed to be napping. He knew his mother said not to bother Vin, that he'd not slept well the night before and he needed his rest.

"De wagon comin'?" The small boy asked.

"Outta be here anytime," Chris replied.

"Wagon?" Vin croaked, coughed, sneezed twice and sat forward trying to ward off a third sneeze.

"Wagon," Nathan repeated, stepping onto the porch and ruffling the golden red locks of the little boy. "Did yuh tell Chris and Vin about lunch?"

"I forgotted," Alex replied sheepishly, then eyed each of the injured men. "Mama made lunch, ham sammiches and tulkey soup and stuff."

"Yuh okay?" Nathan asked Vin whose eyes were narrowed and his running nose was twitching. The sneeze was hovering and Nathan offered over a clean cloth in case it ended in a wet, Tanner mess. The newly trimmed head shook no, took the cloth and waited. He huffed and huffed and Nathan backed up , not wishing to be in the line of fire. Finally the loud, wet mess erupted and was followed by a harsh cough. "Damn them Tanner colds are nasty business."

Alex turned his attention to the other injured man. He heard the groan when Chris stood up and he moved over to hold onto Larabee's elbow. "I gotcha Misser Wowabee"

"Thank you, Alex." Chris grinned and how hard the little boy was concentrating on 'helping' him walk.

"Wagon?" Vin repeated in a heaving wheeze, rising and limping toward the door with Nathan in tow. "Who fer?"

Nathan had to grin at that and shake his head. Vin had made good progress but he was still weak and needed more weight on his frail body. Plus the leg wound wasn't healing as fast at he'd like and he saw Vin wincing and rubbing the injured thigh.

"Jo'siah's bringin' a wagon from town, plied down with mattresses. Annie's got a mess of food packed and some blankets. Yuhr gonna drink some spiked cocoa and sleep like a baby clear back t'town." Nathan held the door open allowing Vin to limp through. "And give the rest of us some peace and quiet."

"F..." Vin started to reply in a colorful burst when Nathan slapped a hand across his cussin' Tanner mouth. He saw Annie and her youngest at a table and curbed his curly language. "I ain't bein' toted back t'town like some f... baby. I can ride."

"No yuh can't," Nathan agrued, pausing and glaring at the younger man "It's gonna take all afternoon and into tonight before we get t'Chris's. Yuh ain't set a horse in weeks, yuhr still wheezin' and yuhr down a good ten pound or more. Yuh ain't strong enough, Vin, it's as simple as that. If we were talkin' an hour or two, maybe. But not a long ride, sorry."

"Damn cat piss makes m'innerds run loose," Vin announced arriving to the table. "Gonna be a long night."

"Thanks, Nathan." Chris shook his head and got a sympathetic grin from the healer.

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By the time Josiah pulled up to the house lunch was just ending. Buck was sitting outside and gave the preacher a booming hello. The gray haired man nodded and eased his lanky frame off the driver's seat. He stretched and dusted off his jacket, before ambling onto the porch.

"You made good time," Buck greeted as Sanchez approached. "I thought for sure once word got out that I was comin' home the streets would be lined up women... all them grateful arms and ample bosom's just itchin' for tendin'."

"Nope," Josiah replied and cocked his head. "Course now Vin comin' home, that's got a few skirts twitchin'"

"Hah!" Buck snapped, "the sun will never rise on the day that mangy Texas river rat outdraws Buck Wilmington." He watched as the gray head rose and somber eyes saw the sun high in the sky. The eyes perplexed a minute and the astonished face caused Buck to chuckle. "Shut up, Josiah!"

Vin was snoozing when he heard the heavy footsteps approach. His full belly and full morning of fresh air wore him out. Nathan was a wise man indeed. He'd wondered why the healer had been so agreeable to him sitting outside in the sun. Now he could barely keep his eyes open and he'd not even drunk the damn cat piss yet. He struggled to sit up as Josiah appeared in the doorway to the bedroom. His sky eyes saw the soft pelt and he smiled.

"Thanks Jo'siah... can't tell how much I appreciate it."

"No problem, Vin, You did a fine job," he replied and offered the precious item over to the waiting hands. "It's all done, I adjusted the straps so he'll have room to move the notch as he gets bigger."

"Ya think he'll like it?" Vin questioned, examining the item he'd been working on for several days. Josiah caught the rabbits and skinned them for him. Then he'd crafted them into the gift to be bestowed, allowing Sanchez to finish off the last bit of adjustments.

"Don't see how he couldn't," Josiah reassured. "The wagon's all ready. Buck and Chris are on the porch. Need a hand?"

"Seems I've been hearin' that alot lately," Vin allowed the strong man to help him stand. "Never felt luckier."

"Man ain't much if he can't offer a hand to a brother," Josiah replied, walking just behind the wheezing body.

"He's comin', lad," Craig laughed at his impatient youngest who was fidgeting and moving restlessly, eyeing the door.

"Craig, I can't thank you enough for all you've done,' Chris said, extending his good hand and feeling the surge of power that came with the strong grip- that met his own.

"T'would be an empty hearth indeed if not warmed by the heart of a friend," Craig replied and moved to encircle an arm around his pretty bride. "Me bride won't know what to do with all the free time she'll be havin'." He suggested with a sly wink.

"Oh, I think she'll find something to keep you both busy." Chris grinned as Annie McTavish smiled slyly and whispered something in her husband's ear that caused a blush to color his cheeks.

"Yup," Buck chuckled, limping past the loving couple. "Looks like there'll be another McTavish come next summer. Hey you know Buck McTavish has a nice ring to it."

"Bite yer tongue!" Annie swatted the tall man's back as he paused to hug her. "Yer a naughty lad!"

"With a broken heart," Buck feigned, tapping his chest and casting 'woeful' eyes on the grinning woman. "Don't forget, my door's always open."

"I hope ye have plenty o'beds, darlin. What with me bringin' me seven babes..."

"Craig, you're a lucky dog," Buck signed his gratitude with a good shake of the host's hand.

"Thanks Buck and speakin' of luck, ye'll need it Saturday night."

"Poker!" Buck hooted, pausing to ease his body into the wagon. "Hot cards, hard liquor and wicked women! Damn!"

"Vin!"

"Hey, lil' pard," Vin drawled, pausing on the porch to greet his little friend. The last few days since he'd been feeling better, he'd spent the warm afternoons in the sunny lodge's main room telling the wide-eyed boy stories about the west. "Got somethin' fer ya."

Alex saw the gray and white fur object Vin held and moved closer. His small hand came out an he gasped in surprise when the present was laid in this palms. It was so soft he was almost afraid to touch it. He pulled it up and rested it against his cheek, marveling at the texture. Then he pulled it away and examined it. It was a pouch attached to a leather belt all made from a rabbit. He lifted the flap and ran his hand inside.

"Look Da!" The excited boy held up his new prize and basked in the praises that came back.

"It's a beauty, lad," Craig agreed.

"One of a kind," Buck noted.

"Vin only makes them for very special people," Chris said, ruffling the boy's hair.

"Here you go, son," Josiah bent down and gently tied the pouch around the small boy's waist. "You see these notches? You can adjust this leather strap so as you get bigger, the pouch will stay with you. Or you can slid it off and put it on a belt when you're grown."

"Thanks 'siah," Alex nodded, fingering his gift. "It's bootiful.."

"It sure is," Nathan agreed, warmed by the gift and the boy's breathless excitement.

"Come 'ere," Vin rasped, sitting down on the bench by the door and drawing the boy next to him. "When I was a little feller about yer size, my Pa made me one o'these. My Mama went t'live with God and that made me sad. So he gimme a pretty green marble, same color as her eyes and one of her hair ribbons. They was the first treasures I put in m'pouch. Every time I went out in the woods or found somethin' I liked, somethin' special like, I'd tuck it away. So ya keep yer treasures in there."

"Just like you did!" Alex touted, wide-eyed and extremely honored with his gift. "We go twackin' Vin?"

"Sure we can," Vin grinned, "Soon as I'm a little stronger, I'll take ya out trackin', okay?"

"Otay!" Alex agreed, pulling out the first item that he'd found. It was a tiny braid made of buckskin fringe and hair. "...totem..."

"Ya remembered huh?" Vin beamed of one of the stories he'd told the small boy. "Yeah, that's 'tween good friends, a gift o'the heart. I ain't never gonna ferget how brave ya were, shelterin' me with yer blanket. That's jest what I needed t' wake up and feel better."

Alex thought for a moment and ran back inside the house. While he was gone, Annie made her way over and stood before him. She knelt down and cupped his chin in one hand and then leaned in to kiss his cheek. She smiled at the rising color and the warmth in the emotional eyes. Such a shade of blue it could steal your breath.

"Yer a fine man Vin Tanner," she managed, still seeing the glint of excitement in her quiet five-year old's eyes. It wasn't easy being the youngest of seven and the littlest one often felt left out. "Thank ye... ye did this mother's heart a world of good."

"Speakin' o' which," Vin rasped, suddenly aware of the many sets of eyes on him. He shifted in the seat and swallowed hard, then brought his face up. "God's grace never shines brighter then in the eyes of a mother. Fer amongst all His gifts, the very finest is the majesty of a mother's touch. The rays o'healin' light that pour from her heart wrap around ya shelterin' ya from the storm. In her eyes a rainbow's born and colors yer world ferever." He pulled out a blue flannel cloth and handed it over along with a white piece of paper. "I wanted t'git it t'town so's Mary could print it up nice. My scribin looks like chickens done a dance with a wicked itch up their butt."

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"Ye'll do no such thing," Annie choked, tears brimming in her eyes. "I won't change one wicked footprint!" She held the poem close to her heart. Then she slipped it in her pocket to unwrap the blue cloth. A small figurine was inside, a beautiful pine carving of a mother nursing a baby. The detail on the woman, the look of love radiating from her face, the curling hair, the dress and the shawl were equisitely done. There was no doubt many hours of labor went into the small sculpture.

"Oh Vin darlin'," she whispered, letting the tears spill.

"Aw, hell, Annie, don't go washin' yer eyes on accounta me," Vin whispered. "What ya done... tendin' and such..." his voice faded then and their eyes met. He didn't say it, she knew what he meant. Since he'd been having the strange dreams and overcome with sorrow, it was her strong shoulder he'd leaned on. For that he'd always be grateful. She brought her hand up and touched the side of his cheek. He let out a long breath and nodded once, capturing the warmth and stowing it away for the cold nights ahead.

"Show off!" Chris grumbled with a crooked grin.

"Ain't that just like that boy," Buck huffed and winked at the blushing Texan.

"Mama?" Alex paused in the doorway unsure of why his mother was crying.

"I'm fine, babe," she cooed, hugging him and kissing the top of his golden curls. "Look what Vin made, isn't it grand?"

"Yeah," the boy agreed, moving past his mother to stand by the equally moved Tanner.

His eyes moved to the medicine pouch strung around Vin's neck. He left his gaze linger a moment, then moved it to his own hands, where he held his beloved blanket. He moved his fingers around the worn cloth until he came to a two inch section that was almost detached. It was hanging on by a brave group of threads. His fingers wrapped around the small piece and then after two solid gulps of air for courage, he pulled the section off. With great care, he laid it onto Vin Tanner's open palm.

"In de bag."

"Ya bet it'll go in m'medicine bag," Vin replied, caressing the delicate cloth with one finger. "Ya remember what I told ya? I keep m'special things in there, so's they'll be near m'heart." He lifted his treasured bag from his neck and tenderly put the new heart gift inside. He didn't miss the pride shining form the little boy's eyes and after he put his pouch back over his head, he hugged the boy close. "Thank ya, Alex."

"Did ye pack the basket? Is there enough food then?" Annie fretted, watching Josiah help Chris Larabee into the wagon. "Do ye have enough blankets? I don't want ye gettin' a chill."

"There's enuf food in there tah last a week," Nathan reassured. "We'll be fine, Annie. I'll drop the baskets, tins and blankets at the ranch. I owe Angus some fishin' time," he noted of the elder McTavish. The old man was at the ranch with the rest of the clan, since the older children had school. Only Annie, Craig and Alex remained at the lodge, they would journey home in a couple days.

"Craig," Vin paused to shake the gregarious man's hand. "Heard some folks sayin' that blood is thicker'n water." He shook his head. "I ain't so sure, them folks might have blood kin, but they ain't got what I got. I got me heart kin, the best kind. What ya done... savin' our lives..."

"Ah!" Craig scoffed, taking the offered hand and helping the young man into the wagon. "Yer right about one thing, Vin. " He jumped off the wagon and pulled the heavy blanket over the trio of injured men. "Ye lads are family, don't ever ferget that. Our door is always open and ye'll always have this," he proclaimed offering his open hand.

"That," Chris replied, "is worth more than gold, Craig and I won't ever forget what you've done."

"Does that mean ye'll give me a break then on Saturday evenin' then?" McTavish teased of the poker game they shared weekly. "Bein's as I'm man with a wife and seven babes to feed?"

"Hell, no!" Chris roared with a lusty grin as the wagon pulled away.

For a few miles the quintet rode in silence, enjoying the sun and the brilliant blue sky. Nathan was wondering about the list of customers who'd left messages on his door. Whenever he was out for an extended period, there would be a list waiting when he got home. He was mentally going over what supplies would need refilling. The silence was broken by a request from the quiet trio. He should have known that silence in this case wasn't golden.

"Hey, Nate, hand me an apple?" Buck asked and held his arm out and elbowd Vin's head in the process.

"Ow!" Vin declared, shoving the taller man hard, which sent him into Chris.

"Dammit Buck!" Chris shoved back and the rogue once again hit the grouchy Texan.

"Hey cut that out!" Buck growled and shoved each offensive wagon mate.

"Ya hit me again and I'll cut yer balls off and string 'em on a pole!"

"Brother, I think your magic elixir is required," Josiah said to Nathan who was sitting next to him in the driver's seat. "Fast."

"I hear that," Nathan agreed, rising and stepping into the back. He rummaged around until he found a small tin with a 'V' chalked on the front. "Go on, Vin, drink up!" Nathan held out a mug of warm chocolate milk that was doused good.

"Aw, hell..." Vin wrinkled his nose and sighed in defeat, toasting the journey and the after effects of the strong drug. "Here's to hopin' Lar'bees outhouse ain't full."

"Nice, Vin," Chris groaned as Buck laughed. The blond was in pain and took the tin Nathan held for him . The spiked cider went down with only a brief grimace. He shifted over, resting against the blanketed side of the wagon tugged his hat over his face. Soon the medicine took effect and he let himself go.

Buck declined a drink, he never had trouble napping and the hot sun and gentle sway of the well padded wagon would be enough. It wasn't long before Vin's head hit his shoulder and the soft snoring of the Texan assured him his wheezing friend was sound asleep. He stretched his arms out and yawned, then pulled his hat over his face, shutting his eyes.

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"Come on then," Annie eyed her sleepy five year old who was yawning. He'd been out all morning and still took a nap in the early afternoon. "It's time fer yer nap."

"...wanna... go... 'splorin'..." Alex protesting, fingering his present.

"And ye will," Craig scooped his boy up and held the door open. "I'll take ye later. Ye'll be rested and tis more treasures ye'll collect then."

"Otay," the sleepy boy agreed.

Alex handed the boy over to his wife, who rocked him in the chair and sung to him in a low voice, rubbing his leg. Finally the eyes closed and she laid him on the thick wool blanket by the fire. Pausing to kiss his cheek and run her hands through his beautiful golden locks, she rose and made her way to the kitchen. She was peering into the wooden bin holding the vegetables when her husband cleared his throat. She turned and saw a curious expression on his face and then noticed his shirt and boots were missing.

"Have ye lost yer senses?" She inquired, moving across the room

"Ay, lass, everytime I see yer face," he replied huskily, drawing her close and kissing her hard.

"And here I was thinkin' on what to do with all me spare time?" she whispered, running her hands down his chest and massaging the firm flesh.

"Ye know that idle hands are the devil's workplace," he rasped, slipping his hand under her waistband and tugging her blouse free. He quickly released the buttons and well trained fingers moved across to cup her breast and tease each rosy bud. Then he bent and kissed each one, rolling them on his tongue in worship.

"Ye're drivin' me mad...." she gasped, pulling his head up and kissing him deeply. She pulled him close, ran her hands down his back and gripped his backside firmly. She moved her body in time, as her need dictacted

""God I love ye woman..." He murmured, drowning in her red tresses and nibbling her sweet neck.

"Show me," she sighed into his ear and took his hand, leading him towards their bedroom.

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Early Morning
Larabee's shack

There is something comforting about a warm house with the scent of coffee and bacon in the air. Josiah's deft hands whipped the flour, eggs, apples, cinnamon and milk into hot cake batter. He'd been staying with them a few days at the cabin until he felt sure that Chris and Vin would be alright on their own. Chris was very encumbered by the bulky shoulder wrap and still a few weeks until the blood lost would be replaced. Vin wasn't 100% yet and both men still required rest to complete the healing process. He paused and frowned when the quiet from the back of the house was disturbed. He turned the stove down and dried his hands before moving to the bedroom.

"Chris?"

Chris woke up with a start, breathless from the vivid dream. Through blurry eyes he saw Josiah Sanchez's worried face peering down at him. He nodded his damp head once and accepted the hand up. He pulled his legs over the side and sat for a moment, resting his face in his good hand.

"I'm alright now, thanks," he offered.

"Same dream?"

"Yeah."

Josiah remained in place and wondered about the finality of that word. He'd knew Larabee had been having bad dreams since he'd awaken after the attack. The brutality of the dreaded night visions was written on the distressed features he now saw. Having been in that position himself many times, he felt perhaps he could help. Before he could voice that thought, the wobbly body rose and brushed past him.

"Chris if you need to talk about them..."

"Thanks, I'm fine," Larabee dismissed, his eyes pausing at the empty cot by the fireplace.

Josiah saw the green eyes roam around the room and then the unsteady man made his way to the door. He resumed his task of cooking breakfast and saw the blond puzzled face regarding the empty porch. The eyes lingered for a moment with brows drawn in question.

"He's by the corral," Sanchez updated of the missing tracker. "He was up and out before I woke. You know Vin hates being cooped up. Now that he has some freedom, he'll only come inside to eat and sleep."

"It's too cold this early," Chris growled, turning and coming back inside. The chilly early Autumn air clung to his naked upper body. "He was coughing most of the night..."

"He's not my child, Chris, he's grown." Josiah replied, "and he damn well knows when it's too cold to be outside."

Larabee ignored the reply and made his way to his bedroom. Slowly and very painfully, he got washed and dressed. The heavy flannel shirt warmed him and he went out the back door and saw the lone figure sitting on the corral fence. The corral was in the process of being repaired. Vin was helping him restore it, in the chance that maybe one day he'd invest in some good horses.

He walked quietly across the hard ground until he was just a few feet from his quiet friend. Vin was so lost in thought, he'd not heard him approach. That wasn't like Tanner, he had ears like a cat and the intuitiveness of always knowing when someone was behind him. But as he drew around closer, he paused and froze in place. The fair face of his best friend was painted in such shades of sorrow it was too painful to gaze at. What could be that wrong? What would twist Vin's heart up like this? The blue eyes were way too large and on the verge of tears. Just as he was about to turn back and give Vin his privacy, a single choked sob broke the frosty air.

"Vin?"

Vin jumped a bit, startled at the voice. He backed away from Chris and wondered how long he'd been standing there. How could he explain the weight that now crushed his chest? How could he speak of something he didn't understand? The grief he encountered upon watching the sunrise was overwhelming. He felt as if his heart was ripped from his chest and he had no idea why.

"Sorry, didn't mean to crowd you," Chris apologized; Vin looked like a deer in the crosshairs ready to bolt. "I'll go back in the house. It's pretty cold out here." He warned, eyeing the very red features before him.

"Stay."

"Alright," Chris accepted the offer and moved to the fence, leaning his body against it. "You want to talk about it?"

"Hell... I ain't gotta a clue where t'start." Vin sighed hard, rubbed his damp eyes and tried to collect his shredded insides. "I got a grief in me, Chris, a bad one. I ain't got no reason why. I don't understand... it's smotherin' me. I can't breathe, I can't... the weight's crushed m'chest..."

Chris moved his eyes from the distraught Texan to the horizon. He thought long and hard on what could be the cause of Vin's deep sorrow. He shifted his weight and thought on the little clues he had. He didn't remember much of what happened. But whatever transpired that dark night under a full moon was clearly affecting both of them. His frustration and the inability to get an answer angered him. To see Vin grieving so deeply hurt him and he wanted to take that pain away. He needed to pull the weight from the Texan's heavy heart.

"What the hell is wrong with me Chris? Yer here, Bucklin's here..nobody got kilt..."

"I don't know, Vin and I'm sorry for that. I wish I knew what the hell happened that night. It's wearin' on me too."

"The last time I felt this tore up," Vin paused, watching the mists of time part and painfully encountering a brave boy who'd grown up too fast. "was over a shovel buryin' my Pa. But hell I's only twelve. Them tears come with the same pain I got now." He dropped his head down and raked his fingers through his tangled hair. "It don't make any sense. Who the hell am I mournin'?"

"You having bad dreams or anything?" Chris replied and saw the head shake.

"Naw, not really, jest a meadow near a river. There's an apple tree and... I'm waitin fer..."

"For who?" Chris puzzled at the harsh catch in Vin's voice.

"I don't know, Chris." Vin took a shaky breath and pulled his head up. He stared hard into the clear green eyes and found a warmth there. He wrapped it around his cold inside and clung to it. "If ya weren't standin' here, I'd swear..." He turned away then a bit embarrassed by his lose of control. He felt a single hand on his downcast neck and the tug of those strong fingers caused him to gasp.

"You're not alone in this storm, Vin."

No, he wasn't and he was so thankful for that. For too many years he'd ridden alone, fighting his troubles and woes without the same strong hand that now comforted him. He thought of his other brothers who'd be arriving later today for a loud and very bawdy party. They'd eat and drink and share dirty jokes and bad stories of romances gone awry. It was a powerful thing, the spirit of that brotherhood. It saved his life and how he would need them to keep warm until he conquered this coldness inside. He especially needed the hand and heart of the man next to him, someone he felt closer to than any living thing. Someone who shared his soul. Josiah's voice broke the stillness..

"Breakfast is on the table."

Vin pulled his scattered emotions together and rubbed his eyes again. He took a few moments to get his trembling body a bit more organinzed.

"You done cryin' now Tanner? Cause my balls are freezing and I don't need no damn Tanner cold."

"Shut the hell up," Vin chuckled, turning and snapping his arm out, linking it onto the other's. He nodded once, accepting that grip and all that came with it. It was a start on good solid ground and he'd get there with the help of a brother.

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It was late afternoon and the sun was bright when the wagons and riders arrived. Josiah was cutting wood and Chris was on the porch, enjoying the fresh air. He rose and moved to his yard returning the calls and waves from their very youthful sheriff.

"Chris!" J.D. boomed, easing off his horse and leading it towards the corral. "You look better. I mean I didn't see you before but Nathan said you were in a bad way. But you don't look too bad now, I mean I know your arm's gotta heal but...."

"Thanks, J.D.," Chris replied, wondering if he every had youthful enthusiasm.

"Mister Larabee," Ezra tipped his hat, dusted his coat off and made his way over to the leader. To his eye the face was too pale and the eyes too drawn but the Larabee stance was the same, there was no mistaking that. "It would appear you are on the road to recovery."

Chris inspected the new royal blue coat and took the hand offered, "New businessman in town?"

"I'm offended sir," Ezra mocked, tapping his chest. "This fine garment is the result of my own pecuniary obligation."

"You're full of shit, Ezra." Chris grinned.

Nathan was driving the wagon and now eased his tall form down and peered over the top. He grimaced and waved his hand, dispelling the sour fumes that rose up. He saw Chris stride over and shook his head.

"Man's got stamina, I'll give 'im that," Jackson noted.

"Long night?" Chris asked, finding a grin splitting his face when he saw the splayed out body of Buck Wilmington. He was unshaven, unkempt and reeking of the aftereffects of a wild and wooly encounter with a very curvy body. "Cheap liquor and cheap women," he chuckled, tapping the stench riddled body.

"And thank God for 'em," Buck croaked, peeling his eyes open. "Hey stud... missed you last night. " He winked at Chris Larabee and slowly pulled his body out of the wagon.

"Looks like you missed the bathhouse too!" Chris wrinkled his nose and stepped back.

"Well now it did cross my mind," Buck replied and sniffed his wrinkled shirt. "But there wasn't enough time. What with Miss Ellie, Miss Rose, Miss Hannah, Miss Georgia Peaches..." He paused to grin then "Lord if there was every someone whose name suited them. Four fine females and this stud in one bed on a looong ride. Lord what a night!"

"Buck you are so full of it!" J.D. pulled a box of supplies from the wagon and made his way to the porch.

"I get the picture," Chris chuckled and pointed to the pump. "Get cleaned up, you bring some clothes?"

"Here," Nathan pulled out a neat pile from the end of the wagon. "The girls got these ready for yuh."

"They missed me!" Buck boasted, stripping his clothes off. He spotted a bar of soap and a towel and got busy. "Couldn't keep their hands and lips offa me. I barely had time to say hello, they swarmed all over me like bees to honey. I gotta tell you, Rose can do things with her teeth that..."

"Enough!" Chris groaned, taking the large towel Ezra appeared in the doorway with. "Save the dirty details for later. They'll sound better when I'm half drunk."

While the others took out two sawhorses and some lumber to set up a large rectangular table as well as unpack the food and barrels of beer for their party, Chris stood by Buck. When the body was clean and the new pants went on, he picked up the shirt and jerked his head.

"My shaving gear's out back," he offered.

"Okay." Buck was a bit perplexed by the tone of voice. He knew Chris wanted to tell him something and followed. It was then he realized that a body was missing. He lathered up and looked inside Chris's bedroom but it was empty. "Where's Vin?"

"He went riding," Chris answered, eyeing the road to where his heartsick friend disappeared. "I got a favor."

"Shoot," Buck answered, moving the blade over his chin.

"He's hurtin' Buck and I mean bad." He saw the lean hand pause mid stroke and then a flicker of something in the dark blue eyes. "You knew?"

"Sort of... the other day I was in the hall and... well... Annie was holdin' on to him. His face, Chris... his voice... his heart was broke. Tore me up good."

"Yeah... I know... he said he's mournin' but he don't know who. I can't figure it out. Nobody died... grief like I saw today, like you saw, that comes from someone you care for."

"Maybe," Buck noted and completed his task. He took the shirt from Chris and put it on, his nimble fingers working the buttons quickly. "And maybe it's something else."

"What?" Chris looked up sharply, hearing a key turn in the locked puzzle.

"Well, the last thing Vin remembers is?" The rogue prompted

"Uh..." Chris paused and thought hard, "Headin' out here, he said he got ambushed."

"Right," Buck replied, drying his face off and tucking his shirt into his open pants. "What you don't know and he might not remember is the girl."

"What girl?"

"The kind that turns you inside out, gets your pulse racin' and your body on fire." Buck paused. "In Vin's case, his 'boys' were fired up and I mean on fire."

"What girl? Who?" Chris pressed.

"A very pretty one, a very young one," Buck replied, "A gypsy from that carnival. It hit him hard, Chris, I mean really hard. He was full of lust, couldn't think about anything but having her."

"What happened?"

"Well, nothing, I mean they didn't have sex, but he came damn close... real close..." Buck recalled of their conversation. "They're from two different worlds, Chris, Vin knew that. Her people wouldn't have accepted him and he couldn't ruin her for her future husband."

"Ouch," Chris sympathized.

"He was so torn up, he didn't know what to do. So I told him to meet her, tell her he'd never forget her and ride away."

"To my cabin," Chris put the piece in the puzzle. "The day he got jumped."

"Yup... he was a mess. I saw him ride out. He was heartbroken, he really loved her."

"So his heads all mixed up?" Chris theorized. "He got beat up, drugged and damn near died."

"That'd do it," Buck guessed. "He ain't had the chance to get over her. Hell, what if he can't remember her? Josiah said those drugs are strong. Inside he's still mournin' her, his head just don't know why"

"That's it, Buck, it's gotta be it," Chris nodded. "He needs to remember that." He thought for a moment and eyed his large-hearted friend. He rested his good hand on Buck's shoulder. "He needs a good dose of Buck humor."

"Done!" Buck agreed with a wink.

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The sun dropped, the air cooled and the lone figure remained in place. He sat under the apple tree and his eyes were trained on the river. This was the place he'd seen in his dream, the longing inside told him that. The ache was worse than ever, pulsing and throbbing without abandon. The wind chased a scent around, a sweet wonderful thing that comes from a woman. He reached a hand out to touch that silken hair and kiss those full lips.

"She's beautiful," he murmured in a tracelike state and then blinked. "Who? Who the hell...." He sighed in frustration and the faceless phantom that haunted him.

His growling stomach reminded him he'd not eaten since breakfast. The others would have arrived by now and there was a feast waiting. He would have to hide his sorrow for this night. These men worried over him, cared for him and fought for him. They'd nearly lost three of their own and it was time to celebrate the circle remaining whole So he let out a long breath, closed his eyes and once more drew in that wonderful scent. Then he rose up on shaky legs, got on his horse and headed for the cabin. The wind chased him, sending a chilling message in the air.

"...sweet... sweet... Vin..."

"Hey Vin!" J.D. called out, leaving the porch to get the weary tracker's horse. His friend seemed okay but the blue eyes were not bright. "You okay?"

"Jest hungry, kid," Vin offered with the reins. "How ya been?"

"Better now that you and Chris aren't dead."

"Thank, kid," Vin replied in a warm voice and found a smile. The shine in the youth's eyes was a good thing.

"Look who decided to join us for supper." Josiah winked at Vin and set a large platter of fried chicken on the table.

"We were ready to send out a scout." Chris moved so Vin could sit next to him.

"Though I thought these words would never leave my lips," Ezra drawled, "It's good to see that dreaded coat with fringes flying in the wind."

"Hey y'all," Vin called back, pausing to wash his hands at the pump.

There were several lanterns lit and a large metal can with a fire inside to keep them warm when the sun would leave. The table was groaning with food. In addition to the fried chicken, there were heaping bowls of roasted potatoes and carrots, baked sweet potatoes drenched in cinnamon butter, turnips, green beans and fried apples. Several loaves of bread and a large sliced ham completed the feast. He went inside to leave his coat and hat and he brushed his shirt off. A flower he'd picked still clung to his sleeve. He examined it and felt a pain inside. An echo in his ear, a husky whisper caused him to shiver.

"...sweet sweet Vin.."

Buck paused in the kitchen, putting the last of the buttermilk biscuits onto a plate. He turned when the door opened and saw Vin shuck off his coat. He limped over and was about to greet his friend, when the face changed. The large eyes filled up, the Adam's apple went down hard and a single shuddering breath escaped the parted lips.

"Shit." Buck hissed under his breath. He couldn't get to the door without Vin seeing him and he didn't want to invade the younger man's private moment. So he backed up and returned to the kitchen. He picked up the large spoon and made a racket hitting it against a pan. He peeked inside and saw Vin jump as if startled. The blue eyes went around the room and for a split second, Vin didn't know where he was. Then the hand went up through the long hair and he collected himself.

"That you Vin?" He called out.

"Yeah," Vin managed and turned to see Buck struggling with a large plate of biscuits and a crock of honey. "Here, lemme git that. Jest m'luck ya'll drop 'em the hell all over."

"Okay," Buck agreed, "I'll get the napkins."

He walked a few feet behind Vin and caught Chris's eye. He nodded once and slowly started to smile. Vin handed the plate to Ezra and the crock followed. He then moved to the empty spot next to Chris and sat down. He barely got settled when a large body sat next to him. He turned as saw Buck eyeing him rather oddly.

"The hell's wrong with ya?" Vin rasped, trying to move away. "What's that smell?"

"Lavender soap," Buck said with a straight face. He moved a hand to finger Vin's newly shaped hair and saw the tracker begin to scowl. "You know Vin, Annie sure did a fine job cuttin' your hair. Sure looks pretty and soft too."

"Don't be touchin' m'hair," Vin snapped, slapping the hand down. "Ya got an unnatural attraction t'it."

"New shirt too, " Buck oozed fingering the deep blue flannel chest. "Sure sets off them eyes of yours."

"Ya touch me again and I'll spear yer balls t'the chair," Vin sassed, causing the others to laugh. "What the hell happened t'ya in town? Yer gettin' all squirrelly." He moved again and felt a shove the other way.

"Move Vin," Chris decided, seeing exactly where Buck was going. "You and Buck wanna be alone to cuddle, go inside. Some of us are here to eat and drink."

"Amen to that," Josiah offered, pouring seven mugs of ale from the tap on the barrel and handing them around the table.

"A handsome couple indeed," Ezra offered, saluting with his flask.

"You know," Buck moved his face closer and ran his hand along Vin's neck behind the collar. "Nearly dyin' does things to man, makes him see things a bit differently."

"Yeah?" Vin jerked his head away and picked up his fork, using it as a spear. "Ye'll be seein' outta one eye iffen ya paw me again." He warned amidst the laughter. "Hell, a man ain't even safe eatin' his supper."

"You want some ham, Vin?" Nathan offered.

"Yeah," Vin rose with his plate hand held it over to the far end. The platter was heavy and it was easier for the healer to give out the pieces. He turned back to see Buck's eyes lingering on his backside.

"Cut that out!"

"I'm sorry Vin, but damn that Tanner ass is a fine lookin' thing!" Buck growled, slapping Vin's backside.

"I'm warnin' ya, Buck." Vin turned and held the full mug of beer over the amourous rogue's head.

"You two mind takin' your love spat elsewhere?" J.D. suggeted, reaching for the ham. "It's making my stomach turn."

"Very disruptive," Ezra agreed, taking some bread.

"How about you, me and them fine boys of yours taking a ride?" Buck whispered and got a large buttered roll shoved in his mouth.

"Ya leave m'boys the hell alone," Vin retorted and again used his fork like a sabre. "Ya come anywheres near' em and ya'll be singin' high notes in Jo'siah's church."

The show kept the audience warm and full of laughter. Although only Chris knew why Buck was behaving the way he was, the others benefitted from the antics. Buck kept making suggestive faces and motions and Vin kept thwarting him. But the melencholy was gone at least for the moment. Vin's eyes were bright again and he sorrow was gone. Vin filled his plate to the brim and ate heartily for the first time in days. Chris caught Buck's eyes and gave a nod of thanks. The large man winked and eyed the slim tracker that was nestled between them.

"Gimme them potatoes, Buck," Vin asked and looked up when the bowl didn't move. "Buck, can ya..." He looked up and met Wilmington's eye. The older man had a large dollop of butter on his lip and slowly pulled it in, then wagged his eyebrows suggestively while running his tongue over his lips. Then his eyes moved down to where the 'Tanner' assets were resting on the bench.

"Cut that out..." Vin tried to keep a straight face and failed miserably.

It started as a chuckle and that gave birth to a laugh. It was infectious, spreading among the others. It paved the road for a long and very bawdy night. A night full of tall tales, lots of beer and the medicine called laughter.

The wagon and horses left just after midnight. Buck was the only one who'd remained. He wasn't about to leave as long as Vin needed him. Plus he knew som ething was nagging at Chris too. The blond hadn't opened up yet and he still remembered that conversation at the McTavish's. Something about the night Vin nearly was sacrificed was troubling Chris Larabee. Something that Buck wanted to pull out of him and heal.

Buck came inside to find Vin leaning back in the chair by the wall, precarisouly balancing on two legs. The blue eyes were heavy from liquor and fill of mischief. For a few hours, Vin forgot his troubles and with the help of his friends and some beer, he'd enjoyed himself. Chris was struggling to carry a bottle of whiskey and some glasses to the table. Vin's chair came back down and he leaned over the table, resting his chin on his arms.

"Damn shoulder," Chris muttered, glad to hand the glasses to Buck. "Good thing it's not the important hand, the one I use." He uncorked the bottle just as Buck wagged his eyebrows and Vin grinned evilly at him. "For drinking, Vin. Jesus you're getting as bad as Buck."

"I didn't say nuthin'," Vin defended, taking the shot offered and lifting the glass.

"No, you never do," Chris growled, pouring shots for himself and Buck.

"What a man does in his own bed with his good hand is his business," Vin declared with a wet burp.

"I don't do anything in my bed with any hands," Chris sent back.

"Well, hell son that's your problem," Buck offered. "You know Miss Pearl could work wonders for you. She'll give you a ride you won't forget."

"I'm not suffering in that department Buck," Chris toasted and then grinned. "You're right about Pearl though."

"Here," Vin hiccuped, filling each glass. "This rounds on me."

"You best be careful with that, Vin, " Buck noted of the silver monogramed flask. "That good stuff will ruin your delicate insides."

"That's good shit," Chris held out his empty glass.

"Where'd you get this?" Buck chuckled, examining the expensive item.

"Who?" Chris grinned, "Sticky fingers Tanner?" he snorted and gave Buck a hard stare. "You check your pockets lately?"

"Shit!" Buck tapped his pocket and his head whipped around when his silver watch was dangled before his eyes. "Hey!" He snatched the watch back from Vin and his two friends laughed.

"Ezra P. Standish," Chris examined the initials on the flask. "What do you think the P is for?"

"Hmmm..." Buck thought a moment. "Percival? Sounds fussy like him."

"Pilferer," Chris suggested, filling the glasses again.

"Weasel," Vin decided, trying to find which glass was the real one.

"Weasel?" Chris quizzed, shaking his head. "That ain't gotta 'P'"

"Give 'em... enuf... beer and... he does..." Vin laughed, slobbered badly and swiped at his lip missing it completely. 'Git it? Pee git it?"

"Don't encourage him, Buck," Chris slapped the laughing Wilmingon who'd reached over to ruffle Vin's hair.

"So how you doin', Vin?" Buck asked, totally enjoying this side of Vin. He'd never seen him drunk before, the tracker was very carefully normally about that. He didn't like to be out of control. But there was no doubt their sharpshooter was totally loose and at ease here. That Vin trusted them that much meant a lot to Buck.

"I ain't... doin'... ya... that's fer...sure..." Vin slurred and shifted in the chair.

"Hell, Slick, I was lookin' forward to wrestlin' with them boys of yours," Buck winked at Chris.

Vin sighed hard and sat back, rolling the empty glass in his fingers. He was drunk and for a change it felt good. He usually just nursed his beer and watched the others get drunk, laugh and carry on. But tonight, with his two best friends in this place after the ordeal they'd shared it felt okay to let go.

"Chrriss..."

"Yeah Vin?" Chris eyed the head now resting on two folded arms on the table. The blue eyes were slits and all the beer and whiskey he'd consumed was catching up fast.

"Ya'll watch... m'ass... fer... me?"

"Uh?" Chris chuckled and considered the request. Then he laughed and shook his head. "Yeah, Vin, I got your ass." He laughed harder when the two bleary eyes focused momentarily and the head rose enough to glare at Buck.

"Go to sleep, Vin," Buck shoved the matted head down. "Your Tanner ass is safe."

Safe.

That was a word he held onto. He let the warm voices of his two friends blanket him. He let the sandman in the door and slept soundly. He didn't stir when his boots were taken off and the body laid out on the cot by the fire. He sighed deeply when a blanket was pulled over him and a hand tapped his cheek. He was home.

Safe.

Part Eleven

Chris Larabee wasn't happy. He didn't like hangovers, he didn't like cleaning and he especially didn't like cleaning during a hangover. He ignored his throbbing head and tried to adjust his vision to accomodate seeing from the other side of his eyes. Hell, it wasn't even light outside yet. Once this was done, he planned on sleeping clear through to supper. The front door opened quietly and he looked up.

"You get all of them?" He asked of the guns that had been lying nearby.

"Yeah... knives?" Buck whispered, tiptoeing past the sleeping Texan.

"All that I could find," The blond replied, as he saw Buck eyeing the wood gathered by the fireplace. "He wouldn't..." he answered of the silent question and saw Wilmington raise his eyes in challenge. "I'll take my chances and duck."

"I got everything I need," Buck said quietly, pointing to a bottle on the sideboard. He moved over and picked it up. He tiptoed over to the cot where the tracker was sleeping, breathing heavily through his parted lips. "I hope he's ready."

"Just give it to him outside, okay?" Chris asked, "I don't need Tanner puke all over my floors."

"You sure he's gonna wake up? Hell the birds ain't even up." Buck peered down at the slack-jawed younger man who was sleeping on a cot by the fireplace.

"Creature of habit," Chris predicted, knowing Tanner that well. Whether ill or in good health, tired or fit, Vin Tanner woke just before sunrise. You could set a clock by him. He opened the door and moved onto the porch, eyeing the sky outside. It beginning to change from darkness into the first shades of blue. "Get ready," he whispered, watching as Buck moved with the bottle in his hand and a mug.

"Damn," Buck marveled when right on cue, Vin coughed, sneezed and rolled over.

He watched amazed as the slit-eyed sharpshooter sat up, swayed a minute and then stood. He quickly backed up and joined Chris on the porch. Vin staggered badly, his wobbly legs seemingly unable to hold him up.

"No," Chris tugged on Buck's arm when the mustached man tried to intervene and help the teetering Tanner.

"But he ain't steady," Buck protested

"Neither is a wounded tiger," Chris issued, moving back just as Vin righted himself and staggered past them, not seeing anything. The hiss of the full bladder being emptied nearby hit the predawn silence.

Chris watched as Vin returned, paused before them on the porch and forced his eyes to open just a crack. He was wheezing heavily through his mouth, the cold was still hanging on tough. A series of short coughs followed and the dry lips smacked together. That prompted action by the leader.

"Here you go, cowboy," Larabee answered the awful thirst he saw. He provided two full mugs of cold water to the groggy man. The panting body remained in place, needing more. "More?" he asked and a grunt came at the same time the shaggy head bobbed. He took the mug full of bitter fluid from Buck and handed it to the innocent victim. "Sorry, Vin, it's a necessary evil." He whipered and watched the fluid disappear in one motion.

"Hurry up," Buck called from where he was hiding behind the porch fence around the side of the house .

"You sure you measured it right?" Chris asked when he joined Wilmington. He kept his eyes on Vin who was still standing, swaying just a bit on the porch steps.

"Yeah, I had to adjust it some, but there's..." He paused when Vin's eyes shot open and the lean body buckled.

Vin had been sick before but nothing like this ever happened to him. His head felt like a hatchet was buried in the side of it and his insides were on fire. His eyes burned and his throat fell like hot sticky sand. Whatever he was given to drink he felt sure was poison. He staggered off the porch as the ocean of foul tasting bile rose inside him, clawing his delicate insides like a rabid beast trying to escape. He fell twice but managed to get to the brush and drop to his knees. He purged and purged, causing tears to pour from his pained eyes. When there was nothing left, he collapsed for a moment, resting his sweating body against a tree.

Water.

He peeled his heavy, throbbing eyes open and spotted the pump. There was a soft light coming from just inside the doorway. A blurry image in the background became Larabee's cabin. He vaguely recalled a party the night before and drinking alot. He crawled over to the pump and worked the handle. Cool water poured out and he put his head under it, soaking it and drinking greedily. He'd been hungover before but nothing felt this bad. He wanted to die. Then his eyes caught something bright green on the porch. His conspirators were revealed.

"...hell... are... ya?" Vin croaked, rising and looking for a weapon. "...Lar'bee... git yer yella ass... out here..."

"You idiot, you forgot to hide the bottle." Chris hissed, just as Vin's eyes caught the tell-tale Wilmington remedy bottle on the porch. Buck bragged about it enough and they'd all seen it at one time or another.

"Shit!" Buck ducked when Vin's head spun and his eyes moved to the side of the house.

"How fast can you run on that bad leg?" Chris whispered as Vin's dry and raspy curses filled the predawn air.

"He'll slow down," Buck hoped wondering why it was taking so long for the medicinal elements of his home made concoction to kick in.

"When?" Chris growled, moving back as Vin staggered towards them.

"What the hell language is that?" Buck asked of the unknown tongue that the long-haired man was using to curse loudly.

"Why don't you go ask?" The gunslinger shoved the larger man into the line of fire with the bug eyed tracker just a few few away.

"Now Vin, it's for the best. You'll feel better, you just gotta..." Buck's voice died off when the blue eyes went past him to the woodpile behind him and the ax. "NO!"

"...no account... varmit," Vin gasped, picking up wood and heaving it at the dancing Wilmington. He saw something blurry and dark green against the side of the house. The animal in question was a lethal kind, with two legs and blond hair. He unleased his fury as his best friend and began chucking wood in that direction.

"Goddammit Buck, get him," Chris shouted as a piece of wood hit the spot where his head had just been

"Now calm down, Vin!" Buck hollered and charged, tackling the irate, naked man. There was a very brief struggle and the furious man's head popped up sharply, catching his left eye. He yelped but held on and finally the fighting tiger went totally limp.

"He out?" Chris asked and rose. He walked to where Buck was now rising to his knees. The inert body was motionless.

"You think we outta tie him up?" Buck asked, hauling Vin into a sitting position and tapping the stilled face to insure that their sly friend wasn't playing dead. Confident that he was out, Buck hoisted Tanner over his shoulder and stood up.

"You got a death wish?" Chris hissed, shoving Buck back into the house. "Get him on the bunk and don't call me!"

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It was late in the afternoon when Chris finally woke up. He sat up, yawned and gingerly rose, rubbing his sore shoulder. He found his way to the water basin on the small side table and washed up. He took a good fingerful of the linament Nathan made for his wounded shoulder and rubbed it in. It's heat immediately spread through his whole shoulder. Instant relief was transmitted and the pain began to subside. He slide his arm into the sling and made his way out into the main room. He paused at the table and eyed twin plates before him. Thick piles of flully hotcakes with several slices of succulent ham were waiting. Joining them were twin mugs and a full pot of hot coffee.

"Buck?" He asked, filling each mug and eyeing Vin's empty bunk.

"Right there," Buck hollered back from where he'd just exited the outhouse. He tucked his shirt in and walked back into the house. He'd woken up a half hour ago and finding Vin gone, he'd been worried. He went down to the river, to Vin's favorite haunt but found it empty. He spotted the meal and felt guilty that Larabee cooked with only one good arm.

"Damn, that looks good," Buck boomed, taking a chair and a fork. He drenched his hotcakes in syrup and handed the jug to the other man.

"I'm starving," Chris decided, dumping syrup on his food and shoveling a huge forkful in his mouth.

"You should have waited for me to come back, Chris. You shouldn't be cuttin' with that bad arm."

"Me?" CHris paused and swallowed, "I didn't do this."

"No," Buck denied when the green eyes regarded him. "I woke up and went looking for Vin."

"Afternoon, ya'll!" Vin boomed, walking through the house from the back door. He clapped Buck on the back and kept his clear eyes on his best friend. "Helluva day, sun's shinin' like Buck's ass on satin sheets."

"Hey there, slick,": Buck edged his head swiveling to see the tracker's face. Clean shaven and freshly bathed with clear eyes, Tanner looked good. There was no sign of a hangover or the usual pain that lingers. The remedy worked, but had their victim any memory of being duped? "How's that cold?"

"Tolerable," Vin decided, eyeing both guilty faces and enjoying what was about to follow. "M'nerves was jumpin' a bit when I woke up. Thought I'd surprised ya. It was the least I could do, what with ya both tendin' t'me in m'time o'need." He nodded to the food and then cast his best sorrowful face at his host. "Chris, I had me a little accident. What with timin' the hotcakes and coffe t'all come out hot together like, I busted up the syrup toter'" He kept his somber face and nodded to the little jug. "But I saved most o'it, I put it in there." I'm gonna see if I can make some glue and patch the jug up." He tapped the pieces on the table. "Think I'll git me a plate, 'scuse me."

"Something stinks in Denmark," Chris muttered in suspicion at his very agreeable friend.

"How's that?" Buck asked, watching Vin just as warily as Chris was.

While Vin was preparing some batter, he kept sneaking glances at the table. Sure enough he saw Buck's eyes lingering on the broken pieces of ceremic. He stole a secret smile and resumed his 'stirring', killing some time.

"Vin?" Buck fingered the gray pieces broken on the table. "You sure about this jug?"

"Yup. I ain't got all m'letters squared up jest yet." He noted of Mary Travis's teaching him to read and write. "But I know syrup's gotta 'r' and 'p' in it. Course I ain't sure what all them extra 'p's were and where them 'i's and 'c's belonged. Reckon it was the name of the jug maker."

"I's?" Chris put his fork down. "'C's. There's no 'i' or 'c' in Maple Syrup." He turned towards the stove where the sly tracker was working. 'Vin, where'd you get this?"

"Up yonder." He motioned above the cupboard. "I took a peek inside and it was thick like syrup. Course with m'cold and ailin' and such, I can't smell worth a damn."

"He wouldn't," Chris hissed, backing up from the plate, his stomach souring on just the thought of the name of the dreaded medicine.

"What?" Buck's fear began to rise when he saw a trickle of fear in Larabee's normally steady gaze.

"I, P, C," Larabee moaned and moved his good hand to his lean gut. "Syrup... Jesus..."

"Shit... shit..." Buck shoved his chair back and glared at Larabee. "Ipacac? What the hell are you keeping that in your kitchen for?"

"I didn't know it was there, hell Nathan probably left it there!" Chris growled and followed Buck out the door.

"Something wrong?" Vin asked innocently of his fleeing friends. Smiling like the devil he was, the sly trickster quickly moved to the table. He pulled a large covered tin out and filled it with the forgotten hotcakes and ham. He took the coffee and poured it into a quart tin and liberally doused it with sugar. Snapping the lid onto both, he tucked a napkin into his waist band and picked up his bounty. "Tanner paybacks are a bitch," he added triumphantely. Of course it wasn't Ipacac, but they didn't know that. He stole out the back door onto his horse and left the cabin, heading for the apple tree that seem to haunt him.

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Sunset was spectactular, christening the sky in so many shades of rose, violet and purple it stole his breath. He tilted his head back as the soft breeze kicked up and a sweet scent surrounded him. He felt a longing inside to hold her, love her and conquer her. Who? He shook his head, sneezed several times and sighed hard. He took a swig of whiskey and kept his eyes on the horizon. The ache inside was beginning to diminish but the questions that lingered haunted him. He was deeply grieving and had no idea why or for whom. The thunder of hooves on the ground caused him to move from beneath his tree. He grabbed his mare's leg and waited, then spotted two familiar figures. Tossing the gun aside, he stoked the fire letting the warmth bathe him and settled back down.

"Ya bring grub?" He asked when they arrived.

"You're lucky we're not cookin' us up some Tanner ass tonight," Chris replied, easing somewhat awkwardly off his horse.

"You enjoy your lunch?" Buck asked of the wide grin that was the only thing visible under that damn floppy Tanner hat. "That was mean, Vin." Buck took the large sacs down each bearing leftovers to be heated up for dinner.

"You want to talk about it, Vin?" Chris asked, after sitting down next to the somber Texan.

Vin sat up, took his hat off and ran his fingers through his hair. He turned his face towards the road by the river and his eyes darted, seeking and searching. How could he talk about something he didn't understand himself? Yet until he did speak of it, maybe it wouldn't leave him. He couldn't go on like this, he was losing too much of himself in the blanket of grief.

"I'll uh... get some more wood," Buck offered, feeling perhaps Vin wanted to speak to Chris alone.

"We got plenty," Vin rasped, catching the dark blue eyes across the fire. "I'd prefer ya t'squat here."

"You sure, Vin?" Buck hesitated.

"Said so, didn't I?" Vin repeated and swallowed hard. "I got me a grief inside, I ain't felt the likes o'it since I buried m'Pa. I got no face, no body, nuthin' but pain. It don't make a damn bit o'sense."

"I think maybe I can help, Vin," Buck said softly, sitting by his friends and picking up the whiskey bottle by Vin's boot. He took a swig and offered it, along with his faith.

"I'm listenin'," Vin answered.

"What's the last thing you remember, Vin?" Chris asked, taking the bottle from the pensive tracker.

"Uh... ridin' out t'yer place," he replied, recalling pain and then nothing. "I got bushwacked."

"Before that," Buck prodded gently, taking the bottle and a swig.

"Uh... uh..." Vin frowned, furrowing his brows in concentration. He put his hand up denying the bottle and continued to think. "I can't..."

"The girl, Vin, the girl," Buck suggested.

"What girl?" Vin answered perplexed. His eyes narrowed and concentrated on Buck Wilmington's face. The rogue clearly knew something.

"The pretty gypsy girl, the one that stole your heart." Buck said, resting a hand on Vin' shoulder.

Girl. Gypsy girl. Pretty gypsy girl. Vin's head shot upright, both eyes widened in shock and awe. She appeared before him then, just as she had the first day in this very spot. Long silken hair and beguiliing eyes, soft hips and swelling curves under a low cut blouse. Sweet kisses and playful fingers torturing his hot flesh.

"Nina!" He cried out, reaching out as she disappeared. "Nina... God... aw, hell... God... Nina."

"All of it, Vin, get it out," Chris commanded.

"Hell," Vin whispered, thinking of the dark-haired girl. "I had me a wicked itch. M'pants was on fire. I couldn't eat'r sleep. All I done was think on her. She's so beautiful and soft. I ain't never wanted somethin' so bad in m'life."

"But you were from two different worlds," Buck answered the pained light blue eyes. "You kissed her goodbye and rode away. She went with her people into Mexico."

"That's why you headed out to my place," Chris answered the haunted face almost to painful to look at.

"T'ferget," Vin rasped, nodding his head.

Buck and Chris remained silent for several moments as the pain and longing washed over their struck friend. His eyes filled and he swallowed hard, fighting a losing battle with has raging emotions. He stood and wrapped his arms around his aching heart and moved to the river. Buck sighed hard, dropping his head and tossing some pebbles around.

"It had to be done, Buck." Chris read the hollow eyes and saw the dark head shake.

"Yeah, but it shouldn't hurt like that." Buck noted sorrowfully, wishing he could will the pain away. "I'll get supper started."

"Yeah," Chris replied, reading the emotion in Wilmington's eyes and being thankful again of having such a friend.

Twenty minutes later supper was done and Buck handed Chris a plate and made his way to the forlorn body by the river. He tapped the blue shirted shoulder and the head turned. The eyes were red but clear. He thought maybe Vin was over the worst of it. He kept his hand there and gave the slumped shoulder a good solid tug.

"Come on and eat, son," Buck suggested. "Breakin' bread with friends has gotta help."

Vin followed Buck back to the tree, sat down and took a plate. He was hungrier that he expected and ate heartily. His mind was swirling with memories of her and all the sweet moments they'd shared together. But what he still couldn't figure out was why it hurt so bad.

"It outten hurt this way," he finally broke the silence and took a mug of coffee. He sniffed at it and saw Chris roll his eyes.

"I doused it," Buck chuckled of the sweet tooth Tanner had. "You remember that day Vin? What happened just before you left for Chris's?"

"I... seen her... here...." Vin's voice drifted away.

"To say goodbye," Buck supplied. "You loved her Vin, really loved her. But you couldn't have her, you had to let her go. That hurts, Vin, hurts like hell. I've been there."

"You rode away, all busted up to hell," Chris picked up the baton then, regarding the eyes meeting his and seeking an answer. "You got jumped. You didn't have time to get over her."

"It's still in m'head... m'heart..." Vin murmured, nodding at the logic.

"Grieve," Buck answered and gently tapped the chest of the blue-shirted Texan. "For that broken heart. That's why your mournin', Vin."

"Mebbe," Vin agreed, then found a soft smile. "She was special, real special. I been with other women, I never felt..." He recalled then their private picnic and that surge of power he'd felt when his body was over hers. She was young and not yet wed. What if he'd ruined her?

"You didn't consumate, Vin," Chris answered the silent question. "There's nothing wrong with kissing and feelin' that good."

"No sir," Buck toasted.

"Consume?" Vin eyed his chuckling friends.

"You didn't have..." Chris coughed. "The boys stayed put."

"Yeah," Vin remembered then, how he'd painfully pulled away just in time. "But they weren't happy."

"No, I reckon they weren't," Buck smiled and winked at Vin.

"Think I'll stretch m'legs," Vin rosed and eyed both of his friends. He moved his hand to the brim of his hat and tugged it once. "Thanks... I don't think... I might not have... what ya done."

"Thinking about trading your rifle and taking up speech writing?" Chris teased and got the smile he wanted. "Go on... we'll be waiting."

"Ya always are," Vin rasped, nodding gratefully and disappearing in to the darkness.

"The worst of it's gone," Buck declared. "He'll hurt for awhile, but he'll get better. He's got the face now, the answer."

"Yeah," Chris agreed and let his eyes wander to the darkness.

Vin's haunting phantom finally had a name and he was glad his younger friend would heal. But what of his own visions? The dreadful nightmares about ten-foot tall beasts with yellow eyes, foul breath and fangs that dripped with Tanner blood. The visions had subsided since he arrived home but that nagging inside had not. He knew he had not dreamed the grisley sight, he' been there. What he was seeing during the dark hours between dusk and dawn was real. He wasn't dreaming; he was reliving something he'd experienced. Something he had to find out more about if he were to heal completely.

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Vin Tanner paused and pulled his coat a little tighter. It wouldn't be long until Thanksgiving and the chilly air reflected the fact that the season was changing He thought on that as he skinned the rabbits he'd caught. He felt a change within himself as well. Like the trees that were shedding their coats, he was also dispelling some weight and moving on. The last few days since Buck left, he'd shared some very beneficial healing time alone with Chris. He wondered if Larabee realized just how powerful his support was.

He cast the last of the rabbits into the tin container and made his way to the pump. As the icy water ran over his hands, he eyed that place just beyond the horizon where the sky meets the road. That's where Nina was and always would be for him. Since the revelation, he'd come to a much better place. He was finally healing inside and the peace that now lingered at night where trouble used to dwell supported that. Buck said that sometimes memories can be a sweet place to visit. That was something he would enjoy doing, as it gave him a warm feeling.

"A man could starve."

"Sorry." Vin turned at the voice behind him and saw a half-naked body in the doorway. He found a grin at the tight pants and low slung gun under a bare chest. "Jest when I was gettin' used t'them dime novels paintin' ya up all black an'scary. Yer gonna up and change." He dried his hands and picked up the metal dish containing dinner. "The bare-chested gunslinger blazed inta town..." he mocked the words used by the novelists that littered J.D.'s bottom drawer in the sheriff's office.

Vin ignored the glare that was his only reply and brushed bast the bronzed chest and made his way into the cabin. It had been a quiet day and he'd only just returned from hunting. He'd left Chris mid-morning, when the older man was sleeping to spend some time riding and roaming the hills. Nathan explained that due to the amount of blood his blond friend lost, it would be several more weeks until he was strong and fully healed . He was beginning to get more active, but the smallest chore wore him completely out. That would change with time and Vin was encouraged by the progress Chris was making.

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"Ya best scare up a shirt, I ain't makin' a poultice t'plaster onya iffen ya catch somethin'," Vin announced and went to the kitchen.

He tossed the tiny onions, carrots and bits of pototoes into the pot with the rabbit. He added some salt and pepper, before adding water and whiskey. He wasn't the best cook , but he'd learned over time and through experience how to utilize what you had into making a good meal. He had biscuit dough ready to go and once the stew was nearly done, he'd toss them into the pan. He put the lid on the pot, put it in the stove and turned back.

"Gonna be a hour'r so 'for supper's done."

Vin watched as Chris returned from his room, wincing as he tried to pull his left arm through a blue shirt. He made no move to help, those healing muscles needed work. While Larabee struggled with the buttons, finally giving up and leaving it open, he moved out to the porch and returned with a large box.

"What the hell is that?" Chris said, moving to the coffee pot. "You want some?"

"I'll git some later," Vin replied, setting the box on the floor. He pulled out a smaller box but still a sizeable one, a cloth sac with various items in it and a burlap sac of rice.

Chris moved from the stove to the table by the window where Tanner was dropping and then burying several objects of various sizes into a small crate full of rice. He remained puzzled as the small empty box was produced and placed just next to the bowl.

"Well?"

"Well what?" Vin repeated, nodding to the chair. "I'll git yer coffee, ya best git started. " He pulled out a scrap of brown paper with words written on it and laid it next to the bowl. He tapped it once with his finger and moved to the stove.

"You want me to find these in here?" Chris sat down and scanned the list. "Is this written in English?"

"My scribin' ain't hardly that bad," Vin defended, peeking over Larabee's shoulder. "Ain't a word on there that ain't readable."

"Not to those of us who can't read Vinglish," Larabee countered and identified the item at the top of the list.

"I'm gonna cut some wood, we're low and it's gonna be cold tonight." Vin moved towards the door. He paused and turned back, narrowing his blue eyes in a warning gesture. "And don't be thinkin' 'bout cheatin'. I'm holdin' ya t'yer honor."

"I don't cheat!" Chris snapped, wincing and moving his hand through the granules of rice. "And why am I doing this?"

"I ain't ridin' with a crippled up gun toter," Vin declared, meeting the stormy green eyes. He flicked his own on the buttons that were ignored.

"I can button them if I want, "Chris defended of the glancing eyes on his shirt. "And I earned this sling savin' your hide."

"Ya done with yer tantrum?" Vin calmly replied, "Ya need to work them fingers back into shape'r ya won't git 'em back. "

'My hands fine and I don't need you telling me what to do!"

"Okay by me," Vin shrugged and turned away. "Winter's comin' on. Ya wanna walk around half nekkid and totin' an empty gun, it's yer business. But yer doin' it alone. Yella ain't a color I'm fonda."

"Then go!" Chris thundered, watching the door quietly close. "Goddamn interferin' tracker."

He didn't like to be challenged and he especially didn't like the fact that Vin could read him so easily. He was struggling to pick up things and use the fingers of his left hand. Nathan gave him motion movements to work on at night and in the morning for his shoulder. He felt that getting better but whatever damage the wound did was affecting his hand. Something he'd kept hidden, well he thought he had.

He found two small things and reluctantly moved on, searching for the ball that was the first item. He found it twice, but couldn't get his fingers to grip on lift it. He dropped it and moved his fingers around again, pulling out a small wooden animal. He was about to drop it in the box until he spotted the back of Vin's head through the window. Guilt flushed over him and he dropped the animal, roamed and searched until he found the ball. Twice he got it, lifted it and had it near the box and it fell. The third time it hit the table and rolled onto the floor. He grabbed the box and wanted to throw the rice and other objects down there with it and stopped. Again he flicked a gaze to that long-hair blowing in the wind outside. He chuffed in annoyance, fisted his hands in anger and cursed several times. Then he got up, walked to the corner when the small brown ball was and tried to lift it. He cradled it in both hands, moved back to the box of rice and buried it again. Then he sat down and began all over again.

Vin put a large pile of kindling on the porch and carried some inside. He saw the anger on Larabee's face and the empty box. He didn't say anything, he put the wood down and checked on the stew. It was simmering nicely, he stirred some flour into water and mixed in through the stew, thickening the liquid into gravy. Satisfied, he closed the lid and moved to get himself a mug of coffee. He was stirring sugar into the mug, when the lingering pout turned into a snarl.

"It's a stupid idea," Chris decided, pushing the box away. "You can take your toys and go back to town."

"Okay." Vin yawned, settling himself on his bunk by the fire. He leaned back against the wall and took a good swallow of coffee. He regarded the brooding profile for a moment, then spoke. "Dinner's almost done. I reckon with all that chin-draggin' yer doin' , yer gonna be pretty hungry."

Chris started to reply and stifled his first thoughts, angry and impulsive. One thing Vin could do without trying was cause him to think before acting. He knew why the box was before him. He also knew that Vin was still recovering from two wounds himself and a nasty cold and had ridden into town to get this stuff. He'd been cooking, cleaning and taking care of both of them for several days. He also knew Vin Tanner was a smart man. He regarded the box again and what it represented.

"I can't do it."

"My grandpa lived with us fer a spell after m'Ma died. " Vin thought back on those days. He saw the slim man with white hair and eyes like his own sitting by a fire. He smiled then, hearing the crusty old man complaining about the very same exercise. "Somethin' was wrong with 'im, he couldn't walk right and his arm weren't good. He talked kinda funny. My pa done that, t'help him git his grip back. The Chinaman who worked in laundry in town told my Pa about the rice thing. It worked fer him and he's a helluva lot worse shape than yer hand."

Chris scrubbed his face with his hand, kept his gaze on the reflective features across from him and eyed the box again. He scanned the list, took a deep breath and began again.

Vin dropped his head back, closing his eyes enough to allow Larabee his privacy. He heard the curses and the fist thumping the table. When the empty coffee mug was thrown across the room and hit the wall, he pulled one eye open. Chris's face was covered in sweat but the fire in his eyes was still going strong. Satisifed, Vin continued his dozing stance. A long sigh of satisfaction and a soft thump a few moments later brought both eyes open. The ball was deposited in the small box. The smug look on Larabee's face gave the Texan a half grin.

"Egg?"

Chris found the next item. He flexed the sore arm and waited until the tingling left the fingers and began his search. He encountered marbles, blocks, small bits of wood, silk and cotton but no egg. Frowning, he moved again and then brushed against the distinctive texture. He cupped it, lifted it and started to move it to the box. But his fingers couldn't hold onto the egg and he dropped it, spilling it's guts all over the table.

"Dammit!" He scowled and sighed hard, then cast his eyes on the uneven, crooked, spiderlike lettering. The next item was a wooden block. He knew where that was, found it and quickly deposited it. As he was about to move on to the wooden horse, a red flanneled arm moved by him, burying an egg.

"What are you doing!" Chris protested when the block was stolen and reburied.

"Egg's next," Vin replied, challenging the indignant glare, wiping up the dead egg and it's guts with a rag. "Ya claimed ya weren't a cheater."

"Look," Chris sighed hard, waving his hand over the box, '" I found the Goddamn block What the hell is the difference?."

"So cheat," Vin answered, taking the block back and putting in the box next to the ball. Without saying another word, he took something from the top of the stove and went outside.

Chris shoved the box away and moved to the stove. He picked up Vin's coffee mug and filled it. He tossed in a shot of whiskey and was planning on forgetting the stupid box entirely, when he peeked out the window. Vin was on the side porch, sitting on a cold bench with his pants down. He was holding something wrapped in cloth on the thigh where he'd been wounded. The green eyes moved to the stove and he vaguely recalled Nathan warning Vin about working too much on the recovering leg. That spicy aroma he'd smelled must have been an herbal wrap Tanner made for his leg. He studied the face carefully, seeing pain mixed with relief.

"Shit."

He shook his head, turned back and glared at the box. Then he went back to the table and sat down. Taking a swig of spirited coffee, he took the block from the second box and buried it again.

"Stupid egg,' he muttered.

Chris worked hard, bit his lip and cradled the new egg. He lifted it, gently moved it and eased it into the box. Grinning triumphantly, he then found the block and the wooden animal. With every treasure succesfully found, he gained a bit of confidence. By the time Vin returned, all eight items were nestled in the box.

"Not bad," Vin mentioned and moved to the stove. He put fire under the pan and melted some fat, quickly dropping the biscuit dough in the hot pan.

"Not bad?" Chris exclaimed. "I didn't cheat. I didn't drop the stupid egg. I got all of them damn things out."

"Ya want a medal?"

Vin moved the boxes to the side and laid down some utencils. He ignored Chris's angry stance, ladled two dishes of stew out and set them on the table. He turned the biscuits, poured two mugs of cider and placed them on the table. By the time the biscuits arrived, the mood had changed. The men ate in silence, the only sound being the clink of utencil to plate. Vin finally broke the silence.

"Ya want any more?"

"No."

"Okay."

Vin cleaned the dishes up, wiped the table and stacked the dishes in the cupboard. Chris had gone outside to brood and enjoy a cheroot. The small cabin was finally tidy again and Vin leaned against the wall and rubbed his back. He was very tired and his leg was bothering him. He should have put off some of the work he'd done for another day. He eyed the bunk and it seemed to call to him. But he put the boxes back on the table first and hide the items again. He put the list out and headed for the river. He'd left some shirts there, having washed them and laid them on rocks to dry.

Chris looked up sharply when Vin finally returned. He'd come back inside to find the cabin empty and the damn boxes lined up again. He'd tried to complete the task but had gotten only halfway through. He let that anger simmer as he glared at the returning body. He was about to soundly address it, when he noticed Vin's face was perplexed. Then guilt washed over the very exhausted features.

"I'm sorry, Chris. I shouldda..." Vin sighed hard and shook his head. "I was settin' 'em up fer tommora. I didn't mean fer ya t'put yerself through it againg t'night. I fergot m'wash and headed out. I didn't figger on bein' so long."

"It's okay, Vin," Chris answered, eyeing the fatigue and hearing between the words. 'bein' so long' meant limping back on that bad leg. "You look beat."

"Yeah," Vin answered moving to shelf by the shove. "Can ya git yer shirt undone? I'll rub yer linament on good."

Chris unbuttoned the shirt and tried twice to get his injured arm from the cloth. He felt a hand on his own and relaxed as Vin gently guided the arm out. He sat back and relaxed, closing his eyes as the flexible fingers massaged the warm oil into his healing wounds. Finally the warmth penetrated and he felt relief where pain had been.

"Thanks, cowboy," Chris saluted softly and saw the tired eyes perk up.

"Anytime," Vin answered, pulling his boots off. "Ya need anythin'? I'm whipped."

"Got everything I need right here," Chris replied, locking onto those blue eyes. "Sleep well."

"Have been," Vin nodded, settling onto the cot and draping his hat over his face.

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For the next few days, the pattern remained the same. Chris would work on both sets of exercises and coupled with the eating and sleeping he felt his strength returning. He was surprised to see how much the rice therapy was working on his fingers. He was able to button his shirt and his dexterity was improving. So when he entered the living area after a lazy afternoon nap, he was surprised to see a new list.

"Six bullets?" He pondered and saw the empty gun lying next to the box.

"Find 'em, load it and hold it," Vin ordered, taking the holster from the peg next to the wall. "Ya git this back when ya can handle it proper.

He moved quicker than Vin planned on and shoved the tracker hard, trying to get his gunbelt back. What the loss of it represented infuriated him. Nobody took his belt, not even Tanner.

Vin got up slowly and moved a set of lethal eyes across to where the belt lie. It was exactly between them. Chris moved his hand to pick the belt up and Vin put his boot on it. Chris pulled the leg out, sending Vin backwards. . "Who the hell do you think you are?" Chris retorted sharply..

"Ya already know," Vin rasped, rubbing his head where it hit the hard floor. He let his eyes linger on the belt for a moment and the rose. Without looking back, he limped to the door and left.

Chris ignored the departure at first and filled his afternoon with other things. He tried to read but found himself re-reading the same page. Bored, he tossed the book aside and eyed the letter he'd begun writing the day before to his folks. He walked over the the small table in the bedroom and picked up the paper, but decided he wasn't in the mood to write. His annoyance at himself for being unnerved by Vin caused him to salk the house. Every chore he tried to do was quickly defeated by his gaze returning again to the gunbelt. He threw his body on the bed, trying in vain to take a nap but all he heard was the echo of Vin's words

Ya already know'

"Dammit," he muttered, leaving the bedroom and heading for the table.

He sat for a moment and looked at the gun. He picked it up and opened the chamber, staring at the empty holes. He knew what Tanner thought and why it took so much guts to take the belt away. If he couldn't load the gun and load it quickly, he wouldn't be able to use it. If he couldn't use it, it could get him or someone else killed. So he put the gun down, picked up his reserve and got started.

He cursed and he kicked the table leg. He left the table twice, each time taking a shot of whiskey to improve his mood. He tried to pick the bullets out and dropped every one. Amidst yet another stream of colorful language, he began again to pick up the bullets. One by one they made it out of the rice and onto the table. An hour had gone by and he paused, his hand was numb and he flexed it, shook it and got the pins and needles to leave.

Finally, he glared at the six metal soldiers lined up before him and he picked up the gun. One by one, they went inside the chamber. It took another half hour, as twice they rolled away and he had to start over. But finally the last bullet went in, he closed the chamber and held the gun in his hand.

He wasn't satisifed, it had taken much too long. So he emptied the chamber and started all over again. Another hour went by and he'd successfully emptied and reloaded the gun three times, each time increasing his dexterity and speed. Satisfied, he rose, spun the gun around and flipped it into the holster. Then he gently laid the holster on Vin's bunk.

And he sat down and waited.

Darkness fell and Vin still hadn't returned. Chris wasn't too worried but the fact that Tanner had a price on his head made him open game for any nut with that poster. His eyes moved to the gunbelt again and the mental image shot into his head. Vin in trouble with bounty hunters and himself helpless to save his friend, because he couldn't load his gun. So he was about to gather up his belt and go looking, when the door opened. He saw the tracker's eyes move to the bunk. Vin's face didn't change when he walked across the room. It remained unreadable as he lifted the gun from the holster to examine it.

"I'll do it again later and show you," Chris offered.

"Ya jest did." Vin handed the belt over and quietly made his way to the stove. Chris gripped the belt and savored the fact it felt so much better for the way it had been given. That made all the difference. The pride that came with the enormous amount of faith and trust showered on him by two blue eyes was powerful. A string of half English, half Commanche cursing caused him to turn his head. Tanner was struggling with the wrapping on a ham. Truth be told he wasn't very hungry and there was plenty of leftovers from the night before.

"Vin't don't..." he began to suggest of cutting the ham when the knife was dropped as if it was white hot. Chris put the belt on the table and stared oddly Tanner.

Those words coupled with the light from the lamp hitting the blade of the knife gave Vin a searing pain in his head. He dropped the knife and gasped audibly as the room became shrouded in a weird mist. On the dirt beneath him was a struggling , filthy man with a fevered glaze look and a light beard. His mouth was open and he was saying those words....

Vin don't... don't... don't...

The plea fell on deaf ears as the blade fell , sinking into the meaty part of the man's shoulder. The blade was withdrawn and covered in blood. It wasn't a dirty stranger beneath him, the victim of his brutal attack had a name. Chris Larabee. That just made the stench of the deed invade him more painfully. The blood covered his soul. Not just any blood, rich red Larabee blood. And the rage within the man holding the knife was beyond the kill point. It coursed through him with a fervor that had no match.

"Vin, what's wrong?" Chris moved over and waved a hand in front of the open and unblinking eyes. "Vin? Hey, snap out of it!" Chris ordered and grabbed the red flanneled shoulder giving it a shake. "What the hell's wrong? Dammit, Vin answer me!"

He fought the battle and lost; he was powerless to interfere in his own madness. He saw the blood spilling from Chris and the look of shock and fear in the green eyes pleading with him. He reached out to touch the wound and the blood covered his hands and seemed to darken his soul.

"Noooooo...."

"What? Jesus, Vin what's wrong?" Chris demanded and frowned when one arm trembling badly rose and touched his left shoulder. "What? It's fine, see." He unbuttoned a few buttons and moved the fabric.

"No, oh God," Vin moaned at the blood pouring out. He looked at his hands and found them covered in scarlet. He wiped them on his shirt but the stains wouldn't leave his skin, as if becoming a permanent tatoo of his sin. "...won't go 'way... can't git offa me..."

"What?" Chris grabbed both of Tanner's hands from where he was frantically moving them on his shirt. "Vin, there isn't anything on your hands."

"Blood... wear it ferever... payin' fer the sin. T'much blood... s'much blood."

"Blood? No Vin there isn't any blood." Chris stepped back to see if he'd missed something. Had Vin cut himself somehow. With the red shirt he might have not seen a wound. Did seeing blood cause this weird reaction?

"Vin!"

Chris moved just in time to catch the dazed man when the eyes rolled back and the knees buckled. "Shit... shit..." he caught his friend and realized his shoulder wasn't healed enough to lift Vin. So he dragged him a few feet over to the bunk and propped him against the side. He yanked a pillow over and put it under Vin's head. Then he squatted down and tapped the stilled cheek.

"Hey, wake up. Come on Vin," he encouraged. "Vin, Vin wake up."

But Vin didn't stir. Annoyed, he glanced at the knife and wondered what could have caused Vin to black out. He picked the knife up and examined it, but found no blood on it or the ham. He did a quick exam of Vin's hands and didn't find any marks. But his hands were like ice. He'd seen that happen enough at Nathan's and moved into action. He eased Vin onto the floor and put the pillow under his head. He covered him with both the blanket from the bunk and the one from his own bed. Tanner was lying next to the hearth and the golden hue of the flames seemed to cast an odd light on his pale skin.

"Vin?" He tapped the pale cheek again and got no reaction.

He didn't know what brought the attack on or how to handle what might occur when Vin woke up. He wondered about the drugs the Texan was given and if somehow he was having a delayed reaction. Was this just a flashback to a specific moment? Or would there be more blackouts? What if Vin didn't remember anything when he woke up? Or what if he'd seen in whatever placed he'd just traveled to was so horrific it would impair him further? Then an even colder fear invaded him. What if Vin didnt' wake up? Was that possible? Could he be reverted back into the catatonic state he'd been in the first time he woke up. He had too many questions and no answers. So he moved to the bunk next to the resting body and he sat down. There he would wait, keeping his shell shocked friend warm and safe.

He heard a soft moan then and the tangled head moved. A soft sigh preceded the eyes that fluttered slowly and opened.

"Vin?"

Part Twelve

Chris kept his voice low and saw the dazed eyes roaming around the cabin. For a moment, it appeared as if Tanner was not aware of his surroundings. Then the eyes found his own face and he saw something shining back at him that he didn't like. Shame was mirrored with guilt washing through in waves.

"Why didn't ya tell me?" Vin rasped, slowly drawing himself up off the floor. "How could ya not tell me?"

"Tell you what?" Chris asked, not hiding his confusion. "Vin, I don't know what you..." He broke off his thoughts when the skilled sharpshooter's hand moved over the scar high on his chest by his left shoulder.

"I done that,' Vin choked, barely able to force the words out. He retracted his hand as if it touched a flame. "I put a blade in ya, I wanted t'kill..." He turned pale then and felt dizzy as the enormity of his actions hit him full force. "I wanted ya... dead... why would I... how could I..." He didn't finish the thought, he was that horrified by his unexplainable actions. He was also freezing and began to tremble.

"Okay, okay, take it easy," Chris replied, nodding to the cot. "Sit down, you're not steady." He was glad when the body sank onto the bunk and he pulled the blanket over his upper body. The concerned blond poured the shaken man shot of whiskey. "Vin, I'm sorry, but I don't remember that. With all the drugs you were given, it might not even be true. You can't be sure that..."

"I done it!" Vin hollered, eyes blazing and drained the whiskey in a single motion.

"Alright Vin," Chris his hand up in defensive stance and wasn't sure how to handle this problem. Vin was very upset, angry and hurt at the same time. But what truly ripped at him, was the shame painted so clearly on the fine features before him. "I'm sorry, I wish the hell I had the answer you need. Look, it happened, you gettin' houndog eyes now won't change that. So get rid of that face now, Vin. I won't stand for it."

"...coffee..." Vin chattered, needing something to warm himself up. He also needed to collect himself. He didn't like falling to pieces in front of Chris Larabee.

"Yeah, hold on."

Vin laid back, wrapped the blanket tighter and closed his eyes. He began to breathe deeply and slowly, letting himself relax The room faded away and he was in dark wooded area. He felt his chest constrict as the rage engulfed him. His arm drew back and he led the blade fall. Beneath him in the path of the hot metal was a filthy man with fevered green eyes. He saw Chris mouthing the silent plea but it fell on deaf ears. Blood spilled forth and the green eyes rolled in pain. Then he drew his arm back again, seeking to strike a fatal blow.

"He stopped me."

"What?" Chris paused in front of the shrouded body and held the mug out. "Vin?"

Vin blinked, sat up and took the mug. He sipped is slowly, not even noticing that it lacked the usual dose of sugar. The warmth filled him as the hot liquid seeped through his shaken body. He nodded for Chris to take a seat, the face hovering above him was full of concern. What had happened on that dark night? Who was with them in the woods? Why had he been stopped in his death mission?

"Who, Vin?" Chris asked, watching the blue eyes darting left and right. He knew his friend was replaying the stabbing. He didn't know if it was true and he didn't care. He wanted to put that night as far behind him as he could.

"What?" Vin looked up and wrapped his fingers around the hot mug.

"You said...'he stopped me'. Who?"

"Dunno," Vin replied, sipping his coffee and finally feeling his temperature rising.

"You're starting to look better. You feel okay?"

"Ya mean other than m'gut tore up?" Vin shot back.

"Enough, Vin. It's done. I can't remember that part of that night. Hell, I'm not sure I want to. It's bad enough I gotta see you being carved the hell up."

"It's dark, I'm straddlin' ya and I got a knife. Ya look awful, filthy and all fevered up." Vin's voice was distracted and full of shadows. "Ya moved... that's why the first one didn't kill ya. Then... then..." Vin shifted the mug to his left hand and raised the right high over his shoulder. He started the stabbing motion then aborted it. "Somebody grabbed me, damn near busted m'wrist. I don't git it. If it were the gang, why'd they stop me?"

"I don't know, Vin," Chris sighed hard and turned away, scrubbing his face with his hand. "Maybe you don't have to either. I'm alive, isn't that enough? How is this helping anything?"

"I need t'know!" Vin shot back and rose, letting the blanket fall. He put the mug down and began to pace around the cabin. "Ya ain't wearin' m'boots!"

Chris didn't reply, Vin was right. It wasn't his place to tell the emotional wreck how to feel. But at the same time, he didn't want feeling so shamed. He wanted to find the right words to say to ease that weight from the distressed body. So he waited as the younger man paced and fretted, hissing in annoyance. He thought again on the pieces of the puzzle that they had and then a thought occured to him. He sat forward and cocked his head as another voice echoed in his mind.

"Buck!"

"Where?" Vin spun and eyed the door. He opened it and peered into the darkness. "Buck? I don't see 'im."

"No... no..." Chris interjected, rising and moving to the doorway. He shut the door and rested a hand on the slumped shoulder before him. "Not here, there. That night in the woods, Buck was there too. He said the last thing he can remember was hearing me scream. What if he was in the woods and saw you Vin? What if he was the hand that grabbed your wrist?"

"Buck?" He sighs shaking head. It might be that was the strong hand that stopped him from felling his blond friend with a death blow. "Mebbe..mebbe not. " He thought again but the wall was once again black. "Hell, I don't know. All I got is mebbe's."

"Then 'maybe' is gonna have to be good enough, Vin." Chris theorized. "Could be you escaped from that gang and ran into me on the road. You got ambused and we know you were drugged. I was barely recognizable and it was dark. To you I was an enemy, you felt threatened. You did what any man would have. Buck stopped you, the gang heard me scream and caught all three of us. That might be what happened Vin."

"I guess," Vin agreed as Chris's puzzle pieces moved together. It would explain a lot and did make sense to him. "I jest don't know, wish I did."

"What I know is the you're alive, Bucks' alive and I'm alive." He peeled his shirt back, holding the fabric away and exposing the wound in question.

"Touch it"

"No"

"Touch it," Chris ordered. "It's real Vin, that's blood running through veins under there. It's not going away and I won't have your eyes draggin'the hell all over everytime I walk by you. Did you stab me? Maybe you did, maybe not. Maybe the man you stabbed was a stranger to you and you were defending you life."

Vin shifted his body, sighed hard and moved his arm. Twice it rose and fell, his eyes repulsed by the reddened scar. Finally, with his eyes locked on the light radiating from the green eyes, he moved his hand to that area of discomfort. He gasped slightly when his fingers moved over the rough flesh. Then a strong hand covered his own, pressing it into place.

"Faith Vin, that's your best weapon, always has been." Chris emphasized, keeping his hand over Vin's trembling one. "It's what shot me down over that broom the day we met. You gave me that and I've never looked back." He paused, finding a glimmer of his own soul in the large blue eyes. "Believe."

Believe? Vin found himself nodding as the words swirled and circled, finding nestling deep inside. Trust and faith, two things Chris gave him every day and he accepted without question. It came as natural to him as breathing. Although he had no memory of it, the other wound Chris bore now called out to him. The one on his back, the one that nearly ended his life. Nathan's testimony of how Chris threw himself over his own inert body to prevent that knife from carving his heart out suddenly was overwhelming. That was a far more important scar and now gave him the power to stand upright and lose the guilt.

"Better?"

Chris saw the head bob and saw the light change in Vin's eyes. He moved his hand from Vin's and locked onto the younger man's forearm. The other hand snapped into place, fusing them into the most natural of symbols. Two halves that together formed a whole so powerful at times it rocked him. The guilt was gone ; the storm had passed. The blue waters were calm again.

"Good, get them cards, the night is young and I feel lucky."

"Lucky?" Vin shuffled to the cabinet by the wall and took down a deck of cards. "Yer gonna need a helluva lot more than luck. Ain't gonna let no one-armed cowboy beat me."

"You calling me a cowboy?" Chris grinned.

"Ya aim t'do somethin' 'bout it?" Vin teased, eyes crinkling in mirth.

"I aim to spend Tanner silver all over town," Larabee boasted, tapping the table. "Deal."

Chris looked around when Vin stopped dealing and began to peer around the table. His face was drawn and puzzled. He appeared to be looking for something. He found his own eyes searching and then brought his face back up to where Vin was half standing, leaning over towards his side of the bench.

"What the hell..."

"Yup, 's'what I thought." Vin cut off the quizzical blond.

"What's what you thought?" Chris asked, regretting the words as a Tanner fox swept through the room.

"them weird vibations..." Vin finished dealing, picked up his cards and fanned them out. He boldly regarded Chris Larabee then, "Yer boys is quiverin'"

"Fuck you, Tanner," Chris grinned like the devil and picked up his cards.

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The days were growing shorter and for Chris Larabee the answers he sought were becoming as elusive as the sun. The dark dreams had faded but the shadows they cast upon him remained. They lingered in his mind causing clouds of doubt to invade his senses. He found himself wrestling with the horrific memories while he reclaimed his physical strength.

So on this bright and cold afternoon, with a crisp wind sending golden leaves scurrying for cover, he found himself searching for an answer. It was late in the day and the sky was a brilliant shade of deep blue. He didn't know how long he'd been sitting out here, searching for the truth. A soft set of steps and the scent of cinnamon dusted coffee interrupted his solitude.

"Ya ready yet?"

He found his lips twisted upwards at the soft drawl. There was something about the way Vin's voice curled into the very core of him that was comforting. Every tone and syllable were real; the words were issued from the inside out. That was a rare thing and he cherished that about Tanner. Vin had known for some time that there was something troubling him. But he'd not rushed him or forced it prematurely. So on this November morning with Thanksgiving just a whisper away, he decided it was time to purge.

"At first, I thought they were dreams," Chris began, nodding and accepting a hot mug of coffee from the lanky Texan. He waited until the buckskin clad body was in the chair a few feet away and settled. "But now I'm sure they weren't. What I thought were nightmares, were actually my own memories."

Vin watched the planes of Chris's face changing. He knew Larabee was troubled and had been for some time. Whatever demons he was wrestling with were causing the bruised green eyes he now watched painfully. Chris was not a overly religious man but did have strong faith. So Vin needed to hear what it was that was causing a crack in that solid foundation.

"What kinda memories?"

"I don't even know... I can't see... how to start..."

"Begininin's always a good place." Vin paused and took a sip of his brew. He leaned back, stretched his legs out and watched a 'V' formation of birds flying overhead. The call of the leader kept the others in place. He thought how much that was not unlike their own situation. So he decided to help with that call. "Okay, Bucklin told us that I was headed out here and got jumped. Ya left outta Eagle's Bend and took the river road. Ya went huntin'?"

"Yeah, I knew you were in trouble, I felt it," Chris recalled, moving his hand over the lean abdomen of his olive green shirt. "It was powerful."

"Good thing fer me," Vin added gratefully, saluting with his mug.

"I got ambushed, robbed..." He sighed hard and shook his head slightly. "From there it's blank. From what Buck said, I followed the road until either I found you or that gang found me. Maybe both" He thought on their conversation about the stabbing, adding the newest piece of the elusive puzzle.

"Mebbe," Vin agreed, settling the hot mug of coffee onto his thigh. He let the idea form in his head and found himself nodding. That made a little sense and would explain his attack on Chris.

"Don't go there, we did that remember?" Chris addressed the guilt now flickering in the sky eyes and the skin that went pale.

"I know," Vin replied, sighing hard. "I jest can't help thinkin' if I'd kilt ya, be like losin' m'soul." He shivered at the thought and felt a boot his his own. The smile that met his gaze was accompanied by an intense stare. Chris felt every bit of the emotion now cresting through him. That was enough and he needed to shake it off and help his friend. "Sorry."

"Okay?" Chris waited and saw the shaggy head bob. "So if that's what happened, maybe us fighting got noisy. Somehow they must have heard us because we got captured, we know that."

"So this gang," Vin picked up the story. "Accordin' t'what Jo'siah thinks, they wanted t'sacrifice me at midnight."

"That's the part I remember," Chris's words came in a rush . He needed to get rid of these phantoms once and for all. "It's dark and cold. There's an altar built of rocks and you're lying on it, not moving. There's... theres'..." He broke off, stood up and put the cup on the railing of the porch. He gripped the rails until his knuckles were white and it caused his healing shoulder to protest loudly.

"Git it out, cowboy," Vin requested quietly.

"It's horrible, it's disgusting, it's... like... nothing... I've ever... it's barbaric and bloody and..." Chris shot off of the bench and walked to the porch rail, gripping it hard.

"I'm on the rocks, ya thought I was dead?"

"Yes... no... I don't know. They were... had... cut you... were bleeding you to fill a cup."

"Part o'the sacrifice, Jo'siah mentioned. Somethin' 'bout devil worshipin' and such."

"When the dreams first began, I saw the leader, the big one, cut your heart out, lift it up and eat it. I... felt... the blood hit... my face... Christ..."

Vin moved then, rising and walking behind the man who he felt closer to than any other. He didn't remember that night and he was glad of that. He laid a hand on the downcast shoulder and gave a solid tug. He kept it there until the bent blond head came back up and a single nod was issued. With a gentle back on the green shirted back, he returned to his chair.

"Well, I got marks on me, I know they cut m'ankles, sides and shoulders. They tried to carve m'chest and either that's when Bucklin an' ya busted loose or ya threw yerself on me... or mebbe both. They didn't git m'heart, thanks t'what ya done. Ya almost died... couldda died."

"Would have," Chris declared without hesitation.

"I can understand why that would be upsettin', Chris, but I didn't die."

"That's not the part I can't grip. Around you... the altar were a group of animals... they were the ones that hurt you."

"Well hell we knew that, drinkin' blood and tryin' t'eat somebody's heart, can't make 'em nothin' but a pack of flea-totin mongrels."

"No... no, Vin," Chris turned and faced his best friend and swallowed hard. This was the moment of truth and the one person in the world he felt comfortable enough to pour his soul out to. "I mean animals. Hairy bastards with long claws, yellow eyes and bloody fangs. Except they stood upright, like you and I, ten to twelve feet tall. Growling and howling, shaking their fuckin' heads and pawin' your body."

"What?" Vin whispered, brows furrowing in confusion.

"I can't explain it, Vin, God knows I've tried," Chris sighed in frustration. He felt better though, no that his burden was releasd. A weight had been lifted and he could breathe a bit better. "I know there's no such thing but I know what I saw. How the hell is that possible?"

Vin thought for several moments and went over all the information again in his head. He allowed his mind to travel back in time to the times in his life he lived with the People. Native Americans were very spiritual beings and he'd seen first hand what the vivid imagery could occur during some of the tribal ceremonies.

"Could be cause yer t'familiar." Vin sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees and drawing his brows together in thought.

"How's that?" Chris turned and observed Vin who appeared to be in deep thought.

"It ain't yer fault, ya weren't raised t'believe in visions. Real t'ya is what ya were learned to believe, what yer familiar with. Ya know I lived with the Kiowa and Commanche. I've seen things ya'd never believe, but I know they's real. Inside, in here," he patted his chest. "there's a whole other place ya can't git t'unless ya know the way. Ever been in a sweat lodge?"

"No."

"Seen one?"

"Yeah, ten feet or so across maybe what four feet high?"

"'bout right," Vin agreed. "The heat inside is powerful and thick. I's honored t'be the stone tender, keeper o'the fire. I put the stones on the fire and they were doused with herbs. The leader did the chantin', passin' the pipe around and callin' us back t'honor Grandfather and Grandmother, our ancestors. Purification is a powerful thing, Chris. 'tween the chantin', the steam from the water poured on the rocks and the incense, it changes ya."

"I guess it would, closed in like that," Chris agreed.

"The womb," Vin smiled, "That's what it is, dark and small, goin' back t'connect with what's important. It can last fer hours and yer mind opens up, travels and let's ya see things, powerful things, scary things, terrifyin' things." He shifted and sat upright, turning to face his friend. "It's hard fer me t'make ya understand how that changes ya. I never felt such peace and bein' whole and sure about m'self, m'place in this world as I was when I was with the People. I keep that still, right here, I'll never lose it."

For a few moments, Chris was envious of what depth of spirituality Vin was able to explore and accept while he lived with the Indians. He now realized that the gifts he'd gained there were a large part of what made him so very special. That ability to believe without question, to follow your heart and let your soul breathe, that was something he was learning from his quiet friend.

"So, you think maybe what I saw might be from being in a state like that?" Chris guessed.

"Look Chris, I don't know what drugs them bastards used on me, but they damn near kilt me. Jo'siah ever tell ya 'bout when his Pa had him over in India?"

"Missionary work?" Chris scratched his chin and thought, "Only that he was in his early teens and a bit rammy."

"He told me once that his Pa was workin' with some high priests over there. They have simliar ceremonies where they drink stuff and chant. But their elders, they's trained fer years and schooled on how t'use the stuff. Well he gotta inta some and took himself on a wild ride. Saw all kinds o'shit, black scaley dragons flyin' about, goat-woman doin' things t'him, well ya git the picture."

"So, you think what I saw was a hallucination?" Chris studied the honest and very open face. "Like loco weed?"

"It's Peyote and it's sacred!" Vin tossed back with vinegar, his eyes blazing and bordering on venomous. "It's only loco cause some ignorant idiot don't know what the hell he's talkin' about!"

"I'm sorry ,Vin, I didn't mean it that way," Chris recoiled, not prepared for the tenacious comeback. "Honest to God, I'd never insult your beliefs."

"s'okay, didn't mean t'bark," Vin huffed, settling his ruffled feathers back down. "And yeah, it could be that. I know in Mexico they got Indians there that use Peyote. If this gang were devil worshipers and they gave ya that t'drink, them ten foot hairy beast drippin' blood would be as clear t'ya and I am."

Chris exhaled slowly and lingered on that theory for several moments. His eyes remained still and focused on a place far beyond the horizon. He allowed himself to travel back in time to that night. The black sky was growling and a wicked wind was dancing around him. He felt pain, his whole body was throbbing in pain. The tall wolk-like men were surrounding Vin and clawing at him. A golden cup was being used to fill with his blood. The howling increased and they began to move in a frenzy, the knife arced high over Vin's chest, the leader's eyes filled with bloodlust.

"No! Vin!"

"Hey, hey,"

Vin moved in a flash and caught Chris when he staggered. He'd been so intense and still for so long Vin was shocked by the outburst. He led the dazed man back inside and sat him down by the fire. He was shaking all over and gasping. Vin uncorked the whiskey and handed the bottle over, watching Larabee's face carefully as the long swig was downed. Finally, the face turned up at him and the eyes were clear again.

"Ya okay?"

"Yeah, I think so, Vin."

Chris found himself nodding. He was okay. Hell, he was more than okay. For the first time since that brutal night, he felt the ragged hole inside closing. He was finally healing. His insticts to spill his troubles to Vin had been the right choice, the only choice. He sat back, rolling the bottle in his hand and leaned against the wall. He took several good, long breaths and felt the healing occur. The damn, rotting, ravaged wound inside was going away. He chuckled softly and shook his head, offering the bottle over.

"You ever think about being a psychiatrist?"

"Huh?"

Chris's grin broadened at the screwed up face and he chuckled again. "That one might need two swigs."

"Might need the whole bottle," Vin shot back. "What the hell is that?"

"What do you think it is?" Chris pressed, knowing how adept Vin was at putting puzzles together.

"Sigh-ki-a-trist... Sighko," Vin paused, "like crazy folks?" He thought a bit more and watched Chris nod to the porch. He went over their conversation and eyed the new man before him. "Somebody who helps crazy folks?"

"Thanks, Vin," Chris laughed, taking the bottle back. He saluted the 'new specialist' "Here's to Doctor Lavinia Tanner."

"Lavinia!" Vin smacked the blond on the side of the head and stole the bottle. "Ya ain't learnt by now that Tanner paybacks are a bitch."

"Well, hell Vin you got the long hair and them big eyes," Chris grinned, so very glad for the warmth that was now in every corner of the room.

"I ain't got feeders," Vin declared , peeking inside his shirt. He looked up at the sound of the deep laughter that was long overdue and very much welcomed. He caught the warmth and decided to give some back. "Chris, what ya done, throwin' yerself on me, ya said ye'd do it again?"

"I would," Chris resolved.

"Without even thinkin'?"

"Yup."

"That's the difference, ya see?" Vin lauded quietly, his voice rough with emotion. "What them hairy bastards was fixed on doin', where they come from, what they are is evil, pure evil. What ya... ya..." he paused to collect his scattering emotions and swallowed hard, "ya done, sacrificin' yerself fer me, that's good, pure and true, ya see?"

"Good versus evil?" Chris repeated and took a swig of truth.

"Look Chris, I ain't got any book learnin', but I know about the power of Good. I seen what it can do, how it makes a man git strength he didn't know he had. A conquerin' spirit, that's what it does. right from the soul."

"And I've seen evil, hell I've lived there."

"No ya ain't," Vin dismissed, "Ya were in a bad way fer a spell, felt them flames o'hell lickin' at yer boots, but ya ain't never been evil. Givin' o'yerself like that, fer somebody else, where that come from, that's like a pure light, a blindin' force inside. There ain't nuthin that can kill that, ya see?"

Chris saw alright and very clearly, that all books and degrees in the world couldn't come close to what Vin Tanner possessed naturally. He wasn't as awed by that then at this moment, when the younger man quietly stroked his soul.

"So you think that's why they left? Why we... well Josiah and Nathan couldn't find a sign of them?"

"I think if' they's intent on hackin' m'heart out, and ya got in their way, givin' yerself over like that, it destroyed 'em," he bragged with a cocky grin. "Sent them bastards scurryin' clear back t'hell," he took the bottle and offered a salute. "Case I didn't git t' sayin' such, thank ya Chris Lar'bee fer what ya done, savin' this sorry-assed Texan's hide."

"Sorry-assed Texas river rats are my speciality," Chris smiled and shifted when a hand shoved his leg.

"Ye mind?" Vin yawned, "I got a hankerin' fer a nap, m'eyes is heavier than Ezra's pockets on Saturday night."

Chris rose and replaced the bottle on the cupboard, pausing quietly to watch Vin for a moment. He moved to get the blanket from where it was lying on a chair nearby.

"Could be cowboy," He noted quietly, throwing a blanket on the slumbering prophet. "That you're way ahead of all of the rest of us." He paused and watched the blanketed chest rise and fall. "Thank you, Vin Tanner"

Later, they would spend the night talking and laughing, sharing and basking in the very deep and hearty sea of kinship that they shared. Each knew that without the other's help, they'd not have healed. But thanks to that mysterious hand that brought them together and kept them whole, they were still on that ship, sailing for home.

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Chris Larabee ducked inside the stone church and cast an appreciative eye at the progress made. He scanned the interior and saw a place of worship quickly taking life. Most towns needed such a solace from the respit of the harsh realities of life. He cocked his head and listened to the words of an old hymn being sung by the proprietor of the church. He walked quietly up the aisle and found a pew near the front. He took a seat and closed his eyes, letting the strong voice penetrate his troubled mind.

Josiah's deep voice settled over the stone building he was restoring. With a little luck, he hoped to have the old church finished for Christmas services. It was hard to believe that the next day was Thanksgiving, with Christmas to follow in four short weeks. He cast his smokey eyes to the blue sky overhead and marveled at the deep color. The town was busier than normal, with some folks arriving to spend the holiday with their family and others leaving for the same reason. His own family, the band of six men who'd come to be his brothers would have a lot to be thankful for this year. He was planning on hosting the dinner right here in this church. They'd dine and celebrate together, basking in the warmth that comes from friendship A noise caused him to pause his work, he spit the nails from his mouth and turned.

"Chris?" He put the hammer down and wiped the sweat from his brow.

"You got a minute?"

"I was just planning on taking a break," the preacher noted, descending the ladder. He nodded towards the group of rooms in the back where he slept and ate. "You eat lunch?"

"I could be persuaded," Larabee replied.

"Ain't fancy, just some leftover chicken and potato salad. The bread's fresh, Mrs. Schmidt dropped some off this morning," he spoke of wife of the bakery owner.

"Lead the way." Chris paused to let the gray-haired man walk in front of him. He let his eyes roam around the interior of the former ruin and marveled at the amount of work Josiah had done. "Place is shapin' up good, Josiah. You've done a fine job."

"Thanks, you know what they say about idle hands." He teased of the old adage. He quickly put together two platters and put them on the small wooden table. He poured two mugs of coffee and settled down across from the leader of their group. "You're looking better, brother, your eyes aren't haunted anymore."

"Vin and me did some talking," Chris complimented, taking a forkful of meat.

"How is our missing tracker?"

"Good, better. He remembered Nina, the gypsy girl. I owe Buck bigtime for that one. He really got Vin through the grieving." Chris updated, "He left yesterday to visit with Kojay and Chanu. He'll be back tomorrow, he won't miss dinner. He's really looking forward to it."

"As we all are." Sanchez paused to butter a piece of bread. "We have a lot to be thankful for this year. Seven's my lucky number, you know?"

"I do." Chris smiled and nodded.

"But you're not here to talk about dinner are you?" the wise religious man guessed.

"No," Chris answered, swallowing some potatoes and drinking a mouthful of coffee. He looked over at Sanchez and thought on the conversation he'd had with. "You know I was having bad dreams."

"Night visions, terrifying as I recall," Josiah answered. "About Vin being sacrificed."

"Yeah,' except the longer time passed,. the stronger they got. I knew they weren't dreams, Josiah, I was actually recalling what happened."

"That would cause any man to have sleepless nights and fears. It was a horrible thing to endure, especially since it was Vin."

"We... Vin and I talked about that some. He helped me to understand what I saw or thought I saw. I didn't see a gang torturing Vin, I saw animals. Standing upright like a man, but much taller and looking like a wolf."

"That's enough to make a man question and wonder. I can understand why you were shook up," Josiah replied to the facial tension the younger man now wore. He knew how hard it was for Chris to admit that and that there was an underlying reason for his presence.

"I thought I was losing my mind." Chris sat back and his eyes swept out the tiny window.

He saw Nathan and Buck across the street. Buck was telling Nathan a story and by the way the healer's eyes were rolling and the head shaking, it was a tall tale no doubt. He blinked and turned away, thinking on Vin's use of the word 'familiar'. That's what Buck and others had become to him, part of all that was 'familiar'. A large part of the world he now lived in.

"When I told Vin, he said the reason I didn't understand what I was seeing, that I was too familiar. I couldn't accept something so far from what I'd been raised to believe. He thought maybe I was drugged too, and what I saw or thought I saw was from that."

"He could very well be right. I've been there, Chris and the demons I saw were as real to me as you are. It shakes you to the core. You push it away because you cannot accept that it's real." He cut some chicken and hoisted his fork.

"You believe in the power of good over evil?"

"Where'd that come from?" Josiah swallowed his food and scooped up some potatoes.

"You and Nate, you said the wound on my back was because I threw myself on Vin, to protect him."

"Oh," the wise preacher put his fork down and nodded. "I see now. Those demons, those animals you saw that were hurting your brother, threatening to take his heart were evil. By your sacrifice, the giving of your own life to save another's you represented all that is good in man."

"Something like that," Chris replied. He thought again on how easy the decision came to him in reflection. "Could it be that powerful? Powerful enough to drive them away?"

"Ah," Josiah noted, catching the troubled green eyes. "There you are being too familiar again. Vin accepts the soul you two share without question. The faith keeps him strong, it keeps him in the light. You still fight it."

"I try not to," Chris argued back and then sighed hard, thinking of the rakish grin Vin left him with the day before. "He's strong, you're right about that, I don't know anyone as strong. I wish I could be that strong. He has such faith."

"In himself and you," Josiah answered. "I wasn't there, Chris. But I think I know you well enough to say that you gave yourself to that blade without question. And if Vin was walking down the middle of the street tomorrow and a gun was aimed as his back, you'd do it again."

"I would," Chris answered and paused to reflect. "But is that enough?"

"More than enough," Josiah answered. "It's what Saint Michael used to drive Lucifer and the dark side from heaven. It was drives all good and honest men. Without it, you're naked and stripped of your humanity."

"I need him, Josiah," Chris whispered, eyeing the window again. Buck and Nathan were gone but Vin's ghost was lingering, those intense eyes burning through him. "I don't think I realized how much until that night. He's given me so much... he does it without trying. I can't explain it."

"For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" He quoted of Matthew 16:26.

"His life?" Chris replied. "Is that it? That thing I can't touch inside? The power I feel when he's by my side?"

"His too, Chris. He knew the minute you met, he might have even seen it in a vision. He accepted it, embraced it and you've given him that gift. It's a rare thing, brother and a beautiful one to see. Embrace the light, Chris, relish it and it'll grow."

"If he died, Josiah, if I lost him," Chris's voice broke a bit and he didn't continue.

"You'd survive, Chris, you'd walk taller and stronger because of what he's given you. He'll always be with you, even if he's physically gone. You will never lose his gift or he yours."

"Thanks," Chris spoke gratefully as the two men put the dishes in the sink and returned to the interior of the church. "Could be coming here more often might help me to be a bit more accepting of those gifts."

"He always sees you, Chris, whether you're here or not," Josiah answerd, tapping the dark green shirt lightly. "You gonna be in town for supper?"

"Yeah," Chris answered. "I'll stop by the saloon later. The judge was due in this morning on the stage and I need to talk to him."

"He's here," Josiah updated, picking up his tooks and climbing up the ladder. "He outta be heading over to the school to pick up Billy. You might check at Mary's."

"Will do, see you later." Chris paused in the doorway, watching the preacher using the hammer with grace. "Hey, preacher?" He waited until Josiah stopped and looked down at him. The light from the outside came through the window, giving the gray-haired wise man a halo of sorts. That brought a smile. "You carpenters are pretty good at nailing down words too."

"I learn from the best," Josiah nodded to the statue of St. Joseph and Jesus on a small table near the altar.

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Orrin Travis listened intently as his young grandson spilled out details about the first Pilgrims. The small boy was very excited about the upcoming holiday. Having learned about that first Thanksgiving a couple hundred years before was all he could talk about. The judge smiled as the boy continued to speak about the Indians and the new settlers who shared that first meal.

"..and they didn't even have no pie... well no puntkin pie, that's my favorite," Billy babbled.

"I'm sure they were very thankful for all they had. It was a very hard time for them, they lost a lot of family to the harsh weather. They made friends with the Indians and each learned from the other. That's what friends do, they share and help each other."

"Like Chris and them?"

"Exactly. You miss Chris?"

"Yeah," Billy paused and eyed the figure in black walking on the other side of the street. "Hey, it's Chris! Chris! CHRIS!"

'So it is." The judge held the boy's hand and waited as the lone gunslinger crossed the street. "It's good to see you again, Chris. You saved me a ride out to your cabin."

"Judge," Chris took the judge's hand and then ruffled the fair locks of the little boy. "Hey there, pard. How are you?"

"Good. We learned about the Pilgrims in school, did you know about the Indians savin' them and the corn and stuff?"

"Yup, it's one of my favorite stories. I was hoping you'd share it with us at dinner tomorrow night."

"Okay!" Billy gushed, eyeing the empty street. "Is Vin comin'?"

"He sure is!" Chris replied, hearing the pause in the little boy's voice.

"Good, I miss him."

"He missed you too. I'll bet he'll be looking forward to your story."

"Billy," the judge interrupted. "Why don't you go and see if your mother needs any help. I'll be right along."

"Okay, Grandpa. See ya, Chris."

"Bye, Billy." The lean gunslinger kept his eyes on the boy until he safely made it into the Clarion's front door. "Drink?"

"Alright," Travis agreed and followed the lean blond into the Saloon. He was surprised to find is empty. Usually one or more of the peacekeepers were occupying tables. "Hmmm..."

"Ezra's not up yet," Chris predicted, knowing the gambler kept late hours. "Buck might be upstairs." He grinned at the odd expression Travis wore, as if he was surpressing a grin. "Nathan's most likely at the clinic. The kid's doing rounds, usually he's checking on the ranches in the afternoon."

"You've become quite the stablizing force in the this town."

"Good people settlin' in," Chris sighed and nodded to Inez who brought over a bottle and two glasses. "Thanks Inez."

"You are welcome, Senor Chris." She took time to smile at him. "You look well, I am so glad you and Senor Vin are back safely with us, home where you belong."

"Thanks," Chris replied and waited until she departed. "Home? Never thought that word would find me again."

"It suits you, whether you choose to believe it or not," the judge reflected. "The people in town, the ranchers in the territory and your friends all look to you for guidance. Like it or not, Chris, you're their leader."

"You didn't ride all the way out here to dust off my laurel wreath," Chris tossed back along with a shot of liquor.

"No, I came to see Vin. Is he around? Or is he at your cabin?"

"Neither, he's at the village..." Chris's voice trailed off as the Judge's hand slid inside his coat and exited with a scroll tied with small black cord.

"I think it would be fitting that you deliver this to him, since you're the one responsible for it's issue."

"Responsible for what?" Chris took the scroll, unwound it and read it.

The judge smiled at the emotion pouring from the clear green eyes. He had no doubt that those eyes had been clouded for years by hate and sorrow. Although the quest for justice still burned deep within Larabee, he wasn't riding in darkness anymore, alone and cold. He had another family now, brothers to keep him warm and carry him when the load got too hard. And then there was Vin Tanner, the man who life now rested in the slightly trembling hands across from him. His lips quirked upwards at that tremble, such a simple thing but very profound. Like the others, he knew just how deep the bond the two men shared was. He also knew just how important Tanner's life was to Larabee.

"My God," Chris whispered as he read the last sentence. He looked up at the older man and felt his hands tingling. He was numb all over and couldn't believe what he'd read. "Thank you, Orrin. You have no idea how much I... we... owe you for this."

"You've already given back far more than that, Chris. All of you have by putting your lives on the line every day for the people of this territory. As a judge of this territory, that makes my job easier. As the grandfather, proud grandfather," he corrected,. "of William Stephen Travis, that makes me sleep at night."

He rose then, drained his drink and moved to stand next to Larabee. He gave the dark blue shirted shoulder a tug and pulled it watch out. He had two legal briefs to write and a dozen things to review before dinner. He also wanted to spend some time with Billy and Mary and it was already late in the day.

"Thanks for the drink. I'll be looking forward to seeing you and the others at Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow afternoon." He paused by the batwing doors and looked back at Chris Larabee. "You know, every once and a while those damned stage coach rides are worth every bump and rattle."

"I reckon they are," Chris lauded, carefully rolling the scroll up. "Judge Travis," he concluded, nodding his head in appreciation.

He finished two more shots, corked the bottle and took it with him. He tucked it in his saddlebag, saving it for the celebration that would follow the following night. He eyed the horizon beyond just which a lanky, long-haired, sometimes cranky, blue-eyed bearer of his soul was waiting. He held the scroll in his fist and pressed it to his heart.

"Freedom," he whispered, sending the priceless word on the wind.

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Thanksgiving Dawn

It never failed to leave him in awe of the power of God's majesty. Every new color rippling across the sky fighting for attention attacked his senses. The cool wind kicked up the leaves nearby, sending them into frenzied dance.

Thanksgiving was always a favorite of his, for it was truly an American holiday, born in this country from the friendship created by the Natives of the land and the newcomers. He thought on those first settlers and the hardships they faced. It took a lot of courage to push through after that first brutal winter and endure. That spirit prevailed today in the west, where the untamed land was unparalled in her beauty. Something else tickled his senses then and caused his empty stomach to rumble. The aroma of coffee hit him hard.

"Yer late," Vin called back, lifting his hand out when a mug appeared just to his right.

"Don't get up," Chris quipped, "Leave the cripple to fetch your coffee."

"Ya brung grub didn't ya? I got a hankerin' fer cinnamon rolls with some vaniller icin',"

The reply he got was a burlap bag tossed at him, landing between his feet. He was sitting on the ground, his back against a rock padded with his blanket and his legs outstretched. He rummaged in the bag and licked his lips at several cinnamon rolls, along with a round object wrapped in cloth. They were still warm and he sniffed the cotton-clothed item and his stomach growled louder.

"Jesus, Vin, when'd you eat last?" Chris chuckled, hearing the loud sound.

"Supper I reckon, possum stew." Vin narrowed his eyes when a snort sounded. "Snob."

Chris lifted his mug in a toast to that statment and settled in a few feet from the hungry tracker. He watched as Vin unwrapped the large sandwich of eggs, ham and cheese on a roll. He sipped his coffee and watched the sandwich disappearing in large amounts.

"You got a fast horse waitin'?" the blond teased of the rapid speed his friend was devouring the sandwich with.

"Sorry," Vin muffled and grinned, swiping his mouth. He used some coffee to help the food go down and then burped.

"Attaboy," Chris lauded, watching the new sun playing on the water. "Sure is pretty."

"Ain't nothin' like it," Vin replied, letting the sun warm his face. He took out a cinnamon roll and offered it over.

"No thanks," Chris replied.

As he ate, Vin snuck a few glances sideways and saw such peace on Chris's features it gave him pause. But there was something else there, a radiance that he'd not seen before. From the clear eyes to the easy smile, something was more than right. He wondered if Chris had thought on their talk while he was away. Maybe the demons finally disappeared and he was grateful.

"Ya ain't gettin' married are ya, cowboy?" Vin teased and got the fair-haired man to turn and eye him with curiosity. "Well, hell yer glowin'."

Chris gave way to a dopey grin then, letting it plaster all over his face. Wordlessly, he slid his hand into his coat, drew out the scroll and handed it over. Then he sat back and waited for the moment he'd longed for since that first sunset when Vin had opened his soul. They were barely known then and for the Texan to trust him with something that private, it meant a lot to him.

"What's this?" Vin untied the cord and unrolled the paper. It was a pale yellow color and the texture was odd. He knew by the seal on the top and the strange lettering, it was a legal form of some kind. "Hell, I can't read this. It's fussier than Ezra's scratchins. It's got t'many loops and curves, looks like snakes swimmin' in a pile of grease."

"You do have a way with words," Chris replied, watching the rose and gold light kissing Vin's fine features. He wanted to remember this moment and he was savoring every second of it. He saw the scroll being offered back but denied it.

"Well what the hell is it?" Vin demanded, sitting forward and eyeing Chris again.

"It's your name, Vin," he replied softly, moving to give the buckskin jacketed shoulder a solid tug. "Couldn't pick a better day to give it back."

"Whaddya mean?" Vin stuttered, pins and needles pricking at him. His wide eyes drilled into the fair ones now next to him. He scanned the paper again as if it would speak to him, revealing it's secret.

"Thanksgivin', m'name..." Vin's brows drew together and he eyed the loopy black script again.

"You're free, cowboy." Chris managed over a very tight throat. It wasn't many times in your life you had the opportunity to give someone their soul back. It was an incredible feeling, as if that new sun rising was inside his chest waiting to break free.

"Free?" Vin gasped and the clues all began to fit into place. "This... ain't what... I think... ya mean... I'm... the bounty..."

"It's gone, Vin. No more looking over your shoulder, that damned albatross is finally gone. That's the document that clears you, Judge Travis signed it."

"But how?" Vin almost dropped the paper, his fingers were shaking so badly. He'd been wanting this for so long he had no idea how to react. It was very overwhelming. Just saying the word aloud scared him, he was afraid it would all disappear and he'd wake up. He was so giddy, he was dizzy.

"Yates owned up," Chris replied, his heart warming at the slim fingers holding the paper shaking badly.

"Owned up?" Vin repeated, carefully rolling the document up and securing it again.

He didn't want the wind to carry it away. He tucked inside his jacket and put his hand over the pocket that held it, near his heart. Funny that it was the same area where a new scar lingered, courtesy of the animals who'd nearly killed him.

"Travis went back to Texas with the federal marshalls. They went before the magistrate there and he gave a full confession. He knew Eli Joe killed Kincaid and told them so."

Vin heard bits and pieces of the story, he saw Chris's lips moving but the roar in his ears from the blood rushing to his head drowned out the words. He'd get the details later, the full effect hadn't sunk in yet. Something nagged at him. He'd ridden with Yates to Eagles Bend and the prisoner had been cocky, bragging how he'd be watching when Vin was hung. What had caused such a change?

"Yates owned up huh?" Vin rasped, narrowing his eyes suspiciously. "Seems t'me he had some help loosenin' his tongue."

"Well," Chris moved then, rising and going to his horse. He drew out the bottle and brought it over. He took the cork out with his teeth, poured a shot into each mug of coffee. He settled in next to Vin, putting the bottle between them. He raised his cup then and found a cocky grin. "by coincidence, I just happened to be in the next cell that night. You know how I love to engage folks in conversation."

"Gun, knife'r rope?" Vin smirked, drinking in the drunken grin Larabee wore.

"Hey, I can be very diplomatic," Chris argued and got a snorted chuckle in reply.

"How many body parts is he missin'?"

"Oh, he was all intact," Chris shot back, raising his mug. "But his pants were a little soiled."

"I'll bet," Vin laughed, raising his own mug. "Here's t'the powers of diplomacy."

Vin took a sip and lost his smile then, when he thought of just what this man suffered through and endured in his name. He'd placed himself in jail, then ridden alone down a dark road and into unknown danger to save him. He'd been beaten, stabbed and nearly died. He swallowed hard then and felt his chest tighten. He didn't know of another living soul he felt this close to. He tried to vocalize his thanks, but the words died in his throat. So he snapped his arm and out latched onto Chris's forearm, gasping slightly at the strength of the grip he got in return. Moreover, the pride and emotion shining at him from the crystal clear green eyes stole his breath.

"I took your life away when I killed Eli Joe," Chris quietly answered the rippling blue waves of emotion hitting him dead on, "Seemed only fitting that I give it back to you."

"Ya give me..." Vin choked, pausing to lasso his scattered emotions. "...a helluva lot more'n that every day Chris Lar'bee. I ain't... nev... er... gon..na... ferget..."

"I don't intend to let you," Chris teased, his eyes crinkling in warmth. "I figure this is good for indefinte years of rounds at the Saloon."

Vin withdrew his arm and ducked his head then. He heart was hammering so hard he felt pain. He inhaled deeply, even the air seemed sharper and crisper, the colors around him were alive and pulsating. So many feelings were coursing through him he felt as if he was flying high in the sky. He took several uneven breaths and shook his head slightly. How do you thank someone for giving you your life back?

"You're welcome, Vin," Chris quietly supplied, hearing Vin's eloquence clearly. He got a smile then, one that was well placed on the handsome man's face. He tucked that away, saving in the same sacred place he kept Sara's kisses and Adam's hugs. "It feels good, Vin, damn good," he announced, "I haven't felt this good in... well let's just say tonight's gonna be a night to remember." He reflected on the celebration that would follow with the other give sharing Vin's news.

Part Thirteen

Thanksgiving Day

It was already afternoon and there was still so much to be done. Two pies were cooling and three loaves of bread were finished. Now she had two casseroles with vegetables to prepare. Her dark hair was pulled back in a single tie which swung between her shoulders as she worked. The bright dark eyes were concentrating so hard on shucking the corn for the Indian pudding that she didn't hear the door open. She turned away for a moment and turned back, the dazzling colors in the green bottle on the table gave way to a gasp.

"Blue... violet...." she murmured and then smiled. She knew before she turned around who'd be standing or rather leaning in the doorframe. Once a week the soft spoken peacekeeper would leave flowers for her in the green bottle.

"Senor Vin!" she exclaimed and turned around, surprising him with a hug. "I have missed you! Let me look at you!"

She pulled back and took his face in both hands, carefully examining every feature. Nathan's initial report on how close this special man had come to dying shook her. So few took the time to really see just how good this man was. "Oh I have missed your face!" she stroked his cheek and used her left hand to run across the soft rich blue flannel. "A new shirt, too. The color suits you. You are very handsome" It came then, slow and easy under her fingers. That slow rise of color that was unique to him alone and gave her a broad grin. "I have missed that too!" Again the thought of him lying in a grave crossed through her mind and her eyes filled.

"Aw, hell, Miss Inez, don't go wastin' yer salt on this mangy Texan." Vin used his finger to brush the tear away.

"You are not mangy!" She declared, standing on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. 'Welcome home, Vin Tanner." She paused and then crossed her brows in mock anger. "And you will not scare me like that again."

"Yes, Ma'am," Vin rasped, saluting and then peering at the table. His eyes didn't miss the bowl of corn. "Yer makin' corn puddin'? That's m'favorite!"

"Do I look like a fool?" She jested and got a smile for her trouble. She saw his eyes narrows and his nose twitch. The hawklike gaze found the pies on the far end of the room. "Only if you eat your supper."

"Ya got chocolate in one o'em? I can smell it..." Vin started to move around the table only to be met by a small but firm wall of resistance.

"Shoo!" she ushered him to the door. "You will not ruin my surprise. "

"Got a surprise o'my own," Vin mentioned and thought of the scroll carefully tucked away in his pocket.

"You are always full of surprises," she answered, "Your pretty poems and the flowers... so many things that make you special."

"I ain't hardly special," Vin decided with a frown only to have the small but determined woman correct him.

"You are very special and do not make me cross, Vin Tanner!"

"Ya need a hand totin' this o'er?" He asked as he was shoved towards the door.

"No," she replied, "but I am without an escort."

"Not no more!" Vin grinned, tipping his hat. "Five?"

"Do not be late!" She warned and then watched his hand move inside his coat. He withdrew a beautiful flower with petals of rich coral tipped in yellow. His slim fingers easily manuevered the shortened stem into her hair. "Thank you."

"No, Ma'am, thank you. That smile o'yers was warmin' me all mornin' whilst I rode in."

She kept her eyes on him until he disappeared into the stone building that Josiah Sanchez was converting into a church. It was peaceful place, she went there often to pray and think. Josiah was a good man and she knew he had a painful secret. She saw a haunted look in his smokey eyes when he thought no one was looking. His knowledge of the bible and his strong voice often brought comfort to her and the others who came to hear him preach on Sunday. She turned back to the table and resumed her task. She was looking forward to the celebration tonight for she had much to be thankful for. A new place to call home and a family who cared about her was more than she'd had in a long time.

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Buck was passing by the saloon and noticed it was nearly empty. Not that it surprised him, after all it was Thanksgiving. Inez was closing at 2 p.m. to finish up the dishes she was taking to the festive dinner to be held in a couple hours. He caught her eye and put on his best smile, letting the charm just ooze right off of his six foot frame. He ambled inside and made his way to the bar, where the pretty proprietor was taking inventory on the liquor.

"Good Afternoon, Miss Inez," he used his warm honey voice and noted the flower in her hair."Your as beautiful and bright at that blossom that graces you."

"Nunca," she replied, writing in the small book she held.

"I didn't even ask yet!" the wilted rogue protested with a grimace.

"You were thinking it," she returned, pausing to glare at him. "I heard you clear as rain."

"Dirt," J.D. corrected absentmindedly from the table.

"Not you too," Buck moaned of the unique 'Vinisms' that had wormed their way into town. "That boy murders the king's English."

"Don't you speak of him that way," she narrowed her dark eyes and slapped the womanizer's hand

"OW!" Buck yelped.

"He is a real gentlemen. He stopped by this morning and gave me fresh flowers."

"Probably stole them off of a grave." Buck muttered only to have his chest poked with her pencil.

"Cut that out!" Buck winced, rubbing his chest. "You know I'm still recovering from my ordeal, I could have a relapse."

"One can only hope," she huffed, lifting her chin. "He is escorting me to dinner. He has new shirt and looked quite handsome."

"Escorting!" Buck hissed, thumping his hat on the bartop. "What he's got that I ain't got?" His face flushed when she took a slow gaze moving down his body and paused at the belt, clucking her tongue and walking away. "Goddamn tracker... he cheats!" Buck accused to the empty space. "All that damn blushin' and ma'amin'... shit!" He stopped at the stove to pour himself a cup of coffee to take the chill off.

He slumped in the chair by the youthful sheriff. "Used to be I could just walk into a room and every female in it would swoon. You'd have to step over them to get a drink. I must be losin' my touch." Buck paused and turned and noticed that his youthful friend had not blinked or moved since he sat down. "Hey! Am I in the room? J.D.? You with me?" He snapped his fingers and nothing happened.

"Huh?" J.D. blinked and saw Buck waving his hand in front of his eyes. "Sorry, Buck. I was thinking about Thanksgiving when I was a kid."

"I bet you ate like a little prince," Buck teased, knowing the staff of the fancy house his mother worked in had doted on him. He recalled the stories Dunne told of the friends of his mothers who also worked there.

"Yeah," J.D. sighed wistfully. 'I'd get up early and help my Ma with the stuffing. Katie would be making the bread and rolls, Megan and Annie would be doing the potatoes and vegtables. Mrs. Harte would be in charge and overseeing the turkeys. And Janie, Carolyn and Peg would be busy with the desserts. Boy, you never saw so much food."

"Do you get to eat together or did they have to work?" Buck asked, enjoying the flush the sweet memories were giving his young friend.

"Oh we had our own feast later," J.D. confessed. "It was great, I ate so much I got sick, but it was worth it. I love this time of year, it's the one time I really miss Boston. The leaves would change and colors would blind you. The air would be crisp and you knew the Christmas decorations and prepartions would follow. Snow would start falling..."

"Yeah," Buck sighed, "When I was a kid we lived in Delaware for awhile with my uncle. Those leaves were so thick it was like walking through a golden and red carpet. And that smell of roasting chestnuts and hot cider..."

'I miss her, Buck," JD swallowed hard and ducked his head , swiping the moisture in his eyes.

"I know, Kid, I know," Buck cuffed the younger man and rubbed his back. "She's smilin' down on you, J.D. and she's damn proud of the man she raised."

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Thanksgiving is a day to set aside to reflect; a time when family and friends come together to celebrate the majesty of God's bounty. Josiah Sanchez kept that thought close to his heart as he continued the preparations for the feast that would be shared by his own family. Funny how a band of six men each with their own sorrows and secrets had joined together in a dusty collection of buildings and formed a union.

"Jo'siah?"

He smiled as the soft drawl seeped through the window and he turned as the door opened. The young man before him looked truly healed. The physical scars were all but gone and now he saw the emotional ones were healing as well. The tanned features looked relaxed and the emotive eyes were full of peace. He kept his smile and extended his hand, noting the new shirt and scarf the tracker wore.

"Brother Vin," the preacher greeted, eyeing the sea blue shirt. "You're lookin' much better."

"I feel... different inside," Vin admitted, eyeing the colored glass windows Josiah had installed.

"Brush with death does change a man," the preacher agreed. "You got a burden that needs tendin'?"

"Reckon we all got one," the blue-eyed Texan replied. "This mornin' when I woke up I got t'thinkin' about today and what it means. Sharin' your thanks with the Lord and yer kin... it don't get much better."

"No, son, it sure don't," Sanchez agreed.

He knelt down on the wooden kneeler that the preacher installed by the pretty colored window. "Thought mebbe it might be nice t'say thanks fer Him bringin' Chris t'me and protectin' us."

Josiah smiled then when the long-haired man's head dipped down. It was no coincidence that Chris Larabee had been in this same building and spoken simliar words. Sometimes the Lord does work in mysterious ways. He had a strong feeling it was that hand from above that guided both wandering, lost souls into this town on that fateful day. He resumed his work and turned back a little while later to find Vin standing at the window eyeing the horizon.

"How'd I git s'lucky, Jo'siah?" Vin whispered, watching Chris talking with Orrin at the far edge of town. "What Chris done... givin' hisself over like that, usin' his body t'protect me..." his voice broke off then.

"No greater gift than that," he spoke aloud. "And you're a large part of the reason that man is walking in the light again. Could be you saved each other."

"Well this Texan's mighty grateful fer seein' the dawn rise t'day. I'm really lookin' forward t'supper. I got a lot o'thanks t'bestow." He nodded and turned away from the window and settled into the closest pew.

"Hmmm..." Josiah eyed the bright eyes and saw the slim fingers rubbing the telltale hide coat. Coupled with the flush of color and the unusual glint in the bright eyes, it spelled a secret. "You gonna tell me before you bust?"

"Tell ya what?" Vin sat back wide-eyed.

"You ain't the only body in town that can read signs, Vin," Josiah teased, settling in the pew next to the quiet. He recalled the equally bright eyes of Chris Larabee who'd he'd seen speaking with Orrin Travis the day before. "Good news from the judge?" He saw the startled look and gave the new tan pants a tap. "I hope it is good tidings, Vin, nobody deserves it more."

Vin slowly drew out the scroll and very carefully unrolled it. He eyed the fancy looping letters again and swallowed hard. "It's m'name, Jo'siah," he rasped, gently handing it over. "Chris got it back fer me."

Josiah smiled then and felt a rush of warmth flood his chest. It wasn't so much the soft spoken words but the tone and timbre that it was delivered with. The word 'Chris' came out carried as gently as the yellow scripted paper now reverently in his own hand. His mind's eye drew up the place where they'd found Chris Larabee and the wound on his back. A sacrifice such as that was indeed something to cherish and honor. And nobody wore it better than Vin Tanner.

"Well that is something to give thanks for," Sanchez took the offering and read it. "I can't imagine the weight of a such a burden. I've heard it said that God gives no man a cross heavier than he can bear."

"He couldda made an exception," Vin noted wryly.

"Congratulations, Vin," Josiah gave the newly freed man's neck a solid tug and clapped his knee. "Seems to me this calls for some real celebratin' tonight."

"Oh yeah!" the shaggy head dipped in agreement as the hand took the scroll back. With great care he rolled it back up and tied the ribbon around it. "I'm gonna tell the others at supper. Hell, I can't hardly believe it m'self. Been s'long since I could walk without lookin' o'er m'shoulder."

"Even without that paper, Vin, you'd always have that," Josiah vowed and saw the warm smile in return. It went clear up to those eyes which crinkled at the edges. He saw the hand come over and shook it , nodding once.

"I ain't real clear on alot o'what happened and them early days at the lodge," Vin recalled of his painful injuries and lost time in darkness. "But I knowed ya prayed o'er me, I heard ya, not the words but the voice. I want ya t'know, how grateful..." Vin paused then to ease the scroll back inside and collect his words. "Yer a damn fine cross-toter, Jo'siah Sanchez."

"Thank you, Vin," Josiah replied and stood up. "Not get that scrawny ass of yours out of here. I have work to do. I think that racket outside it Buck and J.D."

"Where's Ezra anyhows?" Vin wondered. He stopped by the gambler's room and as was his usual custom when he got no reply, he climbed through the window at the end of the hall and onto the roof. Usually he entered Standish's room through the window. But the room was empty and the bed had not been slept in.

"Getting the turkey," the preacher replied.

"Ezra?" Vin's voice went up a full octave and he frowned when Josiah laughed.

"Ye of little faith," Sanchez teased, gripping the shoulder.

"I got faith in what I feel," Vin answered, "And the only thing that scallywag can hunt up is how to scam the folks passin' through town."

"Didn't say he went huntin'," Josiah corrected, moving through the room into the kitchen. He lifted the lid on the pan and picked up a spoon. "I said he went to get the turkey. Some kind of connection of his mother's and a train and precise timing."

"What the hell's that then?" Vin nodded to the golden bird the older man was spooning pan drippings on.

"A spare," Josiah replied. "It pays to be prepared. Now git, I got work to do."

"See ya at supper," Vin tipped his hat and stole an apple tart on the way out.

"I saw that Vin," Josiah boomed and raised his eyes heavenward. 'He saw it too..."

"Aw, hell," Tanner hissed, putting the tart back. "I'm likely t'pass out from starvation."

"You? Never happen," a new voice boomed from outside the kitchen door. "You eat more than any three people I know, except J.D."

"Shut the hell up, Buck!" Vin ducked but not before the womanizer's hand snuck up to rub his hair. "Dammit... leave m'hair alone. Ya scare me."

"Talk about timing," Buck pointed to the large area next to the church where they were building tables from wide wood planks and sawhorses. Red and white checked cloths were waiting to cover the new construction. "The kid needs a hand settin' the tables up."

"Seems t'me he's got two right here," The Texan sassed, hitting Buck's arm.

"Now son, as much as I'd like to comply, I got administrative matters to attend to before dinner." Wilmington pronounced with a sly grin and moved his hand to skim his waistband.

"Hmmph!" Vin snorted and narrowed his eyes. "Thursday... Pearl's waitin' in number 7 with strawberry oil."

J.D. laughed as the color drained from Buck's face. "Buck, you're the one who said nobody can hunt like Vin."

"Shut up J.D." Buck huffed and shoved Vin forward. "Never you mind my business, you two are the youngest, it's your duty."

"Duty!" J.D. elbowed Vin and nodded to Buck who was standing by Josiah in the doorway. "At least we do honest work. You do your best work on your back."

"Jealous?" Buck hollered back, wagging his dark eyebrows.

"Ya see any pigs flyin'?" Vin sassed, tapping the youth's back. "Come on kid, let's git this done."

"Sometimes I think Vin was never that young," Josiah noted from the doorway. "He has a very old soul."

"Yeah," Buck sighed thinking on Vin's harsh childhood, before he winked at the preacher. "But tonight, he's gonna howl. I got a plan..."

"Spare me the details," Josiah relied and put his hand up. "The less I know the better chance I'm spared the payback."

"Coward!" Buck accused and turned towards the steps.

"I ain't denyin' that," Sanchez cast an eye an Dunne and Tanner who were putting the planks on the saw horses and creating two long tables. He had a good feeling that this feast would be one to remember. The gathering of their family basking in the golden late afternoon sun and the echo of the laughter would sweeten the air on this celebration. Yes, he was looking for to this bounty of thanks.

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When the last dish was set out on the third table, Vin swore he heard the wood groan. His mouth watered at the sight of the dozens of plates and pans. Steaming bowls of gingered carrots, green beans, sweet peas and pearl onions, corn pudding and yams with apples stood proudly next to two huge bowls of mashed potatoes and a large dish of cranberry relish. There were several kinds of dark breads, rolls and cornbread and urns of fresh sweet butter. As he vowed, Ezra had indeed produced a huge turkey, roasted and full of chestnut dressing. Josiah's turkey was alway being carved and a large metal boat of succulent gravy was nearby.

"Vin, you mind not drooling on my hand?" Chris teased of the slightly gap jawed man next him.

"Never seen the like..." Vin replied, moving his hand over his abdomen. A sly grin was born on his lips as he eyed his best friend. "I'm gonna be hurtin' somethin' fierce."

"Ezra's got J.D. at 2-1, just ahead of you for the most refills." Larabee sent back and saw Vin's brows furrow.

"Ya bet on me?"

"No, of course not!" the wise blond shot back. "I look like a fool to you? I got two bits on the kid."

"Thanks!" Vin thwacked the dark green shirt and shook his head.

For the next several moments, the air was full of laughter, warm voices mixing and sending happy echoes in the autumn air. The plates were filled and each guest took a seat. Josiah and Nathan poured wine for the adults and a mug of cider for Billy Travis. The impatient youngster was seated just next to the head of the table and tugged on his grandfather's pants leg.

"Now?"

"In a moment, Billy." The judge stood and eyed the faces now facing him. Along with the seven peacekeepers, his wife, daughter-in-law and grandson were Inez Recillos, Maude Standish, Gloria Potter and her two children. "I want to welcome you all to this celebration. For on this day we set aside our differences and we pause to give thanks to God for the wonderful bounty he has bestowed upon us. Before Josiah leads us in prayer, my grandson has something to share. Billy?"

"Now?" the blond lisped.

"Now," the graying grandfather agreed.

The proud first grader stood up and pulled out a short piece of paper. He lifted his head but he was having a hard time seeing everyone over the table.

"Hold on lil' pard," Buck pushed his chair back and moved over, lifting the boy to stand on the chair. "Better?"

"Yeah, thanks Buck." Billy turned back to his notes. "A long time ago a boat came from England and brought set... set..."

"Settlers," Chris whispered and saw the little boy smile and nod.

"Settlers," Billy continued "to the new land, America. They had a real bad winter and lots of folks died. But then they meeted a real nice Indian named Squanto. He talked English an he was really smart. He showed them how to hunt and use the bones and stuff for tools, how to plant the right vegtables and what plants was bad and what ones was good." He paused and moved his head until he saw their very own Squanto. "Hey, just like you Vin!" He waited under the chuckles died down and continued. "So the summer was good and they growed lots of stuff. So when the harvest was done they had a party to thank God and their new friends for all of their bounty."

Billy looked at the quiet group and put the paper down and shrugged. "That's it!" Then he took a bow and waited for the cheering to stop for Buck to put him back down.

"Billy?" Vin called out and waited until the small blond caught his eye. "Ya done good pard!"

"Thanks Vin," he called back and then scrambled around the table until he stood by the tracker. " I ain't much for 'citin' and stuff in school. I felt frogs jumpin' in my belly."

"I know jest how ya feel, sometimes that's the time ya do yer best." Vin trumped with a wide grin and then felt the small arms encircle his neck.

"I'm sure glad you didn't die, Vin. I prayed every night real hard...." Billy pressed his face closer. "Every time I thought about ya... it hurted my heart."

"Aw, hell," Vin choked, hugging the child and swallowing hard. He pulled the boy back and rested his hand on the fair-haired lad's cheek. "Thanks fer them prayers, Billy. Ya know that's the best kind o'medicine. I felt 'em right here." He tapped his heart.

"Really?" Billy asked and got a wide smile from his long-haired friend.

"Shure did," Vin vowed, nodding to Mary who was wiping a tear from her eye. "Go on now, yer Ma's waitin' on ya."

"Can we go fishin' t'morrow?"

"Uh..."Vin paused and thought on the hangover looming and saw Mary grin then.

"Billy, Vin needs to rest tomorrow. Maybe Sunday after church?" She eyed the blue-eyed peacekeeper who nodded. "Good, I'll pack you guys a picnic."

Josiah stood and then raised his eyes to heaven. "Lord, we're gathered here today to give thanks for all we've sowed. We're rich in love and brotherhood, thy grace has indeed been bountiful this year. Shower this garden with your light and we'll continue to grow this rich harvest. We're especially grateful for the safe return of our missing lambs. Amen." He concluded, "Let's eat!"

"Amen t'that," Vin decided, taking a huge forkful of turkey.

The late afternoon sun did indeed shine with a golden light, showering the gathered group and they basked in the glory. They ate and drank and laughed, sharing stories of days gone by and holiday memories.

"Hey," Billy muffled over his pumpkin pie, he stared hard at the jade-eyed gambler. "Mister Standish... you gots the same name as Miles Standish. Are you a pilgrim?."

"Something amiss with your collective digestion?" Ezra huffed at his fellow peacekeepers who were chuckling or coughing.

"Yeah," J.D. replied, "Just picturing you in a pilgrim's outfit"

"I'll bet old Miles Standish wore one of them red jackets when nobody was looking" Josiah decided.

"Naw, the Standish ya don't never read 'bout is old Ezra the first," Vin suggested, taking a piece of chocolate cream pie to add to the other two large pieces on his plate. "He's way on the other side of the family tree."

"The first?" Chris grinned feeling a Vinism about to be born.

"Yeah," Vin muffled, swallowing a bite of pumpkin pie. He paused to turn to Inez and gift her with a soft smile. "Miss Inez I ain't never ate anythin' s'good. It's like lil' pieces o'heaven."

"Thank you, Vin," she replied, covering his hand with her own. "I will make you another anytime you like."

"Vin?" Chris prodded.

"Yeah," Vin replied without taking his eyes from his plate. "Hmm... think I'll chocolate next, them move onta the mince. That way m'mouth ain't never bored."

"That's what I like about you, cowboy, you're always thinking." Chris paused until the jaws slowed down. "Well?"

"Well's yonder." Vin nodded to the stone creation behind the church. He heard his best friend groan and turned to give him an scowl.

"Vin, what about Erza the first?" J.D. jumped in and saw the long-haired man raise his head.

"Biggest squirrel I've ever seen," Nate chuckled at Vin's cheeks both round and full of pie.

Vin put his finger up to hold their attention and swallowed his food, washing it down with a large gulp of coffee. "Ezra the first weren't in the hold with the others, he were in the fancy cabin by the captain. He won hisself the fussy room in a card game in London."

"Really?" Ezra kept a straight face despite the animated blue eyes across from him. "and just what befell my illustrious namesake?"

"Huh?" Vin scrunched his face up and turned to Chris.

"What happened to him?" Chris translated.

"Well ya know how them Pilgrims come here and there was nuthin'... they had to cut a hole in the woods, make shelter and such. Poor old Ezra the first had hisself a condition... he couldn't stay. He ended up goin' back t'London."

"And just what malady would that be?" Ezra ignored the chuckling and smirks being born all around him.

"Yeah, Vin, what happened to him?" J.D. was eager to learn what the trickster was hiding behind those mischievous eyes.

"Well," Vin shoveled another hunk of pie in his mouth, took a drink and burped. "'scuse me, Miss Inez, Mz. Potter, Miss Maude, Mary..."

"Didn't dent you're halo there did you?" Chris gruffed of the would be angel.

Vin just grinned and turned back to the others. "It's got some long name with about fifty letters... wrote up in Latin or such. It's one of them sicknesses what stays in the kin line."

"A genenic malfunction?" Ezra was fighting hard not to grin. Vin Tanner had a wicked sense of humor and a razor sharp mind. He was dying to know where this was going.

"That means it's in the bloodline," Chris said and got a huffed retort.

"I knew that one! I said it first!"

"Sorry!" Larabee went back to his coffee and watched Vin walk over to Ezra and hold his hands out.

"Gimme yer hands..." Vin demanded and turned the gambler's palms down and the up. "Yup... there it is..." He gave his most serious face to the Southerner who was biting his lip. "Course m'Latin ain't what it used t'be."

"So I've noticed," Ezra said, barely able to contain his laughter.

"Neither is your English," Buck smirked, popping a piece of pie into his mouth.

Ignoring the rogue, Tanner turned back to Standish. "But it translates t'sometin' like 'soft like a woman'"

"On behalf of my ancestors, your concern is duly noted," Ezra hissed amidst the laughter. But he caught Vin's eye and winked as the slim tracker walked back to his seat.

"So Vin, just how did Ezra the first get here?" Dunne prompted.

"Weren't the first," Vin lifted the last end of the pumpkin pie on his plate and finished it. "Took a few more generations 'til one of the slickered his way int' Charleston."

"Savannah," Ezra corrected. "And the passage was paid in full."

"Didn't say it weren't paid, jest by who," Vin concluded his story to a round of applause and much laughter..

Post dinner conversation was shared with coffee, sweetrolls, pies, cakes and tarts. The conversation was lively and laughter spilled freely. Twlight approached and lanterns were lit and soon their group would be dispersing.

Chris had watched Vin for almost an hour, the change was evident. He'd slip his hand into his pocket where the scroll was and take a deep breath. Three times he stood up but the voices of the others were too loud and they were all involved in various discussions. Vin wasn't much for taking the center stage and he knew this was difficult. So the fourth time the tracker stood up and then attempted to sit back down, Chris moved his boot, spur side up onto the seat. Vin glared at him and he glared right back, arching a sandy eyebrow in challenge. Vin moved over and Chris moved his leg.

'I don't know how t'start... I ain't much fer speakin'..." Vin whispered to Larabee.

"You're with family, Vin, relax," the blond offered, "the words will come. This is something everyone will celebrate. You'll feel it here,' he tapped the new blue shirt. "Go on..."

"This might help." Orrin had read the silent exchange as Larabee had done and moved over offering a large bottle of champagne. He tapped the empty glass by Larabee's plate until the crowd quieted. "Gentlemen, ladies..."

"To what do we owe this occasion?" Ezra noted the fancy label. "It's not often we're invited to partake in such finery."

"Tradionally it's used for celebrating good news." The Judge handed the bottle over to the nervous Texan. He gave a gentle pat on Tanner's back. "Go on son, you have the honors."

"Vin?" J.D. wondered and saw a slight blush forming on Tanner's face.

"Here goes..." Vin warned and jumped slightly when the cork popped and foam shot out. The judge then produced a tray of glasses and his own not so steady hands started to fill them.

"May I?" Ezra interceded, only to be rebuffed.

"No, I got it..." Vin regained control and got the glasses full.

Once everyone had a glass he pulled out his paper, cleared his throat twice and took a deep breath. He felt all the eyes trained on him and took a moment to find the one set he needed to see. Clear and steady, the green light gave him the wind his sails needed to find home.

"Ain't many times in his life a man gits t'feel his own soul reborn. This mornin' jest as Dawn was puttin' on a her new gown ,all rosy and gold, I got that chance. I 'm standin' here today... with..." he paused and took another breath. His hands were trembling and the paper was quaking. He felt Chris's eyes without looking and drew from the penetrating gaze. "...the grace o'God fer allowin' this busted up Texan t'cross paths with the likes of Chris Lar'bee" He ignored the green glare he was getting and the boot that kicked his ankle. "Most o'ya know about Eli Joe and what happened last month in town. He framed me up fer murder and when he died, I thought m'chance of bein' free went t'the hell with 'im. But then old Lucifer didn't have no chance, he didn't have 'im a green-eyed, yella haired cuss on his side." He turned then and saw Chris's smile, a warm, wonderful Larabee grin full of life and promise. He held the paper up then, still amazed at the texture of the black writing within his grasp. "I want thank you Judge fer goin' all the way t'Texas and gettin' this done."

"You know how much I enjoy stage coaches," the judge drolled and smiled at the emotive tracker. 'My honor, son."

"What ya don't know is that Chris risked his life to save mine, damned near died in the process." Vin rasped, turning to silently thank his best friend. "He took a blade in the back... protectin' me..."

"Vin..." Chris warned, glaring loudly.

"He also saw t'it... that Yates owned up... confessed t' the crime and that the law in Texas would clear things." He held out his hand and used the other to hold the paper against his heart. "He gimme m'name ba... ck... I'm free. Thank..."

"You gonna cry, cowboy?" Chris teased in a whisper, a wink and a slap on the back, then shook that hand.

"You're free?" J.D. gushed, swarming with the others to shake Vin's hand

"Senor Vin!" Inez jumped into the startled man's arms and hugged him, then kissed his cheek. "That is wonderul!"

"Congratulations Vin," Nathan offered, clapping the redfaced man's back.

"Mister Tanner," Ezra smiled and offered his hand. "My heartfelt wishes, that dark day haunted us all. But you held your head up, didn't cast blame. You taught us about true fortitude."

"Huh?" Vin squinted.

"You got guts," Chris translated and saw the head bob

"Thanks, Ez..." Vin turned and accepted hugs, kisses and wishes from the other guests. He waited until Buck stood, glass in hand.

"Here's to..."

"So..." Vin continued, watching the dark blue eyes roll.

"Jesus, Vin ain't you done yet!" Buck moaned. "You ain't said this many sentences in all the time you lived here."

"I think a new president has been elected," Ezra teased.

"Or at least nominiated." Josiah offered

"Shut up, all o 'ya!" Vin warned. "Aw, hell, where was I? Now I gotta start over." He teased and waited for the groans to die down. "Thanksgivin' today... fer the first time, really hit home fer me. I got the best family any man could hope fer right here. Today... because of this man," he rested his hand on Chris's shoulder. "and the grace o'God... I got m'soul back. I'm honored t'share that with ya. Ya'll have supported me, believed in me, even when others badtalked me. I ain't had a family fer s'long..."

Buck cocked his head and waited but he knew Vin was struggling. The full weight of everything that had happened settled on his shoulders. He saw the Adam's apple bobbing and the eyes darting. The slim fingers were shaking just enough to indicate Vin was fighting hard to control his emotions. Hell, who could blame him? Man gets his life back, it's gotta feel good. The others were looking at Vin and he knew the younger man didn't know how to finish. He imagined based on the crackling in the final words, his voice was breaking up. So he stood up and lifted his glass.

"You done yet? Cause I grew three gray hairs waitin' on you to finish up."

"Shut... up... Buck..." Vin rasped and backed up when the large man moved towards him. "Git away..don't be touchin' me."

"Ain't he cuter than June bug when he gets riled up?" Buck teased, ignoring the squirming protestor and wrapping an arm around Tanner's shoulders. "To Vin! For this day of true Thanksgiving and all the ones that follow."

"Here, here..."

While the others went home, the seven peacekeepers made their way down to the Saloon as darkness fell. They were in high spirits as they settled in to a few tables and the whiskey and ale came out. Ezra began to deal the cards and Nathan produced some cigars that Orrin had left for them. It wasn't long before one of their elite group dropped out of the game. An hour later, Nathan was moving to refill his ale mug and paused by the slumbering Texan. He was sprawled in a chair with a second chair holding his legs. The sound of soft sawing wood surrounded the slightly parted lips of the freed man.

"Hey," Nate chuckled, catching the others attention. "Look at his. I can't believe it."

"What?" Chris moved over to where Jackson was standing. Vin's shirt was pulled up and deft fingers unbuttoned it. "So he ate too much, he always nods off for a spell."

"No, look at this," Jackson pointed his finger at a soft rising piece of flesh just above the tan waistline. "Fat." He poked the area and the sleeping man burped without waking.

"Where?" J.D. asked.

"Are you certain?" Ezra joined the others in a circle around Tanner.

"Yup," Chris grinned, poking the same area and getting another burp. Vin's eyes remained closed but his face creased in displeasure and his brows scowled. The laughter rose up and J.D. moved closer.

"Do it again!" the youth urged and Nathan took a poke. The burp was louder this time and amidst the laughter, a pair of blue eyes peeled open.

"...hell's goin' on..." Vin mumbled, blinking and eyeing the chuckling group around him. Then he felt a draft and realized his chest was completely exposed. "Dammit t'hell Bucklin!"

"I didn't do a thing!" Buck moaned, "How come you always blame me?"

"'cause yer always guilty," Vin sassed back, pulling his legs off the chair and buttoning his shirt. "Man can't even rest his eyes without bein' mauled."

"You were snoring," Ezra corrected, "that hardly delegates resting of one's eyes."

"Shut up Ez, I weren't doin' no such thing!" Vin huffed.

"Yes you were!" a chorus of six replied.

"Git away from me, yer all stealin' up m'air..." Vin groused, rising and shoving past the grinning Buck and J.D. "T'damn smokey in here, I can't breathe."

"Hold up Vin!" Nathan jogged outside and caught up to the younger man. He'd seen Vin's hand move to his slightly distended abdomen and coupled with the belching and the slight lines of pain around the eyes, he had an idea that Tanner was suffering from indigestion. "Yuhr belly hurtin'?"

"Like two wet cats clawin' their way outta a hot pan," Vin moaned.

"I got somethin' that'll help. Yuh sit here and catch some air." The healer nodded to an empty bench.

Vin felt Chris in the shadows and peeked over and saw just a hint of the profile over the batwings doors. "m'fine... jest need a bit o'air. I'll be in a spell."

"Okay," Chris eyed the hunched over figure and then saw Nathan returning with a bottle. He moved back inside, leaving the stomach-ailing man to his privacy.

Vin looked over when Nathan reappeared, pausing by the pump to fill a mug with water. He took the mug from the tall man and watched as he poured white powder into the mug. He was peering down at it when it began to fizzle and foam. He screwed his face up backed away from it.

"Quit frownin, now," Nate scolded, "It ain't poison, it'll help yuhr belly. Yuh ate t'damn much."

Vin was skeptical but he trusted Nathan so he stood up and began to drink as they headed back inside. "..fuck is this shit..."

"Never yuh mind," Jackson replied as they returned to the tables. "Just finish all of it."

Vin had barely found his seat again when the gas inside began to disperse in a hurry. He sat forward and began to belch loudly and frequently.

"Good Lord," Ezra noted, "You're apt to rouse the dead from their eternal rest with that racket."

"Been in earthquakes that rumbled less," Josiah added.

"Damn!" Buck hooted, clapping the ailing man's back. "That's powerful shit."

"Jesus, Vin you shook two numbers right off of the clock," Chris griped with a half grin.

"Ya keep flappin' yer gums at me and I'l chase it out the other end," Vin warned.

"Ewwww...." J.D. made a face. "You wouldn't!" The he saw a single Tanner eyebrow rise and the tracker shift his body and raise his right butt cheek. The green sheriff quickly backed off.

"Speakin' of clocks," Buck announced, eyeing the one on the wall and pulling out his watch. "That's slow, my time's right and it's midnight."

"Thanks for the update Buck, since the rest of us only read sundials,' Chris retorted and picked up his cigar as the womanizer went to the batwing doors. "Buuucck..." Chris drew the name out in a warning tone. The mustached man was rubbing his hands together in glee.

"Is he glowin'?" Josiah asked.

"Like the sky on Independence Day," Ezra observed.

"What's that sound?" J.D. asked and stood up. Even Vin stopped burping long enough to listen.

"Bells?" Chris wrinkled his nose as Buck stepped outside and whooped. "Buck, what the hell did you cook up?" He stood as the others did and was about to make his way to the front of the Saloon when the rogue returned.

"It's showtime boys!" Buck boomed as he reappeared.

Part Fourteen

The others were standing when the rogue made his way to the vacant table nearby and deposited a large brown box. Chris ignored the box and kept his eyes on the door, then curious, he moved over and inspected the box. It had no bells. He left the other six and moved to the doorway, glancing out into the quiet black of the night. The street was deserted. He turned back just as Buck's head rose over the table and caught his eye. A single eyebrow rose and a wink ensued, indicating the surprise wasn't over.

"My God, I've died and gone to heaven," Ezra exclaimed, lifting a bottle out and examining the label.

"What the hell is this shit?" Vin peered at the bottles that were being laid on the table.

"This," Standish opened a bottle and poured some into the glasses that J.D. had provided. He took a sip and moaned slightly. "is the nectar of the gods, my friend."

"French brandy?" Nathan shifted his cigar to the left hand and took a glass of the amber liquid that Standish offered.

"See, didn't I tell you?" Buck grinned, draping an arm over Josiah and J.D.'s shoulders. He clapped each back and hooted.

"Buck, where the hell did you get this?" Chris took a glass from his oldest friend and sniffed. "Peach?"

"Yeah, there's blackberry, raspberry and cherry too..." He broke away and filled a glass of his own. Now each held a glass of a variety of flavors.

"Is this paid for?" the young sheriff inquired, staring hard at the enthusiastic rogue.

"Of course it's paid for!" Wilmington boomed, "My mama always said to make yourself well known."

"God knows you've tried," Larabee muttered.

"I sent a few wires to an old friend and ... well... I can't give all my secrets away, can I?" Buck replied.

"Gentlemen, I believe a toast is in order,' Standish purred, sipping the nectar slowly.

"Chris, I think you outta do the honors, after all, it was your golden tongue that provided the key that set Vin free." Wilmington nodded to his oldest friend.

"Golden Tongue?" the guest of honor drawled, taking a glass from Dunne. He eyed the grinning rogue and his eyes crinkled in mirth. "thought that was yer line o'work, Bucklin."

"I put mine to better use," Buck replied, "No sense wastin' this talent on talkin' when you can plunder instead."

Chris had to grin at Buck's animated face and held his glass up. He caught the tracker's eye and tapped the glass. "Like the man said, let's howl!" He drained the amber liquid and quickly refilled. "Damn, Buck this is good shit, I'm gonna hurt for three days." He proclaimed and reached for a refill.

'Vin, yuh better slow down," Nate warned, watching the first glass go and the second disappear too quickly. "That medicine I gave yuh is strong... yuh done drank some whiskey and beer already..."

Vin made a face and used his free arm to ward off the healer. He drained the third glass and wondered why it was so warm inside and that room seemed to be moving. The rich, sweet taste of cherries filled him, warming his insides. "Damn, s'like drinking a cherry pie with kick t'it. Goes down real easy."

"Come on kid, gimme a hand with these tables," Buck insisted, dragging J.D. to the far end of the room where a half -dozen deserted tables were idle. "You get them chairs over to the far wall and well put the tables ontop of the ones in the back."

"And just why are we doing this?" Dunne asked, grabbing two chairs.

"Eye candy, kid, pure eye candy," Buck wheezed, lifting the last table. He paused and gave the confused youth a bawdy grin. "Gonna make a man outta you tonight, son."

"Huh?" J.D. shook his head. 'No! Whatever you got cooked up, Buck, leave me..." J.D.'s voice died off when a the tinkling of bells sounded. His head turned with the others as a bevvy of perfumed, shaply bodies began to descend from the upper floor. Feather boas and a scant bit of satin in bright colors were all that covered the quintet, along with bells strung in just the right places.

"Damn..." Vin swiped the saliva running from his mouth. His wide eyes found the nesting spot of the bells. "...never seen the like..."

"Lord, don't take me now," Josiah sighed, nodding at the blonde nymphette who was the first to step from the stairway.

"Mister Wilmington, your powers of persuasion are to be applauded," Ezra oozed, taking the slim hand of the raven-haired beauty who sauntered by him, leaving a small cloud of expensive perfume swirling around his senses. "Madame, I'm Ezra P. Standish, at your service."

"Buck, they're naked!" J.D. hissed.

"No, they ain't,'" Nathan disagreed, nodding to the dark-haired, green eyed beauty who was raking over him. "They got feathers..."

"In all the right places..." Chris agreed of the eye feast.

"Hello, darlin!" Buck greeted each one, accepting kisses all around. With the five beauties surrounding him, he turned to where his friends were now seated. "Gentlemen, all the way from that romantic city of dreams, Paris, France, I give you the Boissette sisters." He moved his hand to indicate the tallest import, a ravishing brunette with large emerald eyes. "Collette, Babette, Nanette, Josette and..." he paused and faltered, screwing his face up. The well-endowed red-head moved from the end of the line to stand in front of him, hands on her hips and blue eyes flashing. "Hell, darlin, I'm sorry, how could I forget you?" He paused and gave her a lingering kiss. Then he took her hand and turned her around, causing the deep blue boa to slip. "Lisette"

"Jesus!" Chris choked at the 'ample' display peeking over a tiny bit of blue satin.

"She'd be handy to have around if the boat went down," Josiah wryly noted of the built in buoys.

"I'll drink to that," Nathan agreed and chuckled along with Larabee.

"They brung the licker?" Vin asked of the bottles gifted.

"I'd say they brung all kinds of 'lickers'," Nate teased and clapped the Texan's back.

"These fine ladies have been kind enough to come here tonight to entertain us with their gifts," Buck said and laughed as J.D. began to choke. "...of song and dance."

He waited for the applause and whistling to stop. He took the fiery redhead by the hand and led her over to the dazed tracker, who was sprawled in a chair, splayed legged, gap-jawed and wide eyed.

"Darlin, this pretty lil' feller is the guest of honor, Vin Tanner," he introduced and moved so the pretty girl could get closer. He chuckled at the tiny line of saliva emerging from the tracker's lip. "Damn, slick, you're droolin'"

"...am... not..." Vin replied, trying not to fall off of the chair, which seemed to be moving along with the floor.

"Miss Lisette looooves, long-hair and blue eyes," Buck declared, slapping Vin's back as the singer began to talk in a low, seductive voice as she cupped Tanner's chin. He grinned as the flush rose on the dazed man's face just as she settled herself on the slack-jawed man's lap.

The others were chuckling and refilling glasses, watching Vin's face go from a light blush to a deep one as the beauty nestled into him and began to whisper in one ear, using her slim fingers to trace the other one. All they heard was Vin groaning and laughed harder when his legs began to squirm.

"Damn," Vin rasped, wondering how his pants suddenly began too small. "Can't... unner... stand... a... word...." he managed as the slim fingers unbuttoned his shirt and snaked inside to caress his chest. "but the boys... shur... like... it..." he paused to accept a deep kiss which drew more cheers. He managed to raise his eyebrows and shift in the chair again."...they's... all... fired... up..."

"Don't you worry on that son," Buck's lips quirked up when two of Lisette's sisters joined her around the stunned Tanner and began to run their fingers through his hair and rub his neck. "They know a lot of ways of putting out that fire, don't you girls?"

"Oui," Lisette replied, nibbing the handsome man's ear and whispering into it.

"Oh... oh...." Vin choked, having accepted a sip of liquor that one of the women held to his lips. His eyes widened with every word the pretty girl was whispering. "Hell, I ain't never heard o'that... sounds painful..." He prononunced with a wet hiccup. "Ya can... do... that... without ropes... how's yer legs... go... that way?"

"You... will... see..." she vowed, leaving him with a kiss that previewed things to come. Then she joined her sisters on the make shift stage and began to sing. They sang of lost love and war, of broken hearts and dreams and of bawdy dances between the sheets. Finally the applause from the last song died down and the enchanted evening began to end.

By the time the last bottle was cast aside at the encore, Buck stood and hauled Vin to his feet. The younger man's knees buckled and he steadied the loose-kneed tracker, leading him to the stairs. Lisette and Collette moved in, each taking one of Vin's arms on their shoulders. Buck swatted each beauty on the backside and offered his encouragement as they lead their vicitm upstairs. The happy threesome disappeared to the second floor.

"Sweet dreams, cowboy!" Chris saluted with his glass and stood, accepting the invite offered by the perfumed brunette who nestled up to him.

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The others had staggered to their rooms by the time the black of night gave way to the dark blue of dawn's coat. Chris and Josiah, both bleary-eyed, were dozing at a table when Buck descended the stairs. Chris forced his heavy eyelids up when he saw the unmoving body of his best friend slung over Wilmington's shoulder.

"Buck?" Chris forced his body up and staggered to the door. He saw the tall man turn toward a waiting wagon, rather than the boarding house stairs. "Where'r you taking him?" His only reply was a saucy wink as he gently lowered the unconscious tracker into the back of the wagon.

"Buuuck," Chris drew the name out in a warning tone.

"Damn fool's gonna get himself killed," Josiah predicted. "Vin's patient to a point."

Chris moved to the front of the wagon and pulled at Wilmington's arm. The grinning fool was at the helm, reins in hand.

"What's going on?"

"Don't look this way," Josiah backed away, heading for the church. "The less I know, the longer I'll live."

"Thought you had faith in me, old buddy," Buck replied, yawning and shaking the sleepiness from his head.

"You thought wrong," the skeptical gunslinger answered, grabbing the reins.

"Trust me!" Buck offered, wagging his eyebrows.

"I look like a blushin' virgin to you?" Chris retorted to the oft-used Wilmington line.

"I won't hurt him, Chris." Buck yanked the reins back and slapped them onto the backs of the horses.

"I hope you have a fast horse," Chris called out as they wagon left the sleeping town. "Tanner paybacks are a bitch."

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It was just past noon when Inez finally completed cleaning the saloon. It was strange for it to be empty; usually two or more of the seven peacekeepers would be lounging about the place. They would be trading barbs, telling bawdy jokes and playing cards. She didn't know all the details of what went on, but from the condition of the rooms upstairs it had been a long night. Pausing to pick up her list, she moved behind the bar to do the inventory.

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Chris Larabee groaned when something sharp pierced his eyes and exploded in his brain. He cursed, turned over and fell out of the bed. That his elbow struck something sharp and sent a new pain through the only part of him not already in agony reassured him that he wasn't dead. He moved his hands to his throbbing skull and was surprised that it was still attached to his shoulders. He crawled to the window and between the bullets of lethal rays that hit the cracks where his eyes were, he managed to tug the shade down. He sighed in relief and then moved to the next pressing matter. The pressure in his bladder moved him to the chamber pot. He then gulped down half of the warm water in the pitcher but his thirst wasn't sated. He staggered back to the bed and collapsed on it, eager to return to the dark abyss where he'd be free of the pain. As his heavy eyes slid shut, he vaguely recalled Buck leaving with Vin in a wagon. Before he could think on his best friends situation anymore, he was out cold again.

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Dead.

The only word thought that penetrated his throbbing body. Funny thing, he always thought hell would be full of demons with pitchforks dancing in fire. His chattering teeth told him he'd missed the boat to Lucifer's kitchen. Heaven? Somehow he didn't thing he'd be so cold and miserable. Where were the angels and harps? He didn't hear sweet voices singing and he couldn't see any blonde messengers with wings. As miserable he felt, even an older angel without hair and no harp would do. He shivered again and coughed, that simple motion caused a ripple effect of agony. Waves of throbbing pain rolled over him and several dull axes were hitting his skull all at once. Then his bladder began to scream at him. A thought became very clear.

"....dead... men... don't... piss..."

Something was very wrong. He shivered and cracked a single eye open, forcing his mouth to work and separate his dry lips. His tongue protested loudly, refusing to budge from the roof of his mouth; a sour, hot barren place. He rolled onto his side and moved his hand to his head, wondering how badly he'd been wounded. His fingers encountered tangles of hair but no bumps, .lumps or wounds. Frowning he forced the other eye open tried to make his fuzzy brain work. It was as if the inside of his head was full of hot, thick mud. Everything hurt, not one inch of his flesh, bone or marrow was not screaming loudly at him.

"...damn... hair... hurts..." he croaked, sliding his eye shut and hoping to wake up from this awful dream.

The ground seemed to be at a terrible angle and he cursed his bad decision to move when his stomach rebelled. He managed to get his head up but not quick enough. The vomit spewed forth, covering his chin, chest and arm. He shivered again and felt the river breeze wash over him. He swiped the sticky mess from his mouth and cocked his head.

Ground.

River

Dirt.

"...hell's goin' on..." he muttered, forcing his body to impersonate a worm and crawl towards the sound of rushing water.

The hot sour taste in his mouth needed the fire put out as quickly as possible. He pulled himself along the dirt and realized there was nothing between him and the earth but skin. He imersed his head in the cold steam and rinsed his mouth. After drinking was seemed to be half the river, yet keeping the seemingly unquenchable thirst, he rolled onto his back and eyed his bare legs and an odd angle.

"...nekkid..." he rasped, blinking up at the sun peeking through the trees.

Naked, alone and sicker than any living thing should be; his mind just wouldn't give him any clues. He thought hard, watching the birds play tag and still nothing penetrated the thick muck of his head. Just where was he? What day was it? What the hell happened? A vague image of a large table with happy voices came to mind. Food and lots of it, laughing and drinking.

Drinking.

The mud parted and a fuzzy picture fell out. A group of men laughing and toasting him in the saloon. Nathan, Chris, J.D., Ezra were all with him. They were drinking and enjoying the show. The show? He sat up and immediately regretted it. If it was humanly possible to split in half, he felt sure his body was doing that now. He moaned and groaned and crossed his arms over his chest. As his stomach roared and churned, he was unprepared for the image his brain threw at him. He was tied to a bed and two very pretty and very naked young women were doing unimaginable things to him.

"...damn..." he whispered, wincing as the tender area in question agreed with him. His hands moved to make an adjustment and slid over his satin covered abdomen. "SATIN!" he jerked his hand back and saw a rich blue scant bit of material covering his hips and groin. Tattered edges of white lace, formally sleeves, hung from either hip. A scattering of fabric with tiny bows hung on ribbons on either hip. Then another face appeared, a devil's grin under a telltale mustache. He tugged the sleeves up and his temper flared.

"I'm gonna... fry... his... balls..." Vin vowed, recalling a bumpy wagon ride.

Revenge has an odd way of sobering a man right up. Vin crawled back to the river and washed his dry throat again. Then he used a rock for leverage and hauled himself up. He held onto the nearest tree trunk for leverage until the world righted itself. Then he looked around and got his bearings. With a determined face and his slightly recovered brain working on very imaginative ways of torturing his kidnapper, he began his mission.

"Yer a dead man, Bucklin," he muttered, tugging the wet fabric from the crack in his butt.

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By the time Vin got to town, he'd tortured the prankster several dozen times and not two were alike. He was sticky, tired, his feet had cuts on them and his head was skewered straight through by a hot poker. He didn't even want to think about the upset stomach and piles of vomit he'd left on the road. He was lucky, he knew the area and his tracking skills came to play. He took the back road into town and skimmed the backs of the buildings. He climbed up onto the roof over the back door of the boarding house and into the window of the second floor where his room was. He crept down the hall, his insides surging with relief when his hand hit the doorknob. He was homefree now; he'd managed to sneak back into town without anyone noticing.

Almost.

"Mister Tanner, it would appear that you have a secret side that you've not disclosed to us."

"Aw, hell..." Vin muttered, resting his throbbing head against the door. Ezra of all people; he didn't dare turn around, he could just see that damn tooth gleaming. It couldn't possibly get any worse.

"Afternoon, darlin, show you a good time?"

"Fuck," the trapped river rat hissed as the 'worst' moved to stand behind him. He sagged again, thumping his throbbing head against the door. What the hell was Larabee doing in the hall in the middle of the afternoon? He sighed heavily and turned around and faced a pair of grinning jackels. Both sets of eyes were raking over him and he scowled, trying to figure out which end to tug. The badly disguised smirks were quickly causing the wheels in the minds of his amused friends to turn.

"Good Lord!" Standish declared, his eyes wide in amazement.

Vin frowned harder and followed the jade eyes trained on the area due south of his waist. He yanked the fabric down but that caused the scant part in the back to disappear up his butt again. "What the hell are ya starin' at?"

"Damn, who'd have guessed? " The devilish blond grinned, elbowing the chuckling gambler. "He's got small feet."

"Shut the hell up the two o'ya!" the irate victim declared, blue eyes flashing. "I ain't in the mood!"

"Oh, I don't know about that," Larabee oozed with a saucy wink, "Looks like the boys wanna play."

"Yer lucky I ain't totin' m'iron!" Vin warned.

"I beg to differ." Ezra's brow rose, "I'd say you're very well armed. A bit battered perhaps but still..."

"They's bruised a bit..." Vin defended, backing up towards his door. His hand fumbled and found the knob.

"Just a bit?" Chris snorted, thorougly enjoying the show. "What the hell happened to you?"

"...the details is a mite fuzzy...." he snapped, turning to escape into his room. "I woke up a few miles outside town near the river. Now fuck off the both of ya. I'm tired, m'head about t'fall off and I gotta get some sleep afore I skin that mustachin' totin' varmit."

"You busy for supper? Chris goaded, "I got a weakness for a nice ass in satin." He grabbed Tanner's satin covered butt "and you got one fine ass, sugar..."

"Ya aimin' on bustin' the other arm?" Vin growled, shoving the smirking gunslinger away and glaring hard enough to scorch the wall behind the chuckling duo's heads..

"It doesn't make up for the lack of pleasurable flesh on the chest cavity," Standish decided, eyeing the torn garment.

"Damn cowboy, you got no feeders," Larabee leered, pulling front of bow-covered dress and peeking. He laughed when his hand was slapped.

"It's better than havin' no fingers on yer good hand," Vin threatened ,baring his teeth. "Ya best warn that fuckin' skirtchaser that he best order a stone fer the graveyard. Where is he?"

"I think the better queston is how much of your salary will you forgo to keep this taudry secret?" Standish imparted with a sly grin. He backed up slightly and lost the smile when the very agitated Texan moved closer and bared his teeth.

"How 'bout I agree not t'cut yer balls off and string 'em over m'wagon and we call it even?"

"I'll take the offer into consideration," Ezra drawled.

"Oh, I heard about you 'morning after' types." Chris crossed his arms over his chest and leaned in towards the fiesty and very hung over tracker. It wasn't a pretty picture. The long hair was matted, full of mud and tangled. Dried vomit clung to various parts of his body. The shadows of the beard were beginning and the eyes were littered with red streaks. Then there was the smell; a unique combination found in most males in the early stages of sobering up. He gifted the younger man with a knowing wink, "Reckon you lost more than your temper last night, huh sweetheart?"

"I swear t'God, Lar'bee!" Vin growled, "Ya spew one more crooked word and I'll string ya up along side o'him. Ya best find him b'fore I do!"

"Buck's not back yet." Chris answered, not hiding his amusement.

"He'll keep right on goin' if he's got any brains left in his pants," Vin huffed, turning into his room and slamming the door.

"Does that mean you're not free later this evennig my dear?" Ezra called out. "I imagine that blue satin clinging to your lean body in the moonlight would be quite the fetching picture." He backed up into Chris when a knife hit the door.

"Sounds like a 'no' to me, Ezra," Chris guessed as they turned towards the staircase.

"If Mister Wilmington has retained any of what scant gray matter he possesses, he'll remain in absentia until spring."

"Spring? Chris scoffed as they exited onto the boardwalk. "Vin Tanner? The day after judgement day won't be long enough."

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Late that night

The saloon was quiet, unusually so.

"Vin, I'm really sorry, how many times I gotta say it?" Buck persisted, leaning forward and reaching over to the buckskinned arm. The arm jerked back, one blue eye shot up from under the familiar floppy hat. The orb that met his own was hot enough to fry an egg. "It was an accident. Hell, I got a concussion and stitches, ain't that payback enough?"

Buck backed up a bit when a sound emergered from under the floppy hat. The shaggy head was down and only the chin visible. The odd noise was something deep, a gutteral sound somewhere between a growl and a snarl. He eyed his oldest friend who shook his head in disdain; the 'I told you so' was silently written in Larabee's eyes. He cast a sorrowful gaze at Josiah and Nathan whose somber faces also reflected no sympathy. Ezra and J.D. were eating their supper; The gambler paused long enough to arch a chestnut eyebrow at him.

"Kid?"

"Sorry, Buck, but you just won't listen to reason."

Then he got angry, turning back to Vin and leaning forward again. "How the hell was I supposed to know you'd go waltzing down toward the river? You slept clear through me dressing you up. I dozed off for a moment and you up and wandered off. I tried to find you..." Buck blew out a hard breath and fisted both hands in frustration. If Vin slouched any lower in the chair he'd slide right off. He moved his hat back, revealing the bump covered by a large bandage. "It was dark and I tripped." Truth be told he didn't recall much after that, only waking and throwing up several times until J.D. found him lying in the wagon in the afternoon.

"Good thing you landed on your head and not your brains," Chris suggested, getting a flare of heat from Wilmington

"I wouldn't let him come to town! I was gonna wait up the road a bit. I would have picked him... just wanted fire him up a little," Buck tried.

"I'd say you accomplished far more than you hoped," Ezra noted. "''Fired' up hardly described what we encountered in the boarding house. You sir, are lucky you were in absensia, you would have a twin bandage in a delicate area to match the on your thick skull."

"Aw come on, Vin, you gotta admit, I got you good." He jerked back when the silence was broken by a chair noisly scrapping the floor. The lean tracker towered over him, the sky eyes were flint with hostile intent. "Now look Vin, it was all in fun..."

Buck was so intent on trying to figure out the words that the Texan was rasping that he didn't see the smirks his friends exchanged. It was an Indian dialect of some kind and the rogue couldn't figure out if Vin was cursing at him or putting a curse on him. That mystery was solved when the irate man's hand waved once over his lap as the last of the odd words died out. Then the lean body moved swiftly to the door disappearing into night.

"What the hell was that?" Buck demanded, his face flushing. His eyes darted back and forth and he began to imagine tingling sensation in his groin. "Aw, shit... what'd he do?" He implored, desparately seeking Josiah who knew some Native tongue. The preacher rose and laid a hand on his shoulder, his face a mask of concern. "Josiah? Ya gotta tell me... how bad?"

"Well, my Commanche is a little rusty," Sanchez hedged, shaking his gray head and biting his lower lip. He met the alarmed gaze dead on and used a somber tone. "And I could be wrong... but..."

"But what!" Buck leapt to his feet, tugging at his crotch. His mind was working overtime now, playing all kinds of tricks on him. Just the thought of a curse aimed to cause pain or even worse - disfuntion was enough to have imagination to stir. "Somethin's wrong... it's burnin' and ...tinglin'..."

"More so than usual?" Standish cooed, his lips turning up.

Josiah's head whipped around and his smokey eyes grew in amazement. "That's how it starts!

"What? What the hell is it?" Buck pleaded, squirming and tugging at his pants .

"I hope it ain't what I think it is..." Sanchez imparted, scratching his chin. "Only seen it once and in the final stages. Poor bastard was so far gone..." he tapped his head. "Drove him mad..."

"What? Jesus... what?"

"Kokopelli's revenge..." Josiah leveled, watching Buck's face grow pale.

"Another Casanova," Standish added, "A very strange coincidence."

"Course if we hurry, we might catch it before it spreads," Sanchez continued, enjoying the show. "Starts with spots, ugly and purple. Then it creeps up until well... I've seen desperate measures taken." He tapped Standish's steak knife down on the table in one fluid motion. "Only thing that stops the poison."

The thud of the knife on the wood caused the agonized Wilmington to jerk and step back. His eyes grew wide in fear and he swallowed hard, before heading for the stairs to the upper level. J.D bit his lip so hard he swore it was bleeding. Chris's smirk disappeared under the tuck of his head and brim of his hat, Nathan was grinning behind his hand and Ezra turned the other way, on the pretense of filling his plate. Once Buck they heard the foot fall stop and the slam of a door, they all burst out laughing. Vin had been missing most of the night and when he did reappear, he had a slight gleam in his eye. Josiah and Nathan arrived not long after the all-to-quiet tracker and they also wore knowing grins.

"How long?" Chris asked as Standish took his seat.

"I'd wager," the green-eyed conman pulled out a watch. "Twenty... no fifteen seconds."

"Ten," Nathan said just as a scream split the air from the hall above.

"NATHAN! NATHAN!"

"Now calm down, Buck!" The healer fought hard not to laugh. He moved to the stairs just as the disheveled Wilmington appeared.

"Calm down!" Buck bellowed, wagging his injured pride. "it's got purple spots all over... I'm dyin'... you gotta do something!"

"Well, I've seen ugly," Ezra quipped as Josiah draped an arm on his shoulder.

"And that's ugly," the preacher finished, wincing at the purple spotted affliction.

"Jesus, Buck," Chris got up and moved away, his face screwed up in distast. "Don't come any further, it might be catchin'."

"Ewwwww," J.D. added, wrinking his face and joining Larabee at the bar.

"Well don't just stand there, do something!" Buck vented, tugging his pants up. "You're all making jokes and I'm a dying man."

"Okay, let's go to the clinic," Jackson caught the animated womanizer's elbow. Then he turned to Josiah and winked. "Jo'siah? See if Mister Parkins'll give yuh some ice... lots of ice..."

"Ice?" Buck's voice wavered. "I don't know... I mean don't that cause... shrinkage?" He paused in his misery to scowl at Ezra who had choked on that thought and was laughing. "It ain't a damn bit funny Ezra!"

"We gotta freeze it out, Buck, stop it from spreadin'..." Nathan added more fuel to the fire.

"Might not be permanent, Buck," Josiah patted the fearful man's back. "Just might be a while before you see any action."

"Define awhile," Buck pressed as the two men led him outside.

"If yuh do the ice treaments several times a day..." Nathan managed, "Late spring, early summer."

"You gotta be very careful, brother," Sanchez warned, guiding the stricken victim along. "You can't get excited. Any friction will only make it worse."

"Aw, hell," Buck moaned, thinking on his harem in town. "I might as well be dead."

Once the trio was gone, the others began laughing again as the trickster appeared from the upper floor, ambling down the stairs with one thumb hooked on either side of his hips. The grin he wore was bawdy and the blue eyes were lit up in victory.

"Damn, cowboy, remind me to stay on your good side,' Chris quipped, tossing a new bottle of liquor down and grabbing some glasses.

"Serves 'im right," Vin rasped, putting his hand up. "None fer me, m'innerds ain't forgave me yet."

"What exactly was in that shit you painted on him?" Chris asked only to get a mysterious smile.

"Whose says it's paint? Could be Kokopelli's revenge," Tanner replied. He'd gotten the name from Josiah who arrived at Nathan's just as the deed was done. But his secret was revealed by their knowing conman. He watched the chestnut head cock and the jade eyes narrow.

"I had a notion to prepare some Borcht for supper tonight, but as it turned out, there are no beets to be found in town." Standish tested the waters and saw the long-haired man's eyes turn towards him.

"Borscht?" J.D. screwed his face up.

"Beet soup," Chris translated, his eyes not missing Vin's quick grin.

"Furthermore, I'd wager if you were to open the dumpster behind the alley of our fair healer, you'd see the corpses of said missing vegetables." Ezra saw the tracker's lip quirk up in recognition.

"Beet juice? How'd you..." Larabee thought twice about that and shook his blond head. "Nevermind... too much information."

"I seen Jo'siah and the kid takin' 'im up the stairs to Nate's. He were out cold... so while Nate was stitchin' 'im up, I got a..."

"Yeah, we get the picture," Dunne interupted forward, eyeing Vin with admiration. "Vin how'd you ever think of that? How long until it wears off?"

"Hard t'tell. Been awhile since I painted with it." Vin shrugged of the colors he'd learned to make while living with the Indians. Twice he yawned. "Reckon we'll find out. I'm beat, I'm headin' out. See ya in the mornin'" He took the chorus of 'Night Vin's' with him as he eased through the batwing doors.

As he passed by the clinic, he heard Buck yelp and grinned. He paused and thought on all the work Buck went to importing the fine brandy and women. How he'd given them a night to remember, full of brotherhood, bawdy songs and bad jokes. He thought on the Thanksgiving dinner and Buck's strong presense. The endless nights at the lodge when he hovered between life and death, he knew Wilmington had been by his side. He'd gone a long time without having that comfort that is only found with brothers. He had one foot on the steps, deciding to end the tall man's misery, when his boot hit the tender area on the sole of his foot. Both feet were littered with tiny cuts and it hurt to tread even lightly. Then the image of waking up cold, sick and naked, save the tattered skimpy woman's garment rose up.

"Let 'im suffer a bit more," he decided, eyeing the starry sky and heading for his bed. He paused by the window of the General Store and his grin grew wide in anticipation. The events of the following afternoon gave him a wide grin as he made his way to bed.

Conclusion

Chris was eating a very light breakfast and his second cup of coffee when Vin ambled into the saloon. He looked up briefly from his plate as the younger man made his way to the bar and poured a cup of coffee. He shook his head in distaste when several lumps of sugar disappeared into the brew.

"Never met anybody who could ruin coffee like you can."

"Brother Vin, how is life treatin' you today?" Josiah asked. Nathan was flanking him and Ezra and J.D. were just entering the tavern.

"Smell that?" Vin replied, inhaling deeply.

J.D. leaned in towards Vin and sniffed, then backed up. "Your coat needs an airing."

Vin rolled his eyes and thwacked the kid as the chuckles of his friends lit the morning air. "Ain't nothing sweeter," He paused, settling beside Larabee. "...then the smell o'freedom."

"I'll drink to that," Chris quipped, tapping the coffee mug. "So how you spending your first sober day as a free man?"

"Well..." Vin sipped his coffee and lounged back in the chair. His sunny spot on the top of the roof across the street was calling. Also he has some work to complete before the day was done. "Thought I'd do some ponderin' then after lunch I'd stop by and visit with Bucklin. Could be I'd be willin' t'lift the curse fer the right price."

"How is our resident Romeo fairing this fine day?" Standish asked the pair who'd just left Buck at the clinic.

"He was writing his will when I left him," Josiah chuckled.

"His will?" Chris frowned, "What the hell does he have of value?"

"Oh yuh'd be surprised," Jackson dipped his biscuit in some honey. "He's writin' his memoirs, gonna pass along his romancin' secrets. He thinks every man in the territory will want t'read it."

Sanchez then added, "He's worried that the 'hordes of weepin' women' will be so great that it'll disrupt the service."

"Hordes?" J.D. scoffed, dumping syrup on his pancakes.

"Direct quote," Josiah sipped his coffee, "He's leavin' the book t'Ezra t'publish."

"How touching," Standish drolled.

Breakfast stretched into the midmorning hours and a card game broke out. Vin reappeared shortly after noon and joined them for lunch. Then he stood up, eyeing the other side of the street. Chris tilted his head and saw a glass bottle peeking out of the buckskinned pocket. He tapped it and Tanner turned towards him.

"Whatcha got there Vin?" He asked, determining the the sky eyes were trained on the second floor of the board house. The end room to be exact where Buck Wilmington was preparing for his final days. He played a hunch. "You're gettin' soft."

"Naw," Vin rasped, pulling out the bottle. "I need some silver. Reckon removin' the curse outta scare up a pocketful."

"What is it?" Dunne asked, shaking the bottle which looked like herbs.

"Some bitty pieces o'soap and a bunch o'herbs I found in the kitchen." He jerked his head towards the back. He took the bottle and made his way across the street.

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Buck was dozing when something caused him to blink. His eyes peeled open and skirted around the room. Finding it empty he was about to resume his nap and turned over in the bed.

"Shit!"

He stumbled back and fell onto the floor. Vin was leaning against the bed, one thumb tucked into each side of the pale pants "You damn near gave me a heart attack..." he paused as the silent man continued to stare at him. He licked his dry lips and stood up, unsure of what to do. "Er... uh... listen Vin... about this curse. I'll do anything... I mean..." he watched the slivers of blue under the floppy hat shift as if in consideration. Then the slim hand fished into the baggy coat and produced a bottle. It had green and brown bits and pieces mixed with pale yellow slivers. "Is that it? Damn... you got no idea how grateful..." His hand went out but the bottle was snatched back. Tanner's left hand came forth, palm out and fingers wiggling. "Oh... yeah... hold on..." He moved painfully across the room to where his coat was. He counted out some coins and turned back but the head shook and the hand wiggled more. "Okay,... hold... on... I... got..." He rifled through the pants pockets and got more coins. "That's it, Vin, thirteen dollars, it's all I got." The hand continued to hold the bottle for a moment and he quickly placed the coins on the bed. The exchange was made. Vin motioned for him to lie down and he did, clutching the bottle to his chest. His throat went dry when the Texan began to chant again and wave his hands over the cursed area. Finally it was done and the slim body moved away.

"Use a handful with some hot water and scrub good." Vin made his way towards the window. "Three times a day."

"What if it ain't enough?" Buck worried.

"Best get started..." Vin relayed, resting his haunches on the sill. "Take me awhile t'get some more. It ain't easy t'find them herbs, they's sacred. Gonna cost ya."

"Fine... done!" Buck sighed, tugging his pants on over his longjohns. The bathhouse would be empty and he was anxious.

"Hah!" Vin grinned, pausing on the room to hold up his now 'full' bag of coins. He saw the blond gunslinger grin and shake his head, before making his way up the street.

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Very late in the afternoon

Five of the seven peackeepers were playing cards, Buck was back among the ranks of the living, having been 'cured' of his malady. Two treatments had seen the rash lighten considerably and the rogue was confident that the curse was gone. Of course to be on the safe side, he sent Vin to get more of the herbal mix. It was worth the extra six dollars for his peace of mind.

"Mister Larabee?"

"Yeah Tim?" Chris turned to face the clerk from the Post and Telegraph office

"Got a package for you," he held up a clipboard. "You need to sign for it."

"Package?" Chris pushed back from the table and moved towards the batwing doors. He strode through them with his curious friends following. A crate was lying on the boardwalk. He signed the form and gave the boy a tip, then moved to the box. He stood over it, carefully examining the wooden crate.

"Aren't you going to open it, Chris?" J.D. prodded. "Hold on..." He jogged back inside the saloon to get a crowbar that was lying behind the bar. When he returned, Larabee was squatting down examining the box. He noticed Vin striding down the boardwalk, pausing to lean over his best friend's shoulder.

"Ain't rattlin'," Vin noted and got an annoyed green glare. "Well, hell, ya ain't exactly short on enemies."

Chris moved to let Dunne use the bar and force the lid off. He scrunched his face up and moved his hand inside, pulling out a piece of blue and yellow plaid flannel about two long. His hand rummaged around, pulling out several more of a variety of colors. His hand moved around, feeling only cloth and wood, not letter or bill of lading.

"What the hell?" He mumbled, glancing up and noticing that the colorful array of cloth had drawn a group of the townsfolks curiousity.

"Look at that , Stud, your very own line of Wubbies!" Buck exclaimed, slapping the not-amused man's back.

"Yeah, they ought to keep yuh real warm." Nate grinned, watching the embarrassed man try to put them back in the box. For every one he got back in, two more fell out.

"Hell, ain't one o'em black." Vin grinned, picking up a bright green one with pink and yellow flowers. "Purty huh? This one picks up yer eyes. A Lar'bee wubby if I ever seen one." He draped the flowered garment over the glaring man's shoulder.

"Vin, I'm warning you!" He growled as the now dozen or more citizens moved in to examine the merchandise. Their voices rose up and he stood up, forgetting the flowered blanket now no his shoulder.

"Did he say wubby?"

"I think so."

"Are they for sale?"

"Ye'll havta ask Chris, he's the pro-pri-it-toor," Vin drew the word out.

"Mister Larabee, it would appear your wubbies are to become quite the hot item. It might need just the right touch to best attain the right value for your..."

"They're not my wubbies!" Larabee hissed.

"Sure that are, Chris," Dunne disagreed, picking one up. "See, it says so right here on the lable'

"What?" Chris grabbed one and looked. "Larabee's Little Wubbies."

"Ain't that cute?" Vin chirped, "Real catchy." He ducked when the gunslingers arm shot and nearly clipped his chin. "Temper, temper. What'll yer customers think?"

"Great,' Chris commiserated, slumping a bit as the wubbies were formed in neat piles on the chair outside.

He heard Ezra reassuring the crowd that there would be enough to satisfy every customer . He listed to the barbs and wisecracks his friends were leveling. He looked up to see Vin leaning on the post, he couldn't see his face, that damn hat was tugged down. But he knew those eyes were bright and full of mischief. Something about the relaxed posture, coupled with the Texan's missing hours that afternoon caused his suspicions to rise. Just as he was about to announce that he scented a rat in the air, a tug on his sleeve interupted.

"Mister Rarabee." The ancient Chinaman paused to bow slightly and lift his wizened face up to the tall gunslinger. "Would you have any more of red and gold for many honorable grandchildren?"

"Red and gold..." Chris hissed, feeling a headache building. He eyed the piles by Ezra but didn't see any. "Look, Mister Chin, they're not my..."

"One in window, but need many more." The old man pointed.

"Window?" Larabee's spurs chewed up the boardwalk as they approached a small crowd gathered by the front window of the General Store. He parted the bodies and halted in his tracks, stunned by what he saw. He was speechless, but soon surrounded by his friends, who were quick to comment.

"Damn fine likeness, Chris," Josiah noted.

"Astounding," Ezra agreed.

"Geez Chris, they even got your glare right," J.D. peered at the window.

There in the center of the window was a lifesize likeness of him from the knees up. The charcoal sketch had been drawn on whitewashed sign and then cut out to resemble his body. The colorful little blankets were draped on either arm, over his guns on each hip and around his neck. The rest were piled in front of his likeness. He recognized the artist's work having seen his work before. By the crooked lettering proclaiming 'Lar'bee's Lil' Wubbies' on the sign in the window left no doubt to the prankster.

"Damn, his scratchin's are gettin' better," Buck declared of the now missing Tanner.

Chris shook off Buck's arm and left the laughing man to jerk the handle of the door. It was locked, which caused him to turn and confront the amused sheriff. He grabbed the youth and shoved him towards the door.

"Open it!" he commanded.

"I can't Chris, they left town an hour ago. Won't be back for a week." He squealed when the grip intensified. "Hey, that hurts..."

"Hurts? I haven't begun yet," Chris hissed, "Find a fuckin' key and get that door open."

"I don't know if there's a spare. I mean there's a bunch of keys in the box at the office but..." Dunne's speech was cut off when he was shoved against the door.

"They you damn well better hope that one fits or you'll be replacin' that window."

"Sure, Chris, sure," J.D. replied, watching his idol loading both guns. "Chris? Where you headed?" He spied the cool gaze raking over the crowd and down the street.

"Huntin'"

"Hunting?" Josiah called after the quick strides that blew past him.

"Dead tracker pelt," Chris growled, heading for his horse.

With grace and beauty, the departing day began to shed her gown, showering the captive audience in colors of deep rose, gold and violet. He sat back awed by ther majesty and inhaled sharply when she caressed his face. Her perfume was sweet and he was intoxicated by it. This was a place he cherished and often chose to share in the luster of the setting sun. A few feet away a spit was strung over a fire and two fat rabbits were roasting. Under then in a small pan were tiny onions, carrots and potatoe pieces basting in the juices of the meat. Two plates were waiting and a pot of coffee was warming on the hot rocks he'd buried.

He heard the beat of the hooves and grinned, casting a sly peek at the newcomer. He settled back then, tossing his head and letting the wind play tag with hair. The snort of the impatient horse along with the very distinctive sound of a certain footfall on gravel gave him a grin. His eyes were crinkled in mirth when a horrid combination of light green fabric with pink and yellow flowers landed on his leg.

"Thought you might want to measure it, before I take it to the undertaker for your funeral."

Chris watched the tangled head come up wearing the trickster's grin. The laugh that followed was slow and easy, the kind of sound that he'd waited to hear. Vin's entire body language spelled out just how much weight he'd shed since the scroll bearing his name was bestowed. The lines of his lean body were fully extended and tension free. That rapsy laugh was easy on his ears and the smile was enough to keep anyone warm. But it was the eyes that lanced a hook into his heart. They were emitted a light so fine it took his breath away. Seeing Vin without his dark shadow was a revelation; being a part of that freedom was something he was damn proud of. So he allowed his own grin to form slowly, meeting the Texan's head on.

Vin settled back down, resting against a large rock. The departing sun basked his face in a warm, golden bath and he closed his eyes, letting the sound of the rushing water tickle his ears. He heard Chris grunting as he sat down a few feet away. The scent of a newly christened cheroot invaded and seemed fi tting as it was a part of Larabee's persona. It was a long time since he felt so utterly and completely full of joy. That was the only word to describe it; he had his life back. He had a group of friends who would watch his back and that was something that meant more to him that he could express. Most of all he'd found a kinship with Chris Larabee that defied words. There was nothing he could write, speak or illustrate that could define the power that he felt standing by this man's side. So he simply accepted it; for it was a gift given that he'd cherish until the day God called him home.

"Give me one reason I shouldn't shoot you."

"Pay don't come until next week," Vin chirped, watching the golden lashes of the dying day dancing on he water. "Ya can't waste the lead."

"I got a knife," Chris threatened, extending his legs and enjoying the serentity painted on every fine Tanner feature.

"Ya only got one workin' wing," Tanner replied, rising reluctantly to check on supper.

"One's all I need to crack the skull of yours and drown you."

"Yeah," Vin snorted, taking the first rabbit off and dumping it onto the plate. "Like that could happen." He scooped up some roasted veggies to nestle beside the succulent meat, before fixing a twin plate. "'sides," he added, wagging his eyebrows. "I'm t'purty t'die."

"That you are, cowboy," Chris touted, watching as Vin walked over with a plate in each hand. He moved his free hand to accept the plate, but Vin's frown caused him to halt. Tanner's brow was furrowed and his eyes were narrowed, scrutinizing each plate. "What's wrong?"

"Sneezed on one o'em a few times," Vin replied, "jest tryin' t'find the one that's glistenin' with it's own sweat and not m'snots." He slid his eyes sideways and saw his best friend recoil. "Gotcha!" He sniped, handing the dish over and accepted the soft curses he got in reply.

Chris accepted the plate and watched Vin place his own the rock, before pouring two mugs of coffee. Then his eyes followed the younger man as the slim body made it's way over to his horse. Watching the steam rise from the mugs, he assumed Vin was searching for whiskey. "Other side," he issued and saw the bottle retrieved. With a shot in each mug, they were brought forth and each man settled down to eat. He was about to sip, when he saw Vin bring his mug up.

"A part o'me never thought this day would come."

The words were so soft and full of such grace that Chris's vocal cords froze, he just simple could not reply. He let his eyes memorize every line of emotion on the expressive face before him and stowed the fine picture away where he could replay it when needed. He knew just how much this day meant to Vin and he felt damn good to be sharing it with him. He couldn't imagine his life without Vin; the thought of a lost that vast was something he couldn't comprehend.

Vin wanted to say more, so much more. He wanted to find every word that existed in the English language to honor this man who'd given him his very life back. What a gift that was! How could he ever repay him for something that fine? Freedom? It was so much more than a word now to him, for he truly understood the depths to which it echoed in his heart and radiated in his soul. He would tend to it, nuture it and cherish it, for it deserved no less as it reflected the man who'd given it to him. He swallowed hard, put the mug down and took several ragged breaths, desperately trying to quell the tremor inside. Then he realized he didn't need words, the most beautiful part of the bond was the silent part. So without breaking the strong green gaze, he moved over and extended his arm, latching onto Larabee's forearm.

By the time Vin reached him, Chris had nearly drowned in the waves of emotion pouring from the sky eyes. Not trusting his own voice, he took that arm and gripped it, making a fierce declaration that would withstand the spans of time. No matter where Vin travelled and what separated them, they would never be truly apart. The glue that held them together was something far greater then anyone could ever tarnish. He nodded once, relishing the luster of the shine in those eyes and vowing to defend it to his dying day. Then Vin retreated, moving back to digest the setting sun along with his meal.

They ate in silence, each lost in the power of the gift and the glorious way the dying sun was paying homage to them. The sky turned dark and the stars began their show, winking and creating a beautiful blanket in the sky. Chris hated to lose the colors, for with the came another day to follow and life would resume. There would always be another threat on the horizon and another chance that a bullet would suddenly separate them forever.

"Gettin' chilly," Vin broke the eerie silence and rose, "reckon we outta head t'the shack. T'cold t'sleep under the stars t'night." He moved over and extended an arm to haul Chris up, pausing to glance at the colorful blanket on the ground. "Lessen ya wanna snuggle up with yer wubbies, I could ride back t'town."

As he turned to kill the fire, his head was thwacked once from behind. "Hey, cut that out," Vin warned, "Could be I ain't healed up yet, I could have me a reprieve."

"Relapse," Chris corrected, getting on his horse.

"That too," Vin decided and turned from his own mount when he heard the soft chuckle escape Larabee's lips. "What?"

"Don't ever change, Vin," Chris saluted of the innocence that still lingered in the other man. It was just another dimension of the multiple facets that made him unique. "Let's go home."

THE END

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