Magnificent Seven Old West
Dancing in the Dragon's Lair

by Deirdre

Summary: A violent encounter against both bounty hunters and the outraged family members of a young Mexican woman leaves Chris, Vin and Buck all injured. While Chris attempts to head off further trouble from the Mexican family, one of the dying bounty hunters determines to get revenge by convincing a partially amnesiac Buck that he's still a Marshall, and that he should take Vin in...

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

Part 1

"Mornin' Darlin!" Buck boomed, swinging the irate saloon owner off her feet. "Ready to march down the aisle yet?" he teased, with a saucy wink. "Ow! Hey cut that out!" The rogue winced as the wooden spoon she was carrying struck him in a rather 'delicate' area.

"...cajones fritos..." Inez's voice trailed off as she departed for the kitchen, leaving the bemused gunslinger in her wrath.

"Aw, hell..." Buck boomed, hands on his lean hips. He ambled over towards the table where Josiah and J.D. were eating breakfast. "She's crazy about me."

"Yeah, that's definitely the impression I got." J.D. rolled his eyes and scooped up a forkful of ham and eggs. He cocked his head and looked at the somber preacher. The youth grinned, knowing the twinkle in the blue eyes meant Josiah had some wisdom to impart.

"Sounded like she had some definite action in mind," the eldest said, leaving Buck to squint curiously at him. "Uh... a rather intimate cooking lesson."

"Yeah?" The charmer inquired, bending over and trying to peek under the large slouch hat covering most of Vin Tanner's face.

"She's fixin' on fryin' yer balls, " the raspy voice painfully answered, slapping the hand that was approaching. "Fuck off..."

"You're a Goddamn grump in the morning, Vin," Buck complained, taking the seat next to the wheezing tracker. "You seen Nate yet?" he asked, and took a mug of steaming coffee from J.D. "Thanks, Kid." He tapped the buckskinned-shoulder that was slouched back in the chair. His mustache turned up as a string of curses, English, Spanish and Comanche, assaulted him. This Tanner action caused him to grin broadly.

"Mr. Tanner, you're a Linguist of the highest caliber."

"Mornin' Ace!" Buck greeted. "Late night?" he inquired sympathetically, seeing the red-rimmed eyes of the gambler.

"As that is on a need-to-know-basis," Ezra poured a shot of whiskey in his coffee and headed for a vacant seat. " are most definitely in no position to ascertain that information."

"Jeez, Ezra," J.D. frowned, piling the remnants of his eggs and ham onto a large tortilla, laden with tomatoes and cheese. "You wear me out listening to you." He rolled up his creation and took a hefty bite.

"You listenin' to me, Slick?" Buck continued, taking a biscuit from Josiah's plate. "That ain't gonna get better on it's own."

Vin Tanner was miserable. He huddled deeper inside his coat and pulled his head down. There was barely an inch of skin visible. He had been looking forward to the trip south with Chris Larabee. They were transferring two prisoners to Salerno, a growing border town. The pair had been arrested for attempted robbery, and J.D. uncovered the posters marking them for murder. He'd slunk in the Saloon early, hoping to avoid this inquisition. He made a mental note to torment Chris all the way to the Mexican border. The cool gunslinger was late and adding to his misery. His throat was sore and the annoying tickle he'd picked up a couple days earlier had grown considerably. He tried to doze and ignore Buck's bantering, but that large hand clamped on his shoulder again.

"Move it or lose it," the Texan warned, punctuating his threat with a loud, wet burst of colorful bronchial matter.

"Jesus, Vin!" Buck complained, covering and grabbing his newly arrived plate of hotcakes.

"Ew!" J.D. flinched, grabbing his dish and fleeing as well.

"Not your best move, Son." Josiah shook his head and moved out of the line of fire.

Vin glared at his three friends, who now stood several feet away, heading for a corner table. "...hell with y'all..." He wheezed, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "Like rats desertin' a sinkin' ship. Wouldn't kill ya t'have a little sympathy."

"Sympathy!" Buck boomed, spearing a defenseless sausage and pointing it at the watery-eyed sharpshooter. "For what?" he accused, eyeing the suffering soul. "I got no intention of catchin' whatever the hell that is."

"Mr. Wilmington," Ezra demurred, nibbling on a frittata, "Your kindness overwhelms me."

"Okay, Ace," Buck challenged, "You sit next to him and have that gunk flyin' at you." He paused, observing Ezra's shifting eyes. "Yeah... I hear that loud and clear. I don't plan on spending any time lyin' in bed coughin' and spittin' up crud."

"Come on Buck..." J.D. elbowed his best friend, "It's not Vin's fault he's sick."

"The hell it isn't." Buck stabbed a stack of syrup-laden griddlecakes and wolfing them down. "It's what he gets for kissin' a strange woman."

"There weren't nothin' strange 'bout her..." Vin chirped, sitting up and shoving his hat back. The watery eyes were shining triumphantly and the devilish smile that followed gave J.D. and Ezra a good chuckle. "...or the way she kissed." He sighed, wearing a grin that deflated Buck's own broad smile.

"Yeah?" the mustached man retaliated, "You being laid up was worth that hour of passion?"

"Only an hour?" the drawling Romeo crowed, a single blue eye twinkling and an evil grin curling upwards. "Damn yer gettin' old Bucklin." He chuckled and slid back down, reclining his head on the back of the chair. "I put in a good word fer ya... seein' as how yer in a slump an' all."

"Slump!" Buck boomed, shoving the giggling sheriff sideways. "That word has never been or ever will be associated with the Wilmington name," he announced and sat back down, continuing his breakfast. A few minutes later, he eyed J.D. curiously, as the youth began to make marble sized bits from his biscuits. He followed the glint in the hazel eyes over to where the tracker lie. His face was covered, but he was breathing heavily, through his open mouth. The youthful sheriff was tossing the bread pellets at the savory target. Buck joined him and just as one made landfall and the tracker jerked and coughed, the batwing doors swung open.

"I wouldn't," The blond gunslinger warned the pair, nodding to Inez who approached with a dish of peppers and eggs.

"It's about damn time," Vin rasped, spitting the bread ball back at J.D., after his coughing fit ended. "Best ya get done, so we can get goin'."

"We?" Chris Larabee's voice rose and his green eyes widened in fair warning as he shoveled the spicy dish into his mouth. "You're not riding anywhere with me looking like that!" He snapped of their trek south to Salerno, a small, lively border town. They were transporting two would-be-thieves, who were wanted in the town in the shadow of Mexico, for murder.

"Ain't nothin' wrong with m'arm." Vin coughed, patting his mare's leg. "I can ride..."

"Yes, well the ability to see one's target is essential... and appears to be disappearing fast." Ezra noted of the watery eyes.

"Shut up, Ezra!" Vin warned, struggling to his feet and approaching the reluctant blond. "Come on Chris, we're burnin' daylight."

"Coward," Chris stated, raising a sandy eyebrow and drawing a deep scowl. He knew Vin was anxious to escape Four Corners before Nathan saw him. One look and he'd tie the feisty tracker to the clinic cot if necessary.

"Hell, he wouldn't hardy notice..." Vin wavered, stopping several feet short of the angry leader.

"No?" Chris stood and walked to the coffeepot on the nearby stove. "What exactly won't he notice first?" He fingered a silver coin and tossed it at the table. "Them eyes that look like two pissholes in the snow?"

"The multicolored flying phlegm." Ezra drew out a silver dollar.

"That bark that rivals the seals at the wharf in San Francisco," Josiah added, tossing a coin.

"That excuse for a voice." Buck tossed his coin and nudged J.D.

"I'm on duty... I can't gamble," the youth replied, causing a collective grown from his elders.

"Chris..." Vin gritted and dissolved into a coughing fit.

"Get your ass across that street and wait on Nathan," the blond directed, hauling his young friend to the door. "You'll be lucky if he lets you out by the end of the week."

"Goddammit Larabee," Vin pulled away and shoved hard. "I ain't no damn kid... quit motherin' me."

"Don't piss me off, Vin," the green eyes threatened.

Buck grinned and walked to stand next to the man in black. He winked at Chris, and turned to J.D. with a sly grin. "Hey, Kid... You got them fancy handcuffs?"

"The ones from St. Louis?" J.D. asked, eyes twinkling, "Sure do."

"Aw, hell," Vin mumbled, knowing he was beaten. "Fine lot o'friends y'all turned out t'be. Shouldda kept ridin' that day," he recalled of his arrival in Four Corners.

Buck turned to go back to his table, when J.D. and Josiah pointed. He turned and grinned as he watched Chris walk to the door and raise his head. The somber expression turned sour and the green eyes narrowed. "Vin..." he warned, when the tracker went astray.

Buck laughed outloud when Chris's face dissolved into a grin. He knew the snarling tracker had issued a 'silent salute' to leader of the seven. Chris turned back to him and the grin broadened.

"You up to the challenge... Stud?" He offered and saw the smile he knew so well meet his own.

"Ready, willin' and able." Buck crowed, blue eyes dancing. "Hey, Chris, you think Miranda still sings at the Crystal Rose Theater?" he inquired of the buxom brunette who'd entertained the pair well into the wee hours of the morning several years before.

"Who's Miranda?" J.D. asked, eyeing the lewd eye gestures the two exchanged.

"A woman-and-a-half, Kid." Buck sighed, rubbing his head. "She'd eat an inexperienced slicker like you for lunch."

"Seems to me she nearly ate another 'slicker' from back east for lunch." Chris raised an eyebrow and Buck chuckled.

"Hell, I forget about that." He smirked and stabbed the remnants of his breakfast.

"She damn near killed you when she rolled on you." Chris leaned over and elbowed the blushing gunslinger.

"Don't think I forgot that you nearly choked to death at my expense," Buck recalled, "Never heard you laugh so hard."

"Funniest thing I ever saw," Chris chuckled and dropped his head, his shoulders quaking in mirth.

"What?" J.D elbowed Buck. "Aw, come on Buck..."

"Sorry, Kid," Buck denied of the acrobatic position that he'd been trapped in, and the mortification he felt when a doctor had to be summoned. "You ain't old enough. Hell, it can't be that funny, Chris." He slapped the black knee.

"It's still fuckin' hilarious." The blond shook his head and rubbed his eyes. "How the hell did you get twisted up like that? It's a wonder you didn't... uh... damage the family jewels."

"Never you mind about my 'jewels'." Buck rose and slapped the chuckling sheriff. "Come on J.D., let's get them prisoners ready to move. Livery?" he asked of Chris.

"Yeah. You pack your gear. I'm gonna check on the wheezing Lothario."

Vin eased himself onto the cot, glad that the clinic was dark and quiet. The unforgiving sun had slammed into his head with a vengeance. His throat hurt and he quickly drained two mugs of water. He shucked his coat and laid upon the cot, pulling the soft quilt over him. Nathan was still at the Jenkin's ranch. Molly Jenkins was having her first and having a tough go of it.

Chris eyed the slumbering sharpshooter as he slipped inside the clinic. He frowned at the deep-seeded coughing and expulsion of phlegm. He dug into the gray ceramic jar that housed the herbal tea and waited for the water to boil. He poured the hot liquid over the black leaves and doused it liberally with sugar. He sat the steaming mug on the table next to Vin and eyed the younger man sharply. He shook his head as his friend's gapped-mouth and the heavy breathing.

"Get the hell away, ya no-account traitor." The wheezer warned, turning sideways and coughing. He struggled in vain as two strong hands drew him up.

"Got some tea for you," Chris said quietly, leaving a hand on Vin's back. He waited until the breathing regulated and the mangy head dipped once. A hand snaked out and took the hot mug, the face wrinkled up and the nose sniffed disdainfully. "It's loaded," Chris noted of the heavy dose of sugar. He watched until the mug was drained and the sleepy face yawned twice. He waited until the blue eyes began to slide shut and he eased the fidgeting form down. The eyes never opened, but the arm shot out and he snapped onto it, grasping the forearm.

"Watch yer back, Cowboy." The soft warning floated up at him.

"Always do." Chris sent back, watching as the furrowed brows slackened up and the mouth fell open. As the heavy breathing became a regular pattern, he eased the comfortable quilt up and rested a cautious hand on the Texan's forehead, glad to find it cool. Satisfied, he headed for the livery. Buck had the prisoners ready and Chris fell into the lead, with Buck bringing up the rear. J.D. and Josiah watched their two friends depart, unaware that Fate would only have one return.

"Afternoon, Mary."

Mary Travis wiped her forehead with the back of her hand and looked up from the press. Oliver Weber was standing in front of her. The owner of the Four Corners Billiard Hall was depositing his weekly advertisement.

"Thanks Oliver. How's Dottie?" she asked of the man's ailing wife.

"About the same." He paused. "I hear Arizona Territory is good for lung ailments. But..." He sighed.

"Too wild?" she guessed of the desert area ruled by outlaws.

"Yeah... I don't know. If she gets worse, I may not have a choice." He turned to leave, "Oh, have you seen Nathan?"

"No. Why Oliver?" she asked, "Do you want him to stop in and have a look at Dottie?"

"No... there's a stranger asking for him, a Doctor Richardson. I sent him up to the clinic."

"I need a lunch break anyway," Mary said, taking off her apron. "I'll take some soup over and check on Vin. I'll see what this doctor wants. Thanks Oliver, my best to Dottie."

"Thanks, Mary."

"What?" Chris asked, watching the slow smile appear on Buck's face. The two prisoners were bound, gagged and being led by the gunslingers. Chris saw his oldest friend's face break into an even bigger smile and the blue eyes were shining. The sun caused the taller man to take off his hat and swipe his brow. Easy. That was the word that came to mind when he thought of Buck Wilmington. How easy it was to be this man's friend. How easy Buck made it to admire him. How easy he could make Chris Larabee laugh. Lucky, too. How lucky he was to have such a special friend. "Well?" He inquired, as a softer smile appeared.

"Been awhile, Chris," Buck said quietly, appraising the man in black. "I've missed you."

"Hell, Buck, I see you every day," Chris joked, knowing where the sentimental Wilmington was going.

"Not like this," Buck replied, recalling all the adventures the two shared. "Just the two of us, like old times. Damn, but we made a helluva team."

"Hey, I'm not heading for a rocking chair yet," Chris defended.

"It's not the same now," Buck said and looked away.

Chris didn't miss the wistfulness in the dark blue eyes or the tinge of sadness in the voice. They rode in silence for awhile, reflecting of the past. Chris, too, remembered the good times the two shared, from coast to coast. From their initial meeting in Kentucky, through their time as Army scouts and then the war years. Then the wonderful years with Sarah and Adam. He flinched when he recalled how he pushed Buck away. The lowest point in his life and he destroyed the one thing that was true and good. His deep feelings for the big-hearted man had caused the pain to deepen. For the first time in his life, Chris Larabee had been scared. Burying Sarah and Adam was the hardest thing he'd ever done. Buck tried... Lord, but the man had the patience of a saint. He'd followed Chris from town to town. He endured every fist the blond threw at him, as well as bailing him out of jail and sobering him up. Only to have it begin again in the next town. Until one day, Chris woke up and Buck was gone.

"Leave it buried, Chris. That was another time, another place," Buck issued, reading every painful detail in the anguished green eyes.

"Sometimes I wonder, Buck," he hushed, turning and giving the other man a steely-eyed stare. "Why didn't you leave sooner? I didn't deserve..."

"You even gotta ask that?" Buck's voice was hostile and bitter. "Horses need a break, I'll scout ahead for some water." He tensed, handing Chris the reins to the prisoner he was toting.

Chris sighed and watched the gray bay disappear into the crest ahead. "Dammit Larabee..." He cursed and urged Caesar forward.

A violent burst of coughing caused the lean, young man to sit up. He saw a blurry hand appear with a cloth and took it. He expelled heavily in the rag and crumpled it up. He rubbed his aching head and squinted as the midday sun tore into his burning eyes like razors.

"Shit..." He ducked and covered his face. He felt the room grow cooler and heard footsteps.

"Is that better?"

He looked up as the strange voice appeared in the now darkened room. A well-dressed man of medium height and build was approaching. He was wearing a gray pinstriped suit and had a gold pocket watch and fob on his vest. His gray hair suggested him to be in his early fifties.

"Yeah, thanks," Vin croaked.

"This is cold," the man said, handing Vin a mug of water. "I took the liberty of getting some fresh."

"Thanks again." Vin narrowed his eyes.

"I'm a physician." the man answered the reddened, suspicious eyes looking at him. "I'm here to visit Mr. Jackson." He handed Vin his card. He studied the young man carefully, noting the perplexed-tinged shame in the blue eyes. He had a keen sense of intuitiveness and it didn't fail him now. He smiled as the wheezing body turned the card around twice, eyes squinting.

"He ain't back yet?" Vin said, pocketing the card and eyeing the empty room

"No, someone told me he was seeing to a difficult delivery."

Vin sat forward and erupted into another coughing fit. A mug appeared in front of him and he took it. He glanced inside as the amber liquid and frowned. The cold that had settled in his head prevented him from smelling anything, so he couldn't tell if it was bitter. He placed it on the table and eyed the bottle from which it came.

"It's medicine," The stranger said, "For that infection in your lungs. If not treated properly, complications could set in. As you can see," He leveled, playing his ace card and handing the teary-eyed patient a bottle, "it's medicinal value to infirmities such as yours, is highly effective."

Try as he might, Vin couldn't help but feel the heat rise to his face. He eyed the lettering on the bottle and frowned. The characters looked like Chinese to him. He got by fine most of the time, using his keen senses to make up for his lack of reading ability. But every once and awhile, like now, it rose up and bit him like a venomous snake. He nodded once and placed the bottle on the table.

"Reckon I'll wait on Nate..." he decided, turning over the small, damp pillow, "thanks jest the same."

"That's taking quite a chance... Mr. Jackson may not return today," the older man imparted slyly, "I'm sure you recognize the potential dangers if pneumonia sets in." That got his attention and he watched the pale eyes flicker. "I have my bag with me... may I?" He slid a hand inside a black leather bag.

Vin winced as another painful bout of coughing doubled him over. Tears ran down his face and the thought of Nathan not returning until the following day gripped him. He'd seen how fast pneumonia could take hold. He frowned and sat up, rubbing his watery eyes. He studied the other man carefully and nodded once. After unbuttoning his shirt, he sat up straight. He sucked in a breath as the cold metal of the instrument hit his chest.

"Sorry..." the silver head nodded, "Cough..." he paused, "Again." He moved his hand the right amount of times and scowled properly. He clicked his tongue and shook his head convincingly.

Vin buttoned his shirt up and pulled his jacket closed. He shivered and eyed the concerned older man's face.

"Well?" the raspy voice inquired.

"You're loaded with congestion... and I see you've taken some medicinal tea," he'd observed the empty mug. "But that cough medicine would help greatly." He eyed the bottle and watched Vin's head turn slowly. After a long pause with deliberation, the hand reached out and picked up the mug.

Vin swirled the amber liquid and slowly raised the mug. He drained it in one swallow and screwed his face up. He couldn't taste it very good, but it left an acrid film in his mouth. He blinked as the room swayed a bit.

"Strong..." He murmured, shaking his head.

"Have you eaten today?"

"Nah... stomach was jumpin' a bit."

"I'm sorry, I should have inquired on your disposition first. It should be taken after eating."

Vin nodded and noticed his throat didn't hurt as much. He didn't feel the urge to cough either. He picked up the bottle and studied the remaining contents. His head and eyes weren't aching as much; maybe this stuff was good medicine. He studied the man before him and looked at the brown eyes. They didn't look away or waver.

"How much?" He croaked, still dizzy from the strong liquid, which burned his stomach a bit.

"Well, you can have that one for free," the hand disappeared into a large black bag, "But with an infection that serious, you'll need another. Two bits should do it." He paused, seeing the eyes furrow at the label. "As you can see, the directions are clearly stated."

"Done," Vin decided, seeing an opportunity to avoid Nathan's wrath. He shoved both bottles into the large pockets of his coat, where they would be well hidden. He stood and shook the man's hand.

"I'm obliged." He nodded and reached for his coat. He planned on heading to Mrs. Adams Boarding House for lunch. Then he'd take more medicine and hit the livery. Chris would be gone for a few days; he could head out to the shack and avoid Nate altogether. Smiling at his shrewd planning, he rose. A soft voice stopped him in his tracks.

"Vin? Should you be up?"

"Hey, Mary." He nodded, "I was jest heading out t' get somethin' t'eat."

"I brought some soup and cheddar popovers."

"Aw, hell, Mary," he slumped, eyeing the steam rising on the golden, steaming muffins, "That ain't playin' fair. Ya know them's m'favorites." He took a large bite of the hot muffin and sighed in contentment. He sat at the table and dipped a spoon into the thick, rich chicken soup, loaded with noodles.

"I'm Mary Travis, the editor of the Clarion," She introduced and stuck out her hand.

"This here is... uh..." Vin stammered, eyes darting. How would he get out of this fix? He couldn't read the name on the card.

"Howard Richardson, at your service." He bowed and took the extended hand.

"You're a doctor?" she inquired, eyeing the bag.

"Yes, I was looking for Mr. Jackson. I'm afraid I won't have time to wait much longer. The stage driver told me they would be leaving after lunch. I have to eat myself and get back."

"Ya know Nate?" Vin muffled, over a mouthful of muffin.

"By reputation only," he said. "I've heard he is quite adept at healing. I wanted to exchange some thoughts and shake his hand."

"You're very kind." Mary nodded, "I'm sure Nathan will be sorry he missed you. Are you from these parts?"

"No, I was just passing through." He rose and nodded to Vin. "I hope you feel better, young man."

"Yeah... thanks Doc." Vin looked up as Mary approached. "I'm fine." He hissed, ducking the hand that swatted him.

"You're not warm. How's that cough?" Mary prodded, studying him closely.

"s'okay. Best ya be gettin' along. Wouldn't want the paper t'be late."

"Nice try, Cowboy," She scolded, nodding to the platter. "You finish every bit of that and get back in that bed. I'll be back." she raised an eyebrow. "Don't make me use my wooden spoon."

Vin laughed and took a large gulp of cold ice tea. He was fond of Mary and wouldn't admit it outloud, but he liked it when she fussed over him.

"Yer lucky I weren't yers." He shook his curly head, "Ya would have worn out a bunch o'them spoons on m'hide."

"I'd have been honored to be your mother," she said quietly, resting a hand on his chin and tilting his flushed face upwards. "Any mother would." She tapped his cheek playfully and turned to leave. She was at the door when the soft voice floated over. She loved his drawl and the almost musical quality it took on when he was moved by something.

"Hey, Mary," he paused, his eyes wide and startling blue, "Thanks..."

"You're welcome, Vin." She smiled back and pointed to the bed. "I'll be back..." She warned and drank in the laugh and smile he produced.

Vin finished his lunch and pushed the chair back. He doubled over as a painful burst of coughing gripped him. When he finally caught his breath, he took a liberal swig of his medicine. The wheezing stopped and he stood up. The room swayed a bit and he grabbed the wall until he got his footing. He put his coat on and headed out into the daylight, wary of J.D. or Mary's knowing eyes. He felt a tickle forming in his throat and took a swig of his medicine. In a way he was glad he couldn't taste it. He picked up some supplies from his wagon, knowing Chris had stocked the shack only a few days before. He was at the livery, when Danny Blake, the clerk from the Post and Telegraph Office stopped him.

"Vin, hold up... Vin..."

"Danny?" Vin paused, blinking as the teenage clerk appeared in double vision for a moment. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing I hope. J.D.'s out on patrol and I can't find Ezra. Josiah's on his way to the Seminole Village with some supplies." He paused, eyeing Vin Tanner. "Vin, you okay? You don't look so good."

"I'm fine. What's wrong?"

"You know them two murderers Buck and Chris are totin'?" he paused as the blinking head with red eyes nodded. "One of them was Caleb Miller."

"...and?" Vin rasped, his headache threatening to return.

"A wire came from Eagle's Bend. Caleb Miller's brother was arrested on his way here. The prison wagon picked him up yesterday. It never arrived and they sent out a scout. Davey Miller killed the guard and is headed this way to get his brother. He'll have to pass them if he's coming north and their headed south. That road cuts right through Devil's Pass."

"Chris and Buck'll be sittin' ducks," Vin hissed, realizing the potentially lethal situation. "Thanks Danny, I'll ride after 'em. Ya leave word at Nate's, the church and the sheriff's office. Where the hell is Ezra?"

"He ain't in town," the youth denied. "Ming said he saw Ezra ride out after breakfast." He noted of the elderly apothecary.

"Aw, hell..." Vin rubbed his eyes. "Try and find 'im... and try t'find J.D., Ya hear?"


Vin lost no time saddling Diablo, despite his blurry vision. He ran into the sheriff's office, grabbed a rifle and some cartridges. He dropped half of them on the floor and nearly fell over reaching for them. His face was hot and he was sweating. He took a few minutes to steady himself and slid outside. It took three tries, but his boot finally hit the stirrup. Hell bent on fury, he raced towards Serpent's Curve, a cutoff that would give him the upper hand. He only hoped he was in time to save his friends.

Chris slid from the horse and tugged the gags off both prisoners. He offered a canteen and a silent warning. They didn't argue. He then replaced the gags and made his way creekside. Buck was filling three of the canteens. Chris squatted and filled the others. He glanced over at his oldest friend.

"I'm sorry, Buck. I didn't mean that the way it sounded."

"Dammit Chris!" Buck wheeled, corking the canteen harshly. "Why is this still an issue? I want it buried. Do you see this?" he held out his right hand, palm up. "This is what you'll always have, unquestioned, you know that."

"Open hand... open heart." Chris looked away wearing guilt.

"That night in Wild Springs, when I left," Buck recalled, sitting on a rock and gazing out over the water. "I realized that me mollycoddlin' you was the worst thing I could do. If I wasn't there to sober you up, you'd have to do it yourself. I wasn't helping you... it was getting worse and it hurt like hell. I couldn't see you like that, Chris." His voice cracked with emotion and he glanced down. He paused and felt a hand on his shoulder.

"Guess that's another beer I owe you," Chris said quietly.

"Yeah..." Buck replied thickly. "It didn't take long. You squared your shoulders and put the pieces back together."

"You followed me?" Chris guessed, sensing something in the dark blue eyes trying to hide.

"I had to be sure you were okay."

"How long?"

"Until I knew for sure, when you took that job in Albuquerque for that rancher, McClendon. Your eyes were clear, the shadows were gone, it was time."

"But why did you leave?"

"I needed time to heal, Chris." Buck's voice cracked and his eyes filled up, thinking of the special little boy who loved Uncle Buck so much. "I loved them, too..."

"God, I'm sorry, Buck." Chris forced a harsh air out and squeezed the downcast shoulder hard. "Guess I was a pretty selfish bastard."

"Part of the charm, Pard." Buck smiled and stood up, gripping the hand hard and nodded. "Best we get going, three hours should put us in Salerno. I got a hankerin' for whiskey, women and a hot card game."

"After you, Stud." Chris grinned, clapping the broad back. "Wonder if that doctor still in town?"

"Fuck you, Larabee!" Buck laughed, shoving the black clad man forward.


Vin slipped the eyepiece off his face and rubbed his eyes. He glanced down the road again and saw the rider coming. Sliding the scope back in his pocket, he blinked hard and swayed in his saddle. "Dammit... they's three of 'em... maybe it ain't Muller... Diller..." He frowned, and scratched his head. "What the hell is his name?" he slurred, then doubled over coughing. He drained the last of the first bottle, just as the stranger approached.

Davey Miller's tension disappeared as soon as he realized that the man approaching him, barely able to sit in the saddle, was no threat. He eyed the shabby coat, wondering if there was a money pouch underneath. His hand slid to his hip as the other man fumbled for his own weapon.

"Uh-uh..." He shook his head, "Off the horse, Mister, slow and easy."

"Y'all best shur... shurender now..." Vin slurred, waving his mare's leg wildly at the three blurry horsemen. He blinked as they all pulled out their weapons. "Aw, hell..." He tried to bring up the mare's leg, but lost his balance and fell off, landing with a thud in the road. He was on all fours when they approached. He ducked, but not fast enough and a black boot caught him in the stomach.

Davey knelt down and placed his knee on the stranger's back. He easily took the gun and rolled the stuperous man over. Straddling him, he gripped the red shirt and hauled the blinking man upright. "Take that coat off." he ordered and watched the swaying body obey, amidst a slew of wayward, slurred cursing. He tossed the hide coat aside and decided the shirt was better than the tattered one he was wearing. "Shirt too."

"No!" Vin sassed to the one in the middle. He eyed the other two in confusion. All three were blurry but wearing gray and Vin saw markings on their pockets. Prisoners... escaped prisoners.

"Yer all under arrest... yer murderin' bash... thirds."

"Shut up!" Davey answered, backhanding the younger man and snapping his head. He laid the dazed body down and tried to take off the red shirt. But before he could complete his task, a knee raised sharply and almost caught him in the groin.

"Dammit!" Vin swore as the two beside the one holding him both moved in unison, blocking his kick. He felt his throat gripped and saw the gun in his face coming closer. He dissolved into a coughing fit, sending the gun sideways and felt himself being drawn up.

"You havin' a private party, Boy?" Davey laughed, running his hands through the slack jawed man's pockets. "Shit..." he swore, uncovering a beat up harmonica and fifty cents. "Well, it's not a total loss." He eyed the mare's leg, "That's quite a gun. Thanks for the donation."

"Get... off... me..." Vin panted, trying to free himself and take out the leering trio.

"I was just getting comfortable," Miller replied, "but if you insist... " He stood and watched the young man try to stand. Once he got on all fours, the felon kicked him brutally in the ribs.

Vin felt the burst of heat in his chest and curled up. He saw them headed for Diablo and used what little strength he had left to launch himself at three pair of legs.

Davey wasn't expecting the assault and went down hard. Vin jerked his head up and caught the thief under the chin. He punched the already stuperous man but it had a negative impact. Vin toppled onto him and managed to get the mare's leg back. Miller rolled away, pulling his weapon.

Vin saw the three of them draw at the same time. "Shit..." He sighed, breathing heavily through the painful side. He decided to take out the middle one and then go left. He got to his knees and fired twice, the recoil sent him flying backwards down a muddy hill. With a soft thump, he landed in the mucky mess near the creekbed. The mud covered him from head to toe. "Aw, hell..." he eyed the hill high above. It seemed to take forever; he slid down two feet for every three he climbed. Rocks bit into his hands and the mud was beginning to harden, creating a heavy, uncomfortable armor. Finally, he broke over the crest and sighed in relief at the bodies lying still. He crawled over and felt the dead man. A coughing fit sent him flat on his face. He gasped for breath, cradling his injured side. Finally, he rose and checked the other dead man. He blinked in confusion. Was there two or three. Before he could decide, his legs gave out and he slipped into a soft black blanket.

Part 2

Caleb Miller eyed Boney Tyler's hands. His partner had been quietly working his left hand free. Miller eyed his own bonds and frowned. Larabee had tied his hands too well. But Boney could slip out of any hold, and with a grin, he saw the hand pop free. Caleb turned a careful eye to the large gunslinger riding several paces back. The mustached man pointed a gun at him and motioned for him to turn back around.

"Just as easy for me to take you in dead, Miller."

Caleb muffled a response under his gag. He shifted his gaze to the blond who'd turned around and glared openly at him. His threat was more deadly and Miller averted his gaze. Finally, he saw a bend coming. Boney's eyes drifted ever so slightly to the left. Miller nodded, but before they could act, a pair of gunshots rang out from the canyon ahead.

"Chris?" Buck called ahead. As the blond turned, Boney made his move. He propelled himself sideways and rolled down the hill.

"I got him!" Buck called, vaulting from the horse and sliding down the hill. Chris slid off Caesar and drew his colt, training it on Miller.

"You so much as blink and I'll blow you away." He warned, keeping his eye on the prisoner and walking backwards to the hill "Buck? Buck you got him?" There was no answer and Chris frowned. He glanced down the hill and saw Buck and the other prisoner trading blows.

Miller saw the blond turn and threw himself off the horse. He heard the heavy boots approaching and kept his eyes closed. He felt his head jerked backward by the hair and the cold steel eye of the gun pressed against his head. He waited until he felt Larabee's weight on his back and turned, taking the blond with him. He clubbed him hard in the wrist, sending the gun skittering a few feet away. They rolled under the horse; it's deadly hooves pounding the dirt around them. He rolled onto Larabee's back and pulled his bound hands around the other man's throat.

Chris felt the ropes tightening and his breath choked off. He grunted and slid his hand to his belt and drew out his knife. With one fluid motion, he sent his arm powerfully up and left, driving deep into Miller's throat. He pushed backwards, as the last, futile gurgle came from the surprised dark eyes. He sat up on his haunches, rubbing his throat when a shot rang out.

"Buck!" He coughed and ran for the hilltop. He heart was hammering until he saw a weary grin, amidst a trickle of blood running from the rogue's mouth. "You okay?"

"Yeah... you?" Buck replied and saw the head dip. "He's dead," He jerked of the lifeless body next to him. Swiping the blood from his lip, he turned and grabbed the back of the corpse's collar, dragging it up the short hill with him. His eyes widened in surprise when he saw Chris tying the other lifeless body over the saddle. He saw the green eyes darting to the canyon ahead. "You think we got company waitin' on us?"

"Dunno..." Chris said, walking over and approached Buck with a bottle of whiskey. "But I aim to find out." He declared, taking a swig and handing over the bottle.

"Sure is pretty..." Vin whispered, eyeing the brilliant blue sky. He'd been studying the cloud patterns for time, seeing animals, faces and other shapes in their white, puffy folds. He tried to move, but the added weight of the mud made it impossible. He sighed in frustration and began to roll over. His glazed eyes spotted the familiar bottle and he crept painfully towards it. His laborious effort was rewarded by a coughing fit. Gasping for air, he took a liberal swig of his medicine. After several long minutes, he managed to get up on his knees and flung an arm wildly as the road flew around him. He looked down at his mud-encrusted clothing. He heard the river rushing by somewhere close and decided to stand up.

"Shit!" he hissed, staggering a few steps and collapsing. God he was dizzy. The trees and rocks were flying by at a record rate. He crawled over to the hill and saw the sun glinting of the water.

"Gotta get cleaned up," he grunted, sliding down on his backside.

A half-hour later they slowed the pace of their horses up. Buck was in the lead and turned to face Chris, his face screwed up and his dark head cocked to one side. Chris took his dark hat off and wiped the sweat from his brow. He watched Buck's eyes narrow and the frown forming. The tall man urged his gray steed forward and cocked his head again.

"What is the hell is that?" he grimaced of the sour sounds emanating from the glen beyond and below.

"I don't know." Chris winced as the painful noise clashed with his head. "But I aim to put it out of its misery. Come on."

Just as they rounded the next curve, they saw Tanner's black horse.

"Hey Chris," Buck turned and saw the blond nod.

"Yeah," he noted of Diablo as he slid off his horse, gun drawn. "Slow and easy, Buck."

The two tied up their mounts and cautiously approached the clearing. When Buck spotted Vin's hide coat and picked up the empty holster, his stomach clenched. Chris eyed the quiet clearing and squatted over the dead man.

"One less murderin' bastard..." the blond commented, eyeing the familiar face.

"You know him?" Buck asked, standing at Chris's shoulder.

"Davey Miller... was in the paper last week. He was being held in Eagle's Bend for transport. He killed a bank clerk in Texas."

"Caleb's brother." Buck sighed. "Bad luck runs in some families," he noted the single shot, dead center of the bloody chest. "Vin's mark..."

"Yeah." Chris noted of the sharpshooter. "There were two shots..." He eyed Buck, his gaze hooded with fear. "Where is he?"

"You go high, I'll go low," the rogue replied, heading for the hill. "Damn!" he grimaced as the sour sounding, warbling began again. His shrill whistle brought Chris over in a flash.

Chris caught Buck's high-pitched signal at the same time he was assaulted by the off-key, loud voice. He heard Buck's booming laughter and watched his oldest friend double over, almost in pain. By the time he reached Wilmington's side, the other man was wiping tears of mirth from his eyes.

"Oh, beat the drum slowly, and play the fieshh... fi..fife lowly
And play the dead" he hiccuped and giggled, "dead... march as ya carry me 'long
Take me to the green valley and lay the earth o'er me
Fer I'm a poor cowboy and I know I've done wrong"

Buck couldn't breathe. Every ounce of oxygen was cruelly stolen from his pained lungs. Between the sight several yards away at the base of the river and the one beside him, all his reserve was gone. The giddy effect from the lack of air had him reeling, as did the sheer look of shock on Chris Larabee's face and the bulging green eyes. Gasping for breath, Buck finally straightened up and laid a hand on the leader's tense shoulder.

"Best you get the boy's coat, Chris," Buck gasped, trying to keep his voice from breaking into laughter again. "He's gonna get a wicked sunburn...."

Chris heard Buck's suggestion, and saw the tall man's shoulders quaking in mirth as he began his descent. His mouth dropped open and his jaws moved, but no words would come out. As another offkey chorus of 'The Streets of Laredo' began, he could only gaze in muted silence at the proud singer. His best friend was warbling sorrowfully, sitting on a rock in the sun, and wearing only his boots.

Near dusk, Four Corners

Nathan Jackson was tired. Lord, but he was exhausted. It was the kind of weariness that goes right through your bones. He slid off his horse and handed him over to Andy, the boy who worked in the livery. The only thing on his mind was one gutwarmer in the Saloon, a good dinner and a soft bed. He trudged to the tavern and looked inside. Empty. That gave him a deep frown. This time of day would find several of the peacekeepers huddled around their favorite table. Something was wrong. His head swiveled towards the clinic and his heart dropped.

"Shit..." he raced across the street and heard his name being called. He turned and saw Mary waving at him from her office. He spun quickly and made his way inside. "Which one? How bad is it? Why didn't somebody come and get me?"

"Hold on, Nate." Mary grabbed the worn brown jacket sleeve. "They're all fine. At least I hope they are. Buck and Chris left early to take those prisoners south. Josiah went to see Kojay. J.D.'s on patrol and Ezra... well I'm not sure where he is, but I'm sure he's alright."

"Buck? Wasn't Chris taking Vin with him? Where's Vin?"

"Vin was sick and Chris banished him to the clinic." She saw the concern on the dark-skinned face and reassured him. "No fever, just lots of coughing... some kind of lung infection. But he was in no condition to be out in the sun all day. He slept most of the morning, and after your visitor left... Vin did too."

"Visitor," Nate frowned, "What friend?"

"A doctor... Richardson. Howard Richardson." She paused and saw the blank look, "About fifty, graying hair, very distinguished, well dressed and well spoken."

"He was waitin' on me?," he shook his head. "I don't know anybody like that." He saw Mary cast her eyes away. "What?"

"He gave Vin medicine."

"What kind of medicine?" Nate's brows furrowed, "Vin took somethin' from a stranger? He's too smart for that."

"He seemed legitimate, Nathan. He fooled me. I think he stopped at Mrs. Potter's, then left on the stage."

"Where'd Vin go?"

"I checked on him later this afternoon and he was gone. Danny said a wire came from Eagle's Bend. Caleb Miller's brother was being transported to Texas in a prison wagon and broke out, killed the guard. The sheriff thinks he was headed this way to get his brother."

"Vin went after Buck and Chris." Nate nodded. "I'll get a fresh horse and get after him. Gonna be hard to track... he's got a good lead."

"You'll do no such thing!" she admonished. "It's nearly sundown, you haven't slept in two days and you're exhausted. J.D. should be back soon and Ezra. Josiah by morning."

"Still... One of them could be hurt..."

"The sheriff said a posse went after Miller. Maybe they caught him. Come on, you can help Billy and me with a large chicken pie I made."

The sorrowful singer continued his tale of woe, as the greedy horizon eyed up the orange orb dangling above her lips. Vin kept his eyes closed, letting the sun bask him. The warmth felt good and he pursued his song with fervor.

"I see by yer outfit that y'are a cowboy
These words he did say as I proudly stepped by."

Vin sputtered, coughed and took another belt of his magic juice.

"Come sit down beside me and hear m'sad story
I'm shot in the breast and I know I must die"
"Twas once in the saddle I used to go ridin'..."

Vin jerked his eyes open as a sharp rain of gravel sounded. He squinted his bleary blues upwards and saw four more gang members approaching.

"Shit!" he swore and toppled off his perch. He landed in the dirt and lay there a moment, his head swirling and hisstomach throwing a hissy fit. "Oh God..." he grabbed his abdomen and curled up. Suddenly, there were brown boots in front of him and two strong arms pulling him up.

"Ya hold it right there... or I'll shoot ya..." Vin warned weakly, slapping his bare hip. "Aw, hell, where's m'gun? Don't move... ya no account bassh... herd."

"Looks like you're empty, Pard." Buck chuckled, pulling the naked crooner to his feet. "Whoa there," he steadied the staggering figure.

Vin squinted his eyes and saw a blurry mustache, dark hair and then heard the voice. "Buck... get down... they're all around us." He warned, wobbling and trying to protect the larger man.

The rogue laughed at Vin's proud, but defenseless stance. "What happened to your clothes, Vin?" he inquired, not able to keep a large smile off his face. His grip on the tracker's shoulders was the only thing keeping the inebriated man upright.

"I... they... Shit... " Vin spun around, glancing dizzily at the area around him. "Them varmits musta took 'em whilst I was in the water. They's a real sneaky bunch. Buck... Buck... Where the hell did ya go?" Vin hiccuped, blinking at the spinning trees.

"You better sit back down, Slick." Buck chuckled and eased the confused raider onto the rock. "Better?" he asked, watching with great humor as the two blues eyes widened and narrowed, trying to focus.

"Quit movin' around," Vin growled, "Get down 'fore they shoot ya. I got two of 'em... the other one... I think... he... damnedest thing,.." He gripped Buck's arm, "Can't ya get this t'stop movin'? It's makin' m'stomach twirl."

"Oh I wouldn't worry about your stomach, Son." Buck sympathized, knowing the long hours ahead. "It won't be full much longer."

"They's all dressed alike, Buck... had me confused but good. Thought I got 'em all... then I seen 'em." He coughed and kept a death grip on Buck's arm with one hand, while waving the other one wildly, nearly toppling over."... a real mean, ugly pair... an orny couple of cuss's... dressed like the devil hisself..." He narrowed his eyes and screwed his face up in revulsion. "It ain't funny," Vin crowed, hearing the booming laughter.

"Don't look at me," Buck gasped, wiping his eyes as the storm cloud named Larabee moved in, "I'm not an ugly, onry cuss... reckon that'd be you."

"Vin!" Chris barked, eyeing his inebriated friend wipe spittle from his mouth, "What the hell happened to you? Where's your clothes? What are you doing here?"

"I come after ya to get him afore he got ya... but they's three of 'em that's afore them other ones snuck in and then they's the ones what stole m'clothes... lessen they doubled up and they's with the other ones."

"What?" Chris blinked in confusion, "Who?" He growled.

"His brother," Vin answered, sloppily, sending saliva down his chin.

"Dammit!" Chris rubbed his neck and glared "Miller's brothers? More than one? Who did you shoot?"

"One of them first ones... mebbe two... can't be sure. They's a sneaky outfit... the first ones... the other's is just ugly... they must be the ones..."

"Enough!" Chris ranted, pushing both hands in front of him in frustration. "Vin, there's a body up there..."

"His brother... he come 'fore the others." Vin hissed, swaying sideways. "Can't ya remember nothin'? I told ya already."

"Oh my God!" Chris seethed in exasperation, fisting both hands. "Vin, was Davey Miller the only one you shot?"

"Maybe... they's all dressed alike. Musta been a twin and half," Vin decided and scowled when Buck dropped to his knees, laughing hysterically and gasping for breath.

"You're a big help." Chris smacked Buck.

"Aw, hell, Chris, I can't help it," Buck defended weakly, wiping his wet face. "Even Ezra couldn't wade through that mess," he said of the tracker's explanation. "A twin and half... now that's funny."

"Why were you riding alone?" Chris demanded. "What happened to your clothes? Dammit Vin, answer me!"

Vin Tanner narrowed his eyes and sucked air in noisily through his open mouth. He hiccuped twice and stared hard at the angry face looming before him. "Hey, Chris," he clutched Buck's arm in a stonghold, as the world begin spinning. He squinted and pointed at the leader's face. "Ya know yer face gets red and yer eyes bug out when ya get t'hollerin?"

"You're drunk!" The blond screamed, eyeing the snickering Wilmington with a green glare.

Vin opened his mouth to reply and coughed soundly, he reached for his bottle only to have it snatched away. The force of his expulsion sent him flying backwards off his perch. He blinked as not one, not two, but three angry Larabee faces were bending over him.

"Hell, ya could haunt a howsh with a face like that," he coughed, and heard Buck's booming laughter again.

"Jesus, Vin." Chris backed up as the alcohol-laced breath assaulted him. "How much of this shit did you drink? I can't believe you got drunk."

"Ain't not neither no how never..." Vin wheezed, stomach churning. "yer hurtin' m'arm..." He wailed, trying to pry free of the black-gloved iron grip.

"That's the least of your problems. Come on, get up," Chris ordered.

Buck grabbed one arm and Chris the other and the sat him back on his rock. Chris managed to put the coat on him, after a great deal of difficulty navigated the wayward arms. Buck picked up the half empty bottle and uncorked it.

"Jesus..." He pulled his face back, eyes burning. "This shit's gotta be right out of a still. No wonder he's drunk."

"Vin, how much of this did you drink?" Chris demanded.

"Just this one and that one," Vin whispered, pulling out the empty bottle. "They's helpin' m'cough..."

"I bet they are." Buck chuckled.

"A bottle and half." Chris closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.

"He's gonna be sick as a dog, Chris," Buck said quietly, eyeing the wavering body. "We better make camp, he's in no shape to ride. We'll go to Salerno in the morning."

"Fuck!" Chris swore, smashing the bottle.

"No!" Vin yelped, launching himself at the irate Larabee. He would have fallen if Chris didn't catch him. "Ya busted it... it was all the medicine I had left."

"Medicine!" Chris roared, his patience snapping. That Vin could careless in town and get drunk was one thing. But riding out and facing a cold-blooded killer in this condition was beyond careless. "It's not medicine, Vin. It's liquor. You could have been killed. Jesus, couldn't you smell it? Look at this label." He scanned the flimflam man's prop, which boasted a miracle cure. "Throw away your pills, it'll cure all ills... Rocky Mountain Miracle Remedy..." He gripped the bottle and shoved it at the stunned, wide blue eyes. "How could you be so fucking stupid?"

The change in the air was instantaneous. Buck moved in and tried to pry Chris's vise-like grip from the startled younger man. He winced at the deep-seeded pain in the luminous blue eyes. Then the tracker's chin wavered and the eyes began to fill. He sensed something so painful and deep in those emotive pools, that it hurt his own chest.

"Chris, back off," he suggested quietly, only to have the angry eyes wheel and face him.

"Not this time, Buck. He could have been killed. Hell, he could have gotten us killed." He turned back to the now silent sharpshooter, who was fighting hard to stay in control. "Goddammit, answer me!"

Vin felt like he'd been gutshot. A hot pain coursed through him, ripping his insides to shreds. How could Chris know how much those words cut him? How deep that knife-like pain went. Stupid... stupid... How many times did Lucas say that? Suddenly the pain turned into anger and he rebelled, shoving the blond hard and gripping his collar. "Don't ya ever say that t'me again," he warned with steely blue eyes.

"I want an answer." Chris stated, drilling the pain-filled eyes.

"The doctor give it t'me. He's a friend of Nate's. It was fer m'cough," he rasped and turned away as his anger turned to shame. He'd been used again. It never got any easier. That horrible deep pain when you realized you'd been had. All his life, they'd hurt him. But he thought Chris was different. Now Chris thought he was stupid too. The pain coursed through him like razors slashing his stomach. His eyes widened and he doubled over, grabbing his midsection. Chris moved with lightning speed, forcing the smaller man to the overgrowth and onto his knees. He held onto Vin as he retched and coughed. Buck appeared with a canteen and a Vin's damp undershirt.

"I'll start a fire and scare up some grub." Buck departed without a backward glance.

Chris winced with every painful pitch of the dry heaves. Finally the lurching motions stopped and Vin slumped against his chest, exhausted. Chris used the damp shirt to wipe the wheezing face, chin and neck. Vin didn't move for several minutes and Chris prompted him.

"Here, rinse a few times," he coached, handing Vin the canteen. Vin obeyed wordlessly and then took a long drink. "You cold?" he asked and got a nod. The sun was setting and the air temperature dropping. He got Vin onto his feet and the younger man's knees buckled. "I gotcha..." He tried to pull Vin's arm around his neck, but was rebelled.

"Even a stupid bastard like me can find the fire."

Chris froze, not so much at the words themselves, but at the caustic delivery. The icy eyes didn't fool the older man. He'd hurt Vin deeply. He replayed the past few moments and Vin's painful testimony.

"How could you be so fucking stupid?" he heard himself bellow.

"Fuck." Chris eyed the shivering body huddled by the fire and winced. The large blue eyes were moist and Chris didn't miss the tears welling. He hunched over the creek, rinsed and filled the canteen. He dropped the canteen by Vin's leg and went topside. He brought down all the bedrolls, as well as the saddlebags. Buck was in the clearing, skinning and gutting some rabbits. He exchanged a glance with the silent, dark-haired man and saw the concern. He nodded and slid by Vin.

"Vin, where are the rest of your clothes?"

"Wet," was the barely audible response. "Muddy... cleaned 'em."

"Okay, you can use these." He offered over Vin's red shirt and a pair of his own black pants. "Come on, I'll help you," he touched the huddled, hide-coated shoulder.

"Go t'hell," Vin whispered, jerking away. He grabbed the shirt and clutched it harshly. He managed to get his coat off and the shirt on, and shoved the helping hand away. He swiped his damp eyes and cursed the wall of emotion that was threatening to open. He took several deep breaths and watched the fire dancing before him. He was fool... and they knew it. None of the others would have been so stupid. He shivered and saw Buck approaching.

"Here, let me give you a hand, Slick," Buck said gently, fixing the misbuttoned shirt and sliding the coat on. "There you go."

The flames snapped and crackled, hypnotizing the Texan. Echoes of Chris's words melded with Lucas's cruel taunts. He was taken back in time, to a cold winter night on a Texas prairie. He saw Lucas's face and heard the evil voice. He saw the leering faces behind the cruel taunter, they were laughing and pointing.

"Yer a no-good bastard Tanner. Yer a stupid little fucker... stupid fucker... stu..." he said in a daze, letting a pair of wayward tears run rampant on his flushed cheeks.

"Stop it!" Chris screamed, grabbing the shoulders and shaking them hard. "I didn't mean it like that. I was worried... Look at me Vin, please." He waited but the head shook negative and dropped lower. He sighed in frustration and rubbed the back of Vin's neck. "Why Vin? You had to know it wasn't medicine? The label..."

"Hell, can't smell nothin' with this cold." Vin sighed and hiccuped. "He said it was... would help m'cough... was good medicine... I... believed..." he bit off the rest and wiped his eyes. "I can't... ya were right... only stupid bastard's like me who can'tread..." he choked, dropping his head in shame. He felt the heat rise and the tears welling, but denied them.

There it was. Buck had just secured both plump rabbits over the flames and heard the painful testimony. He gripped both of Vin's shoulders from behind and squeezed them hard.

"You listen to me Vin Tanner. Being able to read has nothing to do with how

smart a man is. That comes from here." He tapped the aching chest over the shirt. "I've traveled the length of this country, Son. From Philadelphia, through Virginia and the Carolinas, over the Smokey's and through the bluegrass into the west." Buck paused as the head came up slightly, but the moist eyes wouldn't meet his. "I've met a lot of men Vin, some from colleges, statesmen, gamblers, soldiers... I even shook Abe Lincoln's hand." He paused and knelt down, tipping the face upwards, "Look at me, Vin. These past six months, since we've been ridin' together, I've learned more from you than all them high-falutin' polished pretenders put together. You're the smartest man I've ever known. What you have here." He tapped Vin's head "and here." He tapped the rapid beating heart. "make me proud to call you friend." He embraced the smaller man briefly, before turning away. The shaking hand held on just a minute longer. He looked down and saw the emotion shining through the wet blue eyes.

"Thanks, Bucklin..."

It was barely audible, but gave the great heart a mighty swell. He patted Vin's back and returned to start a pot of coffee. While Buck went to the river to fill the pot, Chris caught his breath. He watched the tall man bend over his smaller friend, and with a few heartfelt phrases, and two strong hands, he'd given Vin Tanner a hefty dose of pride.

"He's a good man," Vin hushed, trying to stay upright.

"That he is," Chris agreed, "and every word he said was true. There isn't anyone I've every known who can do what you can. I'm not just talking about sharpshooting, tracking and hunting. You can read the wind, scent the changes long before they come. Hell, how many times has that saved us? You got a sense of nature and animals... all living things, that I've never encountered. But more importantly, you've got a gift Vin, right here." He took the tracker's hand and placed it on his black shirt. "You're the calm sea of my storm. You mean something to me, Cowboy," Chris hushed, his throat tight. "Something all the words in them fancy books can't touch. Lots of folks can read. But there's only one Vin Tanner, and I thank God everyday for the privilege of knowing him."

Vin was numb. Buck's words had filled the ragged hole inside with a flow of warmth. Chris's heartfelt epitaph had stolen his breath away. He wiped his eyes and took a deep breath. He wanted to thank Chris, to reassure him, to take that pain from the green eyes. But as he opened his mouth to issue his gratitude, the overbearing scent of the raw meat and the hiss as the blood of the rabbits hit the flames, turned his stomach. He turned to Chris, mouth gaping.

"Chris..." He managed, and then threw up all over his best friend's boots.

"You know, Chris," Buck teased, seeing the blond's face screw up as he grabbed Vin's shoulders. "You have that effect on folks."

"Fuck you, Buck." Chris suppressed his grin and the mustached-man howled.

"Chris, he ain't movin'." Buck's voice dropped, "Make sure he ain't chokin'..."

Chris eased Vin upright and tapped the flushed face. "Come on Vin, wake up." Two blue eyes opened and a series of weak coughs ensued. Buck retrieved the tracker's damp undershirt and turned it inside out. He poured a little water on it and handed it to Chris, who cleaned up the dazed face. "Here..." He eased Vin against the rock and cleaned off his shoes. "Buck..." He called out, gripping Vin under the arms from behind. "I'm gonna get him up, you get the pants on him."

"How come I get the hard job?"

"'cause he already puked on me twice," Chris grunted, hauling up the stuperous Texan. "'s your turn."

"Come on, Slick, let's go." Buck knelt in front of Vin and lifted a leg into the pants on the ground. "Jesus, Vin, watch what you're doin'..." Buck yelped and rolled, glaring at Chris Larabee who was laughing hard.

"Ya said to go." Vin blinked in confusion, as he finished urinating.

"That's my sharpshooter," Chris gloated and watched Buck crawl back into position. With a few misguided steps, Vin was finally wearing the black jeans. He pushed Buck's hands away and fumbled with the buttons on the front.

"Damn..." He hissed, eyes wide as the form fitting pants were at last secured. He tugged at the confining crotch. "It's awful crowded down there... hell, the boys can't breathe."

Buck was on his knees and that comment sent him sideways, boisterous laughter spilling freely. Chris wore a bemused expression and steadied his wheezing friend. Vin watched both faces and laid a comforting hand on Chris Larabee's shoulder. With great seriousness, he consoled his anxious friend.

"That's okay, Chris. I'm sure yer little fellers do right good fer their size."

"Buck, don't make me shoot you." Chris warned, trying desperately not to laugh. Buck was beyond breathing. Gasping frantically for air and clutching his aching chest, he continued to howl.

"Damn, you put a little liquor in the boy and he's fuckin' hilarious," the mustached man wheezed.

Chris guided the stumbling sharpshooter over to the rock and sat him down on the ground. He tilted Vin's head back so he was reclining. "Stay put," he warned, "You hear?" Vin nodded and slid his eyes toward the dancing red and orange flames. He let the warmth and crackling lure him away.

Chris glared for several minutes at Vin's transfixed face. Satisfied that he was settled in, he sat down and took a plate of food from Buck. In addition to the rabbits, they had beans and coffee.

"I got some peppermint leaves," Buck commented, "I can make tea for him."

"He'd only toss it back at you." Chris shoveled the tender meat into his mouth. "He'll need it more tomorrow." He noted of the stomach-calming herb.

"I know you're upset, Chris." Buck saw the vein throbbing in the leader's temple, "But you gotta quit yellin' at him. He's about bust open."

Chris just blew out a frustrated breath and drained his coffee. He stood and lit a cheroot, stretching his limbs and walking a few feet away. Buck took the plates to the creek and cleaned them up. They both felt a chill when the sad tones wafted through the air. This time the voice was sweet and sad, issuing a melancholic melody.

And play the dead march as you carry me 'long

Take me t'the green valley and lay the earth o'er me
For I'm a poor cowboy and I know I've done wrong"

He had done wrong. Suddenly the fire didn't keep his warm and the icy fingers of his sad past strangled him. First his mother left, then the Padre, nobody to love him, nobody to worry. Alone, lonely and forgotten during his youth. Maybe that was his fate... to walk through this world all alone.

"...growed up alone... die alone... lonely, cold and forgotten... nobody t'care fer me..."

Buck winced at the hollow voice that was wavering. He made his way toward the forlorn figure, his large heart aching for this previously hidden side of Vin Tanner. He saw Chris's face frozen in pain for a split second and braced for the explosion.

"...nobody t'stand over m'grave... nobody'd miss me..." Vin's 'spirited' hiccup was accented by a lone tear.

"Jesus, Vin," the blond blew up, his pain unleashed, "Don't be so fuckin' morose," he hissed and turned away, tossing the cheroot and gripping his hips in tension.

Vin flinched and hunched his shoulders in pain as Chris's loud voice permeated his trance-like state. If he were closer, Buck would have punched Chris. Instead, he squatted down and sat next to the forlorn figure wearing Misery's heavy cloak. He laid an arm across the hunched shoulders and winced as a hand swiped the teary eyes.

"Hey Vin," he said cheerfully, squeezing the brown fabric, "I'll come to your funeral. Hell, I'll even bring a few folks." He watched the mangy head rise and smiled at the childlike wonder in the large blue eyes.

"Ya would?" Vin whispered, wary of his pounding head.

"Hell, yeah." Buck nodded, trying to find a way to chase the clouds away. "You won't be alone, I promise."

"Ye'd say some words over me?" Vin hushed, trying to keep Buck's blurry face in view.

"I'd find the prettiest ones in the Bible."

Buck suddenly seemed so strong and true. Vin took a deep breath and the cup of cold water the comforting hand offered. After a few careful sips, he felt the warmth of Buck's words and his presence seep right through every layer of cloth and into his heart. He felt his face flush and drew strength from the strong hand on his shoulder. He raised his head and stared at the kind, smiling rogue hard. He reached a trembling hand up and touched Buck's cheek.

"Yer a good friend, Bucklin," he managed, before the gates opened.

"Oh great!" Chris huffed sharply, "a crying drunk."

"Well now we all can't be as quiet, reserved and polite as you are, Pard," Buck frosted with a stern warning. Vin dropped his head between his raised knees and Buck was rubbing the emotional man's shoulders. "Go on Vin, it's okay. That was a long time coming. Get rid of that mess."

"Don't like it..." Vin hiccuped, upset at why he'd lost control. He'd never been so frayed and frail. He didn't like this feeling, not at all.

"No, I guess you don't." Buck sympathized, tugging Vin's shirt tail out and holding it up.

Vin wiped his face and took more water. Finally the awful wave of emotion subsided and he took a long breath. He thought of Buck Wilmington and how free he was. Buck didn't hide his emotions. He was proud of them. The outgoing spirit and large heart were greatly admired by Vin Tanner. Buck was the kind of friend most men wished they had. As a matter of fact, Buck had lots of friends.

"Must be somethin' t'have so many friends..." He mused, furrowing his brow, "...need t'book both damn Dinin' Rooms at the hotel... everybody loves Bucklin..."

"Huh?" Buck puzzled, not understanding what the wavering voice meant.

"That's enough, Vin," Chris ordered, dropping next to Vin on the other side.

"Quit hollerin' at me," Vin snapped, "I didn't say nothin' about his party."

"Party?" Buck's voice rose and he sat up, eyeing Chris Larabee hard.

"Shit..." the leader scowled, tossing a pebble into the fire.

Vin's head rose and a wave of guilt rode over him. The party was supposed to be a surprise for Buck's birthday. They'd been planning it for weeks. Chris even found some old army buddies that would be attending. The wave of emotion returned, stronger than before, as only an alcohol induced state can do.

"Aw, hell." Vin's lip wavered, "I fucked up again... can't do nothin' right..." He struggled to stand, embarrassed at both his overly emotive show and his guilt over spilling the beans.

"Hey now, Vin, it's okay." Buck shot up and grabbed the upset, smaller man. He struggled to find some way to get through the large blue eyes, welling with tears.

"I'm sorry, Bucklin... I..." Vin bit his lip as two tears rolled down his cheeks.

"Hey, Vin," the tall man gripped the shaking shoulders, "You just wait until we throw your party. Hell, I'll bet the whole damn town will come." He paused and watched the teary tracker wipe his face and hiccup. "When is it anyhow? How old are you, Slick?" He put an enthusiastic twist on the turn of the sentence.

"Don't rightly know..." Vin rasped, sitting back down and taking a handkerchief from Chris. He felt his best friend's hand on his shoulder and nodded in gratitude. "Thanks, Chris..." He paused. "Didn't have nobody t'count fer me... didn't have no kin."

Buck felt another pain stab in his gut. His heart went out to the huddled figure. He thought of his own childhood. How happy he always was, the unwavering love and devotion of his mother had been all the difference. That strong force had given him the confidence to stand tall and true. She made him feel like he was the luckiest kid on earth. He glanced painfully at Vin and wondered how you lose your whole world at the tender age of five and survive... alone.

Chris rose and stalked away, his churning gut waging a furious battle. Hands clenched to hips, he made several passes around the fire. Stealthily stalking a silent prey, he let the internal rage brew strongly. He felt every inch of Vin Tanner's raw, jangled nerves. They dangled in front of him, like Eve's apple, red and poisonous. It wasn't right... that Vin should expose himself like this. Vin Tanner was the most private person Chris knew. Listening to painful chapters of the tracker's harsh past left the gunslinger deeply wounded... and guilty. Vin kept his past, his feelings, doubts, and troubled youth tightly secured in a place deep within himself. He hadn't offered it freely; they'd stolen it from him. Hiding under the guise of darkness, it made him feel more of a coward. Vin's wavering hiccups slammed into him like bullets. He couldn't bear to look at the troubled, moist blue eyes.

"Go to sleep Vin!" he snapped, squatting by the fire and resisting the urge to grab the bottle of whiskey in the saddlebag.

Buck felt the pain he saw radiating from every inch of Chris Larabee's taut frame. When it came to Vin Tanner, Chris Larabee was as clear as glass. He knew how deeply Chris hurt and how much he cared for the quiet Texan. Buck's strong hand made large circles on Vin's hunched back.

Part 3

"Go on Vin," he guided quietly. "Try to get some sleep."

Vin licked his lips and took the remainder of the water. He handed the cup back to Buck and made no move toward the bedroll that Chris had prepared for him earlier. Why was Chris so mad at him? He let himself relax under Buck's tender ministrations and kept his eyes glued on the tense black shirt several feet away. He reached out a wavering hand towards the tense black clothed back, then drew it back.

"He's just worried, is all." Buck read the silent plea clearly, "It's his way. You see Vin, you got family now. Folks who care about you, want to keep you safe."

"...put the worry on ya..." Vin rasped, eyes still trained on Chris's back.

"That's part of it," Buck nodded, "'s teasing J.D. and giving Nate fits. It's Josiah's strong arms, picking you up when you can't go on, it's Mary worryin' on ya and Billy's hugs. It's happy and sad, laughter and tears, Vin. It's all part of being a family."

" account green-eyed cuss..."

"Especially him," Buck said with deep affection and saw Vin turn to him. The readable blue eyes were full of emotion. He saw the hand come up and took it, as the soft drawl floated over.

"Yer Ma... she did a helluva job... she's lucky... havin' a son like..." Vin swallowed, and bit off the waver in his voice.

A beautiful Buck Wilmington smile was born, painted by Vin's touching words. He knew just how much Vin meant every word; they filled him with warmth. He saw the large blue eyes filling and moved his hand inside the tracker's jacket. His nimble fingers found a soft spot on the slight man's abdomen.

"Cut that out, Bucklin," Vin giggled, annoyed that Buck knew where his ticklish spot was. "Don't..." He laughed as one hand tickled and the other wrapped around his neck.

"Sorry, Slick," Buck denied, "Big Brother's claiming rights."

"Brother..." Vin gasped as Buck finally left him up.

"You bet," Buck boomed, "You got a whole pack of 'em now... best get used to us."

"...brothers..." Vin yawned, the fire hypnotizing him. "...good men... good friends... worryin' on ya... watchin' yer back."

"Cheatin' you out of your last dollar." He noted of Ezra and saw that soft smile appear.

"...damn green-eyed cussin' Mama Bear." Vin scowled, his eyes following Chris returning from the water's edge.

"...damn green-eyed cussin' Mama Bear," Buck repeated, chuckling at the return of the familiar Tanner scowl.

"...growlin' at me all the time... hollerin' and glarin'... hell..." Vin muttered, wrinkling his face. "scares me sometimes."

"That's cause he cares about you, Vin," Buck said softly, the golden glow of the fire playing on his handsome face.

"I know," Vin rasped, turning and unleashing his full palate of emotions. "That's what scares me. It hurts Buck..." He paused, drawing his knees up and resting his chin on his crossed arms. "...hurts like hell. Every time one of ya go down... feels like I got shot too." He frowned, his eyes following Chris. He felt Buck's hand on his back and took a shuddering breath as the darkest day of his recent new life came back. "When Josiah pulled him outta the river last month... I seen him look at Nate and shake his head. I damn near died, Buck. It felt like I was being gutted like a damn deer." He sucked in his breath, recalling the sight of Chris Larabee's pale, nearly lifeless body on the banks of the river. "It hurt so bad... it won't go away."

"That why you took off?" Buck inquired, reading the fear clearly. J.D. and Buck had been across the river, and Vin and Chris behind them, when Chris was thrown and carried downstream. By the time they got to him, he was unconscious. Josiah pulled him out and Nate dropped to his other side and the preacher thought the leader was dead. Vin took off, and it took Buck four days to find him.

"He probably thinks I run off on him. I didn't Buck... I didn't mean it... seein' him like that..." Vin swallowed hard, biting back a sob. "...scared the shit outta me."

"Shhh!" Buck eased, rubbing the tense back. "Hush now... it's all done. Chris Larabee knows you'd never run out on him. You're a part of him now, Vin, the best part."

Vin's heavy eyes were sliding shut, and he moved over and stretched out on his bedroll. He turned and unleashed a series of gut-wrenching coughs. When the wheezing finally settled down, he rolled back. He didn't have to open his eyes to know who covered him with a black duster and a blanket. He turned into the callused hand that rested briefly on his cheek.

"I'm sorry, Chris... I fucked up good this time. Why do ya even bother?"

Chris smiled at the woeful voice and looked down on the flushed face. Vin's eyes didn't open but they were darting under the pale lids.

"You're one goddamn sorry-assed cowboy, Tanner," he said huskily, still hearing Vin's pained testimony about the day on the river. "But I reckon I'll keep you." He tapped the stilled shoulder once and sat down. He watched the lips turn up in the troubled sleep and drank in the deep sigh of contentment.

Vin peaceful slumber was interrupted by a flood of bitterness. His heart raced and his breath came in pants. He was in the barn... and he was behind in his chores. Two of the horses still needed to be curried, the hay was all over and the grain sacks were still outside. The small legs wouldn't go fast enough. He gasped and thrashed, hearing the thundering footsteps. His eyes widened at the beefy hand reached out and...


"Vin, take it easy." Chris was kneeling over the nightmare stricken man. He'd been sleeping lightly, in case Vin got sick again. He heard the frantic breathing and saw the thrashing begin. He grabbed the tense shoulders and two blue eyes shot open. Before he could address the fear housed there, a fist shot and caught him in the jaw. He reeled back and lay stunned.

"Ya ain't gonna beat on me no more... I'll kill ya first..."

"Vin, wait a minute." Chris groaned, trying to sit up. He saw the staggered gait heading for the fire, eyes fixed and lost. "Vin! Get down!" He screamed and took off.

"What the hell happened?" Buck croaked, the scream rousing him. He saw Chris tackle Vin and ran to help.

"No... let me go... ya ain't gonna take a board t'me no more, Lucas... No!"

"Vin, it's Chris," The worried leader persisted. He was sitting on Vin, his lean legs trapping the struggling arms and body. "Vin!" He slapped the terrified face and jumped as Vin gasped and looked around.


"Yeah," Chris sighed and slid off, rubbing his jaw. "Next time, you take first shift," he said to Buck, who hauled him up.

"You okay?"

"Yeah, helluva nightmare," he noted, "Vin?" He frowned as his open hand was shunned. The tracker was sitting cross-legged, rocking back and forth, arms wrapped around his chest. At first, Chris thought he'd injured the younger man when he tackled him. But then he saw something far worse in the wide, anguished sky eyes. He sat down next to the frightful form and waited. Buck took the other side, ready to lend a hand. Finally, after several minutes, Vin turned and faced the one he trusted like no other.

"What's wrong with me?" he whispered painfully, nearly undoing the older man.

"It's your 100 proof cough medicine, Vin," Chris gentled, resting a hand on the shivering back. "Drinking does that to..."

"No... no..." Vin denied quietly, taking a shuddering breath and raising his head. Without pausing to breathe, he stared hard, right into Chris Larabee's soul. "Why didn't nobody want me?"

"What?" Chris blinked, his voice rose in jagged incredulation, as the painful stare drilled him.

"First Mama died... then I went to St. Francis... a place fer orphan boys... fer a little while... then it closed. They lined us up... folks came from all over the county." He paused, biting his lip. "the babies went first... and the big boys... then it was just a few of us. Hell, even the crippled boy got took. I was undersized and sickly... nobody wanted..." His deep breath warded off a sob and it took a full minute and Chris Larabee's hand on the back of his neck, then he continued. "...then that bastard farmer showed up... drunk... Lucas..."

Chris's blood turned to water when he felt the shudder in Vin's back and the lethal tone used to rid himself of the word 'Lucas'. Chris didn't know who the son-of-a-bitch was, it didn't matter. If he wasn't already dead, the lean gunslinger would choke the last breath out of him.

"Vin, you don't have to do this." Buck was worried about the painful trip into Vin's dark past. Vin didn't seem to hear him, his large, transfixed eyes and rocking motion had him far away.

"I tried, Chris..." He rasped, turning briefly and searching for the green eyes. He resumed his rocking, staring into the fire. "I tried hard, but it weren't ever good enough fer that bastard. Horses t'tend... fences t'mend... grain t'stack..." He scoffed, his voice hard, "damn things weighed as much as I did... fell the hell over every time I tried t'lift 'em"

Chris tensed as soon as he felt Vin's back muscles harden. He gripped both shoulders as the tracker continued, his voice much younger and far away.

" was dark in the cellar... I'd hear 'im walking... he's a big brute..." Vin coughed and made two fists." I knowed when it was comin'. Soon as they finished eatin'. I was jest the help, so I didn't matter none. I'd hear the chair scrape across the floor and... him walkin' t'the steps... there's a board by the cellar door... near m'mat."

Buck felt his stomach rebelling. The image of an undersized, scrappy Vin Tanner, sleeping on a filthy floor in the cellar made him sick. Too many children like Vin suffered at the hands of abusive adults. This was the first time he felt so repulsed- this time it hit home. He wanted to tear the bastard from limb to limb. He knew what was coming next and closed his burning eyes.

" hurt Chris... half the time's m'legs wouldn't work right after..." Vin paused, feeling the river build inside. "...spring come and he went north, to meet the orphan train. He got two big boys... he... he sold me... to a salesman fer some dishes..."

"Fuckin' monster..." Buck seethed, trying to quell the rage inside. He glanced briefly at Vin, whose face was a pale mask of pain and Chris, whose white, tense features were unreadable. Except the eyes... he saw the killer return, briefly and shuddered.

"I knew right off he's no good... ya know the kind, ya shake his hand then wanna wash up," he took a deep breath and eased his back into Chris's firm massage. "He did things, in the dark... b...b...bad things, Chris... I run off first chance..." he sobbed, letting twenty years of harbored secrets flood forth. He didn't fight Chris's arms when they wrapped around him, he let himself go. He was confused; wondering why it was so easy. He fought so hard to keep it hidden. Don't let them see you hurt... that was his mantra. But tonight he's nerves were raw and the ache in him was unbearable. He needed Chris and Buck.

Chris held onto the smaller man for all it was worth and let him ride out his storm. He didn't trust his voice, the horrid journey into the shadows of Vin's troubled past, left him numb. He was beyond anger, in a dangerous place, where there was no room for reasoning. He remained silent, rocking and holding Vin tightly against him. Buck's strong hand rubbed the shivering tracker's back. Finally, Chris pulled him away and tipped up the tear-streaked face. "Look at me, Vin," he said quietly, "They were fools Cowboy, every one of them. Wasting their time with mules," he choked, gripping both shoulders hard. "...when they could have had a fuckin' thoroughbred."

Buck swallowed hard, Chris's words and the look of emotion on Vin's face would melt ice. He smiled and winked at his oldest friend. He gave Vin's shoulder a tight squeeze and ruffled the tangled hair playfully, and stood up. Chris waited several minutes until Vin was ready and helped him stand. Vin's arm locked onto Chris's forearm and his smile told the leader all he needed to know. He returned it in full and returned to his bedroll.

Chris's heartfelt words slid inside easily and filled Vin with a warmth that he'd never encountered. He left the soft smile on his face as he resumed his sleep. Buck's strong words came back to him. Family... kin... care... six brothers... brothers...

""Let six strong cowboys come carry m'coffin

Let m'six brothers come to carry m'pall

Throw bunches of roses all over m'coffin

Throw roses to deaden the clods as they fall"

The voice was low and soothing, and both older men stood over the smiling tracker, unable to move. But then Vin had that effect on people who cared about him. Buck reached down and picked up the black duster, covering the lean body. He smiled and let his rich, warm voice sail through the night.

"We beat the drum slowly and played the fife lowly

And bitterly wept as we carried him along"

He paused as he saw Chris move to follow his lead, pulling the blanket up over Vin. Chris's voice blended in, and Buck paused, letting the unusually emotive blond complete the last, sweet refrain.

"For we all loved our comrade, so brave, young and handsome

We all loved our comrade, for he was so strong.."

"You rest easy, Son," Buck said, kneeling over the sleeping body and patting his back, "We got your back. That's what brothers do," he promised, rising and moving toward the fire.

"Now and forever, Cowboy," Chris hushed, brushing the damp hair from Vin's pale face. He saw the smile broaden and the deep sigh filled him.

Buck watched Chris walk to the river and gaze at the silver rippling pools on the water. Twice he watched Chris toss his head skyward and both hands clench in tight fists of rage. He flinched, feeling Larabee's pain. He knew Vin's painful testimony wounded the blond deeply. He pulled the cork on the bottle and waited. Finally the restless body dropped down by his side. He took a swig and handed it over to the pensive gunslinger.

"It hurts me too, Chris," Buck said quietly, reading the troubled mind, "hearing him spill his guts like that."

"I feel like a fucking vulture," Chris spat hostily, taking a long swig. His green eyes glowed as intensely as the embers in the fire before them. "Picking his soul apart like that... it just isn't right. He didn't offer it freely... Dammit."

Buck thought for a moment and stared deeply into the fire before replying. Chris was deeply wounded and nobody harbored pain like his oldest friend. He glanced briefly at the slight form beyond them, sleeping peacefully. That one scruffy, gutsy Texan could have such a profound effect on his otherwise unflappable friend, gave him a broad smile.

"Maybe he didn't Chris." Buck's voice was warm and tight. "But he spit it out... and maybe, just maybe, his load will be a little lighter to bear." He paused and took the bottle back. "...and if we helped him to ease that pain... then that is something I'm damn proud of. Okay?"

Chris took a lazy stare from darkness overhead to the brilliant oranges and reds reflecting on Buck's handsome profile. He envied the way Buck so easily conveyed emotions. With a single word or a joke or a hug or a slap on the back... he let it out, wore his feelings proudly. Not buttoned up inside, under layers of sac cloth.

"When did you get to be such a fucking genius?" Chris grinned, watching the slow smile forming.

"Hell, Son," Buck turned, drinking in the Larabee grin. "I was born to it." He paused and handed the bottle back, enjoying the ease that came with old friends. "Hey, you think Miranda will recognize me. I got a few things to show her."

"I'm sure they'll appreciate that at the old prostitutes home." Chris shot back.

"She wasn't that old," Buck chuckled, drinking in the relaxed face next to him.

"She got younger with every shot you drank. By the time you got... uh... displaced." Chris raised his eyebrow and heard Buck laughing. "She was a damn virgin again. You're hopeless Buck." He laughed, taking the bottle.

"Yeah, but ya love me, don't ya Pard!" Buck teased, slapping Chris's leg.

So they sat and reflected on days gone by. Of lost loves and old friends... of battlefields far and shootouts close by... of youth slipping past and middle age approaching. By the time they finally went to sleep, both men felt realized just how rare and lucky they were, to have such a rich, colorful tapestry of their lives, interwoven with a strong thread of brotherhood.

Normally, a beautiful day like this would have the tracker on his horse, riding the wind and smiling like the devil. He loved the outdoors, hell, it had been the only mother he'd ever known. So it was with a heavy heart he sighed and contemplated the pain of dying alone. He didn't remember being shot in the head, but the pain was unrelenting. His eyes would not open more than slits. He watched carefully as the darkened sky dissolved into blues and crimsons and Dawn unfurled her glorious cape. He moaned as his stomach woke up. He clutched his midsection and rolled onto his stomach. Now if he could just move his arms. Grunting and moaning as the slightest movement sent violent stabbing pain through his head, he managed to push himself onto his arms.

"Aw, hell..." he hissed, as he felt his stomach rebelling severely. He tried to move, but his legs wouldn't answer his silent call. He doubled over, gagging and found himself being lifted effortlessly. He would have looked to see who his rescuer was, save the fact he had to concentrate on his feet and containing the spill. Finally, he was dropped in the brush and tossed the little liquid that was in his stomach. The dry heaves were worse, and left him teary-eyed. He collapsed and it took several minutes for him to catch his breath. The arms were back, pulling him upright and offering a tin mug.

"Rinse, Slick."

That strong voice and gentle touch was soothing and familiar. His shaky stomach fell, he didn't want Buck to see him like this, did he? He wouldn't die alone, anyhow and somebody would bury him. Vin opened his mouth and took in the cool water. After rinsing and drinking some, he turned his head painfully. He tried to talk, but the effort was too much. Instead, he slumped back against Buck's broad chest and heard the rumbling laugh.

"...ain't funny..." Vin whispered, wincing.

"Depends on where you're standing," Buck advised, letting Vin rest for a moment. He had water boiling and he knew the peppermint tea would give comfort to the upheaval in Tanner's stomach. The headache... well that was another story. Once they got to Salerno, he could rustle up the ingredients for 'the cure'. The shaggy head painfully lifted and Buck winced at the pale skin and dark circles rimming the blood-shot eyes.

"Go away..." Vin rasped, pulling free. He let Buck raise him up and lead him to the river's edge. Buck sat him in the sun and disappeared for a moment. Vin kept his eyes closed and shivered in the cool, early morning breeze. He jumped slightly when a blanket was wrapped around him. He felt warmth near his hands and opened one eye a slit. He saw steam rising from a mug and took it.

"You sip on that, it's peppermint tea... good for what ails you." The older man advised.

Vin let it warm his hands, then offered back. " sense wastin' it... I ain't got much longer..."

"Huh?" Buck chuckled, watching the slits close and Vin nearly disappear inside the blanket. His head was tucked to his chest and the blanket covered his face. "Hey..." He tapped the hunched back and waited. He saw the head rise and a single blue eye appear and plead with him.

"I'm dyin' Bucklin."

Buck tried hard no to laugh at the woeful voice and serious face looking at him. He sat down next to the stricken figure and laid a supportive arm around the slumped shoulders. "Dyin' huh? That's tough luck for sure, Vin."

"...didn't think he shot m'head... couldda swore he missed... I got him... didn't I?"

"Sure did, Vin. Chris is gettin' him ready to tote into town."

"Chris?" Vin's head shot up. "Don't want him t'see me die, Buck..." He struggled to stand and felt the hand clamp down.

"You ain't dyin', Son," Buck disarmed, his tone warm. "You got a killer hangover is all. First time for everything."

"Yer lyin'," Vin accused, groping and fumbling until his hand made a painful journey over his tangled, curly head. No blood... no wound. He felt the mug nudged against his lips and he sipped it carefully. It was soothing and icy hot. He shivered as vague images appeared, of a fire... memories longburied bursting forth... anguish and tears... Buck and Chris next to him. "Aw, hell..."

Buck heard the painful rasp and saw the face flood with color. Memories of the evenings rambling, painful conversations were flooding back, no doubt. He sighed and chose his words carefully. He watched the large, sky eyes darting from side to side, only adding to the colorful face.

"Vin, there's no cause for that."

"The hell there ain't... ran m'mouth off like a damn washerwoman," he hissed, pulling his blanket closer.

"Hell, Vin.You ain't any different than the rest of us. Drinking too much loosens everybody's lips. If I had a dime for everytime I turned into a rambling fool, I'd be living the good life."

How much had he said? The foggy images were beginning to clear up and he recalled the emotional overflow vividly. He shrank even further in the blanket, sipping the tea and hoping it would all go away. Then the other feelings returned, of warm words and heartfelt sympathy. Buck strong voice and gentle touch, reassuring him and how good it felt. Chris barking at him and the strong tug in his gut that always came with the green-eyed fury. He raised his head tentatively and held out a wobbling hand to Buck Wilmington.

"Seems I recall gettin' a bit moist..." Vin croaked, ducking shyly, "...thanks Bucklin."

"Aw, shucks Vin," Buck teased, gripping the offered hand. "You ain't gonna cry again are you? You want another hug?" He leaned in and winked.

"Get the hell away from me!" Vin snarled, ducking and trying not to grin.

"Listen, Vin... that was stuff you needed to purge... and it stays here, okay?" he said, rising and watching the brown head bob once. "You ever need to talk about of that shit... me and Chris are here," he issued with a pat and left the muddled man. He saw Chris approaching and walked over to meet him. "Ready?"

"Yeah," the blond replied, his eyes trained on the silent figure huddled by the water. "How's he doing?"

"Poor boy thought he was dyin'." Buck shook his head. "Thought he got shot in the head." He turned somber and looked hard at Chris. "He's pretty shook up about last night... he's starting to remember. I'll make some coffee." He patted Chris's shoulder and heading for the fire.

Chris took a seat next to Vin and stared out over the river. For several minutes they sat side by side, silent and wary. The only noise over the gentle churn of the water, was Vin's parade of coughing and sneezing. Chris knew just how hard Vin was hit with his painful, alcohol-induced confession. He could feel the ripples of anger brewing in the younger man.

"You look like shit, Cowboy," he said quietly, keeping his eyes trained on the rushing water.

"...m'eyes is fried..." Vin whispered, peeking sideways at his best friend.

Chris let the small smile form at the sharpshooter's simple analogy. How many hundreds of mornings-after had he suffered through? "I reckon they are," he nodded and looked at the sad face, "You'll feel better once Buck gets some of 'the cure' in you. You okay to ride?"

Vin hesitated before answering. He took another sip of his tea and nodded slightly. "In a little bit. M'stomach is jumpin' 'round like a pauper in a cathouse."

"You do have a way with words, Vin." Chris smiled and then saw the full face, "It's cold down here. Get by that fire and warm up. Your damn lips are blue," he ordered, standing and pulling the younger man upright.

"Hah!" Vin grumbled. "Reckon they's worn out from flappin' together and blubberin'," his disgusted tone suggested of his discolored mouth. He'd come close before, but always was able to stop before the maudlin effects of alcohol changed his normal persona.

"It's done, Vin, leave it alone," Chris warned, "It was Buck and me."

"I know." Vin nodded, settling by the fire. "Still feel like a fool." He cursed and drained the rest of his tea.

"Damn Vin," Chris chastised, "We've all been drunk and done things we regret the next day. You're just a late bloomer."

"It ain't that."

Chris looked at the hardness in the blue eyes and saw the mouth form a grim line. Buck flinched as he handed Chris a cup of coffee and sat down beside him. He saw Chris wait Vin out, and applauded the older man's innate sense of the Texan. The curly head rose and the now thawing lips curling into a mask of self-loathing.

"Leave it alone!" Chris warned, reading the expression.

Vin sneered, eyeing the discarded bottle of 'medicine' evilly, "Reckon I put on quite a show fer that son-of-a-bitch. Stup..." His sentence was choked off by an iron like grip to his collar, closing around his throat. The man in black moved with cat like grace and hellish wrath shot forth from the green eyes.

"That's it, Vin! We did this last night. It's done, finished and buried. If I ever hear you use that filthy expression and I'll bust your fuckin' jaw. There's no shame in what you did, only in this disgusting self-pity. Get over yourself, already."

He threw Vin backwards, sending the smaller man into the dirt and stalked off. Buck shook his head watched Vin rise and hesitate. The angry blue eyes were torn between following the irate leader and heading back toward the river. He heard the Texan chuff angrily several times, hands riding his tense, slim hips. He rose and walked behind him.

"I know it's been a long ride, Vin," Buck issued in a hard tone, "But you gotta learn what trust means... and who to put stock in. Sharing your pain isn't a bad thing and you got to take that hand you're offered, it helps with the load."

"Ya done with them pearls o'wisdom?" Vin spat, pulling away.

"Not quite," Buck replied icily, grabbing Vin hard. "They don't come any finer than that man," He said slow and deliberate, turning the younger man and forcing him to look at the retreating black duster. "He's turned his soul over to you... you think on that 'pearl' and try not to choke on it." He shoved Vin towards the fire, "We're leaving in an hour, get by that fire and get yourself together."

Vin shuffled painfully to the fire and resisted the urge to vomit. He settled down and curled up on his side, letting the dancing flames lull him to sleep.Buck's words were driven hard into his gut, like rusty nails, they created a deep pain. Why was it so hard? Men like Chris and Buck were rare, he was damn lucky to have two such friends.

"Yer a damn fool..." He whispered, letting his eyes slide shut.

"He left an hour ago," Buck answered Vin's silent question. The younger man needed to sleep and Buck let him. Chris rode out immediately after his lecture to Vin and took the bodies with him. Buck noticed Vin was wearing his own pants and had Chris's borrowed ones rolled inside of his bedroll. "You all set?" he asked, and saw the head nod once and Vin slowly ease into the saddle.

It was a quiet ride, neither man offering conversation. Buck looked over several times, as Vin was leaving a trail of sneezes and coughs in his wake. He sure hoped that doctor was still in town. He'd feel better once Vin was in bed and resting. It wasn't long before the outskirts of town came into view. They left their horses in the livery. Buck took his saddlebags, rifle and bedroll and headed over to assist Vin, who was a striking color or greenish-gray.

"Thanks," Vin whispered, leading heavily on Buck. He never remembered feeling so sick. His head was throbbing so hard, it even hurt to blink. His throat was sore, his chest hurt and his stomach... He put a hand over it as it threatened to protest.

"You know Vin," Buck teased as they walked into the hotel, "You look cuter than a filly at a church social in that shade of green." He signed the ledger and took the key from the clerk. Chris was in the adjoining room. Buck led Vin inside and sat him on the bed. He saw Vin curl up and denied the ailing man's sojourn.

"Nuh-uh... not yet."

"...wanna die..."

"Sorry, Slick." Buck grinned at the painful voice. "I'll be right back. I'll get something to make you feel better."

Buck's long legs took him to the saloon first. He found Chris finishing a large sandwich and stood by the table.

"You all set?" Chris inquired, pushing his chair back.

"No... I'll get what I need from the store. You get a bucket and wait with Vin," he replied, "What'd the sheriff say?"

"Seems Old Davey had a bounty on 'im." Chris smiled, patting his pocket. "We're gonna have quite a party tonight. You up to it... Stud?" he teased, nodding his head upwards.

"Hey... did you see her?" Buck craned his neck.

"Oh yeah..." Chris smirked. "She's an armful of lovin' alright. Come on, I want to check on Vin."

Vin's arm shot out, mare's leg drawn, when a hand tugged at his ankle. "Good way t'get killed," he rasped, eyeing the black duster.

"Not without bullets."

"Dammit Chris..." Vin scowled, eyeing his empty chamber. He heard the clatter of the bullets at Chris dropped them on the table near the bed.

"Come on, Vin. It's time," the blond relayed, helping the sick man up.

"Hell, ya make it sound like I'm facin' the noose."

"You might wish you were," he imparted and saw Vin tense and shrink back.

"This is on the level right?" Vin wavered, eyeing the two co-conspirators. "Y'all didn't piss in that out back or somethin'?"

"Jesus, Vin!" Buck laughed and handed Vin a mug. "You'll wish you were dead for five minutes, then you'll have a nice long nap and then you'll feel a whole lot better. Go on," he coached, "take a deep breath and drink it down... one shot."

"What is it?" Vin squinted at the murky liquid.

"You don't want to know," Chris answered, pausing and meeting the blood-shot blues. "Trust me..."

Vin's head shot up and for a moment, Buck felt like he wasn't in the room with them. Their eyes locked and he saw Vin swallow hard. Chris's face was set in stone and his mouth a grim line. Vin nodded once, and Buck felt the tension roll off Larabee like a wave. He knew the release had nothing to do with the beverage in Vin's hand. Vin took a deep breath and drank fast. The two older men moved in unison. Chris held the bucket on the floor and Buck stood next to Vin.

Vin doubled over as the explosive pain erupted inside his gut. He tried to cry out, but all the air was sucked out of his lungs. His eyes watered and he groveled, clawing at the fire in his throat. He dropped to his knees and began to vomit. He felt Chris holding his hair back and rubbing his back. Only two words came into his mind.

Kill Buck... kill Buck... kill Buck..."

It seemed like forever to the suffering soul, but finally he finished. He felt a mug of water shoved in his hand and rinsed several times. A larger mug replaced it and he drank greedily. He felt Chris help him up and despite his agony, he timing was intact. He grabbed the colt that was lounging on the gunslinger's hip and pointed it.

"Whoa!!" Buck dropped like a rock and Chris's arm sent the potential danger towards the ceiling. "Before you shit your pants, Buck. It's empty," Chris grunted, fighting the flailing Texan. "I've had 'the cure', I know that bloodlust. How 'bout some help, here?" he gasped as Vin broke free and lunged for his target.

"Easy there, Son." Buck caught him as he passed out. With a deep sigh, he carried the young man to the bed. Chris tugged the boots off and between the two of them, they took off his soiled clothes. Buck pulled the quilt up and left a full canteen by the bed.

"Lay him on his stomach with his head over the edge," Chris ordered, gathering up the clothes. "I don't want him to choke."

"There isn't anything left," Buck answered, but did as ordered.

"How long?" Chris said, handing Buck the pile of clothes.

"Hard to say," Buck scratched his chin and took the bundle. "I had to adjust for his weight. Ten hours anyhow... We won't see them baby blues until supper. You look like you could use some sleep. Did you get any last night?"

"I'm fine," Chris denied, despite the fatigue.

"Here, I'll take them to the Chinese place on the edge of town," he noted of the laundry. "You see if there's a doctor around. He damn near sneezed himself back to Four Corners on the way in," he related, resting a hand on the slack sharpshooter's face. "He's a little warm."

"Alright." Chris nodded, "I'll see you back here later. I want to see if Josiah wired back."

It was a deep and dreamless sleep, the kind that you leave reluctantly. Vin sighed deeply and stretched. He coughed several times, wincing and grabbing his dry throat. He spotted the canteen and nearly drained it. Wiping his mouth, he stood tentatively and braced himself. Frowning, he relaxed. The headache was nearly gone and the upset stomach had disappeared. The cold lingered and his chest hurt, but that was livable. He padded over to the window and watched the twilight fall gracefully on the bustling town. He opened the window and felt the cool breeze kiss his face. He leaned out and saw lots of people walking up the main street of town. It was growing town, with several side streets and a long main corridor. He heard piano music and his now clear eyes saw the Ruby Slipper Saloon a block down.

"Yup..." He nodded and turned back. He saw the pile of clothes neatly folded and slid into them. Shucking his holster, hat and coat on, he left the room. His tender stomach gave a small mew and he patted it calmly. He was on his way to the Saloon for some dinner, when he heard a familiar deep voice, singing proudly. He glanced at the sign overhead and slipped inside.

"Hey, you look almost human again, Vin," Buck boomed, smiling broadly amidst a veil of steam. His broad chest glistened and his dark hair was slick, freshly washed and the face was clean shaven. Buck sure did love his hot baths. "How do you feel?"

"Reckon I'll live," Vin rasped, wincing and eyeing the empty room carefully.

"He's sleeping." Buck said of their missing member."He was running around all day, talking to the sheriff, wiring home, getting the horses cared for. Wore his old ass out."

" damn nightmares didn't help." Vin mumbled, patting his stomach. "Ya eat?"

" and Chris had a late lunch. You get your ass to the white house down the street. It has big green shutters. Doctor London is waiting for you." Buck picked up his watch, which was on the small wooden tubside table, along with his gun and a beer. "You best hurry, I told him you'd be there by six," he ordered, expecting an argument. Vin hated anyone fussin' over him, most especially doctors. But to his surprise, the younger man nodded and headed for the door.

"Don't get your ass shot up 'afore I get to buyin' ya the first round," Vin offered without turning. "Okay?"

"Vin Tanner using his own money to buy a round?" Buck used a highly incredulous voice. "Hell, it's gonna snow for sure."

"Fuck y'all Bucklin." Vin turned, a grin tugging his lips upright.

Buck saw the mischievous light in the blue eyes and drank it in. He nodded and resumed his singing as the smaller man slid out silently, heading for the physicians.

Hours later...

"I'm out..." Chris tossed his cards and picked up his full beer. He took a long draw and wiped the foam off his upper lip. The Ruby Slipper was a large, friendly tavern. The long oak bar, adorned with a gleaming brass rail, was fully occupied. The dozen tables were nearly full as well. Upstairs, the 'fairer sex' was busy at work, entertaining the rowdy male customers. A burly man tended bar, while a slighter, redheaded young man played a jangling tune on the piano. The blond watched Buck's eyes roving the saloon and he smiled.

"How fast can you run, Buck?" he teased, knowing the rogue was wary of Miranda. His memory of the 'well endowed temptress' was better left to days gone by. She'd grown in age and size and had her guns set on Buck.

"It ain't funny, Chris."

"The hell it isn't."

Vin paused outside and took a deep breath. Satisfied, that was the word for it. Belly full of good food and strong medicine, he was prepared to kick back a little. The doctor advised to finish all the medicine, and warned Vin about the lingering dangers of the lung infection. The medicine and herbal tea were potent. He had taken some of each after dinner and slept for several hours. He felt good. He waited and let his eyes roam the perimeter, his hand on his gun. Satisfied that no danger lurked, he cast a favorable glance to where Buck and Chris sat playing poker. Buck, of course, had two beauties draped on his relaxed frame. Vin eye's lit up and his smile widened.

Part 4

"Hey y'all!" he drawled, entered the crowded Saloon.

"Vinnie Darlin'," a chorus bellowed, giving the tracker a swell.

"Vinnie?" Chris and Buck said in unison as both heads swiveled towards the door.

"Hey... What the hell?" Buck complained, his lap and shoulders now cold and deserted.

"You came back," the pretty brunette said, of their dinner companion. She tousled his curls and hugged him.

"We missed you..." the blonde beauty pouted, kissing his cheek and caressing his face. "It was awful lonely..."

"I missed y'all, too" Vin nodded, eyeing the two beauties favorably, "I'dda been here sooner, but the doctor sassed me but good. Said I should be bed... I'm awful weak..." he rasped, staggering slightly.

"Here Vin," the dark-haired one said, taking one arm over her shoulder.

"We'll take care of you," the other said taking the other arm and grabbing the tracker's waist.

They led the 'victim' to an empty table and eased him into a chair. Before Buck could close his gaping jaw, a third pretty maid appeared, bearing a steaming mug of herbal tea and huge piece of apple pie, with fresh cream smothered all over it.

"Fer me?" Vin feigned shock. "I don't know if I can manage... bein' so weak and all..." he let his voice trail off and fell back in the chair.

"I got the tea from the doctor's office, Vinnie..." the newest comely member added, sliding onto the Texan's lap. She eased her arm around the strong back and caressed his neck under the curls.

"...and I saved the pie for you," the brunette breathed coyly, sliding onto Vin's other leg. She unbuttoned the top buttons of his shirt and slid her hand inside, tracing seductive circles on his hot skin.

"...I whipped the cream..." The last member of the trio added from behind, leaning over Vin's shoulder and letting the 'girls' kiss the shadowed face. She took a large dollop of cream on her finger and slid it into his parted lips. She withdrew the moist finger and licked it. "...ummm... that's good..." she breathed huskily.

"I'm gonna be sick," Buck exasperated, watched the trio feed the sated king. He tossed his cards in disgust and glared openly at the laughing Chris Larabee. "Look at him... like butter would fuckin' melt in his mouth," the rogue noted, eyeing the wide-eyed Tanner, who was being fed by all three girls. The whipped cream that missed and ended on his lips and chin were quickly licked off by the servers. As if on cue, one of them scooped up some apple mix and slid it inside his mouth. Vin sucked greedily and gave Buck a bold wink, which only made the dark-haired rogue madder.

"You know Sugar," the blonde said eyeing Vin's long hair. "You got pretty hair... it needs tendin'"

"Doc said no baths, on accounta m'delicate lungs," Vin whispered, nearly checking to make sure the pants he was wearing were his own, not Chris's. The roaming hands and hot lips were making his blood boil.

"Oh, we can fix that," the brunette winked and nibbled on his neck. "Can't we girls?"

"Un-huh..." they nodded.

"We can wash your hair... sure is pretty," the blonde said, running her hands through the tangled locks and leaning against the muscular chest.

"We're awfully good with sponges and such," the brunette added. "I'll bring up the hot water."

"I'll get the sponges and uh... other tools..." the blonde said, nipping Vin's neck and pulling him up.

"I don't wanna be no bother," Vin protested weakly, his legs shaking.

"Hush up that pretty mouth of yours," the one leading him said, taking the last dollop of cream and teasing his tongue with it.

The trio then lead the dazed man upstairs. Chris was laughing hard, as the look on Buck's face was one he'd not soon forget.

"I can't believe this... how does he do it?" the stunned voice asked.

"Looks like your losing your touch, Stud," Chris said slyly, grinning like a fool at Tanner's antics. He turned back to the stricken mustached man and rested a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. "New shirt?" He noted, not recognizing the burgundy form-fitting garb.

"Hell, yeah... cologne too," Buck dismayed, eyeing the roaming fingers of his missing maidens and frowning, as two different hands squeezed Tanner's backside as they disappeared upstairs.

"Won't go to waste," Chris grinned and leaned over. The evil smile matched the devil in his eyes as he nudged the handsome rogue, "Miranda's show at the theater ended ten minutes ago. I reckon she'll be on the hunt..."

"Aw, hell..." Buck jumped up. "You never saw me." He smacked Larabee's back and glared up at Vin, who was winking boldly him and licking his lips. "You're dead meat Tanner," he warned, slipping outside.

"That's my boy!" Chris boasted, as a new hand was dealt. He picked up his cards and resumed his game.

Vin watched from the top of the stairs until Buck left. He turned to his three co-conspirators and smiled. "Y'all were great. Ya should be in that theater down the street. Matter o'fact," he wheezed, feeling how tight his pants had become. "Yer were a little t'convincin'. I can't thank ya enough, it was worth every dollar." He nodded and turned to go.

"Nuh-uh..." Becky said, pushing him towards the open door.

"Wh... what are ya doin'?" he stammered as the sassy one tugged his coat off and her deft fingers unhitched the holster. "Cut that out... gimme that... hey... wait a minute..." he protested as six well versed hands forced him into the readied room. Vin eyed the steaming basins of water and shook his head. "This weren't part o' the damn deal..."

"Muse, did he use profanity?" Becky asked their leader, smacking the angry, stammering man's backside.

"He did... and that's a punishable offense," she commanded, unbuttoning the few remaining clasps on his shirt and pulling it off. She pinched him and smiled as he yelped and blushed.

"Alright, ya had yer fun... cut it out now," Vin protested as they forced him onto a stool and one of them sat on his lap, forcing his head back. A set of strong hands pulled his head into the basin of warm water and waited.

"Are you gonna behave now?" she warned, pulling his head back and pouring something from a lavender bottle.

"Hey... hey... quit it..." Vin yelped as strong fingers massaged the scented lotion into his slick hair. He kept his eyes closed as the suds ran down, stinging them. He felt a firm sponge making slow circles on his chest and another on his back. As the heat rose in the room, so did his wheezing. He managed to open one eye from where he was sitting and panic set in.

"What the hell kinda sponge is that?" Vin paled at the strange looking brush. His panic increased and his mouth went dry, as it headed south "That'd take the bark right off a damn tree."

"More profanity... You were warned," the sassy one shook her head. "It's for those hard to reach places."

"Hell, I ain't got none... ya leave that alone... hey... cut that out... aw, hell... " He rasped and flushed as he surrendered to the sponge-bathing trio.

The crowd had thinned out and Chris stood alone outside enjoying a cheroot. He eyed the deserted street and wondered where Buck ended up. The sky was full of stars and he raked the heavens, taking in their celestial beauty. How many nights had he and Sarah slept under the stars on a blanket and felt each others heart beat. Sarah... he still ached for her touch. He flinched and tossed the cheroot into the gutter and went back inside. The tavern was almost deserted and hegrabbed a bottle and a glass. He sat down and slid a full glass to the body next to him. As he leaned over, his nose wrinkled up and his breath caught.

"You sure smell pretty," he said huskily, lifting the 'scented' locks. "...just like silk..."

"Show ya good time, Cowboy?" the drawling Romeo rasped, lifting a bold eyebrow and giving the blond a good laugh.

"I don't think so." Chris shook his head and grinned. "I wouldn't want to mess your pretty hair."

"Ya couldn't afford me nohow." Vin tossed back, declining the liquor. He was holding a mug of tea.

"Yeah?" Chris raked a bold eye over the tracker. "That scrawny ass of yours is overpriced."

"...and plum wore out..." Vin shot back, giving both a good laugh.

"You're going soft," Chris said, nodding to the tea. "Next thing you'll be takin' to quiltin'"

"I do a right fine stitch," Vin pouted and Chris laughed again. He kept a slight smile and wondered why it felt so good. Why was Vin Tanner was the right fit? He snorted and tossed back another shot. Why ponder? Just sit back and relish it.

"The doctor feller was okay." Vin nodded, sipping the herbal tea. "Told me the cold'll run its course in a week or so. Weren't real happy with the lungs... warned me good. The medicine and this tea sure gotta kick to 'em. I took some after supper and they knocked me out. Slept for hours."

"You finish all of it," Chris warned and saw the head dip once. His keen eyes read the deep blue ones a few feet away. "You okay, Vin?"

Vin sighed and stared into the wood grain of the table. He waited several minutes before answering. The tightness he now felt in his chest had nothing to do with the cold. Chris's strong words and steel vow had hit him hard. He suddenly realized that was a large part of why he felt so good. He raised his head and his sky eyes met the icy green ones. "I am now, Cowboy." He said softly and paused. "Chris, what you said last night... I ain't never gonna ferget that." He dropped his head and took a long breath and Lucas's face came into view. But the fear was gone, chased away for good by a pair of big brothers. He felt a hand clamp on his shoulder and drew his gaze back up.

"I'm always here, Vin."

"Yeah..." Vin rasped, draining the remainder of his tea. "I was thinkin' that... nah... ye'd laugh."

"Try me."

"...shame that bastard Lucas didn't head north and settle in Indiana..." Vin paused and felt the hand grip him painfully. "...wouldda made it easier when I run off." He ended, thinking on Chris's childhood farm and fine family life.

"I would have found you," Chris promised, thinking of the small boy fighting his battles alone.

"I wouldda visited ya in jail," Vin smirked, thinking on Chris's black look.

"'preciate that, Vin." Chris eased, warming to the thought.

"Ya know, Chris. Fer a long time, I had a box inside. I put all the bad stuff in there... so's it couldn't hurt me nomore. But it got t'be heavy... totin' it around. Last night, you and Buck busted the lock open. I can't..." He paused, feeling a swell of emotion as the heat rose in his face. "It feels good, Chris. What ya done."

"Jesus Vin," Chris grinned at the emotive display, his own chest tight. "You haven't talked this much in all the months I've known you. That must be some potent tea." He cocked his head and picked up the empty mug. "Reckon I'll stick to whiskey."

That did it. The image of a babbling Chris Larabee loose on society did the Texan in. He laughed until tears welled up and a coughing fit ensued. He felt the hand clamping his back and swiped his eyes.

"Do me favor, Vin?" Chris said seriously.

"Anything," Vin leveled, eyeing the somber face.

"Don't give up your day job," Chris said, standing up. "Your singing stinks."

"The girls don't think so..." Vin hissed, rising painfully, and waiting so Chris couldn't see him.

"Speaking of the lush trio," Chris paused, "Where are your angels of mercy? Thatwas quite a show." He grinned and shook his blond head.

"They's upstairs lyin' the hell all over," Vin declared proudly, wincing as he stepped outside. "I wore 'em out."

"Really?" Chris turned and saw the slow, painful steps the tracker was taking. He scowled, put both hands on his hips and paused. He eyed the darkened windows of the rooms upstairs, the Texan's painful face and nearly elderly gait. "That sunburn or you give the boys a beating?"

"Don't ask." Vin winced. "Ya best move along, I'll be awhile."

"Hell, you don't pick up your pace and I'll be headed back for breakfast and you'll only be halfway to the hotel."

"Where's Bucklin?"

"God only knows," Chris said, eyeing the empty street. "You got him good this time. I don't know how you found the time. It was brilliant though."

"Funny," Vin scoffed. "Brilliant ain't the word I'm thinkin' of..."

"They turned the tables on you, didn't they?" Chris guessed and saw the face flush under the lamplight. The look of unadulterated chagrin gave the leader a good laugh. He rested a sympathetic hand on the baby-stepping sharpshooter. "I want details Vin or I'm spillin' the beans to Buck."

"That's blackmail..." Vin wheezed, grabbing Chris's arm to steady himself. The tea was stronger than he thought and walking was difficult.

"You bet your scrawny ass it is," Chris tossed back, noting the blinking eyes as they entered the hotel. Effortlessly he picked up the arm and brought it across his shoulder, supporting the struggling man's weight.

"Ya best remember, Larabee...Tanner's paybacks are a bitch." He coughed and stumbled. By the time he found the bed, he was dead on his feet. He felt Chris pull his boots off and the blanket up. He heard the door close and lock. Then he relaxed and fell into a tranquil sleep, knowing he was safe.

It was just past seven a.m. when Chris Larabee tried Vin's door. He peeked inside and found the room empty. He made his way down stairs and his eyes darted around the empty lobby. He glanced in the Dining Room and saw a bleary-eyed dark head hovered over coffee. Smiling, he eased his way to the long face and nodded to the server. He took his hat off and left it on the seat next to him. The head next to him remained bowed, and he took the steaming liquid.

"Thanks," he offered, as she left the speckled pot. "You got griddle cakes?"

"...with or without ham?"

"With," Chris nodded as she left. He turned a bemused face to the sorrowful body next to him. Leaning over, he dropped his voice low. "Mornin' Stu..u...u...d"

"...'ey, Chris," Buck croaked, peeling an eye open. He sipped his coffee and made an effort to sit up straight and appear human.

"Long night?" the blond wondered.

"Pure heaven... just me and a lush desert rose," Buck oozed, sighing and staring hard.

"Damn..." Chris grinned of the tall man's prowess.

"That about covers it." Buck chuckled, "Where's Vin?"

"Gone," Chris replied and nodded as the steaming plate of food arrived. "...livery most likely."

"Surprised he's able to walk," Buck commented and saw the small grin tug at Larabee's lips. "That boy's gettin' a little too slick for his britches," He frowned of the Tanner ploy. "I'll get even..." He paused and saw Chris staring at the empty tables.

"You come in with the sun?" Chris muffled over his pancakes.

"Yup," Buck said, "Had my breakfast in bed..." He winked and slapped Chris's back. "I think I'll stretch my legs."

Chris knew Buck was headed to find Vin. "Stretch 'em past the bath, will ya Buck?" He wrinkled his nose and saw the shadowed-face grin.

Buck headed for the livery first and wasn't surprised when he saw all three horses cared for, curried and saddled. Vin's bedroll was neatly tied on Diablo's back. Buck lifted each canteen and found them full. Curious, he headed to the outskirts of town. He saw a lone figure sitting under a tree about a quarter mile from town. His long strides made it a short trip. He paused several yards away and studied the somber Texan. Vin's face was puzzled, his brows furrowed and his fists were clenched. Shaking his head, the older man made his way forward .

Vin glanced at the heat rippling over the horizon. It was going to be a long ride and he felt like shit. Although his chest felt a whole lot better and the coughing had decreased greatly, his head was pounding and the cold had settled in good. He'd never admit how lousy he felt to the others, or they'd end up staying. He wanted to go home... he could almost hear Nathan hollering at him. He frowned as the familiar battle started. How could being a part of something good, make him feel so bad?

"You best quit dancing in the dragon's lair, Vin."

"Huh?" Vin squinted up at the tall body approaching.

" taken?" Buck asked, not wanting to intrude. Vin shook his head and Buck dropped down. Taking his hat off, he spun it around on his finger and eyed the handsome young man's profile. Sometimes he forgot just how young Vin was, and how fast he had to grow up.


"Well what?" Buck yawned, scratching his stubble.

"Whaddya mean by dragons dancin'?"

Buck smiled and let his mind wander back thirty years, to dusty day, hot tears and a soothing voice. "When I was a kid, about the age when other boys started talkin' and pointin' fingers..." He paused and felt Vin's intense stare. "...seems everyday I was comin' home with a black eye, bloody lip and hot head. My Mama told me never to back down. She said never to let any fool call me a bastard and defend my name. She told me about a knight," he sighed and smiled wistfully, feeling her gentle hand stroke his face.

Vin watched the transformation and grinned broadly. He envied Buck for having such a mother, someone to love you unconditionally. A strong woman whose delicate touch was still felt today. She raised a strong boy into a fine man, a good soul, and a true friend. "...guessin' his name was Bucklin."

"You hear this story already?" Buck chuckled and swatted Vin's knee. "Anyhow... seems this knight was always chasin' a dragon. A big brute... spewing fire all the time. The knight was bogged down with a heavy armor, couldn't hardly stand upright, let alone swing his sword. So no matter how hard the knight tried, he always ended up dancing in the dragon's lair... gettin' beaten down by them flames."

"So what'd he do?" Vin persisted, intrigued.

"Seems this knight was totin' around a heavy armor. The mettle was all wrong, overloaded with big chunks of misplaced remorse." Buck paused and looked intently into the cerulean eyes of the Texan. He saw Vin's Adams Apple bobbing and continued. " matter how hard he tried, he couldn't stand up straight and fight. That damn armor was wearin' him down. Until he learned to shed that mess... adjust the links and stand straight and true. He left that pile of guilt and shame in the shadows and replaced it with pride and faith. That armor glistened in the sun and he sat tall; he rode like hell for that dragon."

Vin's eyes narrowed sharply and he felt his chest constrict. He didn't pull away when Buck clamped a strong hand on his shoulder and those knowing dark blue eyes bore into his own.

"Vin, from the day my mother told me that story, I never let anyone best me. Don't ever let anyone's light shine brighter than your own. You listen to me," he said emotionally, "you ain't got no reason to be dancing in the dragon's lair. Get rid of that weight, ride tall."

Vin took a deep breath and felt the heat rise on his face. He thought on Buck's words for a minute and inhaled them. He felt a warm strength inside, as they coursed through him and settled in deep. "I had me a box... inside ... where I buried all the bad stuff..." he paused and swallowed back the waver, "...ya helped me bust it open, Bucklin." He studied Buck's strong hands and then unleashed a killer smile. He drilled the dark blue eyes and drank in the winning Wilmington grin. "Bring on that scaly son-of-a-bitch," he spouted defiantly, jutting his chin out.

"Well alright!" Buck boomed, smiling and clasping Vin's offered forearm. He hauled the younger man up and slapped his back. "You best get some breakfast first. You're turnin' into a bag of bones," He teased, running his hand over Vin's abdomen.

"Cut that out..." Vin squirmed, "...dammit Buck..."

Buck released the protester as they approached the outskirts of town. He couldn't help notice that Vin was walking awkwardly. The smaller man was lagging behind and a slow scowl was forming. Buck couldn't resist and glanced back in sympathy.

"How 'bout I run ahead and see if that doctor is busy? He might have an ointment for your uh... delicate condition."

"Ya best mind yer own delicate condition," Vin tossed back, "and find a damn bathtub."

Unbeknownst to the two bantering friends, they were being observed. A figure in the shadows let a slow, cruel smile form.

"Small world..." he commented, eyeing his quarry. "No, not yet." He clamped a hand on the gun being raised next to him. "It's too crowded here. Let's see how this plays out."

Chris Larabee uncorked his canteen and took a healthy swig. The sun was sitting high, telling the leader that it was nearly noon. He'd slowed the pace of the trip, due to Vin's struggle. Despite his verbal protests, the younger man was having a hard time keeping up, thanks to the medicine he'd taken. The green eyes glanced back several feet to where Buck had stopped. The dark head was turned away, looking for Vin. Finally, the tracker's black horse came around the bend. The animal was walking slowly, as if not to disturb the snoozing body upon it. Chris started to turn Caesar around, but Buck shook his head and tossed his canteen.

"Find a spot ahead, we'll catch up," Buck tossed and turned back.

Chris caught the empty water vessel and took off. By the time Buck arrived, he'd have their lunch ready. Sandwiches, apples and oatmeal cookies, courtesy of the hotel. With any luck and the shortcut Vin mentioned, they'd be in Four Corners by nightfall. He found the river and led his sweating horse to drink. He found a flat rock several feet away and squatted. As he began filling the canteens, he thought on the party for Buck. He couldn't wait to see Wilmington's face when they had the reunion with some of their war comrades. He chuckled as he thought of the brave, dashing figure in the field. Buck had been every General's ideal soldier. He was brave, loyal, good with a gun and smart as hell. But typical of the mustached man, he downplayed his heroics and the awards he'd received. He claimed he only joined, because 'the ladies love a man in uniform'. The rapport of gunfire severed his thoughts.

He dropped the canteen and jerked his head up. He wheeled and headed for his horse, but a party of bullets altered his journey. Diving for cover behind a cluster of rocks, the gravel cut a path across his chin and jaw. The bullets redesigned the bark on the tree beside him. Self-preservation aside, his thoughts were on his two absent friends. He tried to gage the direction of the gunfire, but it seemed to be coming from three different areas.

"A goddamn turkey shoot..." He gritted, shoving bullets in his colt.

Meanwhile, back in Four Corners...

Having finished lunch, Ezra was headed to his room where a book of Shakespeare's sonnets was waiting. His jade eyes absentmindedly found the empty rocker by Mrs. Travis's office. His handsome face broke into a small smile. He almost heard the raspy drawl and wry Tanner comment as he passed by. The Texan had a sharp sense of humor and managed to convey his whimsies with few words. It was more of the way they were said and the devilish blue eyes. He was nearly home free, when a deep voice boomed behind him.

"Ezra, hold up a minute."

"Why me?" He glanced skyward and shook his head. "Yes, Mr. Sanchez..." He turned and sobered at the concerned face. "Is something amiss?"

"I hope not," Josiah sighed and glanced around. "Where's J.D. and Nate?"

"J.D. is entertaining the lovely Miss Wells at a riverside picnic. Nathan is checking on Mrs. Jenkins. What has happened?"

"Sheriff Stewart wired from Salerno. It might be nothing, but..." the preacher paused and pulled the wire out. He handed it to the gambler and watched the skillful mind working.

"I'll leave word at the clinic and meet you at the stable." Ezra handed the note back. "You leave this in our youthful sheriff's office. He's an hour in the other direction and we'll lose time backtracking."

"Yeah." Josiah sighed. "I sure hope it's a coincidence," he said of the contents in the telegraph.

"I'm afraid I don't share your optimism," Ezra tensed, "their luck doesn't run that way," he noted of their missing friends.

"You okay?" Buck shouted, kissing the ground as a hail of bullets sailed by. "Vin... Vin dammit answer me!" All he could see was a few inches of tan pants and the worn tracker's boots. A cluster of high grass hid the rest of the body.

Vin rolled onto his back and pulled out his mare's leg. He wheezed heavily and his ragged breaths were keeping perfect time with his pounding head. His fingers fumbled, but managed to load cartridges into every chamber of his prized gun.He glanced at the horses, but they had already disappeared, taking the rifles and ammunition with them.

"Shit..." He swore of the sudden attack that sent them flying for cover.

"Vin?" Buck's head rose a precarious few inches as the curse went airborne. "What kind of 'shit' was that? The pissed off kind or the bleeding kind?" He inquired on the tracker's health, worried about a bullet wound.

Vin rolled back onto his belly and crawled slowly through the high brush. He wasn't far from Buck, but before he could reply, a deafening silence fell. Then came a lethal warning.

"Usted es muerto un hombre!"

"Huh?" Buck squinted, trying to place the voice. "...a dead man?"

"Le cortaré del vientre a las bolas, Wilmington," the angry, Spanish accent warned, punctuating the issue with a flurry of bullets.


"Wilmington?" the young, blond bounty hunter grunted, keeping his body on the ground. "Cody, who the hell are those guys?"

"I don't know." The senior partner squinted, his keen eyes counting the heavily armed group. "They're Mexican, well armed and riding good horses." He eyed the leader, tall and distinguished, well hidden from the fire fall. His expensive clothing bespoke breeding and wealth. The patrician features were familiar, but the face was very young, twenty perhaps or a little older. Suddenly, he mentally aged the boy, adding graying hair and a slim mustache. "Jesus... " he hissed, sliding back down. They were caught between the two parties, on a sloping hill. Having ridden ahead to pick off the unsuspecting trio of gunslingers, their quiet plan had been rudely interrupted by the deadliest gang in Mexico.


"Los raiders del diablo," he announced, watching the boy's eyes widen.

"What are we waiting for?" Willis, his young protege demanded, "Let's ride."

"Not so fast," Cody interjected, grabbing the boy's arm. "I don't care how we haul Tanner's ass back to Texas. Dead or alive, it don't matter none."

"But Cody, the devil's raiders..." he fretted of the legendary bloodthirsty gang.

"No buts about it, Kid," The fortyish hunter grinned. "There's strength in numbers. They ain't interested in Tanner,they want that big guy with 'im. They're on our side."

"Goddammit, Buck," Larabee swore, returning the fire and eyeing the multiple gun barrels jutting out rudely from several locations. "Who the hell did you piss off?"

"Well?" Vin hissed, raising his head long enough to glare at the flustered prey.

"Uh... I... Jesus, Vin... I didn't have time..." Buck's eyes darted, then widened and he swallowed hard. The chilling words to the threat sailed by. His mind playing an image of being tied down and gutted.

"Who was she?" the sharpshooter demanded, picking off a sniper and wounding his partner.

"She?" Buck whispered, not able to see Tanner but knowing he was nearby. The older man sent several bullets in the direction of the closest outcrop and saw a body fall dead. Suddenly the soft body that had been almost too willing to accompany the handsome gringo caused his stomach to fall. The beautiful face and teasing mouth now turned him sour.

"Buck!" Vin growled, as he hat went sailing off. "I'd like t'know why my ass is gettin' shot the hell off..."

"Uh... Maria... Rosa... no..." he corrected, "Maria Rosita..."

"Not Alvarez..." Vin prayed outloud, casting an evil glare at the flustered gunman. He saw the head drop and the handsome face pale. "Fuck!" He slammed his fist on the ground.

"What?" Buck hissed, seeing sky blue death rays bearing down on him.

"Long dark hair, gray eyes," he inquired of the beautiful girl.

"You know her?" Buck frowned and flipped his gun chamber open.

"Maria Rosita Alvarez!" Vin growled, letting his eyes show his rage. "How could ya?"

"I don't get..." Buck paused and his face paled. He slumped back against the tree and narrowly missed having a third eye planted in the middle of his forehead. "Oh God..."

"Get yer fuckin' head down!" Vin screamed, crawling quickly and shoving Buck hard.

"I'm sorry, Vin. I didn't know..." Buck pleaded. "She never said her last name. Jesus, Vin, you gotta believe me." He turned back, but the tracker was gone.

"This is it," Chris warned himself. "I'm gettin' too old for these fuckin' shotgun receptions. Goddamn, no-account fool." He grunted of Wilmington.

"Maria Rosita Alvarez."

"Shit!" Chris jumped as Vin silently appeared next to him. "Jesus, Vin, you gotta quit doing that!"

"Before ya keel over of a heart attack," Vin grunted, "Alvarez, ring a bell?"

"Don Alfredo?" Chris returned and saw the head nod. The name alone struck fear in the staunchest heart. The fifty-year old patron owned huge chunks of Mexico and made his fortune, forming the 'devil's raiders' as a young man. They successfully robbed and pillaged most of the border towns in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Now his sons ran the 'patrols' and his only daughter, a willful beauty who loved to incur the old man's wrath, had lured Buck into her web. "We're fucked Vin."

"I'm goin' high," the Texan decided, "...get a head count."

"Keep your head down," Chris called after him. "Buck... cover..."

The two moved as one, from opposite sides of the area. Blasting away with enough firepower to ensure Vin's safe passage up the tree nearby. Chris stopped to reload and heard a grunt. His head jerked to the tree, but he couldn't see Vin. His heart was hammering and he tried to skirt the area underneath, but couldn't see clearly.

"...five or six maybe... rest of 'em is dead."

"Jesus Christ Vin!" Chris growled and shoved the Texan's head down. "Fuckin' warn me..."

Vin's lips turned up briefly as he read the concern in the green-eyed glare. "...didn't know ya cared, Cowboy." He stared away over to where Buck was lying and mouthed the question.

Buck saw Vin inquire on his rounds. He opened his gun and frowned. He raised his right hand, extending five fingers. He saw Vin nod and drop back out of sight.

"Buck's almost out... I'm dry... how many?"

"Six..." Chris counted the loaded chamber. "We need a distraction."

"That's m'middle name." Vin whispered. "Ya keep 'em busy, I'll get behind 'em. I'll take out that sniper and get his gun, then we'll have 'em pinned in."

"Take him out? With what - a cannon?" Chris hissed, eyeing the quarry perched atop a rock. "or your good looks? Did you see that guy? He's over six-five and at least two-hundred-and-fifty-pounds."

"Compared t'them three wildcats I tangled with last night," Vin tossed, as he got ready to go, "this here's a piece o'cake."

"Get your scrawny ass down!" Chris bellowed as the Texan haphazardly made his way through the brush. He nodded to Buck and they began to fire, making every shot count. Chris's eyes were riveted to the mountainous sniper. Suddenly, he saw the burly guard turn and fire.

"No!" He cried out, dodging a bullet and sneering. Ignoring the danger, he stood and fired. With one shot, he took down the large sniper. He dove for cover behind a thicket of brush and saw Wilmington rise.

Buck was on the other side and saw Vin fall to his knees. What the wounded sharpshooter couldn't see was a gun peeking out of the brush. "Vin's hit!" Buck wheeled and moved, "I'm going for him."

"Buck wait a minute!" Chris shouted, eyeing the terrain. His hair stood on end and he turned back. He got a bad feeling, despite the bodies littered on the ground. He saw a blond head and the edge of a barrel peeping out from the thrush. efore he could even utter a warning, the shot rang out. He watched in sickening horror and his insides turned to ice as Buck jerked and spun. The bullet slammed into his head, sending a mask of blood downward. He dropped without a sound, covering Vin's body with his own.

"NO!" Chris screamed and charged the brush.

Meanwhile, back in Four Corners

"Nathan! Nathan!"

"J.D., you ain't gotta holler," the healer imparted, stepping off the Jenkins porch. "I ain't deaf yet. What's wrong?"

"I got back from..." J.D. paused and blushed, "Well, after I left Casey at Mrs. Potters, I found this on my desk. Ezra and Josiah are headed after 'em."

Nathan read the wire from the lawman in Salerno, which warned of the well-known Mexican raiders. A band of the bloodthirsty gang rode out shortly after the Four Corners peacemakers left. Rumor around the Saloon was that they were on the hunt for a 'gringo'. The second note was from Ezra.

"That was at the clinic," J.D. said of Standish's note.

"I got a bad feeling." Nate folded the note and tucked it in his pocket. "Did you get a hold of George and Tom?"

"Yeah, they'll watch town until we get back. I wired the Judge too."

"Let me get my bag," the healer said, unable to shake the cold feeling of doom that settled in his gut.

His legs seemed like lead as they propelled him forward. His keen eyes darted and caught movement. He saw Vin's boot scuffing, trapped under Buck's lifeless protective shield. Strangely, he felt no pain or rage. The coldness in him was too familiar, rising again as someone he cared for deeply was stolen from him. He saw the young shooters arm rise, seeking out the small piece of Vin's face that was showing. With a primal cry, he sprung.

Part 5

His gun was empty, but he didn't need it. He wanted to use his hands, to squeeze the last breath from the murderer. The young bounty hunter never saw what hit him. He was fumbling to reload when Chris slammed into him. The gun went off and the boy's eye's widened. With a grunt, Chris shoved the body away. He eyed the young boy and felt his gut clench. Something was still wrong. The kid was too green to be out here alone. He wasn't a part of the Alvarez gang.

Something was crushing him and he couldn't breathe. He tried but only thin threads of oxygen were getting through. His muddled mind tried to make sense things. He shuffled his legs as the internal orders came down. Get up... move... danger... get up... move... danger. He tried to push off the oppressive weight without success. A white-hot pain shot up his leg and exploded, sending his muffled cry airborne into a pile of dirt. He pushed his face from the dirt and spit out a mouthful of blood. His eyes darted, seeing obscured images of bodies lying nearby. Wetness. Wetness on his face. Blood? His blood? No. Who's then? The last few minutes were replayed painfully and slowly. Climbing the rock, almost there, aiming to take out the brute's knees. Then a shot and his leg crumbling. A sneering smile as a rifle was aimed at his head. Then a body slam and ...

"Buck!" he hissed, shoving hard, despite the burning pain the movement produced. He crawled over and hitched himself up on his elbows. He swallowed hard at the large amount of blood covering Buck's face. He felt his chest constrict as a trembling hand made it's way towards the scarlet cheek. "Bucklin..." he rasped painfully, fumbling fingers dancing jaggedly on the only flesh not covered in blood, near Buck's neck. His sigh of relief was audible and sent airborne along with a prayer. He lowered his face over Buck's mouth and nose and felt the warm breath, steady and regular. He managed to get to his knees and gently turn the rogue's head. He carefully parted the sticky reddish hair and found a deep wound. So much blood... he fumbled for his kerchief, hoping to stem the flow. He dropped the cloth twice and shirked his coat off. He folded it carefully and rested Buck's head on it. He reached for the scarf again, before being shoved hard and toppling over.

Chris rose on unsteady legs and walked in a daze towards the body of Buck Wilmington. He saw Vin kneeling over the still form and shoved him aside. He picked up Buck and pulled him close, embracing him in death. He closed his eyes and denied the tears that burned behind pale lids. He rocked slightly and ran his hands through the sticky hair. Buck, whose strong hands and open heart were second to none. Buck whose fearless, stealth moves saved him during the Civil War countless times and how many times since. Buck, whose warm voice, guiding hand and booming laughter were now lost to him forever. The hole inside him was jagged, raw and unmendable. "Fuckin' hard-headed hero," he choked, "didn't let me say goodbye..."

Vin was on his back eyeing the moving scene from an odd angle. He read the tortured Larabee features all too well and acted accordingly. Rolling over and sitting up, he rested a hand on Chris's hunched, tense arm.

"I hate t'bust up yer pretty eulogy," he rasped, "But we ain't got nobody t'bury t'day."

"What?" Chris jerked and let Buck's body fall back. He gently lowered the still form and found the jugular. "Shit... Vin, get me a canteen and some whiskey," he ordered, ripping off his bandana and parting the soggy dark hair. "It's a nasty fucker... shit, we need Nate," he spat and pressed the cloth. "Move Vin!"

Vin took a deep breath and managed to stand. He froze for a second, his damaged right leg hovering a few inches above the ground. With great trepidation, he lowered it. He let out his breath, it supported him, it wasn't broken. He fingered the soggy, meaty part of his thigh and eyed the horses. They were only several yards away, but it seemed like miles. His slow gait sent a stream of blood into his pants with every agonizing step. By the time he reached the closest horse, his shirt was soaked in sweat and his face drenched. He slumped over the saddle resting his face and took several breaths. Then a sneezing fit made an unprompted appearance and took the little breath away he'd stored. Eyes closed, he fumbled for the canteen and shook it. He threw it over his shoulder and made his way to the next horse.

"What the hell is taking so long?" Chris muttered, his scorching eyes watching the cloth he was pressing to Buck's wound become sodden. He tossed it away and picked up Vin's discarded kerchief. He eyed the tracker and frowned, watching the head bob among the horses. "Vin, get your ass in gear!" He screamed, annoyed and worried at the same time. He eyed the dead body nearest him and quickly shed the man of his white cotton shirt. Tearing it furiously, he made a pile of bandages. He picked up the gun lying by the body and checked - three bullets. He shoved it in his waistband and knelt over Buck again. It was so strange to see the active, boisterous Wilmington, so still and unmoving. He didn't like it, not one bit.

Vin felt like telling the surly leader where he could stick his canteen, but he knew Chris was worried about Buck. From the saddlebag, he shoved a box of cartridges and a knife in his waistband. He slid the rifle from the scabbard and used it as a cane. He took a deep breath and grabbed the bottle of whiskey. Turning, he made the slow walk back to where Buck lie bleeding. Chris's face was as white as the cloth strips he held. He tossed the canteen, it landed with a thud at Buck's shoulder.

Chris picked up the canteen and poured some water over Buck's wound. He gently dabbed at the deep wound and snapped his fingers. The bottle slid over his shoulder and he took it. He cast a brief glance backwards and saw a pile of guns being formed. Vin was shopping. Uncorking the whiskey bottle with his teeth, he poured the burning liquid over the wound. Buck cried out, but never woke and Chris quickly bandaged the damaged head. He poured more water onto Buck's face and gently washed the blood away.

"Chris, look out!"

Chris rolled, spun and fired, acting on instinct from the voice he trusted like no other. He watched a body topple from a rocky crevice and jogged over. He toed the shoulder, before turning over the body. The chest still rose and fell, as the scarlet blossom formed. Another wound scored the attacker's arm. He heard a cacophony of sneezes and felt Vin's ragged breathing trace his neck.

"Damn." Vin sneezed and wheezed, "Cody fuckin' Peterson."

"Interesting middle name," Chris deadpanned, "Old friend?"

"Hell no," Vin didn't hide his disgust. Peterson had always been a shoot first hunter, too many innocent men died by his hand. "Ain't nobody gonna cry over his bones. That's one tough hombre. He's been chasin' me fer years."

Chris heard the pregnant pause and turned, watching the large blue eyes fill with rage. He knew the sudden silence meant the discussion was closed. "He ain't dead yet," Chris pressed his toe into the bloody chest and the man moaned. "I don't think he'll bother us. I'm gonna..." he paused as his side vision caught movement."Vin!" he lunged and caught the younger man whose legs buckled. "Were you hit?" he asked and saw the large scarlet mass on the tan thigh of the pants. "Goddammit Vin," he swore and half-carried the wheezing body back to where Buck was lying. "Why didn't you say something?" He growled, cringing at his verbal abuse of thetracker's slow progress with the canteen.

"Ya didn't ask?" Vin hedged, trying to remove the scowl.

"Don't be a smartass." Chris pushed the tracker down and began ripping the fabric off. His mind saw Vin being shoved by Buck, and Buck covering him with his body. He jerked the fabric and remained lost in thought, until a soft voice and sticky fingers on his hand halted him.

"Ya mind leavin' the skin on m'leg..."

Chris sighed and sat back, scratched his head and ran a weary hand over his face. A gentle tug on his sleeve caused him to turn.

"It didn't hurt so much..." Vin offered, not liking the quiet figure's pinched, pale features.

"Vin, your head could be hanging by a thread and you'd never complain." Chris smiled a little. "You're a Tanner," he complimented, eyeing the runny nose, bloodshot eyes and sneezing body. "Picture of health, too," he teased and took the canteen. He poured water over the sticky fabric and cut the soggy cloth away.

Vin rolled sideways and lifted his leg, biting back a cry as Chris probed the wound. His movement sent him next to Buck's face. He grabbed the still, broad shoulder and squeezed hard. "Hang in there Buck," he coughed, flinching at the Larabee 'delicate' touch. "Yer lucky ya ain't awake. Nate don't have nothin' t'worry about... not with them hands."

"Shut up Tanner," Chris ordered, smacking the back of the mangy head lightly. "It went through, but it took a good hunk of your muscle. He poured water over both wounds and then reached for the bottle. "Take a sip," he ordered and waited until Vin nodded. He saw Vin gripping Buck's forearm smiled. Buck didn't know how far his power extended. He flinched when Vin's silent cry erupted. He would have preferred a curse or cry, not the stifled hiss that went airborne. He quickly wrapped the leg and tied off a knot. He helped Vin sit up and saw the serious eyes studying him.

"Here, ya need this more than I do," Vin said, eyeing the pale, pinched features. "Ya best get movin', we got trouble comin'."

"How so?" Chris took a long swig and waited.

"Right when I was gonna take out that sniper's knees, somebody shot me. I went down on m'knees and before Buck hit me, I seen 'im. Marco Alvarez, the Don's youngest son. Buck shot him... I seen his guard pick 'im up and take off. Chris, that old man finds out we killed his son..."

"We're fucked again..." Chris nodded, "How far away is their ranch?"

"Just over the border, unless they're hold up closer. But he's totin' a body, ridin' slow. Plus, ya got that horse," he nodded to the Golden Palomino grazing nearby. "He's a runner... that's Alvarez's horse. Ya take that cutoff we passed about two miles back, ya should catch 'im good."

Chris stood and eyed the horizon and then the flushed face of the Texan. Vin was reclining, his eyes closed. He squatted and found his hand slapped away.

"Leave me be... it's warm runnin' around... 'specially when ya got a damn grouch barkin' at ya."

"You got a fever comin' Vin..."

"I can take care of 'im." Vin leveled, sitting up straight and drilling the concerned green eyes. He rested one hand on Buck's shoulder and stared at the leader hard. "We got no choice Chris."

Chris eyed the bloodshot eyes and wheezing body of the valiant guard. Vin was right, they didn't have any choice. What if Alvarez had a camp nearby? He stood and began his chores. His lean strides quickly found bedrolls, food, water and ammo. He eased Buck onto a bedroll under the shade of a nearby tree. He covered the still body and lifted the bandaged-hero's head. His stomach lurched at the amount of blood coloring the hide coat clutched in the tracker's hands. Vin placed his treasured jacket, folded into a pillow, under it. The canteens, whiskey and food were nearby. Vin had a rifle cradled in one arm, a pistol in his waistband and a knife there too. Chris armed the horse with what he needed, then turned back. He squatted beside the ailing Texan and cast a sorrowful smile. The burst of sneezes and bleary eyes blinking at him, made him wince.

"Dammit Vin," he teased, "quit sneezing' at me. I don't need your sorry-assed Tanner cold."

"Too late." Vin tossed back, taking the large cloth Chris offered and blowing his nose. "I sneezed on ya whilst ya were sleepin' last night."

"You're full of shit." Chris drilled. He turned to Buck and rested his hand against the pale face. He let one callused thumb stroke the proud cheekbone. His breath caught at just how close he came to losing this special man.

"Chris..." Vin said softly. He knew how hard it was for the leader to leave.

"Yeah, I know..." Chris returned, as they locked forearms. Chris let the grip linger, squeezing Vin's arm until the younger man yelped. He sent all his faith in that grip and the long gaze they shared. He turned quickly and left, vaulting onto the Palomino. He turned once and studied the bloody pair of brothers he was leaving behind. Vin was resting his head against the tree, his labored breathing obvious in the forced movement of the shirt. As if sensing him, Vin lifted his head and the wind took his hair back. He managed a smile and nodded.

"Watch yer back, Cowboy."

"Wish I was watching yours."

Chris saw Vin smile and toss his head, hearing the silent call. The uncanny communication sometimes left both of them at a loss. He turned and rode like the devil, the wind slapping his face.

Vin watched until Chris was a black speck. He shook the canteen and frowned. He was too thirsty, that wasn't good. He wet a cloth and wiped Buck's face, resting the cloth across his brow. He blinked hard and pulled the rifle closer, willing himself to stay awake

The minutes slid into each other and the sun suddenly became an unarmed enemy. Buck needed him... Chris was depending on him. Those were the last thoughts he had as his eyes rolled back and he slid bonelessly into the black void.

The blackness was endless and frightening. He had no definition, form or body. He felt only coldness and pain. An unrelenting agonizing pain that pulsated in his head without remorse. The torture was like none he'd ever encountered. A red, vibrant searing shard of agony was ripping through his brain. Every movement brought new waves of orange-red distress. He felt himself being propelled forward at an unrelenting speed. His breath caught and the screaming in his ears increased, forcing his eyes open. He gasped and eyed the blue sky in confusion. For several minutes, he didn't move. He felt sure his head was separated from his body, the pain was that bad. He wiggled his fingers and moved his legs. He closed his eyes and let his hand rest on his face. His fingers found the bulky bandage. His fuzzy mind couldn't reason beyond the pain slamming into him. Sighing heavily, he turned his face and saw dead bodies, Mexican bodies. Mexican bodies? What the hell happened? He thought back, pushing through the fuzziness and remembered... nothing. He rolled painfully and crawled away, leaving the blankets behind him. He managed to travel slowly, covering several feet, when his stomach rebelled. He vomited until the dry heaves stabbed his chest. He collapsed, too weak to move. He eyed a canteen nearby and crawled painfully to it.

The aged bounty hunter was dying. The coldness he felt went straight to his bones. He felt Death hovering nearby, her cold lips caressing him. He eyed the bodies nearby and squinted. Tanner had fallen over awhile ago, and had yet to move. But the other guy... Wilmington... he was finally moving. He watched the mustached-man rouse and retch. He had been a student of human nature all his life, it had saved his hide, until today. He read the tall man easily and felt a stir inside. He saw the confused face studying the landscape, bodies and then it happened. Cody stared at Tanner's young face and smiled cruelly. The plan unfolded and gave him a painful smile. He coughed up blood and felt his insides slipping through his fingers, as he made his final vow.

"If I'm goin' to hell, Boy," he promised, "you're goin' with me."

Buck crawled to each body, checking for life, but all of them were dead. More confusion rained down. By his eye, there were at least ten dead men. What the hell happened? He laid back and rested as the world flew around him and sweat poured freely, soaking his face and shirt. He blinked several times and shook his head, trying to rid the blurry landscape. His face screwed up and he eyed another body near where he woke up. Gasping heavily, he crawled over and studied the well-armed young man. He was lying on his stomach, with a rifle under him. Buck turned him over and peered intently at the flushed face of the long-haired stranger. He eyed the bloody thigh and shook his head again, coming up blank. He took the rifle and tossed it away, then took the gun and knife too. He turned the face again, holding the strong jaw while staring at the unconscious man. He cocked his head, frowned and shook it, letting the confusion become his mask.

Cody's smile broadened. Wilmington's head injury had him addled, and it was time to make his move. His years of hunting made him an expert at reading people. This young man had no idea where he was or what happened. He was dying anyway, he had nothing to lose.

"Buck! Buck!" He cried out, reaching a bloody hand.

"Huh?" Buck dropped the stranger's head and turned. Another wounded gunman was beckoning. He rose to his knees, then braced himself and stood. "Shit..." he hissed as the landscape whirled around him. He closed his eyes and waited, until the world slowed and he felt stable. He moved slowly, keeping the gun trained on the dying man. The pink intestines peeking through the man's hands told him the wound was fatal. He knelt down and offered the canteen, but the man denied it.

"No time... Buddy... Glad you're okay. You had me worried."

"Who the hell are you?"

"Cody Peterson." he offered and felt an inner thrill, when the face remained blank.

"Should that mean something to me?"

"Hell, yeah. We're both trackin' that murderin' bastard."

"What murdering bastard?" Buck asked, eyeing the bloodless face. The man was in his mid-forties, well built and his eyes were sharp.


"Tanner?" Buck frowned, then glanced backwards. "That kid?"

"Kid? Hell, he's a killer." Cody pressed on, twisting the knife. "I've been huntin' him for sometime."

"Hunting?" Buck frowned, his hand reaching for his heart. Where was it? "I ain't no hunter Mister, I'm a marshal, out of Abilene."

"Yeah... I know that, Buck." He fumbled badly. This was even better than he thought, a fucking lawman! "Look, if you don't believe me, I got papers on him. In my horse... the chestnut with the blaze, just beyond them trees."

Buck made no move to find the papers. He sat down as a wave of nausea threatened. The pain was slamming into his head full force and he felt himself weakening. He clutched his head and hissed as the wave roared through. Sighing, he eyed the dead Mexican nearby and then the horse behind him. The brand stung his eyes, an 'A' with a downward arrow.

"I know that brand..." He mumbled, eyeing the sun slung low, hovering over the horizon beyond the horse.

"Hell, who doesn't," Cody gritted, feeling himself fading. "Alvarez gang... we got caught in the middle of a... uh... a raid I guess. Tanner was heading north, I was trailin' him. You've been after him for months. You can't remember?" He paused for effect and proceeded, "Hell, he killed a friend of yours, a farmer named Kincaid."

"No." Buck sighed, shaking his head. What did he remember? A silver badge, a busy town, apple tarts with his coffee, a desk in the office in front of the jail cell, dinner with Mary Kate, Slim Watson behind the bar... and a greenhorn deputy all of eighteen. His heart hammered and he riveted his head.

"Danny?" Buck said automatically, eyeing the ground for his deputy. Damn kid was always getting into trouble. "Where'd he go?"


"My deputy, Danny Whitehorse."

"He uh... rode for help. Alvarez's kid was killed, the guard took the body. The kid took care of you, then went after help. Listen Buck, I know we've had our run-ins, but Tanner is a cold-blooded killer. I'm dying... you take him to Texas and cash in. That five hundred will go a long way."

"Five hundred dollars?" Buck winced as the pain reached an agonizing crescendo. He clasped his head and cried out. When the wave stopped, he eyed the young man.

Cody read the question in the confused eyes next to him and acted. "He was just about to slit your throat with a knife." He took several shallow breaths and saw the doubt fading. "...keeled the hell over... Buck... get the poster... you'll see... my bag... go..."

Buck's leaden legs carried him to the horse and his fumbling fingers drew out the yellow poster. He unfolded it and saw the likeness and scanned the words. He took the rope that was on the saddlehorn as well. He staggered to Tanner's side and sat down hard. He studied the face carefully and sighed again. The poster confirmed Cody's story, the silent stranger was a murderer. He turned the young man over and cut a length of rope. He tied his hands tightly behind his back and left him on his side. As he began searching the body for more weapons, the would-be-convict moved.

Vin felt someone near and forced his eyes open. A cough rattled from deep within his chest and he tried to cover his mouth. "What the hell?" he croaked, his face pressed into the dirt. His eyes tore across the terrain to Cody Peterson, who hadn't moved. The gray-blue eyes were leering at him and the smile on the dying man's lips gave Vin a chill. Buck? He rolled and tried to get up, only to be slammed back down.

"Save your strength, Son, we got a long ride ahead."

"Buck?" Vin croaked. "Yer okay? Hell, I thought ya was dead. ntie me... that devil musta..."

"Shut up Tanner. It won't work. The Marshall knows who you are. I might be dying, but you're not far behind."

Vin's brows furrowed as he absorbed Peterson's words. The Marshal? His blue eyes darted back and forth as he recalled Buck's tales of his past days wearing a badge. His tenure as a sheriff in... "Shit..." he hissed. "Texas..."

"Yeah, that's where we're headed." Buck confirmed, mistaking Vin's thought. "This is a real good likeness." He squatted and unfolded the wanted poster.

Vin's heart sank with a sickening thud. How could this be possible? Talk to Buck... make him understand. Stall until Chris gets back. "Can I sit up?"

"Huh?" Buck frowned, appraising the injured body. "Well, okay." He pulled the lean man up and rested him against the tree. His hand found the skin hot to the touch. He picked up the canteen at Tanner's hip and uncorked it. He held it to the fevered man's lips and let him drink. He felt his strength ebbing badly. He eyed the unfamiliar terrain and frowned.

"He's lying, Buck." Vin said softly. "He's a bounty hunter, he's..."

"I know who he is," Buck defended hotly. "...and I know who the hell you are too. This poster confirms his story."

"I was framed, I told ya that. Eli Joe set me up in Tuscosa. Buck, look at me. I'm Vin Tanner. I'm yer friend. Chris will straighten this out when he gets back."

"Chris!" Buck jerked back and stared at the light blue eyes, which were trained on him. They didn't blink or turn away. They bore into him, like azure beams of fire.

"Yeah... Chris Larabee. We was ridin' back from Salerno. Alvarez's men jumped us..."

"Chris... Chris..." Buck shook his head. He hadn't seen Chris in six months or more. He blinked and cocked his head, trying to rid the pain and confusion. Hoping desperately that the haze would fade and his reasoning would return. Although conscious, he remained walking through clouds, unsure and unsteady. Could Chris be Tanner's partner? Had he turned back into the violent man who'd haunted towns after his soul was stolen? He face was an open book, and the cunning killer didn't waste any time.

"He's lying Buck." Cody coughed. "He was the one ridin' from Salerno. You almost caught him, too. Until he tried blowin' your head off. Some sharpshooter... he missed. That's how you got plugged."

"Yer the lyin' sac o'shit, Peterson. I shouldda killed ya in Tucson." Vin growled, getting on knees and lunging. Buck grabbed him and sat him down hard.

"See, I told you Buck, he's a killer." Cody protested, grinning at Vin evilly behind Buck's back. "Tortured that friend of yours before he offed him, made it slow and painful." This only led Vin to growl and lunge again. Buck cuffed him and he fell back, coughing.

"How'd he know about Chris?" Buck stood, standing between the two men, vying for his attention.

"You were outta your head. After the deputy left, you started talkin' and carryin' on, without wakin' up. Like bad dreams or somethin'."

"Buck, don't do this." Vin wheezed. His head was pounding and he eyed his injured friend carefully. Buck needed a doctor. The pain-hazed dark blue eyes were black and the face pinched. If Buck keeled off a horse before Chris got back... "Buck, ya can't ride a horse, yer hurt. We'll stay until Chris gets back."

"It's a trick Buck. Some mean lookin' blond fella is his partner, eyes like green glass. They split up leaving town, to trick you. He's gunnin' for you, Buck. You don't let out now and you'll be vulture bait. Fanning is the nearest town, about ten miles east," the sly professional lied. Buck Wilmington had no idea where he was or what merciless tyrant ran the town of Fanning. He managed to contain a grin, inwardly rejoicing. "From there it's only a couple days ride into Texas. You can leave Tanner in the jail and get a doc to check you out." Cody hissed, watching the tall man's features carefully. He saw the slight nod and got his wish. Tanner sank back defeated, also seeing the decision spelling out his fate.

"Yeah... my head's killing me." Buck mumbled, covering his face on one hand. There was no word to describe the pain slamming into him. He was feeling worse by the minute. If Danny didn't get back, and even if Tanner's partner didn't show up, the sun would do him in. Cody's words filled him with a cold fear. Mean looking blond with eyes like green glass... that could be Chris Larabee. What harm could riding to Fanning do? He could stow Tanner in the jail there for a few days, just till he was better.Then he'd find Danny and they'd take him back to Texas together. The kid could use the money. "We'll head out. I'll send some wires from Fanning."

Cody watched Buck get two horses ready. Tanner hadn't moved and when Buck squatted over him, he made a final desperate act.

Vin weighed his options while Buck got the horses ready. He eyed his suffering friend carefully. Buck was barely able to walk and in a lot of pain. He saw the agony in Buck's face and knew he needed a doctor. But Vin didn't want to end up behind bars in an unfriendly town. It could be hours before Chris got back. He saw the doubt in Buck's face. The tall man believed Chris had gone bad and was a killer. Chris? He flicked his eyes at the horizon and a horrid thought entered his mind. What if Chris ran into trouble and wouldn't come back? Without medical help, both of them might die. He sighed and saved what little strength he had. Maybe if he got the upper hand, got his hands free and overpowered Buck. He could head back to Salerno and wire home. He closed his eyes and felt Buck approaching. A long bout of sneezes left him bleary-eyed and messy.

"Damn..." Buck frowned, eyeing the slimy face and backing up.

"Untie me... let me get cleaned up." Vin asked quietly, putting his worst, woeful, helpless look onto his face. "Hell, ya gotta gun and I've got a bad leg..."

Buck paused and knelt down, flipping the knife out. Vin nodded gratefully and rubbed his wrists, restoring circulation. He picked up the canteen and took a long draw. He found thecloth that he'd used to bath Buck's face and wet it. He wiped his face and blew his running nose. He took another drink and corked the canteen. He rose on unsteady legs and hissed as the fire in his leg erupted. He held his hands out to be retied and saw Buck come closer.

The move came so fast, Buck didn't know what hit him. He was on the ground, on his belly with Tanner on his back. "That wasn't a real smart move, Son. I'm not gonna forget that."

"Buck, listen to me..."

But Buck had a few moves of his own. He shot an elbow backwards and high, using the sharp intake of breath to flip the lighter man around. Both men were weak and the fight was a sorry one. Buck felt the world spinning around and fought to break free. His fist connected with the injured man's leg. Then he slammed a fist into Tanner's face. The sharp cry and body slumping told him he'd won. He untangled himself and spent several minutes waiting for the pain to subside and the world to stop spinning. He crawled several feet away and threw up the water he drank. After the dry heaves left him, it took him several minutes to get the strength to rise. Tanner was on his stomach and Buck nudged him this time, wary of the lightning fast moves. He knelt and tied him up again, then tossed him over the saddle, securing him.

That was the last image Cody Peterson had in this life. He didn't regret dying and the sight of Vin Tanner bound and being led to the noose, was a sweet one. He closed his eyes and felt a hand. He peeled one eye open and saw Wilmington kneeling. "Don't... wait... go..."

Buck closed the unseeing dead eyes and his knees buckled. The land began flying around at a record pace and his stomach lurched. He crawled a feet away and suffered the dry heaves in the tall thrush. He was too weak to move and spent several minutes just trying to stay awake. Finally he crawled back to the tree and found a canteen. He eyed the secured bounty, then relaxed and cleaned up. He'd rest a few minutes and then head to Texas, via Fanning.

Chris tracked the fleeing bandit through rough terrain and across a river. He urged the horse harder, needing to catch the bandit before he reached the Alvarez camp. The green eyes narrowed as the figure he'd kept his eye on during the pursuit slowed. He pulled back into a thicket of trees and watched carefully. The muscular Mexican slid from his horse and knelt by the front leg. Chris watched cautiously as he made his way to the water's edge, with a cloth in his hand. That was a break for the good guys and Chris felt his luck changing. The gunslinger eased off the Palomino and let him drink downstream. He crept carefully until he was within striking distance of the other man. Just as he raised his weapon, his weight shifted and a twig snapped under his boot.

Javiar Domingez had lightning quick reflexes.That is why Don Alfredo chose him to be Marco's lieutenant. He heard the stranger before the noise alerted him. His keen instincts had him on alert. So he wheeled and fired almost simultaneously with the branch breaking. He dove for cover under the guise of the rocky gathering by the water.

"Shit!" Chris hissed, ducking as a bullet flew past. He returned fire and for several minutes, they played a cat and mouse game. Chris paused to reload, but Javiar knew that, and made his move. He made a silent dash and fired, sending the black-clothed stranger's gun flying.

"Ugh!" Chris turned and felt the full impact of the bullet in his right arm. "Dammit..." He groaned and tried to brace himself. The muscular guard's body hit him full force. They grappled, rolling over and over, two sets of determined eyes full of fire. Chris's right wrist was throbbing and he winced as the pain shot up to his shoulder.

"Now you will die like the dog that you are, Gringo." Javiar said, pressing the pistol to the blond man's throat.

"I don't think so you fuckin' Mexican cockroach..." Chris gritted, pulling a knife from the strap on his knee and plunging it in the surprised attacker's throat.

He shoved the body off as the last death rattle came. He took the white scarf the fancy dresser was wearing and staggered to the river. He cleaned the entrance and exit wounds and doused it with whiskey. Using the pristine silk scarf, he tied a crude bandage. He flexed his fingers, wiggling them painfully. It wasn't broken, but totally useless, a bad sprain. Sighing, he eyed the horizon and recalled the cliffs he'd past several miles back. After securing both bodies to the bandit's horse, he deposited them over the cliff and set the horse free.

He was sweating, dizzy and disoriented, but determined. His jaw was clenched and his eyes full of flint. He urged the great horse back towards the area when his friends were waiting. He kicked the steed's belly and lay low, feeling the wind kiss his face. His arm throbbed and his eyes were blurry, but he was a man on a mission.

It was a strange dream... he was in a dark, cold river. Its murky waters were churning and pulling him down. The fierce wind bit into his skin and the driving rain felt like nails being pounded in the tender skin on his face. The heavy, woolen Union uniform was choking him. There was a bank on either side and equally distant. The water was up to his chin and rushing into his throat. He choked and sputtered, eyeing the muddy land to his right. His horse was there waiting. There was no rain or wind and he started to swim. Then he heard someone calling him. He turned to the other bank and saw a group of blues, not from his unit. How did they know him? He couldn't see the faces, but there were at least half a dozen. They were yelling at him, beckoning him to come. They needed him... wanted him. He didn't know what to do, the river slammed into him, pulling him down into its ravenous belly.


Buck rolled over and dissolved into a coughing fit. He was sweating profusely and shaking all over. What a nightmare. It took several minutes and dumping the rest of the canteen into his mouth and on his face to prompt him. He didn't know how long he was out and forced his leaden legs to move. He didn't want to be lost out here with a head injury at night. Fanning couldn't come soon enough. His vision was fuzzy and his head felt like a red-hot poker was shoved through his brain. He rose on unsteady legs and wobbled over to check on the prisoner. The young man was still unconscious mand wheezing heavily. Buck packed the horse and was ready to leave, when he heard a distant shout.

Chris recognized the landscape and urged his mount onward. From a distance, he saw a body slung over a saddle and another standing. His heart sank and his eyes were filled with dread. There was no mistaking the tall man in the tan coat. Buck was ready to mount a horse. He'd never leave Vin... unless. No, it couldn't be... but the angle of the body suggested otherwise. As he drew closer, he saw the long hair hanging limply, covering the face. Vin wasn't moving and was tied down. What the hell had happened? The Texan wasn't that bad off when he left. His heart was pounding faster than the large horse's hooves.

"Cody 'fuckin' Peterson," he screamed at the cruel sky. That was the only answer. The killer must have somehow taken Vin out. He'd left his best friend to die alone. Buck was standing and able to ride. A part of him would was thankful and relieved, but he was so wounded at losing Vin that he was numb. He saw the leg in the stirrup and called out.


Buck turned and eyed the rapidly approaching horse. He raised his rifle and cocked it. His mouth grew dry, his heart was thumping and his eyes were guarded. He knew the rider as well as he knew himself. Nearly ten years together did that to a relationship. But Cody's words and the murderer's knowledge of his former friend, left him wary. He recalled all to well the demon Chris turned into after Sara and Adam died earlier this year. Cold eyes... a killer's eyes... endless gunfights in nameless towns left bodies strewn. He eyed the odd angleof Chris on the horse and recognized an injury. His gun arm was dead... that was a relief, since nobody could outdraw greased lightning. Strangely, the pale face was full of emotion and the eyes were green fire, not glass. Buck drew the rifle up and gave fair warning.

"That's far enough Chris."

Chris didn't hear Buck or see the rifle. All he saw was the tracker's lifeless body. His heart was shattered and he slid from the horse. He never hesitated and nearly didn't recognize his own voice when it slid by his tense lips.

"Vin!" His left hand gripped the side of the stilled face, dangling against the side of the horse. He was still warm. "Fuck... " he swore, realizing the end had just come. He dropped his head and rested his hand against the lean sharpshooter's back. He sighed deeply, letting his fingers trail down to the neck and through the wavy hair. "Jesus, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have left you..."

Buck kept the gun drawn on his former friend. He eyed Cody's dead body and the bounty hunter's words came back to him. That Chris and Tanner had split up leaving town. What shocked him was the raw emotion in Larabee's voice and the gentle hand stroking the prisoner's head. It was clear that the younger man meant something to Chris.

"Been awhile, Chris..." he offered coldly.

"What?" Buck's strange choice of words cut through his red haze. But before he could reply, he noticed Vin was bound hand and foot. What the hell was going on? A rage built inside him. Vin didn't deserve to be tied up like a dog. They'd toted bodies before, wrapped up with some amount of respect. As he turned to confront the other man, something happened that turned his blood to ice. His fingers brushed Vin's throat and felt the blood pulsing through his veins. The Texan wasn't dead.

"What the hell are you doing?" Chris screamed, fumbling for his knife with his left hand. "You got him tied up like a fuckin' dog. Jesus Christ, Buck!" he gritted.

"That's far enough, Chris," Buck warned, seeing the silver glint of the blade as it gripped Tanner's wrists. "Drop that knife. Old friend or not, I'm not letting you take him."

"Take him?" Chris turned gripping the knife awkwardly in his left hand. He stood in front on Vin's body, protecting his vulnerable friend. onfusion rained down on him, until he saw Buck's eyes. All the warmth that normally lived in the dark blue Wilmington eyes was gone. Twin cold beacons bore into him, dark and totally void of emotion.

"Yeah..." Buck nodded, "To Texas, he's wanted for murder."

Chris rocked back on his heels, stunned into silence by the force and intent of Wilmington's words. He eyed the bloody face and saw the deadly intent. Buck was serious. He recalled all to well the deep graze and shifted his feet. The head injury was more serious than he could have imagined. He couldn't draw on Buck, and yet he couldn't leave him take Vin. What would Solomon do? What a choice. He dropped his head to formulate some kind of plan.

"Move away from him, Chris. I know about you two."

"Huh?" Chris cocked his head. "Look Buck, it's been a rough day. You damn near got your head blown off. Now I'm thinking that shot took some of your brains when it hit you. Vin's hurt... you're hurt... I'm hurt." He paused, not liking the stark coldness in the dark blue eyes facing him. His name was Buck Wilmington, but he felt like a stranger.

"Back away, now..." Buck menaced. "I gotta a job to do, I'm taking him to..."

"You're not taking him anywhere." Chris's instinct spilled the words before his logic could interfere and change the lethal tone.

Buck never flinched. It was easy to see by Chris's body language, he'd made his choice. The kid was his partner all right and Larabee would do anything to protect him. Even gripping the knife in his left hand, he was ready to kill. "... and drop that knife."

Chris leveled his shoulders and stared hard into Buck's eyes. There was only about six feet between them. He couldn't rush Buck, even wounded, Buck had the upper hand... and a firm grip on the rifle. One mistake and he'd be holding his intestines or a misfire would take Vin's head off. Buck's fingers were curled tightly on the gun, the eyes full of flint and the face a cold mask. From where his left hand sat by his hip, Chris could feel Vin's warm breath dancing on his fingers. He was torn... he couldn't hurt either man. They'd become more than friends, they were family.

"Buck, listen to me." He kept his voice even and unwavering. "We were attacked this morning by the Alvarez gang. You and Vin were wounded. I..."

"Save your breath." Buck interrupted, his head pounding furiously. He was fighting hard to remain upright and wanted to get on the road and find Fanning. "That's old news. I know about Tanner... he damn near killed me.

Some sharpshooter..."

"Vin didn't shoot you!" Chris growled, losing the battle with his patience. "That bounty hunter did..."

"Nice try Chris, but it won't work." Buck denied, "Peterson filled me in, gave me the wanted poster. He knows all about you and Tanner." Buck paused, "That kid attacked me, I had to knock him out. You're loyal, I'll give you that. You saved my life on more that one occasion, so I owe you. I'll tie you up and leave you some water. But I took an oath and I'm taking that murderer in."

"He was framed, Buck." Chris gritted, pointing the knife as an exclamation point. "You know that..." He mulled on the word oath and his eyes narrowed. "What oath?"

"I'm a lawman now, got a job as sheriff in Abilene. Six months is a long time. I can't believe you turned sour." He felt a pang of guilt. He really thought Chris was on the road to recovery when he left him in New Mexico. "Guess you didn't take to ranchin'. McClendon seemed like a good man. Last warning, back up or I'll take you in for interfering with the law."

Part 6

"Ranching?" Chris's face screwed up. "McClendon? Shit!" He hissed, shaking his head. While his mind did a mental calculation, a moan from behind him distracted him. Instinct and worry caused him to react without thinking. He turned to assure himself and fulfill the need to see Vin's eyes.

The movement of the anxious horse jarred Vin's senses. He peeled an eye open and resisted the urge to throw up. He was upside down and trussed up like a turkey. The blood rushed to his head, leaving him totally disoriented. Waves of pain and nausea took turns attacking him. Then he managed to move his head and saw a black thigh and the familiar holster.

"...riss... Chris..." he croaked.


Buck saw the slight hesitation of Larabee's wrist when Tanner called out to him. The blond head turned sideways for a moment and that's all he needed. Two long strides and a soft touch of the rifle to Chris's head was all it took.

"No!" Vin cried out, watching Chris crumple and fall. "Don't hurt 'im. Buck... listen to me... Buck... " Vin pleaded. He was trying desperately to remain conscious, but the vertigo was overwhelming. He watched from an odd angle as Buck's boots dragged Chris's body under the tree. He saw the blurry standing figure tend to the injured man and leave him a canteen. He tried to wiggle free but the momentum was a mistake and the black curtain fell, silencing him.

Buck left Chris tied loosely, in the shade with a full canteen. It hurt to see him turn like this. He thought he knew the man. But the charred bodies of Sara and Adam had killed his friend months ago. This man was a stranger. He rested a hand on Chris's shoulder for a moment, and recalled the happier days when they rode like brothers. Days full of sunlight and laughter... fighting side by side in the war... exploring every wild town on the way west... standing for him the day he married Sara... seeing his face when Adam was born. Then the fire and the bodies... that fuckin' smell... the stranger who wore Chris's clothes from that night onward, crowded his mind. A man with no soul... a dead man walking. He sighed and with a final pat, he stood.

"I'm sorry, Chris..." He managed, feeling a hideous weight in his chest. For a moment he was barely able to stand. Touching the blond had sent a jarring, jangle of nerves through him. He shook off his unsteadiness and returned to his job. His prisoner secure, the marshal slid on his horse and headed for Fanning.

It was the sounds that drew his eyes open. There were voices, buzzing like bees and making the lancing pain in his head worse. He peeled an eye open and saw fuzzy outlines of bodies and buildings in the darkness. He sighed in relief and tried to move, but couldn't push back the heavy weight that had settled on his back. Buck was slumped over and barely able to remain on the horse. He heard footsteps and felt hands grabbing at him. His blurry vision saw a silver star and the hard face on the body it was pinned to.

"Wilmington... Marshall... shot... my prisoner... Tanner... murder..." he managed to utter before falling off the horse.

"Easy there."

Buck looked up at the faces above him. He singled in on the boy bending over him. He eyed the star and the young face. He was about to ask him something, when another young lawman's face scored his aching brain. Dark hair and hazel eyes... laughing... cocky grin... just as quickly, it was gone.

He eyed them surrounding the prisoner's horse and frowned. "He's hurt..." Buck croaked. "...needs tendin'"

"I'll see to it," the youth promised as the dark blue eyes fluttered shut in his arms.

"Get him over to Doc O'Conner's." Ben Adamson ordered. Two of the men who'd exited the saloon ran forward and carefully picked up the wounded man.

"What about this guy?" the deputy asked of the inert body on the other horse.

Ben eyed his eager assistant and moved to his side. He picked up the dangling head by the hair and eyed the face carefully. "He must have papers... that sheriff said he was a murderer. Let's show him his cell." He issued sternly, hauling the body by the collar and dropping him to the ground.

"You could have hurt him." Andy Whittaker shot back, dropping to the prisoner's side.

Ben shook his head at his well meaning aide. The twenty-year-old was a good kid, but softhearted. He eyed the dark head and sighed. "He's a murderer, Andy. He's gonna hang. Don't make no difference if he's broke up a little."

"It does to me. I gave my word."

Ben glared at the harsh words, and shook his head at the steel gray eyes in the kid's face. "Okay, Kid," he gave in. He'd have his fun with the prisoner later, when the kid was on rounds. He hauled the body upright and over his massive shoulder. Andy went ahead of him and unlocked the vacant cell.

"No," the sheriff denied, his grin forming. "Not that one, the one on the end."

Andy bristled and shot a hard look at his boss. His stomach knotted and he reluctantly tore his gaze away. The excuse for a cell at the end was tiny and well out of sight. He unlocked the door and eyed the shabby, cold, stone cell. He turned over the thin, rotting canvas covering the wooden cot and wrinkled his nose. The stench of every prisoner who'd lain there still lingered. He moved aside and watched as the large marshal dumped the body down. He drew a knife out and freed the man's wrists and ankles. He brought in a few meager items from the cell next store and tried to make the injured man comfortable. A thin blanket, a bucket in the corner and a tin cup. He was on his way to get some water and the first aid supplies, when a hand gripped his shoulder.

"This ain't a damn hotel, Andy." Adamson warned and heard the stifled scoff. "You got rounds to make, get going."

"I'm not done here yet. He's needs tending..."

"You backtalking me, Boy?"

Andy stood eye to eye with the fleshy wall before him and finally backed down. He grabbed his rifle and slammed the door.

The shadows made strange shapes on the wall. Vin peeled his eyes all the way open and tried to move. A coughing fit rudely interupted his progress. With great difficulty he sat up and eyed the brick walls. He cursed inwardly as his heart sank low and his breath caught. He'd lost the game. A small bit of light filtered in through the bars. He stood on the cot, wincing and rubbing his leg. He eyed the alley illuminated by a nearby gaslamp and the dark sky. The inky black void reminded him of how long he'd been out. Buck? What happened to Buck? He climbed down and made his way to the barred door. He eyed the small hallway and a light shining under the wooden door at the end.

"Hey... anybody out there? Hey..."

Nobody answered and he shuffled back to his cot, shivering. He wrapped his arms across his chest and began to rock. A burst of sneezes and coughs added to the fever, which was getting the best of him. What if Buck died? His heart sank, not at just losing a good friend, but no one would ever know. How could Chris find them? There were dozens of towns in any given direction and hundreds of miles of desert and rocks. He rubbed his sore throat absentmindedly, as the noose seemed to slip a little lower. The visual image of his dead body, swaying in the breeze, black tongue jutting out slightly, caused him to shiver violently. He was so homesick, he'd kiss Nathan if the cross face showed up now. He saw a small bucket in the corner and hobbled over to relieve himself. He was buttoning his pants back up, when the cell door opened. He turned to see a stern face set in the six-foot-four wall of muscle wearing a star. He swallowed hard and turned slightly.

"Where's Buck Wilmington?" He demanded, not giving an inch. He never flinched at the imposing stare facing him.

"The sheriff is resting comfortably at the doctor's house. If you weren't set to hang already, I'd brand you myself for attempting to murder a lawman. You see, you cretin, this star means something to men like Wilmington and me."

It only took Vin seconds to appraise the other man. He squared his shoulders and jutted his chin up in defiance. "Ya ain't nothin' like him..." Vin's lips curled up in disgust.

Suddenly the cell seemed to shrink and Vin eyed his poor choice. He was in the corner and the broad chest and huge shoulders moving towards him obscured all light outside.

"I'm Ben Adamson. Welcome to Hell, your murdering bastard."

It was sundown when Chris rode into the strange town. There was a crowd gathered at the end of the street. An unknown urgency propelled him forward, but his throbbing head and aching limbs seemed to be moving at a snail's pace. He finally pushed his way through the crowd and saw the edge of the gallows. His throat constricted and his heart broke. His burning eyes realized his worst nightmare. Vin Tanner's body swayed in the breeze, his unseeing eyes accusing Chris in death. The executioner cut the noose and the body slammed into the unforgiving earth. The crowd dissipated and Chris staggered forward. He dropped to his knees and tore the rope off. Vin's head flopped at an unnatural angle, broken and bruised. Chris closed the dead eyes and rocked the body against him, crying bitterly.

"No... No..." he gasped, rolling over and eyeing the sky above him. It took several seconds for him to get his bearings. He recognized the empty spot under the tree. All that was left was a dark stain where he'd left Vin sitting. His memory slammed back, the force taking his breath away. He clenched his eyes shut, trying to dispell the image of Buck leading Vin to the gallows. He shrugged out of the ropes and took a long drink. His head was pounding and his right arm was killing him. Blood saturated his shirt and gave him a lightheadedness. He fingered the dirt and frowned. His eyes took in the stark landscape as he stood and his legs buckled. Once he steadied himself, he picked up the canteens strewn about. He took another long drink and poured the rest over his head. He jerked his head around and walked over to where Peterson's body was. He screamed and kicked the corpse relentlessly, releasing all pent up frustration. He eyed the desert like terrain and felt a cloak of helplessness shroud him. Texas was out there... and so were hundreds of miles in any given direction. He had no idea where Buck went. He let his frazzled mind come back to together. Buck still had a couple days to get to Texas and then find the circuit judge. With great difficulty, he climbed on the Palamino and tried to pick up a sign of fresh tracks among the dozens left by the Alvarez gang and the others.

Chris was exhausted, his body barely able to sit upright. How many hours had it been since he'd ridden out? He was disoriented and riding in circles in the dark. Sweat poured down his handsome face and he lifted a tired left arm and swiped at it. The canteen was long empty. His legs and head ached and his back throbbed. He gripped his aching arm, which he'd formed into a crude sling, and winced. His weary eyes sought the familiar. His growling stomach and dizziness reminded him of his blood loss and empty stomach. He was barely conscious and ready to drop.

"Why?" he cried aloud, exhaustion-burned eyes scorching the sky. Images swarmed into his dizzy head. What if Alvarez sent more men out? What if Vin and Buck rode into them and were dead already? What if that bastard carried out his threat to gut Buck? Chris needed help before the desert claimed him. Salerno was close by, he'd send a wire to Four Corners. A vulture hovered just ahead of him swooping and seeming to mock him.

"Fuck off!" He screamed and resumed his journey.

Josiah was behind Ezra and wondered why the younger man stopped. He saw him slide from his mount and take his gun out. The ex-minister followed suit, and soon found out what caused the look of concern on the gambler's face.

"Looks like somebody found the Alvarez gang." Josiah commented, eyeing the dead bodies scattered about. Ezra was walking among them, checking for signs of life. After reaching the last one, he turned back. Josiah saw the lone white man and squatted over him. "Hey Ez, what do you make of this?"

"He's not a raider, unless Don Alfredo has been inflicted with senility," the conman noted of the Mexican bandit's hatred of white men. "Maybe he was their prisoner."

"They don't take prisoners. What was he doing out here?" Josiah wondered, searching the man's pockets. "Bingo..." he pulled out a hotel receipt. "Salerno... coincidence?"

"I think not," Ezra nodded and drew his gun up. Josiah rose and frowned, following the gambler's hand. There was an indented area within the long grass nearby. Both men proceeded carefully. Ezra saw the dead boy and squatted down. He noted the low slung holster and fancy gun in the boy's hand. "Barely old enough to shave."

"Lord, he can't be more than eighteen," Josiah noted sadly. "He's with the other guy. Pro's?"

"Perhaps the Alvarez gang wasn't the only ones pursuing our comrades. Speaking of which?"

"Yeah, I've been wondering about that. We didn't pass them coming out here. Maybe one of them got hurt and they headed back to Salerno."

"There are towns just as close, in every direction. Still..." The gambler's eyes lit up and he took off towards a nearby tree.

"Ez? What is it?" The preacher followed the younger man's quick pace. He arrived and stood over Ezra's kneeling form. He saw the fear in the green eyes, when they turned to face him. Ezra stood and unfolded the familiar object, stained maroon with lots of blood. But whose?

"Mr. Tanner's prized possession." Ezra shook his head and sadly looked around in the twilight. His keen eyes picked up the discarded bandages, and another maroon area on the dirt. "I'd hazard a guess that at least two of them have been injured. This was formed as a pillow, indicating a head wound." Ezra squatted down and studied the impression on the ground. "These stains are from a leg injury, by the impressions of a body on its side. What now?"

"We look for tracks," the ex-preacher suggested, eyeing the increasing darkening of the sky, "... and we better hurry."

"There are several leading in different directions." Ezra spent over an hour riding around and trying to make sense of the myriad of markings. Josiah wrapped and tied the raider's bodies onto their horses. "The sheriff's wire came from Salerno. We can take the bodies back there, get some help."

"Agreed." Ezra decided, taking a string of horses and waiting for Josiah to mount.

"Nate... Look..." J.D. called out, shoving his heels into his horse's side and urging him forward.

"Yeah, I see 'em..." the healer called after his anxious partner. By the time he reached J.D., the youth was already examining the three horses. Annabelle, Caesar and Diablo were grazing and didn't startle when J.D. approached. He was good with horses and he had cared for all of them on occasion.

"No signs of trauma... no cuts..." J.D. shook his head. "Think Chris, Buck and Vin are nearby?"

"Dunno." Nate said, stroking the gray bay's neck. "But we should have a look around. You see if they left any tracks."

Twenty minutes later, the pair were on the road again, towing their friends horses with them. They followed the tracks north and saw a familiar pair ahead.

"Josiah... Ezra!" J.D. shouted, firing his pistol.

By the time they caught up to the lead team, they both saw the multiple dead bodies and paled.

"It's not them," Josiah relieved, "Where'd you find them?" he asked of the three horses.

"Back a ways... nobody with 'em." Nate slid off his horse and moved to where Ezra held out Vin's jacket. "That's a whole lotta blood..." his voice trailed off. Ezra pointed to the tree where they found it. Nathan saw the same thing and now had twin reasons to worry. At least two of their friends were missing and hurt. He didn't like this, not one bit. "Dammit!"

"You can say that again." J.D. sighed, "Where you taking them?"

"Salerno," Josiah said, "Ezra tried to find a trail, but the tracks overlap two and three times. We figured the wire came from Salerno. We could drop the bodies off and get some help."

"Maybe they did go there." J.D. noted, scanning the horizon, "I mean, that's where the wire came from. If they thought we came looking, they'd go back to where they started from, right?"

They all exchanged a look of concern. J.D. was worried about all of his friends, but Buck was the big brother he never had. His hazel eyes didn't hide his fear. Nathan clapped a hand on the boy's back and nodded. "Sounds like a plan, sheriff... lead on..."

The room was strange and at the same time soothing. Cozy, comfortable, warm and content, that was how he felt. The bed was soft, the quilt was just worn enough to be familiar. The pillow cradled his head like a soft bosom. He let his pained eyes take in the rest of the room. A mantle clock had a small pendulum swinging slowly. A painting on the wall of a boy and dog... a table with bottles of medicine. Medicine? He blinked and recalled the ride into a town. He remembered a sheriff's face and falling. He closed his eyes, the light hurt them too much. He ran a hand across his head and felt the fresh bandages. His mouth felt like a desert and he sat up, bracing for the dizziness. Once it subsided, he glanced around carefully.

"Welcome back."

"Who are you?" Buck rasped of the wiry, small, spectacled, gray-haired man in a chair across the room. "Where am I?"

"I'm Jack O'Connor. This is my son's office in Fanning, New Mexico Territory, near Texas. My boy's the doctor in town. You were brought in several hours ago totin' a murderer. How do you feel?"

"Hungry." Buck raised his eyebrows in surprise. He was hungry, but his stomach was a little rocky. "Murderer?" he mumbled, and a face appeared, young and wide eyed, with long hair. Soulful eyes, blue coals that burned him. He shuddered and sat up.

"Yeah, some kid named Tanner. Johnny saw this wanted poster when the sheriff took it from your pocket. Wanted for murder, five hundred dollars... " he whistled, "You'll be a rich man."

"I don't take blood money." Buck barked, studying the strange face on the drawing. "I'll get him to a judge, it's his decision." He winced and wondered about something for his headache. "Where's the Doc?"

"Well, Johnny, he's my son, he had an emergency outside town. Told me to keep an eye on you. Since my Mary died, I live here with Johnny."

"That's nice," Buck groaned, wanting a hot meal and a bath. "You got a bath in this town?"

"Got one in the house." The old guy rose and Buck followed slowly, leaning on the cane the man provided. "Just take me a minute to get the water ready. Johnny left some clothes from the store. Yours were all bloody."

"I appreciate that, I'll repay you," Buck commented, suddenly aware he was in his longjohns and chilly.

"No need," he denied, "Pete Driscoll from the General Store donated them. We take the law seriously here in Fanning. We're grateful for your kind, wearing the star so well. Look here," He held up a clean white shirt, bearing a silver star. "...even got your badge back."

"Thanks..." Buck nodded and wobbled.

"Sit down before you fall down," the older man ordered. He left and returned with a blanket, which Buck wrapped around him. He handed Buck a cup of coffee and went about heating the water. Buck was dozing, when the hand shook him. "All set. I'll get your clothes. Soaps in the dish on the edge. Careful now... mind your step."

The healing waters penetrated every throbbing fiber on his battered body. The hot water soothed his aching bones. He couldn't remember anything, but his head was wounded. Something must have happened. He hissed in frustration and winced as an image appeared. He was bending over a body, a young man with long brown hair and large blue eyes. Then the vision changed and he was tying him up. Then it was gone. The chilly water warned him it was time to get out. He stood carefully and held onto the chairs the old man put tubside. It took forever, but he managed to get dried off and donned his new clothes. He slipped on his boots and jacket and holster. He eyed the room for food of some sort and decided to find his host. He went looking for the old man and found him dozing in a rocker. He left him a note and set out to fill his growling, but tender, stomach.

The tingling keys of the piano led him to the Saloon down the street from the doctor's home. He settled inside the small, clean tavern and a waitress ambled over.

"What'll it be, Buck darlin'?"

"I'm sorry, Miss..." Buck stumbled, not recognizing the kind stranger with bright eyes.

"Just call me Honey," She purred, patting his arm. "We all know you now. We saw you ride in. If the deputy wasn't so fast, it would have been my arms you fell into."

"Still might do that." Buck chuckled and enjoyed her laugh. "Right now, my stomach needs filling. But it's a little rocky."

"Got chicken soup, biscuits and a pot of tea waitin' on you. Doctor's orders. I was going to bring a tray over and feed you in bed."

"Hell, nobody warned me," Buck winked and watched her leave.

The dinner was good and he relished every bite. He was halfway through a second bowl of soup, when he saw a card game begin. Four men at a round table exchanged rules and tossed their coins. They laughed and bantered, teasing the dealer. Buck's handsome face took in the fast hands shuffling the cards. The fancy coat and deft fingers seemed so familiar. Suddenly a fog drifted in... he peered through it and saw another gambler with green eyes and a gold tooth that glistened when he smiled. Next to him was a large man with kind blue eyes and gray hair, then a black man whose open face gave Buck immediate relief. At the edge of the table something beckoned him. He stared hard, but it was just out of reach. Then Tanner's face at the clearing drifted in front of him. The sky eyes were full of alarm and calling for him. He dropped the fork and jumped back.

"Something wrong Sugar?"

"Huh?" Buck blinked as Honey moved closer, concerned at the color leaving his face.

"Is there something wrong with your soup?"

"No... uh... it's good... real good," Buck stammered, "I... need some air... thanks Honey. I mean that," he said earnestly and kissed her forehead.

"You shouldn't be wandering around alone," she fretted, "I should walk you back."

"No, I'm fine," Buck offered, backing away. His mind was racing at a dizzy pace. An internal fire was burning. His heart was beating so fast, he was choking. Try as he might, he couldn't rid the blue eyes of the young prisoner's face from burning a hole in him. He was out of breath and gasping when he burst through the sheriff's door. The desk was empty and he was strangely relieved. He picked up the lamp on the edge of the desk and moved onward. He staggered to the wooden door and jerked it open. He found the keys and unlocked the cell. He hung on the bars as the room began to tilt. Taking a gulping breath, he entered.

Tanner was on his side, legs drawn up, turned toward the wall. Buck shivered as the bad feeling that was in his gut, crept up his throat. His legs were trembling and he pressed a hand on his chest, trying to staunch his hammering heart. He set the lamp down on a small wooden table. He bent over and gently tapped the tan shirt, covered in dried blood. "Tanner... you okay? Tanner?" He tried to roll the young man over, but couldn't. Frowning, he bent lower and saw the thin cord that bound the bloody wrists to a ring in the wall. Anger coursed through him, sending a horrific pain in his gut. He didn't know why he was aching so for this young stranger. He tipped the face over and then shrank back in shock. Revulsion ran through him and shame followed. He was overwhelmed with guilt and didn't know why. This man was a murderer... wasn't he? He flinched as another piece of the puzzle appeared. The kid's voice, a velvet soft drawl, pleading innocence. Framed... that was what he heard the voice say. Was that what bothered him so? No... something else was eating at him. An inner voice called to him.

"...protect him... protect him..."

His hands were shaking badly as they moved the tangled hair from the marred face. His eyes filled up and he was consumed with sorrow. Why? What was this stranger to him? He'd toted young prisoners before. He never had such ripping internal pain and guilt. He was so lost in thought, he didn't hear the cell door open.

Meanwhile, in Salerno

The weariness on the four faces had nothing to do with fatigue. It was an internal tiredness, something born of desperation and fear. They'd ridden in with a glimmer of hope, quickly extinguished when the three faces they sought were not found. Now, they ate quietly, not bothering to taste the food. Even Ezra, who could talk the ear off a corpse, was sullen and brooding. The Saloon was crowded and they suddenly sought a quiet spot to regroup. The sheriff had promised a posse, but offered little hope.

"Well, I suppose the expression 'things will look better in the morning' is a bit too much to hope for?" Ezra tried, sighing.

"Hey, we're not giving up." J.D. stood, angry at the lost faces. "They're out there. Buck needs me and I'm not letting him down."

"Nobody's giving up, J.D." Nate soothed, rubbing his tired eyes. "But there's a whole lot of ground out there. We don't got any idea where to go or where they are."

"Rider coming in..." a voice outside shouted. "Something's wrong with him..."

They moved as one... racing outside as a golden horse trotted into view. The body on its back was not moving. As it drew closer, they recognized the lean, black form.

"Chris!" J.D. screamed, flying to the horse's side. "Nate... he's hurt... Nate..."

"Take it easy, J.D." the older man commanded, "Let me have a look at 'im. Josiah?"

"I got him." The eldest eased the unconscious gunslinger from the horse. Ezra and J.D. both recognized the wear and tear on the fine animal.

"This horse is about to perish." the gambler noted, running a well-versed hand over the sweating golden flesh. "the fact he's still standing is a testimony to his fine breeding."

"Sounds like your talking from experience." J.D. commented, giving the conman a small grin.

"How is our esteemed leader?" Ezra bent over Josiah's shoulder. The ex-preacher was cradling Chris under the lamplight, while Nathan did a quick check.

" He's been shot," Nathan eyed the bloody bandage and sighed. His deft fingers found a slight lump. "He's gotta little lump, nothing serious." His well-versed hand found the fever quickly. "He's warm... and he's as wore out as that horse. Let's get him inside."

"I'll take the horse to the livery," J.D. offered. "Looks like hope just rode in, huh?"

"Truer words were never spoken, my young friend." Ezra nodded, eyeing Chris Larabee's pale face.

"It's Vin and Buck..." J.D. said suddenly, realizing where all the old blood came from. "Oh God..."

"We'll find them, Son." Josiah promised, "Go on... we'll see you upstairs."

Josiah laid Chris on the bed in Nathan's room, picked up the bowl and pitcher to fill and nodded to Ezra. The gambler's deft fingers eased the sweat-drenched shirt off their fallen leader. He untied the bandage and moved aside as the healer entered.

"Thanks Ezra... I'll need some hot water." He saw the other nod and quickly depart.

The wound wasn't bad, but the lack of attention didn't help. Nathan cut, cleaned, medicated and dressed the wounds. He bandaged the arm and bathed Chris's face, neck and chest. He pulled the worn quilt over the silent leader and turned around. hree anxious faces were peering with intensity at him.

"He's alright, bullet went right through, but he sprained his wrist." Nathan nodded. "I told you, he's just worn the hell out. He ain't gonna wake before morning. Josiah, keep an eye on him. I'm gonna get some sleep. If his fever gets worse..."

"Goodnight Dear..." Josiah teased, shoving the weary healer out the door.

"Well, as you can see, the prisoner is secured for the night."

"What the hell happened to him?" Buck roared, wincing as the decibel level of his surprising tone slammed into him. He gripped the bars nearby and held on as the room flew around. Half of the dinner he consumed threatened to spill forth without apology. The anger and rage confused him, but he trusted his instincts. They told him to 'protect' Tanner and that's what he'd do. He moved his body back, shielding the large lawman from the unconscious victim.

"Well, now he got riled up but good." The sheriff drawled with a gleam in his eye, "didn't take to being confined. He attacked me when I brought his supper. It was uh... self-defense."

"Self-defense my ass," Buck boomed, eyes flaring. "You damn near beat him to death. Get them ropes off him. He ain't no dog to be tied down. You promised the doctor would have a look at him..."

"No, I didn't." the leering face denied. "My deputy made that promise. I'm the senior ranking officer. Besides, the Doc was called away on an emergency. What kind of lawman are you? That kid's gonna hang in a couple days. What's it to you if he dies on the way? Five hundred dollars just the same."

"Money?" Buck's stomach turned and it took all of his strength to hold his dinner down. He clenched both fists in an effort not to choke the life from the larger man. "This isn't about money. Tanner claimed he was set up. This badge means something to me. It stands for law and order and protecting the innocent. I intend to find out the truth. Now you get that doctor in here, or are you forgetting under the law, he's entitled to care."

"I'll see what I can do." The sheriff said coldly and departed. Wilmington would soon be old news anyway.

Buck took the knife the sheriff left and cut the ropes loose. He threw the bloody cords on the floor in disgust and rubbed the raw wrists, restoring circulation. The young man moaned and licked his lips. Buck disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a pitcher of water, a mug and a linen towel. He sat on the edge of the cot and dipped the cloth in the cooling liquid. His hands trembled and his chest tightened when he looked at the bruised face. The right eye was swollen shut and discolored, as was the cheek under it. The lip was puffy and split and a cut over the left eye had spilled blood on that side of his face. He dropped the cloth when it came in contact with the bruised flesh. He inhaled sharply as if the cloth was consumed in flames. He rested a hand on the side of the hot skin and felt the protective force erupt stronger than anything he'd ever felt. His eyes were full, and he angrily brushed them. What the hell was wrong with him? He took a deep breath and set about tending to the injured man. He frowned, his damaged head only recalled bits and pieces of the day. Some stayed, some faded away before he could grasp them. He had the poster... this man was wanted and he was lawman. Why was his heart heavy with guilt?

Vin felt someone reaching to him in the darkness. A gentle touch and cooling water on his hot face. He moaned and turned towards the comforting strokes. A word formed before he realized what it meant. "Chris... Chris..."

Buck's hand froze as he finished cleaning the young man's face. His mind snapped back to the clearing and another piece fell into place. The kid talking about the gunslinger. He said Chris Larabee was his friend. Could that be possible? Could Chris have met this kid in the six months since he'd seen him? He heard the shallow breathing and moved his hands instinctively to the ribcage. It didn't take long before a sharp cry sounded and one eye that could open, did.

"Sorry... let's get you up." Buck said gently. "That better? Here, you must be thirsty."

Vin stared in muted shock and took the cup of water. He eyed the cell and saw the bloody towel from Buck's ministrations. If Buck got his memory back, they'd be out of this cell. But why would Buck be tending him them? He observed the clean clothes and bandages. He was glad that Buck had been well taken care of by the town's physician. He saw pain in the dark eyes and the face was still far too pale.

"Ya okay, Bucklin?" he whispered, his ribs throbbing in equal harmony with his leg and face.

"What'd you call me?" Buck pulled back as if touching the flames again. The soft drawl and the twist on his name gave him a pulsating, terrific pain. His head roared and he dropped to his knees and cried out. He gripped his head and tried to force the pain away. He didn't like this pain... or the horrible feelings he got looking at the marred face. "Don't call me that..." he denied angrily, standing and backing away. He was trembling all over as the vision from the Saloon returned. Strangers playing cards... a gold tooth... the kind gray haired giant... smiling brown eyes in a dark face... and... and... a buckskinned arm..."

"Buckli... uh... Buck... yer scarin' me." Vin hissed, seeing the tall man's chest heaving and his eyes spinning in his head. "Sit down..."

"Huh?" Buck blinked as the pain returned, slamming his so hard he dropped to his knees again, cradling his throbbing head. He cried out loud as the fire consumed the inside of his head and an axe seemed to slam into it.

"Buck... let me help you." Vin said, eyeing the open door. He tried to stand but a wall of pain sent him back onto the cot. The ribs were broken, he was sure of that. Voices in the outer office gave him a chill. He flashed back to his beating and the visitor to the cell. One set of hands that tied him, talking in hushed tones to another. Suddenly, he remembered all of it. "Buck, get up. We gotta get outta here... Buck..." he pleaded, but the rogue's face was screwed in pain, lost in time.

"I'm sorry, Sheriff. My father fell asleep. I'll see to it he stays in bed."

Vin turned as the sheriff returned, smiling evilly. A young man was in front on him, carrying a medical bag. He knelt by Buck and braced his face in both hands. "Marshal Wilmington, can you hear me?"

"I ain't deaf, Doc," Buck gasped, getting to his feet. "My prisoner needs tendin'. He's runnin' a fever, that leg needs lookin' at and his ribs are broke. You fix him up... now."

"You're not supposed to be out of bed. You have a serious head wound. That concussion..."

"Save your breath," Buck interrupted, "...and see to Tanner."

Vin found a small grin at the return of his friend's protective nature in a stranger's body. He watched Buck's cautious eyes follow every move the physician made. He winced and cried out as the ribs were taped. He grinned slightly, as Buck's growl caused the doctor to jump.

"Christ, he don't need no more broken ribs... take it easy."

Finally, the leg was cleaned and stitched, ending the ordeal. Vin ached from head to toe and felt miserable. He flinched as the stethescope hit his chest. The examination had been accented by a loud round of sneezes and coughs, which didn't please the serious healer. The doctor offered medicine but Vin denied it, he needed to be alert. The doctor shook his head and rose.

"Wait a minute," Buck warned, blinking and staggering. "Did you eat?"

"Yeah..." Vin scoffed, "they brung me a t-bone steak."

"I want a full tray... now... I want to see it." Buck demanded and the sheriff moved away slowly.

Finally, after Vin finished his stew, biscuits and cider, Buck was satisfied. He helped the young man ease into a comfortable position. Vin tugged at Buck's collar, pulling his face lower. He was wary of the sheriff at the cell door. "Yer in trouble... he's gunnin' fer ya... he's aimin' t'get money fer m'body... gonna ambush ya outside town... heard 'im."

"What's all that chatter?" the suspicious sheriff asked.

"He was thanking me for giving him his rights under the law." Buck said steely, turning himself in front of Vin and squeezing the shoulder hard.

"Let's go, Marshal." The doctor stood just outside. "It's late and you need to rest. You lost a lot of blood and that concussion won't go away without care."

"Okay," Buck agreed, but drilled the oily sheriff with a hard, deadly gaze. He pontificated his issue by sending his index finger hard into the larger man's chest. "One more thing, Sheriff," he spat in disgust, eyes hot. "If so much as one hair on Tanner's head is out of place, I'll lock your fuckin' sorry ass up myself."

Vin didn't know whether to laugh or cry. His heart sang as Buck's protective shield was put in place, but then it sank when he realized the older man had unwittingly sealed his fate. What if the sheriff didn't wait until morning? What if they killed Buck in his sleep? Buck had protected him from harm... who would protect the kind-hearted Wilmington? Vin fought hard, but the fever overwhelmed him and he was soon sleeping.

Buck didn't sleep in the soft bed in the O'Conner house. He feigned slumber until the doctor left. Tanner's words... a warning carried on a soft drawl... left him wary. He didn't understand it, but the voice came back, over and over. He trusted Tanner and felt there was merit in the words. The excuse for a lawman was as crooked as they came. He'd ride out with Tanner in the morning. His confusion was overwhelming him. Tanner didn't have to warn him. He felt now more than ever that the young man's words rang true. He'd find a judge and help get to the bottom of the matter. No innocent man would hang... not on his shift.

Part 7

The shadows faded and the first rays of light snuck in the small cell. The one eye that would open watched the new day steal his darkness. He liked the dark, he felt safer there, well hidden among the hopeless dreams that escaped. Hope... she was a stranger to him now. For a brief flickering moment, he'd held her close and dared to breathe. But she slapped him in the face and mocked him. Disguised as the new Dawn, she toyed with him, laughing at his futility. He should have kept riding that day, but he didn't. He stayed in Four Corners far too long. He'd allowed himself to go soft... and he'd lost his edge. That is when Hope defiled him and left him shattered. Now, she slid his soul to Fate, who leered at him, while constructing the gallows.

He'd been awake for hours, every inch of him ached. His headache had dulled, but the damaged ribs burned relentlessly, flaring with every labored breath. His face was swollen and sore and his leg was throbbing. He didn't dare move, not even when the cell door opened and a body slid by. He squinted at the slim, dark-haired boy who bore a tray. The visitor turned and he was surprised at the badge pinned so nobly on the blue shirt. The kid looked younger that J.D.

"I brought some breakfast."

Andy winced at the battered body of the prisoner. He recognized the sheriff's signature and his face flamed. He sighed, recalling sadly how a once proud man, who bore the star so well, had turned sour. Ben Adamson wasn't always the brute who now wore his clothes. Time and disillusionment had tainted his ways, and greed and power easily overtook him. Tanner didn't move and Andy didn't blame him. He stood next to the cot and offered his help.

"I'm sorry... I shouldn't have gone on patrol."

"...wasn't yer doin', Kid."

"Don't make it any easier to bear. Here, let me help you up."

Vin hissed and flinched as every bruise on his torso woke up at once. Gingerly he shifted so his back was to the wall. Andy brought the tray over and sat it next to him on the cot. Vin was starving and shocked to see a fairly decent plate full of scrambled eggs and potatoes. There was also some coffee and sweetrolls. He nodded his thanks and picked up the napkin. Tucking it in his shirt, he lifted the lone utensil, a wooden spoon and began to eat.

"You need anything?"

"How's Buck... uh... the Marshal?" Vin paused and sipped his coffee, eyeing the deputy.

"I don't know. I guess he'll be over later. I didn't get a chance to talk to him. He seemed like a good man, sure was worried about you." The dark-headed bobbed in recollection, "...last thing he said before he passed out was for me to take care of you."

Vin nodded and stared at the floor, not wanting the youth to see his emotions. It was so hard to see Buck so clearly in the stranger he now was. He finished his meal and Andy took the tray away. Vin sighed and painfully made his way over to the bucket in the corner. He held his breath, so his breakfast wouldn't spill. The full bucket would make the small cell unbearable, once the heat of the day set in. He staggered back to the bunk and sat sideways, resting his back on the wall. His mind wandered back to the same thought that lingered all night. What happened to Chris? He wavered, then rallied. Chris was a survivor. He'd do the smart thing. He ride to Salerno and wire the others. Chris was okay, but they'd never find him in time. There were dozens of towns like this one, stretched across of hundreds of desert miles. He swallowed hard as a great pressure filled his chest. He'd never see Chris again. He'd never hear Josiah's booming laugh, Ezra's pale eyes, J.D.'s anxious voice, Nate's kind smile... all gone.

"Shit..." he jerked and shook off the self-pity, like a dog ridding unwanted fleas. It wasn't like him to quit. Buck...he needed Buck. Once they got outside town, he'd work on Buck. Chris wouldn't give up. The blond's tense face came into view, the green eyes shooting a fire through him. The familiar scowl was the last image he had as his heavy lids slid shut.

"Chris...." he whispered.

Back in Salerno, just after dawn

"Easy now..." Nathan eased, pressing both hands against the startled blond's shoulders and pinning him to the bed. Chris woke up with an audible hiss and his wide eyes were now darting all over the room. Nathan heard the labored breathing and wondered if Larabee was fully alert.

Chris's heart felt like it was gyrating through his chest wall. He couldn't breathe and his brain felt like mud. He tried to put the pieces together of the broken puzzle. He felt pressure and saw the concerning eyes of the healer searching for him. He tried to breathe, but his heart wouldn't quit pounding. The dream was so real. They were riding... a gang came out of nowhere... bullets shooting through the air... Vin falling... Buck's bloody head... Buck taking Vin in like some macabre trophy. He shoved against the strong brown arms and sat up. His mouth and throat were like a desert.

"Drink..." he croaked and rubbed his bleary eyes. "Ow!" he jumped as the right arm protested movement.

"Bullet went right through," Nate answered the fuzzy growl. "You lost a little blood and rode too hard. You sprained your wrist, I wrapped it good. Here..."

Chris drained the cup and wrinkled his nose. "Wasn't the drink I had in mind."

"You need water... you're fighting a fever." the healer instructed and filled the mug again.

Chris sipped the cool liquid and the clouds parted. Suddenly, the dream faded into shattering reality. Clarity gripped him and he sobered up, eyeing Nate hard. The shirt was rumpled, the face shadowed and the eyes weary. Nate was here all night. Chris eyed the large body in the next bed. Josiah was asleep. He heart sank and he dropped his head down, resting his left forearm on his thigh. Their presense here meant only one thing. Somehow, he'd hoped... prayed that by some miracle, Buck had gone off course and ended up here. His hope was now dashed, he'd been foolish to even dream it.

"Fuck..." he heaved the mug against the wall.

"Morning to you to Brother," the preacher groaned, sitting up. "Ezra and J.D.?"

"Checking with the sheriff and getting breakfast," Nate replied, tempting fate and resting a hand on the leader's sweat-slick shoulder. "How bad?"

Chris didn't have the strength to answer. If Buck and Vin weren't here, they were probably already dead. Buck wasn't in any shape to ride. What if he got lost? The desert could be a cruel mistress. If Buck collapsed and fell from his horse... Vin was as good as dead. If Buck made it to Texas, Vin was as good as dead. He berated himself silently, letting the guilt settle in for a long stay. Funny, how easily it found him. He never moved, his head was slung low and his chest heaving in anger. He shrugged off the healing hand and clenched his fist.

"Look, we ain't got time for this shit, Chris," Nate shot, as the door opened and Ezra and J.D. entered, bearing trays. The gambler carried food, the youth supplied a pot of coffee and some mugs. They heard the stern edict and exchanged a worried glance with Josiah. The eldest shook his head and sighed. "I want an answer. What happened yesterday out there with the Alvarez gang?"

Like a cobra, the head rose slowly. The hooded, pale eyes were void of emotion. He toyed with the faces staring at him and settled on the window. He stood and walked over, his hands resting atop the snug black jeans. His bare back was slick with sweat and the drenched head cocked at an angle. He eyed the street below, just starting to spring to life. Shopkeepers opened their doors, a clerk swept the boardwalk in front of the freight office and a group of children ran by on their way to school.

J.D. shifted and scowled, his anger rising. He eyed his older comrades and saw their hesitation. To hell with that... Buck and Vin were out there somewhere and Chris had the only answer.

"What happened to Buck and Vin?" the youth blurted, storming to the window and grabbing Chris's shoulder. Ezra moved forward ready to intervene and fearing a physical backlash from the brooding leader. But to his surprise, Chris turned slowly and his eyes were full of remorse.

"I'm sorry, Kid... I thought... hoped they were here..." he sighed, and eyed the street again. "We were ambushed, outnumbered and outgunned. It wasn't just the raiders," his voice was low and they strained to hear. "There was a couple of bounty hunters out there. Great fuckin' luck... " he winced and rubbed the wounded arm. "We were out of ammo and needed a distraction. There was a sniper on a rock, a big brute, had us pinned down. Buck and me opened fire and Vin went to take him out."

"Without a weapon?" Ezra queried and saw blond head dip once.

"Vin went down... and Buck went to get him..." he hissed and pounded the unfortunate windowsill. "Goddamn hard-headed fool... he caught one on the head..."

"Oh God!" J.D. rocked back, eyes wide.

"That would explain the blood saturating Mr. Tanner's jacket." Ezra noted.

"You were there?" Chris eyed the gambler in amazement. How had he missed them?

"Josiah and I arrived late in the day. We found both the gang and the two other bodies. The jacket was resting under a tree."

"Cody fuckin' Peterson..." Chris's snarled, punching the wall with his good fist.

"I don't think I've had the pleasure." Ezra quipped.

"Vin knew him, said he was no good. They were tailin' us too." Chris returned to the bed and took the coffee Josiah offered.

"How bad was Vin hurt?" Nathan asked.

"Lost a chunk of his thigh... and he's full of congestion," the blond replied.

"Buck?" J.D. hovered, still hopeful.

Chris sighed heavily and shook his head. He sought out the youth's eyes before replying. "I thought he was dead. Bled like a stuck pig, couldn't see his damn face. But it was just a bad crease. I patched them both up and left Vin on guard."

"Left?" J.D. screamed, flinging himself at Chris, only to have Josiah grab him.

"Calm down, Son."

"I ain't your son and let me go," the youth hissed, his eyes drilling the guilt-ridden green ones. "You left them there? How could you? Vin was hurt, how was he supposed to protect Buck?"

"I had to!" Chris snapped, "Marco Alvarez was leading the gang and he was killed. His guard took the body and was headed back to the old man. I didn't know if they were back in Mexico or camped nearby. We didn't stand a chance if he got back and Don Alfredo found out." He stood and towered over the shaken youth. He glowered over him, not hiding his anger, "You think I wanted to leave them... shit..." He sailed past J.D. and slammed the wall, ignoring the pain that shot up his arm.

Ezra added up the non-verbal clues Chris Larabee was displaying. It was an almost too cool sense of despair. Well hidden from an untrained eye, but Ezra Standish read people for a living. The gambler knew Chris was hiding something. Something that scared him, and the thought of anything putting a black fear like that into Larabee, sent ice into Standish's blood. He moved forward and stood beside the pale-faced gunslinger. Chris met his gaze and the hopelessness in the green eyes made him shiver.

"What it is you haven't said?" Ezra asked.

Chris exhaled deeply and ran a hand through his wet hair. He winced as he found the lump, Buck's calling card. There was no easy way to say it... and he flicked a glance at J.D., who misread the intent.

"Buck's dead isn't he... Oh shit!" J.D. moaned.

"No..." Chris sighed, eyeing the others slowly. "At least he wasn't when..."

"When what?" Josiah tilted his head. "Finish it, Chris."

"I found the guard and got rid of him. When I rode back, Buck was getting ready to leave. Vin was tied up like a fuckin' dog, laying over the saddle."

"Vin's dead?" J.D. croaked, his stomach churning.

"No... not yet." Chris rubbed his face and took a deep breath. "I thought he was dead too... but he wasn't." Chris paused, the memory still pained him.

"What the hell are you saying?" Nathan demanded. "Buck wouldn't do that to Vin..."

"Buck doesn't know Vin..." Chris raised his face and glanced at all of them. "He's got amnesia. He thinks he's a marshal from Abilene and he's taking Vin back to Texas to hang for murder."

"What!" several voices screeched in unison.

"I tried to stop him and he cold-cocked me with his rifle. Near as I can tell, he's back about two-and-a-half years ago. He thinks it's about six months since we split up. I was in a bad way then, shot my way through lots of towns... left a lot bodies behind me. He thinks me and Vin are partners."

"How'd he find out about Vin?" Nathan asked.

"Cody 'fuckin' Peterson." Chris growled, tossing his fist against the wall. "I should have put a bullet between his eyes. Dammit..." He sighed, "His fuckin' guts were hanging out all over his hands... I thought he was dying. He must have rallied long enough to convince Buck. He had the poster in his bag and I guess he concocted some story about me and Vin."

"You're lying." J.D. hissed, fists clenched. "Buck wouldn't do that. Vin's his friend. He wouldn't... couldn't..."

"His got a serious head injury, J.D." Josiah offered, not wanting to shake up the youth any more. "Amnesia can do bad things to man. Buck's lost in the past, he don't Vin. He's a lawman and Vin is just a face on a wanted poster."

"With a fat five-hundred dollar bonus..." Ezra commiserated.

"Buck won't take the money." Chris denied of the one he knew so well. "But he's gonna find a judge in Texas and Vin's gonna hang, unless we get to him first."

"How?" Ezra asked, "Where do we start?"

"With a plan" Nate advised, nodding at the gambler.

"I tried to find them, J.D.," Chris read the angry eyes. "By the time I woke up they were long gone. The tracks ran the hell all over. I rode for hours..."

"Chris, you don't have to explain." Josiah eased, glaring at J.D. "Your horse did some talkin'... he was just about down."

"Yeah..." Chris sighed, wincing as blood seeped through his bandages, from the pounding on the wall.

"Chris, get over here and let me change that bandage." Nate drilled the others, "The rest of you get to that breakfast. Ezra, did you wire Mary?"

"I did and the Judge as well. The clerk said the line was tied up. I'll check for a reply and update her."

"The sheriff?" the healer eyed Josiah as he unrolled the seeping bandage.

"He's gonna notify the surrounding towns. He said he'd lend a half-dozen men," the eldest updated the group.

"Where to we go?" J.D.'s voice was small he finally moved from the doorway and took the plate Ezra offered. "What if they didn't make it to a town?"

"That's a possibility," Nate uncorked the dark bottle of carbolic. "But we better hope not. If both of 'em were hurt, they'd never survive in the desert. At least if he got to a town, there's some hope."

"Or maybe they camped out last night and Vin got loose and overpowered Buck." J.D. hoped.

"I don't... shit..." Chris hissed as the antiseptic burned into his skin. "...think so. It was all Vin could do to sit up when I left. You add several hours of being tied up upside down on a horse. His ribs would be killing him. He could have never gotten to Buck and I don't think Buck would give him the chance. He said Vin already attacked him once." He painfully eased his boots on and took a plate of food.

"There is another possibility of someone taking them by force." Ezra finished fixing two plates and took them to Josiah and Nate. "Why were you being pursued by that choir group?"

"Why do you think?" Chris snapped, stabbing a helpless egg. "Too much fuckin' animal magnetism."

"Brother Buck got too friendly with someone he shouldn't have?" Josiah sighed.

"Don Alfredo's only daughter." Chris shoveled the food in, trying to remove the shakes he felt.

"She must have tricked him somehow," J.D. defended, his face flushing, "Buck wouldn't do something that stupid."

"The how and why isn't important now," Nate answered, sipping his coffee. "We gotta try and find 'em."

"I'll design a map of the surrounding towns from the large map at the post and telegraph office." Ezra drained his coffee. "Perhaps Mrs. Travis has some news. Maybe our missing comrades wired home somehow."

"J.D., get the horses ready," Chris said, grabbing his gunbelt and shirt from the bedpost, "Josiah, tell that sheriff we're riding out in an hour. We'll have to split up, we can cover more ground that way." He paused, eyeing the stilled group. "Let's move!" he thundered, stalking from the room.

John O'Conner removed his stethoscope and walked across the room. He poured rubbing alcohol into some water resting in a basin and took it back to the patient's side. He rinsed a cloth off and began bathing the fevered man down again. He'd heard the injured lawman crying out during the night and found him delirious and feverish. He'd been by his side ever since. The alcohol baths helped and he'd gotten some medicine past the muddled man's slack lips. When he was awake, he had no idea where he was. He accepted the medicine, water, cold cider and herbal tea gratefully. The more fluids he plied into Buck Wilmington, the easier the sick man rested. He stirred some aspirin powder into a mug of water and lifted the damp head.

"Buck, I need you to drink this. It will help your headache."

"Nate?" Buck croaked, instinctively sensing a healer's touch.

"No, it's Dr. O'Conner," the young physician replied, "here you go."

"Doctor?" Buck muttered, draining the cup and sliding back into the murky darkness.

At nine o'clock they met in the sheriff's office. Ezra's map was a good one, outlining all the towns within a few miles of the massacre sight. The sheriff, two deputies and the five peacekeepers were hovered over the neat wooden desk. A half-dozen volunteers skirted the perimeter. Chris eyed the large area, wary of the expanse of desert, rocks and cliffs.

"That's a long a ground to cover," one of the deputies admitted.

"This should eliminate some of the area," the sheriff handed Chris a list. "Those are the towns who wired back. As of this morning, no strangers rode in and no sign of the Alvarez gang."

"Hillsboro, San Vincente, Miner's Falls, Black River, Fanning and Crystal City." Chris folded the list and shoved it in his pocket.

"Look Mr. Larabee, I appreciate your concern and we're gonna help you as much as we can." The sheriff imparted sympathetically. "But there's a whole lot of area out there where two wounded men could get lost in."

"Yeah..." Chris hushed, feeling a coldness inside. "But I gotta try."

"I can give these men up for two days... but beyond that."

"I'm grateful." Chris shook his hand and turned to the group of volunteers. He slowly sought out each face. "They're good men," he said slowly of his missing comrades, his voice catching.

"Shall we?" Ezra saw Chris swallow hard and stepped in, covering the usual 'lets' ride'. He caught the grateful green eyes and ran a finger along the brim of his hat. "Gentlemen, after you. I've written down a series of perimeters each two man team can cover. We'll reconvene in two days, here at the sheriff's office after dark."

The gambler was adjusting Deuce's cinch straps when he felt the hand grip his shoulder on the way past. "Good job, Ezra." The lean black figure strode past him and walked to the livery. Curious, the conman followed and peered in the doorway. He flinched at the absolute look of anguish on the gunslinger's profile as he stood between Buck's large gray bay and Vin's proud black horse. He rested one hand on each steed's neck and dropped his head. Then he moved to Diablo's side and rested his hand on a familiar object. The gunslinger fingered the bloody jacket tied to the saddle.

Chris felt a tidal wave of emotion rise as he fingered the soft, scarred tissue of the buffalo coat. The horse moved, sending the worn hide against his face. He jerked back, inhaling Tanner's scent by force. He felt an icy knife rip through his guts, and felt the fury build. His fingers felt a small, hard object in the large pocket of the jacket. He slipped his hand inside and drew it out. He narrowed his eyes and heard the woeful notes that Vin produced on the mouth harp. He clenched it against his chest and closed his eyes.

Ezra heard the single, painful forced breath through the blond's clenched teeth and backed away. He saw the glint of silver and flinched. He couldn't imagine the Hell Chris Larabee was lost in.

The thickness was almost too much to bear. It stifled him and the air seemed to smother him. He coughed and gasped, shivering as the chills returned. He heard the voice again and wondered why he couldn't find it. The thirst grew powerful and he opened his lips. He moved weakly, figthing the arms that held him down.

"Thirsty..." he croaked, peeling an eye open. The dark head was blurry and bobbing nearby. A mug appeared and he tipped his mouth open. Sweet relief filled him and he drank greedily. "J.D... I... can't... I..."

"Here, let me help you." John O'Conner moved closer, easing the injured man into an upright position. Sweat poured off him freely, sending tiny rivers of moisture down his lean frame. The doctor assisted him and watched another mug of water disappear. He rinsed the cloth and wiped the face, neck and chest of the injured man. The dark blue eyes blinked hard, trying to focus. He held a mug up with warm soup in it. With a little coaxing, he managed to get most of it into the patient, before his eyes slid shut again. He pulled him forward, letting the damp head hit his shoulder. He turned the pillow over, bringing up the dry cotton on the other side. Gently, he eased the body down again and pulled the sheet up.

The weary physician sighed, rose and stretched. He had to make rounds and check on his other patients. Mrs. Devlin's broken arm, Old Man Mendelson was having problems with his breathing and then there was the young prisoner He eyed the clock as it neared the four p.m. hour. His face blackened in anger as he recalled the overwhelming stench in the small, hot cell, he'd found midday. He'd given Andy some medicine to slip in the reluctant man's coffee at breakfast. He checked on him at noon and was sickened by the state he found the unconscious man in. He'd vomited in his sleep and was lucky he didn't choke to death. The smell was overpowering. He'd gotten rid of the bucket and with Andy's help, moved the injured man to a cell on the end of the row. It had a larger window and cross ventilation from the open wooden door to the outer office. He spent an hour, bathing and changing the filthy, fevered man into clean clothes and bandages. The young man never stirred and for that, he was grateful. He heard the door shut and saw his father enter, returning from his afternoon walk.

"He still with us?" the elderly man asked, eyeing the flushed face patient.

"Yes, his fever is going down. By morning he'll feel much better. I'm going to check on my other patients."

The doctor eyed the sheriff walking towards the livery. He didn't like the Fanning lawman much, and decided to take advantage of his absence. He shifted his medical bag and headed for the sheriff's office.

Ben Adamson slid around the backend of the large livery without drawing any attention. He saw the figure in the shadows and moved forward. Duke Nelson was a former army buddy, who'd turned mercenary after the War. He'd agreed to take his usual cut of fifty percent, for eliminating another bounty. It was an arrangement the two had found to be very profitable.

"Why the change?" the hitman whispered. "It's smoother when they have an 'accident' in the jail and I take the body in for the reward."

"We got a problem."

"How bad?" Nelson asked.

"The marshal that brung the bastard in is hurt, he can't leave. He's soft on the kid, he's taking him in himself, a real straight arrow. I don't know what connections he has and who might ask questions. Plus, somebody's looking for Tanner and Wilmington. Seems they tangled with the Alvarez gang. I don't want them riding into my town. I'll get Wilmington riled up enough to take Tanner and head east towards Texas. You take care of them near the border."

"How's he doing?" Nelson asked of the problem wearing a badge.

"Lousy... been out cold all day... running a fever. Doc's working on him. I'm gonna push some buttons and get him riled up. He'll be on the road in a couple days with any luck."

"Did you send that wire?"

"Yeah... told the sheriff in Salerno that we hadn't seen them."

"Alright, I'm taking off in the morning. The fewer people see me the better." The hitman nodded. "You arrange for that road to be taken out... a stick or two of dynamite should do it. That will force them to cross the river go through Apache Pass and I'll be waiting." He grinned and slapped his old friend's back. "...been awhile since I went hunting."

"Yeah..." The large man grinned, "'cept this time, the animals are on two feet and lot more fun."

Vin was fishing. The sky overhead was a brilliant blue and a warm breeze kissed his face. Chris and Buck were downstream. Chris was snoozing under a tree, Billy's head in his lap. Mary was next to him, editing a story. Buck had his pants rolled up and was midstream, his handsome face split into a broad grin. Suddenly the sky darkened and thunder rolled across, chased by black clouds. The wind kicked up and the tracker lost his footing. He fell into the river and the strong current carried him away from his friends.


Vin sat up and immediately regretted his decision. He sucked in a painful breath and bit his lip. Every inch of his tender flesh was screaming. His face and shirt were soaked. He frowned, eyeing the strange cell. It was larger, more comfortable and the air was better. He fingered the new clothes and sighed. How much time had lapsed? Was it the same day? Where was Buck? He felt a bulk against his leg and fumbled under the light blanket. A canteen? He shook it and took a large gulp. He splashed his face and neck and rested his throbbing head.

"Afternoon, Andy."

"Hey, Doc. He's been quiet all day. Sweating up a storm... I got some more water in him and left the canteen."

"Thanks, Andy. I'd like his dinner tray now."

"I'll get it." the youth left after unlocking the cell.

Vin's eyes jerked open when the cell door shut. He licked his lips and took another sip of the canteen. He stared hard at the doctor and saw only compassion and concern in the bright eyes.

"This yer doin'?" he nodded to the new cell.

"The state I found you in at midday, was not fit for an animal," John O'Conner replied, not hiding his disgust.

"I'm grateful." Vin wheezed, fingering the brown jeans and cream shirt he wore, "...clothes too?"

"From the church basement. They keep donated clothing there. Your dinner is on the way. How do you feel?"

"...been better. How's Bu... the marshal?" Vin tried to sound nonchalant. He bout of sneezes was rewarded with a cloth. He blew his nose and listened as the doctor updated him on Buck.

"Not well. He fell into a delirium during the night, his fever was extremely high. But I've worked on him all day and it broke just now. With the proper rest and food, he'll feel better in a few days. Speaking of fevers," he felt Vin's head and nodded. "You're doing better. I want you to finish this," he handed him a cup with spiked cider. "It will help your chest to clear and fight the infection in your leg."

"Can't be coughin' on the hangman." Vin spat back, draining the ice cold apple cider.

"I don't think you're a killer. Marshal Wilmington said he intends to see justice done. I think he can help you."

Vin shifted painfully and absorbed the doctor's words. How much could he trust this man? He thought of the 'doctor' who'd conned him in Four Corners. He licked his lips and endured the examination. As the trained fingers probed and poked at him, Vin's mind was working. If Buck were too ill to leave, maybe he'd have time to make a request. A small smile formed. A man of the cloth... someone to help save what was left of his hell-bound soul. He eyed the dark head of the doctor and hissed as the carbolic was liberally splashed on his wounded leg. He was honest and fair. He'd taken good care of him in this blasted cell. He shifted on the cot and watched the head rise.

"It's still a little raw," the doctor warned, "...and slightly hot to the touch." He eyed the bruised face and didn't miss the pinched features. One arm was resting across the taped ribs. He eased the injured man forward and slipped his shirt back on.

"Can ya send a wire fer me?" Vin drawled slowly, peeling his good eye open.

"To whom?"

"Well... I been thinkin'," Vin paused, furrowing his brows and slumping, "...iffen the Marshal ain't ready to leave fer a spell... there's a preacher feller I run into in Four Corners. He has a powerful voice... and there's somethin' about them words he reads from the Bible." Vin coughed, leaning forward and gripping the cot. The pain was blinding and he felt two hands on his shoulders. When he finally was able to speak, he looked up at the physician's face with his most sorrowful blue eyes. He could almost see Ezra rolling his eyes and the hear the southerner smirking. "... might be a comfort t'me... I ain't got long until I'm playin' poker with the devil."

"I'd be happy to. What's his name?"

"Sanchez." Vin sighed, "Reverend Sanchez."


"A little louder J.D., they didn't hear you in New York," the older man shook his head.

"Oh that youth is wasted on the young," Ezra commiserated, giving the preacher a grin.

It was nearly ten p.m. and Josiah and Ezra were bone weary. They'd ridden long and hard, covering all the towns in their perimeter and several canyons in between. Ezra was so tired he didn't even complain about their paltry supper. All he wanted to do was sleep and he almost got there. Josiah was bone weary as well. Neither said it, but as the daylight faded and night crept in, their fears rose. Both sensed the worst, that Buck and Vin were lost to them. If Alvarez hadn't claimed them, the desert most likely had. J.D. housed with the exuberance only found in youth, was too upset to be tired. With every passing hour, his need to find Buck increased.

"J.D. it's late and we need some sleep." The eldest reprimanded, "You got that much energy, you can go hunt up some breakfast."

"They're not dead!" the youth scowled, reading both shadowed faces. "You can't give up..."

"Nobody's giving up, Son," Ezra sighed, fighting off a yawn. He rubbed his face and laid down flat, covering his face with his hat.

"But..." J.D. said eyeing Josiah's stone face.

"We covered close to fifty miles today, J.D.. We're gonna ride hard tomorrow too." The preacher tossed a pebble into the fire and thought of his two lost friends. He hoped if they were gone, they didn't suffer. Suffer. That word brought one face to mind, Chris Larabee. The gray head shook and he felt J.D.'s hand on his shoulder.

"What about all that faith in the Lord you spout on Sunday?"

"Faith is why I'm here, J.D. Faith is what drives all of us, everyday." He looked up and met the fear lurking in the hazel eyes. "Faith is why were out here... and will guide us home."

"Not without Vin and Buck..." J.D. protested.

"J.D., life don't come with guarantees. It's been two days... if they were hurt as bad as Chris said... there's a strong possibility that they didn't make it. You need to..."

"No!" J.D. balked, "You can give up and ride back to Four Corners. I'm not leaving them out here."

"J.D...." Josiah called, but the youth was swallowed up by the shadows. He sighed and wondered if they'd lose their youngest too.

It was dark when Buck woke up. His head was screaming and he felt very weak. The bed was soft as was the pillow his aching crown rested upon. He fumbled under the thick quilt and found his hand. He felt the bandages and frowned. Sitting up, he spotted a pitcher of water nearby and drank two full mugs. He eyed the unfamiliar room and rubbed his eyes. He heard voices and got to his feet. The longjohns weren't enough and he shivered slightly, his body still damp from fever. He padded into the hall of the well-appointed house and looked down the staircase. A light was shining from the room to the left.

"You keep brooding like that and your face will freeze." The old Irishman warned his only child. "Then you'll never get a bride and I'll die without a grandchild to rock."

"You'll outlive me," the younger man chided, stroking his chin.


"Well what?"

"What's weighin' on you so bad, Johnny?"

"That prisoner and what Ben did to him. I can't look the other way anymore. He could have beaten Tanner to death."

"It wasn't your fault." The old man moved closer to the chair where his child was hunched forward. "That kid last month... you tried..."

"Not good enough!" The angry doctor rose and walked to the window. "He was all of sixteen and scared to death. If he weren't nearly starved to death, he'd never have taken that money. Adamson had no call to beat him like that."

"No, he didn't, but that on his conscience, not yours."

"I still see his eyes when I go to sleep. He died in my arms, Pa... he was only a kid. There's too many accidents in that damn prison. I got a bad feeling that Tanner's not gonna make it to Texas. I believe him, Pa. I don't think he's a murderer."

"I don't either... and if that prick you call a sheriff lays a finger on him, I'll put him down like the rabid dog he is." Buck's eyes were full of flint and matched the steel edge in his voice.

Part 8

"You finish all of that," Nate warned, watching the blond head dip.He frowned as the leader toyed with his supper. With every passing hour and empty mile covered, the withdrawal became stronger. The pale green eyes were full of pain... something deep and unreachable. Guilt was hovering, like an unwelcome phantom, ready to steal the gunslinger's soul. If it were just one of them, he'd have the other. But losing both Buck and Vin, his oldest and closest friends, was too much to bear. Even Chris Larabee had a breaking point. "Chris... you ain't gonna build your strength back up, unless you eat."

"It wouldn't stay put."

Chris pushed the remnants of a former rabbit away and lit a cheroot. Nathan was a good man, a talented healer and a good friend. But tonight, Chris's soul ached, and that was something even the most talented surgeon couldn't fix. Buck and Vin... both of them... how could it be possible? He leaned back against his saddle and winced. It hurt losing Buck so soon after he'd found him again. That deep voice, warm and rich, that bold laugh, the saucy wink, the steady hand gone forever. What if Buck got his memory back and realized what he'd done. Knowing Buck's big heart, Chris couldn't fathom the degree of guilt. What would happen when Buck realized Vin was dead because of him. He sighed and felt the pain rip into his gut again. Vin... he closed his eyes, pushing the burning sensation back. That was something so deep and real that there was no pain, only a bitter cold. A cruel, icy sensation that left him void of all feeling. Tomorrow the sun would come and in towns all around the county, life would resume. But for Chris Larabee, without Vin and Buck, there would be only pale imitations.

Nathan saw anguish on the pale face he felt like he'd been gutshot. He turned away and thought of the first time he saw Vin Tanner. A cocky, pale-faced stranger who'd spit into the wind. That defiant chin jutted out and challenged a yardful of yahoos. Vin never blinked, he stared down those cowards and Nate admired that. Over time, they'd developed a good friendship. Those blue eyes harbored many things. Sometimes, he saw such hurt housed there, it gave him a deep pain. The same sky eyes could light up a room with laughter, an infectious laughter. Once Vin got going, all of them followed. How could help yourself? The poetry hadn't surprised Nathan, he'd seen the sensitive side of Vin early on. Buck, the mere mention of his name brought a huge grin. If there was a walking definition of a cowboy, it was Buck Wilmington. Handsome, brave, charming, cunning, fearless... a rogue. The kind of friend every man wanted, and every woman dreamed of. He sighed, the coffee suddenly tasted bitter and he tossed it away. He laid back and crossed his arms under his head. His soulful brown eyes gazed intently at the starfield above his head.

"Where are you?" He whispered, his need to heal overwhelming him. He turned and saw Chris shift, and the healer's eye caught a glimmer of silver in the gunslinger's hand. It wasn't so much the look of raw agony in the green eyes, but the fierce grip on the mouth harp. The strong hands were gripping Vin Tanner's soul.

"You shouldn't be out of bed!" The doctor crossed the room and grabbed the staggering figure.

"I'm okay... just need to eat." Buck protested, grateful for the strong arm.

"Got some roast chicken and fixin's... " the old man offered and waited for Buck to nod. He exited, leaving the two younger men to talk.

"These accidents," Buck pressed, "You got records of them?"


"You write them down and I'll get them a Judge. Man like that has to be stopped."

"You're safe in here. But once you try to leave..."

"I'm leavin' tomorrow and taking Tanner with me."

"You're not ready to ride a horse yet. You won't get five miles before you fall off. There's too much desert out there..."

"Day after then," Buck compromised, feeling extremely weak and rundown. He grimaced and rubbed his head, which throbbed relentlessly. "How's the kid?"

"Better. His fever's down, but his leg's still infected. I wired a preacher for him..."

"A preacher?" Buck boomed, "What preacher?"

"Some fellow he ran into west of here." The doctor moved as his father entered, placing a plate of food down and a large mug of lemonade. "I guess every man seeks comfort in the Bible when he feels his time is near."

"You finish all that or you get no pie." The elder man chastised, giving Buck a stern look.

"Damn, you sound like Nathan..." Buck ducked and picked up a fork.

"Who's Nathan?" The doctor leaned forward.

"Huh?" Buck looked up.

"You said my Pa sounded like Nathan," he paused, recalling the ranting deliveries the ill man made the night before. "You called for him several times, during your fever dreams."

"Yeah?" Buck frowned, thinking hard and shaking his head. "Don't know any Nathan's. Must have been a crazy dream."

"How about Chris or J.D.?"

Buck swallowed the potatoes and buttered a biscuit. "Chris..." he nodded, "Chris Larabee, an old friend of mine. J.D...." he said over and over, "Nope..."

"Well, I guess you could be confused." He hesitated and waited for his father to go outside to smoke his pipe. "Did you mean what you said about getting a judge to do something about Ben Adamson?"

Buck washed the herb-laced chicken down with a long gulp of lemonade and nodded. "When I took that oath," he noted of his lawman's creed, "I took it to heart. That animal made the worst mistake of his sorry life when he beat Tanner."

John O'Conner pulled back, surprised at the venom in the injured man's voice. The dark blue eyes were hooded and full of hate. If he didn't know better, he'd swear this man was out for blood... the kind of lust that comes with caring for someone, caring deeply, like family.

"That kid mean something to you?"

"He's my responsibility." Buck shot back, angry at himself for the uncontrollable urges and rage he felt whenever the battered face with trusting blue eyes filled his mind. "I gave him my word. Buck Wilmington's word is as good as done. If he was set up, I aim to fix that."


"Yeah, thanks Doc."

"It's John," the doctor replied, offering his hand. "I'll be back with that pie."

Buck sighed and stared out the window, his eyes riveted on the sheriff's office. The face appeared again and Buck's stomach clenched. He gripped the red checked napkin in his hand and watched the fog cover the pleading eyes. Another sheriff's office appeared with a cocky kid out front. Same face from the other dream... long dark hair, trusting hazel eyes, brassy grin... stupid hat. A strange voice echoed in his head. He was looking up from the ground at the dark-haired kid.

"You look awful Buck."

He jerked when the hand touched his back.

"Sorry, Son."

"That's okay, Old Timer..." Buck stammered, shaken by the vision. What the hell was wrong with him? Maybe this head injury was serious. Nightmares with his eyes open... he'd be grateful for the damn medicine tonight.

The doctor returned with a tray bearing pie and coffee. He noticed the startling change in his patient. The tall man seemed to have lost his appetite and was almost melancholic. He appraised the sharp features and rapid blinking.

"I've got something for that headache." He said quietly and helped the injured lawman to his feet.

"Thanks," Buck nodded, taking the painkiller without hesitation. "Did I get any telegraphs?"

"No, sorry." the Doctor replied. The marshal was worried about his deputy and waiting for a return to the wire that was sent.

Later, when the house was quiet, Buck waited for the medicine to take effect. Burrowed under the soft quilt on the comfortable bed, he kept seeing that strange boy with black hair, a bowler and a badge. The gold tooth gambler reappeared, shuffling cards and grinning... the large man with gray hair and a pair of kind dark eyes in a dark face. The images came faster and caused his head to pound. He felt the drugs wash over him and surrendered.

"Sheriff... Sheriff Adamson..."

The lawman shoved the busy redhead who was on her knees, in the alley. He buttoned his pants and quickly turned around. He peered into the darkness and saw a body waving at him from down the street. He reached behind and slid one beefy hand down past the low neckline, squeezing the ample bosom. "Get a bottle and get to your room... I'm hungry tonight..." he warned, pinching her hard before withdrawing his hand. She shuffled off and disappeared into the night.

"What is it Carl?" he asked, recognizing the approaching figure.

"I thought you should know, the Doc wanted me to send a wire to Four Corners for that Tanner fella."

"I hope you didn't do something stupid Carl."

"No Sir..." the clerk stammered, eyeing the wall of muscle.

"Good. You keep it that way. Who was he trying to contact?"

"Some preacher..."

"Hmph..." The lecherous lawman scoffed, "...where's that murderin' bastard is headed, they don't need Bibles. He'll be tradin' his soul for a pitchfork."

Vin felt Adamson before he saw him. The tracker had his aching body facing the wall. The heat of the cell told him it was nearing midmorning. He'd been alone all morning and more than a little apprehensive. The doctor hadn't been in and that wasn't like him. At breakfast, the kid deputy mentioned an emergency well outside of town. It didn't set well with Vin then and even less so now. He'd been testing his leg, wincing at the healing skin began to pull. What bothered him more was not seeing Buck. It had been two days and although he believed the doctor, that Buck was too ill to be up and about, it still gnawed at him. He didn't trust the weasel with the badge who now was unlocking the door.

"Well now," the huge man boomed, forcing Vin to back up. "Since that leg is working so well, let's take a little walk."

"I ain't goin' nowhere," Vin said cooly, meeting the sadistic eyes. He limped back to his cot, but before he got there, a beefy hand gripped his shoulder painfully. He was spun around and backhanded viscously, splitting his lip.

"Don't you sass me, Tanner." Adamson grilled, gripping Vin's collar and shoving him hard against the bars. "The livery needs cleaning and there's grain sacks to be unloaded at the Feed and Seed. You've been elected... move." He drew his pistol, and Vin didn't doubt he'd use it. Sighing, he wiped the blood from his lip and limped painfully out the door.

A hot bath and good lunch left the recovering lawman feeling much better. Draining the last of the aspirin powder, he headed over to the jail. He was anxious to see Tanner and upset that Old Man O'Conner left him sleep until noon. He checked the telegraph, but there was still no word from Danny. He entered the jail and frowned at the empty desk. He looked inside and saw three empty cells. His nose told him which one had been occupied. He unlocked it and went inside. Eyeing the full bucket in the corner, he realized that Tanner hadn't been gone long. Fear gripped him and visions of Adamson beating Tanner outside town or worse rammed into him. Guilt assaulted him and a pain drove him to his knees. The day visionsreturned, Tanner's face, emotive and saddened appeared. The soulful eyes were wide and wet and a sorrow gripped the mustached man. He shook himself free of the spell and dizzily eyed the empty cell. Why did this stranger grip his chest so badly? He staggered outside and saw the kid sheriff down the street. Another vision appeared, the dark-haired youth with the bowler hat laughing with a young girl. The green-eyed gambler was next to him, the sun reflecting off his gold tooth.

"J.D..." he croaked, reaching a hand out. The face grew closer and the strange youth wearing a badge turned to him in the mist. The boy's lips formed a name... his name. The pain in his head was blinding. He staggered haphazardly, gripping both sides of his head. He didn't see the curb and tripped, going to his knees hard. He felt two hands grab him and saw the kid sheriff fading fast.

"Hey...." Andy managed as the body toppled. "Clem, Dave, I need a little help here," he called back to his two friends.

Ten p.m, Ruby Slipper Saloon, Salerno.

Dejected faces sat mutely in the smoky tavern. Four of the five men were beyond the plains of exhaustion and sinking into the river of numb. Even whiskey didn't bury the deep-seeded pain they all felt. They'd tried, ridden farther and harder than humanly possible. Mile and mile, town after town, without any luck. Josiah thanked the sheriff and his men for their time. He sipped the whiskey slowly, letting the amber fluid burn a futile path. Ezra's eyes were trained on the youngest. J.D.'s smoldering glances were burning a hole through the back of their somber leader. The preacher followed the boy's gaze to just outside the batwing doors. He didn't have to see the blond's face to feel the pain that emanated there. Chris hadn't said a word since they arrived. He drained a single shot of whiskey, slammed the glass down and eyed them carefully.

"It's done." With that he turned and left them. He'd been in the doorway ever since, lost in a world of shattered promise.

The three elders had been mentally prepared for the decision. The chips were stacked against the ill-fated pair from the start. Vin trussed up and helpless, being led by an ex-marshal with a head injury through an unforgiving desert. At the end of the second day, Chris became withdrawn. With every passing empty mile, his heart hardened. The all realized how deeply he was grieving and how hard the decision to call off the search was but the broken-hearted sheriff had been irate. He screamed and flung himself at Chris, only to be intercepted by Nathan and Ezra. The healer and the gambler had tried to made him understand, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. Josiah raised a wary eye and J.D. belted down another shot of whiskey.

"You better slow down, Son," he warned.

"You best mind your own business Preacher." J.D. shot back, eyes hot. He glared at all of them, screaming inwardly. They didn't understand. How could they? They didn't know Buck like he did. They didn't need Buck like he did. It wasn't fair... finding Buck and losing him like this. How could they give up on Buck and Vin? He tossed back another shot and wiped his mouth of his sleeve. His heart ached and the liquor wasn't the comforting blanket he'd hoped. He glanced at the long faces, already defeated and shoved his chair back.

"To hell with all of you." He turned and headed for the leader. He didn't realize how much he'd consumed until his legs seemed not be be adjusting to the uneven floor. He stepped outside and confronted the gunslinger, not hiding his pain. "Especially you... it's your fault. You could have done something... The great Chris Larabee... you don't even care..." he eyed the impassive face, both fists clenched. His hazel eyes were burning and his rage built to a scorching climax. He drew his fist back and clipped Chris Larabee on the chin, with all his might. Chris staggered and fell on his knees. Suddenly, three bodies appeared, blocking the path between the two.

Chris's was cold, he never remembered feeling so cold. His insides were frozen, devoid of feeling of any kind. It was too new and too raw. Chris eyed the empty street, not able to fathom not hearing that soft Texan drawl again or see the mischievous blue eyes mocking him. No more booming Wilmington laughter and steady arm. He sighed and eyed the sky. Did they suffer? Dying of thirst was a horrible way to leave this world. He heard J.D.'s outburst and turned to regard the youngest. Buck would kick the kid's ass for acting up like this. He rubbed his aching jaw as Nathan approached. He put a single hand up, stopping the healer's progress. He stood, swiped the trickle of blood from his lip and grabbed the flushed face sheriff. His face remained impassive, but his green eyes were glowing. He clutched the dusty shirt and backed him against the wall. He leaned his face close and didn't hide his pain.

"You don't know a damn thing about me, J.D." He released the boy and strode away. J.D cringed and shook off Josiah's hand. He shoved off the wall and disappeared into the black night.

"Let him go." Nathan said, spotting Ezra's face. They all knew J.D. was hurting in a place they couldn't reach. "He needs more time to adjust."

Ezra didn't doubt that, he just didn't want the youth to do something rash, like riding out into the desert after Buck.

"I think I'll stretch my legs before retiring for the evening." The gambler brushed his jacket and adjusted his hat.

Nate and Josiah exchanged a sad smile and Josiah shook his head. He rested a hand on the scarlet jacket and gave a good squeeze.

"You're not the conman you think you are."

Ezra started to reply, but instead just smiled and ran his hand along his hat brim. He walked slowly up the street, following the path of the wayward sheriff.

J.D.'s legs felt like lead. It was too much and he didn't know how to handle it. The liquor only fueled his pain. It clawed at his insides, feral and fierce, trying to escape. He didn't stop until he was next to Annabelle, Buck's mighty gray bay. He stroked her neck and buried his face there. He didn't want to feel this pain. He didn't want to believe Vin and Buck were dead. His face screwed up as he thought of his best friend. He stumbled over to the far corner of the barn and slid down into the deep pile of hay. He grasped his arms around his knees and let the bitter tears fall. He rocked as the pain lanced through him. For all the terrible beauty of all that was and the bitter loss of all that could have been.

Fried chicken, that was what he felt like. His flesh was roasting in the relentless sun. Every limb ached and throbbed. He was soaked through and the sweat ran down his face and lean body like a river. The headache went beyond any he'd ever felt and his vision was blurry. Every painful breath was forced through the fire of his taped ribs. He raised his burning blue eyes and gauged the sun. It was nearing four p.m. and seemed like forever. He secured the last crate and slumped against the neat rows he'd unloaded. The job was done and not a minute too soon. He was covered from head to toe in filth from the stalls in the livery. Muck was mashed into his hair, skin and clothes. The heat of the sun only made things worse, creating an awful stench.

The sheriff lounged just outside under a large tree, drinking cool water. He spent the entire time ridiculing, insulting and abusing him verbally. Vin knew he was being tested and mentally shut down. He worked like drone, without thought or emotion. The louder the sheriff's lewd voice became, the colder Vin grew. He was too tired to walk and slid down onto the floor.

"Get up..."

"Go t'Hell..." Vin rasped, knowing a blow was coming and too worn out to care. The beefy fist clipped his chin, sending him sideways. The warehouse tilted at an odd angle and stars danced before him. He grunted as his hands were pulled harshly behind him and cuffed. He bit his lip as the large hand hauled him up by the hair and shoved him forward. He staggered and stumbled down the boardwalk, getting grimaces and looks of disgust from everybody on the street. His legs were like rubber and his throat parched. The street began to ripple and fade and he went down on his knees, just outside the jail. He felt the hand snatch his hair again and used what little strength he had left, to turn and bite the beefy paw.

"Fuckin' animal..." the sheriff yelped and slammed Tanner's head against the wall.

From the piano, a jaunty tune was heard and the bar was crowded. Friendly faces greeted him and warm hands slapped his back. A dark haired beauty was behind the counter and scowled at him. Buck felt his internal thermometer rise when he saw her. Voices called to him and he slowly turned. The voices were all muffled and he strained to hear. The large gray-haired man with the kind blue eyes handed him a beer. The dark-skinned man was laughing with the dark-haired kid, who was still wearing that damn bowler hat. The gambler's deft fingers were shuffling a deck of cards. Someone gripped his shoulder and he turned. A buckskin arm was lying on his forearm. He turned and where a face should be, was a bloody mask, with no features visible.


Buck sat up and wrapped his trembling arms across his chest and rocked in the large bed. His face was covered in sweat and he was shivering uncontrollably. The nightmares were getting worse and pain that accompanied them was unbearable. He threw the quilt off and made his legs work. He poured water into the basin nearby and splashed his face and neck. He found the aspirin powder and liberally dumped it into the tin mug.He threw on his shirt and boots and found the stairs. The house was quiet and it was twilight outside. The deep blue that colors the sky just after pie and coffee. The vision of the bloody face and buckskin arm was tearing at his insides. His fears built to a crescendo and he ran from the doctor's house. He staggered to the jail and entered. It was empty. His heart sank and he staggered forward. He saw a body on the cot inside the cell and sighed. His shaky hands wiped the sweat the covered his face and his fingers were barely able to unlock the door.

"Tanner... Tanner..." He squinted in the dark and returned to the outer office for a lamp. Upon returning, his eyes confirmed what his nose was offended at. "What the hell..." He set the lamp down and his face screwed up in disgust. The young man was filthy, covered in manure, grime, mud and every other foul substance from a barn. His face was flushed, from fever or sun, it didn't matter to the irate lawman. This was the final straw. He brushed the mangy, matted grimy hair from the still face. A new bruise was coloring the jaw and a large lump was resting on the side of the head. His fingers barely grazed it and a sharp moan caused the head to turn.


Buck turned to see the kid... Andy? "What the hell happened?"

"What do mean?" Andy said, walking towards the cell.

Buck could read a liar a mile away and this youthful deputy was shell-shocked. There was no mistaking the horrified face that was stunned before him. "Get me some water... now!" he commanded and lifted the stench-ridden body up. He slapped the red cheeks of the unconscious man and saw the brows furrow. That was a good sign.

"Tanner, wake up... come on, open them blue eyes... Tanner get up!" he said harshly, slapping the face a little harder and getting a groan.

Vin was exhausted. The fierce voice that turned into a growl was bothering him. He knew who was torturing him, only one person growled like that.

"Fuck off, Larabee..." he grunted and tried to roll over.

Buck froze and let go, allowing the smaller man to fall against him. Larabee? Chris Larabee... the kid was semi-conscious... he couldn't make that up. He did know Chris. He jumped as a vision slapped before his pained eyes. Chris smiling, warmth oozing from his green eyes... at... at... the picture broadened and he was beside Chris, then another face appeared next to his old friend... Tanner's.

"What the hell..." he whispered, trembling all over as the pain flared again.

"Marshall Wilmington, I'm real sorry. I was on patrol, I didn't... Marshall?" Andy saw the same blank look the mustached man had earlier and quickly strode to his side. He lightly touched the linen shoulder and the large man jumped.

"Wha... uh..." Buck shook himself and saw the youth's concern. He nodded and took the mug of water. Turning back to his charge, he nudged the parched lips. "Open up and drink... Tanner, You hear me? I got some water..."

Like a starving infant seeking nourishment, the touch of the tin to the parched lips roused the slumped figure. He drank greedily and Buck pulled the cup away. "Cut that out, you'll get sick. This is the only shirt I got, slow and easy," he warned and saw a blue eye peel open as the water disappeared.

The blackness dissolved and the room grew clearer. Vin's eyes widened in relief when he saw Buck's face. He reached a hand out and touched it, needed to assure himself he wasn't dreaming.

"Buck... Buck... I thought the bastard killed ya... Oh God... " Vin sighed, laying his aching head against the broad chest.

Buck's heart clenched so tight he felt sure he was having a heart attack. The cup wobbled in his hand and the deputy took it to refill. Buck couldn't speak. There was no mistaking the emotion and deep worry in the soft drawl. The lean body that rested so trustingly against him was gasping in relief. Buck didn't like the feelings he was overwhelmed with... not one bit. He'd been hunting down and locking up criminals for sometime. He never experienced this before.

"He's out again..."

"What?" Buck whispered, blinking and noticing the deputy squatting and touching Tanner's face. Suddenly Buck felt a strength building inside, growing and giving him the fight he needed. "Help me get him over to the Doc's."

"What are you going to do?" Andy asked, lifting the filthy prisoner's legs.

"I'm gonna clean him up, you're gonna find him some new clothes and then I'm taking him the hell outta of this damn town."

"That all?"

"No," Buck snarled as they crossed the street. His blue eyes turned to flint and his voice carried a razor's edge. "I'm coming back to send that son-of-a-bitch sheriff straight to Hell."

"What happened?" Jack O'Conner saw them coming and opened the door.

"That fuckin' excuse for a lawman made his last sorry mistake." Buck vowed, venom dripping from every word. "Fill the tub with tepid water." He waited for the old man to leave. Tanner was now resting on the examination table in the physician's office. Buck started to peel the filthy, mucky clothes off him.

"The Padre has some clothes in the basement of the church." Andy said. "I'll leave your horses just outside the churchyard. It's dark there. Don't take too long, he'll be back by midnight."

Buck nodded and watched the young deputy leave. He tossed the refuse-marred clothing into a pile and put it out the side door of the office. Returning to Tanner, he winced at the scars lining the lean mans body and wrapped him in a sheet. He saw the old man return, looking sheepish.

"You got something to say?"

"Johnny was afraid this would happen again."

"Again?" Buck's voice rose as he pulled the silent prisoner upright. The mangy head flopped against him and he saw the old man wince.

"Every time a lawman passes through and drops a prisoner off... well... they never make it for the wagon to pick 'em up. There's usually an 'accident' of some kind and he hires somebody to take the body for the reward."

"And you let him get away with this?" Buck's voice rose in incredulation. "What kind of town is this?"

"A scared one... " The old man admitted. "He took that boy outta the cell around ten. I heard folks sayin' he worked him like a dog. Made him clean out every stall on his hands and knees. Then he made him load freight in the sun... no hat or cover... no water. He made sure Johnny was out of town. He's the only one who defies him. I'm sorry... " the gnarled hand trembled as it brushed the long hair from the sleeping young man's face. "Let's get this boy cleaned up... "

The water was refilled twice and Buck gently washed every bit of grim, filth and animal dung from the now clean body. He frowned as the dry lips parted and small moans snuck out. Twice the blue slits appeared, darting frantically until they saw him. The look of trust and the restful sighs produced gave him another pain in his chest. He carefully dried the long hair, wary of the lump on the still silent man's head. The deputy returned with clothes and immediately jumped in to help. With Andy's help, he lifted Tanner from the tub, dried him off, wrapped his ribs and leg and dressed him. Before he could ask, Jack appeared with burn salve. Buck smiled and used a soft touch, rubbing the ointment on the red neck, chest and face. Finally, they sat the sleeping man in a chair and Buck slumped at the table nearby. His head dropped onto his folded arms, resting on the table.

"Sorry, Marshall, you don't have time for a nap now. You best toss this stew down and get moving. You can get a good leg up... two hours or more before he misses you."

"Thanks Andy." Buck nodded, "I'll make sure the Judge knows what you've done. I'm grateful." He shook the boy's hand. "I need a gun..."

"Rifle in the scabbard on the horse, cartridges in the saddle bag, food and three canteens." He issued, handing Buck his holster and pistol.

"Damn..." Buck smiled, "I'll need bandages and some liniment..." He made short work of the stew. "Give me a hand..." He nodded to Tanner. He paused and shook the old man's hand. "Thanks, Old Timer... for everything. You tell your boy I'm grateful... he's a helluva doctor."

"Good luck, Son." Jack said, watching them disappear out the back door.

"Tanner, wake up!" Buck hissed, as they eased the groggy man onto a horse. Buck stuck the new hat on the shaggy head. The head rose reluctantly, the brows furrowed in anger and the remained closed. "Tanner, we're leaving... wake up..." Buck slapped him, the body jerked and the eyes shot open.

Vin stiffened and looked around. He fingered the clean clothes and his hand went to his aching head. His hair was clean and he didn't smell. He realized the dream had been real, Buck did rescue him. He eyed the anxious face peering up at him. He gripped the tense shoulder and drilled the concerned eyes.

"Thanks, Marshal..."

Buck jerked as if the hand on his shoulder were made of flames. They scorched his chest cavity and raced through his body. The soft drawl almost undid him. He couldn't tear away from the pale eyes that were reflecting in the moonlight. Another dark night came into his mind... sitting by a fire... the light eyes full of fear and despair... and shame. He shook it off and nodded, patting the clean tan jeans.

"You okay to ride?" he managed.

"To Hell and back..." Vin grinned, seeing the white teeth briefly before Buck climbed onto his horse.

"Let's go."

As the pair rode off, Andy felt something inside that made him seem taller. He couldn't help thinking how proud he'd be to ride by Marshal Wilmington's side. They didn't come any finer... of that he was sure. He turned and walked back to the jail, unaware of the leering sheriff who was watching the whole episode from a darkened window. Andy didn't hear the lewd laugh as the evil sheriff counted the money he'd be getting shortly.

Like an elusive woman, the full moon teased them, jutting out just beyond their reach. Her illuminating hand was a steady guide. Vin felt an awful coldness inside and reined his horse in. Something wasn't right. It was too easy, too convenient. The prickles on his skin and the tightening of his gut told him so. Buck drew around also, eyeing the prisoner.

"We gotta head back t'Four Corners." Vin stated, answering the silent question posed by his friend

Buck didn't reply at first. He expelled a deep breath and weighed his convictions. He took the role he wore seriously as well as the ramifications that went with it. This young man who sat silently before him, was wanted for murder. Although Buck had an unexplainable feeling that Tanner was innocent, his duty was to the star. He'd mulled it over the other night, thinking on the large blue eyes that haunted his sleep. He'd stand by Tanner, find a judge and get to the truth. But there was something in the conviction of that last request that drew his attention.

"I'm listenin'..."

"It's a trap."

Buck didn't have to respond to the certainty in Tanner's voice, he felt it too. With every mile they'd covered, an icy tension stroked his spine. Tanner's words the night he'd been beaten now whispered to him. That the sheriff wanted the bounty money and didn't want any witnesses in town. So he would lie in wait and ambush the pair on the road to Texas, no witnesses. He trotted over to Tanner and nodded. Silently, they turned and headed for the road that would lead them west.

It was a cold night in the desert and Buck eyed the bulky shirt on the body ahead of him. Tanner didn't seem to feel the biting wind. For some reason, the lawman got a feeling that this wide-open space was the prisoner's home. He got the impression that the younger man thrived on the wilderness. They'd not spoken in the three hours since they'd turned around. So when the loud Texan's curse permeated the air, he stiffened, then slid off his mount.

"Fuck." Vin jumped from his horse. He gripped the saddlehorn, wincing as the full impact of his weight was thrust harshly on his injured leg. He limped over to the large pile of rocks and debris that littered the road.

"Rockslide..." Buck hissed, gripping his tense hips. He laid a hand on the downcast shoulder of the other man. "You know this area... is there any other way to..."

"No," Vin spat, curling his lips in disgust. "Bastards knew what the hell they was doin'... figured we head this way. Shit..." he winced as the sunburn mocked him too.

Buck didn't miss the painful hiss and the hand touching the scorched face. He rummaged in Tanner's saddlebag and drew out the ointment. "Here... rub some on your face."

"I'm fine." Vin denied, kicking a small pile of rocks at his feet. He was forced onto a large rock and scowled at the face looming over him.

"Easy way or hard way," Buck warned, "Don't make no never mind to me."

Vin recognized the wall in front of him was not about to move. He held his hand out and took a small amount of the cooling ointment. Gingerly, he rubbed his face and shoulders, they hurt the most. He took the canteen offered and drank a little. "Thanks... didn't meant to sound ungrateful."

"See that you don't make it a habit." Buck scoffed, eyes softening.

Vin turned and took a deep breath. It had to come out, he hadn't had a free moment with Buck since they'd arrived, leastwise none he was conscious for.

"Look, this is gonna sound crazy, but ya gotta hear me out." He paused and saw Buck's head rise. "We was ridin' back from Salerno when the Alvarez gang ambushed us... ya got an onry crease in yer head... it messed up yer memory, it's the truth."

"We?" Buck frowned, shaking his head, "As in you and me?"

"...and Chris. We live in Four Corners. We work fer Judge Travis, keepin' the peace. Nathan Jackson, Josiah Sanchez, Ezra Standish... course he don't ever break a sweat," Vin paused and a burst of fresh sneezes interrupted his mission. "... damn..." he wheezed. "...and J.D. Dunne, he's the sheriff and..." His thought was cut off by the audible hiss from the body next to him. "Buck? Ya okay?" He asked, but saw the blank expression and cursed inwardly.

Buck shivered, not from the cool desert night air, but from the one known as Tanner and the words he'd spoken. He rolled the names over and over again in his mind, but each one brought nothing but pain. It built up and he eyed the pile of rocks and the bruised body before him. Again he wondered at the overwhelming message that started from deep inside. He pressed a hand to his temple trying to make the pain go away.

"...protect him... protect him..."

"Ya alright, Bu... Marshal." Vin eyed the tremble with caution. Pressing Buck's memory now would only hurt him more. He couldn't afford Buck to black out now, not with danger lurking.

"Huh..." Buck blinked, not missing the soft concerned voice. "Yeah... so what now? I've only been this far over once. Seems I recall a river..."

"Yeah..." Vin got to his feet and limped back to his horse. He tied the canteen and eyed the shadowy horizon. "Be daybreak when we get there. Once we cross, we can head through Apache Pass."

"That's not real comforting," Buck admitted, climbing on his horse. Both knew the harsh stretch of land between Apache Pass and the nearest town. Two days with the right supplies would be hard enough on a seasoned traveler. But they weren't adequately prepared and... "I don't like it..."

"Me neither," Vin heard the apprehension in Buck's voice clearly, "But we ain't got much choice." He turned the horse and fell in beside Buck. With an exchanged nod of understanding, they started off.

Dawn, Apache Pass, east of Mackahow River

Duke Nelson fixed his eye to the scope. Ever the predator, he'd sensed his victims were close. He could feel it... years of experience led to the telltale clench in his gut. He shifted in the rocky outgroup, perched high above the road. He kept his eye trained and waited. A small smile crept on his face as the specks appeared.

"Like takin' candy from a baby..." he murmured, already counting his money.

The meager breakfast went down fast, with fresh water from the river. The horses were rested and the canteens refilled. Buck sighed and eyed the horse, not wanting to move. His head was pounding beyond belief and Tanner didn't look much better. The young man hadn't uttered a complaint, not that he expected it. The kid was tough and Buck admired that. There was something about his quiet confidence that Buck liked. Sighing, he followed Tanner's lead and headed to the horse. They resumed their trek in silence and the hours slid past. Buck thought on Tanner's words about Four Corners. The blinding pain caught him off guard and he cried out, clasping his head and dropping to his knees. The image was worse this time... another morning by a strange river. Chris was there, near the fire. A figure was huddled in a hide coat, desperately sick. Buck was holding the retching form, the long hair was all too familiar. Just as quickly as it came, it vanished.

Vin saw Buck fall and with lightning speed, he was at his side. He grabbed the body and flinched as the agonized cries drilled into him. Buck was on his knees, bent forward, gripping his head and groaning through clenched teeth. Vin latched on and pulled him close, not knowing what else to do.

"Easy, Buck... yer okay, I gotcha."

Through the red haze, the soft drawl was like a graceful torrent of rain, squelching the fire. He coughed and sputtered, fighting his way out of the painful dayvision. He felt the strong arms around him and relaxed, sagging and gulping air. He felt the hand on his back, lending strong strokes of support. He nodded once and shook free.

"I'm okay, Tanner... thanks... .was thinking about them names..."

Vin flinched and pushed any attempts at bringing back Buck's memory out of his mind. It wasn't worth the agony his friend was suffering. Nor could he afford Buck to collapse out here. He gripped Buck's extended forearm and hauled him up.

Buck let the smaller man help him up and saw unbridled anguish in the pale eyes. Why was this kid so attached to him? Hell, he'd bound him up, dragged him into a hellhole of a jail and let him get beat to a pulp. He should be angry, he could have ridden off... Buck didn't understand. He sighed and climbed on the horse, the questions still running rampant in his mind. Hours went by and expanse of desert stretched before them. The visions kept assaulting him and the pain flared again. He was still muddling those thoughts, when he heard Tanner scream and felt the other's horse brush his forcefully. A hand sent him sideways, just as a shot rang out.

Vin felt it in his blood, as soon as they entered the pass. His skin prickled, fueled by years of knowledge. Like a deer on the hunt, his drew his horse in and jerked his head up. His nose tilted, scenting the killer. His eyes traveled quickly around the perimeter, aiming high. There it was... just a glimmer of sun against the metal. He moved on instinct, and shoved Buck's horse hard.

"Ambush!" he screamed, throwing his body against Buck's. He landed hard on top of the larger man's back and buried his face as bullets rained down. Suddenly he realized Buck wasn't moving. He ran his right hand down Buck's side and felt the blood pooling. His deft fingers found a moist section of shirt on the stilled lawman's side. "Shit..." he swore, eyeing the barren landscape. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. The shooting stopped and he froze, weighing his options. Play possum... He pressed his hand into Buck's side and heard the sharp cry. "Sorry..." he hushed, his lips close to Buck's ear. He began rubbing his hair and face with Wilmington's blood, covering as much as he could. He pulled Buck's knife from the hip holster and slid it between their bodies. He heard the footsteps of the hunter. He held his breath and waited. Then the killer's hand touched his shoulder.

Part 9

Seven a.m., Salerno

Ezra and Josiah had already eaten. The preacher was on his way to telegraph Mary. Chris was in the farthest corner of the room. His eyes were red-rimmed and the light from them harbored a degree of intense anguish the likes of which the gambler had never seen. The gunslinger was huddled over a cup of coffee. He'd yet to utter a word. Nathan appeared and the seat next to Ezra.

"J.D. okay?" Nate asked, eyeing the other.

"No, but he's young. It will take awhile, but he'll survive this awful nightmare." Ezra recalled lurking in the shadows the night before and hearing the brief heart-wrenching sob. He waited in the dark and watched J.D. gradually get control. He saw the pained face right itself and the shoulders square back. The boy took over an hour, but eventually found his legs and his room. Ezra followed at a distance, smart enough to give the youth his solitude. Once the lamp went off in J.D.'s room, the gambler retired and finally slept.

"Mornin' J.D." Nate said simply as the body found a chair. He winced at the dull eyes and total lack of life in them. Defeated. That was where the young man was. Nathan thought back for a few minutes and rested a tentative hand on the youth's brown-jacketed arm. He felt the muscles tense, but the arm didn't retract.

"I know how you feel, J.D." He recalled the night Isaac died. "I lost my brother... to a lynch mob... when I was fifteen." He sighed and bit his lip as the pain came back.

Nathan's words parted his fog and J.D. lifted his head. He saw the deep sorrow housed in the dark eyes and felt Nathan's pain. Fifteen... and to see your brother hung before your eyes. He couldn't imagine how you got over that. But yet here Nathan sat, offering his hand in comfort. J.D. nodded and turned his palm over, shaking the other's hand. "Thanks, Nathan. It hurts..."

"Yeah..." Nate nodded, "I know."

"I'm not going back to Four Corners," J.D. announced, "I'm going to find them."

"Son, there's a whole lot of desert out there. You could search for weeks and never find a trace," Ezra offered.

"I'm going." J.D. stuck his chin out defiance. Josiah entered and looked at all of them with a little worry.

"What?" Nate asked, reading the preacher's face clearly.

"Trouble in town... maybe. There was a wire from Mary waiting. A couple strangers rode in yesterday. Inez heard them talking, after they polished off a bottle. They're raiders..."

"Alvarez's men?"

They all turned as Chris Larabee finally found his voice. He stood and walked slowly to the preacher, who nodded.

"Yeah... Mary's worried... Inez thinks they're scouts... eyeing the bank and the freight office. From what she heard, there's a dozen men coming. Town without any lawmen, we gotta move, it'll be a massacre."

"Okay, Josiah, you update the sheriff and wire the judge. Ezra, you and Nathan get the horses. J.D...."

"I'm not going back, I told you."

"You get your miserable ass out of that chair and do your fuckin' job!" Chris hollered with such velocity, it nearly shattered the glass windows. "You forgetting that the Wells' place is on the way into town? I've seen what those bastards do, J.D., Miss Nettie and Casey will be brutalized. You want that on your conscience? And what about Billy and Mary and the others..."

J.D. felt the steel grip that pulled him out of the chair. He stared hard at the icy green eyes housed in the furious face. A vision of Casey, lying in tattered clothes and bloody, her innocence stolen away, chilled him. Billy catching a stray bullet... Mary helpless at the violent hands of the gang.

"Goddammit Kid, what the hell's the matter with you? I taught you better than that. Get your head up and use them balls you got."

"Buck..." J.D gasped and shook the clear voice that assaulted his mind. The voice was right, Buck had taught him better. He jerked free of Chris and shoved past him. He got to the door and waited.

The other four watched in admiration and surprise as the youth faded more and a man emerged. Someone who was very clearly on the right path, echoing his best friend's creed. Chris almost felt Buck in the room, could swear he saw Buck hit the Kid with his hat. He felt as proud as Buck would, watching the boy grow into his boots.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" J.D. demanded hostily, "Let's ride." He ordered and saw Chris raise a sandy eyebrow and turn his lips up slightly.

A spreading pool of blood puddled under the former lawman and covered the bounty's face. The crimson stained head gave the hunter a smile. He tossed the bedroll down, readying it for Tanner's body. He hovered over the bodies for a moment and nudged Tanner with his boot. He eyed his horse several feet away and bent to grab the dead Texan. The strike was so swift and the pain so severe the scream died before it was born. Nelson's eyes widened as they watched Tanner, like Phoenix, rise from the ashes. His twisted face was scored with bloodied warpaint and the unholy howl that left Tanner's lips, struck pure terror in him.

Vin left the knife buried to the hilt in the killer's kneecap. He used his left leg and right arm in unison. The leg drew behind the startled man and with one swift move, he lifted both of the attacker's legs. He used the meaty bottom of his right hand and struck the bridge of hunter's nose, breaking it instantly. Blood gushed over the stunned face and the body toppled backwards. Vin pinned both arms by straddling him and gripped the knife, still embedded in the knee. One viscous twist severed the tendons and ligaments. He relished the agonizing scream and pulled the man up by his hair.

"Talk..." Vin commanded sternly, his eyes bulging. The site of Buck lying in a pool of blood sent him into a danger zone. A place where he only felt heat and saw fiery explosions of red anger. The pain that coursed through his veins was one of vengeance for a brother down.

Duke was so stunned, he couldn't reply. He could barely breath, let alone think clear. The kid was fast and smart, his moves were like a wildcat. He eyed the bloodstreaked face with feral eyes a startling blue and felt his courage die. This kid was a killer alright and had bloodlust in his eyes. He drew up what little saliva he could muster and spit at the angry face.

Vin wiped the spit from his cheek and growled. "Wrong fuckin' answer..." He slid the knife slowly, cutting through more tissue and muscle. He drank in the screams and held the bloody knife against the killer's scalp. With a flick of his wrist, several inches of scalp were separated from the skull.

"Who the hell are ya?"

Duke Nelson had been shot, stabbed and even horse trampled. Nothing prepared him for the pain he now was experiencing. There was no word to describe it... he heard the high-pitched scream and paled when he realized it was his voice. Tanner would kill him, of that he was sure. But it would be slow and brutal. Blood loss, pain and shock were causing his reactions to slow down. Before he could utter a thought, the knife bit into his scalp again. He felt the Texan's sticky fingers ripping his scalp away slowly, every bloody inch painfully separating from his skull. He screamed and screamed... and then began babbling hysterically.

"Nelson... Duke Nelson... It was Adamson's idea..."

"...s'that piece o'shit out here with ya?" Vin teethed, punctuating the thought with the blade.

"No... no... I'm alone..." He gasped, "His idea... years ago... the bounty's had accidentsand I'd come for the body. We split the take... he even framed a few... we killed a wealthy rancher's kid a few months back... Dumas... Dugan, yeah... Kyle Dugan... his old man put up money... bounty was $2500... framed a drifter..."

" ya figured ya pick off me and Buck... and take m'hide in..." Vin gritted and saw what was left of the disfigured head bob. "Wrong fuckin' decision..." He snarled, taking the rest of the bloody scalp and driving his knee into Duke Nelson's neck, crushing his larynx. "Rot in hell ya yella son-of-a-bitch."

Vin wiped the knife and his bloody hands on the dead man's pants and rose. He staggered back over and dropped down next to Buck. The large pool of blood scared the hell out of him. He gently eased the still body over and heaved a sigh of relief at the blue eyes looking back at him.

Buck had seen Vin's brutal interrogation and the scene stunned him. Tanner didn't appear to be a savage, Buck's instincts told him differently. But there was no mistaking the bloodlust he'd witnessed. He eyed the crimson streaked face still riddled with anger, housing blue eyes soft with concern.

"...nice calling card..." he moaned, eyeing the ratty, thatch of the killer's hair which was lying several feet away. "You okay, Tanner?"

"I'm a mite pissed off..." Vin replied, wiping his face with his sleeve and unbuttoning Buck's shirt. He quickly determined the damage.

"I wouldn't have guessed," Buck chuckled and grimaced, stifling a groan. Vin pressed his hand hard.

"Sorry... gotta stop the bleedin'." Vin offered, "Here, let's get the coat offa ya." Vin eased him upright and grunted as Buck's full weight hit him. He clumsily got the coat off and rolled Buck onto his side. Keeping one hand on the sweat-slicked marshal's face, he spoke clearly.

"Marshal, I gotta turn ya over and check on the exit."

Buck began to chuckle again, in between fighting for air. Here was a man who he'd seen torture and brutalize a killer, a site which chilled him to the bone. This same man's gentle hands now were healing and the voice a soft apology. It didn't seem possible... who was the real Vin Tanner? His face was covered in sweat and he shut his eyes, to prevent the stinging tears. He groped blindly and latched onto Tanner's shirt. He felt the almost feather-like touch of the fingers on his back. The kid was a puzzle. Finally, he was eased onto his back. He blinked up at the face hovering over him, shut out by the hot sun. He smelled defeat even before Tanner opened his mouth.

Vin used one hand on Buck's side, stemming the flow and pressed hard. "Nearest town is over a day from here with hard ridin'. The bullet'll poison ya... kill ya long 'afore we get there." He leaned close to Buck's face and felt every bead of sweat now pouring down his body. He drilled the dark blue eyes, now black with pain, with own soulful pair. "It's gotta come out."

"So get to it..." Buck replied, full of trust and without hesitation. Their eyes met for a second and Buck felt a wave of strength flowing freely from the sky blue ones above him. He inhaled deeply, taking in Tanner's pride and feeling stronger. He smiled, nodded once, and extended his hand.

Vin saw the hand and shook it, gripping it hard. He felt a clench in his gut, when the sun glinted off the silver star on Buck's chest. Although it was Buck Wilmington, his friend who was lying before him, it was a stranger who was putting his life in a prisoner's hands. That show of faith was all he needed. He placed Buck's hand against the wound, low on the side and pressed hard.

"Ya keep pressure on it," Vin advised, rising. "I'm gonna get somethin' t'bandage it with."

He stripped and took off his undershirt. Putting his shirt back on, he used Buck's knife to cut the undergarment into long strips. He bound the wound and tied it off. Then he folded Buck's tan coat and laid it under his soaked head. He saw the eyes sliding shut and paused.

"Ya rest up and I'll get us set up."

Vin eyed the arid terrain and frowned. Dotted with cacti, shrubs, and other geographic decor, it's terrible beauty now posed a deadly threat. The first priority was a horse. The two they rode in on were long gone. He eyed the sorrel tied to a cactus several yards away. He jogged over and rummaged through the saddlebags. There was a sliver of soap, a razor, some money and a bottle of liquor. In the other side was a mug, coffee, beef jerky and a small jar of peach preserves. A full canteen... he frowned and eyed the sun overhead. Even if Buck survived the operation, a fever would set in. He'd seen Nate bathe down enough of them to know how much water was required. He'd have to make a travois and get Buck moving by nightfall. The sooner they got to a town, the better chance he'd have with a doctor's hands. He eyed the horizon and recognized where they were. Tuscosa's shadow was hovering in the distance, mocking him. He was back in Texas.

Sighing, he turned and eyed the twin cacti alongside a small group of rocks. He knelt by Nelson's dead body and stripped it. Using the pants and the saddle blanket from the horse, he made a canopy four feet by three. It was enough to shade Buck. He placed the bedroll that Nelson was going to roll him in, under the new shade. Food. He eyed the Christmas Cactus's bright red fruit and saw a prickly pear cactus nearby. That was good. The purple and red fruit and the tubular turnip-like root from the Night Blooming Cereus, would be adequate. Water... he didn't even want to think about that. Sighing, he went back over to Buck.

Buck didn't realize he'd dozed off until a gentle hand shook him. His side burned like the devil and his head was pounding with wild abandon. The kid didn't look much better. He eyed the shelter Vin had made and smiled weakly.

"Yer room's all ready..." Vin teased, and then scolded Buck who tried to rise. Don't... ye'll start bleedin'... I'll get ya there." He eyed the concern on the other's face and paused. "Ya know, I think the sun's helpin' m'cold."

Buck tried not to laugh, but a sad chuckle slipped out and he yelped. He watched Tanner's lips turn up slightly and shook his head.

"Don't... please..." he protested, as the weak laughter bit his wound hard.

"Sorry..." Vin ducked and moved behind Buck.

Buck had his doubts, Tanner wasn't the picture of health and totin' broken ribs. He knew the grunts from the bounty weren't just from exertion. He helped as much as he could and finally relaxed a little when he was eased onto the bedroll. The shade helped his vision and he saw Tanner sitting against the rock, eyes closed and leaning forward. He frowned, bit his lip in guilt and watched the pain radiate off the younger man. Both hands were wrapped around his damaged ribs. The sunburn from the day before was blistering, his face was a bruised mess and his lips were cracked and bleeding.

"You know Tanner," Buck croaked, eyeing the sad body. "You look like shit."

"Fuck y'all Bucklin..." Vin snapped, the automatic reply to Buck's favorite ribbing of the tracker. He heard the sharp intake and immediately regretted his shortsightedness. For some reason, that word, which usually lit up Buck's face with warmth, now filled it with terror. "Aw, hell... " he moaned and painfully moved over. Buck's face was slack and the blank eyes were lost in another place. Vin gripped the slack hand and squeezed gently, waiting for the scream he knew would come.

It was a dark and he was in pain. A terrible lancing in his side. Bloodied bandages lie in a pile nearby. He was warm... hot even. Sweat poured down his face. A gentle hand tended him. He eyed the large tent and recognized it's Indian markings. His pained face saw the remnants of battle nearby. Bodies... dozens of them... all dead... lie like toy confederate soldiers haphazardly strewn. A voice was calling to him. The large face, gray hair and blue eyes smiled at him. Words of comfort came from the man's lips. Buck felt them and turned to see the soulful dark eyes housed in chocolate skin. Trust the touch. He nodded at the healer and turned again, Chris was there and someone else... a buckskinned jacket... a familiar soft drawl. The pain exploded in his head and he screamed.

"Dammit, I'm sorry, Bu... Marshal." Vin hissed, pinning Buck's weakening body to the ground. The other man slumped and fell silent. A deep sorrow filled him, fearing that Buck might be lost to him forever. What if Buck never got his memory back? Then he paled and realized the more damaging scenario. What if he did? What if Buck remembered everything? He knew Wilmington's big heart was second to none. If Buck remembered... he'd been shattered. Buck didn't see pain that overtook the pale blue eyes. He didn't see the trembling hand touch his cheek. He didn't hear the heartfelt apology. He was blissfully lost in an inky black void.

Vin gathered their meager supplies around them. There were saddlebags, a rifle, two knives, Nelson's shirt cut into bandages and a bottle of liquor. He plucked some fruit from the nearby cacti and kept them in Buck's hat. He slowly eyed the nearby terrain and his eye caught a shrub in the distance.

It was a medium-sized shrub about four feet high and appeared to have no leaves. It looked like a thicket of numerous green, jointed, leafless branches with small buds. Vin's years living with the Comanche and Kiowa taught him about survival and medical plants. That nondescript shrub was a Mormon Tea bush and used by most of the tribes for it's healing qualities. Buck would need it to fight the infection and fever. Vin eyed his unconscious friend and was glad for the steady breathing and strong pulse. The bleeding stopped and he set about completing his mission.

Twenty minutes later, he dropped at Buck's side. He was spent and his fingers itched to drain the canteen. But he settled for the small red fruit from the Christmas Cactus. After resting for several minutes, he began. He started a small fire from the cottonwood he'd gathered, he used a small amount of boiled water to sterilize the knife. Leaving it inside the coffeepot, he unbuttoned Buck's shirt and took off the bandages. He swabbed Buck's side with some whiskey and studied the wound. It was several inches above his hip. He could have boiled some horsehair for stitching, but had no needle, so he'd have to cauterize. He uncapped two bullets and washed his hands with the small bit of soap and a little of the whiskey. He knelt by Buck's side and picked up the limp hand. Raising his eyes heavenward, he issued a prayer.

"Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the winds and whose breath fills m'lungs, hear me. I need yer strength and wisdom." Vin paused and closed his eyes, clutching Buck's hand to his heart. "M'eyes have seen the majesty of yer beauty, m'hands have touched yer face each dawn, m'ears have become sharp t'yer voice and now I call on ya." Vin took a deep breath and waited "I've seen yer grace in every livin' thing and have felt yer blood in every stream. I bow before ya now, offerin' my humble heart. I need yer strength, not fer m'self... but to guide these hands." He held up his right hand and retained his hold on Buck's with his left. "... to save the life of m'brother. His heart's noble and his spirit proud. Fill me with yer strength an be m'guide." Vin waited a moment and gently replaced Buck's hand.

He picked up the knife and began. The bullet wasn't deep, but it bled alot. Vin found it, removed it and cauterized the wound, shutting himself off from Buck's cry of pain. He covered the slumbering man with his shirt and jacket. He left Buck again, to find that Cereus plant and dig up the roots. It wasn't a steak, but it would taste like one. His progress was slow, hampered by his throbbing, burning ribs and aching head. At least when he was sneezing, the pressure went away. Now his head felt like it weighed twenty pounds. It seemed to take forever, but finally he dropped by Buck's side. He lifted Buck's head and tapped the pale face. Two slits appeared and Vin coaxed some water into him and finger fed him small bits of fruit. Buck never completely woke, but sucked the pulp from Vin's fingers. Satisfied, Vin eyed his little camp and decided to collect some cottonwood to make a travois. It was crude, a but adequate. A triangular ensemble, bound by ropes, the dead man's undergarments and Vin would use the pants that were currently shading Buck.

The sun told him it was just past noon and the heat was stifling. He ate a prickly pear and nudged more pulp into Buck off his finger. He was exhausted and aching from head to toe. If they were to leave at nightfall, he'd need some rest. He slid back against the rock and covered his face with his hat. With the rifle cradled in his arms, his heavy eyes slid shut, allowing the battered body to rest.

Twilight, Four Corners

Billy Travis frowned and eyed the remaining two arithmetic problems. It wasn't that he didn't like school, he did. It was that by the end of the day, he was tired. Wasn't it enough that he was in the schoolroom all day? He placed the slate on the ground next to his boots and held his hands up. He counted the fingers and wrote down the answer. He was sitting on the boardwalk out in front of his mother's office. She'd calling him in for supper soon and then a story before bed. He drew his blond head up as movement caught his eye. A large group of strangers were riding into town. They had mean faces and squinty eyes. Billy knew they were bad. Yup, the bad guys always had squinty eyes. He grabbed his slate and ran inside.

"Mama! Mama!"

Mary heard the terror in the small boy's voice and dropped the spoon. She wiped her hands and ran through the dining area to the front room, converted into an office. Billy's face was flushed with excitement. His blue eyes were wide with fear. He landed with a thud, his head thumping against her abdomen. She winced and knelt down, grabbing his shoulders.

"What's wrong?"

"They're outside," he gasped, whirling his blond head, "...hundreds of 'em... they're awful mean looking. You gotta get Chris..."

Mary's heart was pounding as she pulled Billy behind her and walked towards the window. Her face paled and her heart trembled. There was no mistaking the expensive Spanish styled outfits of the rough soldiers. She saw Inez peering out from the Saloon and worried. Without any peacekeepers to protect them, they had little hope. She raised her eyes to the ceiling and turned to the boy.

"Billy, you go upstairs and stay with Miss Nettie and Casey."

"NO!" he protested, stomping his foot. "You come too!" He tugged on her hand.

"I can't honey... I have to help Inez and Mrs. Potter." She flinched, hearing glass breaking and saw the window of the General Store shatter. Suddenly, Nettie was flying down the stairs, clutching her Winchester.

"No!" Mary denied, "I need you to protect Billy. Where are Gloria and the children?" she asked of the Potter family.

"She's at the McTavish's, south of town. Craig left his eldest, Alex, to guard them and their own. Mike, Sean and Glen are over the Saloon," she nodded and Mary saw gun scopes peeking out the windows.

"The rest?" Mary hedged.

"Scattered about town, without Chris and them, we don't have many guns," the elderly woman fretted. "Three on the roof, two patrolling the balcony of the hotel, one in the room over the billiard hall, Inez and us." She gave a squeeze of courage on the young woman's sleeve. "Thank God you had the sense to move the money from the safe. I just hope they buy it..."

Mary didn't want trouble, but from the bloody trail this gang left, she didn't have much choice. Previous banks had been robbed and the owners and workers murdered. Mary had the manager reluctantly agree to move the money, stocks and other valuables from the safe. They were locked in a trunk out at Chris Larabee's shack. She watched as all the men remained mounted, save one. The tall handsome man with silver hair stepped off his horse. She swallowed hard, Don Alfredo himself. This was more than a robbery.

"Oh God!" she hissed, spotting the two spies who'd ridden in earlier, dragging a disheveled Inez from the Saloon. She picked up the rifle and followed Nettie Wells outside. Inez's face was bruised and her eyes full of fire. Two hands pinned her slim arms behind her back. A surly looking recruit, who'd ridden in next to the Don, stepped forward and gripped her chin. Mary couldn't hear what he said, but Inez spit in his face and cursed him. He wiped the spit off, pulled her hair back roughly and kissed her hard. His free hand ripped the front of her blouse and groped her openly. His actions were halted with a sudden force, when his hat was shot off his head.

"The next one goes between your legs, you animal." Nettie warned, cocking the rifle. "Inez..." she nodded and saw the silver head dip once. The guards released the shaken tavern owner and she slapped the beast hard. She moved to Mary's side and tied the shawl Mary gave her around her nakedness. Nettie was furious. She didn't flinch when a dozen-and-a-half guns suddenly were trained on her. "Hah... " she scoffed, eyeing the bemused face of the living legend. She walked right up to him and stared him down. "You take these animals and get out of our town. We got nothing you want."

Don Alfredo raised a hand and issued a warning that no shots be fired. He admired this tiny, spunky elderly woman. He imagined her courage and tenacity was the reason she stood here in front of him so boldly. A lesser breed would have been buried years ago, done in by this wild frontier. He slid off the horse and towered over her, but she never wavered. Rather the eyes grew steelier and chin jutted up at him in defiance.

"I like you Senora... you have a fire inside." He nodded and eyed Mary and Inez boldly. "To find such fire and beauty in one place is indeed my good fortune." He'd been conquesting women of all varieties since he was twelve. These two were a striking pair, fire and ice... he noted of the dark headed beauty and the cool blond.

"I'll blow your good fortune clear across the street," Nettie warned, reading his intent. The rifle raised to a point above his knees. "... if you so much as look at either of them that way again."

He laughed heartily and took the rifle from her protesting hands. He shoved her over to where the other two stood. He eyed the threesome and knew immediately who the leader was. Her ice eyes were like twin diamonds, hard and glittering. He didn't hide his lust as he strode over and raked his hooded dark gaze over her firm body. She stood her ground, keeping her fear locked inside, away from his eyes. She had the same fire the old one did. The creamy white skin and pale eyes complimented the fair hair. She flinched only slightly when he lifted her hand and kissed it.

"Senora, I am Don Alfredo Alvarez and I wish to speak with you alone."

"No!" Nettie protested, pushing her way in front of Mary.

"It's alright Nettie," Mary hushed and jerked her hand free, wiping it on her skirt. "If you have something to say, say it here."

"Very well," He nodded. "My men are hungry and tired. We have ridden all day through the heat. Your hotel will do nicely. Dinner will be in one hour in the main room downstairs. You and I will dine privately in my room. Then we will discuss the terms of our arrangement."

"Who the hell do you think you are!" Nettie snapped, shoving the large, muscular chest.

"A well armed man whose patience is wearing thin!" he snapped, slapping her hard enough to send her sprawling. Inez dropped next to her and helped her up.

"That's enough!" Mary hissed, eyeing him coldly. "Is that a sign of your manhood? Beating an old woman?"

"I am sorry," he nodded, "I lost my temper. One hour Senora, in my room. Riccardo will wait here and accompany you." He said of the guard who manhandled Inez. He cupped herchin briefly and saw the fire flare in her icy eyes. His blood stirred and he laughed smugly and turned away.

Mary knew what he wanted and pushed the thought away. For a brief second, she eyed the horizon, hoping somehow that they'd come. But even if they left at first light, they'd be hours from here. Stall for time... that's what she'd have to do. Her stomach turned when she realized what that meant. As if reading her thoughts, Inez touched her sleeve. The other woman said nothing, but her dark eyes shone with admiration. She rested a hand against Mary's cheek and the blond saw tears pooling.

"Don't Inez... I'll be fine," she said quietly, squeezing the slim olive hand. "Don Alfredo..." she barked and saw the silver head turn. "I want your harm will come to any citizen of this town. You keep your men in line."

"Agreed." He nodded, "You tell those gringo's who are hiding on the rooftops and in the buildings to surrender or they'll be taken by force."

Mary's heart sank, but she complied, signaling the men to lay down arms. The had only a few guns against close to two dozen armed terrorists. It would be a bloodbath.

"Inez, Nettie, you go to the hotel and start cooking. Take Billy and Casey with you. Don't let him out of your sight." She implored and Nettie nodded.

Nettie Wells sighed and like Mary, found her eyes lingering on the darkening lines outside town. She grasped the cross that hung on a chain around her neck and felt a tug inside. Vin had given it to her on her birthday. It was a silver cross inlaid with a tiny piece of turquoise and finished off in a fine hand. That he'd made it himself, that meant more to her that words could say. But the look in his eyes when she opened the box...that would stay with her always. Where was the blue-eyed boy who'd captured her heart? She felt Inez's gentle tug and nodded. Taking Billy's hand, she headed for the Saloon.

Twilight in New Mexico Territory

"Damn Josiah, what the hell is that?" Chris screwed his face up at something skinned and being skewered. The short break to rest and care for the bodies, four-footed and two, would be a short one. Nathan shoved Chris down on a log and glared at him hard.

"Sit down," the healer ordered, glaring back just as hard. "Never you mind what the hell it is. You're lucky you're still sittin' upright. Come on," he directed, nodding at the wounded arm.

"It's fine..." Chris pulled back, only to be met by a wall of resistance.

"It's not up for discussion," Nate protested, eyes narrowing at the unusual hoarseness in the voice. His trained gaze saw the blond wince as he swallowed and watched the chest jerking. "You ain't foolin' me, Chris Larabee. Quit stiflin' them sneezes... let 'em out."

"Sneezes?" Josiah's head rose.

Like a cat, Ezra's green eyes narrowed and he slunk closer. "Has another malady befallen you, Mr. Larabee?"

Chris's glare ended any further conversation and he was about to chastise Nathan, when he let his guard down. A series of wet sneezes ensued and a rattling cough. "Fuck!" He snapped and mumbled.

"What'd he say?" J.D. asked, seeing the grin tugging at Ezra's lips.

"I believe the translation..."

"Ezra..." Chris warned, wiping his nose. "...goddamn sorry-assed Tanner cold..."

"...precisely," Ezra nodded.

"Breast or wing, Ez?" Josiah asked, nodding to the yet-to-be-named meat roasting.

"That all depends..." the gambler winced, "Of what genus was that a former member of?"

"Don't ask," the chef deadpanned, skewering two more of the suspicious looking creatures. "Everybody's a critic. Vin would have been first in line. That boy always appreciated my cooking."

"Yes, well, Mr. Tanner's tastes and those of the civilized were often diametrically opposed." He wrinkled his nose, "I'll pass." the southerner turned away, "Mr. Dunne?"

"What's the matter with you two?" His voice was hostile and his eyes burning. "How can you make a joke about that?"

"Take it easy, J.D.," Josiah faced him, "and watch that tone in your voice."

J.D. shoved away from the quartet and moved towards the horses. His insides were all churned up. How could they not feel the pain he did? How could they eat and carry on as if Buck and Vin were with them? He felt his face coloring and stopped by Annabelle. Buck's pride and joy was the gray bay and she nuzzled the youth. He stroked her mane and recalled the first real conversation he'd had with Buck. It was the first evening in the Indian Village. He sighed as the hole inside seemed to widen.

"He's young..." Ezra warned, "and his pain is not without merit. How does one replace something so valuable?" He noted of their two missing friends. He turned away and slid his flask out, disappearing towards the trees.

Chris started to shake his head when Josiah ambled over with two biscuits wrapped in cloth along with some meat. But he saw the lines forming on Nathan's face and relented.

"Hint?" He eyed the plate and the eldest, who just smiled. "Thanks, you're all heart."

Nate and Josiah moved off to fix plates for themselves. Chris nibbled at the meat and forced it down. He chomped on a biscuit and winced as the carbolic that Nathan used so liberally seemed to be eating the skin right off of his arm. He eyed J.D. across the camp, silently checking on the horses. He was working on nerves right now, but when the dust settled, it would be a different story. J.D.'s eyes met his over the saddle of Buck's gray bay and Chris nodded, sending a silent signal. J.D. returned the nod and continued his ministrations. The Kid would be okay, Buck had already done a helluva job.

J.D. felt Chris's strength and his tension eased up a bit. He reflected on the leader, who'd already buried his wife and son. Now he lost his two closest friends.

"He's hurting too..." he mumbled, almost feeling Buck behind him. He met the strong green gaze and nodded back. "I'm okay, Chris..."

"Eat up, we're losing time." the blond dictated, rising and heading for the whiskey Josiah offered.

Twilight in the Texas desert

The shock, blood loss and weakness should have kept him asleep. He shifted slightly and the pain rammed into his head and side, sending twin waves of agony over his lean frame. He bit his lip, vowing not to cry out and awaken his exhausted companion. He'd been watching the pale blue sky darkened for some time. He eyed the stark beauty of the desert and let his mind wander. His happy childhood back East, growing into manhood through fire and flesh, his years in the army and meeting Chris. He flinched, it still hurt terribly. The look on Chris's face when they'd ridden in from Mexico. The smoldering look in the green eyes matched the charred ruins. He closed his eyes, still hearing Chris's wounded scream of agony as he clutched Adam's charred body to his chest. Buck's heart clenched and tears sprung in his eyes. The sob that escaped was a reluctant one, born of a wound still festering.

Vin's eyes shot open, keen ears hearing the soft cry. He turned to quickly and stumbled forward, landing on Buck's legs. He felt a hand on his back and the warm voice reassured him.

"...steady Tanner... you okay?"

Vin eyed the darkening sky and cursed. He stood too quickly and staggered, sitting down hard. He went to rise again and a hand clamped on his shoulder. "Hey..." Buck warned, worried about the dizzy man. He intensified his grip despite the pain it caused on his chest. Finally the shaggy headed turned. "...thanks..."

Vin nodded and lifted Buck into a sitting position. He held out the canteen, but the larger man shook his head. "Ya gotta drink, ya got a fever..." the tracker protested.

"You first, Doc..." he teased, and saw the face screw up into a scowl. He hissed his breath in painfully, as an unwanted image slammed into him. Tanner's scowling face in a bed...the man with soulful brown eyes scolding him...Chris glaring. "No..." he hissed and the pain in his head exploded. He tried to move, but Tanner's arms stopped him. He fought briefly before surrendering to the intense pain.

Part 10

Buck's eyes flew open and he gasped at the nightmare ended. His rapid breathing was accented by darting blue eyes. He blinked in quick sucession until the blurry image cleared. He tried to move, but two hands eased his shoulders back.

"Easy there... that's a nasty crease," Vin noted of the awful head wound, "...gonna be awhile 'til it heals altogether. Ya drink this now and don't give me any lip..."

" first..." Buck protested and eased his head back against the rock. He saw the blue eyes flash in anger, but Tanner took a sip and Buck followed suit. Vin got the fire going again and set the root vegetables to cooking. He mashed up some of the fruit and boiled it, adding the mulch from the Mormon Tea plant. He gave the mug to Buck with some fruit and sat back, eating a piece himself.

"You from these parts, Tanner?" Buck asked, sipping his fruit tea.

"Don't rightly know," Vin shrugged, squinting in pain as his lips cracked.

"You got no kin?"

"My Ma died when I was five... I bounced around a bit... all over Texas." Vin normally didn't discuss his past, but something about the barren table at which they sat moved him. Buck was a stranger, yet his friend. There might not be a tomorrow and he wanted to keep the groggy, feverish man conscious.

"Spent a few years with the Comanche and Kiowa... taught me huntin', trackin' and a helluva lot more. Hunted buffalos fer awhile then took t'huntin' two footed animals..."

"Bounty hunter?" Buck's voice was sharp and he winced again and a pain lanced his head.

"Yeah... fer awhile... til Eli Joe took care o' that."

"Who's Eli Joe?"

"Feller what framed me..." Vin sighed, his eyes harbored and old, bitter flame.

Buck saw the pain hovering in the sky eyes. "I'm sorry, Tanner... didn't meant to stir that up..."

"...s'okay, Marshal." Vin sighed, "Only talked about it once..." he recalled the conversation on another night in the desert, with Chris. "Reckon neither of us might not live to see another sunset." Vin paused, crawled over and turned the roasting vegetables. Settled back in, he kept his face on the setting sun. "Ya see, there was a piece of land... sittin' square in the middle of a spot the railroad had their eye on. The farmer that owned it wouldn't sell. I was trackin' a murderin' bastard..."

"Eli Joe?" Buck guessed and saw the shaggy head dip.

"Turns out he was settin' me up the whole time... lurin' me in..." Vin spat, tossing the remnants of the bitter fruit away. He sighed heavily and continued. "He had long hair and blue eyes too... I was a fuckin' idiot." He grunted and a coughing fit ensued, causing him to sit forward and rock, holding his aching ribs. "Eli worked fer a judge on the take... did most o'his dirty work and killin's" Vin's eyes grew hot. "Spencer fuckin' Hazzard... crooked as they come."

"...and..." Buck prompted, seeing a need in the younger man to release the tension and deep-seeded pain.

"...Hazzard owned the land all around the piece that Kincaid wouldn't sell," he said of the dead farmer. "The more he bought, the more he'd make sellin' t'the railroad vultures."

"...and he hired Eli Joe to kill this farmer?" Buck guessed and saw the angry head dip once.

"...bastard even wore a hide coat... I found him just after they done it... and got picked up. Folks seen a long-haired fella with blue eyes and hide coat fighting with Jess. Next thing I knew... m'face is plastered the hell all over the place." He gritted his teeth and clenched a fist. "Vin Tanner, Five hundred dollars... wanted fer murder... dead or alive."

"You had no alibi?"

"Nah... kept m'own company." Vin sighed, suddenly worn out. Years of tension had taken him to a crest. Now that he'd purged the bitterness, all the energy flowed out of his worn body. "I knew... hell that damn Judge bragged about it. Come t'see me the night 'afore the hangin'. The fellers who caught me worked fer him..." Vin's voice trailed off. "He stood in m'cell and looked like a fuckin' snake that ate a mole..."

"How'd you get away?" Buck asked, heavy eyes fighting to stay awake.

"Well, I figured I'd rather go out with a bullet, then t'get strung up fer the whole town t'gawk at." Vin replied, crawling over and getting the crisp rooted vegetables from the flames. He mashed them up in the empty tea mug and poured some whiskey on them. He handed Buck the mug and a small knife.

"Go on..." he coached.

"Could have swore I ordered a steak with fried onions..." Buck joked.

"Aw, hell..." Vin hissed, his stomach growling. Sighing, he picked up a small piece of roasted root.

"Sorry..." Buck winced and ate his supper, "So?"

"They was transferrin' me from the cell t'the gallows. It was outside the mill." Vin recalled of the close call. "It was near the river... sittin' right over it... so I shoved the sheriff over and jumped. Took the deputy with me... they's so busy gettin' t' him... I took a deep breath and went under. Took a couple bullets, but managed to swim underwater fer a spell."

"...damn..." Buck shook his heavy head and finished his meal.

"I don't recall much after... washed up and got plucked from the river by some Indians... they saw m'mark... so they helped me. Damn near died... but got the hell outta Texas as soon as I could ride, ain't been back since."

"What mark?" Buck perplexed and saw Tanner peel his shirt away and reveal a small tattoo on his upper shoulder. "My adopted grandfather, Gray Eagle, marked me when they brung me in... I was jest a little feller..."

"You didn't have no Pa either?" Buck asked and saw the other nod. "My Ma raised me up alone too." His face softened when he thought of her. She was such a beautiful woman, so full of life and laughter. "It bothered me for awhile... being a bastard, but she set me straight."

Vin turned sharply and listened, his heart constricting painfully. He still felt the power of Buck's words under the tree morning. He thought he'd slain the Dragon. Buck's raspy voice told Vin about meeting Chris and coming west. Vin enjoyed hearing about the youthful Larabee and his wild side. He worked the whole time, asking questions to keep Buck awake. He made a travois and packed their belongings.

"Sure wish I heard from Danny..." Buck rasped, "Damn fool kid nevers listens to me. Don't know why I bother."

Vin's hand froze on the strap he was tying. His heart began to hammer and he was glad he was turned away, so Buck couldn't see his face. Danny... Danny Whitehorse... an image of the dark-haired Indian boy who Buck took under his wing. He recalled the story Buck told them one night in halting painful phrases.

The newly appointed marshal saw promise in the boy whose mixed-parentage caused him to mature all too quickly. His parents had lived quietly outside town, until a fever took them. The padre at the misson had taught him well and he lived there, until Buck met him. It didn't take long for the gregarious Wilmington to win the kid over. The partnership worked well for over a year, until the star that Buck wore so proudly, tarnished.

Danny made the mistake of thinking like his mentor. It was discovered that an elderly gentlemen who lived outside town, was an escaped convict. He'd been living on the lam for years, and now his health was failing and he settled quietly in a shack outside town. He never bothered a soul, until the night a group of drunken yahoos tried to burn him out. The crime he'd commited, killing a man in self-defense with no witnesses, had been done nearly forty years before. But that didn't matter to the torch-bearing drunks who feared the long-bearded recluse. Buck was transferring a prisoner and out of town. That was the hardest part of the story and Buck's voice wavered when he told them. He didn't want to go, but it was only overnight. What could happen in one night? Danny made the mistake of defending the man. When Buck got back, he found Danny locked in prison. A judge was called in to try the case. The boy was accused of murder, for shooting a shopkeeper, one of the drunks who led the bigot party outside town. The old man died anyway, they hung him. Danny tried to stop the lynch mob, but was outnumbered and beaten unconscious. The Judge convicted him, saying Danny had given aid to a murderer and his actions led to the death of the shopkeeper. The fact the Judge was a bigot himself didn't help. The next day when they hung Danny Whitehorse, that was the day Buck turned in his badge. That was a year ago, but in Buck's mind it hadn't happened yet. Vin flinched and completed his task. His face was still locked when he dropped down.

"Hey Tanner?" Buck said as the weary prisoner dropped down. He saw more than exhaustion and wondered what this new look was. It appeared to be regret. He lifted the bottle and took a sip of whiskey. He saw Tanner cock his head and pursued his gut feeling. "You got any regrets?"

"Huh?" Vin squinted and saw the somber face with a wistful shadow.

"Regrets," Buck sighed, "Like that small horse ranch with a good woman and a pack of younguns I keep seein'... shit..."

Vin paused and saw the veil of hope shatter and the painful longing on Buck's face. Then the eyes were staring right at him. He thought for a minute and shrugged. "Dunno... guess jest seein' a new sunrise been enough fer me. Never put any thought t'the future. Hell... had the past bitin' m'ass all the damn time..." He deadpanned and saw the mirth in Buck's eyes. He flushed despite his sunburn and heard the other man laugh. He watched the wistful look in Buck's eyes and a huge smile appear. He eyed past the area where Buck's eyes were riveted to.

"Miss Liberty..." Buck sighed, as he relived his past.

"Who?" Vin asked, then read the famous Wilmington grin. "Aw, hell..."

Buck saw the shy eyes duck and felt the heat rise. The laugh snuck out unexpectedly and it gave his aching side a burst of pain. Despite that, he clutched it and picked up the whiskey bottle. He decided to take the lead. "I was sixteen... thought I was a real Casanova." Buck bragged, shaking his head. "Miss Liberty... God what a vision. Long wavy hair red like fire... green eyes and breasts that would make you cry."

Vin laughed and felt the tension leave his weary frame. His mind's eyes saw a tall, goodlooking teenager who was cocky and brash. "Miss Liberty? What kind o'name is that?"

"The kind that Circus passin' through gives the lady flame dancer. It was Fourth of July... and man did I see fireworks... " Buck laughed. "Shit... it only lasted about two minutes. I thought I was some damn stud. She got a hold of me and I lost it... well... temporarily." Buck crowed. "You can't keep a Wilmington down." He saw Tanner fall sideways convulsed in laughter. He joined in, suddenly overcome with emotion. In another time and place, they could have been friends. "Your turn," he handed the bottle of truth to the younger man.

Vin took a sip and peeked slyly at Buck. "I was fourteen or fifteen, I guess," Vin paused, "Don't rightly know. It was up north in some dustbowl in the middle o'nowhere. I was ridin' fer the Pony Express..."

"No kiddin'?" Buck didn't hide the amazed awe in his voice. "You got balls, Tanner. That was one fuckin' dangerous job."

"No worse'n' any other," Vin shrugged, "...didn't get no name, found out later she was a widda, had a son older'n me. Sure was pretty..."

"Fourteen... damn" Buck whistled in awe, "...and an older woman. You must have been quite a stud."

"Hah!" Vin shook his head. "Not hardly. I handed off m'bag and went down to the river to wash off the dust. I seen her bathin'... I was down the stream a ways. I was uh... takin' care of things..." he hushed and Buck laughed. "She seen me... and I froze like a damn deer. I couldn't move... then she was there and took over. Hell, it was like she had four hands and two sets of teeth..."

Buck laughed so hard he slid sideways, landing on Tanner who was also convulsed in laughter. After several minutes, the laughter died, but the strong bond was formed. Buck felt the other man draw him up and quietly set him in the travois. He watched every bit of pain as Tanner moved in stiff, slow tracks. Finally, they were ready to leave.

Vin knelt down and hung the canteen around Buck's neck. He wrapped the shivering body in the bedroll and the extra clothes. He rested a hand on the trembling shoulder and caught the other man's eye.

"We'll get a good piece o'ground under us... with any luck, I'll get ya t'town tomorrow sometime. Ya hang on Marshal, okay?"

Buck heard the tinge of a heavy heart in the emotional face staring at him.

Through fevered eyes he felt such a strong attachment to the special stranger and couldn't understand it. But he decided then and there, under the guise of moonlight to follow his heart and make a stand. He raised his hand and offered it to the other.

"I believe you, Tanner..."

Four words, that's all they were. But to Vin Tanner they meant everything.

The Buck Wilmington he'd known and grown so close to in Four Corners believed him. But Vin never knew why. Did Buck believe him because Chris said he was framed? Or perhaps because he'd become a friend and didn't want to think elsewise? A part of Vin always thought so. But now, in the middle of a killer desert, the answer rang true. That this stranger wearing a star so proudly on his chest, his adversary by nature, had filled him with faith.

Four words...carefully chosen and carried on a cool desert wind from the lips of a lawman to the ears of the bounty...rendered him speechless. If he lived another day or by some miracle if he survived this ordeal and lived another fifty years, he'd never forget. Four words that gave him courage and suddenly his legs felt stronger. He took the hand and gripped it hard, then nodded and sent back a tide of emotion in his light eyes.

"Thanks, Marshal."

He rode into the darkness, bearing the proud man behind him. Four words...given freely by choice, not by want. As the darkness swallowed the pair, Vin Tanner never felt taller.

Nightfall, Four Corners

Mary's stomach was in knots as the leering Mexican led her upstairs to the top floor. The guard said something in Spanish to the Don, whose back was turned and he replied. Then he was gone and she was alone. Candles flickered from a small table nearby where two glasses and a bottle of wine were waiting. He slowly turned and she felt naked as he eyes raked over her.

She moved back as he advanced, until her legs hit the bed and she stopped.

"You look lovely, My dear Mrs. Travis." He picked up her hand and kissed it and she felt her stomach turn. Although he was in his mid-fifties, he was still a very handsome man. He was tall and well built with a head full of silver hair. "Shall we?" he motioned to the wine and she managed to recover.

"I have decided you will come back to Mexico with me." He announced, handing her a glass of wine.

"You can't be serious!" She blurted, face coloring. "I can't... won't do such a thing."

"Oh but you will." His voice was like velvet and the dark eyes mesmerizing.

"...and willingly."


"I noticed your office... The Clarion?" He took a long sip and stared openly at her. "I do not approve of such a thing, but I admire your ambition. I'm sure you have heard of the profit tobe made in white slavery."

Mary nearly dropped the glass and her mouth fell open. She backed away as he advanced again, until she was against the wall. She felt his breath on her neck as he leaned forward and kissed the tender spot behind her ear. His hand boldly cupped her hip and squeezed the firm flesh under the skirt. She hissed and slapped him and he laughed, taking both of her hands in one of his and pinning them above her head. He leaned closer, his face inches from hers.

The dark eyes were smoldering and his fingers unbuttoned her blouse. She was breathing heavily and sweat began to trickle down the path between her breast. She closed her eyes in humiliation as he dipped his head and licked the moist area.

"Don't..." She wavered, and the silver head rose. Her hands remained trapped and cupped her breast over her chemise. He slid his hand under the lacey undergarment; pinching and probing her tender flesh. She felt tears pricking her eyes, until he ended his thought.

"Oh, but my icy beauty, you will soon learn to melt to my touch. That boy of yours, with such bright yellow hair and blue eyes, will bring a high price on the market."

"You animal!" She cried out, squirming as his advances grew bolder. "You wouldn't do that to an innocent child."

"It's one of my most profitable enterprises. Ah, then there is the lovely young girl who lives outside town. Casey, is it? Yes, a fair-skinned virgin.

She will be a ripe asset..."

"You vile beast..." She spat kicking him and pushing free. "I'll never let you touch them. I'll..."

"You'll do as I say or never see either of them again."

She didn't doubt his words, his reputation preceded him. His exploits were legendary. She continued backing away until she hit a desk and he was pinned her to it. He gripped her head in his hand and forced a brutal kiss on her.

His tongue savagely explored her mouth, while his hand pushed between her legs. She shoved him hard and fell to her knees, trying to crawl "Why do you fight so? You cannot win." He laughed, watching her pull herself onto her feet. "The choice is simple. You come with me tonight. If you resist, I will take you by force and you'll never see your son again."

She walked to the window and watched his soldiers lining the street. She thought of Billy lost to her forever and Casey raped by some cruel Mexican patron. She felt him before he touched her and closed her eyes, shutting out her revulsion. His leaned into her hard from behind, grinding his hardness against her. She bit her lip and two tears fell as he lips assaulted her neck and the hands slid under her chemise. One hand then slid below her waistline and she gasped.

"No... not like this..." She gasped. "I'll come with you... and you keep your word. No harm to any citizen. Casey stays here, untouched."

"Agreed." His hot breath scorched the back of her neck and the roving hands pressed into her groin. Just as she began to panic, there was a sharp rap on the door. His cursed and pulled himself away. She slumped against the window and tried to formulate a plan.

"Mrs. Travis, shall we?" He waved his hand at the cart laden with food. She buttoned her blouse up and took a deep breath. Taking a seat, she eyed the full plate before her and her stomach turned. He began to eat and looked over at her. The door opened again and he threw his fork down in anger. His stream of cursing grew angry at the intrusion.

"It's not there." the guard reported. "There are papers all over the floor and the safe is empty."

"What?" Don Alfredo turned to Mary. "What do you know of this matter at the bank?"

"Oh..." Mary blushed, "The manager disappeared during the night and emptied the safe. I wired the county clerk's office and the Judge is coming to make a complete report."

He was angry and she saw the danger in his stance. She suddenly felt her ploy was a bad one. He strode the room like a caged beast and barked some orders to the waiting soldier. Henodded and departed. He turned to her, his eyes livid.

"No Wilmington... no money... ah!" He turned to her and she felt her heart tremble. He reached out and stroked her face, then gripped the back of her neck. "You my Ice Queen, were worth the trip. My men will take what they can from the stores after they eat. They will meet us later. Finish your meal, we are leaving soon."

"Soon?" Mary balked, trying desperately to stall so Chris could get there. "Yes...I have a camp not far from here. Secluded and near the river." He pulled her close again, kissing her hard, while forcing his hand between the parting of her legs from behind. "I will have you tonight my beauty under the stars..."

Vin jerked up in the saddle as his chin hit his chest. He didn't know how many hours they'd been traveling. His mind was numb, his bones weary and his flesh in agony. He reined the horse in and slid off, dropping to his knees. Using the full moon as his guide, he caught his breath and rose, taking a pear from the saddlebag. He crouched next to Buck and placed the fruit on Buck's lap. He rested his hand on the slumbering man's forehead and frowned. Buck was burning up and they were still a good twelve hours by horse from town. Sighing, he tapped the face and called to the injured man.

The cannons were booming and the bullets whizzing past his head. Cold, icy, shards of rain pelted him like razors, biting his tender skin. He dove for cover, raised his rifle and fired. There were bodies all around him and he felt a lancing pain in his side. He screamed and saw the blue-eyed Reb pulling out a bloody bayonet. He screamed and lunged for the boy, gripping his throat.

"No..." Vin managed as Buck's hands choked him. The fevered-weakened man slumped back, his eyes black and vacant. Vin tapped the cheek and held up his creation. He'd mashed some Mormon Tea plant into the pulp of the pear. It took awhile, but Buck got the whole cup in him. Vin frowned at the shallow breathing and dull eyes. The full moon gave the wounded man a sick pallor. Vin felt a cold fear racing up his spine. What if Buck didn't make it? Sighing, he ate a pear, took a little water and capped the canteen. He staggered to the horse and dissolved into a sneezing fit. He wiped his nose and watery eyes and coughed. Finally, when the fire in his chest died down, he managed to climb onto his horse and resume the trek through hell.

Midnight, on the road to Four Corners

"Hold up..." Nathan raised his arm and J.D. moved next to him.


"You see something down there?" the healer asked, squinting.

"Maybe..." J.D. narrowed his eyes and a body became clearer. "We got company," he announced.

Chris rode past them, Ezra in his wake. They approached the figure and noticed the odd gait. Then the body went to its knees and Ezra moved off his horse cautiously, after Chris nodded and pulled his gun.

"Drop it!" Chris barked and the body lurched. Ezra moved forward and caught him, then lowered him into his arms.

"My God, it's one of McTavish's boys," Chris gritted, recognizing the tall boy with the tell tale McTavish auburn curls. He knelt and tapped the fifteen-year-old's face. "Glen, can you hear me?"

"He's been shot," Ezra noted, pressing a handkerchief against the boy's shoulder. "I need some light..." he announced and Josiah produced matches.

"Mr. Larabee?" the wounded boy gasped. "...hurry... you got to... go... he has her... they got the town... but we saved the money... in a trunk at your shack... Mrs. Travis's idea... Mrs. Travis... Oh No!" he struggled to sit up.

"Easy Son." Ezra pulled him back down. "You're losing blood. I assume the Alvarez gang has taken over the town?" He guessed and saw the head nod.

Nathan appeared and pressed a bandage onto the wound.

"How bad?" Chris asked the healer.

"He'll be okay... went right through." Nate said. "I need to get him to the clinic, so get this done."

"Glen?" Chris said, tilting the drooping boy's chin. "What happened?"

"We knew they were coming... emptied the safe to a trunk in your shack... told them the bank manager took off with it... they were mad... He took Mrs. Travis... and Billy..."

"Who?" Chris's voice was like molten steel.

"Don Alfredo... he promised not to burn the town if she went... he was gonna take Billy from her... sell him... told Miss Nettie... but she fixed the rest..." he laughed and took the canteen Nate offered. "Thanks Mr. Jackson..."

"How'd you get shot? How'd Nettie fix 'em?" Nate asked.

"That Don guy left after Mrs. Travis talked to Nettie. Took four guards with him, left twelve in town. They were gonna loot... stores... but then they ate... she... she... put laudanum in their food... we locked them up."

"Damn!" Josiah sighed. "Remind me to stay on Nettie's good side. Where's your Pa, Son?"

"...hurt... they tried to hurt Inez... he tried to..stop... they hit him... I didn't want them to get away... with Mrs... Tra...vis... I... I... followed..." He choked. "I almost had 'em... got one of them guards... but the other saw... shot... I sent the horse off... so'd they follow... got away..." He gasped and looked sorrowfully at Chris. "I'm sor... sor..ry Mr. Larabee... I wanted to get her back for... I'm sorry..."

"Glen, look at me," Chris said quietly, cupping the boy's chin. "You did a brave thing and tried your best. I'm grateful, Son."

Josiah could have sworn he saw the teenager beam. "They camped near here?"

"Yes, Sir... near the bend in the river, where Billy fishes with Vin." Glen gasped and Nate scowled.

"Help me get him on J.D.'s horse. That's enough talkin'!" The irate healer ordered.

"The big one has Billy... Don in tent with Mrs. Trav...vis... the other two outside... one by river... one one..."

"Glen... Glen?" Chris let his hand rest on the boy's shoulder.

"You know something," Josiah noted, eyeing the wounded boy, "That Craig McTavish sure knows how to raise 'em."

"He's a good man." Chris agreed of the rancher. McTavish and his clan were solid people, with strong values and good hearts. First to volunteer to help in any situation, always on their side when trouble came to town, his boys were just like him. Chris made a mental note to thank him personally. "Take care of him, Nate... Josiah, you and Ezra are with me."

"God help Don Alfredo." J.D. pronounced, watching the angry leader disappear into the night. He gripped Glen with one hand and the reins with the other.

"Somehow I think that bastard's headed south," Nate replied, "I don't think God will miss him."

Back in Four Corner's

Inez was in front of the sheriff's office with one of J.D. Dunne's guns tucked into the waistband of her skirt. The jail cells inside were full of the groggy Alvarez gang, save the two who were dead. She sipped the strong coffee, as she eyed the horizon. Her dark eyes were weary and she thought on the night's actions.

The plan had gone well and Nettie's tasty stew had sent all the gang, save the two guards into slumberland. Inez carried two plates of the spiked stew outside, but the guards wanted something else for dinner. One held her slim arms behind her back, kissing the side of her neck. The other used the rifle to probe under her skirt and between her legs. She cursed, spit and kicked, which only made them laugh harder. The one with the gun nudged his head and the other threw her on the ground and pressed himself on her. His eyes widened in shock as the bullet went through his head. Inez threw him off and ran to where Craig McTavish was wrestling with the other guard. Inez picked up the dead man's gun and fired, killing the gang member.

"Are you okay, Dear?" the thick Scottish accent found her.

She spotted the blood on his face and at first, thought he'd been shot. She took her apron off and held it to his face. "You're hurt..."

"Ach, Lassie... tis a hard head the Lord saw fit to give me. Did that animal hurt ye then?"

"No, thanks to you, Senor McTavish," she liked the musical sound of his accent. "Come... let's get you to the Saloon."

She helped him to the drinkery and got through the doors, just as his legs gave way. Suddenly, two six-foot lean bodies were beside her, blue-eyes wide and anxious.

"Da!" Twenty-year old Sean cried, spotting his bloody father's face. "What happened?"

"You father saved me from those wolves... he hit his head." She handed him over and saw eighteen year-old Mike eyeing the door. "No, they're dead, take him upstairs. Go..."

By the time she arrived with bandages and soapy water, the unconscious man was on a bed. His sons were hovering beside him. She eyed the empty hall and her dark eyes narrowed.

"Where is your brother?" She inquired of the fifteen-year old.

"He's on his way home," Mike replied, still shaken at the blood on his father's shirt.

"I'll take care of your father. You help Miss Nettie with the prisoners," She directed, smiling at the boys. "He'll be fine, go on now."

Down by the river outside town

Chris, Ezra and Josiah found the camp quickly. Two guard were on opposite sides of a large canvas tent. The fire just outside the canvas, clearly illuminated the figures within. The site of the large, imposing male forcing himself on Mary, caused Chris Larabee's blood to boil. The shadows clearly illustrated the brute's advances and the blond growled and moved forward, only to have a large hand clamp on his shoulder.

"Easy, Chris, we gotta get Billy first."

Chris didn't reply, but the slump to his shoulder gave the Preacher his answer. "We'll take the guards out and find Billy. Try to wait for our signal, if you can."

Chris knew what they were asking, and felt his gut clench. How long was too long? If he charged too soon, and the missing guard noticed, he could hurt Billy or worse. But what about that animal's hands on Mary? The thought of her being raped by that bastard gave Chris such a white-hot burn, it took his breath away. He heard the pair leave and kept his eyes glued on the tent "Really, Senora, you try my patience. You will remove those garments or I'll remove them for you."

Mary heard the urgency in his voice and didn't have to turn to see the desire. She could smell it... the animal lust was in the air. She saw his white shirt sail by and land in front of her. She felt his hands on her shoulders and he pulled her back against him, grinding his hardness into her. He bit her neck below the ear and she cried out, pulling free. He pulled her back by the hair and wrapped on arm around her, pulling her against him. His free hand cupped her chin and his voice was husky.

"I warn you..."

With that she was released and heard him pulling his boots off. As her trembling hands undid the buttons on her blouse, she thought back on the night. The ride out had been uneventful. She rode with Billy in front of her. The tent was set up and the fire blazing within minutes. She kissed Billy and hugged him, before he was taken away, disappearing with two guards into the inky night. She'd protested that she had to go to the bathroom and then asked for a drink. Now the sands of the hourglass were running out.

The last button was freed and she took the blouse off.

It had been quite some time since a woman stirred him like this. The icy widow made his blood boil. He stepped out of his trousers, freeing his hardness. As soon as the creamy skin appeared, free of the cotton blouse, he seized her from behind. He pulled her back against him, thrusting against the firm flesh beneath the skirt. He assaulted her neck with his teeth and with one jerk, ripped the chemise, freeing her breast.

Mary bit her lip and tears fell as she felt him pushing against her. The hands mauled her, pinching and twisting painfully. Then his hand slid beneath her waist and down to her groin.

"No!" She screamed and turned, raking her nails down his face. She slapped him hard and kicked his rising passion.

"You are a foolish woman!" he growled, backhanding hard and ripping her skirt off. He threw her down, sending her onto a silk rug he'd lain down.

The blow left Mary dazed and her eyes were half-lidded. He spread her legs and pressed himself on her, forcing her mouth open and assaulting it with his tongue. His hand twisted her flesh and then eased below the brief bit of lace covering her. It was as his fingers reached her, that her eyes shot open and she bit his lip viscously, drawing blood. This blow was harder and it snapped her neck sideways. She was dazed and through blurry eyes, saw him reach into a black saddlebag and draw out a whip. She didn't understand the stream of Spanish cursing but saw the intent clearly as he stood over her, and raised his hand.

Ezra deftly whipped out his stiletto and sent the guard by the river into sweet repose. Josiah did likewise with the other, using his strength to snap the man's neck. In unison they moved toward the area where the distinct sound of a child's cry was heard.

Billy eyed the star again, it was the brightest in the sky. He closed his eyes and made the same wish. He was scared and cold. He was angry at these men who took him away from his home. He was worried about his mother and the mean man with white hair who took her away. He felt his lip tremble and his small chest waver.

"Shut up Chico!" The guard warned, tired of the boy's crying. He'd lost his partner and the kid who shot him. He'd pay for that later, the Don would be angry. He was so intent on getting to the boy tied nearby, that he didn't hear the approaching figures.

Billy's face never changed when he saw Josiah and Ezra appear. The guard turned and Josiah slammed a gun into his head. The guard staggered and charged and Josiah wrapped his arms around him. Ezra motioned with his head and Josiah understood. The gambler was heading for Billy and didn't want the boy to see.

"Are you alright, Son?" Ezra asked, untying the lad's hands. He wasn't prepared for a hug, but recognized the need. He returned it and sent his reassurance. "Your mother is fine, Mr. Larabee will return her to you."

"Chris is here?" Billy drew back, his eyes like saucers. "I knew it... I knew he'd come... I wished on the star... I knew he'd come..."

"Ezra, go update Chris. I'll stay with Billy." Josiah took the boy and Ezra took off.

Chris paced like a caged tiger, every muscle screaming for action. He wanted to feel that animal's neck between his hands. He needed to see the bastard's eyes pop out. He wanted blood and he intended to get it. For Buck and Vin... and for Mary. Mary, just the thought of that animal being near her made his insides clench. His feelings rose and bit back at him. Then the shadow dancers in the tent changed their step. He saw the beast hit Mary and her body fall. Then the light illuminated the clear outline of the bandit's lust as he stood over her.

"Fuckin' bastard!" Chris gritted and charged. His heart was torn. He didn't want Billy hurt, but he couldn't watch Mary get raped. Then he saw Ezra on the top of the hill, giving him the high sign.

"Chris!" Mary screamed as the virulent, green-eyed demon charged through the flapped entry.

With lightning speed and an unholy scream, the fury-driven gunslinger ripped the whip from the beast's hands and wrapped it around his neck. Through clenched teeth, with green eyes bulging, he spun the struggling bandit around and forced him on his knees. Still twisting the leather and cutting off more of the gurgling man's air, the hostile blond drew his boot back and kicked the beast's groin will full force. He tossed the whip away and began his fisted lessons. Blow after blow rained down on face, chest and gut. Several well-placed kicks left the patron a shuddering pile of refuse on the floor. Gasping for breath, Chris wiped the saliva from his lip and drew his knife out. He bent over and gripped the thick white hair, jerking the man onto his back. With teeth bared, he leaned over low, using his boots to spread the beaten man's legs. Ignoring the relentless throbbing in his injured right wrist, he knelt over the body and pressed his left forearm against the animal's throat. He gripped the hilt of the knife and bared his lips.

"Reckon it's time you went to Hell," Chris's voice was low and feral, "...your boy Marco's waiting on you. I sent him ahead to make a fuckin' reservation," Chris snarled and drove the knife through the stunned man's groin, pinning him to the floor. He twisted and jerked the knife, with several well-placed movements, completing his job. He stood without turning and shirked his duster off, handing it backwards. He waited until the soft call of his name drew him around. Then she was in his arms, weeping. He pulled her outside the tent, shielding her eyes.

"It's okay," he soothed, brushing her hair. "It's all over, Billy's fine."

"Are you sure? Did you see him?"

"Ezra and Josiah have him." Chris replied, then studied the pale face before him. "Mary, did he rape you?"

"No," she sighed, resting against him, trembling despite the strong arms of comfort. "Thank you doesn't seem quite enough," she sobbed, tears finally spilling. "Oh, Chris.."

"Shhh!" he murmured, kissing her forehead and holding her tighter. He tilted the head up and brushed the tears away with his finger. "Lady, you got guts."

She eyed the tent and shivered again, still shaken at how close it had been. Then she felt the anger rise and her temper came out. "Rot in Hell you damn bastard!"

"Mrs. Travis," Chris mocked shock, his sandy eyebrow raised, "Was that a swear word?"

"You bet your ass it was," she hissed, leaning into his embrace. She felt his breath as his chuckle escaped. "Where did you come from anyway? How did you find us?"

"We found Glen McTavish up the road, he followed you out of town. Caught a bullet in the shoulder. He told us what Nettie did and what you did..." He brushed his lips against the top of her head as it rested against him. "The Calvary could use a good woman like you."

"They don't pay enough," she retorted.

"...and you'd miss me..." he joked and then his smile faded when her face turned up to meet his.

"Yes, I would," she said, resting a hand against his cheek. Suddenly she remembered the wire that came earlier that morning and her heart sank. "Buck and Vin?" she asked, hoping for a miracle. She felt him tense from head to toe and saw him bite his lower lip. Then the green eyes briefly shimmered before he swallowed hard and prevented the moisture from falling. "Oh, Chris, I'm so sorry." She drew his head down and it rested on her shoulder. She ran her hand through his hair and heard a brief hissing sound. A small crack in the armor... but to her it was like a knife in her chest. As quickly as he came, it was gone. He stood up and walked towards the horses. He winced, gripping his right wrist, which was throbbing and useless.

"Need a hand, Brother?"

"CHRIS!" Billy squirmed, anxious to greet his hero. Chris knelt and caught the boy, savoring the scent of the blond hair as it caught his face.

"Hey, Partner."

"I knew you'd come and save us... I wished it on the star... I knew you'd come..." he announced and gave the gunslinger a hug. "Where's Vin?" The boy asked, knowing the tracker was always at Chris's side. He frowned in puzzlement when Chris put him down and turned away. "Mama? Did I do something wrong?"

"No, Honey," Mary said quietly. "Let's go home. We'll talk about it in the morning."

"Come on Chris." Josiah said, helping the injured man into the saddle. "Mary?" He assisted her onto a horse and saw the answer in her nod. "Thank You, Lord." He sent his eyes heavenward. He placed Billy in front of her and turned back. "You go ahead, Ezra and I will clean up this mess."

"Mr. Larabee." Ezra exited the tent and called the blond, whose head rose from where is was hanging low. "Exceptional work."

Part 11

Dawn in the Desert

Vin watched the darkness recede into an evasive blue sky. He was slumped over in the saddle and sat up, crying out as his ribs and back protested. He felt Dawn's warm breath as she extended her arms, sending a blanket of rosy pink and orange clouds above. Her glorious robe tinted everything around him, even his skin. Another hour passed by before he eyed a rock formation favorably and drew the horse over. The early morning sun was already hot and he swayed a bit as he slid from the saddle. He gripped the saddlehorn and held on, until he found his legs. He took off the saddlebags and blanket, setting up Buck's canopy. A trio of newsy lizards eyed him with disdain. He glared back at the weathered creatures, wrinkled brown and grays bits of life, as they scurried off to their secret hiding place.

Hell. That's what this place must be. He'd never been so warm... or so weak.

He ached inside and his head was on the losing end of a fierce battle. The sweat clung to every inch of his body and stung his eyes. He felt the hot breath from his mouth as it sauntered over his chest. He managed to peel an eye open and saw Tanner kneeling over a small fire. Through blurry eyes and a screaming skull, he watched the pain-etched face fighting hard. The younger man looked awful and winced visibly, clutching his thigh. The leg wound... he'd forgotten about that and so had Tanner. Damn, hardheaded kid.

Buck looked away at the raw beauty of the desert. A terrible beauty was she... alluring and deadly. He'd come close before, several times, but today as the quiet killer lurked near, Buck Wilmington knew this was his last sunrise. Regrets... he sighed painfully. The beautiful woman he'd hoped one day to call his own... a pack of kids... a small ranch. He sighed again and turned as a soft cry came from the other man. Tanner's cracked lips were bleeding and his skin was burned off in patches. Yet it was the startling blue eyes, which still glimmered with hope, that gave him a sharp pain. Why was this man fighting so hard for him? Tanner was smart, he had to know it was hopeless... for one of them. He eyed the horse and fought hard for another breath. The kid still had a chance. Damn, but it was hard to breathe. He grit his teeth and gripped the cool sand under his hand. He let the grains run through his fingers and shut his eyes hoping she'd come and take him now, so the other could live.

Vin's fingers wouldn't work and he fumbled with the remaining fruit. He saved three pears for later and mashed up two for Buck's tea. Clutching the peach preserves and the mug of fruit tea, he crawled painfully over to Buck.

He was reclining against a rock, covered in sweat. Vin heard the frightful gasping, as the older man desperately sought air. He slumped momentarily, defeated. For the first time, he eyed the horizon, his swollen eyes still sharp. He recognized the landscape, they'd ridden farther than he thought.

His hope rose and he realized if he got the last of the herbs into Buck and let the horse rest a bit, they had a chance. He sucked the blood from his lip and spit out the pebble he'd been using to keep some saliva in his mouth.

"Tanner..." Buck croaked, weakly tapping the first thing his fingers touched.

Vin turned at the gentle touch to his knee. "'bout time ya woke up... hate eatin' alone. Here, slow and easy." He coached, having opened the jar of preserves. He sniffed it and took a tentative bite. Deciding they were okay, he gathered some on the tip of the knife and offered itto Buck.

Buck parted his parched lips and watched the trembling hand guide the preserves in his mouth. Then he offered some of the herb-laced fruit tea.

Swallowing was difficult and it took him several minutes to get the warm pulpy mixture down. He shook his head after just a few offerings and began gasping for breath. There was no air left, he couldn't breathe at all. His dark eyes darted frightfully and he gripped Tanner's shirt hard.

Vin saw the raw fear shining from Buck's feverish eyes, before they slid shut. His keen eyes knew what his heavy heart was denying. He froze for a moment as he gripped the slack hand. He shot his eyes heavenward and felt a pain so sharp in his chest he yelped.

"Not now... please..." he croaked, his eyes flickering. They were so close to Salt Flats, with any luck they'd be there in a few hours. "Ya can't have 'im." He tugged at Buck possessively.

Buck dragged his heavy head sideways, cracked an eye open and saw the unadulterated pain on the sunburned face. Through blisters and cracked, bleeding lips, the plea lanced the tall man's heart with a mighty blow. He felt tears prick at his eyes and fought hard to keep breathing, but it was too hard and hurt too much. Tanner's face housed such pain, he couldn't bear it and closed his eyes. He felt the arms wrap around him briefly and shuddered, trying to speak... not even sure what to say.

Vin felt Buck slump sideways and caught him. He held on for a moment, as the dark head hit his chest. He swallowed frantically, pushing back the pain and fear. Buck couldn't die in his arms, he wouldn't allow it. He shoved the other man back and gripped the slick face hard.

"Get yer eyes open!" he drilled and waited until the slits appeared. "Don't ya die on me ya ungrateful son-of-a-bitch. 's'this the thanks I get fer draggin' yer carcass through the fuckin' desert?"

"Goddamn sorry-assed tracker..." Buck thought, too weak to speak.

Where did that come from? Buck felt the pain slam into his head again and gripped Tanner's hand weakly, as he let go. His head slid down and landed on the lean shoulder. He felt a callused hand on his cheek and a single sharp hiss. The vision was clear this time. There was a large group of people at an Indian village. The kid with the bowler hat was there, the large man with gray hair and light eyes, the soulful brown-skinned man, the gold-toothed gambler and Chris Larabee. He didn't understand who these strangers with Chris were and why he was compelled to see more. A Indian with an injured arm... a broken father on his knees... a buckskinned arm coming towards him, a tan jacket with a medicine pouch. The swaying motion of the pouch made his head scream.

"No...." he croaked, jerking his head up.

"Thank God!" Vin hissed, feeling his moist eyes recede. He thought Buck had drawn his last breath. He held on tight for a moment, not willing to relinquish his hold. Buck's weak voice broke into his moment.


"Ya scare me like that again and I'm likely t'leave ya here." Vin whispered, hands trembling as they righted Buck.

Buck smiled at the emotion on the younger man's face. His sharp eyes were like mirrors; he could read them that clearly. Tanner's hands were shaking so badly, he barely managed to pick the mug back up. He offered another bit of the pulpy tea. Buck shook his head and found a quiet peace. The decision had been easy and seemed to take the strain away. He lifted a hand and touched the side of the bounty's blistered, sunburned face, wrapping his fingers around the slumped neck.

"...take the horse... ride as far from Texas as you can... Go..." Buck offered with all his heart, which is just how the other man accepted.

Buck's gift hit Vin hard. He stared long and hard into the dark eyes fighting to stay open. His jaw clenched as he felt Buck's trembling fingers on his cheek. He covered the hand with his own and stared hard into the giving blue eyes. He allowed his deep feelings to shine through his own eyes and saw Buck smile weakly and tap his face. Vin closed his eyes and let the weight of the offer settle in. He felt Buck's hand recede and sucked in his breath hard.

Buck watched the emotional play before him change drastically. The face that hovered over him now was pissed off but good. He saw the scowl form slowly and felt every fiber of tension from the gritty voice that assaulted him. The hands gripped his shoulders and shook him hard.

"It's a wonder ya can hold onto that badge with fuckin' stupid ideas like that..." he growled and produced the tea.

Buck didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He made no move to take the fruit on the knife tip before his lips.

"Don't piss me off..." Vin snarled and saw the lips part. "Good... we ain't far from Salt Flats. I'll get ya there... ya got m'word."

Buck didn't doubt that vow. The determined chin jutted out, defying the devil and sending Death back to her cavern. He dozed for a bit and felt movement as his harness was adjusted. He forced his eyes open and saw the horse ready to go. Tanner was standing next to it, trying to get a leg up. After moving the horse closer, he would reattach the travois. Three times the foot missed the stirrup and landed hard. The fourth time send the younger man to his back, crying out in pain.

Vin landed on his butt and grimaced, clutching his thigh. The whitewall of fire consumed his leg and hip. The jarring landfall had sent a wave of agony through his ribs. He couldn't move... the pain paralyzed him. He slid back as black spots danced before his face. His head landed in the soft sand and the sun scorched his pale eyes.

Buck's eyes widened in shock as the diamondback slithered from between the rocks and right toward Tanner's unprotected neck.

Dawn in Four Corner's

Despite the night's exhausting actions, no one moved towards a bed. Upon their return, Inez and Nettie dished out soup and sandwiches. As dawn rose, the McTavish clan departed for their ranch. Chris personally sat by Glen's side until he woke up. Nathan had to rewrap Chris's wrist and it now was more comfortable. His features were beyond exhausted. His face was shadowed, green eyes heavy with dark circles rimming them. That was the face the young hero saw when he woke up.

"Mr. Larabee... Mrs. Travis..." he coughed and let Chris help him sit up.

"She's fine thanks to you. Once you're up to it, she'd like to do a story on you. You're quite a hero."

"No, Sir, Mrs. Travis is the hero. I was just glad to help. Can I go home, Mr. Jackson?"

"Okay, but you stay in bed for a couple days. You lost some blood and need to rest. Your brothers are bringing a wagon in town to take you and your Pa home."

Nathan eased the boy to his feet and helped him down the stairs. Craig McTavish was slumbering inside the wagon, the concussion left him very groggy. J.D. was riding along to give them a hand. Chris was proud of him, too. He knew how much J.D. was hurting inside. He wandered over and eyed the sleepy sheriff.

"You okay?"

"No, but I will be." J.D. eyed Chris. "Seems like your boot is just the right size to kick my butt."

"Yeah, how 'bout that..." Chris agreed and gave the brown-trousered knee a pat.

Ezra, Josiah and Nathan were on the boardwalk. Inez had prepared breakfast and came out to tell them. Nettie and Casey were over at Mary's. The town was shaken by the evening's events and still buzzing about the daring rescue.

"I'll swing by and get the bank manager and the trunk from your place," J.D. announced, gaining a nod from the leader.

"Mr. Larabee! Mr. Larabee!"

"Dougie?" Chris squatted as the six-year-old McTavish lad flew at him.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing." the boy said happily, producing a grubby fist. He stretched his neck to see over the wagon, but it was too high. Josiah gave him a boost and he saw his father sleeping. Satisfied, he demanded to be put down. "Where's Vin?"

"How come you call him Vin?" The leader asked, curious at the call. The others were all addressed by their last names, except the tracker. "'cause that's his name," the dark-head shook in exasperation. "Well spoken, Young Man." Ezra nodded at the logic.

"Well, where is he?"

"He's not here, Dougie," Chris said, squatting and looking at the large blue eyes. Dougie and Billy followed Vin everywhere. They were fascinated by his accent, Indian background and hunting, tracking and shooting. Vin had the patience of a saint, never tiring of their endless questions. It also didn't hurt that the tracker had a sweet tooth. Chris smiled slightly, recalling an afternoon when he'd found the three sound asleep, fishing poles in the water and an empty sack of candy on Vin's lap.

"Oh, I got something for him. It's kinda important, should I wait?"

Nathan winced as the morning sun only added to the harsh shadows of pain on Chris Larabee. He watched the blond take a deep breath and rest a hand on the boy's shoulder.

"Uh... Vin's gone away for awhile, Dougie, and Buck went with him."

"He didn't say goodbye..." the voice wavered and Sean rested both hands on his brother's shoulders from behind.

"He had to leave in a hurry. It was an important job." Chris's voice was clipped and they all saw the struggle.

"Well, I got his money... see?" he held out three pennies. "My slate busted last month and I didn't want Pa to be mad. Vin buyed me a new one and I been doin' chores and stuff. I was gonna be all done payin'." He thought for a moment and held out the coins to Chris. "Will you keep them? I ain't real good at findin' stuff and I reckon I'll lose 'em right quick. Can you give 'em to Vin for me?"

"Yeah." Chris's eyes dimmed again and he took a deep breath. He clutched the sweaty coins and stood up. Josiah rested a hand on his shoulder and gave a squeeze.

"You sure are lucky, having Vin as your best friend. I like him, he sure is something!" The lad tossed up at the blond man.

"Yeah, Dougie, I sure am lucky," Chris hissed, biting back a wave of pain. "I like him too."

With a short ruffle to the boy's dark head, Chris walked up the street towards his room. He paused when he passed Vin's wagon. He stared at it for a long moment, still seeing the scruffy tracker climbing out of the damn thing, wearing a scowl. He eyed the tattered canvas and the carefully folded shirts inside. He took another deep breath and let his eyes linger on the tracker's few possessions. Then he continued to his room, where he wanted to lose himself in a dreamless sleep.

Four Corners, Thursday morning

Josiah and Nathan kept their rifles trained on the disgruntled prisoners as they were led to the wagon. Manacles bound them hand and foot, providing insurance for their short ride to Fort Franklin. The large list of federal crimes and bodies left slaughtered prompted the Judge to the decision to hold the trial at the fort. He'd try the gang at the nearby Government institution and carry out the sentence. The trip would be about half a day, and Ezra and J.D. would eat lunch at the fort and return later.

"You think he's okay?" Nate asked, watching J.D. checking the leg irons and cuffing a surly prisoner.

"Define okay." The preacher replied, eyeing the dark circles under the youth's eyes.

"Buck was like kin to the boy, he's gotta be hurtin'..."

"...and you're not?"

"That's not what I meant." Nate scowled, glaring at his close friend. "He's still got a lot of growing up to do. He learned alot from Buck, you can see his influence on J.D. since he arrived."

"That's your answer," Sanchez sighed, wiping his brow. "What Buck gave that boy the most, is the reason he's sittin' so tall this morning." He cocked his head as the wagon pulled out, and nodded to their two friends. The prisoners were back to back, cuffed to a pole in the middle of the wagon. It was impossible to move. "...and that was his eternal gift. A part of him will always be here... through J.D."

Nate's eyes drifted to the boarding house and he couldn't help think of Chris Larabee. Guilt can do bad things to a man's soul. But to lose your two closest friends in such a manner. Would the lingering questions of his actions destroy their leader?

"That's another story," Josiah noted the concerned dark eyes. "Lord knows that man has carried his share of guilt already."

"I hope he's listenin' to Vin," Nate thought aloud, "That's the one voice he needs to hear now."

Josiah nodded and eyed his stone church down the block. His own soul was heavy, feeling the loss of his two friends. He cradled the rifle over his shoulder and turned, seeking solace in the cool adobe walls. "Want some company?" Nate asked, watching the pensive eyes flicking. "Maybe some pondering' to do." He replied, clamping a hand on the dark shirt and retreating.

Vin gasped audibly as the shot whizzed by, sending the startled horse into the desert.

"Ah shit..." By the time he forced his aching, blistered body up and staggered a few feet, the equine had disappeared. He didn't move for several minutes, as all his hope drained away. He dropped his head onto his heavy chest and clenched both fists in frustration.

Buck dropped back against the rock, too tired and worn out to feel the full impact of his decision. He didn't want to see the defeat in Tanner's eyes, he couldn't take that. He slid his own eyes shut, making the pain and heat disappear. He escaped to the north, to the majestic Rockies. He felt the snow falling and a cold wind caress him. He smiled and sighed contentedly, blissfully unaware of the anguished companion he'd left behind.

Vin turned in time to see Buck's eyes slide shut. His own cracked face shifted painfully as they took in the pistol in Buck's hand. He'd forgotten about that, it was tucked in the front of the blanket. Buck must have been more delirious that he thought. He'd tried to kill him while he was down. He eyed the still early morning sun and the large stretch of land ahead. He dropped to the fallen man's side and tapped the stilled face. "Buck... Buck..." he croaked, his blistered fingers sliding down the slack face. He covered Buck's head and chest as best he could, preventing the sun from burning him.

Sighing, he eyed the ropes that had been connected to the horse. He adjusted the harness and slid it over his shoulders and made another pass around his hips. He glanced around for the pebble he'd lost, realizing just how valuable it was now. Sucking on that small flat stone created saliva, which he needed. It was when he bent to pick it up, that he saw the dead snake. A western diamondback, several feet long. He spun in stunned silence, realizing just what a sacrifice Buck Wilmington made. That gave him a new flicker of strength.

"We ain't licked yet. I'll get ya there... Marshal Wilmington," he noted proudly and squared the course rope on his shoulders. With every painful step, the ropes chewed the skin on his shoulders and razor-like teeth ripped through his leg. He stumbled onward, oblivious to time, space or surroundings. The only thing he could concentrate on was placing one foot in front of the other.

Midday, Fort Franklin

"All secure, Major Carter."

"Very good, Timmons, resume your patrol." The senior officer returned the young man's salute and turned to the two peacekeepers.

"The judge will arrive in three days. I don't think it will be a long trial.

My thanks to you for bringing this bloodthirsty gang to justice."

"We merely provided transport, My Good Major," Ezra nodded curtly, fanning himself, "...and I am sure we have not heard the last of that brood. That repulsive reptile left a litter of mongrels down south. They will, no doubt, carry on in his wake."

"We're beefing up the border patrols and President Grant is sending more troops. With expansion projections, we can't afford to be cautious." He turned to the somber, dark-hair sheriff, "From what I've been told, you wear that star well."

"Thanks," J.D. nodded, " did another lawman I once knew." He turned and walked towards the officer's quarters, where the Major's wife had prepared lunch. Try as he might, he couldn't stop thinking this was all wrong. A feeling was gnawing as his insides, something he'd never encountered. It wasn't that he was calmly accepted Buck's death, or that he was in shock.

His cool demeanor was due to the unshakeable feeling that his best friend was still alive. He knew Chris was right about the odds of survival, and he worried about the story. That Buck would tie Vin up and take him to a Texas jail, that just didn't sit well. What if Buck made it to Texas and they hung Vin? What if...

"J.D.?" Ezra waved a hand in front of his non-responsive partner, until the hazel eyes blinked at him.


"Mrs. Carter is speaking to you."

"Oh, I'm sorry," J.D. blushed, realizing the pretty brunette was in front of him. He hadn't realized they were at the officer's quarters. A small child peeked out from behind his mother's skirt. A pretty blond girl of about six stood in the doorway shyly.

"Well, now, I wasn't informed that we would be dining with a princess," Ezra oozed, giving the girl a killer smile and gaining the return smile he'd wanted. "May I?" He extended his arm and the little girl eyed her mother, who nodded.

"I'm Elizabeth Carter," she greeted them, "this is Hannah and James, our children. I hope you're hungry, I've prepared chicken creole."

"Surely I've died and gone to heaven." Ezra amazed as the familiar scent of a favorite dish assaulted him.

Lunch was quiet with the news of the territory being the main subject. After thanking their hostess, the two began their journey back to Four Corners.

Ezra wasn't surprised when they stopped at Coogan's Pond. It was the place where J.D. and Buck often sought refuge. Whether fishing, swimming or just shooting the breeze, it was where they shared so much. He saw the youth slide from his horse and walk to the water's edge.

"I shall miss our charming rogue and our fearless tracker." Ezra's voice carried over the stilled water.

"Why do you stay?" J.D. blurted, turning and facing the startled man.


"You don't fit. I mean you got fancy clothes and expensive words, you could make a killing in New Orleans or Frisco. Why Four Corners?"

"Why indeed..." Ezra mused, not certain of the answer. "Truth be told, Son, I honestly cannot say. Four Corners doesn't have the glamour of San Francisco or the mystery of New Orleans," he paused and his voice tensed as he thought on the booming laugher of Buck Wilmington and Vin Tanner's bashful blush. "...but..."

J.D. heard the pinched voice and saw the Standish mask drop briefly. Buck liked Ezra, how many times had he told J.D. that. He'd start a sentence with 'Hell, Kid, you should have seen Ezra in action last night, it was a thing of beauty'. Vin had accepted Ezra from the start, before anyone of them trusted him. Vin had a way of knowing people... seeing inside. J.D. knew that Ezra was grateful for that.

"I'm sorry, Ezra. I didn't mean that the way it came out." J.D. paused, and eyed the uncertainty in the pale green eyes. "You in a hurry? Maybe we could sit for a spell?"

Ezra's didn't expect that and didn't hide the astonished face. J.D. was offering more than a rest stop. He was inviting the southerner to share his spot in the sun. The place where he and Buck shared so much. He slide off the horse and withdrew his silver flask. He saw the warm smile J.D. offered and returned it. They sat quietly for some time, eyeing the gentle current and listening to the calls of nature.

"He admired you." J.D. said, without turning.

"Hah!" Ezra scoffed, "I fail to see how he would have become that desperate."

"Don't talk like that Ezra. There's nobody here but us, you don't have to pretend."

"I'm sorry, J.D." Ezra offered sincerely and stood up. "But I'm not Buck. It came so easy to him and he reveled in it. Life, love, women, song, gambling, fighting... he was a modern day renaissance man. I wish I'd had the foresight to tell him."

"...and Vin..."

"Mr. Tanner."

J.D. heard the softness tinged with emotion in the other's voice. He saw warmth in the green eyes and saw the gold tooth glinting in the sun. Ezra's mouth opened but he didn't say anything. He didn't have to, his unmasked features spoke eloquently for him. Vin knew Ezra admired him, and knowing that was some salvation for the gambler. He got on his horse and started up the road towards Four Corners. He reined his horse in, as the Southerner called.

"Mr. Dunne?" Ezra paused and waited until the somber eyes met his, "Thank you..."

The scorpions skittered, tails high, while the snakes and rats looked on evilly. The winged predators swooped and scoffed, readying themselves for a feast. The sun was brutally cold in its punishment of the accidental nomadic pair. Thrust into the nightmaric oasis, they forged onward.

The bearer of the litter knew not where he was going. He'd long passed through the valley of reason and was now trudging through the canyon of oblivion. With every bone-searing step he staggered, Vin Tanner felt Death caressing his chest. Sweat stung his eyes and every muscle screamed in protest. His vision was blurred and his mind seemed to have turned to mush.

He couldn't think... or hear... and a coldness had settled inside. The cruel expanse of terrain they crossed seemed to be endless. Then above the dust and patches of green thrush and sticky cacti, something took shape. Tall, dark formations... buildings... a town... hope... salvation. His parched throat croaked a feeble grunt of exclamation through bleeding, cracked lips. He tried to press harder, fearing that somehow it would disappear, then it happened.

"No!" he rasped as he found himself on his knees. His heart clenched and his neck and shoulders screamed and bled. The jagged teeth of the ropes made a meal of his tender flesh. He grunted and groaned, straining with his last ounce of grit, but it only landed him on his face. He couldn't go on; Fate chose this moment to mock him. Like Eve dangling an apple, she let his painful eyes be burned by the sight of the city.

Something was wrong. Buck was roused from his delirium and peeled an eye open. He saw the same outskirts of a town, just a few miles ahead. It was so hard to stay awake, his chest ached and every breath was forced and cruel.

Movement of any kind send the axe deeper into his already pulsating skull, but still, something was wrong. He turned slightly, hearing a mewing sound.

A wounded animal? Then he was sorry he'd kept his eyes open. There just a few feet away, tangled in bloodied ropes was a burned face, whose shocked eyes were lost in a river of defeat. This time, Buck saw the sound as it went airborne. A cry of frustration, colored with sorrow, sailed through the air and lanced the rogue's heart. This gutsy, young warrior, who'd saved his life and didn't know the meaning of the word 'quit', was utterly and totally spent. His noble heart was willing but his vanquished body betrayed him. He beckoned the young man with his soul and the blue eyes cast away.

"Tan...ner..." Buck whispered and held out a small pear, the last remaining fruit.

Vin was on his side, the ropes felt awfully heavy and he couldn't seem to move. He tasted the gritty sand as it washed in his mouth with each short, panting breath. It stuck to his face and burned his already tender flesh.

Internally, he wept tears of defeat; externally he was too exhausted to produce a tear. He heard Buck and raised his face. He tried to move, but was unable. He furrowed his brow and began to move, inch by inch on his belly. It felt like forever and took every breath from him. Finally, he collapsed, his last ounce of courage was spent.

Buck was silently urging the weary body on, watching every painful inch of ground covered with a hand out. But then he collapsed, the hat flopped over the burned face and Buck couldn't see the sorrowful blue eyes. He reached out and leaned over, the pain ripping through his chest took a back seat.

With a grunt of effort, he was able to touch the side of Tanner's neck.

Vin felt the brush of fingertips against his neck and turned. He tried to move his own arm, but it was trapped under him and snagged in rope. He shook his head and the hat flopped free. He leaned his face closer, scratching the few inches of unmarred skin and felt Buck's fingers on the underside of his chin. He saw the meager fruit and managed to move his lips.

"I ain't much fer pears..." he denied and shut his eyes.

Buck took a bite of the pear and placed it in his fingers. He reached over and brushed it against the bounty's parched lips. They moved instinctively and he slid the fruit inside. He saw one eye open and a half-grin form.

"I'm partial to sharin' myself..." Buck croaked and took a small bite for himself. Then he nibbled another piece off and fed the nearly unconscious young man. It was a curious feeling that hovered around him. With every bit of food he managed to get in Texan, he felt a shiver inside. It was a good feeling, but a strange one too. A week ago, he didn't know this brave young hero. But now he felt his heart melting every time he looked at the shaggy head and soulful eyes. The pear was done and as he tossed the small pit away, he felt a smothering sadness. The intimacy of the brief meal was a comfort to him. As the pit landed in the sand and was quickly covered, he felt his last hope die.

Vin was moved not as much by Buck's tender ministrations, he was well familiar with Wilmington's large heart. But that it was Marshal Buck Wilmington, a stranger who'd not only accepted him as an equal, but put all his faith in him, that was really choking him. Vin reflected on the offer to take the horse and ride to freedom. An offer from the depth's of the stranger's heart. Something that even now, gave Vin an undefinable tightness inside. Getting to meet and understand the man behind the star had meant a lot to him. Oh, that the world was losing something as fine as Marshal Buck Wilmington. He lifted an eye and saw the handsome man smile, his face scored with pain. He felt Buck's fingers brush the underside of his jaw. He sighed blinked and tried to speak.

Buck saw the gratitude pouring from the blue eye that was barely visible.

Stubborn fool should have taken the horse, at least one of them would have been saved. But that wasn't the kid's way. Buck smiled and rested his hand against Tanner's neck. He felt the raspy breath, released on the sigh and smiled weakly. The lips were moving and Buck leaned forward, creasing his eyes with effort.

He didn't hear. Vin scowled and sighed. Taking a good breath and realizing that it might be his last, he put all his soul into the message. As the strong fingers rested against his face and he felt Death tightening her stronghold on his chest, he opened his mouth again.

"It was an honor ridin' with ya... Marshal."

That hurt. More than the bullet that took a hunk out of his skull. It lanced him deeper than the bullet that rode into his side. It ached more than the burned skin on his body and the rawness of his throat. He felt tears pricking his eyes and one found enough stamina to slide out. Something was fighting hard to get out... something buried deep inside him. What? What was it about this brave young man that made his heart ache? He was a stranger with familiar eyes... haunting eyes. He tapped the stilled face, but the sky eyes were closed and the mighty heart silent. He tugged the hat over the side of Tanner's face, protecting it from the sun. He kept his hand underneath and gripped the back of the fallen man's neck.

"You're a Tanner, Son..." he whispered and frowned. Where the hell did that come from? What did it mean? Why did it cause such a paralyzing grip on his heart. His eyes were drawn to horizon and lingered on the distant town. He let his mind drift, painting a pretty portrait. A ranch house with a corral in the back, full of horses. He was coming out of the barn, leading a pony. A dark-haired boy with devilish blue eyes was sitting on top. Another was following, yanking on his belt. A voice drew his head to the side, over to the large porch. His pretty wife waved to him, holding a chubby infant. It felt so damned good... so right.

"No..." he groaned and snapped himself awake as the image faded. He reached a hand out, desperate to grab the vision and hold onto it. Then his heart quickened and he blinked hard. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. The thumping pumper in his chest was in overdrive. Riders were coming... headed this way. He fumbled for the gun in his waist belt, pulled it on his lap and waited. With his left hand, he pinched Tanner's skin.

"Tan... help... come... up... wake..." he stumbled, each word like Greek and hard to press past his lips. But the body didn't stir. Fearfully, and with great trepidation, he slid his fingers down to the Tanner's throat. He closed his eyes, praying for a pulse... and found one. "Hold on..." His strength was fading and he felt himself being drawn down into a deep, black void. He raised the pistol and hoped they were close enough. The shot rang out as he tipped over.

Part 12

Four Corners, Later that afternoon

Mary eyed her small son, sitting mute in the corner. She explained the best she could about Vin and Buck, but it's hard for a child to grasp. The concept of forever is lost to a mind so young. He'd become angry and silent, refusing lunch or chores or anything she'd asked. Movement across the street caught her eye. Chris was at Vin Tanner's wagon, his upper body leaning inside the opening in the back. She winced as she saw him lift out a pile of Vin's shirts. She saw the box at his feet and frowned. He dropped the shirts and gripped both hips. One of his hands slammed against the side of the wagon and his head fell.

He found himself at the wagon, not even realizing he'd walked over. He was in Potter's store getting a new razor and the harmonica fell onto the counter. It rolled out with his money and he snatched it quickly, startling Gloria Potter. A false need to purge the tracker's things from his memory arose and before he knew it, he was toting a box to the wagon. He picked up a pile of shirts at random and felt the soft folds of fabric. Bad luck bit him in the ass again, the shirts weren't clean. Tanner's scent clung to every inch of cotton. It choked him, sending moisture to his eyes and his hand to the side of the carriage.

"Why?" he hissed. Why did he ride into this town that fateful day? Why did fate bring the tracker into his life? Why didn't he deny the gut tug that day when their eyes met? "Why?" he repeated and felt a hand on his back.

"Is there anything I can do?"

"Mary..." The name slid out so easily and the feeling it created inside was unsettling. Despite her high-necked gown, the bruises peeked over the top of the lacey collar. He felt the anger welling and gripped both fists. "It's over, Chris, let it go. Please?" she asked.

If the blue eyes didn't undo him the strength that she possessed did. He'd thought about the sacrifice she'd made and couldn't image the guts it took. He sighed and dropped his head. Several seconds went by and he took a deep breath, ashamed of his self-pity. After all she went through, it was she that was comforting him.

"How are you?" he asked, seeing a trace of fear still in the deep irises.

"I can't seem to get clean," she murmured, and saw his head nod. He understood and sympathized. She read it clearly in the pale green eyes, colored with such pain it made her ache. She picked up the shirts he dropped and went to replace them inside the wagon. She laid it against her face for a second and felt the emotion.

"Oh God..."

"Yeah." Chris nodded, "I figured I'd clean out his..." he broke off, unable to finish.

"Not today," she said quietly and hooked a hand through his arm. "Want some coffee?"


He saw Billy and frowned as the stormy face scowled at him. He knelt down and reached a hand out, but the body brushed past him and headed upstairs.

"He's mad at Vin and Buck. He's young, he doesn't understand." she explained.

"Want me to talk to him?" Chris offered.

"Not while he's this angry," her intuition warned, "Maybe Sunday after church, you can come for supper?"


He tossed his hat on the pine table in the kitchen and studied the swirls in the wood. His eye caught a dark yellow object across the room.

"Cheese popovers," Mary answered the intense stare. "Would you like one?" she asked and saw him start to answer and then close his mouth. "Might be good for that cold you picked up."

"Vin's..." He coughed on cue and took the cloth she offered as a group of sneezes erupted.

He swallowed and began again. "You spoiled him with those damn things," Chris murmured, recalling Vin's pockets seeming to always have one tucked away. "He was like a damn rat, ferreting them away. He..."

"Well as long as ya made 'em Mary... might as well not let 'em go t'waste..." she imitated the soft drawl perfectly. She smiled warmly, remembering the boyish charm and handsome smile that greeted her every morning when she went outside.

She poured them each a cup of coffee and nodded at the back door. He rose and followed her outside. She sat on the glider on the back porch and he took a seat next to her. They shared and comforted in silence, each drawing strength from the other. He was bearing the scars of the exhaustion that only a traumatic loss can inflict. He pinched his fingers to his eyes and she eyed the throbbing pain.

"Here..." she said and pulling his head onto her lap. She used her leg to rock the swing to and fro. Her hand massaged the aching temple and ran through his damp, blond hair. She moved a little, massaging his neck and the minutes sailed by. His eyes slid shut and she thought he was sleeping. For some time, they remained like that, her skilled hands taking the tension from his back and neck.

With every brush of the strong hands to his skin, he felt the pain dissolve a little. The headache was a fierce one and Mary's skilled fingers were trying their best to absolve it. But there was no medicine or massage that could fill the hole inside. How to mend a shattered soul? Just thinking of Buck and Vin filled him with pain. Each time he rethought his decision to leave, it brought a new wave.


Just when she eased the rocking, thinking he was asleep, his choked voice was heard. She closed her eyes and felt a tear slip outside. He sat up and lifted his head to the conclusion of the unending day. He stood and swallowed hard, and felt her embrace him. She pulled his face down and kissed his lips softly. She looked up at the handsome face and rested her hand against his chest.

"You know, it never goes away," she spoke from experience, thinking of Stephen, as well as his own painful losses. "But with time and people who care for you, it becomes easier to bear, if you let us in."

"People who care?" he invited, hoping the feeling behind the words was heartfelt.

"Yes, Chris." She nodded. "Your friends here... the Judge... Billy." She drilled him hard with her eyes. "I care Chris, a great deal. I'll be here."

"Thank you, Lady," he murmured, brushing the top of her golden head with his lips, giving them both a strong tingle.

"You're more than welcome to stay," She invited, "...for dinner."

He chuckled and enjoyed the flush the unnecessary corrective action brought.

"I'm heading out to the shack for a few days. I'm taking Diablo with me..." he broke off and walked through the house. "Sunday?" He turned back at saw her nod.

She watched from the door until he left the livery. He was on Diablo, Vin's cherished horse, which had the same spirit as its master. It was a good fit and she hoped the time alone would help him come to terms with his great loss.

Sheriff Colt Haskill had seen a lot of strange things in his tenure in Salt Flats. But this one was a first. He slid off the horse and dropped to the taller man's side. He tapped the mustached man's face and saw the eyes twitch.

"Son, Can you hear me?" he hollered, and saw two slits appear. "I got some water, don't gulp it..." he warned and felt a weak nod. He lifted the injured man's body and propped it against his knee. He felt the head wobbling in his hands, as he supported it while quenching the parched man's thirst. The soft grunts of pleasure gave him a slight grin. "Easy there..." he pulled it back and wet his kerchief. He wiped the burned face and noticed the silver star on the chest by his hand.

"You a lawman?" he inquired and saw a nod.


"I'm gonna get a look at you," the older man advised and gently laid him down. He unpeeled the tattered bandage and looked at a raw, nasty head wound. It was a deep crease and red at the edges. His fingers felt the thickening waist and he peeled some of the crude bandages apart and saw the cauterized wound, also red and no doubt infected. The shallow breathing wasn't good either. His deputy's voice drew his attention away.

"Hey Sheriff? What the hell is this rig?"

The kid was holding up a group of ropes that were tangled around a young man's body. The senior lawman winced at the blood on the ropes and shook his head.

"It's for a travois. I'm guessing that horse that rode in was theirs. The kid must have pulled the marshal after they lost the horse. Damn..." he amazed . "He still breathing?"

"Yeah, but he don't sound too good... Jesus..."

"Eddie, cut those damn ropes off," he ordered, "We gotta get them in town." He eyed the blood-encrusted shoulders of the long-haired boy and winced. The ropes had worn some of the fabric right into the skin and it blistered over it. It was a awful mess to look at, and startled the young deputy.


"He's alive." the sheriff turned back to the wounded marshal. "You hang in there Wilmington."

Buck was worried. Every time he looked at Tanner, he remembered the last town. What if he died before Tanner's name got cleared? What if he died and they didn't know? Could he trust this sheriff? He looked hard at the silver-streaks at the temples of the brown hair. The blue eyes were solid and true, rimmed with lines that only a veteran earns. Buck trusted him and reached out.

"...need... to... say... impor..tant..."

Eddie Frankson eyed the young man carefully. The ropes were cut free and he splashed water on the his face and neck. He lifted the body up and tried to rouse him. He nudged the canteen against the broken skin on the lips and they moved. He got a good bit of water into the slumped man, who was too weak to open his eyes. As he drank, he studied the face and hair... Tanner... Tanner... the name was familiar. He eased the body down and checked for injuries. He discovered the bandaged ribs and leg. The thigh was inflamed and badly infected. Tanner... he nodded and turned.

"I know this guy... Vin Tanner." He snapped his fingers. "There's a bounty on him. Five hundred dollars for murder, right here in Texas."

"No!" Buck choked, grasping the sheriff's shirt frantically. "...bad paper... framed... protect him... promise... promise..."

"Take it easy, Marshal." Haskill reassured the anxious eyes and weak fist pounding him. "Were you bringing this kid in?"

"...was... wrong..."

"He was framed? You got proof?"

"Do..." Buck asserted, "...promise... not hang... took bullet out... saved me... toted me on his back... promise... not a murderer... didn't..."

"Look at me, Son." The marshal lifted the wounded man up and gripped both shoulders. He saw the fear in the blue eyes that were barely open. He glanced at the unconscious bounty and the horrific marks of the desert ordeal. "This badge has served me well for twenty-five years. If that boy is innocent, I'll see justice is served. You got my word." He took the limp hand and gave a tug.

"...wouldn't take horse... told 'im to leave me... damn fool..."

"I get the picture. He's too sick to go anywhere right now, both of you need a doctor. You rest and let me take charge. I won't let anybody take him."

"Promise... protect..."

Buck's last image as he faded away was the strong words of the honest face that loomed over him. He sensed the marshal was a good man and hoped that Tanner would be safe. Help was here, a doctor would fix Tanner. It was okay to go, he was safe.

"Never saw anything like it," Haskill said, shaking his head. "Eddie, get on up there and I'll hand this young fellow up to you." He directed and easily lifted the unconscious, longhaired man. Once the body was secure and his deputy had a good grip, he turned back to Wilmington. It was difficult, but he finally got the wounded marshal onto his horse and climbed up after him.

"Let's get them to town to the clinic, " he directed, "We'll strip 'em down and start cooling them off. Tony can ride out to the Fort and get Major Douglas." The Army fortress was close by and the Major was a first rate surgeon.

"Shouldn't he be in the jail?" The deputy asked of the body that he supported.

"He's barely alive, Eddie," the sheriff barked angrily, "I don't think he's a threat." He rode up beside his assistant and saw the doubt in his eyes.

"We're gonna check his story. You heard what the marshal said... the kid stuck his neck out to save his life. What kind of murderer does that? You ever hear of one toting a lawman on his back like that? Why didn't he ride away?"

"I don't know..." Eddie mumbled. "But that poster says..."

"Fuck the poster, Eddie and listen to me!" Colt barked, "I'm telling you, I'm checking this one out. Nobody takes that kid. Are we clear on that?"

"Yes Sir," Eddie nodded and followed the senior officer as they rode to town

Sunday Morning

Colt Haskill's weary eyes snapped open as the front door banged shut. His shoulders jumped a bit and he tensed, hand automatically reaching for his gun. He relaxed as Mary McGuinness from the boarding house entered. She set a tray of food down on the table next to him and scowled. He sighed, rubbed his eyes and nodded.

"Sleeping on the job again?" She teased, pouring him a cup of coffee.

"Something like that..." He admitted, stretching soundly. "What time is it?"

"Just after seven." She frowned, eyeing the dark circles and rumpled shirt.

"When's the last time you went home and slept in a bed?"

"I'm fine," he gruffed, attacking a defenseless piece of ham.

"Hmpph!" She disagreed, not budging. At fifty, her wavy, dark hair was just beginning to gray. She was widowed more than eight years now, with her four children grown and moved away. She devoted herself to the tenants at her boarding house, Colt among them. The tough sheriff was her late husband's best friend and they'd known each other for over thirty years. She shook her head and moved behind him, massaging the stiff muscles on his neck.

"You been over?" He asked, relaxing at the pretty widow's touch.

"Dropped some breakfast off for the Major and Will," She said of the two tired physicians. "They look awful. Don't think the Major has slept since he got here. The boy seems to be better, his fever broke during the night. Poor thing, he has such sad eyes..." Her voice trailed off as she recalled the muddled gaze that met hers earlier. She'd been working hand in hand with the two doctors, helping to bath and get liquids into the injured men.

"The marshal?" Colt muffled, finishing his eggs and reaching for a sweetroll. He slathered butter on it and thought of the two injured men.

"No change," Her voice dropped and caught when she thought of the handsome lawman. He wasn't rallying and getting weaker. Truth be told, she didn't know how he held on this long. "The Major doesn't hold out much hope."

Two days earlier when they'd arrived, she sprang into action. While someone was dispatched to the fort to get Major Douglas, she worked with the sheriff and Will Gaithers, the elderly town doctor, to strip and bath the injured men. Initially, it was the younger one who they feared losing. He was barely breathing, very dehydrated and full of congestion. While the doctor and Colt worked on the badly wounded marshal, she and Eddie worked on the younger man. She lanced the infected leg and took out the yellowish puss.She doused it liberally with Carbolic and stitched it loosely, allowing for a drain. She rubbed a poultice on his chest to help break up the congestion and wrapped the damanged ribs. The blistered, raw torn shoulders, where the rope ate the skin away, were tenderly cleaned, medicated and dressed. His face and neck were covered in burn ointment. He was sitting forward, nearly upright, on a bank of pillows. Then she noticed his eyebrows furrowing and felt the weak trembles as she touched him. She slapped his face hard, causing Colt to appear.

"What are you doing?"

"Saving his life," She'd replied, watching the boy's mouth open to protest.

She ordered him in a harsh, loud tone to drink, and he did. The Major was a first rate doctor and surgeon, having graduated from Harvard and worked in Boston and New York. He immediately ordered them to administer water doused heavily with sugar, anytime the patients stirred. At first, she thought the mixture strange, maybe some newfangled medical thing. But he explained there was nothing scientific about the sugar water, just his grandmother's tried and true fever remedy. Sure enough, it began to work. She stayed by the boy's side all day and into the night, hushing his anxiety and calming his nightmares. He quickly drank on command for her, both sugar water and broth. His fever broke last night and he was resting more comfortably. Just a few hours before, his eyes finally shot open, startling both of them. His confused stare told her he had no idea where he was or what was wrong. She dropped into a mother mode, using a soothing voice and gentle touch. He immediately calmed and drank for her, before sliding back into the void.

But the poor marshal, he was in a bad way and the Major never left his side. He cleaned both wounds and winced at the deep head laceration. The wound in the side was badly infected and the fever was eating all the strength from the injured man. The blue eyes opened only as slits, totally unaware and unfocused. The Major coaxed some water into him, urging him to fight. But so far, the plea fell on deaf ears.

"Best I get over there..." Colt said, kissing the worried woman's forehead, "Quit frettin', it's giving you wrinkles."

"Watch your mouth!" She warned, slapping his arm.

Vin heard the other voices and remained floating in his deep sea. It was too painful to move and he waited for her to come back. He peeled an eye open and looked around the strange room again. He thought hard but drew a blank. His chest hurt so much, he almost didn't want to breath. But she'd holler again and that hurt his head. Water... he dreamed of it running past his lips and spilling down his chest. He had almost drifted away again, when the light touch returned. His breathing slowed and he head moved towards the hand. He pushed his brows together and tried to force his eyes open.

"Well now, did you miss me?" Mary teased, warming to the reaction of her presence. "I got some custard for you. Open up now..."

Colt stood behind the widow and watched the healing lips open and the soft grunt as the sweet confection disappeared. The pale blue eyes were blinking rapidly, trying to find Mary's face. He bent lower and saw the blue eyes narrowing.

"Hey there, young fella. I'm Colt Haskill. You're in Salt Flats. Mrs. McGuiness and the Doc have been taking good care of you. You rest easy, Son, you're safe here."

Safe? Safe from what? Where the hell was he? This wasn't Four Corners, he didn't know these people. Salt Flats? His heart sank and he hissed, shaking his head in denial. How could this be Texas? How the hell did he get back here? Think Vin... think... he drilled... images of a gunfight and bodies falling came to mind.

Mary noticed the change and held a mug of cold cider before him. "Come on," she urged and he shook his head. "Don't sass me, Boy. You best drink this or you'll get my Irish up." She watched as he laid his head back, his large eyes totally lost. "No sense wearin' yourself out thinkin' on that now. Only thing needs doin' now is for you to get your strength back, now drink up." Vin drained the cup and then as she moved to check on his bandaged leg, his eyes saw a body nearby. His managed to get his arm up and rub his blurry eyes. He strained harder and saw a dark haired man with a waxen complexion. The almost eerie air that huddled over the stilled form brought one word to mind.


"What?" Mary spun back, hearing the weak raspy voice for the first time. She saw him cock his head and squint, leaning hard to see the marshall. Before she could move in, his eyes widened and the breathing became frantic.

Vin's eyes cleared and clarity set in fast. The full memories of the last few days slammed into him, as the fever finally died. That corpse was Buck Wilmington. After all they'd suffered through, to come so close and lose him.

"Buck!" He coughed, reaching his hand out and trying to leave the bed.

"Oh no you don't!" Mary grabbed him and forced him back, he fought briefly before collapsing. It was then she added up the clues and discovered what frightened him. She eased him back onto his pillows and tapped his face. "He's not dead, Son, he's still breathing. You understand?"

His long sigh and muscles relaxing under her hands on his shoulders, gave the answer. She leaned in as his lips moved, although his eyes remained shut.

"...Chris... need... Buck... help..."

She frowned on his cryptic words and satisfied that he was asleep, she moved over to the marshall. She sighed and took a seat next to critically injured man. She dipped a linen cloth into the alchohol and water mixture the Major ordered and began the process of chasing another fever away.

"You listen to me Handsome," She drilled turning him carefully and rubbing the fever fighter on his back. "It's about time you started pulling your weight around here. Will, me and the Major have been doing all your work for you. So how about using some of that grit I know you have and fight back? That boy needs you. Tanner, he's been calling for you." She paused and eased him back down and felt his muscles tense. "Tanner..." she repeated and saw the twitch under the closed lids.

Buck heard the voice and sought to fight his way through the murky muck that mired him down. It was like swimming in a river of mud. Tanner? Where was he? Did the voice say he needed him? Tanner? He couldn't breath and his head throbbed mercilessly. He pushed hard and tried to loosen the load in his chest. He threw all his weight into a burst of energy and forced his way forward, expelling with all his might.

"Hmmph!" she hissed at the weak cough. "That's a miserable excuse for a cough. You can do better than that. Come on, I got better things to do than waste my time coaxing phlegm out of your sorry hide. Let's get to it, Marshal." She waited and the face was slack again. She cocked her head and eyed the boy across the room, sleeping peacefully. "Poor Tanner... he's in a bad way." She smiled at the cruel trick, but it worked. The marshal's eyes twitched and his head turned. She eased him up as a solid round of wet coughs ensued. "That's better... here you go... got some tea for you." She held the cup up and he slowly began to drink.

" piss..."

"I'll take that as a compliment." She laughed at the voice that sounded like sandpaper on wood. "All of it, don't fight me Son, you can't win."

"...lover not fighter..."

"Hah!" she laughed, wiping his face and resting it on a clean side of the pillow, "I'll bet you're pretty adept at both. You rest now, I'll be back with some soup."

"Sheriff... sheriff..."

"Where's the fire, Ricky?" He stopped the flying teenager who burst into the dining room of the boarding house. He was sharing a table and coffee with the two weary healers. He was just about to send them to bed for some rest, when the clerk flew into the room.

"Got a reply!"

"Thanks, Ricky."

"Well?" Major Douglas asked, knowing the sheriff had been working hard to clear the young bounty's name. He'd written a report outlining the entire situation in detail. Tom Darling from The Eagle, the town's paper, offered to make copies on his press. He'd done a front page story with a banner headline and drawing about the desert ordeal of the two unlikely partners. The sheriff dispersed a courier to Crystal City where the circuit judge was due in a few days. The concerned marshall wanted to meet with the judge, before the prison claimed him. He didn't want any greedy locals getting ideas.

"Teak Daniels, the sheriff over there says that the Judge got in late last night. He's due to pull out on the stage tomorrow afternoon. If I hurry, I can catch him. You keep him alive." He eyed the Major, who nodded.


"Yeah?" the deputy jumped off the boardwalk and strode to the center of the street. "You heading out?" He saw the seasoned eyes already on the livery.

"To Crystal City to see the Judge. The sooner we get this mess straightened out, the better it will be for all of us. " He turned and eyed the deputy carefully. "You listen to me, Eddie, Nobody takes that kid, you got it."

"I know my job!"

"You better..." the threat lingered as the sheriff headed for the clinic.

Mary looked up from Buck Wilmington's side as the sheriff entered. She watched him walk over and lean down near Tanner. He rested a hand on the young man's arm and shook it gently.

"Tanner? Wake up."

"...mmmm...." Vin licked his lips and grimaced as the sour balm on them invaded his mouth. He peeled an eye open and saw a lean, middle-aged man with steel eyes looking at him. He narrowed his own eyes and saw the tin star. He backed up slightly and his heart began to hammer. Salt Flats... Texas... a lawman.

"Easy now, I'm Colt Haskill and I'm on your side. Marshal Wilmington told me what you did and I saw the evidence myself. You saved his life and I'm gonna see to it that you get help clearing up whatever mess you involved in. Okay? You understand? I'm riding to see a judge now. You listen to the Doc and don't give Mary any trouble."

"Buck?" Vin croaked and snaked his eyes across the room. Buck waxen complexion gave the tracker a chill. Vin took a painful breath and forced some more of the clouds from his mind. Despite the sheriff's words, this was still Texas. His mind drew up a vision of a lynch mob. If the sheriff was leaving town, no tell what an angry crowd might do. The five-hundred dollars loomed over him like a dark cloud. Pushing it away, he sighed painfully and reluctantly tore his gaze from Buck. Buck needed help, he needed his friends. He tugged on the tan pants next to his cot.

"Tanner?" The sheriff squatted down, watching the healing, burned face moving.


"Yeah, we got one here, he..."

"No... marshal's uncle... promised him... take body home... promised..." the weak voice protested.

"He might not die, Son." The sheriff tried, but the icy blue eyes looked right through him. The kid knew the marshall was bad off. From his muddled words, he added up the promise he'd made to the lawman in the desert.

"He's got kin nearby? A preacher? Where is he? "

"Four Corners... Sanchez... Josiah... Reverend... wire... do..."

"Alright," he took the weak hand and shook on it. "You rest up and I'll send that wire."

"I'll wait."

"Okay," Colt nodded, seeing the stubborn chin jut back in defiance. That very rebellious nature is what kept this young man alive in the desert. He returned a few moments later and spotted the heavy eyes fighting to see him through the sunburned face. He nodded and stood before the bed. "He's coming, Tanner. I got a reply from Four Corners."

"Thank... you..."

It wasn't the words as much as the relief that carried them, that gave the senior lawman a smile. He watched the battered body finally rest. With a nod to Mary and a brief update, he gathered his belongings and rode to Crystal City.

Four Corners, Sunday Service

It had been a long week, a brutal string of endless days and agonizing nights. Josiah eyed the bodies before him and took a deep breath. The news spread through the community over the last two days and the church was full. Buck and Vin had a lot of friends in town and the surrounding area as well. They stood now, heads bowed, eyes searching, hats in hand, waiting for the preacher to heal them. It was a riddle without an answer. Josiah needed to heal to; he'd seek out his own healing time soon enough. He opened the worn, leather bible and was about to speak, when a body flew up the center aisle. The black hair was sticking to the flushed face, the hazel eyes were wide with... euphoria? The bowler hat sailed into the air, sent by the young man's strong arm.

"They're alive!" J.D. screamed.

Part 13

Outside Four Corners

The residents of the wilderness didn't mind the stranger who joined them this fine morning. Man and beast were dressed alike in black suits. The hawk hovered, watching curiously as the fair-haired man finally came to a stop. The lean form eased off the fine, black horse bearing a white blaze and led him to the stream.

Chris took a deep breath, inhaling the sweet air near the rushing river. It was a pretty spot, a favorite of both Buck and Vin's. The tracker often came out to the rocky grouping near the water's edge to meditate. Buck spent many mornings out here fishing and contemplating. So it was on this dawn of the seventh day, deemed by the Almighty to rest, that Chris made a choice. With the sun for a preacher, the clear sky as a roof and the rushing, crisp river as his pulpit, the gunslinger set up the altar in Vin's catherdral.

He stroked Diablo's neck and thought how Vin's fine horse would be so empty without his master. He unpacked the saddlebag first, taking out a worn leather pouch with a faded gold eagle. The Army insignia brought back difficult memories. Images of wading through rivers of blood and climbing over discarded limbs in faraway battlefields, brought a pain to his gut. He opened the pouch and drew out the tarnished medal, awarded long ago near Lookout Mountain in Tennesee. Next came a faded photograph of a quartet of somber soldiers, seasoned by urgency, rather than time. As the ranking officer, he stood in the middle, with Tim Kelly and Chip Matthews on his left. His finger traced over Kelly's face, as he recalled the shock of red hair the sixteen-year old boasted. Chip was the eldest, nearly forty when the picture was taken. His instincts and battle knowledge saved them many times. Both men fell as Gettysburg, Kelly died in his arms. He sighed painfully and moved his eyes to the last figure in the photo, the only face that smiled. Chris's lips turned up at the cocky grin the swaggering soldier wore. He sighed deeply as his eyes devoured the image of a much younger Buck Wilmington.

"Best damn soldier the Union saw fit to hire..." Chris vowed, setting the photo carefully on the 'altar' next to the medal. He turned back to the horse and bit his lip. He carefully took down the soft hide coat, still stained with blood. He remembered with a slow chuckle, the first time he saw Vin in the damn coat. He'd been raking his eyes over it at the Indian Village, not masking his disdain. Vin's blue eyes stared right back, fueled with a bit of mischief. 'Jealous' was the drawl that met his stare and a brought a smile, one of many from the Texan's wry humor. He set the coat next to the other offerings and turned to sit down. It was then a wave of sneezes and wet coughs gripped him. Finally, as he caught his breath, he raised his watery eyes heavenward and scowled at the tracker, who bestowed the cold upon him.

"Shut up Tanner!" he wheezed, "I bet you thought that was funny."

Finally, as the Dawn embraced him, he slid on the ground next to the crude altar and pulled out the silver harmonica. Twice he raised it to his lips and returned his hand to his lap. Finally, gazing at the mementos next to him, his lips met metal. The woodland animals and airborne, winged creatures grew silent, as the sad tune filled the morning air.

Mary entered the clinic and nodded to Eddie, allowing the deputy to resume his duties. She set the tray down next to the gravely ill marshall and took the vacant chair. Eddie had pulled the unconscious man into an upright position, with a wall of pillows behind him. She checked his bandages and bathed him first, glad to feel the skin cooling finally.

"Wake up Handsome, it's lunch time." She said loudly, tapping his face. The eyes furrowed and the head denied her. "Look, I warned you, you can't win," she chastised and tapped his face harder. "I can't feed Tanner 'til I get some food in you. That poor boy's nothing but bones..." she hedged and heard his raspy breath tighten. Finally the eyes cracked open and widened.

"That's better. I'm Mary McGuiness, Marshal. You've given us a good scare. You need to start fighting back. Here," she offered the spoon and nodded as his lips opened. The soft groan of pleasure gave her a smile. "Good huh? My chicken soup is well known in these parts."

Several times during the meal, his eyes drooped, forcing her to holler. They'd refocus and slide across the room to the slumbering bounty. Sure was strange, them being so attached to each other. Of course, neary dying in a desert might do that do a man. "He's sleeping, his fever broke during the night. With some rest, good cookin' and healin' time, he'll be fine."

"...thank... you..." Buck sighed, his eyes on Tanner's peeling face. He completed his meal and even finished a small bowl of custard, before dozing off. She was on her way to Tanner's side, when the Major arrived.

"Heading out?" she asked without turning.

"Yes Ma'am." He affirmed, dropping by the marshal's side. "I'm gonna give them both the once over before I go. There's plenty of liniment, ointment and medicine and my instructions are..."

"Don't insult me, Son." She warned, casting a stern eye, "I was patching up bodies when you were in nappies. You coming back?"

"Yes Ma'am," he answered, unwrapping Buck's bandages. "In a couple days, unless he takes a turn. He's not out of the woods, but he's improved in the last few hours." He completed his task and nodded at the cooling skin. "Fever's broken, that's a good sign." He pulled the sheet up and turned his attentions to the younger man, whose muddled blue eyes were watching every move he made. "You're doing much better, Mr. Tanner," he said, bending over the somber, blistered face.

"...Mister..." Vin rasped, shaking his head. "...sound like Ezra..." He paused, thinking on his gambling friend. His eyes never left Buck's form, "...dyin'..."

"No, I don't think so. He's finally fighting back. I have to return to the Fort, but I'm warning you. You stay in this bed for the rest of the week. Don't give Mary any trouble. You have a serious infection in that leg and your lungs are congested. You need time to heal, or you'll suffer the consequences."

Vin didn't reply, but nodded and offered his hand. "I'm grateful..."

The Major frowned, noting that the eyes were riveted to the sleeping marshal. Like the rest of them, he didn't quite understand the strong bond the two men shared. He took the hand and returned it solidly. He nodded to Mary and departed for his duties at the military base.

Back in Four Corners

"What are you talking about J.D.?" Nathan asked, leaving his pew and grabbing the jubilant sheriff.

"This!" the youth defended, waving a yellow paper as the confused preacher approached and flanked his two friends. The crowd began to murmur and Josiah raised his hand, silencing them. "I told you, Preacher," J.D. gloated, "...nobody had faith, but I never stopped believing."

"That you did, John Daniel," Josiah agreed, "that you did. What's that say?

Where are they?"

"Salt Flats," the Easterner announced, "I sent Ezra after Chris."

"Texas," Nate hissed, shaking his head, "How'd they get all the way to Texas?"

"Quiet!" Josiah roared as the buzzing crowd began to grow louder. "From the beginning, Son."

"I was waiting for the Judge's reply to the wire I sent last night," Dunne noted of Orrin Travis, "... when this came through, for you." He handed the startled preacher the note.

"Seeking preacher... Josiah Sanchez... nephew gravely ill..."

"Nephew?" Mary Travis asked, joining the trio converged in the center aisle.

"Shhh!" J.D's hand went up.

"Marshal Buck Wilmington... Sheriff Colt Haskill... Salt Flats, Texas."

"What about Vin?" Mary prodded. "I sent a reply," J.D. announced, " my official capacity and asked how the marshal got so sick." He opened the second note, "Found in desert... outside town with prisoner... both at clinic... come immediately..."

"Hallelujah!" Josiah boomed, then held his hands up to shush the excited crowd. "Let's give thanks. Lord, we rejoice in this miracle you have bestowed upon us. Please keep our lost lambs in the hollow of your hand, until they can be once again restored to us. Amen."

Ezra filled the mug by the water pump again and drained it quickly. He was about to recline back on the porch of the Larabee shack, when a horse approached from the south. He remained by the pump and refilled the mug. He ambled over to the corral, as the lean figure in black slid from the Tanner horse.

"Good Morning, Mr. Larabee," he offered with the mug.

"Good?" Chris queried, draining the mug and brushing past the other man.

"Yes, well, I shall retain the hold on Diablo, while you go and ready your own fine steed."

"Ready?" Chris scowled, one foot on his porch step. "Quit talking in riddles, Ezra." His voice trailed off as they entered the small shack. "Get to the point..."

"Very well," the conman decided as he followed Chris into the house. The blond was hunched over a table, liberally dousing his face with water. "Our two missing comrades have been found alive, albeit a bit worse for the wear, in Salt Flats, Texas. We are leaving immediately to retrieve them."

"What!" Chris sputtered, water flying from his face and hitting the Southerner in the cheek. "Don't fuck with me, Ezra!" he warned.

"Charming thought," The other repelled, grimacing. "A wire came for Josiah this morning. He was summoned by the sheriff there on behalf of his nephew, Marshal Wilmington, who is very ill."

"Vin?" Chris asked, taking the towel Ezra tossed to him and drying his face. "Is in the clinic with Buck, recovering."

Ezra frowned as Chris's face went blank. He watched the lean figure walk back outside and step off the porch. He saw both hands rest on the slim hips and the blond head rise.

Chris raised his eyes heavenward for a moment, then clenched them shut. Sighing deeply, he nodded and swallowed hard. Turning back to the doorway, he brushed past Ezra and grabbed his things. Five minutes later, they were riding hard towards town.

"Let's ride!" Chris ordered as they galloped into town. He paused and turned as Ezra drew to a stop and got down. "What are you doing?"

"Something wrong, Ezra?" Nate asked, seeing the green eyes working.

"Do you still have that list of towns that we eliminated in our initial search?" Ezra drilled Chris.

"Yeah," Chris puzzled, sliding down, "I think so, why?" He rummaged in his saddlebags and produced a tattered paper. He watched as Ezra scanned the list and then got concerned when the he began to frown. "What?"

"Gentlemen," Ezra noted, casting an eye on the nearby Post and Telegraph Office, "Something stinks in the state of Denmark."

"Huh?" J.D. wrinkled his nose.

"Whaddya got?" Chris asked, flanking the Southerner.

"A ruse," Ezra replied, motioning them to follow as he strode into the Government Office. On the far wall beyond the Telegraph clerk's desk , was a large territorial map. "Where was the approximate area at which you were attacked?" he asked Chris.

"Uh..." the blond furrowed his brows and squinted at the map. He ran his finger for a few inches and stopped. "Here..."

"...and Salt Flats..." Ezra asked. Chris once again eyed the map, as Ezra found the Texas town. He used his own finger to point it out. "Follow the direct line..." He eyed Chris whose face clouded. "Fanning!"

"Precisely." Ezra nodded, "The amount of time that lapsed would suggest they were detained somewhere within a close proximity to Salt Flats."

"Fanning's the only town near there." J.D. amazed.

"That fucker lied!" Chris spat hostily of the sheriff.

"A five-hundred-dollar fib." Ezra agreed, seeing the fire in Chris's eyes. "I think an appointment is in order."

"Oh, yeah..." Chris promised, his words as cold as ice. "Me and him are gonna get real well acquainted."

"If we ride hard, we can get to Fanning by nightfall." Josiah added. "Rest the horses, pick up some supplies..."

"...and some information." Nate nodded.

"With any luck and a little divine intervention," Ezra eyed Josiah, "We should be seven again in a few days."

"Let's ride!" Chris barked, his long legs leading him outside.

They rode in a determined silence, the only sound that broke the stillness was the thundering call of the hooves. Finally, Josiah's large arm raised, signaling a halt to the race. It was late on Sunday evening and they'd been riding hard all day, save the water and rest stops. The preacher slid from his horse and walked back to where Chris Larabee was leaning over, flexing his bad wrist.

"Town's just ahead, we need a plan," the somber voice called as the graying head rose and sought the green eyes of the gunslinger. The moonlight illuminated the leader's frustration-ridden frown. "We can't just go barging in there like the Calvary, Chris. Hell, we don't even know if Vin and Buck were here."

"They had to be!" Chris barked, "The shape they were in, there's no way they rode to Texas without stopping. This is the only fuckin' town in the area."

"Josiah's right, Chris." Nathan moved his horse forward and eyed the pair. "We don't know what we're ridin' into. If that sheriff is crooked, he won't take kindly to five strangers ridin' into his town and startin' trouble. We need a plan."

"We need a spy," J.D. announced, causing all four sets of eyes to shift to the green-eyed conman. He returned their stare, dusted the front of his green jacket and smiled. The glint of his gold tooth gave them their answer.

"At your service, Gentlemen." Ezra moved Deuce forward and paused. "After I engage the local barkeep into some enlightening conversation, I shall return."

"Not alone." Chris halted his progress, "I'm coming with you."

"I'm flattered for your concern," Ezra noted, "but your brooding disposition leaves little room for my persuasive actions."

"Ezra's right, Chris." Nate nodded, "Hell, you're on my side and you scare me."

"I'll go with Ezra," J.D. decided, pulling up along side the would-be-spy.

"I don't like it," Chris denied, suddenly seeing J.D.'s youth all too clearly.

"I'm not asking your permission," J.D. retorted, staring hard at the leader.

"I'm the one with the badge. I'll drop in on the sheriff, while Ezra works the saloon."

"Ezra, get a room at the hotel first," Josiah suggested. "Scour the register, see if Buck got a room, or if the clerk remembers visitors."

"Don't get too attached to that room, Ezra," J.D.'s voice changed and he smiled, "You won't be needing it."

"What's spinnin' in that head of yours J.D.?" Nate asked, seeing the slow grin forming.

"Well, Nate it's like this..." J.D. leaned in and spelled out his plan.

Sunday evening in Salt Flats

Mary was staring out the window at the silvery moon, sipping on a strong cup of coffee. Ithad been a fairly quiet night, both patients were resting more comfortably. Tanner was stronger, having been able to feed himself dinner and even engage in some conversation. Wilmington was another story. Although he'd eat for her, responding like the younger one had to her voice and commands, he wasn't fighting. The fever receded, but the battle left the victim just about worn out. A raspy voice drew her back into the room.

"Doc go home?"

"Yes, he's exhausted. He and the Major haven't had a break in days."

"Anymore o'that?" Vin asked, smelling the strong coffee. He followed her progress to the coffee pot on the stove in the corner of the clinic.

"...don't ferget the sugar..."

"What part of Texas are you from?" She asked, setting the coffee on a tray in front of him with some cookies.

"Don't rightly know," he shrugged, dipping a cookie into the coffee and munching contentedly on the mushy mess. "...been all over. Lost m'Ma where I was a little feller, then I traveled around a bit... lived with the Indians fer awhile, they were m'family."

She heard the catch in his voice and watched him stare into space, as if reliving a long past memory.

"...and now?"

"Been roamin' fer a spell," he took a long sip of the sweet brew and settled back on his wall of pillows. "Wandered int' New Mexico territory and found a spot to hang m'hat fer awhile. The county judge hired seven of us t'keep the peace there. I shouldda come back sooner t'clear m'name... damn... I went soft and got comfortable."

"My hunches are usually right," she tested, reading his troubled face, "...and my gut tells me that there is something wrong with this picture. You know that marshall, don't you? You two spend all your waking time worryin' on each other."

"He works with me in Four Corners. We're two o'the peacekeepers there. That crease in 'is head addled 'is mind some. He's lost a few years, thinks he still a lawman. We got ambushed back in New Mexico territory by the Alvarez gang. He woke up and found the wanted poster."

She heard the troubling pause in his voice and read the furrowed features.

It wasn't his own life, which was still jeopardized by his felony charge, that troubled him. He was worried, truly concerned, about the other man.

"I'm a good listener," She said after several long minutes went by. He merely nodded and finished his snack. She moved the tray and placed it on an empty table across the room. She saw his face in profile, studying the night sky. She checked on the marshal, fixing the sheet he'd twisted during a nightmare. The bad dreams seem to plague him, leaving him even more weak.

She saw Tanner's face crease in concern again, before he slid his eyes shut.

"I've seen injuries like this before clear up fine," she said quietly, from a chair next to the ill marshal. "He'll get his memory back, Son."

"...that's what worries me..." Vin sighed heavily as he drifted away, his energy spent.

The Silver Nugget Saloon wasn't very crowded. Ezra appraised the room quickly, before entering. It was a tidy tavern and only two of the seven tables were occupied. Three men were playing cards at one table, and two men were sharing a bottle of whiskey at the other. A piano sat vacant in the corner. The bar was empty, save the bartender, who was stacking beer mugs on a shelf. The gambler ambled over to the bar and tossed a coin at the bartender.

"Whiskey?" the balding man inquired of the stranger.

"If that's your finest spirit."

"Come again?"

"Bring out the brandy, Charles."

Ezra turned at the soft voice and saw the appealing body that matched it. There were bright blue eyes set in a pretty face with a halo of golden curls. She hooked her harm in his and held up two empty glasses.

"My pleasure, Miss..."

"Just call me Honey, Sugar. You sure are pretty," she oozed, eyeing the handsome face and the expensive clothing.

"Likewise," He nodded and tapped her glass. He eyed the doorway again and then settled back on the pretty face. "Has someone died?" He noted of the deserted sidewalks he'd passed and the lack of bodies in the room.

"Sunday night curfew is almost here." She replied, "You best drink up. The sheriff runs a tight ship."

"Indeed," Ezra drolled, sipping the stale brandy and trying not to choke.

"Just who is this tyrant?"

"Ben Adamson." The bartender shot a nervous glance at the newcomer. He took a long sip of a bottle from under the counter and leaned forward. "If you know what's good for you Mister, you'll keep riding."

"I take it the local authorities dislike strangers," he inquired and saw the quick exchange between the bartender and waitress.

"Hell, he don't like half the locals that much either." The bartender snorted.

"Sounds like a charming man." Ezra glanced at the door again.

"You expecting somebody?" Honey read the anxious green eyes.

"I certainly hope not. Trouble does seem to arrive shortly after I do, however," Ezra answered.

"Great," the bartender sighed, taking another swig, "just what we need after last week..."

"Someone knock over the bank?" Ezra joked, choking down another sip of the awful liquor.

"Nope... jailbreak." Charles said, placing a small bowl of peanuts in front of Ezra. "Didn't set well with the sheriff. He took a posse out, but they came up empty."

"Pity." Ezra's eyes flicked to the door again. "What impropriety did this unfortunate soul commit?"

"Murder," Charles snorted as he tipped the bottle again.

"Do tell," Ezra feigned shock, "...a resident of your fair city?"

"Nah," the other replied, watching Honey sway her hips and settle onto the lap of one of the cowboys who stuck a few bills down her cleavage. He took a liberal swig, trying to keep pace with the fancy talker, hoping for a good tip. "Don't know who he killed, but the marshal that brought him in had a wanted poster. He was in a bad way, the Doc saved him."

"The marshal or the prisoner?" Ezra tried to contain his concern.

"Both." The chatty barkeep replied, "The Doc don't think too much of the sheriff."

"How's that?" Ezra poured another shot and watched the bartender do likewise.

"The young feller wasn't too bad off at first," he paused and snorted in contempt. "Poor bastard picked the wrong town to be dumped in. Ben Adamson don't take to lawbreakers. I reckon that kid just rubbed him the wrong way. That marshall was pissed off but good when he found the feller the next night."

"Found?" Ezra gulped the burning liquid.

"I heard Ben beat the tar outta the kid," Charles whispered, " ain't the first time. That kid's lucky that Buck feller busted him out and hustled him outta town."

"Buck would be the arresting officer?"

"Yeah... tall feller with a mustache and head wound," Charles eyed the clock, "Honey, you best get your tail moving, it's almost eleven."

"So this marshal absconded with the prisoner?"

"Guess he had to, after Adamson damn near worked his prisoner to death. The boy was barely movin' to begin with, then Ben used him like dog, while the marshal was sick. When he found out, he got riled up but good. He'd already tangled with Ben once over him beatin' on the kid. Ben don't like folks tellin' him the law. That marshall didn't like the way Ben was treatin' the poor bastard, and that got Ben's cockles up but good."

"How did this jailbreak occur?"

"Funny thing, the sheriff was out that night, but between me and you," he leaned in and the fumes caused Ezra to back up, eyes burning. "I think Andy was in on it..."

"And Andy would be?" Ezra prodded

"The deputy. He's a good kid, got a good head on his shoulders. Smart as a whip and tough as the dickens. But he don't cotton to how Ben treats the prisoners, they've had words over it. Hell, they all end up leavin' town in a box, every one of 'em carryin' a nice reward too."

Before Ezra could respond, a voice split the air.

"Don't move Simmons, you're under arrest."

"Good Lord!" Ezra spun around, eyes widening at the sight of the young, dark-haired sheriff. "You're like a bad penny. I thought I'd seen the last of you."

"Not hardly, let's go."

"Wait a minute," Charles slurred, grabbing at the green sleeve of the stranger. "You're wanted?"

"Certainly not." Ezra huffed, jerking his arm free. "It's a case of mistaken identity, I assure you."

"Bullshit Simmons. You're just be thankful I found you before those bounty hunters did. A thousand dollars is a whole lot reason to shoot first."

"Don't expect my undying gratitude." Ezra moved and shoved J.D. Dunne.

The tussle was brief, before Ezra's punch sent the younger man into a table. The motion sent both of them onto the floor. J.D. leaned over his 'bounty' and winced. Ezra glared up at him, noting the blood from a cut over his eye.

"Dammit Ezra!" J.D. whispered and winced, wiping the blood over his eye.

"Unhand me this instant, you brute. Look what you've done..." Ezra tugged to get his arm free. "My shirt is stained with your blood and I've lost two buttons from my jacket. Furthermore..."

"Quit bellyaching Simmons, you're going to jail," J.D. growled, "I've been chasing you for two weeks and I want a soft bed tonight."

"I demand a lawyer. I..."

"Shut up Simmons..." J.D. cuffed him lightly and turned to the quieted room.

"Where's your sawbones?"

"Down the street, big front porch, Doctor O'Connor." Honey replied.

"The sheriff around?" J.D. inquired, pressing a cloth to his eye.

"If you hurry, you can catch him. He leaves at eleven for uh... for... rounds." She sighed and nodded.

"Okay, Simmons, let's go."

J.D. waited until they were well clear of the door and slowed his pace.

"What'd you belt me for?" he complained, smacking the conman's arm.

"Actually, I thought that went rather well," Ezra replied, quickly filling J.D. in on what he'd learned. "So let's make our introduction quickly to the sheriff. I'm sure the physician will be able to provide more information of Buck and Vin."

J.D. pushed the door open of the sheriff's office, just as a huge man rose from behind his desk.

"Good Lord!" Ezra whispered, flinching at the thought of Vin being brutalized by the wall of flesh.

"Who the hell are you?" Adamson demanded, spotting the star on the kid's chest. "You old enough to wear that?"

"That wouldn't be any of your business, Sheriff. This is Ethan Simmons, he's been pulling cons and scams all over the territory. Okay if I stow him here overnight? I want deposit this trash before I get some stitches."

"My door is always open to lawmen." He offered his meaty hand. "Ben Adamson, let's make this quick, I got rounds to get to."

"Jimmy Douglas," J.D. offered, "I'll be back after I get cleaned up."

"No need to rush," Adamson grinned evilly, sending a chill up Ezra's spine.

"You take your time at the Doc's and get a room. I'll take care of this felon. Wanted you say?"

"Yeah, a thousand bucks. Hey, thanks!" J.D. offered, giving Ezra a pat on the back and departing.

Ezra flinched when the meaty fist grabbed the back of his neck and hustled him down a narrow corrider. He backed up and wrinkled his face as the overwhelming stench of the small, stone cell hit him.

"Surely, you don't expect me to set foot in that filthy cell? It would appear that every prisoner who's been here has left something behind," he noted of the acrid odor of human waste.

"Shut up!"

The roar was punctuated by a harsh shove forward, sending Ezra hard into the stone wall. His tooth went through his lip and his eye smacked hard onto a raised stone. He landed hard on his knees and got a boot in his chest, taking all his breath away. The beefy hand pulled his head up by the hair, as he spit out a mouthful of blood.

"Don't go to sleep just yet, Pretty Boy," Adamson leered, shoving Ezra up against the wall. "I gotta search you, get that fancy coat off."

"I assure you, I am holding nothing of value. The young law officer already relieved me of my weapon and wallet."

"You don't hear so good, Fancypants." Adamsom tossed the jacket on the bunk and used his beefy hand to frisk Ezra. Satisifed at the blush of humiliation that eventually scored the young man's features, he groped the stranger once more and then shoved him hard onto the floor. "I'll be back in an hour and you and me will get to know each other a lot better."

The clang of the door jolted the Southerner, who coughed for several minutes. He rose and crossed the small cell, peering out the bars. One hour wasn't much time. He silently urged J.D. onward, hoping the youth didn't dally.

Part 14

Jack O'Conner peered out into the darkness, eyeing the strange young man on his porch. For a moment, neither spoke.

"Are you Dr. O'Conner?" J.D. asked, removing the bloody cloth.

"No, that'd be Johnny, my boy," the old man replied, "Come inside and he'll patch that cut up for you."

J.D. entered the cozy house and saw a dark-haired man about thirty coming from the back. He eyed the wound and moved towards a closed door to the left. With a toss of his head he urged J.D. to follow.

"I'm John O'Conner," the physician said, pointing to a stool. "Take a seat and I'll stitch that, Mister..."

"Dunne, J.D. Dunne. I'm the sheriff from Four Corners." J.D. paused, "I'm a good friend of Buck Wilmington and Vin Tanner. I need your help."

Josiah and Nathan sat quietly on a log, watching Chris Larabee pacing. Twice on each trip around the makeshift campsite, the face scowled at them. Finally the pacing stopped and they saw him heading for his horse.

"It's been too long. I don't like it."

"Wait a minute!" Josiah stood, scanning the horizon. "Rider comin' in."

The trio drew their weapons and hid behind the trees, before relaxing at the familiar bird call.

"J.D. coming in..." a voice warned.

"How's the other guy?" Nate teased of the stitched eye.

"Ezra was still in one piece when I left him." J.D. took a swig of his canteen and wiped his mouth. "Ben Adamson is the law down there. He runs the town with an iron fist; he's huge, bigger and meatier than Josiah. Ezra got the bartender to run his mouth but good. The doctor confirmed all that and then some. He and the deputy, a kid named Andy, are on our side."

"What about Vin and Buck?" Chris demanded.

"They were there last week. Buck collapsed in the street, the doctor took him in and took care of him. Vin wasn't so lucky." He sighed, face scowling, "By the time Buck got on his feet the next night and went to check on Vin, Adamson beat the shit out of him."

"Fuck!" Chris hissed, gripping his holster.

"This doctor hates Adamson, his old man helped Buck and Vin to escape. The doctor saved Vin, got him a better cell, stuck by him when Buck was out of it. Buck was in a bad way for a couple days and the sheriff lured the doctor out of town. Seems that the prisoners ride in and roll out in a box. Sounds like the sheriff arranges the 'accidental deaths' and then splits the bounty with a silent partner. They're even suspected of murdering one of the locals, just so the kid's old man would set up a hefty bounty."

"So what happened that night?" Nate asked, sliding into his saddle.

"Well, while the Doc was out of town, Adamson worked Vin like a dog. Made him clean out the livery and unload an order at the freight depot, he damn near killed him. When Buck found out, he blew his top and Andy helped him get Vin patched up. He got them horses and guns, and got them out of town."

"But..." Chris hedged, hearing the hesitation.

"But it was too easy. It sounded like Adamson wanted them to leave," J.D. mused.

"He set them up?" Josiah guessed, "His partner was waiting outside town. But something went wrong."

"Yeah...Buck and Vin got away and this is all hearsay. We gotta move. I left Ezra in the cell, so if we're gonna catch that son-of-a-bitch in the act, we best get going."

It was midnight when Eddie Frankson entered the clinic. He shook his head and watched Mary tenderly bathing the marshal. He seemed to rally a little around her, taking in small amounts of water and broth. She pulled the sheet up and rubbed her back.

"Change of shift," he called out.

"Hi, Eddie," she turned around in relief. "Tanner's sound, he won't wake until morning. But the marshal's not breathing good. I've been getting him to cough, so you're gonna have to be tough with him. He responds to that and to Tanner's name." She paused, her eyes on the handsome sheriff's barely moving chest. She rested a hand on the side of his face and frowned, "Maybe I should stay..."

"Yeah," he scoffed, "Colt'll have my hide if you get sick. You're worn out, Mary, get some sleep."

"Well, alright," she agreed, "But if his breathing gets worse, you get me and Will."

"Goodnight, Mary," he nodded and hustled her out the door. He checked on the prisoner, who was sleeping soundly, his breathing rattled, but much improved. He then took a seat next to the critically ill lawman. He sounded awful and seemed to be fighting for each breath. Eddie had a feeling he'd be riding out to the fort to get the Major come morning.

Midnight in Fanning

Ben Adamson was whistling when he approached his office. A well spent hour with two of the local prostitutes and the visions of the thousand dollars sitting in his cell made him forget the loss of the other bounty. The tune died in his throat, when he stepped inside his doorway. A lean figure in black was sitting behind his desk, his long legs resting on top. The spurs on the blond man's boots were rolling across the desk, cutting into the fine wood.

"Boy, you must have a death wish," he growled, slamming the door. The head rose slowly and a pair of icy green eyes burned inside an unreadable face. One glance told him this was one tough hombre.

"Well, now that's funny," Chris said, shoving his foot off and standing. He made his way around the desk and peeled his duster back, showing off the pair of well oiled colts resting on his slim hips. "See, the way I look at it, you're the one with the death wish." Larabee's hand rested over the gun and he bared his teeth.

"Who the hell do you think you are?" Adamson growled, squaring his shoulders at the brassy stranger.

"None of your fuckin' business, you worthless piece of shit." Chris hissed, whipping his gun out before the other got a chance to blink. He forced the irate marshal into the wall and leaned close, baring his teeth.

"Look Mister, whatever your beef is, it isn't with me," Adamson replied, not liking the glowing green eyes bearing on him.

"The name Tanner mean anything to you?" Chris pressed and saw the face blanch, "I thought so... I want him. Where the hell is he?" Chris demanded, cocking his gun.

"Tanner? I don't know anybody named Tanner."

"Try again!" Chris snarled, pressing the gun into Adamson's groin.

"What's he to you?"

"He murdered my brother and I've been trailing him for six months. I almost had him last week when some fuckin' do-good marshal picked him up. The trail led here... now where the hell is he?"

"I assure you, whoever you are, that I will make it worth your while to release me from this horrid place."

"Who the hell is that?" Chris snapped, shoving the gun harder.

"Some conman, a kid sheriff dropped him off. He's worth a grand. Hey, maybe we can help each other."

"How's that?" Chris asked.

"I need a new partner. If you really want Tanner, I'll give you this loser as a show of faith. These hills are loaded with felons. I can reel 'em in and get rid of 'em, even make some happen during dry spells. You take the bodies in for the bounty and we split the money."

"Why should I trust you?" Chris asked. "What do you mean 'new partner'?"

"Had five years ridin' on the old one. We had a real sweet deal, took in thousands, until last week."

"Last week?"

"He was supposed to knock off the do-good marshal you were talkin' about and that long-haired kid he was totin'. Somehow they turned on him, he never made it back with their bodies."

"He double-crossed you?"

"No... we found what was left of him at Apache Pass. That wild bastard scalped him."

A slow smile crept across Chris's features as he thought on Vin's signature.

"So you've been murderin' your prisoners? Saving the state the expense of keeping them in prison?"

"Just doing my civic duty," Adamson relayed, "if that's what it takes." He relaxed a little as the lean figure pulled back and let him move forward.

"This the guy who needs the uh... 'accident'?" Chris prodded, eyeing the empty cells and walking back to where Ezra sat huddled in the corner. He stared hard and let his breath out when Ezra gave a small nod, indicating he was okay.

"Yeah, he's gonna 'accidentally' die in his sleep. You come by in the morning and pick up his body."

"This guy walked in here and he goes out dead?" Chris screwed his face up and let hesitation ride on his handsome features. "People are likely to ask questions. I don't like questions."

"They won't say a fuckin' word." Adamson vowed, "They kept their mouths shut when Digger Dugan's kid bought it, they know better than to run their mouths." "Digger Dugan?" Chris cocked his head.

"Rich rancher, lives on a spread about ten miles from here. We were havin' a dry spell and that kid got on my nerves. Always in town, throwing around his old man's money. Never worked a day in his life."

"So you murdered him?" Chris kept his voice level, despite his churning gut.

"Easy as pie," Adamson bragged, "The old man put up $2500 to find the killer, and Duke uh... 'found' a drifter who just happened to have the kid's watch and money clip. Easiest money I ever made."


"My former partner."

"Did you get all that?" Chris hollered, causing the other man to jump.

"What the hell is going on?" Adamson spun around as footsteps were heard.

"I'd say that confession is good for thirty years or more in the house of many doors." J.D. stepped forward, the others in his wake. Andy, the doctor and the mayor were all in the outer office. J.D. and the doctor filled the politician in on J.D.'s way out of town. The frazzled elected official shook his head in relief and left to wire the circuit judge.

"Get in..." Chris growled, shoving Adamson hard into the tiny cell. "You okay, Ezra?"

"Yes." The gambler stood and approached the irate man in black. He handed him a large linen cloth, with something inside. "I was careful not to touch it, as you should be," he warned, causing Chris to frown. "When I was so rudely thrown to the floor, I saw it under the cot."

Chris stared at the leather object, it's value nearly burning a hole through the linen into his palm. An anger grew in him, as he took in the horrid stench and filth of the cell. Visions of his best friend, injured and suffering at the hands of this monster filled him with an unbridled rage. He carefully folded the cloth, without touching the object and handed it back to Ezra.

"It's Mr.Tanner's medicine pouch," The Southerner said softly to his friends, slipping the priceless item in his pocket.

"Wait for me outside," Chris said quietly, handing his duster and gunbelt to J.D.

"You need help?" Josiah offered, eyeing the giant with loathing.

"Nah..." Chris denied, smiling broadly with a Satanic shine in his eyes, "me and Fuckface are gonna get to know each other a little better."

"Just who the hell are you and what's this about?" Adamson demanded, eyeing the now vacant area.

"I'm Chris Larabee, you pile of horseshit," he pontificated by jabbing his index finger hard into the man's throat, above the collarbone, taking all his breath away and sending him to his knees."... and it's about a couple good friends of mine named Tanner and Wilmington." His right fist smashed into the sheriff's jaw, breaking it. "It's about you trying to murder them," he grunted, delivering a solid shot to the sternum and using his right boot to kick the area when Adamson's manhood should have been. "It's about you making the worst mistake of your pathetic life when you beat Vin Tanner," Chris seethed, grabbing the back of the bloodied sheriff's shirt shoving Adamson's face hard into the bars.

Ten minutes later the others jumped up from the boardwalk when Chris stepped outside. His shirt wasn't even mussed up. He never said a word, as he strode down the street towards the doctor's home. He slumped in the chair inside the door and held his wrist out, before Nathan could scold him.

Jack O'Conner appeared with coffee and sandwiches. The five peacekeepers listened and questioned, as the physician filled in the missing pieces.

Chris watched the young doctor's face carefully as he relayed the events. He didn't miss the anger and rage that scored the man's features. He offered his hand and nodded, when the doctor was finally done.

"I'm grateful for all you did. You really stuck your neck out for them."

"I'm only sorry I didn't make the connection to amnesia sooner. I should have figured between the nightmares, the names he called out and the way he protected Tanner. The way he cared for him, I would have guessed they were related. You should have seen his face in the cell when we found your friend that night. He wanted to kill Adamson. Tanner was so worried about him... always asking... had such pain in his eyes. I'm sorry I didn't do something sooner." His shoulders slumped.

"You saved their lives," Nate interjected, "I'd say you did more than enough."

"Thanks to you they were able to make it to safety."

"You can stay here tonight," the weary physician offered, "With the right supplies, if you take the longer route, bypass the rough spots just past Apache Pass, you should be in Salt Flats in about three days or so. Just stock up good."

"Thanks again," Chris said, shaking Andy's hand. "You took a real chance, helping them escape, that took guts."

"No, Sir, not as much as you think." The younger man frowned, "If I had done this sooner, a lot of those other strangers who passed through would still be alive."

"Hindsight is everything, Son," Josiah offered, clasping the denim shoulder of the new sheriff. "With your leadership, this town is headed in the right direction."

"Thanks," he paused, and eyed the group. "He's a fine man, Marshal Wilmington. I sure would have liked to have ridden with him."

"He'd be proud to ride with you, Andy," Chris said sincerely as the young lawman left.

"We better hit the hay," J.D. yawned, "We got a long rough few days ahead and Ezra needs his beauty sleep. You know how cranky he is when he gets less than twelve hours sleep."

"I beg your pardon!" Ezra scoffed, smacking J.D.'s back.

"God bless you Doc," Josiah nodded, following his friends up the stairs.

Monday, late afternoon, Crystal City, Texas

It was after three p.m. when the exhausted sheriff from Salt Flats rode into Crystal City. The small town was a popular point for travelers, as several stage lines stopped there. Colt slid from his horse and handed the reins to the kid at the livery. Tossing him a coin, he grabbed his saddlebags and rifle and headed for the hotel. Twenty minutes later, he was sitting in the sheriff's office, waiting for the Judge.

"Good Afternoon,"

Colt was dozing and lifted his heavy eyes as the tall, gaunt well dressed man with white hair and spectacles entered the room. He nodded to the local lawman, who made the introductions. Colt handed the judge the official report and the newspaper article, as well as his own commentary. Tanner's wanted poster had been plucked from a drawer behind the marshal's desk.

Gathering the information into his leather valise, the judge turned to Colt. "I'll review these documents in my room. I'm leaving on the five o'clock stage. I'll meet you at the Stage Depot at four-fifty p.m."

"I just ask that you take everything into careful consideration. I don't know all the answers yet, the marshall has been unconscious. But I know that Tanner saved his life and... well you can read the rest. I think his actions deserve some merit."

"I realize that Sheriff, or you wouldn't have ridden for a day-and-a-half to meet me. I'll weigh all points equally," he promised and departed.

Colt headed for the Saloon for a hot roast beef sandwich and a beer. It sure would be nice to ride back and give that kid some good news. Saving lives was the reason he pinned a star on in the first place.

In the desert

"What the hell is that?" Nathan drew his gun at the gray object that was moving in the wind. The quintet had ridden hard all day and were stopping for a few hours to rest and water the horses and eat.

"Desert vermin for supper, how quaint," Ezra wrinkled his nose, seeking the lone shady spot in a cluster of rocks.

"Damn..." Josiah chuckled, picking up the hairy object. "Looks like Vin's been by..." he tossed it at J.D. who grimaced and threw it to the ground.

"How could he?" the youth shuddered.

"Well, ya grab the scalp like this," Nate demonstated, gripping J.D.'s hair "...and ya take a knife..."

"That's not what I meant," J.D. defended, "I mean... that's cold..."

"Well when somebody sets out to blow your head clear off, it might clear up that mystery a little for you." Chris answered, kicking the scalp.

"There's the rest of him..." Nate nodded to a rocky clustered grave.

Josiah headed over and lifted a few of the rocks, enough to see what was left of the man. He replaced them and said a prayer, before rejoining his friends. He saw Ezra motioning and followed Chris to where the gambler stood.

"One of them was wounded again," Nate knelt at the spot, examining the pile of cloth with maroon blood stains.

"J.D...." Ezra turned, hearing the soft gasp.

The youth was next to Nate, digging in the dirt. Something glinted in the sun and he dug deeper. His nimble fingers pulled out a familiar timepiece.

"It's Buck's..." he held it up.

"Saves us the cost of gettin' him a get well gift," Josiah deadpanned, giving Ezra a small grin.

"Nate?" Chris squatted, sensing the concern on the dark face. "One of 'em dug the bullet out of the other," he handed Chris the mangled lead ball, which was in the tattered cloth. "Gunpowder... cauterized it..."

"Well, we know they're both still alive, it couldn't have been a real serious wound." J.D. pressed, "I mean they had to go through the desert to get to Salt Flats, neither one was in great shape to begin with."

"They stayed together and took care of each other," Josiah rose, heading for the horses and their packed food supply. "Marshal Wilmington might have taken a bounty into Fanning," he paused and eyed the sky, "but in this stretch of sun and sand, he met Vin Tanner and found a friend."

"Amen," Nate added hopefully.

Crystal City

Colt was pacing when the judge arrived. His clerk handed their bags up to the stage driver and climbed inside the coach.

"Sir?" Colt faced the still unreadable judge.

"I've examined the information carefully and your concern was not without merit. An extraordinary set of circumstances, truly remarkable. It does indeed change the color of the original crime."

"So you'll give him a pardon?"

"Not without further evidence," the judge corrected. "But I will weigh the circumstances during that time."

"I'd like that in writing, I want this kid protected from hanging until he's strong enough to tell his side." Colt was adament.

"Will this do?" The judge thought for a moment and wrote a note, signing and dating it. He handed it to the marshal who nodded.

"Yes Sir, that's fine." Colt nodded of the note which 'protected Vin Tanner from prosecution or execution until the undersigned fully reviews the case in question'. "I can't thank you enough," he added, shaking the man's hand.

The stage departed and headed north. An evil smile crept across the judge's face as the spider closed in on the helpless blue-eyed fly.

"Did you send that wire?" He asked his clerk.

"Yes Sir," The young man nodded, "Got a reply to... everything to the letter, just as you ordered."

"Excellent!" he smiled for the first time in months.

Salt Flats during the night

Vin shifted gingerly, biting his lip as the slightest movement sent hot pain into his tender bruised flesh. He was resting against a large group of pillows, leaving him nearly upright. The congestion caused coughing, which brought waves of searing pain and left him gasping and trembling. It was such a bout that caused him to waken. He saw the elderly physician sleeping on a cot far across the room. Mary finally left at midnight, chased away reluctantly by exhaustion. Vin sighed and kept an arm across his taped chest.

The dream was back and Buck was disoriented. It was near a new set of train tracks and there were Asian men working and others milling about a large camp. He was buying some wares from an ancient Chinaman and the kid with the crazy bowler hat was next to him. He smiled in his sleep, the open face and hazel eyes wrapped around him like a blanket. Then the scene shifted and the kid was bleeding from a chest wound. The hazel eyes were large and frantic, the face pale and lined in sweat. Buck's gut clenched as he saw himself lifting the kid's body.

"...No... no... J.D... .no...."

"Shit!" Vin hissed, gingerly turning and spotting Buck's frantic motions. He turned his body carefully, wincing as the bruised flesh protested the movement. He managed to get his bare feet on the ground and shivered as the night air hit his chest. The cotton pants were light and loose, and he hitched them up as he stood. The floor seemed to move and he grabbed frantically, grasping the back of the chair by the bed. Taking a deep breath, he tried to control his weak, shaking limbs. He took a step and toppled over, landing hard on his knees. He crawled painfully, inch by inch until at last he was at Buck's side. He collapsed against the side of the cot, sweat pouring down his face. Sitting on the floor with his back at Buck's knee, he clenched his eyes shut as pain radiated through his chest and leg. The cot trembled with Buck's frantic movements. The nightmares were causing the low moans and thrashing. Both men were gasping for breath.

" the blind leadin' the blind..." Vin complained, trying to catch his breath. Finally the waves of white hot pain slowed in his ribs and he reached up sideways, without looking. His hand found Buck's shoulder and he latched on, gripping it solidly. "Buck, yer dreamin'... wake the hell up..." Vin paused, the brief burst of words gave him a coughing fit. When it finally subsided, he wiped his watery eyes and caught his breath.

The dream shifted again and he was in Mexico with a group of strangers. Chris Larabee appeared in front of him, his face twisted in rage. He drew a gun and fired, giving cause for Buck to grunt and twist in the cot. Then he was in a coffin, which cut off his air... he couldn't breath... he couldn't breath...

"Aw, hell," Vin muttered, unable to rise or even turn his head to see Buck above on the bed. He could hear the choking sounds and knew Buck was fighting to breathe. The damn doctor was too far away and Vin's voice was no more than a scratchy whisper. He painfully lifted his arm again and fumbled until he found the sweat-slicked Wilmington shoulder. Once again he gripped it and shook it hard. "Yer dreamin' Buck... yer safe... wake the hell up, " he hissed painfully, letting his nails bite into Buck's skin.

Suddenly the dream shifted again and he was in the desert. Pain rifled through every inch of him, and he cried out. Someone was hovering near, shaking him. The sun blocked the face but he knew the voice. A word formed in his mind and he said it without realzing the impact. He only knew it meant he was safe.


"...s'about fuckin' time," Vin sighed in relief. He was tired, his chest and leg were throbbing and he had a headache, which made him cranky.


"Yeah..." Vin scolded, not hiding his displeasure. He realized he couldn't cross back to his cot, his limbs were like lead. He was trapped here and not a bit comfortable. "..GO T'SLEEP!" he hissed and let his head rest on the hard wooden bed side. He was trying to convince his pulsating, injured ribs to quiet down, when the voice crept into his ear, giving him a slow grin.

"...bossy son-of-a-bitch..."

"...goodnight Marshal..." he rasped, finally confident in Buck's breathing to withdraw his hand. His heavy eyes were drooping, when he felt a few fingers rest on his shoulder.

"...sorry... Tanner..."

"...s'okay..." Vin whispered, hearing so much more than an apology in the weak voice.

Tuesday Morning, Salt Flats

It was after seven when Mary headed to the clinic. She carried a breakfast tray for the two patients, intending on letting Will have breakfast with his wife at home. She shifted the tray to open the door and crept inside. She set the tray on the large table near the stove in the corner. She tapped Will on the shoulder and the elderly doctor yawned and nodded, indicating he was awake. It was then that she turned and saw that one of her patients was missing.

"Where'd that boy get to?" She said aloud and moved into the larger part of the clinic. Then she spotted him on the floor next to the marshal. "What in tarnation?" she shook her head and moved forward, eyes softening a bit. He was breathing heavily through his open mouth, his head was tilted back resting on the frame of the cot. As she bent over to wake him, she saw the marshal's eyes were open a crack. His breathing was awful and she lifted him forward and higher, pulling the spare pillows that he'd dislodged, back behind him. She poured a mug of water and helped him drink it. His brows creased over his heavy eyes as they spotted the younger man on the floor.

"You two planning on busting out during the night?" She teased, trying to rid the worry lines he wore.

"...bad dreams..." he rasped, only remembering a blur of nightmares and Tanner's voice. Before he could think on it anymore, or reason that after the bountys arrival his nightmares stopped, he drifted off to sleep again.

She pulled the sheet up to his shoulders and worried on his poor breathing. His lungs weren't clearing up as fast as they should and it was becoming more difficult to get him to cough out the congestion. She looked back and saw Will in the other room, on his feet and eyeing the strange picture. The elderly physician was squinting at Tanner and shaking his head.

"Give me a hand, Will. It's not doing his lungs any good, sitting on this floor all night." She answered the silent concern.

Before the elderly healer could respond, the door flew open and a large uniformed guard entered, his gun drawn. He stepped inside and two more followed, just as muscled and menacing.

"There he is, Hank, get him ready to go." The leader barked, nodding to the third man.

"Now see here..." Will protested, only to be met with a rifle to his chest.

"Back off, Old Man," the guard warned.

Mary moved in front of Vin, blocking the path and her eyes were full of fire. "Look Mister, we don't want any trouble. I don't know who you are, but you're not taking him anywhere. He's too ill to travel and he's under the protection of a judge. We got a wire from Sheriff Haskill last night..."

"I got a wire from that Judge too, Ma'am," The leader said curtly, "and I got orders to bring him in... dead or alive."

"No! You can't..." She protested as the leader shoved her aside and grabbed the slumbering body by the arm and jerked him roughly to his feet. She winced as Tanner's eyes shot open and blinked rapidly, trying to focus.

"...the hell's goin' on..." he mumbled, his legs buckling. "...get yer hands offa me..." he growled weakly, trying to break free of the steel grip.

"Look Kid," The guard warned, gripping both of Vin's shoulders hard, "don't give me any lip or you'll ride to Langston with fresh stitches in your face."

"Langston!" She cried out, eyeing the horrid prison wagon outside. The steel box on wheels had only two small windows and would be nearly suffocating inside. "That's a good ten hours away. He's not strong enough, he's in no condition to be out of a bed. I won't allow it."

"Lady, you open your mouth again and I'm locking you up for interferring with the law." The leader growled, forcing her across the room and onto a chair.

"Get yer hands offa her, ya maggot..." Vin coughed and used the little strength he had to lunge at the brute.

"No Vin!" She warned, spotting the meaty backhand fly and catch the injured man's face. She started to rise to aid him, but the guard's cold eyes stopped her.

"...m'alright Mary," Vin rasped, wiping the blood from his nose.

"You got ten minutes," the guard barked at Vin, who was curled up on the floor. He snapped his fingers and one of his two assistants moved forward, handing him a gray shirt. He eyed the number on the pocket and nodded. The aide flipped a small ledger out and a pencil. "Vin Tanner, number 923, murder. Note the date and time and our destination."

"Eddie!" Mary's voice rose as the acting sheriff walked inside the full room. "Do something, they're taking him away."

"I'm Eddie Frankson, the acting lawman until the sheriff returns. I have a wire from him stating he has written authorization from Judge..."

"Stow it Kid," The guard ordered, handing him a wire. "I got my own orders from the same Judge. He wants Tanner transported to Bendix Prison to await sentencing."

"There must be some mistake," Mary fretted, eyeing Eddie's suddenly pale face. "Eddie..."

"I don't understand, he gave Sheriff Haskill his word..."

"He kept his word," the guard snapped, "He reviewed whatever the sheriff gave him and made a decision. He also sent notice to the prison and the Territorial Office so it's on record. I got concurrance from the warden and from the Captain at the Territorial Office. I got a list of three prisoners to pick up today and Tanner's one of them." He tossed the shirt at Vin, who Eddie pulled upwards and moved onto an overturned crate.

"You got ten minutes, Tanner," the leader barked, "Get that shirt on and get some grub, it'll be awhile before you eat again."

The words fell like glass shards and Mary's eyes were riveted to Vin's face. He said nothing, but the rapid movement of his Adam's Apple and his unnaturally large eyes broke her heart. She moved to his side and rested her hand against his face. He raised his eyes slightly, catching her emotional gaze.

"...s'okay Ma'am..." he lifted his hand and covered hers on his cheek, "...I'm grateful fer all ya done. Ya tended' t'me like my own Ma..." he paused and swallowed hard, "...ya take care o'the marshall... don't let 'im die... chew his ass out good... but get 'im to fight..." His train of thought was interrupted by a violent coughing fit. He felt Mary's arms wrap around him and inhaled the cinnamon and coffee aroma that clung to her dress.

"He's too ill, he'll never survive in that coffin on wheels!" She hollered, feeling him trembling and trying to find his breath.

"Lady, he's gonna hang by the end of the week anyhow," The guard sneered, "I'm sure the devil won't mind if he's a few days early. Ten minutes Tanner." He issued sternly. "Jake, keep your eyes peeled and the gun on him, don't take any chances. Hank, let's get those supplies and get some grub."

"Eddie, do something!" She snapped, and saw him shrug helplessly and jog after the guards.

She moved the tray to the side of the bed, pulling over a free chair to rest it on. She saw him gripping the shirt and rocking forward slightly, his hands trembling. She made no attempt to take it, rather she motioned for him to eat.

"Go on Son, try to eat, you'll need your strength."

"Yeah," Vin scoffed, feeling the noose tighten on his throat, "Can't be collapsin' at m'own necktie party." He heard her suck in air through her teeth and winced. She'd be more than kind to him and it wasn't her fault. He knew this day was coming. He'd been given a brief respite and taunted with the taste of freedom. That time in Four Corners hurt him more than ever now. "... m'sorry... there weren't no call fer me t'bite at ya." He dropped his head and felt her hand rest on the crown and make slow circles. It was a motion that instantly relaxed him and took him back in time. "...she used t'do that... my Ma..."

"You don't have much time," she wavered hearing the catch in his voice, she swallowed hard, "Please eat a little."

He didn't taste the eggs and ham. He didn't feel her guiding his arms into the stiff shirt. It was too big and it irritated his wounded shoulders. She managed to slide a small container of the burn ointment into his pants pockets. He was fumbling with the buttons, when Buck moaned, lost in another dream.

"Aw, hell..."

Mary moved to calm the marshal's motions and didn't miss the wave of emotion in the young man's face. The door jerked open and Hank stuck his head in.

"Jake, I got a plate for you, it's outside."

"What are you doing with those?" Mary moved in front of Vin again, when she saw the rusting manacles.

"Binding his feet and hands, it's regulation." Hank replied, kneeling before Vin. He shoved the prisoners feet into his boots and quickly slapped the iron braclets in place. He smiled at the hiss of pain, when the thick handcuffs went on. Each set of manacles were linked by a short chain, making it difficult to move. He glared when the prisoner jerked his arm back, not intending to move.

"Look Tanner, this is gonna be a long day," he warned, "You want ride totin' a headache?" He held up the gun butt.

"I ain't ready yet," he growled and shifted his eyes to Buck, while the guard laughed.

"Forget it," he scoffed and tugged, but Vin pulled back.

"I got four more minutes." He eyed the clock on the wall, "hell, I'm trussed up like a turkey and ya got a gun. Ain't but one door, can't go nowhere..."

"Four minutes!" The guard warned and walked outside.

"Ma'am?" Vin whispered, holding up his elbow. He let her guide him closer to Buck and rested uneasily near Buck's chest, on the edge of the cot.

"I'll be outside," she offered, sensing his need to say goodbye alone. She hugged him and ran her hand down his back once. She tipped his chin up and held his emotive gaze, then left.

The room suddenly seemed cavernous and the quiet ticking clock seemed much louder to Vin. He took a deep breath, not even feeling the painful ribs. The enormity of the situation hit him hard, as he eyed the waxen complexion of Buck Wilmington. This was his last goodbye, the last link to his friends. His mind caught J.D.'s triumphant grin, Nathan's soulful eyes and Ezra's saucy smile. He heard Josiah's booming voice and picked up Buck's limp hand. He gripped it tightly and stretched the other as far as the chain would allow. He managed to rest his hand on Buck's chest, near his heart. He shivered as he heard the weak, raspy breathing and almost felt Death hovering near, her hands caressing Buck seductively. He lifted his eyes over Buck's chest to the window. A speck of blue sky peeked in and he zeroed in a puffy cloud in the heavens.

"It's like this," he began, intensifying his grip, "I know I ain't got any right to ask, I ain't a regular in church or nothin' but... I gotta favor. Ya already got m'ticket punched," he noted of his impending death. "I don't need no damn grinnin' skirt-chaser ridin' on m'tail. He's a good man, better than most..." he paused, his voice catching. Time was running short and he cut his plea in half. "He needs yer help, Josiah says ya hear every prayer. So I'm hopin' ya hear me; don't take him too."

The weight came back, taking his breath away. That he'd never see Four Corners again, never hear Buck chastising J.D., Ezra arguing with Nathan, Josiah's voice on the steps of the church as they talked about life. The last image was painful, too painful to think on long, so he pushed the image of Chris Larabee's smirking face away. He tugged on Buck's hand and moved forward, slapping the clammy cheeks hard.

"Ya listen up, Buck... Buck... dammit!" Vin hissed at the blank face. Sighing, he tried again, lowering his face so it was near Buck's ear. "Wake the hell up. We're in trouble, Marshal."

Buck was swimming in thick, black muck. Deeper than quicksand and thicker than mud, it choked him, leaving him wrapped in a smothering blanket of nothingness. Then the voice came back, Tanner's voice, frantic and edgy. A word sliced through the mired mess - trouble. Tanner was in trouble. Buck grunted and pushed his way through the muddy nothingness and peeled an eye open. A blurry face appeared, almost as if under water. The long hair was teasing his face and the blurry, blue eyes larger than he remembered. The voice was working again and he strained to hear.

Vin saw Buck fighting hard to keep his slits of eyes open and the pale lips moved.

"Ya awake? Good... listen up, Chris and them are comin' fer ya. If they ride hard, they'll be here in a few more days. Ya gotta hang on, Buck. Josiah's comin' and J.D. and ..."

"...who... Chris... Josiah?" Buck whispered and the agonizing ripple began. He cried out as an image of a cross and a crude church was cast in front of him. "...preacher..."

"Yeah!" Vin's voice rose. "Ya remember Josiah? That's great, Buck, he's yer friend. Ya remember... Buck... aw, hell. not now..." Vin pleaded as the agonizing scream came out weakly, and Buck's body buckled. The eyes slid shut again as he slumped. The curtains on the window over Buck's head blew and drew his gaza outside. He saw the two guards start to stand outside and his heart began to pound. It dawned on him then, what he had to do. The one thing that might save Buck's life. He slapped him hard, leaving an imprint of his hand on the stilled cheek. Buck's dark blue eyes, recessed in the black hollows of an illness, shot open in shock.

"I need ya t'hear this, it ain't yer fault. It's the Judge's doin', ya understand? It ain't yer fault. I want yer word, ya won't be totin' a hair shirt over this," he issued sternly, recalling Josiah's tales of medieval self-punishment.

Buck heard every painful word Tanner uttered and his vision cleared. His breathing became frantic and desperate, when his burning eyes saw the chains dangling in front of him, binding Tanner's hands to the hereafter. His mind berated him soundly, screaming about his lost promise, the avowed cries of 'protect him... protect him' were brutally silenced.

"No... no... no..." he whispered, thrashing in the bed, heart hammering. "...bastard promised me... sheriff said... he'd keep word... "

"It ain't his fault, he tried his best... it were a Judge's doin'..." Vin paused as Buck's eyes bore into him. "Ya play the hand yer dealt in life Marshal and the house just called." He sighed as through the glistening morning glass, the two guards rose and moved towards the door. It wasn't enough and the most painful moment was impending. He bent forward and gripped Buck's face with one hand and the back of his neck with the other. The dark eyes were so full of pain and guilt that it lanced Vin's heart. He scowled, gripped the neck tighter and hardened his voice. "Listen t'me..." he paused as a pair of beefy hands gripped him from behind. He held on tight, letting his fingers dig deep into Buck's neck. It had to be done, and despite the pain it would cause, Vin knew Buck would fight back afterwards. Two sets of blue eyes met and merged, suspended in time. Then the word came forth, issued in a stern tongue, with all he emotion Vin could muster. "Don't go dancin' in the dragon's lair..." he choked the last word out, "...Bucklin!"

It was that last word was carried on an arrow, laced with a fire, that ripped through Buck's brain, burning every cell and fiber in his body. It was then that the clouds lifted, the muddy waters receded and the rushing, painful tidal wave of memories brutalized him. In a swift current of time and space, every moment from the departure from Four Corners hit him like poisoned bullets. FHe remembered the stay in Salerno, the ambush by the Alvarez gang, tying Vin up and tossing him over a horse, the horrid days in Fanning and the hell of the desert ordeal; Vin's skilled hands taking out the bullet, feeding and caring for him and pulling him on his back. His heart was hammering and his throat dry. Tears sprung from his eyes as the enormity of the situation ravished his chest. He turned his head and the awful sight scorched his brain. The weak legs collapsing and two guards dragged him across the floor and out the door, the sun glaring off the leg and arm irons. Suddenly, right there before his eyes, his bounty Tanner, disappeared forever. A rumble formed deep within his gut and ripped through his chest, seeking delivery.

Vin was thrown in the back of the wagon, which was already steaming. The steel walls only allowed for slivers of light and air, forced in through the narrow window. He eyed the young boy in the back of the wagon, who looked to be in his early twenties. He was resting against the wall, long hair hanging down and face obscured. The awful breathing was familiar and Vin nudged him. The head lolled back, revealing a flushed face and two fevered eyes. He eased the boy onto the floor, as it was a little cooler down there. Vin moved his legs away, giving him more room. It was then, with the silent streets of Salt Flats about to disappear, that it happened. It slammed into him with the fury of the devil and the impact of a rifle blast to the gut. It was only one word, but the word he needed. The word that had been missing for so very long and that he longed to hear... the word that was salvation for his injured friend. He winced at the Godawful pain that it caused, he hadn't been prepared for the agonizng, violent shredding of his gut. He forced his way into the far corner of the wagon, trying to disappear into the metal. The agonizing scream wounded him deeply; he pressed his head hard into the wall, ramming his eyes shut. The word echoed over and over in his brain, with the full force and impact it had went it went airborne, from Buck Wilmington's agonizing lips.


Part 15

His eyes never left the window. He'd lost track of the time and had studied every crack in the white paint on the sill and frame. The faded yellow cotton curtain barely moved and the air was close. He saw Mary in the distance, coming with his lunch tray. He clenched his eyes shut and gripped the sheets, trying to cope. The scenes played over and over in his head, from seeing himself tossing Vin over a saddle, hearing the raspy voice calling to him from a battered face in the hellhole in Fanning, the desert... he sucked in a painful gulp of air as that trek scorched his brain. Then the finale, the blurry face before him that was led away in chains... to a noose. The gallows made an unwelcomed appearance, but why shouldn't they? After all, he felt like the carpenter.

He sighed and felt his chest tighten again, that it should come to this. Happier memories played loud and clear and gave him a real pain. The angry scowl that seemed custom made for Chris Larabee, the mischievous blue eyes of the prankster, the bemused look and one or two words that could silence a Standish diatribe in it's tracks, seeing J.D. and Vin horsing around in the water, the eagle eye that never missed it's mark in a gunbattle, the keen mind that could find and track an impossible trail and that smile.

When he woke up earlier, he thought at first it was a bad dream. He'd been covered in sweat and frantic. But one glance around the room and the burning sight of the empty cot drove a stake in heart. He didn't remember falling on the floor, just Mary's face in front of him. That's when he knew... her eyes answered his silent cry. As she helped him back into bed and spoke in soft, velvet tones, the only thing he could think of was the deafening vacuum in space, where the soft drawl of 'Bucklin' belonged.

Langston, six p.m.

The clerk at Hanscom's Mechantile look up with little interest when the prison wagon rode by. Langston was the closest town to Bendix Prison and several times weekly, a wagon rolled in. He watched until it came to a halt in front of the sheriff's office. One guard drove the wagon, the other two rode on horseback.

The sheriff pushed his chair back and rose, when the door opened. He picked up the ring of keys.and opened both cells in the back of the building. He greeted the the guards as the first of the quartet of prisoners was ushered in.

"Evenin' Sheriff," the lead guard greeted, shoving the men in front of him. "Get in there!"

"Mac, we're gonna need you help with the other two," Jake hollered from the doorway, prompting the sheriff to go outside. Hank remained by the vacant cell, his gun trained on the entryway.

"Is that catchin'?" the sheriff inquired, spitting a large wad of tobacco juice in the gutter.

"No," the leader replied, lifting the first unconscious man upright. "This one's Tanner, he come through the desert a few days back, he's just wore out. The other's Quinn, a kid that took one in the gut at a stage coach robbery," he grunted, handing Tanner's sweaty body to the sheriff and Jake. He waited a few minutes until Jake returned, before moving the other man.

"Here you go, Mac," Hank said, handing the sheriff a group of folded papers. "That's their papers. The prison wagon will be in the morning to pick them up."

"You boy's staying over?" the sheriff asked.

"Nope. We'll get a bite then we gotta turn back. Got a full day ahead tomorrow. Thanks, see you in a few days."

The sheriff watched from the doorway as the wagon pulled away and returned to his prisoners. He left food and water for the four men in each cell. The older two, who looked haggard, hot and heavy, were sitting up quietly eating. The younger two were still out cold. He entered the cell and checked the youngest. The departing guards had taken all the manacles away and the pair were free of the chains. The boy was barely breathing and burning with fever. He lifted the shirt and spotted the filthy bandages around the boy's gut.

"Poor devil won't see another sunrise," he predicted and moved to the other cot. This young man was coughing and wheezing, but not in peril of dying. He helped him to sit up and two blue slits appeared. He handed one of the two canteens he'd brought in earlier to the injured man, who drank slowly. He saw the eyes blinking and trying to focus, between bouts of coughing.

"This is Langston, I'm Sheriff MacKenzie and Bendix will send someone over in the morning to pick you up." He stood and pointed to the tray. "You best eat up, I'll bring more water later."

Vin didn't move until after he left. He saw the kid shivering violently on the cot next to him. Grabbing onto the bars, he stood up and sucked his breath in as the room began to spin. It took several minutes, but he managed to stagger over and flop on the edge of the cot. The smell coming from the kid's wound was horrible. Vin had seen enough fatal wounds to know this boy wasn't going to live. He managed to use some of the canteen water to wipe the boy's face, and was surprised when the kid's eyes opened.

"Ya take it easy, now." Vin lifted his head and helped him to drink. The face turned away after just a sip.

"...s'cold... so cold... cold..."

The voice was so weak Vin nearly didn't hear him. He eyed the tattered, thin shirt the boy wore, and his own heavier one, a newer issue. He unbuttoned the boys old shirt and took his own off. Several minutes later, out of breath and chest aching from the effort, the exchange was complete. He pulled the paper-thin blanket from his cot and covered the boy up. He shuffled painfully to his own bunk and ate his meager dinner. After draining the canteen, he laid back and let exhaustion claim him.

Wenesday noon, Bendix prison

Isaac Washington was old, he'd stopped counting a long time ago. The bright white hair stood like cotton over his dark, withered face. He'd been here so many years, he forgot sometimes about the other place, the read world. Oh, he got to town once in awhile, but being outside of the confines of the place he knew as home, scared the old man a bit. Seventy-five... eighty... he shrugged, he didn't know how many years since he was born. He paused and leaned on the shovel, tapping the soft dirt over the new grave.

His childhood in Georgia seemed far away, as did the endless days in the fields picking cotton and the harsh nights and brutal beatings. But that changed when he'd run off... during a violent storm. He never looked back, he was a young man then and found trouble waiting at every bend. He worked the riverboats awhile, he loved the Mississippi River and the powerful current that ran under his feet. But then he met a woman... and his troubles got worse. He was young and foolish and let his heart rule his head. She lured him off the river and they found themselves in Texas. He got a job working on a ranch as a cook. She not only took the money he'd saved, but the money from the cashbox that the foreman used to pay the hands. Nobody believed him, of course, and he ended up in Bendix. He didn't how many years ago that was. He stayed in the clinic all the time now, helping the doctor to patch up the prisoners.

"Po' young fella... somebody's son..." he mourned, bowing his head and saying a prayer.


"Yes suh?" He turned and saw Dr. Burke approaching. Doctor, he shook his head sorrowfully. He didn't believe that man was ever a healer. The old brown eyes had seen too many prisoners die at his botched attempts at surgery and healing. When he was sober, he was barely competant, and that was rare. Isaac didn't miss the flask sliding into the coat jacket, or the uneven gait as he grew closer.

"Who is that boy in the clinic?" he slurred, having just woken up after a long night of drinking.

"He's new, come this mornin', Suh, he's got a fever and..."

"Who's that?" The doctor slurred, leaning on the old slave's shoulder to read the name on the cross.

Issac eyed the black lettering on the wooden cross and paused. One thing he'd learned on the riverboats was his numbers and letters, enough to get by anyhow.

"He come this mornin' too... but he's too bad off... fever took 'im. I'll be right in... soon as I say a word over him."

The doctor read the crooked letters spelling the dead prisoner's name. "What he'd do?"

" Don't matter none now... he's at the Lord's table." Isaac answered gruffly, handing the doctor a slip of paper. "Dexter brung this with the two of 'em. Yuh need..."

"Don't get so uppity, Isaac," The drunk roared, "you remember your place. I know my job... I'll sign it and get it to the warden." He squinted trying to read the guard's report. "Murderer... hah... he won't be breakin' bread with the Lord. He'll be eatin' fire..."

Isaac left the scowl on his face until the bigot left. He rested both hands on the cross and read the name again. "Lawd, help this boy find a place at yuh table. He's lost and needs yuh light. Amen. " He stood and gripped the cross for a minute and eyed the crooked letters. "God Keep Yuh, Vin Tanner."

Wenesday twilight, Salt Flats

Exhausted but hopeful, Colt was whistling when he eased off his horse. He grimaced and stretched, rubbing his aching back. He ambled into the clinic and saw two heads spin to look at him. Both were veiled, and housing dispair. The tune died in his throat when he saw the empty cot. His eyes tore around the room, and he stepped in and closed the door.

"Where's Tanner?"

"He's gone," Will stood and took the old bandages with him.

"Jesus," Colt rocked back, rubbing a hand through his hair. "When? He wasn't that bad off when I left Sunday morning."

"He was still breathin' when they took him," Will relayed, getting another confused look.

"Mary?" Colt inquired, moving to her side. He saw the indelible traces of sadness in the pretty face and the eyes were red-rimmed and hollowed in pain. The pretty widow was sitting next to the marshal, who was sleeping. "How's he doing?"

"The same. He's suffered quite a blow. Tanner and him worked together back in Four Corners. They were friends. He's blaming himself for that boy being taken out of here."

"Taken away? When? By whose authority?" Colt was steaming and his ruddy face reflected his anger.

"A judge," she replaced Wilmington's limp hand on the sheet covering him and stood. "The same one you talked to. The prison wagon came yesterday morning to pick him up. How could he? I mean after what he read... he had to see that boy was no killer. Even if he had doubts, saving the marshal should have earned him a reprieve. He should have had a chance to speak his peace, clear his name. He was framed, you know."

"Bendix prison?" he fumed, all to famliar with the deadly means of transport and the distance, "He wasn't strong enough for a ride in that meat wagon.

Dammit, I'm gonna shoot Eddie," He slammed his fist into the wall, "Then I'm gonna wire that prison and tell them..."

"Might as well spit into the wind," Mary hissed, releasing her wrath.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Colt caught up to her by the door and spun her around. He saw the tears streaming down her face and his mouth fell open.

"Mary, what's wrong?"

"Not here," she choked and nodded with her head.

He followed her outside and down the street, to a quiet bench on the south side of the church. She slid her hand into her apron pocket and withdrew a slip of paper. She handed it to him and wiped her eyes, now dull and void.

"This came a couple hours ago from the sheriff in Langton. Eddie wired this morning, he was going to ride out there tomorrow, once you got back." Her voice wavered and the tears fell again. Try as she might, those blue eyes and that soft drawl had a firm grip on her heart. She rested her face against his broad shoulder and welcomed the strong arms. She heard the catch in his voice, as he read the telegram.

"Tanner dead... fever... judge and territorial office notified."

"Son-of-a-bitch!" Colt swore, still seeing the marshal's fevered eyes in the desert. He remembered all too well the frantic gaze and the promise he made.

"Christ, I promised that marshal I'd keep that boy safe." He sat down hard on the bench and dropped his head into his hands. "My God, Mary, what have I done?"

"You're human Colt, not God. You tried... did your best. You damn near ran a horse into the ground to find that Judge. It's on his conscience, not yours." Mary gripped both sides of his face and stroked the bronzed cheek. "You're a credit to that badge... you know how I feel... " she said huskily, wanting to take the pain from his eyes.

He covered her hand with his own and kissed it tenderly. Finally, he rose and eyed the clinic. "He doesn't know, doe he?" he asked of the critically ill patient.

"No... he's been asking." Mary pushed the hair from her face and eyed the boarding house. "I can barely look in his eyes. Will and I talked about it and we agreed that he's too frail. If he finds out that boy died, after what he did... well, it could push him over. He's barely fighting now... " Her voice trailed off and she took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, "I won't lose him too!" She said defiantely, fire in her eyes.

"You quite a woman, Mrs. McGuinness," he said thickly, drawing her close and kissing her in the shadows of the building.

"...and you're still a sweet-talking devil Sheriff Haskill," she replied, resting her hand against his face. "Dinner's at six, don't be late. You look awful and I don't need another body in that clinic. You get some rest. I'm gonna get Buck Wilmington back on his feet and damn the devil if he tries to stop me."

Late Wenesday night, Bendix Prison

Vin's chest exploded and he turned over, hitching himself up on his elbow. He wiped his mouth against his sleeve and rubbed his watery eyes. He slumped back onto a bed and wondered on the strange room through blurry eyes. His pounding head seemed to be keeping time with his chest and leg. He absentmindedly rubbed the leg and winced. A dark face suddenly appeared in front of his line of vision.

"Nate?" he croaked, feeling a hand lifting his head. The water went down easy and he sighed in brief contentment.

"That fever's got yuh addled a bit Son, m'names Isaac Washington. I got some broth... " he suggested, as he pulled the confused young man upright. He pushed him back gently and patted the soggy shirt as he left.

"Isaac..." Vin frowned and shook the cobwebs from his head, as he eyed the empty cots in the room. Where was Buck?

"Here yuh go, Quinn," Isaac sat on the chair next to the bed and held out a spoon.

"Quinn?" Vin protested as the spoon slid in his mouth. The broth was good and he took several more spoons, before he noticed the bars on the window.


"Yeah, Son, they brung yuh in this mornin'," he managed to get the last of the broth in the weak prisoner and returned to the stove, pouring some herb tea. He grabbed a biscuit and made his way back to the bed. "Yuh been lost in a fever, the poor other boy didn't make it... Tanner," he shook his head sorrowfully, "I buried 'im out back. Here yuh go, Jamie, this tea is gonna help that mess in yuh chest get movin' along."

Vin's brows creased as his muddled head put the missing pieces together. He nibbled on the buttermilk biscuit and sipped the bitter tea, as the mystery began to clear up. Tanner was dead; his fingers rubbed the pocket where the numbers were on his shirt. He recalled the guard assigning him a number and switching shirts with the sick kid. So Vin Tanner was officially dead, he shivered as the thought ran through his head.

"I got some water cookin', them chills 'ill go away after we clean yuh up some."

"Huh?" Vin blinked and saw the wrinkled face crease.

"I wuz sayin'... a bath will do wonders... yuh want another biscuit?"

"No... thanks... Isaac." he stammered, his mind reeling. What name did he use? What was this kid arrested for? Hell, he might just be buying time for another noose. His hand crept to his throat and he winced.

"Yuh throat sore too? I got a poultice..."

"Not sore... just swallowed wrong... thanks." Vin nodded, his heavy eyes darting.

"Here, yuh eat all of that, yuh need to get some strength back." Isaac set down a plate with two biscuits with preserves on them. He poured some more water onto the bitter black tea leaves in the prisoner's cup. "Yuh look a little a worn... I found some balm in yuh pocket, for that sunburn. Spit it out, Boy..." He addressed the confused stare.

"I can't remember much... Why can't I remember?" Vin frowned, nibbling on the sweet treat and sipping his tea.

"Well, it says here," he lifted the ledger with the guard's notes. "Yuh name's Jamie Quinn and yuh robbed a stage coach. Judge'll be by next month sometime to set yuh time."

A robbery? Vin's heart quickened, that wasn't a hanging offense unless someone got killed. But the notes would have said robbery and murder, wouldn't it? Jamie Quinn, he rolled the name over in his head and eyed the barred window. He thought briefly on the boy who died too young and was resting in a grave bearing the Tanner name. Hope flittered overhead and he snatched it, as Isaac came over with a basin of sudsy water.

He didn't remember falling asleep, but years of experience had given him a strong inner alarm. His eyes shot open and the bright light caused him to blink. Something was wrong, very wrong. He turned away and covered his eyes, until they got used to the light. He coughed more from the reeking smell than from the congestion in his lungs. He was dizzy and disoriented and trying hard to focus. The foul stench of liquor and vomit lingered close, causing him to gag. A hand turned his face with force and he pulled back, tensing up. He didn't have to see to know it wasn't the old man, Isaac. The ruddy complexion and bleary eyes gave him pause, but the silver glint of the knife made his heart beat rapidly. It was then his elbow hit a hard surface. This wasn't a bed... it was a table.

"Get the hell away..." Vin repelled, gaging at the awful smell, "Yer drunk..."

"I'm Dr. Burke," the heavy breather managed, swaying, "and you keep a civil tongue, Leonard." he backhanded the protesting patient hard and secured his wrists. He saw the matted head rising and shoved it hard against the table.

"Leonard?" Vin choked, trying to break free of the arm on his face. Suddenly, he felt the unmistakeable smoothness of leather across his throat. He suddenly realized that the same strap that bound his throat to the surface, also bound his hips, wrists and ankles. His eyes widened in horror and his mouth went dry as the doctor staggered and nearly fell on him. Vin swallowed hard and felt the bile rising, as his eyes took in the filthy knife. By the looks of it, blood, puss and God knows what else, from every other poor prisoner who ended up here, was clinging to the rusty blade.

"Ya ain't stickin' me with that thing..." Vin gasped, the leather cutting into his voice box. Before he could argue further, a filthy gag was shoved in his mouth.

"I warned you Leonard," the drunk leered, leaning in and patting the anxious face, "...don't you worry. I'm gonna take that bullet out of your belly.

We'll have you on your feet and back to your outfit in no time. Those damn bluebellies..."

Vin's eyes were working overtime, darting frantically as they absorbed the disoriented man's words and followed the filthy knife as it hovered over his chest. The wavering hand moved his shirt aside and scowled at the bandages protecting the broken ribs.

"Hmmm...." Burke slobbered, "...we'll have to cut them away..." he paused and laid the knife on Vin's bandaged chest. The frantic breathing of the unwilling participant in the mad doctor's scheme, made the instrument waver in time with the patient's heart.

"No..." Vin muffled against the rancid gag. The son-of-a-bitch was lost in time, back in the war... and ready to gut him like a fish. Then the body moved away and Vin relaxed against the restraints. He felt sweat pouring off his face and running down onto the cot. Several minutes went by and he got his breathing under control. The extra efforts and small fight had his chest flaring painfully. He cursed inwardly as the body lurched forward, holding a brown bottle and a soggy cloth. The acrid smell identified the narcotic and Vin shook his head.

"Now, now, Leonard," Burke held Vin's forehead hard and used his free hand to cover the frantic boy's nose. "It's only chloroform, Private Leonard, just relax and breath... when you wake up, the bullet will be out of your belly."

Vin struggled and fought but his air gave out and the drug invaded him by force. His mind whirled and then everything went black.

Thursday morning early, Salt Flats

Mary tossed the basin of bath water outside and picked up the bowl of custard. Her patient was propped up and she frowned at the flush on his cheeks. The wayward infection had a good hold on him and his fever spiked again during the night. He'd been very restless and wore his weak body out fighting in his sleep. She sat down and placed the sweet pudding on a wooden tray with short legs that was resting over his lap. She saw his closed eyes twitching and frowned.

"Come on Son, I don't have all day," she barked, tapping his face, "Get those blues open and look at me."

Buck's heavy head was nestled comfortably in a soft, cool pillow. He was semi-awake during the bath and it felt good to be clean and not drenched in sweat. The soft linen shirt felt good too and her voice was tinged with concern. Her voice... he let his mind wander and recall how that strong voice pulled him out of the storm so many times over the last few days. He head ached and he didn't want to open his eyes, but the hand on his face was persistant. He pried his eyes open and saw the pretty face, the gray hair being the only signs of aging.

"Hey, Mary..." he whispered, wincing inwardly at the scratchy voice.

"Morning Handsome," she cooed, brushing a stray lock of hair from his eyes, "How you feelin' Marshal?"

"It's just Buck," he sighed, his eyes darting to the empty cot where missing friend should be. "Any word on Vin?"

She managed to get broth into him, while she thought on the answer. He was weak and his lungs were loaded with congestion. She spooned a dollop of custard into his mouth and lifted a mug of cold cider.

"No, the sheriff is going to ride over to Bendix today," she relayed, knowing it was only partially true. Colt wanted to see the grave and check the records with the Warden. His main goal was to find the Judge, as far as he was concerned, his job wasn't done. Vin Tanner might be dead, but Colt intended to keep his promise and clear the boy's name. "I'm sure he'll have news by the weekend."

Buck shook his head, his stomach was already churning. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Vin being dragged away in chains. He knew the others would be here soon, but would it be too late? What if the Vin got sentenced after he arrived? What if the hanging took place before the sheriff could stop them? Every time he thought of what he'd done, his shame and guilt were harbored by anger. Why didn't Vin leave when he had the chance? How could he look them in the eye after what he'd done.

"Damn sorry-assed tracker..."

"How's that?" Mary cocked her head and prodded the pale lips. "Now look! I told you already, you can't win. This food's going in you, one way or another. You can't help that boy if you don't get better. He was a fighter; how about you showing your grit?"

"The Rangers need a woman like you..." Buck coughed and grabbed onto her hand as a horrid pain shot through his gut. He bent forward and held on until the parade of wet coughing came to a halt. He was left gasping and hissing as the white-hot flames shot through him. He felt her arms around him and resting against her, gulping for air. "Sorry..."

"Don't be," Mary teased, rubbing his back and waiting for the heavy breathing to level out, "... been awhile since I held onto a handsome man in bed..." She smiled at the weak laughter erupting from the injured man. Finally, she eased him back and raised an eyebrow, holding the spoon.

"That husband of yours..." Buck noted, taking the custard and a long sip of cider, "...was damn lucky."

"You play your cards right, Handsome, and you may be number two," she teased, and was rewarded with the weakest of a Wilmington winning smile. She got the rest of the soup in him and drank in his soft laughter. Finally, the heavy eyes slid shut and she eased a pillow out, lowering him. She moved the tray and unbuttoned the cotton shirt. She bathed his face, neck and chest with cool water and alchohol, and frowned at the heavy, forced breathing. She was about to make some herbal tea, when the door opened and a menacing cloud in black filled the frame. His eyes narrowed and he glared at her before crossing the room. The stormy green eyes rested on her for a moment, before cascading around the room. She didn't miss the emotive light when they hit the slumbering patient.

Chris wasn't sure if the feeling that just hit him was relief or worry. He'd seen worse bodies and most were being measured by the undertaker. The horrid breathing and waxy face with slashes of scarlett were unsettling. But he was alive... and that felt damn good.

"Buck!" Chris cried out and reached out his arm, only to find himself smacked in the chest. His anger flashed, buoyed by riding nearly all night. "Look Lady, we've been ridin' all night and I'm in no mood to be sociable. I'm Chris Larabee and I'm going to see Buck Wilmington."

"I don't care if you're the King of Spain." Mary drilled sternly, glaring right back, "Don't raise your voice to me. He's exhausted and needs his rest. Turn them fires down, Son, you're not scaring me," she warned of the deadly green eyes.

"Look Ma'am..." Chris gritted, eyes flashing, only to be cut off by a firm hand and steely voice.

"No, you look! It's Mrs. McGuiness and I don't intend to repeat myself." She hissed and forced him backwards, to the door. "That boy's hovering at death's door and I won't have a bunch of dirty, smelly visitors tossing dust all over him. Out! now!" she commanded, watching the green eyes narrow and the mouth form a grim line.

For several pregnant seconds, there was a deadly silence, then Mary craned her head as a snicker arose. "Something funny, Son?" she asked a boy with black hair and large hazel eyes.

"No Ma'am... "J.D. chuckled, "You sound just like Nathan."

"Shut up, J.D., " Nathan shoved the youth sideways and pushed past the livid Larabee. "You'll have to excuse us, Mrs. McGuinness," Nate offered with his hand, "We're rode hard from Four Corners for Buck and Vin. I'm Nathan Jackson, that's J.D.Dunne and Ezra Standish," he paused as they nodded, "This here's Josiah Sanchez..."

"The preacher?" She nodded, recalling the telegram. She listened silently as the dark skinned man with soulful eyes made the introductions. "You're the healer," She studied his face and saw the nod, "Vin told me about you... all of you..." she eyed the group and bit her lip.

"Vin?" Chris hissed, eyeing the empty room. "Where is he?" His eyes narrowed when the strong woman's eyes flinched and she dropped her head briefly. He felt her hand on his arm and something about the deep blue gaze made him move. They left the clinic and she hustled them into the sheriff's office. Eddie was behind the desk and jumped up when the group entered.


"Eddie, these are the marshal's friends from Four Corners... you remember the wire?" she waited and saw the head bob. "Go find Colt for me?"

"About Vin, Ma'am?" Nate moved closer, like Chris, not liking the grim look he saw.

"I'm sorry," she sighed, eyeing them all, but zoning in on the blond with the intense eyes. "He's gone."

"Gone where?" Josiah asked, eyes creasing in suspicion.

Mary rubbed her fingers over her eyes and sighed deeply. Chris didn't need to hear the words, that small motion spoke loud and clear. He slumped and bit his lower lip, kicking the leg of the desk. "Damn..." he said softly, dropping his head and fisting both hands.

"You can't mean he's dead?" J.D. choked, suddenly catching on. "But the wire said they were both in the clinic..."

"They were, Son," Mary spoke up, "He was a fighter, damn near died on me that first night." She paused and rested a hand on Chris Larabee's arm. He flinched but didn't pull back. She winced at the burning pain in his eyes, when the damp, blond head finally rose. "He was either calling out for you with a soft whisper, or cursing at you with his face screwed up," she shook her head and saw Chris's lips turn up. "Couldn't figure it... " she shook her head, then continued, "Colt and Eddie found them outside town. That boy was totin' the marshal on his back... with a travois..."

"God..." Nathan hissed, thinking of the impossible situation.

"I cursed and hollered and got his dander up, and he fought back. He was making good progess, until that meat wagon took him away."

"A prison wagon?" Ezra mused.

"The marshal told us what happened and Colt, he's the sheriff, he rode all the way to Crystal City to meet the circuit judge." She handed Josiah, who was closest, a folder, "It's all there, the marshal's testimony, what Eddie and Colt saw and the newspaper article telling how that boy saved the marshal's life. Colt promised the marshal he'd protect Tanner..." she sighed, "...and he tried his best, I want you all to realize that. He damn near killed himself and that horse getting to the Judge in time..."

"But?" Ezra prodded, eyeing the wall of ice that had become Chris Larabee.

"But that Judge not only told Colt he'd protect Tanner, he even wrote it down and signed it. Then he stabbed us in the back. Tuesday morning the prison wagon came, with orders from the same Judge to transport Tanner to Bendix to be executed on Friday."

"Friday isn't until tomorrow!" J.D. exclaimed, "We still got time. Did you wire them and tell them... Did..."

"J.D." Nate held his hand up, seeing the last painful piece of the puzzle dangling from the pretty woman's lips.

"We got a wire yesterday," She handed it to Nate, "I'm sorry. I tried to stop them... that boy was way too sick to be carted for ten hours in that meat wagon."

"Fever took 'im." Nate said simply, handing Josiah the telegram. "You didn't tell Buck," Nate asked, his healing instincts honing sharply.

"No, me and Will, he's the doctor here," she paused, "We decided not to, he was near death himself and when they took Tanner out in chains," she bit her lip and her voice cracked, 'Then Buck... he... he screamed... it was a Godawful sound... went right to my bones..." She broke away and walked to the window, clasping her arms around her waist. Finally she turned back to the stunned group, "You see, until that moment the boy was a stranger to him, sort of... but something happened... Tanner wanted to say goodbye..." She sighed, "Just as the wagon was ready to pull out, the marshal screamed... but he called him Vin, not Tanner."

"His memory came back," Nate sighed, rubbing his neck, "Vin musta done that... he knew Buck would fight for him, if he remembered."

"I think a visit to this legal reptile is in order," Ezra said with disdain. "...and a visit is just what I had in mind," Colt said, entering the room, "I intend to have a word with that lyin' sac of shit."

"Colt!" Mary warned, but he brushed her aside.

"He lied to me, Mary." His bitter voice and flinty eyes chilled the room. "He promised me he'd protect that boy. I gave the marshal my word... I gave Tanner my word and now he's dead. That Judge is gonna be sorry he fucked with Colt Haskill."

Chris turned his lips up and nodded slightly with approval. He shifted, trying to find a position that didn't cause his heart to ache so. For a few sweet days, Vin was alive again and he had his soul back, but now he felt the coldness seep inside again. Vin was gone, but his name wouldn't be muddied.

"I want this bastard."

They all turned as Chris finally spoke. His eyes drilled into the clear ones of the Salt Flats lawman who nodded in silent agreement.

"Is Buck gonna live?" Chris asked Mary who took a deep breath and shrugged.

"It's a coin toss," she fretted, "He was doing a little better, but his fever spike overnight. He's so weak and he used all his energy fighting already. He's struggling hard, but I think it's because of Vin. If he finds out..."

"Then we won't tell him, not until he's stronger," Chris decided, then turned his attention to the irate lawman. "Where did this judge slither off to?"

"I haven't been able to find out. He's disappeared," the sheriff was disgusted, "Why am I not surprised?"

"...and just who is the paragon of integrity?" Ezra inquired, scanning the newspaper account painfully.

"Uh... Judge Spencer..." Colt started.

"...fuckin' Hazzard," Chris finished, punching the wall hard enought to send everything hanging on it all over the floor." This was followed by several hisses and a contorted face.

"I take it you've had the pleasure?" Ezra cocked his head, stood next to Chris and handed him the folder.

"Not yet," Chris vowed, flexing his fist, "But I'm gonna make a big impression."

"Who is he, Chris?" J.D. asked.

"He's the bastard who framed Vin." The blond responded, eyes a livid green.

"But Vin said Eli Joe...." J.D. tried.

"Eli Joe was hired by Hazzard. From a distance, he could pass for Vin. He even wore a hide coat the day he murdered that farmer," Chris recalled, sitting on the edge of the desk and reading the paperwork compiled by Colt and the newspaper. He bit his lip when he saw the drawing of Vin pulling Buck.

"What's the Judge's angle?" Josiah asked.

"The land." Chris said distractedly, flipping the paper over and reading the rest of the information.

"Kincaid wouldn't sell and it was a sweet piece, one that the railroad wanted." He finished reading and handed the folder to J.D., as he temper flared, "Shit..." the leader smashed his fist again.

"You can't break his face if you bust that hand," Nate warned. "What's the plan, Chris?"

"Until we find out where Hazzard is," he paused and eyed the clinic. "Me, Nate and J.D. will stay here, until Buck's through the worst of it. I won't leave him. Josiah and Ezra, I'd like you to ride out to Bendix. You check and make sure..." he bit off the reply and walked outside without finishing.

"Not today," Colt interjected, looking at the exhaustion painted on all five faces. "It's a full day's ride out there and you're beat. You get some grub, get some rest and stop by the clinic later. Seeing you may be the best medicine for him right now," he said of Buck Wilmington.

Mary followed the somber man in black outside and rested a hand on his slumped shoulder. Her mind flew back in time to Tanner's delirium. Other than Buck, the one name he called out to was this somber man of incredible will. One look at the pain in the handsome face before her answered the lingering question. She felt the rest behind her and turned back.

"You get over to the boarding house and get some breakfast. I got my hands full with the marsh... with Buck and don't need any more bodies in there." She turned to Chris and saw this wincing and gripping his swollen wrist. "Hmpph... you men are a hard-headed lot. Come on, we'll soak that in cold water and rewrap it."

"Ma'am..." J.D. stepped forward and held out his hand. "For what you did... for Vin and Buck... thank you."

"Your welcome, Son." She took his hand and eyed the group, "After you eat and get cleaned up, you can have a short visit with him. Go on now," she urged.

The clean clinic was quiet and Chris's mind was far away, although his eyes were trained on the shallow breather before him. His thoughts went to the words in the report he'd read earlier. A sharply written piece about two men who entered the desert as a lawman and a bounty, but were transformed by circumstances stroked by a finer hand. As he watched Buck's face, he wondered about those harsh days. How being that close to death in such a barren place changes a man. Would whatever they shared in those long hours change Buck?

"Damn, Cowboy, sometimes ya think t'much!"

"Vin..." he sighed and used his free hand to rub his weary face. Losing the Texan a second time was much more painful. To have that glimmer of hope danging before his eyes, suddenly explode in his face, was agonizing. Most of all, his gut was torn up at the thought of Vin dying alone. He thought on the fever that claimed his friend. What if he was calling out to them? What if the chains had taken the last fight from him? What if... he jerked slightly as the door slammed.

She watched Chris carefully as he sat next to Buck's bed. His hand was in a basin of cold water and he was hunched forward, studying every feature on Wilmington's slack face. The only visible sign of emotion was the rippling waves in the water, where his trembling hand was resting. She sat a tray down on the empty chair next to him and resting a hand on his slumped shoulder.

"How about I wrap that for you?" she asked and watched the head dip slightly.

She gently lifted the injured hand from the water and dried it off, before wrapping securly. She moved the water away and pointed to the tray. "You need to eat," she offered, "I know it's not a t-bone..."

"It'll do," Chris grunted, picking up the sandwich and taking a bite. He watched as the widow bathed Buck with skilled hands, while speaking to him the whole time. The voice was firm, but the tone was full of care and concern. He could easily see how she dragged Vin back from the hounds of hell that grabbed him. Finally, she pulled the sheet up and sat on the edge of the bed, facing him.

"You two go back a long way?" she inquired on a hunch she felt.

"Yeah... twelve years or so..." Chris paused, took a sip of coffee and rested his eyes on his oldest friend. "They don't come any better."

"To have friends ride in looking as worn as your five did," she smiled a little, "well that says a lot about him." She saw his eyes glance at the empty cot and the sandy brows crease in pain. "I'm sorry, Mr. Larabee... he got to me, that one..."

"It's Chris," the blond disarmed easily, studying her hurt eyes, "Mr. Lababee's back in Indiana with my mother." He paused and saw her eyes shimmer briefly, before she shook off the emotional flow and squared her shoulders. He took her hand and gave a small squeeze, waiting for her eyes to clear, "... the eyes, huh?" he quizzed gently of Vin's telltale windows. He saw her bit her lip and nod and mirrored her motion. "Yeah... I know..."

The tender moment was broken when the dark head moved. She saw the blond man's features soften as the morning light illuminated his predicament. The awful, agony in his eyes reflected what painful truth his soul was bearing. She rested her hands on the back of his tense shoulders and gave a good squeeze, sensing he needed to be alone.

"I'll be outside," she offered and departed.

The thick river of mud he was stuck in moved again. Buck turned his head, sensing something was different. It was the smell that caused him to stir. Mary was either cinnamon and coffee or lilac. This was a male smell, pungent and sweaty. His eyes peeled open and he saw black denim knees and followed the line. The pale face was blurry, but the black shirt, blond hair and green eyes were a salvation. He sucked in a painful breath of exclamation and his wavering hand grabbed air, until the other's latched on.


Part 16

Chris flinched at the weak, rasp from his unnaturally pale friend. He'd seen corpses with better color. He stengthened his grip and leaned forward, trying to ease Buck's anxiety. He waited until the confused blue eyes widened and a small smile appeared.

"Sleepin' on the job again?" he said softly and winced as the smile disappeared and the dark head turned past him to gaze at the empty cot.

"Vin..." Buck hushed, his stricken features lancing Chris. The head turned slowly and the pain radiated from the dark blue eyes. "I'm sorry, Chris... my fault... I... Jesus..."

"I didn't ride all this way to hear you bellyaching, Buck." Chris used a sharp voice, leaned foward and gripped the limp hand tighter. "It's not your fault, neither is losing your memory. That bastard that shot you was out for Vin, a bounty hunter. It was an accident, Buck. Vin would kick your ass good if he heard you pining away like this."

"You weren't there..." Buck whispered, "You didn't see... what that bastard did to him... because of me."

"Adamson?" Chris grunted and saw Buck's face screw up, and his free fist weakly tap the bed. "I took care of that piece of shit."

"I left him there... stubborn fool wouldn't take the horse... toted me on his back..." he shook his mind as too many thoughts jumbled around and made his head ache.

Chris dropped the weak hand as a wave of sweat spilled over Buck's anguished face. The leader rinsed a cloth out and carefully bathed the stricken man.

He saw the eyes turn away, desperately trying to find redemption. He returned the cloth to the basin and shifted, then turned Buck's jaw to face him.

"It's done, Buck and this sac-cloth-and-ashes bullshit ain't gonna change what happened. He made the best out of an impossible situation. You take that and fight back, or I'm walking." Chris issued in a stern edict and saw Buck's eyes riveted to him. He removed his hand and sat back in the chair.

Buck sighed deeply as Larabee's words hovered briefly, before attacking his penance. He knew, without a doubt, that it was no idle threat. The lean man in black wouldn't tolerate such self-mortification. He mind snapped to Vin and he noted how alike they were, like twin sides of a coin.

"I'm trying, Pard..."

Chris cocked his head and turned back, nodding at the effort spent. He lifted Buck's head and gave him the glass of cider Mary brought over. He flipped the pillow to the cool, dry side, before lowering the fever-saturated head.

"...but it's hard..." Buck hissed, "I never had a pain like this..." he paused and thought on Vin's strength. "I've been thinking about him... and much guts it took... he gave me back to you... he knew... how... he..."

"Easy, Buck," Chris pushed the struggling body back into the bed. It was several more minutes before the weary man's eyes opened again.

Buck took a deep breath and saw the sun glinting of the chains on Vin's arms and legs. "...he found me in the dark place I was lost in... with one word... that took the marshal and the bounty away forever." Buck choked, clenching his eyes and the sheet with his fist. He still heard that word... and it hurt. Then a thought struck him. Why was Larabee here? Chris should be with Vin, not him. He turned his head sharply and saw the blond flinch.

Chris saw the question coming and his mind spun, thinking on how to find the right words. He jumped slightly when the door slammed.

"Buck!" J.D.'s enthusiasm filled the dismal room. The arrival of the others chased the question away and gave the leader a respite... for now. Chris gave Buck's shoulder a sold squeeze and nodded, then stood up, letting J.D. release his concern.

"Hey, Kid..." Buck smiled and felt J.D.'s beaming grin, he reached up and tapped the anxious youth's face, "...stayin' out of trouble?"

"Somebody's got to... you can't seem to..." J.D. offered, feeling a little guilty about his sudden euphoria.

"Ezra?" Buck croaked as the gold tooth caught his eye. The younger man broadened his smile and tipped his hat. "Your face..." Buck saw the bruise and frowned.

"Not to worry," the conman eased, "...all in the cause of justice. I asked myself, 'What would Buck do?' and therein gained this result."

Buck shifted his eyes and saw the others, every face worn to the bone and then he saw something else and shivered. He frowned and heard Chris clear his throat and shoot a warning glance to the group. What was wrong?

"How you feelin', Buck?" Nate asked, dropping to his side and pulling out his stethescope. He laid it aside for a moment, wanting to check on Buck's wounds. "Josiah?" he motioned and the preacher leaned in and lifted Buck forward. He smiled down as Buck's head moved and the slitted eyes blinked trying to find him.

"You beat the devil again, Brother," his deep voice welcomed.

Buck relaxed visibly, not just at the warm voice that hovered above or the strong arms that held him. It was having them back, or was it coming back himself? They had to know about Vin by now. Why were they still here? They didn't all need to be here. Somebody had to find Vin... Somebody had to... he flicked an eye over Nathan's shoulder and saw something in the leader's green eyes that scared him. However, his throbbing head wouldn't allow the right order of words to make the question deliverable.

"Chris... "

"Right here, Buck." Chris ducked down, seeing the dark blue eyes darting and caught them. He saw the anxious gaze and wondered if his mask slipped.

"Not here... go... Vin needs help... judge lied... he's in jail... why all here... Chris?"

Fortunately, before Chris could answer, the brief burst of words took all the injured man's energy and his eyes slid shut. Chris walked away and wondered just how he was going to answer those pained eyes, when they started to clear up a little more.

"Cough for me..." Nate ordered, tapping the dozing patient, with his stethscope trained on the laboring chest, "...again..." He nodded, easing Buck back onto the pillows. "You got a mess in there, I'll make a poultice and some tea. Don't even think about sassin' me, Buck... cat piss or not, it's goin' down."

"Nate?" Buck rasped, grabbing the healer's arm. He never realized just how much seeing those soulful brown eyes again would mean to him.

Nate saw so much in the emotive eyes, it brought a genuine warmth from his insides. He smiled and gripped the weak hand. "I missed you too, Buck."

Bendix Prison, sunset, Thursday

The blue eyes shot open and the body moved so fast, it caused the old caretaker to fall backwards. He hadn't been able to leave the boy's side all day, he was in such bad shape. He regained his balance and knelt by the tangled limbs, now fumbling on the floor.

Vin sucked in a painful burst of air and watched the worn wood grain on the floor spinning wildly. His arms are legs seemed to be displaced from his body. His muddled brain tried to overcome the horrendous nausea and pounding headache, but failed. The sickness won out and the body toppled over. He rolled on his back and watched the ceiling whirling and making strange images. Then a dark-skinned face appeared with bright white hair and every memory came back.

"Shit!" he choked, his clumsy fingers fumbled down his bare chest. "Shit..." he repeated, his eyes wide and anxious as his fingers found only flesh.

"Take it easy, young fella," Isaac leaned over the contorted face and rested a sympathetic hand on his shoulder.

"Get away..." Vin hissed, scrambling backwards until he hit a wall. His legs splayed open, his breath came in pants and he swallowed hard. His heart was pounding so hard, it hurt. Sweat poured down his face, brought on by the intense Texas heat in the stifling clinic. His eyes caught sight of the black straps hanging loosely from the table of terror. "Where is he?" Vin growled, swiping the sweat that stung his eyes. He managed to turn sideways, grab the desk next to him and pull himself up. The room swung wildly, but he held on, his eyes glowing a feral blue.

"Yuh calm down, now..." Isaac warned, smart enough not to approach the irate man. "I understand yuh got cause..."

"Ya don't understand shit, Old Man," Vin hissed, trembling in anger. His body was taut with apprehension and anxiety as every memory scorched his brain. The helplessness of being tied down... the rusty knife... the madman's glazed eyes and the awful chemical. "That fuckin' madman tied me down and tried t'carve me up with a knife. He's outta what's left o'his mind." Vin gulped air, as a wave of sickness threatened to spill. "Where is he? I'm gonna kill that son-of-a-bitch..."

"Dr. Burke ain't here," Isaac placated, keeping his voice calm, "It's only Thursday. He don't come back 'til Sunday. Wenesday and Sunday is his visitin' days."

"Doctor!" Vin sneered sarcastically, gulping down precious air, as his legs jerked independently of what he willed them to do. "He's a fuckin' animal," he spat in disgust, still smelling the alchohol fumes, "that damn drunk ain't a doctor. I want t'see the warden, I want... I... shit...." Vin's legs buckled and he landed on his backside on the floor.

"Yuh best take a hand," Isaac offered, "before yuh bust somethin'. Yuh ain't got any legs yet. He's won't be back for three days, Son. Yuh let Isaac help..."

"Why ain't I dead?" Vin rasped, eyes unnaturally wide as dark spots invaded his vision.

"'cause he got sloppy." Isaace saw the color leave the man's face as his temporary flow of energy disapated. He took the chance and moved closer, squatting in front of the angry, heaving bare chest. "He ended up suckin' in some o' that cloafoam and knocked hisself out." He rested a tentative hand on the sweaty shoulder of the prisoner, who flinched and pulled away.

"Where the hell were ya?" Vin hissed, the memory still causing him to shake, "he damn near killed me."

"I'm sorry, Son," Isaac's voice dropped. He remembered all to well the guilt in his gut when he returned from the supply room and found the pair. It wasn't the first time the doctor got careless, and he thought on the bodies buried in the yard outside. The warden covered up because he owed the doctor a favor. Long before alchohol enslaved him, Anthony Burke was a good doctor, one that saved the warden's life. Also, most prison's didn't merit the 'cream of the crop' of the medical field. At best, they were mediocre and unable to find work elsewhere. Who else would take a job that paid next to nothing in a prison? Something should be done, Isaac knew that. But nobody listened to a poor, old Negro. No, he told the inspectors last year, but they dismissed him like a insolent child. "I wuz in the supply room, only gone an hour or so..." he sighed as the blue eyes still raged. "I loaded him in his rig and told the guard to get him home. I had him sign yuh light duty order... before I left to get supplies."

"Light duty?" Vin coughed and turned sideways as dry heaves overtook him. He didn't think he had any sweat left, yet it rained down his face. He felt the old man's firm hand on his shoulder and didn't pull away.

"Yeah," Isaac nodded, "Let me get yuh back in bed and get some soup in yuh. I tell yuh how this place runs. Light duty for a couple more weeks 'til yuh ribs is better. Come on," he urged and saw the eyes flitting to the barred windows and locked door. "Don't think likethat, yuh'd be shot down afore yuh got ten feet. Guards outside and on the wall, the tower and the yard."

Vin sighed and nodded, allowing the other man to help him back to bed. He remained silent until the caretaker reappeared, bearing a tray of soup, and some ginger tea. He sipped the tea and lifted the spoon. He saw the guilt in the Old Timer's eyes and nodded.

"s'okay..." Vin sighed, "So tell me about this hell hole..."

Flats, Thursday twilight

Josiah looked up as Chris slid into a seat at the end of the dining room table in the boarding house. The other guests had eaten earlier and Mary had reserved a ham and trimmings for the hungry men. J.D. slid a full plate over to Chris who nodded, but made not move to pick up a utencil of any sort. He took the whiskey that Ezra offered and poured a double shot into the empty coffee cup before him.

"How is he?" Chris asked, rubbing the weary eyes that were throbbing in his head. J.D. had relieved him at around four o'clock and Mary forced him to the boarding house and a soft bed. He didn't remember hitting the pillow.

"Still sleeping," J.D. muffled over a buttered biscuit. "Mary's givin' him a bath." He paused and saw the problem still written on the weary leader's features. "What are we going to do, Chris? He's knows something's wrong."

"I don't know, J.D." Chris sighed, sipped his whiskey and took a half-hearted stab at the meat on his plate.

"Brother Buck may be more resilient than you think." Josiah rested his arms on the table and furrowed his brows.

"What do you mean, Josiah?" Nathan asked, getting ready to take a plate of food over to Buck.

"I agree that the shock of what happened isn't good for Buck," he frowned, "But how is hearing Vin's dead later going to be easier to bear?"

"'cause his body will be able to handle it," Nate snapped, "He's as weak as a kitten now. You want to take the chance on him feeling responsible for Vin's dyin' with no fight in him? I don't..."

"Hold it!" Chris put both hands up. "You're both right." He sighed and thought for a moment. "First of all, I want proof that Vin's dead. Then, we tell Buck... three or four days might make a difference. Okay?" He watched all the heads nod and resumed his meal.

"The good reverend and I shall endeavor to accomplish that on our inspection."

"Inspection?" Chris muffled, swallowing a mouthful of potatos.

"Yes, as the newly appointed Inspector General on behalf of the Government's investment in the Texas penal system, I will leave no stone unturned."

"Every inch, Ezra..." Chris warned, pointing his fork, "...every Goddamn rock... I want details..."

"Understood," Ezra nodded, "My partner will inquire on the spiritual well being of the workers and the inmates."

"You're gonna snoop around the jail, while Josiah sweet talks the guards?" J.D. translated.

"That boy's hanging around you too much, Ezra," Josiah complained.

"What about Hazzard?" J.D. asked and flinched as the fork Chris was holding landing loudly on his plate. For several seconds, he didn't answer.

"We should wire Orrin," Josiah appraised, "meet with him. Could be he knows this guy or how we can snare him."

"Yeah..." Chris agreed, "Haskill wants him as bad as we do. He'll keep us informed."

"He feels responsible," Nathan said, picking up Buck's plate, "He's a good man, I was talking to him this afternoon. He's taking this hard."

"I'm gonna have a word with him," Chris said, draining his whiskey and nodding to the rest.

As he walked towards the sheriff's office, he paused to watch the beautiful sunset unfold. What had Vin said about them?; something about proof that God exists? He smiled thinking on how the sunset reflected on Vin's face. How the tracker's features softened as he drank in the fading day. He stood and watched, as thecrimson and orange sky changed the colors on his face. He recalled the end of another day in Four Corners painfully. A day where his lightning fast draw sent Vin's last hope of freeing himself right off a rooftop.

"Can't clear m'name if I'm dead..." the raspy voice hovered near.

"No," Chis whispered, feeling a slight breeze stir up. "...but I can, Cowboy," he vowed and sealed it with a nod to the burning sky.

Buck shifted uncomfortably in his sleep. He tried to reach Vin... his legs moved in slow motion, chasing his chained friend.

'Bucklin... Bucklin... Bucklin...' the soft drawl was like a knife in his heart... the blue eyes were all around him. He reached out to grab the chains, but his fingers wouldn't reach.

"Vin! No!" he screamed and lurched, only to be caught and righted. He took the water offered and sighed as a cool towel wiped the wet worry pools away.

He took a deep breath and smiled in the dark, as the mystery nurse was revealed. "...hotel full?"

"How'd you know it wasn't Mary?"

"She smells nice..."

"You saying I stink, Buck?"

"...just stating a fact..."

"You're in no position to be pointing fingers. I've met polecats that smell better."

"...pickin' on an invalid... low down... dirty... cuss..." he grunted, coughed and held on as the pain left him breathless and wheezing. The strong arms never left him and he collapsed, allowing them to lower him back into the soft folds of the bed. "...m'okay... go... bed..." he paused and the thought nagged him again. "Chris... go to jail... in morning... Chris..."

"Ezra and Josiah already got that covered," the exhausted guard said firmly, "You know how Ezra loves a good scam, he's playing a prison inspector. We all can't go charging in there..."

"...word..." Buck smacked the darkness until a hand gripped his.

"Promise," Chris vowed, "Now, shut up and get to sleep."

"...won't..." Buck protested, pushing whatever part of the nurse he could hit, "...go... sleep... self..."

"You got any old girlfriends in these parts? I'd sleep better with a warm body to curl up with."

" kiss and... and... tell..." Buck coughed and finally his eyes slid shut.

"Since when? Buck?... Buck?"

Buck peeled an eye open and saw the weary body disappear across the room. Then he heard a scraping sound as the cot was moved. "...hell you doin'?" he gasped.

"...for somebody on death's door, you got a helluva lot of wind. Get to sleep!"

"...was trying... some inconsiderate bastard... mov...moving... furni...ture..." Buck pushed the words out and used all his strength to peel an eye open. The body was prone and already snoring. The sight gave the mustached man a smile, one that went deep down and settled inside. For as the blond man in rumpled black clothes finally left his weary body rest, Buck Wilmington was again reminded of how lucky he was for the knowing of Chris Larabee.

Saturday Morning, Bendix Prison, pre-dawn

"Hell, it ain't even light out yet," Vin complained as Isaac's gentle hand shook him awake.

"Yuh ain't got but fifteen minutes or so," the old man stated, "Get yuh feet movin', Jamie, the guard'll be comin'. They get a full day in and it's a good hour to the mine."

Vin shuffled over to the basin and washed his face, before eating the meal the old man prepared. Bendix, like the other state prisons, was under contract to several companies. The state provided the labor and got revenue in return. Depending on the location of the prison, the industry could be the railroad, cotton or wool mills, large farms, mines or quarries. Bendix currently was under lease to the Lucky Rose Mine and the Rio Grande spur of the railroad. It's owners paid the state for the use of the men and they worked a full twelve hour shift, before returning to the prison afterdark. They split up the duties and switched every two weeks. Vin's light duty would end at the same time he'd be put full time inside the mine.

Bendix was a small prison, in comparision to the others in the state. It's ninety-three inmates were all ages, colors and creeds. The warden ruled with an iron hand, as did the guards under him. Vin had seen the attention to detail that the guards in the yard and tower took. By Friday morning, the aftereffects of the chloroform were gone and Vin was able to limp a few steps without falling. He worked on it all day, gradually building his strength up. By Friday night, he was able to dine in the mess with the other inmates. Trudging over, his mind worked overtime trying to figure out if he'd ever deposited a bounty in this area. Most of the bounties he brought in were northeast of here, but as he entered the barren dining hall, his eagle eyes were on alert. From a quick glance, no faces looked familiar. He took his place in line and kept his expression neutral as the stew and roll were placed on his plate. Isaac warned him to not to rile up the guards, no matter what they did.

Isaac told the guards he would have to rewrap Vin's chest and leg, thereby giving him a few extra minutes of sleep. He knew how exhausted the young man would be upon his return that evening. Dexter Mann was one of the Warden Caleb Stewart's right hand men. He'd been with the prison since it's inception in 1848 and was the captain to which all other guards reported. He'd visited the clinic twice and made his own notes regarding the prisoner's health. Vin was deemed fit enough to report to a cell, upon his return on Saturday night. He agreed to two weeks of light duty at the sight where the railroad tracks were being laid down. He'd assigned Vin with four other injured or elderly prisioners, to unload the supplies, set up the mess tent and prepare the midday meal.

Vin was barely finished his breakfast, when Dexter appeared.

"Let's go Quinn," he barked.

"He'll be right out," Isaac stood and the guard retreated. He turned to his young charge and got his gruff up. "Yuh see to it yuh keep yuh mouth shut. I don't wanna see yuh face in here again."

"I won't ferget what ya did, Isaac," Vin shook the old man's hand, "and I ain't fergettin' what that bastard did either," he noted of the would-be-butcher. "I aim t'make him pay..."

"Yuh got enuf keepin' yuh own self in one piece!" Isaac warned crossly, gripping the boy's shoulders. "Yuh keep outta the sun, yuh still got too much color, make sure yuh drink enuf and yuh mind that leg and them ribs..."

"Thanks Old Man," Vin smiled and patted the caretaker's back and shuffled outside. He was shoved ahead and climbed into the back of one of two large wagons. Each wagon held twenty five men and two armed guards. Eight more rode on horseback, on either side of the wagons. A third wagon carried the supplies and food. Vin was dozing when the wagon jerked to a halt and the man next to him elbowed him. He grunted and rubbed his still healing ribs, shuffling off before the guard found reason to inflict any damage. He waited by the supply wagon, eyeing the others trudging in the still dark morning. Torches stood five feet high, providing light until Dawn decided to rouse herself. The prisoners found their tools and with the guards barking and shoving them, they began yet another long day.

Vin eyed the large tent and carried a box of dried meat inside. The guard gave them their orders and Vin noted that the oldest among the five of them, was in charge. His name was Rusty, for the russet hair now streaked with gray. After getting the boxes inside and the large kettle set up, Vin and a young Mexican boy were given the task of peeling two huge bins of potatoes. The other two men were hauling water to the kettle.

"Damn..." Vin sighed, as he took a seat on an overturned peach crate and picked up the potato peeler.

"Si, Senor," the boy agreed, giving Vin a small grin.

Bendix Prison, ten a.m.

Ezra and Josiah left their horses outside a small adobe building. Josiah eyed the main building, a large t-shape mass that held the inmates. His pale blue eyes shifted and took in several smaller buildings, three towers with armed guards and a large stone wall, topped with barbed wire.

"Don't imagine they get many jailbreaks," he noted as Ezra approached the guard out front.

"Good Morning," Ezra smoothed, "I'm Martin LaPointe and this is the Reverend Daniel Banner. Would it be possible to see the warden?"

"What for?" the guard asked, spitting a large wad of tobacco.

"Charming habit," Ezra muttered, moving his polished boot just in time, "I'm from the Federal Government. I have been tasked to inspect this facility and introduce my findings to a Congressional panel for future funding purposes. My compatriot is a minister of spiritual needs. He is to ascertain that the workers and residents are provided with enlightened guidance."

"Hold on," the surly guard replied and got up. Several minutes later, a tall, lean man with coal black hair and a pencil thin mustached appeared. His standing and posturing bespoke a military background.

"I didn't get any paperwork," he issued, keeping his hands behind his back, "I usually get advance notice."

"Thereby dismissing the notion of how the facility is truly run. What is the point of an inspection, if one has time to cover up their shortcomings?" Ezra squinted, shielding his eyes from the sun. "Might I recommend we continue this discussion inside, with a beverage of choice?"

"My apologies," the warden stepped aside, "Gentlemen," he waved his hand, "How is Superintendent Griscom?"

"I wouldn't know," Ezra drilled without blinking, "I've never heard of him. As I am sure you are aware, James Rusk is the Superintendent of the Texas State Penitentiaries. Of the three field directors that work under him, my jurisdiction is within this territory. My report will be forwarded to..."

"That will be satisfactory," the warden interrupted, "You passed, I'm sure you have credentials?" He waited while the smartly dressed young man produced a thin leather wallet. He took the paper that was handed to him and scanned it. "Yeah... your legit..." he handed back the document and walked over to a table. "Whiskey, Scotch, Wine..."

"Not while we're on duty," Ezra denied, "Thank you, lemonade will suffice."

A half-hour later, the pair split up. It was just after the warden went over the rules and regulations and showed them a map of the buidings on the property. Each was assigned a guard to escort him, and they'd meet back at the warden's house at one p.m. for lunch. With a nod and tip of his hat, Ezra headed for the prison, while Josiah headed for the infirmary.

"Nobody's here..." Josiah said, as the guard unlocked the door.

"The Doc only comes out twice week, in the middle and on Sunday. Isaac's the guy who runs this place. The old man does a good job, considering what he has to work with. He's in town getting supplies."

Josiah walked around the clean clinic and eyed the empty cots. "Strange that a prison this big wouldn't have any sick bodies in here..."

"Had a couple earlier this week, one died," he chuckled, "hell, he hardly had time to take up room on the cot."

"That right?" Josiah kept his face even as they left. "Fight in the prison?" he fished.

"Nah... come in with a fever... barely alive... don't know why they toted him from Langston..." he muttered, "Shame you came out here during the day, all the prisoners are out on farms."

"Farms?" Josiah paused, eyeing the rows of rough-hewn crosses.

"Yeah, work details... every prison is leased out... we split between the Lucky Rose Mine and the new railroad line. They'll be back after dark..."

"Is that where he's buried," Josiah's tone was somber as his eyes scanned theuneven lettering on the crosses.


"The prisoner who died..."

"Oh... yeah... Tanner..."

Josiah was in back of the guard, who didn't see the large man flinch and grip the cross on his neck.

"You know anything about him?" Josiah asked as the guard stopped in front of the new grave. The preacher's blue eyes took in the eight letters and his heart ached. Eight letters... did that sum up a man's worth? In the short time he'd known the Texan, he'd only begun to appreciate what a deep soul Vin Tanner was.

"Why you askin'?" the guard's voice was suspicious.

"I'd like to say a prayer over the grave. Be a little easier if I knew who I was speaking about."

"I saw him... I was in that tower when they brung him in." He pointed to the tower twenty feet away.

"Anything you remember would help... Young or old..."

"Young kid... long hair... lean... face was all red..." he shrugged, "Isaac was busy, so they called me and Ray," he nodded to the man in the tower, "to wrap him up and put him in the hole. Isaac got upset and finished covering him up. He prayed over the kid too. Creepy, you know..." the guard flinched.

"How's that," Josiah whispered, trying hard to keep his mask in place.

"His eyes were open... big and blue as the summer sky... gave me a chill..." He recalled and saw the gray-haired preacher drop his head. "I'll be by the tower when you're ready.

Josiah blew a long breath and knelt down. He gripped the crude cross over Vin's grave with one hand and the one around his neck with the other "Goodbye Old Friend, I'll miss you." His voice clenched and he bowed his head. "The Lord is my shepherd..."

Ezra was just exiting the supply building and heading for the main entrance of the prison, when he saw Josiah in the distance. The fact he was kneeling in front of a cross, disheartened him a bit. To get the wire with words on paper was one thing. But being in the company of Vin Tanner's final resting place, was something else.

"Might I suggest we finish with the outer buildings?" Ezra noted of the clinic, which was next to Josiah. "Then we can proceed to the prison." He flipped a page over on the ledger he carried and began to write.

"Sure... don't make no nevermind to me..." the guard replied and walked ahead.

Ezra paused as he came abreast of Josiah. The man-of-the-cloth was only five feet to his left. He knew before the head rose, he could tell by the catch in the somber man's voice as he concluded the 23rd Psalm. Josiah's head rose and their eyes locked. Is was then Ezra saw the crooked lettering, spelling out Vin's name. He asked the question with his pale green eyes wide and numb; the answer came from pale blues ones that disappeared into a clench as the head dipped once, hitting the broad Sanchez chest. Ezra didn't realize he'd gasped aloud, until the guard turned back.

"You okay?"

"My apologies," he recovered, "I seemed to have something caught in my throat."

Josiah stood and moved past Ezra, resting a hand briefly on his shoulder. Ezra took a deep breath, got his feelings under control and proceeded into the clinic. He didn't even know the words he wrote or the dull voice of the guard. He only saw the sharpshooter's mischievous smile and those damned blue eyes.

Saturday evening, Bendix Prison.

Despite the exhaustion from the long day in the intense heat, Vin couldn't sleep. He was sitting sideways on the bunk in the small cell that was his new home. It was about six feet by four feet with a bunk, blanket and bucket. Vin peeled off his shirt, which was sweat-laden and clinging to him like an unwelcomed second skin. He eased back against the stone wall and watched a mouse scurrying across the floor. The small brown creature disappeared through the bars and to freedom.

Oh that it should be that easy. Although the faces he'd studied at lunch, while dishing out the grub were unfamiliar, he'd seen some in the dining hall at dinner that were. One he was certain he dumped off in Amarillo and two more that he was sure were from a couple years ago, were bank robbers. He sighed and ran a weary hand through his tangled hair. He regarded the mouse again and wondered how to get a message to his friends. He saw some of the prisoner's writing at lunch. Miguel, the kid with a busted leg who he was paired with, said they take the prisoner's mail to town once every two weeks.

"How the hell can this get any worse?" he sighed, his eyes catching a sliver of silver moon through the tiny slit in the wall. He couldn't write... so the letter wasn't any help... or was it? He furrowed his brow and nodded. Pictures were as good as words... maybe he could get Isaac to address it. Granted it took a couple weeks for mail to get delivered into the next territory, but as long as the judge didn't sentence him to hang, there was hope. He curled up on the bunk and flicked a large water bug that skittered from the waist of his pants. His heavy eyes caught the silvery moon and he wondered how Buck was doing. The mustached marshal's face was the last image he had, as he drifted off to sleep.

Salt Flats, late Monday evening

Buck watched the door close and sighed in contentment. Having so many people to care for you was a blessing and a curse. Sometimes, a man just wanted to be alone. Eddie moved him to the cot across the room, so they could clean the mattress of the one he'd been parked on all week. Mary had asked Chris to do it in the morning, but Buck was so uncomfortable, that the deputy did it ahead of time.

Buck eyed the saloon across the street, the torch lights gave the area a golden glow. He closed his eyes as a small breeze blew in and he took a deep breath. He was propped up on a bank of pillows and feeling stronger each day. He used both hands to lift the mug of apple cider and took a long sip. His eyes caught the remnants of the dinner he'd eaten, roast beef, potatos, corn and peach pie. He'd finished every bit and two cups of coffee as well. Now it felt a bit sour, as the thought of the tiny cell his friend was occupying somewhere in the distance, entered his brain. Getting well as quickly as possible was his new goal. His motivation had Nathan smiling and Mary finally not wrought with worry. The sooner he was on his feet, the sooner he could find that bastard who set up Vin Tanner. His face darkened every time he thought of Spencer Hazzard. He'd driven Chris right out of the room yesterday, harping on the lack of a wire from Ezra and Josiah. J.D. kept saying no news is good news... but Buck wondered. Something still nagged at his insides and he was afraid to study it too closely.

Despite the animated conversation that J.D. and Nathan provided, he knew his oldest friend too well. Chris had been a wall of support, helping him with his physical and emotional healing. The leg cramps that came in the night, were silenced by two hands that kneaded out the knots. The same hands helped him dress and steadied him as he stood up for the first time. But Chris couldn't hide from him and despite his dry comments and barbs, Buck knew he was in pain. The whinny of a horse and the clamor of hooves drew his heavy eyes open. He sat up with a start when he saw Ezra's red coat. He watched the two weary men from behind, only able to see their backs. He could see Nathan clearly, but J.D was obscured. Chris wasn't there... or at least not in plain sight.

"Well?" Chris asked, stirring from the shadows to where he'd disappeared to after dinner.

He came close enough for the torch's to send a garish cast on the features of the riders. Their silence was deafening. He closed his eyes and gripped the hitching post hard. He felt a large hand on his shoulder and stared at Josiah's somber face.

"You made sure?" the leader's voice had a small tinge of hope left.

"I'm sorry, Chris," Josiah replied, "I spoke with the guard who buried him. He described Vin to the letter. He never woke up... didn't suffer... he slept away."

"Is that supposed to be a fuckin' consolation prize?" Chris snapped, jerking free.

The others watched as a myriad of emotions played on Chris Larabee's face. Finally the heaving chest paused and the head rose.

"What now?" Nathan asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence.

"Tonight we say goodbye to Vin..." Chris sighed deeply. He ran his hand through his damp blond hair and rubbed his throbbing eyes. Then he pulled his head up and looked at the horizon, green eyes glowing. "...and tomorrow we plan Armegeddon... that bastard's gonna pay." He curled his lip up in disgust, "he fucked with wrong cowboy."

"Saloon?" Josiah nodded his head.

"You go ahead," Chris's andrenalin dropped and he suddenly felt very tired. The weariness that only comes from vanquished hope. "Ezra, rattle the clown behind the bar and get something I'm gonna regret in the morning."

"Not to worry," Ezra produced an expensive bottle from his saddle bag.

"Where the hell did you get that?" Josiah astonished, eyeing the label.

"Kentucky Sipping Whiskey?"

"The good warden was only too generous in his concern for the long ride back to the capitol." Ezra's gold tooth glinted and gave the group some sad smiles.

"One for Vin, huh?" Chris smiled sadly, thinking on how the tracker got such a kick out of Ezra.

"Yer a weasel, Ez..." J.D. mimicked the sharpshooter perfectly and ducked as Ezra clapped him with his hat. The others disappeared into the saloon and Chris eyed the deserted street. He spotted the small line of barrels by the clinic and ambled over. He sat down and pulled the beat up silver harmonica from his breast pocket. He caressed it gently, smiling as he recalled the woeful notes Vin produced and the sly grin that went with them.

"Vin..." he hushed, stroking the metal. He spent several minutes thinking of all the things in his life that changed with the Texan's arrival. Although he'd grieve and a part of him would always be empty, he felt a peace inside. The dull pain of the loss of Tanner would always be with him, but so would something else. Something warm and good, clean and true. An intangible ingredient that filled his soul and made him whole. The anger, hostility and unbridled rage that accompanied his other losses, friends during the war and his wife and child, was gone. That was it... that was Vin's eternal gift. He didn't know the word for it... and struggled hard to find the right one. Suddenly it was as clear as the summer sky and he nodded. He cast his face to the starfield above and smiled.

"Thanks, Cowboy..." he murmured and put the harmonica to his lips.

Buck was dozing as the song floated through the window. He breathed in the sad familiar melody and it haunting tone caused him to shiver and waken. For several minutes he didn't dare move, afraid the stirring song would end. He sat up and looked outside, just as melody ended too abruptly, as if chopped in half by an angry blade. He jerked at the raw action and then he saw it. Triple hints of silver against the dark, brooding night. The glint of Vin Tanner's beloved harmonica reflected in the moonlight, along with the shimmering eyes of Chris Larabee. His head moved and he noticed that the others were gone. Chris thought he was alone... but Buck saw the brief flicker of pure agony as the blond's face wrinkled up and he rocked, pressing the harmonica to his chest. Then with one audible gasp, he straightened up and stood. His eyes struck the window... and sent a shock wave through Buck Wilmington.

Chris took one look at Buck's face and moved his lips, but no words would come. The intent hovered and pressed, but Chris didn't force any false verbs. For a frozen moment in time, they shared the numbing pain, then Buck turned away and Chris went through the door.

"Did you guys hear that?" J.D. asked, tapping his empty glass.

"...a harmonica..." Ezra's voice was distant and he eyed the dark profile, barely visible, across the street.

"Not just any harmonica," Nathan added, standing and taking his empty glass.

"No," Josiah agreed, rising and clapping Ezra's shoulder, "Brother Vin's."

"Gentlemen..." Ezra rose and took the bottle, as they watched Chris enter the clinic.

"Vin never made it sound that good," J.D. whispered, "That song always makes me sad..."

"Mournful..." Nathan agreed, shivered at the memory of the lingering, moving notes.

Chris found Buck on the floor, sitting with his back against an orange crate. Without a word, he slipped down and sat next him. A single tear had already run haphazard down the pale face and hung unsteadily from the handsome man's jaw. For several seconds, neither said a word, then Buck turned to him and held out his hand.

"I'd like to finish it," he rasped, taking a shuddering breath.

Chris nodded and handed over the silver mouth organ. Buck took another breath and lifted it to his lips, but no notes would come. Chris saw how hard he was struggling and leaned over.

"Hell, Buck," he teased, "even Vin could make sorry-assed sounds come out of that thing. You gonna let Tanner show you up?"

"Hell..." Buck gasped and took another shuddering breath... "Hell no..." he coughed. He raised the musical instrument then paused and turned to Chris.

"Did they hang him, Chris?"

Chris winced visibly at the agony hanging on every Wilmington word. He rested his hand on the slumped shoulder and gave a small squeeze. Buck, like the others, knew Vin dispised the notion of being strung up. "No," he whispered, "...he went to sleep and never woke up..." he barely managed to finish.

"That boy did love his naps..." Buck teased as his eyes filled up again. He raised them towards the window and bit his lip. "This is for you, Vin... from Bu... Buc..." he took a deep breath, "from Bucklin... Thanks, Slick..."

Chris jerked at the catch in the word that had meant so much to Buck and in the end, had become his salvation. Vin's last gift to Buck, his deliverance back to the fold. Then he watched Buck close the moist blue eyes and lift the harmonica. The final refrain was sweet and moved the blond deeply. He heard footsteps and noticed the others enter and take a place on the floor. The circle they formed was nearly complete. As the final moving note of Amazing Grace ended, Buck laid the harmonica next to him, in the spot where Vin should be... would always be... completing the seven.

"A befitting testimonial," Ezra noted of the Larabee song, "To Mr. Tanner..." he broke the seal and took a swig, then passed the bottle to Buck.

"Tonight I mourn a good friend... and I'm proud..." the injured man paused and gulped air, then took a long draw from the bottle. "Tomorrow, I'll carry on his name and see justice done."

"Amen!" Josiah said, taking the bottle and tapping the harmonica.

Part 17

"Good Lord!" Mary wrinkled her face up and covered her nose. It was a smell unique to drunken males the morning after. The fancy talking gambler was sleeping on a cot, the other three were on the floor. She shook her head and stepped over the youngest and winced.

"That boy is gonna be as sick as a dog," she muttered and began to open the windows. She poured a fresh basin of water and made her way over to her patient. Much to her surprise, he was up, bathed, shaved and in clean clothes. When he turned his gaze from the window, she had a sinking feeling the pained expression was not due to a hangover. She sat the basin down, took a seat on the edge of the cot and took his hand. His head rose slowly and he swallowed hard. Her voice caught and she bit her lip. She rested her free hand against his face and then drew him forward into an embrace. She clenched her eyes at his long expulsion of air and ran her fingers through his dark hair.

"I'm sorry, Son... I'm so awful sorry..." Mary held on a minute, then pulled him forward and eased him back onto the wall of pillows. She brushed the stray lock of dark hair from his eyes and he caught her hand and kissed it.

"Mary, I just want you to know..."

"You hush up, Handsome," she whispered, wiping her eyes. "...and you see to it that boy stays here..." she tapped his chest.

"Yeah..." he rasped as a loud groan was heard. He chuckled softly when Mary rolled her eyes and grimaced.

"I'm warning the lot of you, you throw it up and you clean it up... and I like a sparkling floor."

"Mornin' to you too, Mary," Josiah managed, through red and blue slits. He stood up and wobbled briefly, before pulling Nathan up.

"Take that boy outside," she pointed to J.D., "he's turning a pretty shade of green. Once he's done... he can rest on that cot. I'll make some tea for him..." she paused and eyed the motley group. "Did someone check that pretty fella and make sure he's still breathing?"

"Ezra?" Nathan croaked with bleary eyes. "He'll live to bury all of us, mark my words. Ezra!"

"Mr. Jackson," a pained, muffled southern drawl fought forth, "if you insist on shouting like a common ruffian, I shall be forced to resort to underhanded tactics."

"Hell, Ez, you do that every day," Buck replied and smiled at the rare sight of a totally unkempt Standish.

"Hey, isn't there a body missing?" Mary mused, not seeing the blond who hadn't left his sick friend's side.

"He's gone..." Buck whispered, thinking on the silent ministrations Chris managed before he left. Chris woke him up and got him cleaned up and dressed before heading out. Not a word was exchanged, until he got to the door.

"Gone where?" Nathan yawned and patted J.D.'s leg.

"He went to say goodbye..." Buck recalled of the brief set of words. 'Got some business with Vin.' was all he'd said. Then with a nod, before the sun was up, he was gone.

"Might be a few days before we see him again." Josiah added. "J.D., you okay down there?"

J.D. managed to pull himself up to his knees, using the rim of Buck's cot for leverage. Buck winced at the greenish-gray face and the bloodshot eyes trying to focus.

"'ey Kid... you look like shit warmed over..." Buck teased, then his face fell, "Somebody get a bucket... dammit I just got cleaned up..."

"Come on, J.D.," Nathan grabbed one arm and Josiah the other and they hustled the gagging youth outside.

Bendix Prison, sunset

"Hold it right there, Mister!"

Chris flicked a disconcerned gaze at the sentry who was aiming a rifle at his chest. He leaned over the saddlehorn, shoved his hat back and wiped his hot face with a kerchief. He didn't miss the long wall of barbed wire or the guards on the towers that also had their guns trained on him.

"Evenin'" he said quietly, "My Ma got a wire from the state saying my brother's buried here."



"Hold on..."

Chris took a long draw from his canteen and doused his head liberally with water. He arched his back and winced as his age and too many hours in the saddle caught up with him.

"Okay," the returning guard said, opening opening the gate. "...cemetary's on the left, next to the infirmary. You got the wire with you?"

"No, I don't have it with me," Chris spat, his eyes hot, "My mother's heart's shattered in a hundred pieces; her baby boy is planted in a rock garden. How shortsighted of me not to bring the fuckin' wire!"

"Yeah, well..." The guard shifted his feet and relented,"You leave the holster here and pick it up on the way out."

"I don't think so," the clipped response came.

"You leave it or you don't get in," the guard snapped back, although the figure in black was intimidating. "We got rules here..."

"I got rules too," Chris said slowly, moving Diablo closer to the entrance. He narrowed his eyes and leaned over, the setting sun his face gave him a glowing sneer, "...and one of them is staying alive." He gazed at the armed guards in the tower and then cocked his head at the flustered guard before him. "Now if you'd kindly get the fuck out of my way, I'd like to pay my last respects to my brother."

Chris led Vin's majestic horse to the trough and rested a hand on the sleek, black neck. He slid his hand in the saddle bag and got the bottle and glass out. He secured the horse and walked slowly to the cemetary. He pulled his hat off and eyed the terrain, before spotting the grave that was newer than the rest. He sucked in a breath through his gritted teeth and let his heavy legs carry him forth. He stood for a moment and shook his head at the irony. It was sunset again, and somewhere Vin was smiling. He sat down and drew his knees up, resting the bottle between his boots. He traced the crooked letters and felt the pain flare.

"Fuckin' vultures," he growled, eyeing the three guards who hovered like expectant fathers.

He eyed the small amount of whiskey left in the bottle. He poured a shot and sat it in front of the cross. He tapped the glass with the bottle and fingered the label.

"Kentucky's finest..." he murmured, "You know Ezra don't do nothing second class." He paused and lifted the bottle, licking his lips, "I miss you, Cowboy... " he managed and drained the amber fluid. He pulled out the harmonica and played random notes, before settling on 'The Streets of Laredo'. He finished with a sigh and sat in silence for a long time, his arms draped on his knees. The sun went down and he heard the sound of boots crunching. He wore the darkness like a cape and enjoyed it's power.

"Time's up, Mister, let's go..." a gruff voice ordered and a hand grabbed his arm.

"Don't fuckin' touch me..." Chris hissed and jerked free. He stood and glared until the guard backed away a few feet and waited. Chris stared at the spot where the letters were and nodded.

"Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge..." he seethed, "shall in these confines with a monarch's voice, cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war..." he snarled, clenching his right fist and sending his vow heavenward with eyes cast high.

"...kinda fancy talk," the guard cocked up his head, "you write that?"

"Friend of mine," Chris eased onto the saddle, "...a writer named Will," he imparted, replacing his hat.

"Writer huh?" the guard kept his gun trained on the somber figure as they approached the gate, "... must be from back east somewheres."

"Must be," Chris chuckled under his breath, almost hearing Vin snickering. He'd sometimes read passages of the world famous author's works, usually on a dark night by the fire. Vin enjoyed hearing the words and had an uncanny ability to absorb the intent. "...way back east," he thought on Shakespeare's birthplace in England.

"Hold it," a voice from the tower above beckoned, "Wagon's are here... he'll have to use the south gate."

"Yeah, okay," the guard on the ground replied, as the gate opened and the convicts returned. "Let's go, Mister," he waited until the fine black horse turned and moved the visitor in the other direction.

"Darling, we're home..."

A surly voice carried on a sour breath assaulted him, it's noxious odor woke him up. A beefy hand grabbed his face and squeezed it hard. He eyed the dirty face under the flickering light by the east entrance to the prisoner's quarters and scowled.

"Hey, Marty," the leering voice called and a second guard appeared. "Ain't he pretty when he gets riled up. I'd bet he's got a sweet little ass..."

"Not a whole lot ya could do about it," Vin growled, jerking free and jumping out of the wagon. He bit his lip as the pain shot up through his still healing leg and ribs. "...ya fuckin' ball less wonder."

"You ain't got many ribs holding your air in now, Quinn," the guard shoved Vin hard against the side of the wagon, pressing the prisoner's face into the wood.

Vin flinched as his ribs protested and stiffened as the guard's rifle rose up his inseam. The odorous beast pressed against him and the smell nearly knocked the smaller man off his feet. The hot breath was against the back of his neck.

"You best keep that mouth of yours shut, Pretty Boy," the guard warned, jerking Vin's hair back, "You got hair like a girl, I can use you like one..."

"Ford, what's the problem here?"

"Shit," the voice in his ear panicked and Vin felt the bear move away. He slid to his knees and gulped air gratefully. He slumped to the ground, every inch of his body throbbing. He eyed the dark-haired man in an immaculate navy suit and looked away.

"No problem, Sir," the guard stood at attention, rifle at his side. "Well if there is no problem, Ford," he spat, "Why is this prisoner on the ground?"

"He was out of line, Sir."

"Really?" the warden mocked, "That's not how I saw it. Pick up your pay, you're through. You've been warned about your conduct."

Vin's eyes widened in shock and he felt the other guard move forward and lift him up. The man in charge approached and eyed him carefully.

"You're new, Quinn isn't it?"

"Yeah... Jamie Quinn," Vin gasped, bending forward slightly.

"Unfortunately, Dr. Burke has left already. However, if you seek medical assistance, perhaps Isaac can help you."

"Reckon m'ribs need wrappin'," Vin decided, his mind lingering on getting the old man alone. "...and just so's ya know," Vin hissed, as the pain stabbed his side, "that ain't no doctor. I wouldn't let him operate on a fuckin' mouse. He's a damn drunk... he damn near killed me..."

"I am aware the Doctor Burke has his shortcomings, however, he is an adequate surgeon and has served us well here."

"Hah," Vin scoffed, shaking his head, "Ya mean ya can't get nobody else t'work here. Ain't we the lucky bunch."

"Mr. Quinn, I'll accept your insolence tonight, as you're obviously in pain and not yourself. But don't make the mistake of backtalking me again, or you'll pay. Smith, get him to the infirmary, then after Isaac's done, take him to his cell."

"Don't I get to eat?" Vin protested.

"No, Mr. Quinn," The warden's voice was brusk, "Let that be a lesson to you. Smith, you know what to do."

"Yes Sir," The guard nodded, "Let's go, Kid..."

Isaac looked up from his book, when the door opened. His smile faded, when he saw the visitor clutching his chest.

"Didn't I tell yuh not to sass back?" he whispered, helping Vin onto a cot. "Here, let me get yuh shirt off. I'll rub some liniment on them bruises and wrap yuh good. How's yuh leg?"

Vin's brow furrowed and he eyed the guard three feet away. "...s'okay..." he hissed as the gnarled fingers rubbed salve into his chest. He saw the dark healer's eyes shifting several times to where the guard stood. "Can ya get a letter outta here fer me, Isaac?" Vin whispered as the old man bent near. He saw the head bob and sighed. "I ain't got nuthin' t'write..."

"Yuh want sumthin fuh that pain, boy?" Isaac interrupted as the guard strolled over.

"That's..." Vin was about to refuse the drug, when he saw the anxious eyes on him. "uh... a real good idea, Isaac."

Isaac returned with a burlap bag and rested it next to Vin's leg on the cot. The guard moved away, to give the old man room. The healer handed Vin a glass of water and added a few drops of painkiller. "Yuh best drink up, this might smart," he warned, picking up the bandages.

Smart was a poor choice of words, Vin thought, as the new linen strips were bound around him. He was glad for the mild sedative, he'd need it later. Isaac helped him on with his shirt and buttoned it up. He frowned as the old man turned sideways and slid a bulky cloth into the baggy shirt Vin wore. Vin nodded and tapped the old man's arm in appreciation.

"Yuh watch out fuh the doorways, now," Isaac warned, helping Vin down. "Yuh come back on Saturday and I'll fix 'em again."

"Okay," Vin nodded, understanding the double meaning. He kept his body bent forward, protected his cargo. Later, when it was dark and he was alone in his cell, he opened the cloth. A half sandwich and a piece of spice cake were inside, along with two folded pieces of paper and a small stub of a pencil. Vin wolfed the food down, using the last of his mug of water to wash down his meager meal. He realized it must have been the old man's supper. He thought on the next day's schedule. After preparing the food for the midday meal, he would be taking the cart bearing a barrel of water down the rail line, giving the workers a drink. There was a brief period, when he was tied in the back of the wagon, while the guard drove it back to the mess tent. It would only be about a half-hour, but it would have to do. He gently folded the two precious pieces of paper and the small lead stub and tucked it under his mattress. The painkiller kicked in and his heavy eyes slid shut, the same time as his head hit the cot.

Saturday Morning, Bendix Prison

"Ten minutes, Quinn," the guard warned, shoving Vin forward. Vin stumbled, but righted himself as he shuffled into the clinic. He eyed the empty room and cocked his head.


"How yuh feelin' Jamie?"

"...not bad..." Vin paused, "only hurts when I laugh."

"Come on over," Isaac patted the stool and eyed the guard who was reading the paper in the doorway. He took the folded paper from the anxious blue-eyed boy and nodded.

"I need ya to write fer me..I can't do any scribin'..."

"Shoot..." Isaac said, pulling a worn envelope from his pocket. He copied the name and address and nodded. "Anything else?"

"Yeah..." Vin whispered, pointing to the front of the first paper.

"That it?" Isaac frowned, not understanding the cryptic message. "This fella gonna understand?"

"Loud and clear!" Vin sighed, his hopes rising the a new dawn. "Thanks Isaac. I really owe ya fer this."

Two weeks later, Salt Flats, Tx

Buck stood and let his eyes roam over the empty clinic. He twirled his hat on his hand and took in a deep sigh. Although he was still building his strength back and plagued with headaches from the serious head wound, it was time to go home. He bit his lip and eyed the doorway, still seeing Vin being taken away in chains. A bittersweet parting, the road to Four Corners was the healing road, but this was his last link to Vin Tanner.

"You alright?"

"Yeah," Buck nodded, eyeing his oldest friend. He didin't know if he'd have gotten throught these last few weeks, without the strength of Chris Larabee.

"I think so, Chris."

"Good." Chris nodded, knowing Buck still had some healing to do. He moved aside and let Mary enter the room. "I'll be outside," he called out and left the two alone.

"Well I guess this is goodbye, Handsome," Mary said reaching out and grasping both of his hands. "Lord, but you're a tall one..."

"If you let me outta bed sooner, you'd have seen that," he teased, embracing the strong widow. "Mary... I can't thank you enough. I wouldn't have survived without you... You're a helluva woman..."

"Hmmph!" she pulled back and rested a hand on his face, "You're a sweet-talking devil, Buck Wilmington. Lord, but I'm gonna miss you..."

"The offer still stands, Mary," Buck smiled, kissing her forehead, "Make an honest man out of a me?"

"You couldn't keep up with me, Son." Mary raised an eyebrow and drank in the sound of a deep laugh. "Now you listen to me," she said firmly, gripping his face, "I got you on them feet of yours, don't you put any more dents in that hard head, or you'll answer to me!"

"Yes, Ma'am..." Buck saluted and led her outside. "Goodbye, Mary..."

"Goodbye, Marshal," she hushed, tapping his chest, "...remember..."

"Always," he whispered, thinking of Vin. He climbed onto his horse and followed his friends on the road home. He counted twice and winced, causing a blond face to appear on his right flank.

"Buck?" Chris saw the wince and held his hand up, halting the progess. "I always hated the number six," Buck lamented, urging his horse into a slow trot.

Two weeks later, Four Corners

Josiah put the last crate into the wagon and pulled a tarp over the top, covering the material. He glanced across the street and saw Buck and J.D. strolling towards the saloon. He glanced at the horizon and then walked to the saloon. It was still early and the room was nearly empty. J.D. nodded to him as he entered. The youthful sheriff was carrying two plates toward the table where Buck sat. He caught J.D.'s eye and the dark head shook negatively. Josiah frowned and took a seat.


"Hey, Josiah." Buck took a sip of his coffee and picked up half of the breakfast sandwich Inez made. He shoved the plate at the preacher, and got a nod. "Go on... I'm good." he noted and took a bite.

"How you doing, Buck?"

"I'm okay, Josiah," Buck answered, but knew the minister wasn't convinced.

The first few days back had been too busy. The residents of town meant well, but the endless questions about his adventure, health and inevitably the shushing sounds that followed 'poor Vin'. Poor Vin... he rubbed his neck and recalled Chris Larabee packing up the tracker's things the day before. The wagon was empty now, a dusty memorial to the missing peacekeeper. He jumped slightly when a hand touched his shoulder.

"'bout time you got to earning your keep around here." Josiah stated and saw the head rise. "How about lending a hand out at the school?"

Buck considered the invite and thought on his spiritual friend. Maybe Josiah could help him answer the nagging question that lingered. The one that kept him up at night and but a frown on his face. He nodded and pushed away from the table.

"See at ya at lunch, Kid." He smiled wanely, clapping J.D.'s shoulder. He was proud of J.D. and had told him so. Chris related how well the youth had taken the initial news of his death. It was a comfort to him, knowing he'd had a hand in helping the young man to mature. "Don't get into any trouble."

"I'm going on patrol with Ezra," J.D. smirked, "What could happen?"

"It's a good thing Nate restocked his bandages," Buck teased, draining his coffee.

"Ye of little faith," J.D. crowed, catching Josiah's eye and nodding. He was glad Buck was getting out of town for a few hours. Josiah was a good man to talk to, he had a way of applying the right bait to allow you to release a problem. Every bobbing head across the boardwalk, every whisper behind a gloved hand and then the glances in the saloon; these were all wearing on the mustached man.

Josiah did most of the work, keeping the healing patient in the shade. The preacher was on a ladder, putting the final touches on the roof to the school in place. Buck was below, handing him tools and studying the designs. Josiah squinted down and saw the dark blue eyes narrowed and the head fall. With a sigh, he climbed down, grabbed his canteen and took a seat on the grass next to the pondering rogue.

"Sure will be nice to hear them laughing."

"Huh?" Buck blinked, tossing a pebble.

"The children... like angels singing... when the laugh." He smiled, "I never get tired of hearing it, it's good for the soul."

"Speaking of souls," Buck hesitated, "I've been thinking about Vin."

"No kidding..." Josiah's mock-shock tone gave the other man a weak smile.

"He... I can't understand why... all the suffering he went through." Buck sat back and looked at the sky, reminded of the tracker's eyes. "When he was a kid, when the Calvary took him from the Kiowa's, during the war, running from the law... why let him survive that? He was finally smiling again... it's not fair..."

Josiah waited, seeing the anger flashing in Buck's eyes. "You believe in fate, Buck?"

"Fate?" Buck scoffed, "Like the day you're going out is marked in the book when you're born?"

"Sort of..." Josiah nodded, "Tell me about Chris."

"What about him?" Buck asked, not understanding the question fully. "He's a good friend, he's got a wild side in him, but he's honest, more than fair, he's... Josiah, what are you driving at?" Buck exasperated.

"You've known him longer than any of us, Buck. You've watched him these last few weeks. I saw him in the dark days when we thought we lost both of you. What's different this time?"

"Different?" Buck frowned, "I don't..." he quizzed, then his face fell. He jerked his head up and stared hard at Josiah, before looking at the newly constructed school house. He licked his lips and thought hard and long before he spoke. "You mean different than Sarah and Adam?"

"Yes and no... two different kinds of pain, but the aftershock is the same. You're the only one whose been through it before. What's different?"

"He's grieving." Buck nodded, "...quietly... somberly... deeper uh... more mature?"

"That might be the answer you seek."

"...answer..." Buck asked himself and took a drink of water. "...Vin left something... with Chris?" He turned and saw the graying man's profile. "Is that what you're driving at?" He thought for a moment and suddenly heard the song that Chris played in the dark of night. The melody that caressed his ear through the clinic window and whispered the mortal news.

"...Amazing... Grace... grace... grace?" he turned to Josiah and saw the head dip once. "You're trying to tell me that Vin had to die to give Chris peace?

Bullshit!" Buck jumped up, angry and pacing. "That's crazy. You're saying what?... that God somehow brought Vin to Chris? That Vin's some kind of fucked-up angel."

"You trying to convince me," Josiah rose, "...or yourself? God moves in mysterious ways, Buck. If Vin didn't pick up that rifle and spark something in Chris that morning... and you didn't meet Chris again..."

"So, Vin... so God... Fate... used Vin to bring Chris and me back together?

Christ, Josiah, that's an awful load to bear. I'd rather skip that episode if it brought him back."

"Then Nathan and Chris would most likely be dead. Would that be better?" He asked, "Vin saved Nate's life... and you can't deny the influence he had on Chris."

"...gave him a light inside again..." Buck murmured, in a strange faraway voice.

"Yeah... helped him find his soul again. That's the difference, that peace you referred to. Chris has that now and Vin did that for him. That's why he's not the dark, angry killer you saw after his other losses."

"Maybe... aw, hell, Josiah, I don't know... " Buck picked up a paintbrush and headed toward the buckets of whitewash. He felt the other man flank him a few minutes later and paused, eyeing the neat white line of paint.

"... changed me too... being with Chris again. I didn't realize how much I lost when I left him. In the desert, I thought I was dying. I felt like I was deserting him again. It hurt..."

"That's Vin too... somewhere..." Josiah eyed the sky, "he's sleeping in peace, knowing you and Chris have each other. Each of you has the best part of Vin. That was his gift..."

Vin dumped another wheelbarrow full of ore into the large pile by the wagon.

He wiped his face and walked to the barrel where the water was. He took a long drink and spilled the next mug over his head. He picked up the wheelbarrow and headed back inside. He wondered on the letter... he'd been scratching notches on the wall in his cell. It was a lot of lines and had been past three weekends already. If the letter found it's mark... they'd be here soon. That was the hope that carried him through the day. They had to come... he'd never survive ten years in here. He still felt the pain of those words when the judge read them. He'd gotten into two scuffles already with Zac Tyler, a bank robber he'd deposited in jail a year ago. He recognized several others as well, and felt their eyes on him, just waiting for the guards to leave. He left he wheelbarrow up the shaft and went back to get a pick. He tiptoed with great care, as Tyler's hushed voice cascaded around the corner.

"...all set... we go... night... I got plenty of dynamite stashed... never... hit 'em... blow... uckers... kingdom come... freedom..."

He heard footsteps and slid back to the wheelbarrow, putting the broken pieces of the clues together. His mind told him that since Friday was approaching and that was the day they had fewer men and guards, that would be the best time for an escape. What were they blowing up? The mine...too dangerous...the mess tent? Maybe. There was a small window when only one armed guard was outside the mine, while the others were in the mess, due to the men being in there for the midday meal. He sighed and heard the guard barking. He pushed the wagon ahead and kept on alert.

That night in Four Corners

Ezra, J.D., Nathan and Josiah were playing cards. Chris was nursing a beer and Buck was moping. He'd been thinking on Josiah's words all day and something else was gnawing at him.

Chris sighed and watched Buck's face change again. It went from depressed to staid and back to depressed again. He stood and ambled over, planting himself next to the brooding figure.


"'ey, Chris..."

"Spit it out, Buck." Chris pressed, "What's eating you?"

"I busted my promise."


"To Vin..."

Chris jerked his head and saw the game next to them go silent, as Buck's voice scattered the cards. They closed ranks again, forming the circle.

"...that he wouldn't die alone..." Buck's voice grew distant as he recalled the tracker's words the night he'd been so emotionally overwrought, due to alchohol. "...die alone... nobody to pray over me... die alone..." He shook his head, "I promised him, Chris. I gave my word."

"Oh, for Christ's sake Buck," Chris hissed, "he was drunk..."

"Drunk!" J.D. piped of the near implausible.

"Mr. Tanner?" Ezra scoffed, "inebriated? Highly unlikely..."

"It's not what you think," Chris warned, "some fool gave him loaded cough medicine..."

"Oh, liquor sure does loosen the lips..." Nate commiserated. "usually bad stuff... from way down deep."

"You don't know the half of it..." Chris sighed, "Buck, he wouldn't hold you to that, it was the liquor talking."

"Yeah, Chris," Buck said hotly, "it was... loud and clear and that's what made it so important to him."

"Let it go, Buck," Chris grilled.

"How can I?" Buck spat back, slapping the table. "I see his face every time I go to sleep. I told him I'd stand for him, that somebody would be there. How do I let that go? You tell me, Chris!"

"I wish I could," Chris rasped, standing. He gave Buck's shoulder a pat and moved to the bar.

Buck opened his mouth to say something, but closed it. He caught Josiah's eyes and heard the words they shared again. Was the preacher right? He'd been thinking on it all day. Was the peace that carried Chris, Vin's gift?

He felt closer to Chris now than he had in all the years they rode together.

The trek in the desert had changed him... being with Vin through that ordeal changed him too. He suddenly knew what the missing piece inside him was. He jerked his head up and saw Josiah smile. He nodded and stood, then walked to stand next to Chris. Josiah joined them and laid a hand on Buck's back.

"Now that your body's healed, Buck," he paused and grabbed a bottle of whiskey, "...maybe it's time to heal your soul."

"Yeah..." Buck agreed with a nod.

"Heading out?" Chris guessed, seeing the wheels spinning in Buck's head.

"Yeah, it's time." Buck picked up Larbee's beer and drained it. "...time to say goodbye." He saw the green eyes flick to the door. "Sorry, Pard," he clapped a hand on the black cotton shoulder, "I gotta do this alone."

"Sure?" Chris asked, relieved to see a flicker of light in Buck's eyes. That was something that had been missing since he Vin was taken. A part of him thought that the tracker was still their sharpshooter. He was just beyond the horizon, sitting high and watching their backs. He was calling to Buck, to heal his soul.

"Yeah, shouldn't be gone more than ten days or so..." Buck eyed his friends and picked up his hat. "I'll be leaving early, might as well get a good nights sleep."

"Ten days, Buck," Chris agreed, "Let us know you're alive..."

"You're gettin' worrylines, Pard," Buck teased and clasped Chris's hand.

"Hell, I'm not even a Texan."

"...must be the blue eyes then," Chris grunted and nodded as the other smiled and departed.

Two nights later, midday, at the rail sight

Vin ate nervously, his left leg jiggling impatiently. He'd had tingles for ten minutes now, his gut instinct telling him it was time. He kept an eagle eye out for Tyler, but the cold-eyed killer was missing. He saw one of Tyler's cronies finish his meal and head for the outhouse. That made three of them that left. He saw the fast exchange, between the departing man and Rusty. A short nod and a hand motion. Then he saw Tyler's face, when the flap of the large tent lifted.

"Shit!" he murmured, standing and walking quickly to catch up. His intuitive instincts were correct, just delayed too long. The explosion rocked the tent, sending bodies flying everywhere and timber and support beams into the screaming victims. Vin was on his knees and stood, heading for where he'd seen the leader of the rebellion. He no sooner exited the tent, when a body slammed him into the water barrel. He was on his backside and trying to get up, when a hand gripped him hard around the throat. His eyes buldged and he hissed, as a multitude of black and red stars danced before him.

"See you in hell, Tanner..." Tyler whispered in Vin's ear, just before he slammed his head with a gunbutt. "You walked right into it..." he chuckled, dropping by the unconscious man's side. He slid the caps into Vin's shirtpocket and the fuses in his hand. He left a stick of dynamite, just out of reach. He picked up the rifle he'd taken from the guard, as well as the two pistols his men took from the other dead sentries. Ignoring the moaning of his wounded compatriots inside, Tyler jogged towards his five gang members. They were changed clothes, exchanging theirs for the guards, when the first two shots came.

"You should have killed that bastard," the man on his left said. Zac Tyler never got he chance to respond. He and the other conspirators were blown into pieces and scattered haphazardly.

Vin lit the fuse and eyed the blurry wagon in the distance. He staggered, raised his arm and tossed it. He didn't see the flap open and the bloody face of the guard that crawled out. He couldn't know the wounded officer only saw a convict with a stick of dynamite. Vin's eyes widened in shock when the bullet slammed into him.

Bendix Prison, nightfall

The moans of the sick and dying filled the night air. Vin shifted uncomfortably in the back of the wagon and kept his hand pressed to his right shoulder. The warden ordered all prisoners in lockdown, and the extra guards were sent to the mine camp to bury the remains of the dead. The most seriously wounded guards were taken to town and the infirmary at the prison was full of bodies. Vin rested his eyes, almost wishing he would pass out. He was in the last wagon of wounded brought back to the prison. He'd lain most of the afternoon in the sun, with only a dirty rag for a bandage. His blood-stiffened fingers pressed the tattered cloth against his throbbing shoulder. He swallowed hard, as the smell of the dead, too many hours in the sun, assaulted him. He was sure he was the only breathing body in the wagon. His drifting ended with a rough hand gripped his collar.

"Let's go Quinn," the guard threw him hard onto the ground, ignoring the hiss of pain as Vin landed hard and curled up. Two kicks to the prisoner's back got his legs moving and the guard continued to beat him, all the way to the clinic. He made no effort to aid him, enjoying the battered body dragging himself along the ground.

"You look right at home, you filthy dog," the guard leered as the approached the doorway. He yanked the long, unruly hair and pulled the gasping head up sharply. He bent low and let his threat slid into the panting man's ear. "I lost more than a few friends today. They died quick. You ain't gonna be so lucky."

It wasn't the words that gave Vin a chill, but the low laugh that followed. He was hauled up and shoved through the doorway, flopping on his belly. He managed to push himself up with his left hand and for a few seconds, he tottered unsteadily on his knees.

"Got another one for you, Doc."

Vin's face paled at the word and his heart began to pound. He blinked through the blinding light that pierced his eyes, as only being too long in the dark will do.

"Isaac?" he rasped, looking for the kind dark face.

"Guess again, you murderin' whelp."

The words were followed by a fist to the kidney, which sent Vin onto his belly. After gasping for several minutes and waiting for the pain to dull, he once again righted himself. From his knees, he grabbed onto the seat of a chair and tried to focus. The ruddy face was all too familiar and the nightmarish event of his early days in the prison returned.

"Get the hell away from me..." Vin slurred, "Ya drunken butcher... Isaac..."

Vin turned his head, only to be punched in the kidney again. The force sent his chest and face onto the seat of the chair. He felt a rough hand rip the shirt from his back. The same hand pulled his head up by the back of the hair and slammed into onto the wooden seat, sending his teeth through his lip.

"He's in town... helpin' with the wounded..." the guard's hot breath danced on Vin's face. "But don't you worry, the Doc's gonna find that bullet in your shoulder... eventually..."

The sour breath and horrid words left the wounded man numb. He spit a wad of blood from his mouth and struggled weakly as the guard's fingers clenched onto his neck from behind, keeping his face pressed into the chair. The deathgrip took his breath away and he began to pass out.

"Where do you want him, Doc?"

"On the table..."

"No!" Vin gasped, eyes darting to the leather straps. He bucked as the guard hauled him up and got punched in the back again. That violent blow took the last of his strength away. He dropped to his knees and lost consciousness for a few minutes. He blinked awake and winced as the blood and gore on the slick table hit his bare back. The confining neck strap was already in place His tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth and he tried to kick the guard, who was strapping his legs down.

"Ya can't... use... that..." Vin gasped, eyeing the knife, dripping with blood and puss. Bits of sinew and tissue clung to the blade. The doctor's hands and smock were as riddled as the slippery table Vin was lying on.

"Not to worry," the doctor leaned forward, laying the disgusting tool on Vin's bare chest. He rested one hand on Vin's pants and tapped the anguished face. He saw the blue eyes wide with fear and bent in lower. "You must be a brave soldier, I'm afraid I'm out of chloroform."

Vin struggled weakly against the bonds and his breath came in labored pants. He saw the guard move closer, now leering by his hip. He shook his head and gritted his teeth as the grimey fingers probed the wound in his shoulder. He bit his lip and hissed as the clumsy hand retreated, and then his eyes widened. The sweat rolled off his face like a small river, as the blade descended. The rancid smell of the room suddenly seemed to intensify. He screamed as the blade was unceremoniously thrust into him, ripping muscle and tissue. Tears mixed with the sweat and a filthy rag was shoved in his mouth. Blood spilled from the wound and Vin shook his head as an already bloodied towel was pressed into the incision. Another wave of incredible pain caused his muffled scream to push against the sour rag. The knife disappeared and another tool appeared, equally filthy. It had a hook on one end and as it descended into the wound, it felt like a set of razor sharp teeth was ripping him to pieces. More tears and sweat blurred his vision, before he saw the hand drop the instrument on the floor and disappear. Vin shook his head again and heard the guards laugher. The tool ripped into him again, and his bucked weakly, too worn and hoarse to produce a sound. He heard the faint ping of metal to metal and sighed, it was over. Then the doctor took a drink from a silver flask and bent over him.

"I can't afford to waste any Carbolic, but I'm sure you'll enjoy this... one of my patients make it himself in a still." He pressed on hand on Vin's chest and turned the bottle over the gaping wound.

The roar in his ears as the fire exploded in his shoulder was accented by the silent scream of pure agony as he finally faded away.

Four Corners

Ezra emerged from the Clarion, having delivered a crate of books to Mary for the school. He eyed the midday sun and made his way towards the saloon for lunch. His eyes strayed to where Chris was brooding in the doorway of the sheriff's office. That was the only word for it... the face was set in stone and the eyes cold. With every passing day and no word on Judge Spencer Hazzard's wherabouts, the leader grew more sullen. Ezra nodded to the somber gunslinger and continued his journey.

Chris Larabee was angry. He was angry as Vin for dying on him and at himself for leaving Vin and Buck that day of the ambush. He was angry at the whole chain of events that led to his back-clenching posture this sunny day.

But most of all, the pure hatred in him was reserved for Hazzard. Seeing the criminal brought to justice was the last thing he could do for Vin. Clearing the tracker's name had become the reason he rose in the morning. He gazed at the street and shifted his weight, as J.D. appeared.

"I'm going to Mrs. Potters to get some ink," the youth declared, "Josiah said if I wrote about Vin, what I remembered... the good stuff... what he taught me... the pratical jokes... even the fights... well... so I won't forget..." he spilled, feeling somehow he owed the quiet leader an explanation. He saw Chris nod and slide his hand inside his duster. He cocked his head as a small, palm sized notebook appeared. It as dog-eared in places and well used. Just as quickly, it was hidden again. J.D.'s head jerked up and he saw Chris nod again.

"Josiah's right, Kid." He sighed and squinted at the cloudless sky. He watched J.D. amble away and pushed himself forward. Judge Travis was quietly working in the background, trying to gather legally binding evidence against Hazzard. But with each passing day, Chris felt the trail growing colder. Sheriff Haskill wired that the state informed him that the judge 'retired suddenly' and left 'no forwarding address'.

"Mr. Larabee...."

"Tim?" Chris tilted his head towards the post office.

"You got a wire... from Salt Flats..."

Chris was across the street and through the door, before the kid could finish the sentence. He grabbed the yellow paper and a sign of life appeared in the dull eyes. He tossed a coin to the kid and pointed to the machine.

"Get your fingers working, Tim," he ordered, "I'm sending a reply, then I want you to forward this to Judge Travis."

"The bastard's days are numbered..." Chris announced to the group gathered at their normal table.

"What rock did the vermin finally emerge from?" Ezra inquired, eyeing the green fire in Larabee's eyes.

"Blue Meadow." Chris handed the wire to the gambler. "Colt's been tracking down leads for over a week. He spotted him there yesterday and did some digging. The weasel bought property there under an assumed name. He's having a house renovated, but he's staying there, just outside town."

"Just in time for his funeral." J.D. said, rising and flanking Chris. "What about Buck?"

"Colt's gonna find him... or try anyhow. He'll meet us in Blue Meadow."

"Where is this charming locale?" Ezra asked finishing his tortilla.

"Texas, just over the border, a few days northeast of here. Get packed, we're out of here in an hour." Chris directed, "I updated Orin, he'll meet us there. J.D. get George and Jack and pin a star on 'em," he directed of the sometime deputies.

The rest were already headed to the livery, when Chris tied his bedroll up. His eyes ran around the room, as his gloved hands shoved the necessary items his saddlebags. As he headed for the door, his eyes caught Vin's jacket, which was folded on top of a chair. His hand rested on it for a moment and he lifted the edge of the buckskin.

"Soon, Cowboy, soon..." he vowed, grabbed his black hat and shut the door behind him.

Part 18

Sunset, Bendix Prison

Isaac sighed and allowed himself to rest for a moment. He wiped his face with a cloth and took a seat next to the well outside the infirmary. He filled the cup that hung from a chain and took two long drinks. He eyed the setting sun, a bold ball of crimson and orange, and sighed again. He watched the guards carry two more bodies outside. His bones were already tired from the two he'd buried this morning. At least the holes were dug, he mused as the guards dropped the bodies in the shallow graves. Ray, who'd been at the prison for many years, gave Isaac a wave and picked up the shovel. Isaac nodded in appreciation. He just didn't have the energy. He'd been cleaning wounds and bathing bodies for two days. He was beyond exhausted. He finished his drink and eyed the stranger who was riding through the gate. His old eyes couldn't see that far, but he saw the guard pointing towards the boneyard. Sure enough, the big gray horse moved towards him. Isaac shifted his weary bones and forced his aching legs to move. Whoever the stranger was, he deserved his peace.

Buck took a deep breath when he tied Annabelle up and headed for the rows of crosses. He walked slowly, carefully treading and reading the names. Then at the end of the row, he saw the crooked letters. He dropped to his knees and bowed his head. The prayers came from deep inside and his lips moved silently, his eyes clenched shut. Then he reached over and touched every letter, his chest constricting.

"Hey, Vin... sorry I'm late..." he bit his lip and patted the cross, before sitting down. "You're not alone, Slick, you're still riding with us. Ain't a day goes by, we don't think on you. I miss you, Vin..." he paused, his brows furrowing, "That stunt you pulled in Salt Flats... I should kick your ass good for that..." he choked, thinking on the word that broke his chain of memory and locked Vin in the mortal iron grip.

"Easy, now..." Isaac soothed, lifting the fevered patient's head and wiping the hot skin. The unfocused eyes were dull and lifeless. The breathing came in short, forced pants. He lifted a cup of water and the lips didn't budge. The head turned away, accented by a series of short moans. "Yuh gotta drink... yuh burnin' up... I done lost 'em all... I ain't losin' you , Boy... now drink this..." he commanded and the lips parted. A half cup disappeared before the blue eyes slid shut. He gently laid the boy back on the cot and sighed. The fact he was still living was nothing short of a miracle. "I'm sorry," he whispered, tenderly easing the tangled locks of soggy, brown hair from the wounded man's face. "He hurt yuh good... " He thought on the butcher and the dead bodies he'd found when he returned from Langston the morning after the explosion. The warden couldn't look the other way this time, the state was sending a team to investigate. The doctor was confined to the guards quarters, pending a full investigation. Isaac saw the steam rising from the herbal tea and moved to retrieve it. He was reaching for the bag of ginger root, when he spotted a slip of tan paper, wedged between the medicine cabinet and the wall. Frowning, he bent to pick it up and his breath caught.

"How did this get here?" he eyed the envelope and ran his mind back in time. "The busted bag..." he hissed of the day he'd arrived in town, only to discover a hole in the mail bag. Upon his arrival back at the clinic, he thought he found all the missing letters. "Musta missed one..." He put the letter in his pocket and poured the strong tea. His head caught movement outside the window and he saw the stranger standing. He watched the tall, dark-haired man wipe his eyes and drop his head. He put the tea down and shuffled outside.

Buck was tightening the cinch straps on his horse, when a voice called to him.

"'scuse me suh, I gotta favor to ask."

"Yeah?" Buck rasped, still numb from his farewell to his friend.

"Can yuh post this in the next town yuh get to?"

Buck too the envelope and nodded, taking the paper and climbing onto his horse. He heard the man's thanks and was about to shove the letter in his pocket, when he saw the name on front.

"What the hell?" He eyed Chris Larabee's name and jerked his head. He didn't see where the old man went, but the only building nearby was a one-story stone place. His eyes were still furrowed, when he opened the envelope and pulled out two pieces of paper. His breath caught in his throat when he spotted the short note, a familiar word scrawled in a strange hand. Then he saw the picture and his heart jumped through his chest wall.

"Sweet Mother of God...." he gasped and felt a sharp pain in his chest. His hands were trembling so badly, the beautifully sketched rendition was moving. The hand of an artist, and a gifted on at that, had captured the agonizing moment in time. Only three people could have known. He was one, one was in Four Corners, wrapped in black and still healing. His gaze drank in every detail of the picture. It was Chris Larabee cradling Buck against his body. The leader's face screwed up in agony, and half of the wounded man's face was darkened where blood covered it. Only one person witnessed the traumatic moment.

"Vin..." Buck whispered almost reverently, fearing it wasn't real. He eyed the words on the other paper 'Bring the Calvary, Cowboy' before jerking the shock away from his mind. He didn't remember getting off the horse or racing towards the clinic. Suddenly he had the old man by the collar, pinned up against the outside door.

"Who gave you this? Whose letter is this? You tell me, Old Man..."

"It's Jamie's letter. Jamie Quinn. It got lost and I just found it... he a friend?"

"Where is he?" Buck's head shot towards the prison.

"He's in a bad way... there was a prison break at the mining camp... they used dynamite... he got shot in the shoulder."

"He's alive?"

"He's breathing... but he's peakin'..."

Buck brushed past the caretaker and burst through the doors. The sight of the shivering, sweat-soaked body send him reeling backwards, as if stunned by an invisible hand. His body moved in slow motion, numbed by the scruffy miracle, bathed in sweat and burning a hole in him. He tossed his jacket off and dropped onto the edge of the cot. His hands hovered over the face, afraid to touch. His nimble fingers found a weak pulse and his eyes burned when they lifted the bandage. The wound shouldn't have been this bad. The festered, mess that was due to a negligent hand caused Vin's suffering. He picked up the cloth in the bowl of water and wiped the fevered face, his hands still shaking. He felt the body jerk weakly and two blue slits appear. They furrowed at him, the pale lips moved but no sound emerged. He slid his hand under the moist neck and lifted Vin towards him. He didn't miss the bruises covering Vin's chest and face.

The soothing hands and cool bath roused the fevered man. He was so cold and his shivers were sending waves of pain through his shoulder. Suddenly he was pressed against cloth and a strong grip held him.

Buck pulled Vin into an embrace and gripping the wet rattails of hair. He felt the raspy breath against his neck and bit his lip hard. Tears stung in his eyes and he saw the purple bruises over Vin's kidneys. "You look like shit, Tanner..." he choked, then laughed softy as the familiar response was muffled against his chest.

"Fuck y'all Bucklin."

Bucklin? Vin mind reacted on cue, but the words were now floating in front of him. He heard the deep rumble of laughter and his lips worked. "Bucklin? Bucklin?"

"Right here, Slick," Buck responded, feeling the warmth inside that the soft name always caused. He gently laid Vin back onto the pillows and saw the eyes blinking rapidly, trying to focus. A hand came up and touched his face, and the sky eyes shot open in stunned amazement.

"Yer real?" Vin wavered.

The voice was barely audible, but music to Buck's ears. He took the hand on his cheek and gripped it hard. He nodded and smiled, then frowned as a harsh cough sent the weakened man sideways and doubled in half. His hand touched the swollen, flaming wound, with an oozing, yellow sticky film.

"...he... butchered... he... knife... covered in shit... was awake... fuck... killer... I..."

"Shhh!" Buck soothed, rubbing Vin's back, while his hot eyes took in the horrid wound. Vin's cryptic clues caused his head to spin. "Vin," he turned the body back and waited until the eyes focused on his own. He bent lower, making sure the fevered man understood him. He rested a hand on Vin's neck and secured his vow. "....listen to me. I'm gonna fix your shoulder, then I'm gonna fix the son-of-a-bitch who did this to you and then we're gettin' the hell out of here." He promised, drilling the blinking eyes. "You understand... I'm not losing you twice... so you fight..."

"...trying... s'hard... so cold... " Vin sighed and slumped.

Buck gently turned Vin's face and then rose, covering Vin with a sheet. "Who did this to him?"

Isaac paled at the low, feral voice and the large man bearing down on him. The blue eyes were full of murder. "The doctor... he's uh... got problems... he hurt the boy bad... they let him sit in the sun all day and then... then... tossed him on the table... it was a mess... full of blood and muck... the knife... was filthy and some of the instruments was on the floor... he was awake... strapped down... I found him the next morning... when I got here... I'm sorry..."

"Where is he?" Buck growled, shoving the old man into the wall. "I'll show him what a surgeon can do...." He head was filled with the horrible image and he pulled out his own knife.

"The warden done locked him up in the guard house. The state's coming... he's outta of his mind... babbling about the war..."

"Fuck!" Buck swore, then put his plan in order. He handed the old man his knife. "Boil this..." he ordered and then listed all that he would need. He washed his hands good and made Isaac boil everything, the instruments, needles, stitching, all of it. He cut the clean bedsheets into bandages and moved Vin to a clean cot. There was no way in hell he was putting his friend back on that table. Finally, he took the steaming knife from the water and began to work.

"He'll be sleepin' for awhile, yuh best take a break now," Isaac advised, "'fore that boy starts thrashin'. Come on, I got some stew and biscuits..." He shook his white head and looked at the young man's profile. There hadn't been time for a formal introduction, just a handshake and a name exchange. Then the dark-haired stranger went to work, deftly cleaning out the green and yellow puss from the wound. The smell was awful and Isaac helped as much as he could, providing an endless supply of towels, hot water, soap and whiskey. The lack of carbolic would be answered in the morning, when Isaac rode to town. Loosely stitched, the wound sat right below the right collarbone.

"He was lucky, it missed his collarbone." Buck sighed, wiping Vin's face and chest with cool water. "He's needs a doctor... there's muscles and stuff torn up inside."

"He's breathin' better already," Isaac argued, "Yuh got that mess outta him. Yuh done good, Son."

"I reckon I did at that," Buck smiled, eyeing his handiwork, "Nathan would be right proud."


"Nathan Jackson, from Four Corners. That's where Vin and me are from. We're two of the seven peacekeepers there. Nate's the sawbones... and a good man, a real good man."

"He's Vin Tanner?"

"Yeah, I thought," Buck paused, wiping Vin's face again, "...we all thought he was dead. Damn, I feel good." Buck grinned, eyeing the tracker's chest rise and fall.

"...peacekeepers... that why yuh wearin' a star?" Isaac frowned, seeing the dark head shake negatively, "But them guards said that Tanner was a murderer..."

"I used to be a lawman," Buck sighed and stood, stretching his back, "...a long time ago. Vin and me... we had ourselves a rough couple months. The papers on him are bad... he was framed." Buck walked outside to see if a breeze stirred up and inhaled the night air. He eyed the spot where he left Annabelle and frowned.

"My horse?"

"I took care of her... she's in the stable. That badge get yuh in the gate?"

"Yeah," Buck nodded, sitting on the porch step and taking the bowl of stew.

"Thanks... I told them I was looking for some prisoners that escaped. They didn't put up a fuss."

"They're spread too thin, what with losing ten men in the explosion." Isaac sighed, "...the warden rode to Langston to get a stage to Crystal City. The prison commision is sendin' somebody to meet him, he's gotta give over a report. But when he comes back, yuh friend is gonna hang for murder. They found the fuses and caps on 'im..." Isaac's voice retreated from the inside of the infirmary, where he poured two cups of coffee.

"How convenient..." Buck spat. "What'd Vin say?"

"...said somebody clubbed 'im... somebody he knew... said that fella stuck the fuses in 'is pocket. He stopped them... Vin did... tossed a stick of dynamite at 'em and blowed 'em all up. That's how he got shot." Isaac shook his head and handed Buck a cup. "...won't make no nevermind, they want to hang somebody and that boy..."

"...will be long gone by then." Buck vowed, jutting his chin out, "I'll be damned if I'm gonna lose him again."

"Yuh fixin' on just ridin' out with him..." Isaac argued, "They want blood, Son... and it's his that's gonna spill."

"No!" a scream interrupted and Isaac flew backwards as the younger man flew past him.

"Vin!" Buck's stern voice cut through the haze momentarily. He sat on the cot an pressed his hand against Vin's left shoulder, grabbing the thrashing face with the other hand. "Calm down..."

"...don't ya die on me... marshal... no... wake the hell up... ya son-of-a-bitch... won't lose... promise... promise... no... no..."

"Shit!" Buck hissed, watching Vin's twisted face as he relieved their ordeal in the desert. "Vin." He gripped the fevered man's face hard and heard the ragged, anxious breathing... "Vin!" he hollered and both eyes shot open.

Vin blinked rapidly, the harsh desert sun cutting into his pale eyes and burning them. His skin was on fire and his head ached. He licked his dry lips and blinked again as a face hovered above.

"...water... thirsty... please..."

"Isaac?" Buck jerked his head and the old man appeared. He was behind Vin, holding him upright and nodded for the caretaker to get Vin a drink. Just as Isaac appeared with the mug, Vin's eyes drooped. "Hey, now..." Buck tapped the slack face, "I got some water for you, Vin."

"Huh?" Vin blinked and saw a dark face. He couldn't see Buck anymore. Where did he go? He stared at the blurry dark face and opened his lips. "Nate?... that you?" Vin reached up and touched the dark skin. "... Thank God... Buck's hurt... he needs... he..."

"Vin, we ain't in the desert no more. I'm fine... thanks to you and your fucked-up travois..."

Vin heard the familiar voice and screwed his eyebrows up over the mug. The water was cool and refreshing and he moaned in pleasure as another was produced. He moved his head backwards, trying to find the voice. "Buck...lin... there?"

"Damn straight, Vin." Buck eased, watching the wet, brown head spinning. "You just rest now, I'll be right here."

"...hurts..." Vin protested, feeling the fire in his arm. He moved his left arm over to push the flames away, only to have it snagged.

"Nuh-uh..." Buck warned, easing Vin back down on the pillows. "You got shot in the right shoulder, Vin. You can't move that arm." He paused as the tracker's left hand snagged his forearm and the slitted eyes shot open. Vin's mouth formed a silent oval of agony.

"What?" Buck bent down, eyeing the grimace.

"...m'back... Buck..." Vin hissed, grinding his nails into the strong forearm and getting a visible wince from his caretaker.

Buck turned Vin over and eyed the purple bruises on his lower back. With a brief cry, he felt the body slump in his arms and eased Vin back onto the pillow. Then his face paled, when he saw the crimson stain on the sheet under Vin. "Shit... What the fuck is that?" He whipped the sheet over. "He's passin' blood... I gotta get him to a doctor."

"Hold on now, Son," Isaac disarmed, pulling the visibly upset man away. "I seen that before, from beatin's like he got, sometimes it passes. He ain't strong 'nuf to go anywhere. Now you get him to the other cot and I'll clean this bed. Then yuh get some sleep, it's gonna be a long night."

After Vin was resting fitfully in another cot, Buck stretched out on the bunk next to the ill man. He cast a glance sideways at the sweating, flushed face and frowned. He threw his forearm over his throbbing eyes and wondered how the hell he was going to get out of this mess. He needed to wire home for help, but he didn't dare leave Vin. Too many bloodthirsty guards out for revenge. No, until the Texan was strong enough to travel, they were on their own again. Travel? How was he going to get Vin out of a prison? The clash of thoughts within his throbbing head created a kaliedoscope of color and fire, a force that pulled him under into an exhauted sleep.

The cold cloth on his body gave him a jump start. He gasped as the life-giving liquid met his chest. His eyes shot open and he hissed, pushing the hand away. "...hell... ya doin..."

"Tryin' to break that fever," Isaac frowned, his wary eyes watching the slim man fighting for breath. The wet head turned, the large eyes raking the empty room. Isaac picked up a cold mug of cider and lifted Vin's head. "Yuh drink this... come on, now..." he coached, tipping the mug and spilling liquid into the parched mouth.

Vin swallowed the cold cider and his heart sank. It was so real and he'd been so sure. He would have taken any odds that Ezra gave. The voice seemed to be right next to him, constantly calming his fears. The warm laugh and those strong hands... helping him fight. It was so real and he'd fought back, because that voice warranted as much. He shook his head and denied the mug of broth Isaac offered.

Isaac looked at the dejected face and frowned. It was just past noon, and he'd just returned from town. It had been a long night and Vin had fought both of them, until his body wore out at daybreak. Since then, he'd slept soundly. "What's wrong, Son?" He pulled Vin up and shoved another pillow behind him. "Come on, now, yuh need to drink this."

"I thought..." Vin whispered and reluctantly took a sip of broth. It seemed to sour as his hopes died. He shook his head and laid back on the pillow. His shoulder hurt like hell and his head was pounding, but his lower back was unbearable. "...Son-of-a-bitch..." he hissed, gripping the mattress.

"You got a foul mouth," a voice bellowed from behind him. "You know that Vin?"

Vin's eyes shot open and he turned so fast, he nearly toppled from the bed. The room began to spin at a record rate and Vin's left hand swung wildly, his eyes blinking. His flailing fist made a solid 'thump' as it connected with flesh and bone.

"Goddammit Vin!" Buck yelped, as the wayward fist his nose.

"Buck?" Vin gasped, chest heaving as his lungs fought him. The rash action produced a coughing fit, which made his nurse angry.

"Stay put," Buck complained, shoving the tangle of limbs onto the bed and picking up the sheet. "You bust them stitches and I'll give you a matching set in that pretty face of yours." He pulled the bandage away and sighed in relief, spotting his stitches sill in place. The bandage was soggy with a yellowish-clear sticky liquid. Buck eased Vin back and pulled the bandage off. His scowl disappeared as the blue eyes were wide in amazement.

"...yer... here... thought... I... it... dream... damn..." Vin managed, his breath in short pants. "... can't breathe... hot in here..."

"You got a nasty fever. Here, I got some herbal tea." Buck frowned as the skin was still too hot to the touch and the raspy breathing had him worried. He carefully managed to get a full mug into Vin, before he forced the still struggling body onto the pillows. "Naptime, Slick..."

"...can't..." Vin protested, licking his lips. He stared at Buck's face and saw the lack of sleep and realized how real his dream had been. "Plan?"

"Not yet," Buck sighed, wringing out a cloth and wiping Vin's face, neck and chest. He popped open the new bottle of Carbolic. "But I'm working it," he paused, "This is gonna sting..."

"G'head..." Vin hissed, clenching the sheet in his hand.

Buck winced and felt the burning sensation that coursed through his friend, as if it was his own. He smiled a little at the string of curses and how easily Vin managed to blend Spanish, English and Kiowa and make it sound so good. "Sorry, all done..." Buck watched as the soggy head dipped once and the tracker's chest rose and fell quickly, fighting for breath. "We're runnin' out of time, Slick. That warden is comin' back in a couple days..." he tossed the wet cloth in disgust. He sighed and ran a hand through his dark hair. "...they got armed guards all over the place. Only way out is if you're wrapped in a sheet..." he hissed of the dead, punching the mattress in anger.

"..a pine box..." Vin mused, his eyes bright with fever. He smiled and nodded, causing Buck's head to rise and the face to frown. "...if the shoe fits..."

"Huh?" Buck squinted at his dazed friend. "What's spinnin' in them crazy eyes of yours?"

"They think that's real?" Vin gasped, eyeing the star on Buck's shirt. He saw the puzzled head nod and smiled. "They think I'm Quinn... ya claim... take body... back home... folks... t'bury..."

"That's great Vin," Buck shot back crossly, "except you ain't dead."

"Not yet... but I can be..." Vin bragged drunkenly.

"What the hell you talkin' about?"

"Ya get... box... wagon... I'll get dead..." Vin grinned, giving Buck a chill to his bones. "It's like this..." The Texan beckoned and laid out his plan.

Twenty minutes later, Buck was still pacing. He felt the blue eyes following him around the hot room. "Your plan sucks, Vin." He didn't like it, not one bit. As a matter of fact, the whole idea scared the hell out of him.

"Ya got a better one?" Vin protested. "Buck, I can do this, trust me."

'Trust me'. Two words, which hung heavily in the air. Buck walked over to the bed, his hands on his hips. He stared down at the fever ridden tracker and shook his head. What if something went wrong? He couldn't live through Vin's death again. Trust me... trust me... trust me... collided with green eyes swirling around a black duster.

"Your plan sucks, Vin," he repeated, not hiding his fear.

"I'll be okay," Vin said quietly, not liking the silent, quiet body before him. "Ya best get t'town and get what we need. Ya come back at nightfall. It'll work, I promise." Vin vowed, raising his hand.

Buck hesitated and looked at the large eyes staring somberly at him. The wet, unruly curls were sticking to Vin's head and the bruised, battered face seemed was burning a hole in him. He took a deep breath and blew the air out slowly. "I outta wire home... maybe..."


"Why not?" Buck shot back, angry at the fiesty face.

"They buried me twice already..." Vin drilled, "...I'll ride back... no wires... too much could happen... I got a snake t'catch on the way home..."

"Chris is gonna skin me alive..."

"Never happen," Vin coughed.

"That's easy for you to say," Buck tossed back, "You ain't afraid of him." He paused and chuckled softly, "You know, he gets a real kick out of that."

"So we got a deal?" Vin said, wincing as the stormy face of Chris Larabee appeared in his mind.

Buck shook his head and looked at the blue eyes shining triumphantely at him, in the bruised, discolored face. "You look like shit, Tanner," he grinned, extending his hand.

"Fuck y'all Bucklin." Vin grinned right back, taking the hand and gripping it. He waited until the body of the gray bay disappeared past the infirmary window. With a deep sigh, he settled back into the pillow, letting his heavy eyes fall. He'd convinced Buck and Isaac that the plan would work, now he had to convince himself and get some sleep.

Buck pulled off the main road about a mile from the prison. He eyed the darkening sky and sighed deeply, running a hand through his dark hair. He slid down from the seat of the rented wagon and reached for some water. Taking a long draw from his canteen, he wiped his mouth and closed the water vessel. He leaned against the side of the hung over the edge, drumming his fingers on the plain pine box.

"Your plan sucks, Vin." He stared hard at the grooves he'd cut in the sides, so air would be able to enter. If the plan worked, Vin wouldn't be in there for longer than an hour or so anyhow. Buck winced when he thought of his own ride in a coffin in Purgatorio, a journey he didn't intend on revisiting again.

Vin made the scheme sound easy, but Buck didn't like it. The tracker's most recent encampment with the Commanche's had been after the war. The conflict left a heavy toll, physically and emotionally on the wounded soldier. The homeless Texan with a battered spirit was taken in by the roaming tribe. As his body and soul healed, he embraced his new family and their beliefs. Red Cloud, the medicine man in the tribe and it's spiritual guiding force, had seen something in the adopted blue-eyed warrior. He took Vin under his wing and enlightened him into the spiritual world of the tribe. Buck doubted in his young friend ever thought that training would save his life. Vin explained that the breathing exercises which led to a deep meditative state, would be temporary. To the naked eye, he would appear as if dead, especially to a drunken guard. He knew they drank with dinner and with the warden away...

"When the cat's away, the mice will play," Buck whispered, repeating Vin's statement. Once the guard 'witnessed' the body in repose, he could take the paperwork to the confined doctor. After the death certificate and release forms were signed, Buck would be able to leave with the body. Going back to Langston was too dangerous, the sheriff might recognize Vin and the town was crawling with wounded guards. Buck heard their venomous words while he was getting supplies. Dead or not, Vin's body would be lynched and or mutilated. So Buck walked over to the warden's office and spoke with his second-in-command. He explained that he wanted to take Quinn's body back to his folks to bury. The guard didn't care, as long as prisoner was dead. He then explained that he wanted to get on the road as soon as possible and that Isaac feared the prisoner was dying, hence the trip to town.

While the guard dug out the proper paperwork, so it would be ready, Buck studied the map on the wall of the office. His keen eyes took him from the area where they were on a small perimeter. Vin needed to rest and the closest town was an unfamiliar hamlet named Blue Meadow. Buck studied the path carefully, noting the river that ran nearby. Once the guard had the paperwork in front on him, he advised Buck that it would be ready to go when he would. Buck didn't miss the disdain in the man's eyes. Most of the hired help lost a friend in the explosion and animosity was running high.

Now that the first phase of his mission was completed, Buck ran the rest of the details through his mind again. Vin would 'die' near daybreak, which should put the pair on the road to freedom and in Blue Meadow by midday. He nodded to the guards as he rode through the gate and ended up by the cemetary. He jumped down and strode through the doors to the clinic. He was stopped by a pair of dark hands and a concerned face.

"Thank God yuh come back," Isaac sighed, as he watched Buck Wilmington's face darken.

"What the hell happened?" Buck hissed, shoving the old man aside and moving to the cot. "Jesus... he didn't... .he isn't... " the anxious man's voice died as his eyes took in the stilled body before him. He rested a hand over Vin's nose and mouth, noting the lips parted slightly. He felt no air and jerked his hand back.

"No, he ain't... but he sure scared the life outta me." Isaac walked to join Buck and sighed. "The guards got to talkin' about the explosion and got riled up. I wuz bringin' water in from the well and I heard him talkin'. They was plannin' on bustin' in after dark. Vin, he... we... didn't have much choice. They started talkin' about gettin' a rope and lynchin' him from the gate. They wuz drinkin' and nasty..."

"...and..." Buck released the breath he'd been holding. He sat on the edge of the cot and rested a hand on Vin's face. "Jesus if he didn't warn me, I'd swear..."

"I helped him sit up some and he started breathin' funny. Then he got to swayin' and chantin' in Indian talk, kept turnin' the other way... like he was talkin' to somebody. Then his voice went higher, he took a gasp and slumped. That was about twenty minutes ago. Yuh ain't got much time... Yuh gotta go... they might hang him anyhow..."

"Like hell they will," Buck vowed, tossing bullets in his gun. "Go get that guy... uh... Adams... that's sittin' in for the warden. Tell him Quinn died and bring him here."

"Yuh want the box?" Isaac stood in the doorway and jumped when two guards suddenly appeared.

"Get out of the way, Old Man, we're havin' a necktie party and you're not invited."

Buck's bullet, which shattered the whiskey bottle in the slurring guards hands, silenced the rowdy pair.

"Something I can do for you?" Buck kept his voice low and lethal.

"We want that kid..." The smaller, older guard moved forward, eyeing the tall marshal with a worried eye.

"You're too late, he's dead." Buck said, "He's coming with me in the box outside."

"You can cut him down and tote him when we're done." The taller guard, his soiled uniform littered with whiskey, slurred.

"...or you can join him, wrapped in a blanket in the back of the wagon," Buck cocked his pistol. "Bring that box in here," he directed, "Isaac, go get the officer in charge."

Twenty minutes later, Buck released his pent-up breath as the man in charge handed him both papers. The one, signed by the doctor, was the death certificate. The other was permission by the state official in charge, to release the remains. Buck frowned as Adams moved in front of him, blocking his path. The pine box was next to the cot and Buck was going to lower Vin onto the blanket he laid inside.

"He's not yours until you pass through the gate," the guard sneered, giving Buck's stomach cause to fall. He opened his mouth to protest and Isaac's menacing, dark eyes silenced him. Buck winced as Vin was lifted by two guards and dropped from midair into to floor. Buck felt Isaac pulling him back and the old man's nails digging into his arms, as his pained eyes watched them kicking the corpse and spitting on him. Adams eyed the hatred in Buck's eyes and the star he wore, then laughed as he left he building. The other two guards urinated on Vin, before exiting, both laughing and ribbing the other. For a moment, Buck couldn't move, every muscle in him was too tautwith rage.

"I'm sorry," Isaac said, moving in front of Buck and studying the red-hot rage on the younger man's face. "Yuh done the right thing. If yuh moved to stop 'em... they might have unloaded their guns in 'im. Come on, Son, we're losing time. No tellin' if that pair gets to talkin', the others might show up."

"Fuckin' animals," Buck hissed, dropping to Vin's side and grabbing the sheet off the bed. "I'm sorry, Vin..." he whispered, wiping the disgusting remainder of the guards torment from the slack figure. Isaac placed a bowl of soapy water next to him and Buck quickly cleaned Vin up as best he could.

"They didn't break nuthin'..." Isaac sighed, his expert hand running along Vin's naked chest. "But he's gonna be hurtin' and colorin' up some," he noted of the bruises that would follow, "I'll get a shirt..."

Buck held Vin against him, while Isaac gently eased the unconscious man into the shirt. Then they carefully lifted him up. He winced as he felt Vin's slack mouth against him, and the lack of air coming from the Texan's lips, nearly undid the older man. He gently folded Vin's right arm protectively across his chest, wary of the shoulder wound. He lifted the lid from the floor, but his arms couldn't seem to make a move to replace it.

Isaac watched the raw emotions on the marhshal's face and frowned. He saw how many times the tall, mustached man swallowed and the coffin lid moving slightly in his trembling grasp. He followed the dark blue eyes as they raked over Tanner's body. He shuffled over and rested a hand on the other's shoulder.

"I'll do it," he said quietly, "Yuh bring the wagon around. Go on now..."

Buck sighed and nodded, relinquishing the unwanted task to the caretaker. They're wasn't many things Buck Wilmington couldn't do, but sealing a friend into a living tomb, was one of them. He moved outside and walked quickly, not wanting to hear the thud, as box met lid.

"Hank, we gotta give this up." Donny Carter protested. His wounded leg was throbbing and his mouth parched. The fugitives had escaped from the mess tent during the explosion. Both were injured, tired, hungry and weak.

"I ain't goin' back to that place." Hank Rawlings vowed, sucking air in painfully through his injured chest. "I'll die first."

"Yeah, well," Donny grunted, limping alongside on the dark road, "I'm thinkin' you're gonna get your wish. Hank, we gotta turn back..."

"Shut up, Donny!" the other man gasped, flailing his arm wildly, "Go back then, nobody's stoppin' you."

"Shit!" Donny hissed, resting his injured leg for a moment. He eyed the rocky road that led back to the prison and sighed. They'd nursed their injuries in the rocky area for a few days, hidden from view. Now that things cooled down, they were headed to... well... Donny didn't know where. With a wary sigh, he inched his bad leg painfully forward, following his friend.

"Well, Son," Isaac sighed, resting a gnarled hand on the young man's face. "I guess this is goodbye. I'm glad one of us is gettin' outta here." He patted the nearly stilled heart and nodded, watching the wagon move by. "Yuh sure is lucky, havin' a friend like him. That Buck fella, well Old Isaac don't know when he's seen finer... and that's a fact. I'll keep yuh both in my prayers. Goodbye Vin." He moved the boy's body, so it wouldn't block the air holes that Buck had cut into the area around Vin's neck, ears, knees and feet. Then he lowered the lid and secured it, as Buck entered the room. Silently, they carried out their task. Buck had medical supplies, food, water, and just about anything else he needed, including a clean set of clothes for Vin.

"Isaac, I don't know what to say," Buck admitted, taking his hat off and toying with it nervously, "'ThankYou' doesn't seem to cover all that you've done. You kept him alive and risked your own life in this scheme... I just want you to know," Buck paused, holding out his hand, "... he's worth it, every inch of him."

"Yuh sure is welcome," Isaac beamed, basking in the other's words. "The Lord go with yuh..." he returned the strong grasp. "Yuh send me a letter, so's I won't worry..."

"Absolutely," Buck vowed, climbing on the rig. He felt every eye trained on him as they passed through the gate. Finally, when they were a good two miles away and Buck was sure nobody followed, he pulled over. He tore the lid off and exposed Vin to the night air, almost sensing the younger man's predicament. "Let's go home, Slick," he whispered, tapping Vin's chest. He dropped the back of the wagon, intending on disposing of the coffin and letting Vin sleep on the blankets he'd brought.

Donny jerked his friend's arm and pointed. They both watched the wagon go by and stop. Slow grins formed on the pair's tired faces. Hank's eyes darted around the dark terrain, until he saw a good sized rock. Sliding his boots off, he picked up the weapon and silently crept towards the unsuspecting driver.

"Ugh!" Buck groaned as something hard hit his head. He dropped to his knees, fumbling for his gun, when a large body slammed into him, pinning him to the ground.

"What the fuck?" he hissed, squiriming.

"Shut up!" Donny said, catching the gun tossed to himi and pulling the hammer of the it back.

Hank rolled off the man and shook his head at his friend's intent. "Bad move, Donny," he gasped, his chest on fire. "He's a lawman. This is Texas, they don't take kindly to that sort of thing. Besides, I ain't interested in murderin' anybody," the bank robber admitted. "Sorry, Mister, but we need your rig. We about done in..."

"Hey, there's a coffin in here..." Donny eyed the box, "What are you doin' haulin' a body?"

"None of your damn business," Buck spat, wiping the blood that was running into his eyes. "Look, I don't want any trouble. You two just keep movin' along. I got no business with you." He kept his voice low. His only concern was getting Vin out of that box.

"Hey... hey..." Donny's voice rose a pitch when he recognized Vin's face in the twilight. "That's the guy from the camp... uh... uh... shit, what's his name..."

Hank backed up and eyed the body, nodding as his friend did. "Quinn."

"Yeah, that's it." Donny frowned, then his face got animated, "Hey Hank, think there's a reward for him? Maybe he's got paper on him..."

Buck's heart began to hammer as his luck began to fade away. The gun was trained firmly on his chest, with any movement bringing potentially fatal consequences. His mouth grew dry as the pair continued. He slowly began to move, trying to stand.

"I don't know, Donny," Hank sighed wearily. "You really want to tote him with us? What about Mexico?"

"What about it?" Donny answered, "Plenty of towns between here and there where we can check on a bounty... Nuh-uh..." he warned the tottering lawman. "Don't be stupid..."

"Sit down," Hank shoved Buck hard.

Buck landed in a heap, the wound to his head already had him dizzy and on the verge of passing out. He didn't need a bullet in him too.

"Look, you can have the wagon," Buck suggested, trying to stay awake, "Just leave the body. I promised his folks I'd bring him home."

"No dice..." Donny snarled, "Tie him up... go on, Hank..."

Buck didn't need ropes to complicate things, so he dropped over, as if passed out. He felt two sharp kicks to his midsection and one to this groin. He bit back a cry and heard them move away.

"Get the lid on that box and let's get moving."

Buck heard his horse's cry, as the unknown pair climbed aboard. He heard the groan of the carriage moving and rolled over. He managed to get to his knees and force his legs up. He staggered a few steps, before the effects of the blow to his head took over. His eyes rolled back as a black curtain dropped over him.

Part 19

He heard his friends talking in low voices, the only distinguishable one being the deep voice of Josiah Sanchez. The four older men were finishing supper, the fried rabbits and biscuits were washed down with whiskey and coffee. He shifted his stance on the rocky spot where he was perched, having drawn the first watch. J.D. Dunne eyed the darkening night sky and thought of Buck. He wondered if the pain that rimmed his best friend's eyes would ever go away. His keen ears pricked up and he laid his rifle down. Picking up Vin's spyglass, he gazed along the road and craned his neck.

"Mr. Larabee?" Ezra shuffled the deck and saw the blond head shake in a negative fashion. He left Chris to his brooding stance by the perimeter of the camp and headed back to Josiah and Nathan. "Our fearless leader has declined my invitation. Gentlemen?"

"Ezra, you got no shame," Nathan chuckled, "You got my last dime..." Nathan bit his sentence off when the bird call sounded. He rose quickly, grabbing his rifle and followed his friends to the clearing. Chris was already behind a tree, colt drawn; Josiah stayed back further, leaving Ezra and himself to guard the middle.


Chris's soft call split the stilled night air.

"Rider comin' in..." the youth replied.

The air was silent, the only sound was the crackling and hissing of the now deserted campfire. The rider tensed up as he rode into the clearing, his hand resting on his holster. A thunderous echo of hammer's clicking jerked him upright.

"Toss 'it over, Mister."

He frowned at the familiar voice, which gruffly addressed him from a nearby tree. "You give a whole new meaning to the world 'welcome', Larabee."

"Colt?" Chris gasped, stepping from behind the tree. "What are you doing out here?"

"Josiah, Nathan," the sheriff nodded, sliding from his horse. He eyed the dirty, dusty clothing and then spotting the nearly immaculate gambler, "Damn Standish, even dirt stays clear of you..." He shook the conman's hand and looked around. "Where's the Kid?"

"Working, somebody has to..." A voice bellowed from behind him.

"Coffee?" Nate held a cup out.

"Thanks Nate," Colt sighed, rubbing his neck and stretching. "I got to tell you, this cloak-and-dagger bullshit isn't for old men like me," he sighed, holding his mug out towards the southerner.

"No Thank You, my good lawman," Ezra declined, "I prefer an after dinner apertif of a stronger sort."

"Hell, Standish," Colt barked, "I ain't offerin' it..." he smiled, "Where's that fancy silver flask you're so fond of. The damn thing's worth more than my whole wardrobe."

"Of course," Ezra offered the flask and poured a shot into the steaming coffee, "forgive my lack of campfire courtesy."

"I'll let it slide this time," Colt eased, patting Ezra's shoulder and stiffly sitting on a log. He took a slow sip and looked up as Chris rested a booted foot on the spot next to him. "Huntin'..." he answered the curious green gaze.

"...and..." Chris prodded, shoving his hat back and taking out a cheroot.

"Hazzard's living in the ground floor of this mansion he's fixin'. He comes to town twice a week to get take care of business, Wenesday and Saturday, like clockwork. He's kept a low profile and hasn't made any lasting impression."

"Funny," Chris leered, "..a lasting impression is what I had in mind..."

"Man can't live on whiskey alone." Josiah handed a plate of food to the weary traveler. "Well... most men can't..." he corrected, with a cruel grin.

"Thanks, Josiah," Colt replied, digging in.

"You come across Buck?" Josiah asked, taking the whiskey bottle from Nate.

"No, not yet." Colt frowned, "I was tracking Hazzard, afraid I'd lose him. If it's the last thing I do, that bastard's going down."

"I'll drink to that," Chris sounded, taking the bottle from Josiah and eyeing the marshal. "Listen Colt, I want to thank you for all you've done. We got a personal stake in this and..."

"...and I don't?" the older man growled, leveling an icy-hot stare at the man in black. "That son-of-a-bitch lied to me..." he shoved the plate away and stood, anger pouring off him.

"That's not what I meant," Chris's voice was apologetic. "You got a whole town to take care of and a damn fine woman to keep you warm. You're taking quite a chance."

"I gave that kid my word," Colt's words seeped through his clenched teeth reluctantly, "and I promised Wilmington I'd keep that boy safe. Now he's dead." He eyed Chris, who was only inches away from the hot sheriff's gaze, "I'd say that makes my stake just as big..."

"Okay," Chris relented, jerking his head toward the campfire. "We need a plan."

He heard the silence and it nearly deafened him. The pitch blackness scared him as well. He didn't see stars, trees, the night sky or even the moon. Black, that's what his world had become. Unable to move yet, only his eyes were working. The lingering question returned, sliding past the dank stench of body odor and worse, it caused more perspiration to flow down his already wet face. Where was Buck? Why couldn't he feel motion? He began to panic, wondering feverishly if his friend remembered to cut holes in the box. What if he hadn't? The very thought closed his throat and he began to get dizzy. Then he heard footsteps... and forced all his energy into his throat.

"Buck... Buck... please open the box... Buck... please... I can't breathe..."

Donny swallowed the last bit of bread and picked up a pear. They'd consumed almost all of the food they found, leaving only the canned items. He eyed the wagon across the road and frowned.

"Hank," he muffled, "Wasn't there cookies or cake or something in that box?"

"I don't know..." the other replied, "Go on and check."

Donny hung his lanky frame over the coffin and reached into the box that sat ontop. He fumbled around the tin cans, looking for a sweet snack, when a low moan sounded from within the box.

"Shit!" he jerked his hand back, sending the food box off the coffin and into the wagon. He listened for a moment more and heard only silence. With great trepidation and his heart hammering loudly, he took the lid off. He then lit a match and the wide blue eyes looking back at him caused him to scream and jump back.

"Donny! What the hell's wrong?"

"He's lookin' at me, Hank," Donny protested, moving away from the wagon.

"and... and... he moaned at me... I heard about stuff like this... he's hauntin' us... we're gonna die, Hank."

"Well, one of us is," Hank growled, waving the gun at the other man, "...'cause I'm gonna shoot you, if you don't shut up. He's dead, Donny...."

"His eyes is open..." the other stammered.

"Lots of corpses have open eyes..." Hank shook his head and leaned over the wagon, "Get over here and lite a match, will ya, I can't see shit... .Donny?"

"Yeah, okay."

Vin heard the strange voices and saw the dark sky overhead. The sudden influx of cool, night air had him giddy in relief. His unfocused eyes saw the stranger above and his ears took in the two unknown voices. His fears rose up again, taunting him with cruel, cold fingers. Where was Buck? What happened to Buck? Suddenly, the stranger's hand was thrust over his face, and another on his chest.

"He ain't breathin' Donny and his heart's not pumpin... he's dead."

"I ain't ridin' with him... he moaned at me... he's gonna rise up and kill us..."

"Oh, for Christ's sake," Hank slammed his fist on the side of the wagon. "It's not worth totin' him... besides, this wagon is slowin' us down. Get that saddle from the back of the rig and I'll unhitch the horse. We make better time without it." He said, placing the lid back on the box and slamming it hard.

"No... no... no... no..." Vin's silent screams bounced off the narrow confines of his wooden crypt, as the sky was stolen from him.

Buck blinked up at the night sky, which was twirling above his head. He groaned and rolled over, before crawling a few feet away and throwing up. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and stood on uncertain legs. His head was throbbing and his vision blurry, then the clouds lifted and his eyes widened.

"Vin!" he groaned and began to stagger up the road. How long had he been unconsious? How long before Vin woke up? Vin didn't like closed in spaces of any kind, the worst nightmare being trapped alive in a coffin. Buck's legs picked up their pace, his fervor to find his friend driving him hard. For miles he plowed onward, gaining strength and resolve. Then he saw it, standing alone basked in moonlight. He charged forward, pulling down the back of the wagon and jerking the coffin onto the ground.

"Vin! Vin!" he screamed hoarsly, tugging the lid off. He lit a match and peered inside. "Oh Jesus... Oh fuck Vin... Oh God..." he eyed the twisted body, whose fingertips were bloody from trying to claw their way out. He dropped the match and gripped the side of Vin's neck. He sat back on his heels and sobbed in relief. A pulse, a strong thread of life was coursing through the tracker's veins. He pulled Vin upright and free of the hell hole. He laid his friend down and lit another match. Vin was roasting and Buck's first thought was water. He listened and heard the unmistakable rippling of a rushing current. He sat Vin upright and slung him over his shoulder. Gripping the side of the wagon, he stood and lumbered towards the river.

By the time he reached the water's edge, he was spent. He collapsed, sending both of them into the cool water. He sat up, holding Vin across his lap, the slack-jawed sharpshooter's head rested on the crook of his arm. The water lapped around Vin's body, up to his neck. Buck splashed the hot, flushed face of the silent man, urging him to waken.

"Vin, come on boy, open them eyes of yours," Buck begged, tapping the silent face. His fingers brushed the wet hair away and the moonlight cast an eerie silver light on the body in his arms. "It's Buck, Vin, I gotcha... you need to wake up. Vin! Vin!" he hollered, slapping the face and finally the body jerked and the eyes twitched under closed lids. "That's it... come on now..."

Vin heard the voice, something strong and secure that smashed into his oblivion. The shards of the broken, endless abyss he was locked in cut into him as the force of life returned. The flames that consumed his body were being squelched by a blissful stream that bathed him lustfully. The air that had so cruelly stolen from his lungs, was now pouring freely around him, embracing him and reviving him. But it was the voice that roused him and gave him life.

Buck saw the lips parting and cupped some water in his hand. "Here Vin, drink some water..." Buck coached, sighing and smiling as the jaw worked and the water disappeared. For several minutes, he fed water to the unsatable body, worried still that the eyes didn't open. Then they shot open so quickly, it stunned hiim. The body began to spasm and Vin began to gasp for air, his eyes wide with fright.

The memory returned and Vin fought back. He was trapped in the box... he couldn't breathe... Buck was gone... he was going to die... die... die...

"No!" Vin gasped, jerking his arms and thrashing his legs, "Buck... get me outta here... Buck... open the box... I can't breathe... Buck! Where the hell are ya? Buck!"

"Jesus Christ!" Buck swore, trying to control the flailing body and feeling every one of Vin's agonizing cries like nails in his chest. Visions of Vin waking in the tomb hurt him deeply. "Vin, You're okay... it's all over... Vin, calm down... Shit!" Buck hissed as an errant elbow hit his eye. He used both arms to grab Vin from behind and drag him onto the bank. Finally, the thrashing stopped and the body slumped. Exhausted, Buck took several minutes to get his breathing under control. Finally, he pulled Vin over to a group of rocks and propped him up. It took several trips, but he managed to get the blankets, tins of food and other supplies into the makeshift camp. He lit a fire and laid the heaviest blanket next to it. He stripped Vin's shirt off and dried him off with a towel that held the chicken he purchased. He dried the tracker off and laid him on the blanket. The stitches were ripped open and he'd have to redo them, but not now. His hands were trembling and his vision blurry. He poured carbolic on the wound and covered it with a clean bandage. He pulled a lightweight blanket up to Vin's neckline and then sighed in relief. Exhausted, he stretched out next to his silent friend and sent a quiet prayer of thanks to the Creator.


"Damn..." Buck jumped up, squinting as the first signs of daylight greeted him. It was predawn and the sky was light. He knelt over the heaving chest and saw the wide-eyed patient, who was gasping audibly. He picked up the canteen and lifted Vin forward, pulling the water container back, when the greedy Texan began to gulp.

"You'll get sick... we got plently, take it slow." Buck ordered and the eyes narrowed at him, accusing him.

"...hell where ya... damn near died... woke up... they was... I couldn't... no air... shit..." Vin rambled, not sure he wanted to remember the worst night of his life.

"I'm sorry Vin." Buck whispered, feeling awful. The brief burst of energy left the fevered man exhausted and he laid back, breathing deeply and blinking rapidly. Buck watched the eyes slide shut and rested a hand on the flushed face. "Dammit..." he hissed, feeling a fever building. He left his patient and started a fire, popping several tins of broth open.

Vin was dozing when something nudged his lips. He inhaled the rich aroma and opened up, taking in the tasty broth. After several mouthfuls, he peeled an eye open and saw he was sitting up, resting against... against... he frowned and blinked lazily at four legs which appeared in front of him. He saw the spoon coming, and the hand that held it. He then realized his chair was made of flesh and bone.

"...get offa me... what... doin'... Buck?"

"Feedin' your ungrateful ass breakfast. Now eat up..." Buck was sitting up,

Vin was sitting in front of him, resting against his chest. It was the only way to keep the swaying, weak man upright and get food in him. Satisified when three mugs of broth disappeared into the younger man, Buck finally eased from behind. He laid Vin back down and bent over the gaping wound in his shoulder. It was still red, inflamed and hot to the touch. "You busted your stitches..." he warned the owlish eyes, trying to focus. "I'm gonna clean it and sew it up... okay?" he asked and saw the damp head nod once.

Vin watched Buck's blurry face moving over him. He felt the sting of the cold medicine as it hit his shoulder and then the bite of the needle. His vision cleared up and he saw something else. He screwed his face up and raised his left hand, trying to touch it.

"Cut that out," Buck ordered, shoving the wayward arm back, "I can't sew you up and shake hands .Pretend your back home... just lie around like you usually do," Buck teased, concentrating on his job. The hand came up again and the face was scrunched in concentration.

Vin stared at the side of Buck's head and saw a dark red sticky mass. He managed tosneak his hand up and touch Buck's head, causing a hiss and jerk.

"...yer... hurt..." Vin whispered, eyeing the dark eyes which bore into him.

"Just a little present from your kidnappers." He replied and saw the confusion on the patient's face, "It happened when I stopped to pull you out of that thing," Buck recalled, feeling the wayward hand reaching up again. "They jumped me, Vin... clubbed me with a rock. I'm sorry..." he hushed, biting his lip and resuming his job.

Vin took a deep breath and stared at Buck. He thought on the past days... Buck's was a wall of strength, saving his life and getting him out of prison. Buck was the one who dug the infection from his shoulder, Buck was the one who bathed him and fought his nightmares. That was the voice that drew him back. He saw the exhaustion and pain on the older man's face and parted his lips.


"For what?" Buck paused, cocking his head.

"...can't recall... something... did... hurt... ya... sorry..."

Buck chuckled and reached for a clean bandage, unable to resist ruffling the damp curls. "You buy me a beer and we'll call it even, okay?" Buck asked and lifted Vin, giving him a drink of the tea he made, laced with medicinal leaves and herbs. He smiled at the soft grunts of pleasure as the sweet tea disappeared. "You get some rest. The town can't be too far, we'll be there by supper."

He vowed and moved to clean the campsight up. He had more broth simmering and was trying to catch a nap, when the body began to twitch and the shaggy head moved. Buck saw the makeshift sling move and quickly placed a hand on the tracker's chest.

"What's wrong?" He hollered, "You gotta keep that arm still, Vin. Your shoulder's tore up bad and moving your arm is gonna make it worse," he chastised soundly, "Now get that head down, quit tossin' that skinny body around and get to sleep!"

"No..." Vin protested, fighting the sandbags on his eyes."...need... need..."

"Water?" Buck guessed, reaching for the canteen, but the head shook.

"No." Vin sighed, holding out his left hand.

Buck frowned and gripped the limp hand, "What is it, Slick? What do you need?" He leaned over, spotting the anxious eyes and the hard swallowing activity.

"...Thanks Marshal," Vin sighed deeply, gripping the hand in his and letting his eyes finally shut.

Buck kept that hand in his for a few seconds, feeling the impact of the brief statement. He replaced it carefully, before pulling up the blanket. He poured water over the towel and wiped Vin's face and neck. He stared at the bandaged chest rising and falling and the flushed face, finally relaxed and resting. "...damn sorry-assed tracker," he grunted, " does he do that?" he wondered of the tightening in his chest.

It was an impressive house and it's Georgian style was woefully out of place in the desert terrain. But still, the price was way below market and he did like saving money. Money, that was the force that drove him. Getting it, investing it and making more of it. He smiled as he thought of his growing fortune. Lifting the fine linen napkin to his lips, he nodded and the servant took the imported china dish away. She returned with a sterling silver carafe of coffee. He nodded again and she ground some cinnamon into his cup, before pouring the steaming liquid. He gazed around the large dining room, it's pale green walls and cream wainscoting gave the room a quiet, tranquil feeling.

"Anything else, Judge?"

"No, Vanessa," he replied, "That will be all. Have you seen to my room?"

"Not yet, Sir," the Spanish maid replied, bowing her head. "But..."

"See to it," he snapped, rising and taking his china cup. "Bring the coffee and the cinnamon rolls out onto the verandah."

"Yes, Sir," she hurried to follow out his order.

He moved his tall frame through the room and eyed the large formal foyer. The parlor was equally impressive, done in shades of mauve, rose, cream and sage. One wall held a huge fireplace, framed by French doors. He moved quickly through them and settled into a large chair on the immaculate porch. He nodded as the maid set the tray down and left.

He saw movement from his side vision and stood to get a better view. Before he could step foot off his patio, the sun reflected off a glint of silver. He squinted at the colt, then upwards at a tall, lean figure in black, who wore the weapon with ease. The wrist flicked slightly, nudging the pistol into his side.

"Mornin'" Chris grinned, cocking his head, "Beautiful day, isn't it?" He saw the judge's frown appear as his eyes took in the five empty gunbelts draped on Chris's shoulder. "You get what you pay for," he said of the guards on the property. He then tossed the gunbelts in a heap several feet away. "My men are keeping an eye on them, until we leave. Shall we?" he motioned with his free arm at the table set up with coffee and rolls.

"I don't who you are, Mister, but..."

"No, but I sure as hell know you... Spencer fuckin' Hazzard." Chris's smile disappeared and he pushed the gun further into Hazzard's gut. His finger was itching to pull the trigger. It took all his reserve to let the 'walking pile of refuse', as Ezra called him, breathe another minute. His eyes were like green coals and Vin's grave crept unwanted into his mind.

Ezra nearly moved in, seeing the unbridled hate pouring from Chris Larabee's eyes. For a brief moment, he saw the gunslinger's hand twitch and cringed, fearing the roar of vengeance would prove to be to strong, even for a Larabee. But then the mask fell back in place and he saw the blond regain control.

He shifted behind Chris, recalling the conversation from the night before. Chris knew the most about Hazzard and what he'd done to Vin. He was the only one the Texan had confided in and had the dangerous edge needed to pull off the stunt. Colt discovered that the men like Eli Joe, who worked for Hazzard, had all met with untimely deaths. The judge left no loose pieces to bring him any trouble. Once Kincaid's land was secure, he had no use for them, and saw to it they all were eliminated. Chris had the information Judge Travis uncovered, which spelled out the growing fortune of the now retired bench member. Nathan came up with the idea, and they all agreed it was the best fit.

Vin told Chris that he had no alibi, that he was alone on the trail the morning of the murder and arrived at the farm after Kincaid had been killed. Chris recalled the Texan mentioning being 'detained' for a few hours the night before in some dying town, after engaging in a brawl. That was when Nate came up with the idea. What if Vin was in jail all night and was not alone? The Judge had no henchmen now to do his dirtywork and more money than God. So if a stranger appeared, with all the right information, the Judge might pay him off, rather than face the consequences. If for no other reason, the to prevent that stranger from going to go to the railroad and tell them his story.

Colt added that the Judge never asked why the marshal had been bringing Vin to Texas. What if it wasn't about his bounty? What if the railroad was suspicious enough of the mysterious deaths of Kincaid and others in the area to investigate? So when a lawyer contacted them about a witness, they became very interested and offered a reward. They concluded that Buck, in the guise of the marshal, had been hired to find Tanner and bring him in to testify. If his story supported the claim of the witness, then Hazzard would be brought up on charges. Ezra was the natural choice as the lawyer hired by the railroad. Chris would be the drifter in Wardsville, the town where Vin was arrested that night. He'd been drinking with Tanner, they got into an argument and a fight ensued. They were locked up together and remained there all night. It was too far a ride to get to Tascosa from there in time to havekilled Kincaid.

"I won't buckle under such barbaric tactics," Hazzard paused as the other man laughed outright and shoved him into a chair. He leaned over, his green eyes narrowing.

"You got balls tossin' around the word 'barbaric' you murderin' bastard..."

"I think you would be well advised to leave my property now," Hazzard replied, not blinking, "Any further discussions can be managed through my solicitor."

" my own s-o-l-i-c-i-t-o-r," Chris drew out the word slowly and tilted his head, "Move that overpaid ass of yours, Talmidge."

Ezra dusted invisible dirt off his green jacket and walked towards them. He took of his hat and nodded his head. "I suggest you refrain from undo force, Mr. Lawrence, as it might result in lost income."

"Good point," Chris agreed backing up, but keeping his gun out.

"I believe an explanation is owed you, My Good Judge," Ezra steeled, nearly choking on the words. He poured them each a cup of coffee and took a long sip. "Just the right touch of cinnamon, quite exceptional."

"What's this about?" Hazzard hissed, growing increasingly nervous at the lean man in black's penetrating gaze.

"It's about you fucking with the wrong person," Chris lashed out, every muscle taut.

"Mr. Lawrence," Ezra warned, once again seeing the serpent rising in Chris's eyes. "What my client is clumsily trying to convey, is that we can be mutally beneficial to each other. You see, Mr. Lawrence has something that very well may save your life, for the right renumeration."

"A bribe?" Hazzard moved to place the china cup back on the table, "You wasted your trip out here. I have nothing to discuss with... "

"Vin Tanner."

The two words from the blond caused the judge's arm to jerk and the china cup to shatter on the stone below. Chris stared at the pale blue shattered glass fragments and thought of Vin's eyes. Blue mirrors of untold depths that were now lost to him forever. He drew his hooded gaze back up to the clearly rattled judge.

"Bit jumpy..." Chris mused, leaning lazily against the post supporting the overhang above them. "You see, you framed a bounty hunter named Vin Tanner for murder. That was your first mistake..."

"Uh... If I may continue," Ezra interrupted, sending a strong message to 'cease and desist' with his green eyes. "Mr. Lawrence is correct in his assumption. Mr. Tanner was unjustly accused of this crime. The rightful felon was a murderer by the name of Eli Joe..."

"I have proof." Hazzard spat back, "Tanner was as guilty as sin."

"Proof?" Ezra drawled, "Before you say anything further, you should know that I represent the railroad as well as Mr. Lawrence. When Mr. Lawrence discovered the railroad was looking into unscrupulous activity in this area and the possible illegal means by which the land they secured was purchased, well, he came forward."

"Just doing my civic duty," Chris eased, seeing Hazzard start to sweat.

"You're wrong..." Hazzard stood, "and I'll prove it. Vanessa!"

Ezra and Chris exchanged a brief glance as a beatiful Spanish woman appeared.

"Yes, Sir?"

"Get my valise!"

Five minutes later, she reappeared, carrying a large leather portfolio. Ezra moved the sterling silver tray away and she placed it in front of them. Chris's eyes narrowed and he kept his gun trained on Hazzard.

"That will be all," he ordered the maid, who left. He moved his hand to open it and heard the colt click.

"Move it or lose it," Chris ordered of the hand, "Talmidge, you open it."

"Very well," Ezra moved in and opened the leather bag, eyebrows rising as they drew out a gun as well as a knife. He tossed both far off the patio and inspected the interior. "It is now without weaponry." He relayed and motioned for the judge to continue. They watched as he rifled through several thick folders of documents, before pulling one out and handing it to Ezra.

"A full confession, signed and dated," Hazzard crowed, feeling triumphant, "three witnesses and notarized too. I don't know what game your playing, Lawrence, but it's over."

"That's Mr. Lawrence to you, Fuckface," Chris's voice was gutteral and his eyes narrowed.

"Very impressive," Ezra had to move his hand to cover the grin that Chris's remark brought. He then nodded, having spent a few minutes reading the legal paper. "Extraordinary penmanship, wouldn't you agree?" He handed the document to Chris, who stared at it then at him. Ezra read the question in Chris's eyes and he nodded slightly. He'd known about Vin's inability to read or write for quite some time.

"Amazing..." Chris nodded, reading the 'confession' by Vin Tanner, which admitted to the murder. He handed the paper back to Ezra, but stared hard at the judge. "...especially when you consider Vin Tanner was illiterate."

"Hah!" the judge scoffed, shaking his head, "You have no proof of that."

"Au contraire, my good fellow," Ezra smiled, "as well as a few other facts. Have you ever had the occasion to travel to Wardsville?"

"Where?" Hazzard squinted, wiping his glasses.

"Guess that answers that," Chris scoffed.

"Mr. Lawrence was detained there one night... with Mr. Vin Tanner. They weren't released from jail until the following morning. While tracking this Eli Joe person, who himself was wanted for murder, he found Jess Kincaid's body. But the time of death was well before he could have been there. The railroad was very interested in Mr. Lawrence's letter stating these facts. They contracted a marshal to bring Mr. Tanner to Texas, to give his testimony. Unfortunately, he met with an untimely end."

Chris's lips turned upwards as Ezra planted the bait and Hazzard swallowed it whole. He saw the sweat beads forming and the judge's hand trembling. He shoved his boot off the wall and rested a hand on Ezra's shoulder.

"Much as I'd like to do my 'civic' duty," Chris took a roll and dipped it into Ezra's coffee, before taking a bite. "I've been thinking about getting a place of my own. Maybe we could uh... work something out."

"Mutually beneficial," Ezra purred, "A capital idea..."

"Capital..." Chris repeated the conman's play on words. "I've always been partial to the number five... add three zero's for good measure..."

"Five thousand dollars!" Hazzard sputtered, standing and raising a fist.

"That, of course, is only Mr. Lawrence's fee. I haven't contacted the injured marshal or the lawman in Wardsville who took Mr. Tanner's statement that night and his 'mark'. That being to pick up his gun that next morning. He couldn't sign his name so..."

"Enough..." Hazzard hollered, "I'll need some time..."

"You got two days." Chris said, "Don't think about leaving, you'll be dead before you hit the edge of town. We'll be back at sundown... two days Hazzard." Chris tossed the remnant of the roll onto the table and followed Ezra to their horses.

"Oh and a parting note," Ezra drolled, "Mr. Tanner's statement was given to the sheriff in Salt Flats, Mr. Lawrence's statement to the railroad as well to myself, the statements from the two law officers and other key documents, are all locked up in a safe place. Should any harm befall my client or myself, the railroad will be notified to sieze them. Good day, Judge Hazzard."

"How'd it go?" Nate asked, when the duo appeared down the road.

"He's worried." Ezra nodded "...and I think he'll crack. We're reconvening at sunset at his house in two days."

"Judge Travis should arrive that morning," Sanchez noted, "...he's bringing a representative from the attorney general's office." He swung his head upwards, "Shame you can't be there to see this, Brother Vin."

"He knows..." Chris sighed, jerking his horse and heading on the road to Blue Meadow.

It was well past four o'clock and the two bedraggled figures were silently trudging on the path towards Blue Meadow. The lead figure was taller and the sun was causing his already throbbing head to pound without mercy. The smaller man was limping badly, barely walking.

"I'm fine." Vin rasped, without taking his eyes from the road. It took all of his concentration to place on foot in front of the other and not keel over.

"I didn't say anything," Buck retorted, pausing and glancing behind him. But his friend wasn't fine and the fact he was even able to walk amazed Buck.

The pain in his lower back was written in the lines on his face. The crude sling kept his damaged right arm in place and his face was flushed with fever. He was lagging further and further behind with every piece of road they covered. Buck knew he couldn't go on much further.

"Ya was thinkin' it," Vin contradicted, "heard ya as clear as rain..."

"Clear as rain?" Buck grunted, screwing his face up. He saw Vin jerk his body upright and stop. "Vin?" He covered the feet between them and saw the sweat-logged head rise.

"Trouble..." the tracker pointed to buzzards circling ahead.

"I'll check it out," Buck guided his wobbling friend into the shade and under a tree. "Drink," he ordered, giving Vin the canteen. "I'll be right back. Don't move!"

Buck ambled up the road and paused, spotting his gray bay tied to a tree. He inched forward and saw the two felons. One was in a bad way, the smell of dead tissue and infection hung in the air. The other was asleep next to him, the gun on his chest. Buck crept in and took the gun. Neither man stirred.

Buck got rope from the saddlehorn of his horse and tied them up. The older one managed to peel an eye open.

"I'll send somebody from town." Buck promised, turning and urging his horse back to where he left his injured friend.

Vin capped the canteen and stood up. He saw tracks nearby and staggered over to see if they belonged to Annabelle. He was bending over them, when a voice boomed behind him and startled him.

Buck eyed the empty tree and jerked the reins in on the horse. "Where the hell did that boy get to?" he gritted to the horse. "VIN!"

Buck cocked his head as a stream of curses in a familiar drawl sailed into his ears. He trotted over a few yards and saw Vin struggling to stand. He jumped down, his nose wrinkling in distaste.

"Shit!" Vin swore, seeing the cause of his trouble standing before him. "In every sense of the word," Buck chuckled, seeing the fresh horse manure all over Vin. "You're lucky I'm such a kind-hearted fellow," he teased, guiding his weak friend to the horse. "Look who I found."

"They dead?" Vin grunted of the felons, as Buck got him onto the horse.

"No, but they're close," he swung up behind Vin, glad that the stenchy-mess was on the front of the smaller man. He jerked the reins and they headed for town.

Part 20

"Spit it out, Vin, before you choke on it," Buck suggested, having spent the last half-hour watching the changing emotions on the tracker's face. Vin sat forward a bit, roused from his semi-doze on the taller man. This gave Buck an opportunity to flex his shoulder, the dozing Tanner had been dead weight.

"...been thinkin'..." Vin sighed, too weary to raise his voice.

"Didn't hurt yourself, did you?" Buck teased and saw the tracker's eyes crinkle and a small grin appear.

"I need a favor..."

"Shoot." Buck replied, wondering where this train of thought was going.

"Once I get m'legs back and some wind in m'lungs, I aim to find that Fucker what set me up..."

"...and?" Buck frowned, trying to read past the creases in the Texan's brow.

"Might be a few days 'til I'm up and about... If ya could check around..." Vin paused, sighing.

"Get it out, Vin..."

"I hate askin' ya, but if ya could use that badge," Vin rasped, sneaking a sideways glance at Buck. "and find out where he slithered off. Well, it'd sure be a help, before ya headed back."

Buck reined the horse in and steadied the wobbly tracker, before blowing an air of exasperation from his lungs. He took a long swig of the canteen, before handing it over to the puzzled Tanner.

"After all this," Buck growled, "...all the shit we've been through. What the fuck kind of friend do you think I am? I ain't riding back until that bastard is dead or behind bars. Are we clear on that? Of all the stupid, fuckin' ideas... that you could think I'd leave you? Jesus, Vin..."

Vin flinched at the harsh tones and felt the rippling rage in Buck's chest. As much as every inch of him ached and his head felt like it weighed a hundred pounds, he didn't lean back. He forced himself to stay upright, clinging to the saddlehorn. He didn't mean it the way Buck took it, Buck had done so much already... Although his spirit was willing , his body wasn't able. Try as he might, the pain in his shoulder and back became unbearable, in the stiff position he held himself in. As if sensing it, a hand snaked around his waist and pulled him back.

"Damn but you're stubborn," Buck hissed, "Makes is easier on both of us if you just relax and lean on me. Pretty good reason to have these broad shoulders. Man ought to know when to take a hand..."

"It come out all ass backwards..." Vin whispered, gasping as a wave of pain rolled over his back. It did take away the pressure and those shoulders were broad enough to help a friend. "Ya done s'much already, Bucklin..." he hesistated, lifting his head and waiting.

"Go on..." Buck egged, grinning at the struggling apology.

"Goddamn arrogant jackass," Vin grumbled and was rewarded by a burst of Wilmington laughter. "Yer enjoyin' me squirmin'... pickin' on an invalid... ya ought to be ashamed."

"I'm waiting," Buck goaded, shifting his arm so Vin's head would be more comfortable. He shoved the floppy hat he'd picked up in Langston further down on the smelly, mangled head.

"Cut that out," Vin protested and hissed and he overshifted and pulled against his shoulder wound.

"I'm okay," he managed, feeling Buck tense up behind him. "Hey Buck," he whispered, feeling the heavy effect of the sun and his fever. The half-lidded eyes turned sideways and met the dark blue ones, "...been thinkin..."

"It's gonna snow for sure," Buck chuckled, watching the weary body with a cautious eye.

"Reckon that dragon ain't got a snowball's chance in hell o'bestin' two knights..."

"Now you're talking!" Buck boomed, causing the body in front of him to jerk.

"Thing about a team of knights, is that there's the good-looking, studlike vision that sends all the maidens into a pile of swooning, quivering flesh..."

"Yup," Vin slurred, his head flopping on Buck's shoulder, "and then there's y'all."

"Smartass!" Buck laughed, slowing the horse's pace, so his fevered friend could rest more comfortably.

Twilight, Blue Meadow

"Chris, we're heading for the saloon to get some supper, you coming?" J.D. asked, standing between Colt and Nathan.

"Maybe later," the leader replied, heading in the opposite direction. He walked for some time; the meeting with the man responsible for Vin's suffering and untimely death was unsettling. It had been a long time since he was consumed with the inferno of anger he felt on Hazzard's porch. It was such a shitty tradeoff, someone with the integrity of Vin Tanner and that spineless spitball hiding behind a judge's robe. The whole mess had his stomach churning all day. It fueled the ache in him; he'd missed Vin today more than ever.

Blue Meadow was a small town and he felt every eye on him as he strode silently along the boardwalk. He paused outside a large window, it's gold lettering announcing it was the 'finest merchandile in all of Texas'. He peered through the glass and then stepped up to the door.

By the time Buck rode down the main street, it was almost sundown. Vin was sound asleep, his wet head was lolling against Buck's shoulder. The rider let his eyes wander down the deserted street. He spotted the hotel, saloon, sheriff's office and other stores. Then he found the one business he sought and trotted over. He used his shoulder to gently nudge the slumbering sharpshooter.

"Vin, you with me?"


Buck cringed at Vin's sleepy eyes, croaking voice and especially the awful smell. "You're ripe, Slick. You gotta get cleaned up, then we'll get you a nice soft bed."

"Huh?" Vin repeated, eyed blinking and body swaying.

"You awake?" Buck got down and eased his younger friend off the horse. He led Vin inside and tossed a coin at the attendant. He sat Vin on a bench and began to unbutton his shirt. Twice the stuperous body fell forward. "Vin, how's your back?" he asked, eyeing the horrid purple bruises. He discarded the soiled clothing and stood the groggy tracker up. His hand only confirmed what his eyes knew, Vin was riddled with fever. He wrinkled his nose at the amount of horse manure that Vin managed to get all over him. "Vin, you with me?" He tapped the flushed face.


"Damn..." Buck chuckled and led him to the tub. "Keep that arm up," he ordered, "Let me do all the work."

"...wanna go..." Vin mumbled, trying to get up.

"No can do," Buck gently pushed him back, "You'd get arrested for showing off that pretty body of yours."

"...m'tired..." Vin sighed, "...all done?" He forced his eyes open and tried to focus. "...ain't feelin' s'good, Bucklin."

"Yeah, I know, Vin." Buck paused and lifted a mug of rinse water. He hurried as best he could, washing the matted hair and soiled body. He got Vin out of the tub and wrapped him in a large towel. "Listen up, I'm gonna go get you some clothes. You stay put..." He tossed another coin to the attendant and pointed. "Keep an eye on him, I'll be right back. Where can I get him some clothes?"

"Lonnie's Dry Goods, right next store."

True to his word, Buck returned about five minutes later. Vin was still snoozing on the bench. He never roused as Buck got the socks, pants and boots on. But once the carbolic hit his wound, his eyes shot open and his left fist shot out. "Hey now!" Buck caught the fist, "I'm on your side, remember?"

"Sorry..." Vin sighed, "I feel like shit Buck..."

Buck didn't reply, knowing the high level of pain that the Texan could endure. This only confirmed his suspicions of how ill his young friend was.

"Aw, hell." Buck hissed gently guiding Vin's arm into the new shirt. "I forgot your sling. The fella next store was gonna cut a hunk of material for me. I'll be right back."

"I'm okay," Vin took a deep breath and began to button his shirt with his left hand.

Chris entered the store and hunted down some cheroots. He spotted the pile of colorful bandannas and thought of Vin. He picked out a bright blue one, the color reminded him of the tracker's eyes. He paid for his purchases and made his way outside. He spotted a nice deserted post outside the bath house and leaned against it. He eyed the fading sun and pulled out Vin's harmonica. Setting the musical instrument to his lips, he began to play.

Vin cocked his head as a tune filtered inside the open door. He secured the top button and began to hum along. It was a song that always gave him chills and this version was very moving. He felt drawn to it and the haunting music drove him to the doorway. As the final notes of 'Amazing Grace' died out, Vin exited the bath house. Glancing at the sidewalk, he jerked back in shock, his eyes as wide as blue saucers. He managed to stagger a few feet and felt his body turn to pins and needles. There less than five feet away in grief-stricken profile, was his best friend. He spotted the mouth organ and noticed the death grip Chris had on it. Then he saw the green eyes and wished he hadn't. The pain that radiated from them, sent a lance through him. His jaw moved, he swallowed hard, but no words came out. Finally, he managed to peel his lips apart.

"Hell, I bet ya stole m'horse too..." Vin cringed as soon as the words left his lips. What the hell kind of thing was that to say to someone who thought they'd lost you forever?

Chris froze when he heard the voice. His heart was pounding painfully, his breath skidded to a sharp halt and he creased his brows. He took a deep breath and slowly turned his head. He saw an oversized sky blue chambray shirt first and followed the neckline up to...

"Jesus!" he hissed, jerking and toppling over, landing hard on his butt in the street. His eyes widened in shock at the bruised, flushed face surrounded by long wet curls. His mind refused to acknowledge what his heart was screaming at him.

"Nah, still Vin," the tracker replied, smiling and extending his arm. But his smile faded when Chris made no move to take his hand. The leader's face remained pale and tense, the eyes stunned and silent. His hand wavered and his heart sank, "Chris?" he whispered, eyes cloaked in blue apprehension.

It was the soft whisper that made Chris resume his breathing. The power of the breathy drawl slammed into him hard. He took the hand and pulled the 'ghost' into an embrace. He clenched his eyes shut and gripped the muscle and sinew under his fingertips hard, needing to assure himself it was real.

Vin stiffened and sucked in his breath, when Chris suddenly embraced him. He felt his best friend's heart beating rapidly against his chest. Then just as quickly, it was over and he was pulled back. The face was now taut with anger, the mouth was snarling and the eyes a livid green.

"Aw, hell," Vin hissed, furrowing his brows together, "Ya ain't seen me but fer a minute. Couldn't have done nothin' t'piss ya off that fast."

"Where the Hell have you been!" Chris roared, gripping the tracker's shoulders with iron claws. "We thought you were dead. I sat on your fuckin' grave for Christ's sake." He jerked free, balling both hands into fists. "I ought to..." He paused and frowned, realizing he was talking to air. Then he felt a body hit his thighs and glanced down. Vin was on his knees, leaning into the black pants. "What's wrong?" He knelt down and eased his friend back. Both of Vin's eyes were clenched shut and his left hand was snaked under his new shirt. The breathing came in short pants and it was then Chris saw the effects of whatever ordeal the younger man suffered. His face was gaunt from weight loss, dark circles rimmed his eyes. Chris brushed the wet, tangled hair from the flushed face and felt the heat emerging. "You got a fever..." he muttered and pried the hand free. He spotted the soggy bandage and pulled it free too. The red area around the wound was hot to the touch and he cringed, realizing it was in the exact spot he'd ground his fingers into. "Shit... I'm sorry, Vin..." He moved his hand up and behind the injured man's neck. The shaggy head rose and the eyes were unbearably emotive. He sucked in a ragged breath, as those blue beacons bore into him hard. "You scared me, you sorry-assed Texan, you know that?" he grunted and saw the sky eyes crinkle as a soft smile was born.

"That's another two bits Ezra owes me," Vin teased, swallowing hard. "I'm sorry, Chris," he whispered, staring deep in to the green eyes at six weeks of anguish. Six weeks of Larabee's pain and grief and maybe a some guilt.

"Me too, Cowboy," Chris nodded, still harboring guilt over his decision to abandon Buck and Vin the day of the Alvarez ambush. "Guess that means my future as a harmonica soloist is in serious doubt."

"Real serious," Vin chuckled and felt a strong wave of dizziness overtake him. "Get me inside," he whispered, letting Chris help him up. "Buck's gonna have a fit, his pretty stitches it busted again."

"Buck!" Chris hollered, guiding Vin to a chair in the bath house. "Buck's with you?"

"He's the one who dug me up..."

"Dug you up?" Chris frowned.

"Scare up some water?" Vin asked, his mouth like a desert.

"Sure," Chris trotted off.

Buck was whistling when he entered the bath house and the note died in his throat when he saw the awful state of his friend. The face was lined in pain, rivers of sweat poured freely, the eyes were clouded and the hands were sticky with blood.

"What the hell happened?"

"Buck, it ain't... I didn't... I'm sorry, I busted yer stitches."

"That's okay, Vin." Buck softened his tone, when he saw the dangerous state the other man was in. "Come on, let's get you to a doctor."

"No! No! I ain't lettin' that fuckin' butcher touch me." Vin screamed, standing and staggering away. "No doctor... ya can't make me... ya... shit..."

"Vin!" Chris bellowed, dropping the cup and catching the buckling body.

"Chris!" Buck moved in and got the other side. After sitting Vin down, he eased the injured arm into a sling. "How'd you get here?"

"Later," Chris stated, concerned about Vin's failing health. "Look Vin, that shoulder needs tending. You need to have a doctor..."

"No! No fuckin' doctor's gonna tie me down again... stick some filthy knife in me... Goddamn senile drunk... Buck, ya promised..."

"Yeah, okay, Vin... settle down," Buck soothed, gripping the shaken tracker's jaw. He saw Chris's puzzlement and raised a hand, signaling he'd explain later. "Everybody with you?" he hoped, thinking of Nathan.

"Yeah, at the saloon."

"Nathan" Vin's weak voice rose with his head. His poured his hope into his eyes and stared right through Chris.

"Yeah," Chris eased, watching the tell-tale eyes slide shut. "Come on Cowboy, let's get you fixed up." He moved to help Vin up, but the tracker's left hand shot out and his head turned, seeking Buck. There was no hesitation, it was an automatic move; one born of the bond that was created during the harrowing ordeal he'd suffered through. Vin's fevered mind was latching onto the one constant that pulled him through every nightmare and jaunt through hell. The steady voice that chased the demons away and the strong arms that cradled his battered body and soul. Chris's face broke into a genuine smile, when he saw the tender look on Buck's face as he lifted the injured man and steadied him.

He followed a few paces behind, still wearing the grin. As they reached the doorway, he caught Buck's eye over Vin's drooping head.

"Thanks, Pard," he saluted and saw a beautiful Wilmington smile born.

"Josiah, you sure this is chicken?" J.D. wrinked his nose and lifted the could-be-meat off his plate. He waited as the preacher eyed the morsel dripping with gravy and then watched as the solemn face turned away. "Well?"

"Live and learn, Son," the eldest advised, returning to his beef stew.

"Thanks," J.D. retorted sarcastically, before taking a tenative bite.

Although the saloon wasn't crowded, Ezra remained several tables away, shuffling his cards. He already decided to eat later at the cafe near the hotel. He and Chris were supposed to be travelling together, so they remained separated from the others. Bored, the gambler drained his whiskey and rose to get another. At the end of the bar, there were two hot dishes in kettles. One was beef stew, the other was supposed to be chicken and dumplings. Ezra saw Nathan screw his face up at both and take two biscuits instead.

He moved beside Ezra, waiting for the bartender. He eyed the gambler tossing down another shot and shook his dark head.

"You don't get some food in you, Ezra, you're gonna be sorry..."

"Not to worry, Mr. Jackson," Ezra purred without taking his eyes from the large window that overlooked the street. "I am well aware of my limits and rest assured I will not regurgitate on you."

"Hmmph..." the other snorted, drizzling honey on his biscuits.

Buck kept his hand under Vin's elbow, just in case the tracker's legs buckled. He was about to step into the street, when Vin kept going forward.

"Hotel's this way, Vin," he called out.

"...ain't goin' there." Vin rasped, concentrating on keeping one foot in front of the other and not falling. "I ain't had a drink in... well I can't recall how long. I had me a day..." he paused and turned slowly to see where Buck was. "Ya comin'? Chris's buyin'..."

"You're awful Goddamn generous with my money, Tanner," Chris grumbled, still a good few feet behind Vin.

"Yer up... I got the last one..." Vin wavered and his arm flew out, looking for Chris. The gunslinger closed the gap in two long strides, and steadied the staggering man.

"How you figure?" Chris asked, waiting for Vin to catch his breath, before releasing his arm.

"I got the last round in Salerno..."

"Some much for being fever-addled..." Buck chuckled, stepping onto the boardwalk next to Chris.

"Ya gonna tell me?" Vin asked, lifting his head painfully and eyeing Chris Larabee hard. He'd been thinking on why his friends, all five, would have deserted Four Corners. "Can't be totin' a prisoner, too many of ya." He squinting against the harsh setting sun. "Ya ain't huntin' me or Bucklin... but yer on the hunt," Vin easily read the stormy green eyes. "Well?"

"Colt got a lead on Hazzard," Chris admitted and saw the blue eyes bristle. The Texan whirled around and grabbed Chris's collar, his sudden move nearly throwing his unsteady body onto the street.

"Where is he?" he snarled, eyes hot and bulging. "Understand this, he's mine..."

"You're not fit enough to be chasin' anything but some sleep. You're sick Vin. You need..."

"I need that murderin' bastard's head on a pole. Ya can ride with me or chase m'dust. Yer call..."

Chris made no reply, only raising a single eyebrow at the hand clutching his collar. He knew how much Vin needed this; to see justice done and his name cleared. But at what cost? Vin was as stubborn as he was smart. Chris felt the tracker's arm trembling and saw the blue eyes flinching in pain. For a long moment, neither made moved.

"Just like old times," Buck sighed, eyeing the two stubborn faces, just inches apart. "Like two fuckin' dogs fightin' over a bone. Let's take it off the street at least?" Buck asked leaning in and facing Vin. "Vin... you best sit down before you fall down. This ain't solvin' a thing."

Vin didn't say a word, but he released Chris and didn't hide his anger. "Colt?" he teethed, grasping the hitching post and fighting the urge to drop.

"He's watching Hazzard's place. He really came through. He's been bustin' his ass for a couple weeks; he's got blood in his eye." Chris added, resisting the urge to grab the staggering body in front of him.

"He lives here?" Vin rasped, blinking at Buck and Chris's blurry faces.

"He's renovating a place outside town. You want that drink or not?" Chris deflected and sighed in relief as Vin hobbled towards the saloon. Chris slowed his pace and smacked a hand against Buck's chest.

"We paid him a little visit today." Chris admitted, out of Tanner's range.

"He's dead?" Buck gasped and saw Chris frown.

"Gimme a little credit, Buck!" the leader scowled. "We're settin' him up. Judge Travis will be here day after tomorrow and it goes down that night. Ezra's the lawyer from the railroad who came to take my statement about Vin being in another place when Kincaid was killed."

"Blackmail?" Buck inquired.

"It's got more to it, I'll fill you in later. Hazzard's got money socked away all over the place. He wants to keep a low profile. He'll pay off rather than invite an investigation into his illegal activity."

"You hope." Buck sighed, then thought of Colt Haskill.

"Colt's a good man," Buck observed and saw Chris nod in agreement. "When you gonna tell him?" he nodded to Vin's snail-like progess.

"Dunno," Chris sighed, "He's gonna want in and he's not up to it. I'm gonna have to think on it."

"Don't shut him out, Chris. He's been waitin' too long and it'll hurt him good."

"Maybe," Chris sighed, "but a pissed-off Vin is better than a dead one." He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "That shoulder's in bad shape. Between Nate cuttin' him open and that fever, he'll be out of it for days. By the time he's aware again, it'll be over."

"I don't like it," Buck admitted, "Vin should get the chance to spit in that bastard's face."

"He will." Chris promised, "I'll see he gets a front row seat at the trial."

While his two friends talked, Vin got a brief burst of energy and found himself quickening his pace. He licked his lips in anticipation as he stared through the window of the saloon. He cocked his head and squinted, trying to clear up the blurry images. From his vantage point, he could see the end of the bar and a fuzzy form peering back at him. He leaned in to get a better look and lost his balance.

"Good Lord!" Ezra coughed, spitting a mouthful of Kentucky's finest sipping whiskey all over the bar. "Vin!" he hissed, jerking back and rubbing his eyes. For a split second, he'd seen his late friend's gaunt face in the glass, now it was gone.

J.D. and Josiah both turned their heads at the same time and saw the empty window and then Nathan's exasperated face. Suppressing a laugh, Josiah furrowed his brows together.

"Visitin' all kinds of spirits eh, Ez?" He noted of the expensive whiskey.

"I told you not to drink that shit on an empty stomach, now you're seeing things," Nate sassed, "Don't come slinkin' around with a 'Mr. Jackson my stomach is quite unsettled'," the healer imitated the southerner's accent.

"I am well within my capabilities and I am most certainly not hallucinating," Ezra riled, fixing an intense stare on the glass.

"Seems to me that's a fitting description of seeing the dearly departed." Josiah observed, taking a gulp of beer.

"Vin!" the two older men called in unison and raced up the boardwalk. Vin was sitting and struggling to get a leg up.

"I'm okay," he protested, as Chris hauled him up. "Just got a bit dizzy..."

"One drink, Vin!" Chris drilled, "then you get your ass over to the hotel and let Nate fix your shoulder."

"Been savin' that up, I reckon," Vin mumbled, taking a step forward, his side glance ensuring that Chris was next to him. "...nobody to growl at fer weeks..." he shifted his body and paused as Buck moved up. "Keep yer long face outta my way, Larabee," he sassed of the scowl he'd missed.

"Come on Slick," Buck chuckled, seeing the life trickle into Chris's eyes again and the familiar turn up of one corner of his lip. "I'm buyin'..." he grabbed the tracker's elbow and moved inside the bar.

"Buck!" J.D. choked on his food and swallowed hard. He jumped up and raced to the doorway to greet his friend.

"Hey Kid!" the rogue boomed, "Brought you a present," he moved aside and Vin shuffled inside. He saw Vin tense up and gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. The smaller man moved forward to shake his young friend's hand, but then froze.

"Oh God, Vin!" J.D. sputtered and flew backwards. "You're dead..."

"Not hardly," Vin rasped, " ain't catchin'..." he snapped, feeling suddenly out of place. He slumped into the nearest chair and closed his eyes, as the room began to swim. He peeled an eye open at the thump of a glass. He drained the shot and tapped the table with the empty glass. They all heard the soft rustling sound as the weary legs shuffled inside. The hair on their necks rose and stood on end; they remained muted servants to the uneasy silence as the dead man took a chair. His words echoed on silence, as his friends remained motionless, stunned and wide-eyed.

"Pull up a chair, Kid," Vin invited in a ragged whisper, "I ain't seen ya in a spell. I ain't a ghost, J.D...." He watched the youthful sheriff's face change and a warm smile erupt. Then the youth gripped the back of his neck and settled into the chair next to him.

"They said you were dead Vin..."

"They was almost right..." Vin replied, sipping the second shot slowly. "There was a long-haired kid in the meat wagon with me. He was gut shot and on his way out. His shirt was a mess, so I switched with him. When they gave me the shirt, they wrote the numbers down."

"...and they had already recorded that number as Vin Tanner," J.D. relieved.

"I'm sure glad your not dead Vin."

"Thanks Kid," Vin smiled.

"...and the Lord said, 'Thy brother shall rise again..." Josiah recalled the familiar bible verse and rested both hands on the lost lamb's shoulders. "Lazarus Tanner, you're a sight for sore eyes, Son." his voice was rich and full. He squeezed Vin's shoulders and saw the shaggy head rise and the familiar soulful eyes smile at him.

"Hey, 'siah... missed y'all..."

Chris took his eyes around the saloon and found Ezra, still frozen in place at the bar. Nathan was moving towards Vin, his healer's instincts on overdrive at the sight of the bedraggled figure. The leader shifted his eyes to his best friend, now safe withing the fold. He moved across the room and stood next to Ezra, just behind him. He took the fancy whiskey and poured two shots.

"But... how..." Ezra stammered.

"Hell if I know..." Chris replied, leaning a boot on the brass rail, "...hell if I care." He tapped the gambler's glass and the other man turned, tearing his gaze away. "Buck'll fill us in. You look like you've seen a ghost, Ezra."

"Your humor leaves a lot to be desired," the other replied. Losing Vin had shaken him to the core. Vin was the first of them, he'd trusted to drop the mask with. Vin had the uncanny ability to see right through him, good and bad. He accepted him the same way, wary of his faults and jaded past. The loss left him cold and distant, he didn't know how to cope with the deep feelings and grief. Now Vin was shoved back at him, and he was at a loss again.

"You're not the conman you think you are," Chris read the younger man's green eyes. "When all this shit settles down, you should tell him." He observed of the gambler's unsettledness.

"I don't know if I can," Ezra said quietly, "It hurt too much."

"Only proves that he's worth it."

Ezra looked sharply at Chris and picked up his glass. He paused a moment and nodded, tapping the blond's glass. "It's not his worth that I question. It's my own..."

"That's bullshit, Ezra and don't bring it up again." Chris warned and Ezra turned away. Chris leaned against the bar and glanced at the table again. J.D.'s mouth was running a mile a minute, causing Vin to wrinkle his brow in concentration, trying to keep up. Josiah stood behind Vin, leaving one large and resting on the tracker's back. Buck was at next to him, teasing J.D., while keeping his vigil at Vin's side. Nate moved in and began to unbutton Vin's shirt. Whatever the healer said, caused an 'aw, hell' from the fevered-riddled Texan. Chris left a small smile creep onto his lips and raised his glass. Through the excited voices, prodding hands and shuffling bodies, blue eyes bore into green ones. The seven were together again and it didn't get much better than this.

It wasn't fancy like the kind of stuff Ezra drank, but it sure did a nice little dance on his tonsils. He was about to drain another shot, when a dark hand slid into his quickly blurring vision.

"How bad?" Nate asked, bending over Vin and reaching for the sling.

"...ain't the arm..." Vin replied, sipping his drink, "...shoulder..." he hissed as Nate's deft fingers probed the wound. "Shit..."

"Don't look like a complicated wound..." Nate frowned, feeling the fever in the flushed man's face.

"Weren't the bullet what done that," Vin gritted against the fire wall that exploded in his lower back.

"Your back?" Nate eased Vin forward, seeing the body engulfed in pain. He carefully lifted the sky blue shirt and hissed at the purplish-blue skin.

"Jesus,Vin, what the hell happened?"

"That's a goodbye gift from the guards," Buck seethed, not willing to leave Vin's side.

"Just so's ya know, Nate," Vin rasped, "I been passin' blood. It ain't as much as it was..."

"Okay," Nate sighed, resting a hand on Vin's forehead. "You got a nice fever..."

"...been workin' on it fer ya..." Vin teased, gripping the table hard and hissing, "...figured ya missed yer star patient." Vin looked up just in time to see the scowl disappear and the even white teeth of Nathan Jackson smiling at him. He felt the hand on his shoulder give a slight tug and he nodded. "Hey, Nate..." he said softly, eyes crinkling in warmth.

"Hey, Vin..." Nate replied thickly.

"So how is it you and Buck got here?" J.D. elbowed Vin and saw him gasp.


"...s'okay, Kid." Vin took a breath and lifted his nearly empty glass. He caught Buck's eyes and the other man bent forward, grabbing a bottle. "We're fixin' on killin' us a fuckin' dragon, ain't that right marshal?" Vin crowed weakly, eyes shining at Buck Wilmington.

"Gonna send that scaly son-of-a-bitch straight to Hell..." Buck answered, grinning broadly and tapping Vin's glass. He let his gaze linger for a moment and recalled the emotional storm the two weathered together. Vin's smile was something to see, it sure was. He laughed and took a long swig of the bottle, before clapping Vin on the back.

"I think you both got sunstroke..." J.D. complained.

"Come on, Vin," Nate advised, "Let's get you settled in your room and I'll get the doctor to..."

"No!" Vin shoved his chair back and stood up. The room began to swirl and he felt someone shove him back down into the chair.

"What's the matter with you?" Nate argued, keeping a grip on the wavering body.

"No doctor... Buck gimme his word... no butcher's hackin' me up again... yer hands the only ones... no doctor..."

"Easy now, Vin," Buck soothed, squatting down and staring at the livid blue eyes. "How about you let Nate get a look at you, okay?"

"I ain't done m'drink yet..." the crusty reply came.

"That's fine," Buck patted his back and moved away, "You finish up, then we'll go." He moved to the bar and felt Nathan right behind him.

"What the hell was that all about?" the healer demanded, standing next to Ezra.

Buck sighed deeply, took his hat off and ran his hand throught his dark hair. He dropped his head and tried to control himself, but failed.

Chris saw the fire burning in Buck's eyes and narrowed his gaze. "Buck?"

"The other kid died and Vin was in a bad way with a fever. The infirmary is run by a nice old guy, Isaac Washington, he saved Vin's life. They have a miserable, depraved drunk who has the balls to call himself a doctor..." Buck gripped the shot glass with such intensity, his knuckles turned white. "Isaac was getting supplies and this... this... animal staggered into the clinic and spotted Vin. They had a table there... with leather straps... a scary fuckin' thing..." Buck blew out a long breath and tried to get his rage under control. "...that bastard strapped Vin onto it and thought he was back in the war. He tried to gut Vin like a fish..."

"Jesus!" Chris hissed and fisted both hands.

"What happened?" Nate prodded.

"He ended up suckin' in as much chloroform as he forced on Vin and knocked himself out. Isaac got there just in time. Vin wasn't so lucky the second time." Buck heard Ezra's sharp intake of breath and eyed the other man carefully before continuing. "There was an explosion... a prison break. Vin tried to stop them and got shot. Isaac was in town, helping with the wounded. They tortured him... Jesus God, Chris," He dropped his head and it took several seconds before he could continue. "... tied them fuckin' leather straps around his neck and body... the knife had pieces of every poor bastard who that animal cut up still on it... he used instruments from the bloody filth on the floor..."

Chris's stomach was churning and his blood boiling. He saw Buck struggling to control himself and losing the battle.

"...he was awake..." Buck whispered painfully, staring at the wood grain on the bar.

"Aw, shit..." Nate slammed his palms on the bar top.

"I got there just in time. He was damn near dead... a whole river of yellow and green crud runnin' out of his shoulder. I made Isaac boil everything. I got most of it, Nate... I tried... but I'm not sure... he carved Vin up good inside... he's been relivin' it in his dreams."

"You saved his life, Buck," Nate replied, resting a hand on the Buck's weary shoulder and eyeing the black inferno next to the rogue. "Chris, you gotta put that away," Nate warned, seeing the explosion about to happen. "He don't need that now. You get him over to the hotel and I'll get what I need."

"Let's go Vin," Josiah tapped his back.

"Okay," Vin turned slowly in the chair and gripped the table. Try as he might, the pain in his back flared each time he attemped to push off the table.

"Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied, "May I be of assistance?"

"Ez?" Vin chirped, grinning up at the gambler, "Damn nice of ya t'show up with yer fancy booze after I'm done drinkin'." Vin huffed and saw a brief grin. "Ya lose that damn tooth?" Vin waited until the Standish smile revealed the telltale gold tooth. "...hah!" the fevered man chuckled, allowing Ezra to grab his left elbow. "Shit... aw, shit..." Vin gasped, as an invisible knife penetrated his back. He appreciated the fact that Ezra didn't fuss over him, rather the southerner remained quietly at his side, showing his concern by his support. "Sorry..."

"Not at all," Ezra managed, his stomach clenching at the thought of the madman who'd tortured his friend. "You're looking decidedly unwell."

"...bein' a corpse does that t'ya..." Vin was finally upright and held his left arm up, signaling he wanted to go it alone.

"Welcome back, my friend."

Vin turned at the unusual tight sound in Ezra's voice. He felt a linen cloth pressed into his palm along with the handshake. He frowned and cocked his head, as the white cloth unfolded. "God... oh God..." he rasped, his eyes wide in shock. The sight truly stunned him, sending him backwards. He felt Josiah's strong hand stop his movment. He dipped his head and slid the soft leather object on, sighing deeply as the long lost cord lay softly on his neck. His hand trembled as he gently caressed the soft folds of his cherished medicine pouch.

"I was very careful not to touch it," Ezra added, his chest tight at the overflow of emotion on Vin's face. "It was on the floor of that dreadful cell in Fanning."

Vin heard the words and heard the thought between them. He raised his head and gripped Ezra's shoulder. "Ez..." he managed before clamping his mouth shut. The hot flush he felt on his face had nothing to do with his fever.

"It's was an honor, Vin," Ezra disarmed, smiling warmly at the speechless man. Vin's deep sigh and being drilled by those emotive blue pools, was thanks enough. It wasn't often he'd done something this fine and he was relishing every minute of the good feeling.

"You okay, Ezra?" Buck asked, seeing all the color leave the gambler's face.

"I believe a long constitutional is in order," he managed shakily and nodded. Buck clapped his shoulder and moved towards the door. Nathan was steadying Vin, when the tracker's legs buckled. Josiah caught him easily as he passed out and carried him carefully to the hotel. By luck, or perhaps fate, the room Buck was given when he registered, was the large corner one on the second floor. It had two beds, a table and chairs and windows on two different sides. There as a large patio next to the room, which had a half-a-dozen chairs and scattered small tables. Nathan chased most of the peacekeepers from the room, once he had Vin ready for surgery. Josiah placed a black kettle full of hot water on the floor. Carefully, he took out the instruments and began to set them on a tray.

Chris lingered at the foot of the bed, watching as Nathan fed Vin some laudanum and eased him back onto the bed. He saw Vin's eyes clench shut, the lip bitten in pain and the white knuckles clutching the mattress. The body was slick with sweat as the fever consumed him. Wet brown hair clung to the tracker's face like a reluctant lover. Chris cocked his head and snuck a glance back at Josiah. The preacher was done and moving the instruments carefully with sterile tongs. Chris picked up a towel and dropped it in the steaming water. He picked up the discarded tongs and lifted the hot linen from the water. He got most of the excess fluid off with the tongs and then wrung it with his hands, flinching at the hot touch. He ambled over to the bed and gently rolled Vin onto his side. He dropped the rolled up towel at the base of Vin's back, across the purple bruise. Then he lowered his injured friend onto the hot towel. The grunts of pain turned into moans of pleasure, as the hot liquid penetrated the Texan's skin. A hand shot up and locked onto Chris's forearm. He smiled at the owlish eyes, fighting a losing battle to stay open. He slipped onto the edge of the bed and bent over, closer to the lips that were moving.

"...might hafta marry ya, Larabee..."

Chris laughed and kept hold of that hand, watching the eyes slowly fading away. Just as he was about to rise and leave Nathan to his work, the limp hand gained life and pressed into his. The patient's eyes never opened, but the lips parted and Chris bent over to listen.

"...this..." Vin whispered, squeezing his best friend's hand, "...feels right."

"Yeah," Chris said tightly, gripping the hand tightly, "it sure does, Cowboy." He remained in position until the hand went totally limp and the pain creased face went slack. He waited until Josiah moved in, placing the tray on the table near Vin's good shoulder. Nathan arrived and nodded at Chris, who rose and left the room, snaking a bottle of whiskey from the chest of drawers on the way out.

Minutes slid into each other, crashing heavily and tilting the hands of the clock. The four anxious men each dealt with the worry in a different way. Ezra was shuffling a deck of cards, seated far off in the corner. Buck was exhausted, sitting on a chair, with his head resting against the wall. His dark blue eyes were slits and his head was pounding. J.D. was pacing, rolling his hat on his nervous fingers, making anxious faces and pacing again. Chris as standing on the far edge of the stone patio, facing the street. His body was like an ebony statue, a stark contrast to the pale skin and damp blond hair. Although his body never moved, the flickering lamp light revealed a slight shift of his eyes, every so often. They would zone in on the window, several feet away. He was able to see Josiah's broad back and hear the clatter of instruments, soft Jackson curses and an occasional 'Easy Brother' by the preacher.

"Colt's back..." J.D. announced, seeing the lawman. "I'll get him..."

"As if I wasn't tired enough," Buck sighed, "that boy's tuckerin' me right out."

"Oh that youth is wasted on the young," Ezra's voice cut into the night. Several seconds later, J.D. reappeared with the tired lawman. He nodded to the others, exchanged a slow nod with Chris and pulled a chair next to Buck Wilmington.

"You got more lives than a cat, Wilmington." Colt discharged, eyeing the new lump and sticky dark hair. He saw the lines of extreme exhaustion and the eyes tinged with worry. He waited until the dark head rose and a small smile managed to be born.

"Good to see you too, Colt. How's Mary?"

"Wearin' me out." Colt bragged, getting a weak laugh from Buck. "The Kid says you brought Tanner in with you? What happened?"

Before Buck could reply, Chris's body finally moved. The statue-like posture that had been riveted into place for hours, flew past them. Buck didn't realize he was standing until his chair fell over.

"Well?" Chris's tonsils roused lazily from their sleep.

Nathan stared hard back at the green eyes that were burning holes in him. He brushed past Colt and headed for Ezra. The conman was on his way over to where the others stood waiting and handed the seething healer the bottle of whiskey without exchanging a word. The others watched as the tall ex-slave consumed a long draw of the smooth liquor, before handing the bottle to Chris.

Chris's eyes were riveted to the healer's heaving chest and the blood on the apron he wore. He drew his gaze up reluctantly, almost fearing what he'd find in their dark depths.

"Nate?" Chris prayed, "He isn't..."

"Lucky," Nate snapped, the word shot out with fire on a hot breath of revulsion. "That fuckin' son-of-a-bitch is lucky I'm not holdin' a knife over him."

The others were stunned, they'd never seen Nathan so full of rage and hostility. Ezra moved to stand next to him, unnerved by the heaving chest and clenched fists. His pale jade eyes flicked to the doorway, where Josiah's darkened face loomed, blue eyes laced with fury.

"How fares our fallen comrade?"

Nate let out a long, frustrated breath as Ezra's words hovered in the air. He licked his lips, savoring the remnants of the whiskey. He wiped the sweat from his brow and eyed every face carefully, before speaking. "...bastard carved him up good... slashin' and hackin' the hell all over. Bullet would wasn't nowhere's near that rest of that mess. Don't know how he lived through it."

"How bad?" Chris's voice lowered.

"Bad enough." Nate shook his head. "I sewed up all the pieces... patched him up fine. He's got a bad fever in 'im and he's pretty weak. He won't be usin' that arm for some time. It's got a lot of healin' to do."

"Any permanent damage?" Colt asked, still not sure how Tanner came to be in Blue Meadow and among the living.

"I hope not, Colt," Nate sighed, "Vin's about as strong as they come, if anybody can fight back, he can. It's gonna hurt, though, when them muscles start healin' and he's gotta stretch 'em." He walked slowly over to Buck and held out his hand. He stared into the dark blue eyes that were barely open, housed in dark circles on a shadowed face. He gripped Buck's hand tightly and didn't hide the admiration in his own eyes. His voice was deep and full as he spoke.

"You did one helluva job, Buck... you saved his life and his arm."

"Thanks, Nate... but don't go hangin' up your scapel just yet," Buck teased and felt a wave of relief. Vin was through the worst of it, and had a wall of heart to protect him.

"How'd you find him, anyhow?" Nate asked, taking the mug of coffee Josiah offered. The preacher gave one to Buck as well.

"Aw, hell Josiah," Buck complained, wrinking his nose after taking a sip, "this only has coffee in it..."

"Not to fear," Ezra soothed, pouring a healthy shot in Wilmington's mug. "You've earned it..."

"I was leavin' the prison, I'd made my peace with Vin," Buck paused and nodded as J.D. sat beside him. "The old man came after me with a letter, wanted me to post it for him." He slid his hand into his shirt pocket and drew out the envelope. His head ducked until he made eye contact with the leader. "I hope you don't mind, Pard, I opened it..." he sighed wearily and handed the letter to Chris.

Chris's eyes rested on Buck's deep thoughtful ones, before glancing at the letter. He frowned at seeing his name on the front and peeled the paper open. His furrowed brows creased in confusion at the strange message. His thumb unconsciously moved over the word 'Cowboy', as he moved the second paper into the light. "Shit..." he expelled heavily, seeing the anguished moment Vin captured with pencil on paper. His head shot up and met Buck's weary face.

"Yeah," Buck whispered, "that's exactly how it hit me, too. Hell, I don't remember getting to the door. Just freezing in the frame when I saw him. I couldn't believe..." his voice nearly broke and he stopped. He took several gulping breaths and felt both Nathan and J.D. closing ranks protectively. He cleared his throat and wiped his eyes, before continuing. "I dug that mess outta him and hollered at him to fight. The next couple days were a blur, he was in a bad way. The warden went to give his report on the explosion and the guards he left behind were pissed off royally and drunk. They blamed Vin... and wanted to hang him from the gate. It was Vin's idea... I was dead set against it. He... uh... had a way... he can make his heart slow down and his breathin' go away... somethin' to do with a medicine man learnin' him when he lived with them, after the war. I went to town and got a wagon, tellin' the guards I was takin' his body back to his folks. When I got back, he'd done it already," Buck blew out anther long breath and took a sip of the strong coffee. His hands were trembling slightly and J.D. gave his shoulder a squeeze.

"You okay, Buck?" he asked.

"Yeah, Kid, thanks." Buck eyed the boy warmly, "I brought the second-in-command over to sign the papers, giving me the rights to the body." Buck rose and walked away from the others, dropping his head as the awful image came back. "I had the box ready... but those drunken bastards... spit, pissed and kicked him..." Buck flinched as a string of Larabee curses sailed by.

"I thought so..." Josiah nodded, "He's covered with bootmarks... I've seen that before. He's lucky they didn't use him for target practice. I've seen that too..."

"That's what Isaac said," Buck recalled, his voice distant, "I wanted to cut their balls off, but he stopped me..." Buck sighed, "They finally left and Isaac got him in the box. It was only supposed to be for an hour, until we got far enough away. But I got clubbed by two of the escaped cons... they took the wagon. It must have been slowin' them down, cause I found it up the road a ways. I saw the box... I ripped the lid off." His voice cracked again and he felt a strong hand on his shoulder. He saw a sliver of black denim and boots next to him. Chris didn't say anything, but that hand spoke volumes. "I was scared shitless, Chris... I thought I killed him... " He dropped his head and began to struggle. "He was... all twisted up inside... fingers bloody from trying to claw his way out... Why didn't I hear them bastards coming?" He groaned, punching the stone wall. He felt the hand grip his shoulder hard and raised his head. Chris's eyes were full of thanksgiving and they gave him strength.

"Looks like I'm beholdin' again, Bucko..." Chris hushed, silencing Buck's guilt. He was glad for the soft chuckle the old nickname brought.

"Buck, let me get a look at your head," Nate tapped his arm, "then you're takin' the bunk next to Vin and gettin' some rest."

Buck shuffled into the room right behind Chris. They stood side by side, watching their fevered friend's chest rise and fall. Nate shoved Buck into the bedside chair, before cleaning and dressing his head wound. He pointed to the empty bed and scowled, gaining a nod from Buck.

J.D., Ezra and Colt stayed for a few minutes, before Nathan shooed them away. Josiah took the bloody instruments and the kettle downstairs to clean.

Nate left a large bowl of cool water and some rubbing alchohol with Chris, then left to get some rest. Suddenly the room was silent, as the two men felt every raspy breath the wounded man fought for. Buck's hand drifted down, trembling slightly as he brushed the errant, wet hair off of Vin's sweaty face. The tracker stirred and moaned, before continuing his restless slumber. Buck's eyes drifted to the wonderful sight of the empty bed, calling to him. The short distance seemed like miles, as his heavy limbs suddenly wouldn't move. He felt a hand pulling him up and let Chris guide him to the bed. He swayed slightly and felt his boots tugged off. He peeled an eye open and drank in the wonderful sight of a living, breathing Vin Tanner. His gaze shifted, just in time to see the restored soul reflecting in Chris's full eyes.

"I did good, huh, Pard..." he asked, smiling slightly at his oldest friend. For a second, the years melted away as a beautiful Chris Larabee smile bloomed. The eyes were radiant and the face joyous. He took a mental image, tucking it away to be recalled. He felt the both shoulders gripped hard and heard Chris's emotive voice.

"Fuckin' A, Bucko, Fuckin' A..."

The smile that those words and that face gave him, stayed with him as he drifted off to sleep. His heavy eyes fell, gazing at Chris's long form sprawled uncomfortably on the chair next to Vin. Josiah reappeared briefly, leaving another kettle of hot water and some towels for Vin's back. The tracker's thrashing was halted by a single hand on his chest and a single soft word by the blond. Vin was safe, his body and spirit protected by the one who knew him like no other. Buck allowed his body to rest, finally able to let himself go.

Part 21

It was the loud pounding that roused him. The sandbags that seemed to be hauling his eyes downward, were forced over. He pried his heavy lids open and saw only darkness.

"There's no stars..." he murmured.

The pounding resumed and his hand felt... wood? Then he realized with a sick, deepening terror, that the pounding was his heart. No stars... no sky... no... no... air. No air? His mind whirled, swimming in dark, horrid channels, he felt himself guided by the murky water. He resisted and forced himself to fight. His arm shot up and hit wood... only inches above his face.

"Oh God..." he whispered, then felt his heart slamming hard into his chest.

He turned and clawed the harsh coffin, trying to fight his way out. A word formed, a face followed and he opened his mouth and screamed.


"Jesus God!" Chris jerked and blinked as the shrill shriek split the night air. He shook off the slumber he sank into and shoved both arms on the chair to rise. Just as he did, a body stumbled past him and reached out for the terrified patient.

"Vin! Calm down," Buck hollered, seeing the wide blue eyes lost in their own nightmare world.

"Get his arm, Buck, hold 'em down, he's gonna bust his stitches," Chris directed, moving next to Buck and leaning over Vin's head.

Buck firmly clamped a hand on Tanner's right arm, which Nathan wisely bound to his chest. He used the other hand to hold Vin's left shoulder onto the bed. He moved back slightly, to allow Chris enough room.

"Vin, wake up, you're dreaming," Chris directely sternly, gripping the sweat-slick tracker's face. "Shit!" His breath snuck through clenched teeth at the audible gasping sounds coming from the younger man. Vin's thrashing was fading fast, but so was his breathing.

"Buck!" Vin screamed. Where was he? He'd turned sideways in the coffin and no couldn't move either arm. He tried to slow his breathing down, so he could think. "Buck... get me outta this fuckin' box...."

"...Dammit, he thinks he's in that coffin..." Buck's words died as Vin's eyes darted by both men, not seeing them. He sighed heavily and called to

Vin several times, but the injured man's chest continued to suck air; his mouth heaving like a fish on the shore. "Get 'im up, Chris..."

"Yeah," Chris agreed, "Get behind him and keep that arm still."

Buck moved around the bed and behind Vin, securing his arm. Chris hauled him upright, slapping the tracker's face. The jerking body, gasping for air, scared him. He used one strong hand to clutch Vin behind the neck and the other slapped his face again.

"Vin, you're in bed, you're not in a coffin. Breathe Vin, you got plenty of air... Come on Cowboy, breathe for me."

Vin stiffened and cocked his head. Just as his air was about to run out, there was a voice above. He turned his face and blinked, trying to peer at the blurry image. He took a huge mouthful of air as he felt the night rush in through the open lid.

"Thank God." Chris slumped for a moment, relaxing his iron-grip. He released one hand and reached backwards, snaking the linen cloth from the bowl of water. He wiped Vin's face and neck, but the unseeing eyes still rattled him.

"Vin, you with us?" Buck asked, rubbing the wet arm next to him.

Vin heard the voices, but couldn't see the stars yet. He felt air; where were the stars? Then the blurry face appeared and something else. He opened his mouth to speak, and something hit his nose and mouth. He sputtered and choked.

"Cut that out," Chris ordered, as the body weakly pulled away from the cloth. He saw Vin gagging and saw Buck turn Vin towards him. "Let it out, Vin. Don't swallow that." He tried to squeeze the jaw open and free what he thought was vomit, but the tracker didn't budge.

"Open your mouth!" Buck screamed and Vin obeyed.

Chris had the damp towel under Vin's mouth, but nothing came out. "What the hell's wrong?" He was losing his patience and it showed. He gripped Vin's neck and stared at the large eyes, now drooping with fatigue. Then a tip of tongue appeared and Vin begin to spit. "What's he doing?" He raised his eyes and saw Buck shrug. "Vin, what's the matter?" Chris gripped the jaw and spoke loudly, staring at the confused face.

It was landing by shovelfuls, filling the box and his mouth. He coughed and sputtered, but still it came, taking his last breath away. Then his head jerked, and he heard a voice. Hope soared and he fought with his last ounce of strength.


"Yeah, Vin... I'm right here," Chris eased, seeing the eyes blink sleepily at him. "You okay now?"

"Get me out... get it out... can't breathe..." Vin protested, continuing to spit.

"You're in bed, Vin, you're not in that box." Buck repeated, one hand on Vin's back, the other holding the injured arm in place.

" lin?"

"Yeah, Slick," Buck soothed, using the edge of the sheet to rub the moisture off the younger man's back. He frowned as Vin continued to cough. The soggy head turned backwards, trying to find him. "What's wrong?"

"...get it out... choking... me... dirt..."

"Shit!" Chris jerked his head towards the chest across the room. "Buck, get him some of that sugar-water Nate left. "Vin, Buck got you out of the box, you're okay now. You're not eating any dirt. I got some water for you. You take a deep breath for me."

It took several minutes and shuddering breaths, but Vin finally seemed to make the connection. He collapsed against Chris's shoulder, letting the other man guide the mug to his lips. After several slow sips, he felt the steady breathing against his neck. Chris handed the mug back to Buck, who was studying Vin's face.

"He out again?" Chris asked and Buck shook his head.

"No, he's putting the pieces together, his face is all screwed up." Buck bent over and tried to catch Vin's eyes. "Hey there!" He smiled as the wet head moved.

"Buck?" Vin rasped, squinting at the rogue's face. He cocked his head at the blurry white bandage and raised his hand towards it. "Yer hurt..."

"Just a scratch... You want some more water?"

"No... wanna sleep... s'hot... can't breathe..." he complained, frowning again as his head thumped against a chest. "Who... who..."

"Whose snugglin' up to you?" Buck teased, "You best not forget her name, she ain't gonna like that."

Vin heard and soft laugh and squinted his eyes again. His head was too heavy to lift, but his vision cleared enough to see black pants and boots. "Chris... doin' here?"

"Not sleeping," Chris replied, feeling his own breathing finally regulate.

"Hey Chris," Buck eyed the wet sheets under the fevered man. "His bed's a mess, that can't be comfortable. Put him in mine, It's almost daylight, anyhow."

"Okay," Chris agreed, "Pop that window up, he's right, it's like oven in here."

Between the two men, they got their slumbering friend into a dry bed. Chris bathed him good with alchohol water and then covered him to the waist. He felt the early morning air seep into the hot room and saw Vin relaxing. He pulled the chair over and sat down, resting his head against the wall.


"Huh?" Chris blinked and saw Nathan's face in front on him. He cast an eye on Vin, who was still sleeping and then at the window. Daylight streamed inside. "Time?" he croaked, rubbing his eyes.

"Time for you to get some rest." Nate ordered, "Almost eight o'clock. Buck told me you had quite a night. Vin's fever givin' him bad dreams?"

"Yeah," Chris sighed, taking the mug of cold water Nate offered and draining it. "First few times, he thought he was tied down and that maniac was cutting him up, then he was trapped in the coffin and couldn't breath. How's he doing?"

"Fever's hanging in tough... I got broth coming up, can't fight without ammo..."

"Don't say it," Chris saw the brown face wrinkling up at him. "I look like shit..."

"You need a bath, Pard," Buck advised, waving from the doorway. "Two empty beds next store..." He tossed a key to the other man.

"Nate, if he gets worse," Chris warned, standing up and letting his bleary eyes finish the sentence.

"You'll be the first one I call. Now go..." The healer forced the stumbling leader out of the room. He then turned to his patient who was rousing.

"Mornin' Vin..."

Vin licked his dry lips and felt a hand lift his head. Something made of tin nudged his lips and they parted, taking in a good amount of cool water. He grunted in pleasure and heard a familiar chuckle. He blinked and stared hard, until the fuzzy features came together. "Nate... you?"

"Who was you expectin'?" The healer sat on the edge of the bed and peeling the soggy bandage off of the tracker. He felt the left arm snake over and pat his side.

"Glad..." Vin sighed deeply.

"You sure got a way with words," Nate smiled, feeling warm that his presence brought the fevered man relief. He continued his ministrations, hoping that the medicine, broth and care showered on the frail man, would be enough.

Ezra stood up and eyed the early light coming in the window. His shift was nearly over. They'd taken turns caring for their weak friend, as he battled his way through the awful fever. Vin remained lost in between two worlds, fighting the infection valiantly. He took broth and other liquids as directed and seemed most peaceful around Buck and Chris. But overnight, the gambler had fought with Vin as he battled his way back. He rubbed his eye where a wayward Tanner fist caught him, striking out against an invisible foe.

Vin watched Ezra for several minutes, before casting his eyes around the room. His left hand fumbled around, until it felt the bulk wrapped in bandages on his chest. His left hand moved again and felt only space where his right arm should be. He panicked and sputtered, trying to sit up.

"Shit... get this damn sheet... hell..."

"How can you possibly have any energy left?" Ezra sighed, moving towards the bed. "Cease that movement immediately!"

"Where is he?" Vin barked, weaving so harshly, he slid sideways, thumping into Ezra's legs.

"Of whom are you referring to?"

"Nate!" Vin coughed, shivered and sneezed.

"He's resting, where any sane person would be at this ungodly hour." Ezra drolled, gently moving the shaking body back onto the bed.

"I can change that," Vin huffed, trying to push Ezra out of the way.

"Stop it!" Ezra was tired, having slept little over the last six hours. He grabbed the flailing left arm and forced it down. "Nathan's exhausted and you are in no position to fight." He ordered, but frowned whent the body continued to jerk. "What!" he gritted, finally get the eyes to meet his.

"He cut my fuckin' arm off, that's what!" Vin released, collapsing back onto the wet pillows.

Ezra winced and sighed, before forming any words. "Perhaps he should have stitched your mouth up, when he finished saving your life... and your arm."

"What?" Vin's eyes spun and his hand fumbled again. "But..."

"It's taped to your chest to prevent furthur damage to your shoulder. If you persist in this uncalled for movement, I'll be forced to bind the other arm as well."

"I thought... " Vin bit his lip and withdrew, hoping Ezra didn't see his fear.

Ezra sat on the edge of the bed and gave Vin's left arm a gentle squeeze. "Your reaction was quite normal and certainly nothing to hang your head about." He commented, wringing out a damp cloth. "Much as I abhor menial labor of any sort, your unsightly appearance is hurting my eyes, May I?" He held the weak man's left arm down with ease and used the other to wipe the sputtering, protesting face and neck.

"... cut that out... didn't ask ya t'stay... don't need nobody... fussin'..."

Vin's protest died out as Ezra raised him and his head flopped forward, into the conman's shoulder. The muffled curses made the green eyes twinkle and the southerner's mouth broke into a genuine smile.

"It takes a unique abililty and untold talent to use profanity in several languages in one sentence so adeptly." He chuckled when the long string of words caused the other man to pause. He almost heard Vin thinking, trying to muddle his way through the grammer parade. Ezra's hand paused when Vin jerked, as the cold cloth moved down his lower back.

"Sorry..." Ezra winced, seeing the mottled colors where Vin's flesh was marred. The left hand that fought against him, was now clinging to his side and the damp head resting on his chest. He felt the ragged breathing and the single sharp cry.

"...didn't mean... t'bark at ya..." Vin whispered, gripping Ezra's jacket as the pain rolled by. His eyes slid shut again and he felt his body gently laid back and rolled over. Ezra's touch was feather light and Vin drifted, as the conman bathed him. Finally, he heard footsteps and struggled to rise.


Ezra paused as the door, smiling despite himself. He peeked back and saw the blue eyes buried within dark circles. Vunerable eyes blinked back him, luring him in. He saw Josiah rumbling up the hall, ready to take over. The preacher carried a tray with breakfast on it and nodded for Ezra to join them.

"It is time for the changing of the guard," Ezra directed at Vin and saw his shoulders slump. He cocked his head and moved his body to allow Josiah past. He put the basin down and went back to Vin's side. He rested a hand on the pale face and smiled. The skin was cool to the touch, Vin's battle was over.

"You've won the battle," Ezra congratulated and saw Vin nod. A hand brushed against his arm and he took it. One eye peeled back and blinked at him.

"Thanks Ez... ya done good... I didn't mean t'holler."

"Yes you did," Ezra retorted with a smile and it deeped when the Texan smiled up at him.

"Maybe jest a little..." Vin agreed, then licked his lips. "Ya gonna finish that story? Iffen ya ain't too busy? Later maybe?"

"Story?" Ezra's brow creased.

"I thought..." Vin paused, "nevermind... must have dreamt it... 'bout some poor fella in an iron mask and his brother, who's a king but sorta crazy..."

"The Man in the Iron Mask?" Ezra's eyes widened in amazement. He had the book with him and began to read during the night, hoping the sound of his voice would cut through Vin's delrium. He had no idea the words he welded like swords, did their job. He saw the head nodding and sighed. "As it happens, I am free later. Perhaps after lunch, if you're not too tired." The contented smile and deep sigh gave him his answer. He left Josiah to his task and saw him effortlessly raise the Texan, shove a bank of pillows behind him and place the breakfast tray down.

"Mornin' Brother Vin..." Josiah repeated Ezra's action and felt his hand swatted.

"I'm fine... it's broke and quit pettin' me... ain't no damn dog..."

"No," Josiah agreed, shoving a spoonful of hot cereal into the protestor's mouth. "You sure are cute though." He used his free hand to move the unruly mass of wet curls from sticking to the slick skin.

"Aw, hell..." Vin mumbled and was rewarded by another spoon of cereal and Ezra's laughter.

The gambler took his leave, snaring a large blueberry muffin from the tray. He decided to get some rest before the scheduled lunch meeting with Judge Orin Travis. He would be arriving on the mid-morning stage and was a vital part of the plan to bring down Spencer Hazzard.

"Afternoon Judge," Josiah greeted as he entered the spacious room on the top floor of the hotel.

"Josiah," Orin Travis nodded, holding up a bottle of brandy. The graying peacekeeper denied the libation and settled into a seat near the window.

Several minutes later, Chris and Ezra entered and split up. Ezra eased into the green velvet sofa, Chris took position by the window, leaning against the wooden frame. Several seconds later, Buck and J.D. rushed in, breathless and panting.

"You cheated," Buck gasped, sinking into a chair and gulping down a glass of water.

"Didn't have to, you're old and fat," the youth crowed, elbowing his best friend.

"Buck, you didn't bet the Kid you could beat him up the stairs again, did you?" Josiah asked, shaking his head.

"He cheated," Buck insisted, wiping the sweat from his brow.

"Where's Mr. Jackson?" Orin glanced around the room and his eyes rested on Chris Larabee.

"He's coming," Chris replied, pouring a shot of whiskey and sipping it slowly, "...finishin' with Vin."

"How is he?" Orin's brows drew together and he rested his chin on his extended fingertips.

"Alive." Chris sighed, taking his eyes to the street.

"Has he been made aware of the situation at hand?" The Judge inquired.

"Sort of..." Buck answered, recalling Vin and Chris's hot exchange of words the day they rode in.

"Can you clarify that Buck?" Travis leaned forward and studied the young man's face.

"He knows Hazzard's here... and we're scoping him." Chris turned back towards the room.

"From your tone of voice, it sounds like he wasn't happy..."

"He'll live with it." Chris replied tonelessly.

"Maybe we won't have to tell him," J.D. offered, recalling how out of it Vin had been at lunch. They'd all clamored into the patient's room to eat with him, but he slept most of the time, and when he was awake, he was terribly weak.

"Sins by ommision are the worst offenses of all, J.D." Chris shot back, "He's not a child and won't be treated like one."

"I don't know, Chris, J.D. has a point," Josiah reasoned, "Vin's gonna..."

"No!" Chris snarled, "I won't lie to him, it's not up for discussion."

J.D. jumped at the harsh bite in Chris's voice. He spotted the fist clenching and slid his body sideways. "He's our friend too, Chris," the youth spoke up, "You don't have the corner on his feelings."

"Chris's right," Buck added somberly, his blue eyes drawn. "I won't lie to him, he deserves better."

"Aren't we putting the cart before the horse, so to speak?" Ezra placated, "I believe the first call to order is to devise a plan. Mr. Tanner's inclusion in such action is secondary."

"Okay, what do we have?" Chris moved closer to the rest of the group, his mind still troubled by how pale and listless Vin had become. Nathan tried to explain, but it didn't take the unsettled stomach away.

"Well, we meet with Hazzard at his house tonight. Colt's been keeping an eye on 'im. That lawyer of his was at his place all day yesterday. He rode out again about an hour ago, after leaving the post and telegraph office." Josiah noted. "He was in a big hurry."

"Hmmm..." Orin mused, "Interesting. I have some information to share." The judge slid a group of papers towards the preacher. He watched Buck stand and cross over, reading over Sanchez's shoulders. "As you can see, the railroad was already suspicious and had their own investigation underway. Three of the rancher's that he pressured have come forward, as well as two of Eli Joe's men."

"Their testimony ain't worth spit!" Buck grunted.

"I also have a copy of the 'alleged' confession by Vin Tanner from the sheriff in Tascosa. The state interviewed both the sheriff, his deputy and the three men who brought Tanner in. They were only to glad to confess."

"Hmmph..." Chris grunted. "Turnin' on Hazzard to save their own skin."

"...and if the reptile in question learns of these details..." Ezra mused.

"He'll head south," J.D. thought aloud, "He can't stay here..."

"Maybe we should pay him an unexpected visit." Chris shifted, flipping through the pages of statements that Josiah handed him.

Before anyone could reply, their missing friend entered the room. All eyes shifted to the healer, whose face held a degree of concern that caused them to take pause.

"Sorry I'm late," Nate nodded to the judge and grabbed a seat next to Ezra. The gambler spent a few moments updating the newcomer with what they learned.

"How's he doing?" Orin directed, seeing the worry lines on the healer's dark face.

"The fact that he's still breathing is nothing short of a miracle. He was in a bad way to begin with, when he got tossed in that hell hole," he spat of the prison, "No rest... no proper food to build him up... then gettin' shot and butchered... takin' his heart down... the fever... it's too much, even for a Tanner."

"What are you saying?" Chris accused, his eyes like coals. He strode over and towered above the tired healer.

"He's wore out, Chris." Nate sighed, "He's got nothin' left to fight with, that fever took almost everything outta him. He's down ten pounds at least, maybe more. He didn't have no spare weight to begin with."

"He's not dying..." Chris denied, almost defensively.

"That's not my decision," Nate stared hard, brown eyes laced in anger. "..not yours either. Up to Vin and God." He paused and saw Larabee's feature pale and a slight tremor in the flexing hand that finally resting on the pearl-handed colt. "He gets the right medicine, lots of rest and good food, he'll be okay. His arm... well, it's too soon to tell. But no way he's ready to leave that bed, not for a week at least. He couldn't hardly get his lips open to eat his lunch, he's so weak."

"Guess that solves that debate," J.D. said quietly. "What about Hazzard? How are we gonna play this? If he's got the same information, he knows he's done, he'll pay off... right?"

"Which leaves us with the task of having him admit to his guilt." Ezra nodded.

"Most likely, he'll take off as soon as he ties loose end up here. Is the District Attorney gonna indict him?" Buck turned back to face Orin Travis.

"Not yet, they're still building their case. Five thousand dollars is a good deal of money and would take a few days, at least, to compile. Let's see what Hazzard has to offer this evening."

It was close to dusk when they left the saloon. Dinner was done and they headed for the livery, to ready their mounts. Nathan made his way back to the hotel, carrying a tray of minced beef and rice, a large tin of broth, some custard and cider. He tapped the door with his foot and stepped back as the footfall sounded.

"Their waitin' on ya, Chris," Nate imparted, eyeing the strained face that greeted him. He heard Chris sigh heavily and watched the gunslinger's right hand run through his short blond hair. He set the tray down on the small table, near Vin's bed, and bent down to check his patient. He tapped the slack cheek and two blue slits appreared, then the pale face screwed up.

"Hey there," Nate greeted, pulling the muddled tracker forward. "Chris..." He moved his head and the other man sprung forward, grabbing the two extra pillows and bending them behind Vin, so the body would stay upright.

"Thought you was gonna sleep clear through supper." He took the mug of cider Chris gave him and lifted Vin's head forward.

Vin drained the cup and eyed the rosy sky peeking in through the windows. A slight breeze filtered in and he savored it. He sighed and frowned, frustrated by his body betraying him. The overpowering fatigue didn't set well with him. It was all he could do to keep his eyes open. He felt a spoon nudge his lips and opened, taking in a mouthful of beef and rice. He'd heard snippets of hushed whispers earlier about Hazzard. His heavy eyes never opened, but he knew his friends had been close. He eyed Chris's gunbelt, primed and ready and flicked an eye at his best friend. "Dammit..." he whispered, tapping the bed weakly with his left hand.

Nate paused and placed the spoon back on the tray. He eyed the two staring each other down, and stood up. "Looks like I forgot your napkin. I'll be right back." He excused himself, with a short nod to Chris.

Chris moved the tray from Vin's lap, back onto the table. He stood by the bed and watched the play of emotions on his injured friend's face. His gaze shifted and he winced at the ribs now peeking through Vin's slight frame.

"It ain't fair..." Vin rasped, clutching the edge of the sheet into a ball.

"It's not about fair," Chris replied, "Life never is..." A brief image of Sarah and Adam flitted close, they left.

"I been waitin' fer this... thinkin' on the day I tracked that fucker... Shit!"

Vin hissed, eyes flashing. The brief burst of words left him breathless and he gasped for several seconds. He pulled away from the hand on his shoulder and jerked his eyes upward. "Don't..."

"I thought this was about justice," Chris shook his head and moved towards the door, "I guess I was wrong." He saw the sky eyes narrow and the head tilt to the left. He almost smiled, Vin always mulled things over the same way.

"I want him dead." Vin shot back, fueled by his misplaced bounty. "I want him t'suffer... I want..."

"Revenge?" Chris dicatated.

"Hell yeah!" Vin spat back, coughing and swaying. He felt Chris right him and the hand remained fixed on his shoulder, until the errant breathing halted and the room stopped spinning.

"It's not about revenge, Vin," Chris lowered his voice. "The Judge had statements from some of the ranchers Hazzard strong-armed. He's got other statement too, from the sheriff and some others in Tascosa. With the right amount of pressure, he'll crack. He won't see the light of day again. Isn't that what's important."

"Hah!" Vin snorted, tossing his matted head, "Yer a fine one t'talk about playin' by the rules. Where was yer fuckin' logic when Fowler appeared?"

"That was different!" Chris bristled, eyes stormy.

"The hell it was!" Vin shot back, chest heaving. He began to cough again and the movement roused the blinding pain in his back. He hissed and hunched over, then felt two strong arms around him, fighting by his side, chasing the pain away. His breathing relaxed and he felt a damp cloth pressed into his hands. He wiped his sweating face and felt a light touch to his shoulder.

"That's the difference." Chris said calmly of the power that surged between them. "Between that bastard killing himself and Ella's game... I did a lot of thinking. It's about right and wrong... it's about justice. It's about being a part of something bigger than yourself."

Vin heard the words and more importantly, he felt it deep inside. His head rose as he thought on Buck's words on the road to town several days before. He got the same tingling inside now, as he had when the rogue's soothing voice carried him then.

"Man ought to know when to take a hand..." he murmured, cocking his head.

"Now your talking, Cowboy," Chris sighed in relief, seeing the light of reason in the previously stormy blue eyes. He moved over the bed and locked onto Vin's left forearm. The weakness of the other's grasp, made him flinch.



"Good," Chris sighed, "Don't give Nathan any shit."

"Me?" Vin's eyes widened and gave Chris a chuckle. "Hey Chris," Vin called as the gunslinger's hand grabbed the doorknob. "Thanks." The leader's familiar half-smile appeared and gave him one of his own. "Ya tell Bucklin... ya tell him..." Vin paused, taking time to recapture his breath. He took a deep breath and stared at Chris's eyes, while thinking of Buck's dark blue ones. "Ya tell him his shoulder's is doin' fine, and I'm grateful." He saw Chris puzzle a moment, raise an eyebrow then nod, before disappearing out the door.

Nathan watched Vin from the doorway and saw the disappointment on his gaunt face. He shifted his gaze to the window and got an idea. He strode across the room and stood next to the bed.

"How about a little fresh air, Vin?"

The others were waiting outside the livery, when Chris arrived. He mounted his horse and eyed the anxious faces before him. A single nod answered their lingering question and the calm in the green eyes chased away the apprehension over the tracker's state of mind. He drew the reins in and moved up next to Buck.

"Chris?" Buck asked, wanting, no needing to hear more. He watched his oldest friend's lips curve into a half-smile and felt the relief. His brows knit in confusion when Chris eyed him from side to side, then rested a hand on his shoulder.

"He said to tell you," Chris paused, "Your shoulders are just fine and he's grateful." Chris felt the audible sigh of relief before Buck let it airborne. He saw the familiar wide smile that was such a part of Buck's charm. "I guess you needed that."

"Thanks, Pard," Buck chuckled, "You got no idea how much."

"Everybody clear on their positions?" Chris eyed J.D. who nodded, then went around the perimeter. "We'll split up at the fork in the road, Ezra and me head in alone, Let's ride!"

Although he was in the lead and his eyes were drawn to the horizon, Chris's mind was spinning and weaving the bits and pieces of the plan into place. His head jerked when he heard Buck's soft exclamation.

"Well, I'll be damned," Buck laughed, taking his eyes to the left. He reined his horse in and studied the hotel's patio above his head.

"Hey, Vin!" J.D. whispered, giving his sick friend a beaming smile. The rest followed suit, nodding and sending their support. More importantly, the blue eyes shone right back at them, strong and true, and renewed their sense of mission. Chris waited for the others to pass, save Buck, who was staring hard at the tracker. The green eyes noted by the body's position, Vin was propped up on a table, near the edge of the wall. Nathan's tall, lean body was behind him, holding him upright. He smiled at the tracker, green eyes bore into blue, then with a nod and tip of his hat, he spurred his horse onward.

Vin watched them leave and felt his chest swell. Chris was right, it was about justice and a lot more than that. It was about pride too, his own and theirs. The wind lifted his hair and he drew back from the departing horses, to the one that remained. His face broke into a genuine smile and he felt a lump in his throat forming. He straightened his back as best he could and felt Nate's strong arms grip him tighter. He managed to squirm his left hand free, and raised it over his brow.

"Ya give 'im hell, Marshal," he saluted, eyeing the shine in Buck's eyes.

"You can put it in the bank, Tanner," Buck whispered, feeling his own chest tighten. He repeated Vin's gesture and let out a whoop, before galloping off to join his friends.

Spencer Hazzard eyed the clock on the mantle above the dormant fireplace and strode over, after glancing at his watch. He opened the glass cover and adjusted the small hand. Satisfied, he returned to the pale green wingchair and took a seat. He kept his eyes hooded as he gazed at the smug lawyer on the sofa to his left.

"It's unfortunate that all your problems can't be solved that easily," George

Carpenter drawled. The former partner of a large St. Louis law firm had been retained by the wealthy judge to oversee his growing empire. The judge worked briefly in St.Louis and recognized the jaded side to the solicitor.

"Have you considered my suggestions?"

"Thowing it all away," Hazzard snapped, "after all the trouble I've gone through... to let that cretin dictate to me... the audacity of that man," he chuffed and paused, "...and that slimy lawyer he hired... I won't back down... I've decided to call their bluff."

"You're a fool, Hazzard." Carpenter leaned over and picked up his glass of brandy. His dark hair was just beginning to turn silver and his waistline was suffering from too much rich food. He missed St.Louis and the sooner he could convince his client to liquidate his assets, the better. "Chris Larabee is dangerous man and a deadly one. I don't know what his stake in this is, my information is limited. I do know that for the last several years, he's drifted from town to town, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake."

"...and Talmidge?" the judge asked of the smooth talking lawyer who'd accompanied Larabee.

"I couldn't find anything in New Orleans or Altanta, but that's beside the point. Forget the con their trying to pull and concentrate on your real problem. The railroad is pressing hard to clean up their reputation, which is bad news for you, old friend. I saw Orin Travis in town, undoubtedly he's been contacted by the investigative team retained by the Coastal and Western. He's a well respected judge and rules with an iron fist. If you're prosecuted, you'll never see the light of day again."

"Still, 'take the money and run' isn't my style."

"and murder is?" The lawyer saw the silver head raise and the eyes flash in anger. "You've got more than enough to live like a king in Mexico."

"Somehow, I don't think Chris Larabee will let me stroll out of town. He has hired guns with him..."

"Ah," the other corrected, rising and refreshing Hazzard's glass. "But you're forgetting that for now, we have the advantage. They don't know we recognized Larabee. You play the game and play it well," he coached, clinking the imported French Brandy snifter. "I'll need a week to transfer what I can of the holdings you invested up north." He spoke of the money funneled into powder mills, a shipping line and garment factories in the New England States. "It's a good thing you didn't use your real name."

"How much?"

"More than enough," Carpenter replied, "Thousands, which in Mexico will build you a castle if you want. You've no other choice, your likeness will plastered from coast to coast in every rail depot."

"Continue," Hazzard sighed dejectedly.

"They'll be arriving soon. We'll fuss, but concede in the end. We'll convince them you need a week to get the five-thousand dollars together."

"That's all fine and good, what about Larabee and his help?"

"You leave them to me," the lawyer rose as the distant sound of hooves could be heard. "I've got the right distraction and a route mapped out to the border." He turned from the large French doors and watched two riders sliding off their horses. "Follow my lead, Spencer and don't let your temper get the best of you."

Ezra studied Chris as the maid allowed them to enter into the impressive foyer. He didn't miss the anger rising in Larabee. To the naked eye, the blond appeared impassive, but the southerner knew better. The touch of flint in his eyes, the brief twitch of his lip and the fingers resting on his hips under the duster were all telltale signs of his ire. He turned and gave Chris a questioning look and saw a brief nod.

"Good evening, Gentlemen," a voice greeted them from the entrance to the parlor, "I'm George Carpenter."

"Am I supposed to be impressed?" Chris sighed, brushing past the pompus fool.

"I've been retained by Judge Hazzard to consider the uh... offer that you presented him with a few days ago," the lawyer continued, feeling the heat of mystique that was Chris Larabee. "Something to settle the dust?" He waved a hand at the rolling cart housing several crystal decanters. "Brandy perhaps?"

"No thank you," Ezra declined. Chris glared at the open hand of the stranger, who quickly retreated and poured himself a glass.

"Now as for the reason of your surprise visit the other day," Carpenter stated, only to be cut off.

"Got five thousand reasons..." Chris said lazily, leaning on the mantle, "nothing else to discuss."

"Shall we review the contract you presented? I think they're are several fine points that need to be ironed out. I have to consider my client's best interests..."

"It would be in my best interest to see your fuckin' client hanging by his balls over a roasting pit... " Chris snarled, the sight of the man responsible for Vin's hellish nightmare shortened his fuse.

"Charming, isn't he?" Carpenter spoke to Ezra.

"Mr. Lawrence isn't himself today," Ezra warned Chris without looking at him.

"As I explained to Judge Hazzard, with the right amount of persuasion, Mr.

Lawrence might have a memory lapse. His testimony, verifying Mr. Tanner's whereabouts on the night in question, is a key part of the case the railroad is building. The other witnesses came forward only after my client offered his support. They are, for the most part, still not convinced. With his withdrawl, they would recede as well. So, we feel the sum is more than fair."

"That's a considerable amount of money." Hazzard interjected, "and the act of blackmail doesn't set well with me."

"I guess once you're used to a diet of murder, arm-breaking, arson and racketeering, blackmail is a mite bland," Chris's voice was low and lethal, "You fuckin' hypocrite!" His eyes burned into Hazzard's with such force, the other man turned away.

As repulsed as Ezra was by Hazzard, he was worried about Chris's temper. He also got the distinct impression, all was not what is appeared to be. "Shall we continue? The amount is not negotiable. I'm sure your client has appraised you on the repercussions, should something befall either one of us."

"I'm not that stupid, Mr. Talmidge." Carpenter shook his head, "I've got a healthy list of clients to get back to. We'll need time, that's a lot of money. I have to transfer some assets and I'll need at least ten days. In return, I want a affadavit from Mr. Lawrence refuting his original statement."

"Five." Chris spat back.

"A week," Carpenter suggested and Ezra nodded. "Very well, I'll contact you as..."

"You have a draft ready with a notarized statement from the bank, nine a.m. on the twelth," Chris dictated.

"That's only six days!" Hazzard complained.

"Excuse my bleedin' heart." Chris quipped in disgust, "Nine a.m. at the bank in town."

He strode from the room without glancing back. Ezra rose slowly and nodded, then joined his partner outside. They rode in silence until they reached the fork in the road, where Buck greeted them. Josiah released the now unarmed ranch guards, waiting until they rode off before joining his friends.

"Well, how'd it go?" J.D. asked, riding up from his position on the point.

"He's got his bags packed," Chris relayed, smacking Ezra's arm and wiggling his fingers.

Ezra produced his flask and handed to the leader. "That's the impression I got as well. They have no intention of paying. But... something is amiss..."

"That lawyer left outta town just as the stage got here. Could be he recognized Orin." Josiah mused.

"Maybe," Chris agreed, taking a liberal dose of the rich whiskey, "But I'm guessing that high-priced lawyer of his has the same information Orin does."

"Which means he's heading south," Ezra deducted.

"Guess we'll have to keep a close eye on 'em." Buck sighed, clapping J.D.'s back, "Let's head back to town. All this spy stuff works up a good thirst and I know that silver in your pocket is itchin' to be spent."

"On you?" J.D. scoffed, "Could be I have plans for this evening."

"Aw, hell, Kid," Buck returned, winking at the grinning preacher next to the youth, "You can't afford them gals inthe saloon. Besides, they'd see a greenhorn like you a mile away."

"I ain't as green as you think Buck!" J.D. tossed back defiantely.

"That solo action in the steam don't count..." Josiah said somberly, giving J.D. a heavy blush, which in turn gave Buck a belly laugh that brought tears to his eyes.

"I didn't... I wasn't... How did you... dammit!" J.D. flustered, ducking Josiah's large hand, which landed on his back anyway.

"Come on, J.D.," Buck urged his horse onward, "I'll give you pointers on the way to town."

"Oh, lucky me," J.D. moaned, galloping to catch up.

Breakfast the next morning found the group sprawled about the saloon. Orin was at the hotel, having breakfast with Vin. Chris left when the judge arrived, having spent the night in the spare bed in Vin's room. He was glad the tracker slept soundly and was following Nathan's guidance to the letter. Chris helped him to bathe and sit up, then placed a tray in front of him, just at Orin arrived. He was pleased to see Vin's wobbly left arm able to maintain a grip on the wooden spoon that held porridge.

When Chris arrived at the saloon, he noticed how tired Ezra looked. The gambler had a busy evening the night before. He'd spent the early hours with Vin, who was engrossed in a book Ezra was reading. Then after the infirmed man dozed off, the slick conman spent several hours wheeling and dealing with some of the locals. One of the patrons with an especially loose tongue, was a clerk at the telegraph office. Ezra plied him with liquor, which pried the youth's lips open. The southerner managed to extract that Carpenter had sent several wires up north to some large businesses. The slurring young man told Ezra that the wealthy lawyer was booked for the week at the hotel. From these clues, Ezra deduced that the sleazy lawyer was liquidating his client's assets. They decided to split up in teams, watching the lawyer and the ranch. Now, they were deciding what to do when Hazzard took off. Josiah studied the map of the region and they're were two paths that were strong candidates. One was through a rough stretch of ground, which they ruled out. The judge wasn't he 'roughing it' type. The other was longer, but dotted with waterways.

For fifteen minutes or so, several ideas were tossed around and shot down, then Chris Larabee suddenly let a small smile creep up on his face. He cocked his head and grinned lewdly at Buck Wilmington.

"What?" Buck frowned, eyeing the strange look on his friend's face.

"Somers Point... freezin' rain... sixty-three..." Chris prompted and saw the rogue's frown turn upsidedown.

"Sixty-four..." Buck corrected, then chuckled, his eyes lighting up. "Hell, Chris, that just might work," He rubbed his mustache and laughed again. "Damn I was good that night!"

"Am I old enough to hear this?" J.D. queried over his pancakes, causing Josiah and Ezra to grin.

"Get your mind out of the gutter," Buck slapped the youth, "I swear J.D..."

"For those of us who were not privy to the wonderous event in the storm of sixty-four?" Ezra quipped, letting the sentence dangle like the ham on his fork.

"Our unit got split up," Chris sighed, recalling the event like it was yesterday. "We were on the run and the Rebs were pressing. It was in Virginia in March... it was cold...."

"Fuckin' cold," Buck corrected, recalling the horrid storm, "...Major Harper sent us ahead to scout the area. We weren't sure which way they were coming and had to protect the railroad."

"What happened?" Nate asked, watching the pair exchange another sinister smile.

"Colonel Augustus Zachariah Everett is what happened." Chris noted of the Rebel commander they'd encountered. "You up to the challenge, Stud?"

"Bring on that scaley son-of-a-bitch!" Buck hollered, taking the mug of coffee Chris offered. He took a long sip and whooped loudly, before slapping his free hand on the table.

"It goes like this..." Chris leaned in and spelled out the plan.

Part 22

As the week progressed, Vin Tanner made considerable progress. After hearing Chris's plan, his primary focus was getting his strength back. The quickest way between two points is a straight line, so that's what he did. He towed that line, taking all Nate's medicine, sleeping for hours, eating good and with J.D.'s help, taking walks. The Kid was the easiest to bend, and it hadn't taken much for Vin to convince him. So every afternoon, J.D. helped Vin get his legs back, without Nathan's knowledge of course. Today he walked from the bed out of the room and down the hall, before his legs gave out. J.D. helped him get back to bed. He was still dripping in sweat from his labored efforts, when the youth left and Chris dropped by. Vin's eyes were closed as he basked in the glow of his achievement, wearing a sly grin.

Chris paused in the doorway and wondered about that drunken grin. The tracker was stretched out on the bed, but he was sitting up with his back to the wall. Chris narrowed his eyes and poured the panting man a mug of water. He took the chair next to Vin and watched as one eye peeled open. He handed Vin the mug and watched as every drop was quickly drained.

"What's with the shit-eating-grin?" Chris asked, lighting a cheroot.

"The wisest man is not always the most ingenious." Vin crowed proudly, raising an eyebrow at the scowling blond beside him.

"That's it... your lunchtime reading sessions with Ezra are over." Chris responded to the chesire grin.

"I had me a vision..." Vin boldly proclaimed, enjoying himself.

"Sounds more like you had a peyote party," the gunslinger noted of the hallucinogenic plant.

"Ya got some?" Vin's voice rose and his eyes danced in mischief.

"You worry me, Cowboy." Chris chuckled, taking a draw on his cheroot. "Why you all lathered up?"

"Gettin' ready." Vin replied, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. He batted away Chris's arm and pushed off the edge.

"Vin..." Chris warned, but didn't make an attempt to stop his determined friend. He followed beside the smaller man, as he slowly crossed the room, refilled his mug and wobbled back, before collapsing on the bed. He saw the flush of daring appear and shook his head, realizing just what the wheels cranking inside the curly head were doing.


"It ain't yer call."

"The hell it isn't," Chris bristled, his eye flashing, "A week ago you damn near died on me. I thought we were square on this. It's about justice, not vengeance."

"I need t'do this, Chris," Vin said softly. "I know the plan and I'm goin', with ya or after ya."

"You're not strong enough, Vin," Chris argued, worried about the calm demeanor. "We got a lot of ground to cover."

"I ain't stupid, Chris, don't talk down t'me!" Vin sassed, eyes hot, "I ain't gettin' that fever back. I worked hard all week and it paid off."

Chris stared hard at the heaving chest and the sweat rolling down the Texan's face. He walked to the window and looked at the horizon. Colt, Josiah and Buck had been keeping close tabs on Hazzard, while Ezra and J.D. kept an eye on Carpenter. Ezra found out that the lawyer had been sending wires north all week and that he'd bought a long list of items from the General Store. He ordered merchandise that would be required for the suspected trip. With a sly tongue and a generous amount of whiskey, Ezra managed to pry the bank clerk's lips loose during a poker game. The property that Hazzard was renovating, was sold back to the bank.

"It's not just your hide I'm thinking of."

"Ya know me better than that, Chris," Vin's low growl startled the blond into turning back into the room, "I'd never risk any of yer necks, I ain't that stupid." He paused and eyed the somber face, "If they agree?"

Chris thought for a moment and gave consent. "If you're coming to dinner with us, you need a bath." He agreed, walking over to the pile of clothes stacked on the spare bed. Rummaging through, he selected what he needed and waited by the door.

"Ya sayin' I stink?" Vin asked, standing and heading for the door.

"I'm still downwind of you, that should tell you what kind of friend I am," Chris shot back, grabbing the weaving body's elbow.

"If you intend to doze, perhaps we should hold our meeting in your bedroom."

"I ain't sleepin', Ezra," Vin rasped, peeling a single eye open to glare at the southerner seated next to him in the saloon, "...was restin' m'eyes is all."

"I distinctly heard a snore," Ezra accused, shifting his body so Vin would have more room.

"Yeah, and you were drooling a little too," J.D. offered, grinning broadly as Vin swiped the side of his lip.

"Anythin' else?" Vin huffed, glaring at Josiah and Nathan who were grinning as well.

"Where the hell is Buck?" Chris grumbled, standing at the bar.

"He was uh... tied up." Josiah played the role of diplomat. "He might be awhile."

"Oh that's just great," J.D. complained, "Whatever happened to business before pleasure?"

"Mr. Wilmington's pleasure is his business," Ezra oozed, not hiding his admiration. "His selfless endeavor to ascertain information from the lovely lady," he said of Vanessa, Hazzard's soon-to-be unemployed maid, "is commendable."

"Oh, I'm gonna be sick," J.D. rolled his eyes as Josiah and Nathan chuckled.

"Reckon we can order now," Vin yawned, winced, rubbed his sore shoulder and sat up. "He's here..."

"Where?" Nate peered above the batwing doors. The drinkery was nearly empty as sundown approached. "I don't see 'im."

"Vin you're not even facing the door," J.D. argued, "You couldn't see him even if he was there."

"Don't need m'eyes... " Vin yawned again and lifted his head. "Yup," he sniffed, "Just enough breeze t'get a whiff."

"You're full of shit, Vin!" J.D. tossed a peanut at the sharpshooter, who snagged it in midair with his free hand.

"Ya wanna lay some silver on it?" Vin challenged and scoffed as the coins hit the table. "Like robbin' a blind man."

"Afternoon boys!" A voice boomed several minutes later.

"Damn!" Nathan laughed with Vin, as the younger man pulled his bounty in.

"Hey Vin!" Buck slapped the tracker's back and saw the pile of coins. "Ezra let you win?"

"Hell no," Vin boasted, "Weren't no card game, won a bet."

"Yeah? What kind of bet?" Buck winked at the fleshy saloon girl who appeared from the kitchen doorway, "Hey Darlin, how about a beer for Old Buck?"

"Comin' right up, Sugar." She smiled suggestively and slung her hips over to the bar.

"Well?" Buck eased his body into the vacant chair next to the injured Texan, who immediately wrinkled his nose.

"That boy is half hound dog," Josiah decided, lifting his beer.

"That's what done it," Nate agreed, taking a handful of peanuts.

"You mean?" Buck's eyes narrowed as they bore into the tracker's. The nose wrinkled again and Buck's famous grin appeared. "You're full of shit, Vin. Chris stinks better than me... probably him you smelled."

"Thanks Buck," Chris added, still perched at the bar.

"Chris ain't been pokin' today." Vin frowned, "Iffen I don't eat soon, I'm likely t'pass out."

"Damn you're good, Vin." Nate laughed, watching the stunned look on Wilmington's face. The smile was fighting hard to stay unborn, until Vin peeked sideways at Buck and wiggled his eyebrows. That did it, and Buck's booming laughter exploded.

"A true gentlemen doesn't dine amongst others, until he takes a bath," Vin crowed, turning to the southerner, "Ain't that right, Ezra?"

"What the hell would you know about being a gentlemen?" Buck laughed, smacking Vin's leg.

"I've been enlightening Vin during our midday meals," Ezra replied, getting a collective groan as Vin nodded smugly.

"You start wearing funny coats and I'm gonna have to shoot your other arm," Buck warned. The saloon girl appeared with Buck's beer and took their dinner order. As the others decided who was buying the next round, Buck studied the weary lines on Vin's gaunt face. His eyes saw the looseness of the shirt hanging on the thin frame and heard the slight force in his breathing. "How you doing, Tanner?" he asked quietly and saw the younger's mans lip curve upward.

"I'm okay, Marshal," Vin replied, sipping his beer.

"You bribe Nate?" he asked and saw the curly head lift.

"Nah, J.D.'s been helpin' me get m'legs back. I had me a vision..."

"Don't go there, Vin..." Chris warned with a smile, which broadened with the tracker's soft laughter.

"Vision?" Ezra's eyes narrowed.

"I know the plan," Vin's smile disappeared and his eyes grew serious in their intent. "I'm fixin' on doin' 'im."

"Hazzard?" J.D. coughed, wiping the beer foam from his lips.

"No, President Grant," Vin rolled his eyes.

"Vin, walkin' over here to eat supper is one thing," Nate warned, "But we got a hard day's work ahead. You're not strong enough."

"Best ya listen up," Vin's voice cut the air, "I'm only sayin' this once. Took a few chances with m'own neck in the past," he paused and eyed each face, "I'd never be fool enough t'risk yers... never. I'm ready and I'm goin'"

Nate took his eyes from Vin's determined face to Chris's studied one. That look told him that the leader had already agreed. He watched as Vin eyed each face and got the slight nod. When those blue eyes stared at him, he paused. "You start peakin' and I'm pullin' you off that horse."

"Won't happen." Vin promised, drilling the dark eyes until they gave consent.

"Good. Let's eat."

"Exactly where in the plan have you placed yourself?" Ezra wondered.

"Told ya," Vin said, lifting a healthy spoonful of beef stew. "I'm doin' 'im."

"Nobody would like to see that more than me, Vin." Chris stated, cutting his steak, "That part of the job requires both hands."

Vin paused, furrowed his brows, chewed and swallowed his stew, then shook his head. "Nope. I can do 'im."

"You're good, Vin," Buck argued, "But not that good. You need both hands to..."

"Never said wouldn't be two hands bein' used," Vin shoveled in another mouthful and stole Buck's biscuit. "That fucker'll be shittin' his pants by then anyhows..."

"He's right," Ezra's slow smile appeared over his ham steak, "Sometimes what one cannot see is far more frightening that reality."

"I get it..." J.D. nodded, "After we drag him off the horse, we blindfold him. He wouldn't have to see Vin's hands."

"Ya go easy on the Redeye tonight, Cowboy," Vin lifted his eyes to the cool green one's across from him. "Can't afford t'lose yer temper and bust yer hand."

Chris's smile started slowly and spread easy, like syrup on griddle cakes. "It'll be a pleasure," he snarled, accepting Vin's invite.

"Hey, I didn't get a biscuit," Buck protested, eyeing his plate. He turned at J.D.'s snicker and frowned, "What are you laughing at?"

"You're getting old Buck," the youth shook his head and plowed through his stew.

Buck's eyes turned the other way and he saw telltale crumbs on Vin's blue sling. "Goddammit Vin!" He smacked the tracker's good arm lightly and grinned in evil pleasure as his booming voice caused the younger man to cough a mouthful of stew up. "Serves you right!"

Josiah listened to the music gracing his ears and smiled, raising his eyes towards the darkening blue sky outside the door. "Lord, we give thanks for all the gifts you've bestowed upon us today."

He caught Vin's eyes and nodded, sending his own silent message, which the tracker absorbed and allowed the emotion to shine through his sky eyes.

Seven a.m. the next day, at the hotel

"Just pick one, Vin." Chris hissed, eyeing the ribs showing on Vin's naked chest. The tracker cocked his head and eyed the display on the bed.

"Patience is a virtue," Vin chirped, finally selecting a red section of cloth, for a sling, among the many colors laid out.

"Don't go Ezra on me, Cowboy," Chris grunted, easing Vin's injured arm into a blue chambray shirt and waiting until the other arm was ready. He watched Vin button up with one hand, then, "Red suspenders?" the blond frowned, seeing Vin pick up them up.

"Ezra got me whole bunch in different colors," Vin replied, "So's I won't clash with m'slings."

"I might just beat Buck to that bullet," he noted of the rogue's threat. He attached the suspenders and carefully placed Vin's arm in the sling, then waited for the hissed breathing and tight jaw to ease up. "You sure about this?"

"Yeah," Vin sighed, "Where's m'holster?"

"You can't shoot."

"Hazzard don't know that. Get m'gun... I know ya brung it." He waited until Chris pulled the mare's leg from the shelf in the closet.

Chris watched Vin's eyes shine when he buckled the leather holster on the slim hips. He shoved a hat on the unruly long hair and moved to the door. He stopped suddenly, causing Vin to collide with him.

"Dammit, Chris..." Vin snarled, rubbing the injured shoulder which made contact with Larabee's arm.

"Sorry," Chris winced and slid past his friend. He moved back to the bed, where his saddlebags where laid out. He'd planned on packing up their things, while the others ate breakfast. That way, they'd be loaded and ready to ride at the meal's end. His hand slid inside the bag and took out the deep blue cloth. He ran his thumb over the edges, recalling the empty void he'd felt that day when he rode into town, before he purchased it. He walked back towards Vin and placed the new kerchief around the baffled man's neck.

"Ya didn't hafta get me nothin'" Vin paused and saw the flicker of pain in Chris's eyes. His own eyes darted as his mind shifted in time, to the harmonica player whose soul was bared and raw on the boardwalk. He blinked and saw the tuft of blue fabric clutched in that soloist's hands, when he was sprawled on the ground. He jerked his head and swallowed hard, fingering the blue cloth, whose value now became priceless. "Thanks, Chris"

"Ezra doesn't have the market on style." Chris moved past Vin and through the open door.

Vin's eagle eyes noted the clenched jaw and hard green eyes. Too many painful memories of what had nearly been lost lingered there. He moved slowly, pacing himself and saw the rigid muscles of Chris's back through his shirt.

"Ya know Chris," Vin teased, grabbing the railing and slowly descending the stairs, with Larabee in front of him. "This is real purty and all, but nothin' says I care like a new rifle."

"Messing with peyote again?" Chris smiled, hustling the chuckling tracker towards the dining room.

"Damn Vin," Buck boomed, rising to shuffle the chairs around so the injured man would be on the end. "You look pretty enough to eat." He winked and eyed the new clothes his friend wore.

"Told ya before, Bucklin," Vin rasped, easing into the chair and breathing heavily for a few seconds, "Ya can't afford me."

"Eat up," Chris ordered, "We got a good stretch of road to cover."

"I didn't hear a chorus of 'Thank you, Bucks' yet." the rogue waited.

"Thank you?" Vin's voice rose. "Ya spent the afternoon lickin' wine offa a purty girl and gettin' a poke. Rest of us was doin' real work."

"Rest of who?" Nate cocked an eye at Vin who blushed and chuckled.

"Most of us," he corrected.

"Hey, I was working hard." Buck feigned a wounded voice, "I had to time every move just right, one wrong slip of these hands or these lips could have been disasterous."

"Hmmph!" Ezra disagreed, "Your prowess notwithstanding," he paused to take a sweetroll, "Miss Velaquez's employment had been terminated. Your silver was as alluring as your uh... unique talent." He noted of Hazzard's maid, who was headed back to Santa Fe to her family.

"Aw, hell Ace," Buck winced, clutching his heart, "I'm not just a piece of meat you know." His brows furrowed as chorus of guffaws broke out. "Shut the hell up, all of you!"

"So we got the route," Chris said of Buck's information, "Eat up, we got a lot of road to cover. They left before dawn, but we'll take Rio Diablo Pass and be waiting for them."

"Wouldn't be right not to say hello," Buck's voice grew hard, "now would it?"

His intense stare and hiss caused Vin's head to jerk up. Two sets of determined blue eyes met briefly and Vin nodded at Buck.

"Nope, wouldn't be neighborly," the Texan growled in a low voice.

George Carpenter eyed the hot sun set in a guileless blue sky. Five thousand dollars was a lot of money for such a short excursion, but eyeing the terrian ahead, he wondered if he'd made the right choice. Oh, there was still the large commission he'd make off the remaining real estate transactions, but still... the canyons ahead seemed forboding to him and he shivered despite the heat. He pulled the reins of the horse in and turned back to where the Judge was falling behind again.

"Get that animal moving, we have a lot of ground to cover by nightfall," he shouted back, but the white head rose and glared at him, then resumed it's slow pace.

"J.D., You got anything?" Josiah called, shielding his eyes against the brazen sun which was bearing down on him. The youth was perched on a rocky outcrop, eyeing the horizon. He shook his dark head and continued to look through Vin's spyglass.

It was nearly noon and the dastardly duo was expected any minute. Buck and

Ezra were playing cards, Chris was brooding and Nate was plying Vin with water. The preacher ambled over, frowning at the blinking Texan's eyes. He wondered how many more miles under this unforgiving sun would Tanner be able to last. He watched Nate's dark hand push the tracker's forehead back and Vin surrendered, closing his eyes and resting against the rock.

"Rider's coming!" J.D. boomed, causing everyone to rise.

"Not you!" Nate hissed, shoving Vin back down. "They still got a ways to come... and you're gonna need any extra bit of energy you can stow."

Chris's lean strides took him up to J.D.'s side in a flash. He took the scope and peered at the approaching team. For several seconds, he remained motionless, before returning the glass and sliding down.

"A half hour, maybe more," he warned, walking over to where Vin's half-lidded eyes were fighting him. He sat down next to the tracker and held out Ezra's flask. Vin's head moved to where the Southerner was talking with Buck. He caught Ezra's eye and nodded, getting a flash of gold tooth before he turned back to Chris. They shared a drink and he felt a uneasy calm settle in his gut. The tension left his back and his breathing evened out. Somehow, Chris became a part of him and he felt his strength renewed. As if sensing his thoughts, Chris turned to him, a half-smile gracing his lips.

"Gonna be a helluva show."

"Ya got m'word on that, Larabee," Vin vowed, resting his eyes. It seemed like only mere seconds passed, before a hiss in his ear roused him.


He blinked and tossed his arm up, not needing his sight. The strong arm hoisted him upright and steadied him. He kept blinking, trying to chase the heavy folds of slumber away, while Chris gently eased his arm from the sling. His eyes widened when a sharp cry forced them open.

"Sorry," Chris whispered, wincing at the pain shooting from Vin's eyes. The heavy chest was accented by painful gasps of air and a wide-eyed stance.

Nate took the sling and shoved it his large shirt. He carefully placed Vin's arm across his midsection and saw the beads of sweat dancing wickedly across the tracker's brow.

"Can you hold it, like that?" he asked, "Won't be too long."

Vin nodded, not trusting his voice, which was choking on the pain that radiated from his shoulder. The arm had been lazily cradled in a sling for a week and not protested angrily at being roused into activity.

Chris watched the Adam's apple bobbing furiously and rested a hand briefly on Vin's shoulder. He gave a good squeeze, then moved forward. Buck, Ezra and J.D. were all in position. Josiah's rifle was primed and ready. Chris drew both colts and perched on the rock, wearing an arrogant smile.

"Mornin'" he boomed, watching Carpenter nearly vault from his horse. "Nice day for a ride. You weren't thinking about backing out on our deal, were you?" Chris slid from the rock and watched the lawyer's face turn ashen, as one by one, the rest of the team appeared, except for Vin. "Bad fuckin' decision!" he growled, waving the gun. "Buck..."

"Mister, it's a wonder you can sit a horse, bein's your ass is slimy and crooked to boot," the rogue seethed as he pulled the stunned figure from the horse. He shoved the shaking man to his knees, and jerked his hair back, exposing the naked throat. He whipped his knife out, tracing a line under the jaw and leaving a thin red trail. He pressed the point against the jumping jugular and leaned his lips against the quaking man's ear. "Go on, sneeze you pig, I dare you." He moved slightly, giving Ezra enough room to tie the man's hands behind his back.

"What's the... ten thousand... I'll give you double..."

"Get him," Buck chuckled, running the knife along the pale neck, drawing another red ribbon. "Stupid fuck thinks this is about money."

George Carpenter didn't hide his fear, after all he was a civilized man from the city. The outlaws, roughriders and ruffians who roamed the plains and ruled the wilds of this western frontier, were beneath him. But like a pack of wolves, they were predators to be feared. He flinched as the knife continued it's path, and his river of sweat ran into the growing wounds.

"Get his pants off, Buck," Chris grinned, already enjoying the first act of the show, "Let's see if he has any balls down there."

As the first tug of the belt, his bladder gave way, giving the group a collective chuckle. "Damn, shit-for-brains," Buck commented, eyeing the growing puddle. "Looks like you had way too much coffee for breakfast."

Spencer Hazzard saw the commotion ahead and recognized the distinct image of the man in black. Without hesitation, he jerked his plodding horse to a halt and reined him in. He shook his head and turned, an action that was halted by a shot and his hat flying off.

"I wouldn't," the steely voice warned, the deadly tone matching the flint in the man's eyes.

"You... I know you... you're..." the Judge tried to remember where he knew the commanding figure, whose gun was trained on his head.

"Your worst fuckin' nightmare you spineless-pile-of-shit," He growled, "You get that horse moving or the next one goes through your kneecap."

He heard the sound when they reached the crude campsight. It was a low growl, the repercussions of which gave him the worst chill of his life. He sucked in a painful breath and drew his tall frame upwards sharply, as the icy green eyes with murderous intent, bore down on him.

"Nice work, Colt," Chris spoke slowly to the lawman whose gun was trained on Hazzard.

"You... Crystal City," Hazzard spat at the lean man approaching him. "You're one of those fools who actually believes in that insipid tin star. Your kind doesn't kill for sport..."

"Mister, you don't know a fuckin' thing about me," Colt gripped Hazzard's belt and yanked him off the horse and onto his knees. "You made the second biggest mistake of your worthless life when you fucked with Colt Haskill, you lyin' son-of-a-bitch!" He growled, choking the judge with one iron fist, while Ezra took his coat off. Colt released the sputtering man, who fell sideways gulping air. He was still reeling and seeing stars, but felt his hands tied in front of him. He blinked at Haskill then at Chris Larabee, who's eyes caused his blood to turn to ice water.

"You won't get away with this..." the judge protested weakly, "Shooting and unarmed man... coldblooded murder..."

"Shut that hole of yours, you fuckin' hypocrite!" Chris roared, backhanding the swarmy male with the butt of his gun. He loomed over the figure, now on his knees and wiping the blood from his mouth, with his bound hands. Chris grinned evilly as the gasping body spit out two teeth.

"Damn, Chris," Buck shook his head, "You're losing your touch. Usually you get four or five... "

"We got plenty of time," Chris grabbed the Hazzard's hair and jerked his head back, "...and I brought pliers." He pulled the small metal clamps from his breast pocket and ran them along the weasel's wet cheek. "Buck, what was that sorry-assed excuse that fuckin' dean gave for tossin' me out of Dental school?"

"Hmmm." Buck scratched his chin with the hilt of his knife and leaned in, tapping the point against the judge's throat, drawing a prick of blood. "As I recall it had somethin' to do with all them poor volunteers who bled out... damn shame... but accident's will happen. Open up!" Buck growled, using the point of the knife to force Hazzard's mouth open. He then gripped the jaw tightly, preventing movement, while Chris ran the pliers along the yellowing teeth.

"Did I mention the volunteers were in prison, during the war?" Chris said almost musically, his grin broad. "When the Army wants information, they don't ask questions about how you get it."

"Best we get started, Chris," Buck jerked the head back, giving Chris more room, "You know this always takes hours... especially when them nerves and red stringy pieces don't want to let the tooth go."

"You want to measure him first?" Chris commented, clamping the metal around a tooth and giving a gentle tug. "Shit... this one's gonna be tough..." he tugged again and moved the metal clamps, causing the body to buckle as the tooth began to work loose.

"We got a surprise for you," Buck said, leaning his face close to the judge's. "After we pull most of them teeth out... we got what you would call a specialist to finish up. An old friend of yours. Won't that be nice?" He nodded to Chris, who screwed his face up and yanked the tooth out, sending a spray of blood onto his hand and a muffled scream as well.

"One down... twenty or so to do..." Chris said, waving the bloody tooth in front of the judge's wide eyes. "Buck, he's gonna cave... best we get to measuring." He stood and used his boot to shove the body sideways. Buck knelt down and rolled him on his back. He made a mark in the dirt above his head and then below his boots.

"Damn, Chris, he's a tall bastard," Buck complained, "You're gonna be wore out from digging."

"Digging?" Chris snarled, shoving his boot on the struggling body trying to rise. He planted it firmly on Hazzard's chest, grinding his heel until the other man squealed.

J.D., Josiah and Ezra were enjoying the show. Josiah couldn't help but chuckle as the color left J.D.'s face.

"You okay, Son?" he leaned over and passed a hand in front of the youth's wide eyes.

"I didn't think they'd really do it... Jesus, that's gotta hurt."

"You ain't seen nothin' yet, Kid," a raspy drawl warned from the shadows behind them.

"I'm not digging the fucking hole," Larabee growled, kicking Hazzard's knee as he argued with Buck, who was directly across from him. "I dug the last two."

"You're a Goddamn liar, Larabee," Buck shouted, stomping on Hazzards groin with all his might and grabbing Chris's collar. "I dug the last two... you got the easy job, that fucker you hacked up only took up foot feet of space." He ground his heels into Hazzard's groin, not even looking to see what kind of face matched the incoherent cries coming from beneath them. "Hell, you beat him to death with his own leg..."

"What do you want? I'll pay... do... what is it..."

"Damn, Buck," Chris frowned, spitting onto Hazzard's face. "You're right, sorry Pard."

"No problem," Buck eased back, then glanced at Hazzard, who was barely coherent. "I think we best move on... it's time to get serious. He's a weak little fucker."

"Yeah," Chris sniffed, squatting down and looking at Buck. "I ain't partial to odd numbers..." he eyed the three teeth lying on the ground. "Open 'em Buck..."

"No... no..." the cry was cut off as the jaw was forced open and the pliers disappeared inside.

"Dammit!" Chris swore, pulling his hand free. "Fucker won't stop babbling, too much spit is ruinin' my grip."

"Reckon it's time..."

Chris and Buck exchanged an evil grin over Hazzard's body, as Vin's unmistakeable voice caused the man lying on the ground between them to pale and begin to tremble.

"It can't be... you're dead..."

"A more handsome corpse I've never had the pleasure of looking upon," Ezra oozed, moving to Vin's side. He'd seen the brief flicker of pain in the blue eyes and was certain the strain on the tracker's shoulder was unbearable.

Vin flicked a grateful gaze at the gambler and nodded, before walking closer to the body. "Had some unfinished business... get 'im ready." Vin said in a steady voice, drilling the judge's eyes with his own.

"You won't get away with this..." Carpenter's pleas fell on deaf ears.

"Shut that maggot up, will ya J.D.?"

"Pleasure, Chris." the youth bowed and made short work of gagging the urine-ridden lawyer.

"Now where were we?" Chris frowned, cocking his head and unbuttoning Hazzard's trousers.

"Hold up, Chris," Buck protested, "Shouldn't the bastard have a chance to speak his peace?"

"Fuck that!" Chris roared, watching as Vin knelt down by Buck, without flinching. He knew the shoulder must be throbbing, but the tracker's face was staid. "I say we cut his prick and balls off and shove them down his throat."

"Ain't got none," Vin breathed, snaking his hand down the loosened trousers. "Well, I'll be damned..." he growled, twisting painfully and causing the judge to squeal in pain. "Turn 'im... I peel 'em better from behind." Vin ordered, kneeling up and taking Buck's large knife. He moved back as Buck and Ezra worked the trousers off.

"That a fact?" Chris asked, shoving Hazzard hard onto his stomach and grinding his face into the dirt.

"Recall one time I was peelin' some tough old bastard, down Mexico way," he nodded, once he saw Chris forcing the face outwards and away from him. Ezra moved in and steadied the younger man, kneeling beside him and grabbing his left shoulder. Vin took two silent deep breaths and nooded. The conman took the knife and placed it against Hazzards ankle. "I started here," Vin hissed..."

"Peel?" Hazzard choked, swallowed dirt with the blood in his mouth. The bitter taste was nothing compared to the pain in his chest. He felt the sting of hand on his naked backside, as he was turned over and forced onto his stomach. "You uncivilized bastard, I should have hung you in that cell in Tascosa..."

"Shut the fuck up!" Chris ordered, slamming the protesting man's face into the ground again. "What barn were you raised in? Don't you know it's not polite to interrupt?"

"Damn, he's a skinny bastard," Buck proclaimed, slapping the reddened cheeks again."Go on, Vin..." He jerked the head upright and Chris secured the blindfold in place.

" anyways, I started m'peel here," he paused and Ezra moved aside, letting Chris kneel by his best friend's side. He took the knife and pressed the point against the skin above the ankle. He waited for Vin, who was only too glad to finish. Nate and Ezra had moved in and secured the arm into a sling once again. Ezra provided a flask, which Vin took a liberal dose of, before kneeling back down. "... went from the left ankle, up his leg, clear past his ass and back down the other side. Sure was somethin' t'see..." Vin rasped, clenching his eyes shut to stem the pain. He felt Nate grab him as he swayed and caught himself.

Chris traced the path at the same time the tracker's words sounded. He paused and waited, then gripped the left ankle again.

"You can't..." the muffled protest came. "I'll do anything... I have money..."

"You just don't get it..." Buck shook his head. "You gonna do this today, Vin?" Buck winked at the struggling tracker, who caught the supportive gesture and straightened up. "Hell, by the time we get the hole dug..."

"Maybe we don't need the hole," Vin gasped, nodding for Ezra, who supported him as he leaned over Hazzard. "What'll it be, you yellow-bellied pig, worms or buzzards?"

"Buzzards?" Hazzard quizzed.

"You heard the man, Vin." Chris snarled, "Peel him, hell, even buzzards have to eat," the leader grunted and flicked his wrist, causing Hazzard to scream as knife bit skin and the process began.

"Damn shame," Buck lamanted, "Don't seem fair to give them poor birds indigestion."

"No... wait... please... I did it... is that what you want... I... I... " he stammered, trying to collect his thoughts. "I hired Eli Joe and his gang to... to... roust the ranchers for their land... kill them if they wouldn't sell. He killed... Kincaid... my order... please don't hurt me."

Chris eyed the nearly undone victim and felt the rage rising again. All the years Vin's suffered, all the bounty hunters who'd beaten, kidnapped and hurt his friend, because of this animal. That someone would take Vin's life away... force him to hide in the shadows and steal his right to freedom, was causing an irrepairable pain in his gut. Nobody hurt Vin Tanner... nobody... he didn't realize his wrist and hand were moving; he didn't hear the pig squealing, then a voice, as soft and still as the morning air, broke his daze.


He turned and met the large, emotive blue pools and felt the left hand firmly ontop of his right one. He inhaled sharply and flinched as if his hand were scorched. He allowed Vin to pry the knife from his hand and sat back, shaking slightly.

"Justice, not vengeance, remember?" Vin said quietly, resting a hand on Larabee's shoulder. He saw the sweaty blond head dip once and heard the chest heaving. He saw the fisted arms trembling in rage and felt the force beneath the damp black fabric under his hand. He gave one firm grip to the shoulder and leaned down. "Ya okay?" The head dipped once, but the fists remained clenched.

"Is that enough?" Buck asked, lifting his head towards the clearing.

"More than enough," a new voice added, pausing as Buck and Ezra got the judge to his feet and pulled his pants back on. The judge blinked as the blindfold was removed.

"Sign..." a voice commanded.

"You saw what they did... you saw... " Hazzard gasped, "I demand..."

"Sign..." Orin pressed, placing a clipboard with a yellow legal document on top. "A brief statement of your actions and then your signature. Witnessed and dated, of course."

"Witnessed?" Hazzard spat, his hand trembling as he wrote out a statement.

"Certainly," Orin Travis nodded to Buck and Colt, who stood on either side of him. "Two of the finest, most honorable lawman I've had the pleasure to meet. Honorable... their actions were dispicable. You're a man of the bench too..."

"Don't you even make the mistake of putting yourself in my class, Hazzard," Travis warned, then turned to Colt and Buck and had them sign the deed. "Get this... this..."

"Walking, spineless pile of vermin?" Ezra suggested.

"Excellent choice of words, Standish." Travis nodded and walked back to his horse. He packed the documents in this bags and eyed the horizon. Two more hours of hard riding until they reached town. He paused and saw them surround Vin protectively, not even aware of their stance. They did it by instinct and out of respect. He saw Chris guide the tracker towards him and wondered how the obviously pained man was still standing. He saw the left hand rise, shook it and nodded.

"I'm in yer debt, Sir." Vin raised his face and sent his thanks.

"No, Son, I'm in yours." With a nod, he got on his horse and waited for them to follow. The sun was brutal and they stretched out in a long line. Two of the riders lagged behind the rest, with the gap widening.

"...m'alright." Vin murmured, when Nathan appeared next to him. He wanted to lift his head to reassure the healer, but didn't have the strength.

"You need to rest, Vin." Nate suggested. "You can't afford to fall off that horse and bust your other arm."

"Ain't gonna fall," Vin whispered, "only fixin' on makin' the trip down once."

Nate sighed and shook his head, knowing how true the weary words were. Once Vin's legs hit the earth, his body would follow. So he rode beside his friend and eyed the town looming in the distance. "Okay, try to hold on... won't be much longer... an hour or so..."

"That all?" Vin managed to lift his head and smile, giving the healer a good laugh.

Part 23

The young deputy was crossing the street of Salt Flats on his way to the Post Office, when he paused and squinted. Once his eyes adjusted to the long string of riders approaching, his swift feet took him down the street. His face split into a smile, as he ran to greet the dusty travellers.

"Guess this means I gotta give up the good seat," Eddie noted of the leather chair behind the sheriff's desk.

"You ain't got enough ass yet to fill it, Son," Colt retorted, giving the kid a weary grin. "Anything I should know about?"

"Nope, it's been real quiet." Eddie eyed the two men tied up riding behind Sheriff Haskill, "We got plenty of room."

"Good," Colt barked, "You lock these bastards up." He jerked his head and slide off the horse, stretching his back.

"On what charges?" Eddie cocked his head.

"A list longer than your arm, starting with murder." Colt gazed up and down the street, his eyes seeking one person.

"She's been worried," Eddie answered the handsome man's inquisitive search.

"I'll give you a hand, Son," Josiah offered, grabbing Hazzard roughly and jerking him off the horse. The swift motion sent the battered figure into the horse trough. "Mind your step, now." he warned, grabbing the back of the judge's neck and hauling him towards the jail.

Mary lifted another pie from the oven and carried it outside. She made her way carefully to the rack, and set the hot tin down next to the other three pies. Two peach and two apple, along with the cinnamon star cookies she'd made. She used the linen cloth she'd carried the pie on to wipe her hands. She was headed back towards the kitchen door, when a voice broke the afternoon silence.

"Heard tell there's an old widow in these parts with a room to let."

The smile born on her face came slowly, softening her features as it grew. By the time she turned around, her eyes were shining and her heart racing. She strode slowly across the wooden planks on the large porch until she reached the railing. She leaned over and drank in every feature on Colt's handsome face.

"That so?" Mary raised an eyebrow. "Don't recall that. Sure is a shame about the sheriff." She toyed.

"How's that?" Colt took the bait, lost in her blue eyes.

"Turned feeble-minded," She shot back, tapping her temple, "...mind's gone..."

"Shocking." Colt bit back a grin, "I heard he was quite a man."

"Well 'was' is the right word. It was a terrible tragedy. I believe in ancient China it was known as 'limp noodle' malady."

"Really?" Colt wheezed, trying desperately not to laugh. He heard the laughter of the others and saw Chris Larabee grinning and shaking his head, behind Mary. "Maybe you can help a lost soul?"

"That depends on what you have to offer," she said huskily, sending a flush to Colt's face.

"How about two hands, one heart and my eternal love and devotion?"

J.D. groaned and ducked the scoundrel's swatting arm, as Mary wheeled around searching among the weary group.

"What the devil?" Her eyes grew wide when they saw the six-foot plus hunk of cowboy, who wrapped her in a bearhug. "Buck! Buck Wilmington!" she enthused, pulling back and gripping his face. "You're a sight for sore eyes, Handsome. How are you?"

"I'm fine, Mary," Buck laughed, kissing her forehead. "The offer still stands. Hell, I even brought a preacher with me."

"You're a little late, Marshal," Colt comforted, laying a hand on Buck's shoulder. "This old widow is already spoken for."

"You use the words 'old widow' again and you'll have the lonliest honeymoon in history!" Mary warned, protesting slightly when he pulled her into a hug.

"Is that a fact?" Buck inquired of the engagement, then noticed the small diamond ring Mary wore. "You know Colt," he cocked his head, "You're a cheap bastard." He joked, lifting Mary's hand to look at the ring. "I would have sprung for a two-carat rock, would have drug your finger clean down to the sidewalk," he teased, squeezing both of Mary's hands. "Still plenty of time, you ain't hitched to this bum yet!"

"You are a silver-tongued devil, Buck," Mary smiled, "and I'm mighty tempted, but I'm gonna have to pass. I do have a favor," she paused and saw his eyes narrow, "I want a seat in the first pew when some lucky girl puts a lock on that big heart of yours." She stoked his face and felt the moisture build in her eyes.

"You got my word, Mary," Buck vowed, covering her hand with his and smiling, "You know a Wilmington's word is as good as done." He sighed and finally tore away, extending a hand to the grinning groom-to-be. "Good Luck, Old Man, that's a helluva woman."

"Preachin' to the choir, Buck," Colt replied, gripping the hand. The others offered their well wishes too and Buck caught Mary's eyes. "Mary, I hope that airy room off the kitchen I stayed in is still available."

"I got more than enough rooms for all of you," Mary answered, brows creasing in confusion. The room he referred to wasn't one she rented out. Colt turned her around and embraced her, sighing in contentment as how well the tall, beautiful woman fit into his arms and his heart. He cupped her chin and kissed her tenderly, then pulled away, taking a deep sigh.

"What's wrong?" Mary sensed something lurking in his eyes.

"We caught the bastard," he replied, taking his hat off to wipe his forehead.

"Don't expect me to feed him," Mary's voice was cold and hard, matching her eyes. "Course I do have some pie filling left and a bit of rat poison."

"I'll deliver it," Chris grunted in approval.

"Mary... they made a mistake at the prison," Colt said softly, tipping her face upwards. Over her shoulder he watched Nate helping Vin down from his horse. The tracker's legs buckled and he went to his knees, but the healer righted him and they moved towards the porch.

"What do you mean 'a mistake'?" she queried, watching the emotional play on his face.

"Afternoon Ma'am," Vin rasped, feeling his chest tighten at the audible gasp his voice caused her to make. Before he could react, he found himself wrapped in a tight embrace. He felt her trembling fingers running through his hair and the soft sobs in his ear. "Don't go cryin', I ain't hardly worth ya wastin' yer salt."

"You hush up, Vin Tanner!" she choked, pulling back and gripping his shoulders gently with both hands. She shook her head in disbelief, staring hard at the pale blue eyes, within the dark circles rimming them. The hollows of his cheeks and the dreaded weight loss brought on by illness, gave her pause. Try as he might, he couldn't hide the pain in his eyes. She laid a hand on his cheek and shook her head in amazement. Then she hugged him again, running a hand through his hair as she lifted her damp eyes heavenward. "Thank You..." she offered, letting the tears fall.

"I missed yer perfume," Vin whispered, his heart pounding.

"Perfume?" She pulled back, wiped her eyes and chuckled. She kept a good hold on his left elbow, feeling him swaying and shaking a bit. "That's not perfume. I've been baking all day, that's cinnamon and nutmeg and sugar and..."

"Yeah," Vin rasped, breaking into a warm smile. "...sure did miss it..." The heady scent brought back an onslaught of memories. How those strong arms held him and pulled him through a murky, dark river, sending Death skidding back on her heels. How do you thank someone for that? Someone who cradled a stranger to her breast and tenderly ministered to him, like he was her own child. Someone whosevoice was his beacon for all those dark nights, when he was lost. How could he tell her how much it meant to him? The last day he'd seen her... the day they took him away... was foggy and muddled. He recalled the heavy leg and arm irons and screaming at Buck. He searched and searched in his memory, but it happened so fast. "Ma'am, I need t'tell ya... I got took so fast, I ain't quite sure if... " he shifted, rubbing his shirt with his free left hand. "Damn... m'chest hurts," he complained, dropping his head as the heat flushed his face.

"You're welcome, Vin," she answered his silent bouquet, shining through those eyes and that soft voice that gripped her heart. She tipped his head up and kissed the flushed cheek. "Those eyes of yours are about the most eloquent speakers I've ever heard. But..." she warned sternly, watching him fill up with emotion. "You and me are gonna have a long talk about this 'Ma'am' business. It's Mary, landsakes Boy, I'm not hardly eighty-five years old."

Her fingers rubbed his back and she felt the ribs clearly. Taking his arm, she wrapped her free hand around his waist to support him. "Now, you're coming with me. You need to put some meat back on those bones. I've got washboards with more definition that you." She paused as she passed Buck and caught the wink and smile. "I've got a nice airy room off the kitchen. You're gonna stay here until you're well."

"No call t'go t'any fuss, Ma'am," he winced as she playfully swatted him. "Mary... sorry."

"Fuss?" she paused and stared hard into those deep blue eyes, her fingers traced a spot on his side, "You're family, Son." She saw him swallow hard and smiled, "Now you hush up or I'll get my wooden spoon."

The laughter sounded like music and Mary smiled as she finished the last dish. Colt and six of the seven peacekeepers had finished a grand dinner and now were tearing up her assortment of pies, except one. She eyed the peach pie and the stew she had waiting her injured guest. He'd hardly been able to stay awake during lunch, and hadn't stirred since. She'd lost count of the trips each one of his friends had made into the room off the kitchen. They'd walk to the bed, look Vin over and once they were satisified, they'd return to the table.

The silver moon peeked in at her and she rubbed the small of her back. She yawned and eyed the clock on the wall in the dining room. It was almost nine p.m. and she'd been up before dawn. She opened the back door and bent to lift the basin of rinse water, when a cool voice stopped her.

"Let me."

"Thanks Chris," she sighed, "Lord, but I'm tired tonight. Must be gettin' old..."

"You'll never be old, Mary," Chris replied, walking to the end of the porch and dumping the water out. He paused and inhaled the breeze, which seemed much sweeter tonight. "Set a date yet?" He asked, when he heard her move next to him on the porch.

"Not for a couple more months, three maybe." She frowned, "Got to work the date around my children. Sure will be something, all of them gathered around. My youngest boy, Daniel, he's moving back here, he's fresh out of college. That was important to my husband, that all the boys get to college."

"Back East?" Chris asked.

"New England... Boston. His father was a doctor."

The sentence ended so abruptly, Chris turned to look at the pretty widow's face. "Sorry."

"Don't be," she patted his arm, "It's a long time ago, over thirty years. Seems like yesterday..."

"I didn't figure you for a city girl."

"I'm not, John was." She paused to remember the tall handsome man who stole a young girls heart. "My folks were from Tennessee."

"Pretty country," Chris recalled of his brief glimpse of Tennesee during the war.

"I don't remember too much of it, we came west when I was a girl. John... well he and his father butted heads over everything. They were too much alike. He had three older brothers, two doctors like their Pa. John, he had wanderlust and his father didn't approve. Thought anyone beyond Viriginia were outlaws and renegades."

"I know the type," Chris mused.

"We met north of here, in a little bordertown. My folks had passed and I was only sixteen, living with the preacher and his wife. John answered an ad in the paper and came west, the town's sawbones was gettin' on and they needed a healer."

"Love at first sight?" Chris smiled, seeing the woman's eyes light up.

"Something like that," she chuckled, "Colt was the greenhorn deputy in the town and he and John became fast friends. We were married three months later. Then Anne, Jack, Brian and Dan came along. Smallpox epidemic broke out eight years ago..."

"I'm sorry."

"I miss him sometimes..." She turned and saw his puzzled face. "I promised him when each of the boys was born, they'd go to school back east. He saw a need for educated men out here, doctor's and engineers and such. Well, you can guess the rest. Jack's a doctor in a hospital in Boston, Brian is a scientist in New York and Anne, she's not too far. She married with three little ones, lives in St. Louis. I get back east one a year to see the boys. Dan... he's like his Pa, stubborn and short tempered. He didn't want to go to college, Colt sure gave him a good tongue lashing. He's close to Colt, he was so young when John died... Colt taught him a lot."

"Lucky boy," Chris didn't hide his admiration.

"Thank You," Mary squeezed his hand. "Anyhow, he's got a job with the government, surveying the land. He was always a wild child, riding into the hills... " She sighed, and patted Chris's hand. "You're a good man, lending an ear to a woman's prattle... I didn't mean to keep you from your friends."

"You didn't," Chris said, taking her arm and leading her to the door. "I was with a friend. Besides, you're a helluva lot prettier and you smell better." He stopped in the doorway and eyed the dark room to the side.

For a moment, struggling from the deep recesses of slumber, he didn't know where he was. His eyes tried to peer into the darkness, to make out a recognizable shape or form, but failed. Everytime he tried to focus on the sliver of moonlight coming into the window, the pain caused him to clench his eyes shut. Vin was on his left side, curled up in a ball. His right arm and shoulder were throbbing and his lower back felt like a knife was twisting in it. He licked his dry lips and tried to call out, to anybody, but his exhaustive state left him worn out. Maybe if he sat up... his mind pressed and he nudged his left arm, trying to push his body upright, that was a mistake.

Chris slipped into the dark room and headed for the bed. His back jerked up when the soft cry sounded.

"Aw, shit..."

"Vin!" Chris answered the strangulated drawl. He moved forward and turned the lamp up to a low light. "What's wrong?" He knelt by the bed and watched Vin blinking, his eyes unable to adjust to the intrusive light. The tracker was curled into a ball, his face a mask of pain. "Vin?" Chris tried to ease his friend up, only to be cut off.

"No... God..."

"Alright... alright..." Chris left one hand on Tanner's sweat-slick back and groped to the bedside table with the other, finding a mug. He shook it and moved it closer, nudging Vin's lips. After the sucking ended, the panting and hissing began again.

Vin bit his lower lip, trying to press the cry back down. He saw Chris's head turn to the door and forced his lips open. "...don't need... no herd... o'folk... trampin' in here..." he warned.

"I can be discreet," Chris defended, gripping the back of Vin's soaked head.

He heard the choked chuckling sound and saw the lips twisting. "Shut up, Tanner! I'll get Nate... quietly. Hold on, Cowboy," he urged, squeezing Vin's neck and departing.

He moved silently through the deserted kitchen and poked his head into the large dining room. Ezra had been regaling them with an episode from his past, that ended with him sneaking out of town disguised as a woman.

Josiah's dry commentary and Colt's bold statements had the others in stitches. He caught Buck's eye and nudged his head toward where Nate was, and put a finger to his lips. Buck nodded and picked up his coffee cup. Nate was pouring a shot of whiskey in his coffee, when Buck ambled over.

"Another cup?"

"I'll get it," Buck tapped Nate's arm and moved his finger towards the now deserted doorway. "Chris needs you, Vin must be hurtin'...Chris had that look..."

"Okay..." Nate handed the potent drink to the rogue and departed. "I'll be back," he answered Mary's questioning look as he passed by. "I'm gonna look in on Vin."

By the time he got to the bedroom doorway, all he could see was the back of Chris's dark burgundy shirt. The leader was kneeling on the floor, talking in a low voice to Vin. When he got closer and saw the wet grimace the Texan wore, his brow's furrowed. Chris moved out of the way and Nate dropped down. "Your back or your shoulder?"

"Yup..." Vin rasped, licking his lips. "Can ya gimme somethin', Nate?"

"Yeah," the healer nodded, answering the weary eyes lined in blue hope.

"Chris, give me a hand here, I want to sit him up." Nate moved his hands to Vin's hips and Chris snaked his hand under Vin's left arm, on the bed. "Easy now, Vin." He nodded to Chris and they moved in unison, ignoring the sharp cry of pain. Vin was now sitting up, hunched forward and rocking. "I'll be right back, I got some laudanum and somethin' for your back."

"How long were you laying like that?" Chris asked, guiding a fresh cup of water to Vin's clenched fit.

"Not long." Vin took the mug and sipped slowly. "I couldn't figure out where I was... tried t'sit up and it felt like a fuckin' poker was in m'back... took m'breath away..."

"Helluva party," Chris distracted, pouring water from the basin onto Vin's blue bandana.

"Thanks," Vin rasped, taking the cloth and wiping his face and neck. He winced again as the brief movement caused another wave to slam into him "Shit..." He clenched his eyes shut and heard Chris's hiss of anger. "It ain't so bad... reckon I'm just tired."

"You can't lie for shit, Tanner."

Nate turned from the stove, where he mixed up some herbal tea, laced with the sedative, and bumped into Buck. "Dammit Buck!" He braced himself and didn't spill a drop.

"Sorry," Buck whispered, drilling the healer's face. "How bad?"

"Bad enough," Nate snapped, then relented, when he saw's Buck's long face.

"He'll be okay, Buck. He's still a few weeks from bein' up to ridin' on a horse. He had too much sun."

"..and too much fun." Buck added, thinking of Hazzard squirming. "Can I help?"

"Yeah, take this in there and get him to drink. I've got somethin' to mix up for his back. Go on... tell him I'll be right in."

"You like like shit, Vin." Buck appraised of the pain-ridden, huddled mass on the bed.

"Fuck y'all Bucklin," Vin shot back automatically, not opening his eyes. He felt the bed sink down as a body moved beside him.

"Bottoms up, Slick," Buck coached, wrapping Vin's tense fingers around the mug. "Nate cookin' somethin' up for your back."

"Aw, hell... he didn't tell Mary did he? I don't wanna ruin her party."

"I was very discreet," Chris added and saw the shaggy head cock.

"When pigs fly." Vin coughed. He sipped the tea down and felt his eyes growing heavy. He felt Buck's hand rubbing his back and Chris's penetrating gaze. He opened his mouth, but his tongue was off duty and he shut it again. He slid his eyes shut and drifted a little, until he heard footsteps.

"Can you two stand him up a minute, I want to loosen his pants." Nate directed, then they eased Vin onto his side on the bed. Nate knelt on the floor behind him, while Chris kept a vigil in front of him.

Chris watched the healing hands dip into a pot and then begin to massage Vin's lower back. The moan that slipped out of the tracker's slack lips was one of relief. The tension lines left his face and the fist that gripped the sheets, finally uncurled.

"...feels good... Nate..."

"Aunt Eulie's Comfort." The dark hands continued there circular motion, rubbing the mixture of oils, eucalyptus, rosemary and birch. It had a deep soothing effect, putting out the fires that radiated from Vin's bruised kidneys.

"Yer aunt... ye thank her..."

"She was everybody's aunt," Nate recalled of the elderly woman, "Knew more about healin' than any doctor I ever met." His fingers moved upwards, rubbing the heated liniment into the tense, bony back. He exchanged a concerned look with Chris, who also noticed the effect of the prison ordeal. It would be awhile before their friend was healed, inside and out.

"...s'okay now... don't... need..."

Chris waited a few minutes, after the words died off, until the face was slack and without any signs of tension. He nodded to Nate, who left the balm on the table, in case Vin cramped up again. Nate pulled the sheet up and heard Chris ease his body into the chair.

"Aunt Eulie sure had the touch," Nate stood and headed for the door.

"So does her nephew."

Nate turned back and exchanged a grateful smile with the weary gunslinger, whose legs were stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankles.


"Yeah... better not load it, I got feeling it's gonna be a long night." Chris sighed, watching the door slide shut.

"Spell you later?" Buck asked, from the shadows.

"Yeah, thanks Buck." Chris nodded, shifting in the wooden chair. He saw a wistful expression rain on Buck's face, as he paused by Vin's bed. Buck rested a hand on Vin's shoulder a moment and winced. He had a feeling Buck was lost in the desert again, thinking on the journey that had so deeply affected both men. They'd shared some of the details with their friends, but not everything is painted by words. He knew Buck was changed by the ordeal and the bond he now shared with Vin was a lasting one, which was reflected clearly in the deep blue eyes that looked upon the sleeping patient.

"You rest easy, Tanner, your back's covered," Buck vowed.

Everything was the same, yet everything seemed different. The buildings hadn't changed, nor the residents who scurried below, greeting each other amicably as another new day rose. His head cocked and he felt comforted by the musical sound of the children's voices as they raced towards the new schoolhouse. He watched J.D. and Buck carrying on in front of the sheriff's office, before disappearing inside. Josiah would be striding towards the saloon soon, to meet Nathan and Ezra for breakfast. Mary pulled the shades of the Clarion, before reaching to get her apron from the hook by the door. Everything was the same, yet something was missing.

He sighed heavily and drew his knees up, resting his chin on his left arm. A small breeze kissed his face and sent his hair past his shoulders. He eyed the glorious birth of another day and saw the rose and golden face of Dawn. Usually he loved this time of the morning, everything was soft and new and covered in dew. Fresh air brought the promise of hope, for each new day offered that with an open hand. He sighed again and wondered where his spirit was. His friends had done more than a man could ask. Ridden further, tried harder and given more of themselves than he thought he could repay. He rejoiced in the simple things: Billy's laughter, Buck's smile, J.D.'s enthusiasm, Josiah's comforting voice, Nathan's gifted hands and Ezra's charm. Chris, he sighed and shook his head as he saw those haunted eyes.

What of his new friends? He leaned forward from his perch on the roof of the billiard hall and looked down the street. Absentmindedly, he touched his cheek and still felt Mary's hand there. His heart ached when his mind drew up the pretty woman's face; those bright blue eyes and dark curls that greeted him in the morning, always with a smile. He relished every minute of the week he'd spent in her care. His ears still felt the caress of her voice, as it caught the day he left. Colt Haskill, they don't come any finer, he nodded to himself. A man who'd put his neck on the line to save a stranger. A man who left his own town to track down the two-legged snake named Hazzard. He owed his freedom to that man. A firm handshake and a heartfelt smile had been the only reward the Salt Flats lawman would accept.

He'd been back in Four Corners for over a week now. Nathan had given him some exercises for his shoulder and Aunt Eulie's Comfort was never so appreciated. The strong, dark hands rubbed the warm liniment into Vin's sore muscles twice a day and it gave him great relief. He had so much to be grateful for; his friends, his town, just the simple act of watching Dawn come courting. He scratched his neck and sighed again, wondering how to cure the deep ache inside. The pain that Nathan couldn't fix with medicine or excercises. It didn't make sense, he had no right to feel so low. Everything was the same, yet Vin Tanner was different.

Chris Larabee stood several yards behind the small figure huddled on the rooftop. Vin's santuary, his own private belltower, as Ezra christened it. He counted the heavy sighs and saw the sorrow in the brief glimpse he got when the tracker's head turned. He'd watched Vin's depression building over the last few days and he wasn't alone, the others were worried too. Vin was too quiet and much to withdrawn. He didn't laugh or smile, just nodded now and again from the far corner of whatever room they were in. He wasn't eating enough, and that had Nate worried. Vin still had a good amount of weight to gain back and without a good diet, he didn't have the strength he needed. By early afternoon, one of them would find him sleeping. He'd disappear after breakfast, to the roof or for a walk. One day J.D. found him asleep at the desk in his office, twice Josiah found him dozing in the church and Chris found him sleeping between the card came Ezra and Buck were having just yesterday. He lifted the pot of coffee he carried with a towel wrapped on the handle. His other hand held two empty mugs. He moved next to Vin and slid over an empty mug, then bent and filled it. After filling his own mug, he sat down on the empty crate beside Vin.

"New furniture?" he asked of the wooden box.

"Improvin' m'image..." Vin replied tonelessly. Actually, Mrs. Potter had given the crates to J.D. who followed Vin up to the roof earlier and deposited them.

For awhile they sat in silence, cloaked in their own thoughts. Twice Chris saw Vin lift his head and turn, the blue eyes struggling to convey the deep feelings into words. Once his lips parted, but no words sounded. Chris wanted to take the question out by force and relieve his friend of whatever burden plagued him. Still, he waited, sipping his coffee and biding his time; keeping his place by Vin's side.

"I got no call t'be feelin' s'blue..."

"You've been through hell and back, Vin." Chris replied, eyeing the clerk washing the window across the street. "I'd say your more than entitled."

Five more minutes passed and no more words were issued, then Vin's lips parted again. "I been thinkin'..." the sharpshooter said, raking his free hand through his tangled hair.

"Might as well get comfortable," Chris took his hat off and poured another cup of coffee. He heard the soft chuckle and found a small smile of his own. Five more minutes passed and Chris sighed, turning and squinting at the forlorn soul.


"Dale Thorton."

"Dale... what?" Chris frowned, shaking his head. "Thorton... that rancher that died? That was months ago."

"He was good man, honest and hard workin'." Vin whispered, rocking slightly, thinking of the friendly rancher. "He had a wife and three youngun's countin' on him. It weren't fair..."

"Is that what's been eating at you all week?" Chris's voice rose and anger flashed from the green eyes. "That's he's dead and your not? Jesus Christ, Vin!" Chris jumped up and the crate skidded backwards, as if escaping the wrath of the black boot. "Don't fuckin' waste my time!"

"Didn't ask ya t'squat here," Vin hissed, not hiding the wounded tone in his voice.

Chris stopped halfway to the stairs, fists clenched as that same wounded voice gripped him. "Shit..." He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly, getting his anger corraled. He turned back and walked slowly, coming to stop a foot behind the hunched back of Vin Tanner.

"I should'a died in Fanning... should'a died in damn desert," he whispered, "...should'a died in Salt Flats. Damn well should'a died in that fuckin' prison," his nearly inaudible voice noted of Bendix. "Hell, even got carved the fuck up and shut in a coffin. I just don't... can't understand... .Chris?" He turned and burned a hole right through the tense gunslinger.

Chris winced as the blue eyes wounded him, then turned back toward the street below. He inhaled slowly and rested a hand on Vin's shoulder. "I'm not a real religious man, Vin. But one thing I believe, is that without faith, you got nothing."

"Faith..." Vin murmured, raising his head. A curious word, that meant something different to so many people.

"Yeah, Cowboy," Chris replied quietly, squeezing Vin's shoulder, then releasing, giving the tracker some space. "What's it mean to you?"

"Trust." Vin replied without thinking, tapping his chest. "In here... feelin' it without seein' it... knowin' without thinkin'..."

"I got no answer for Dale, Vin." Chris relayed, licking his lips, "or for any of the thousands of innocent people who die everyday. God's the only one who can answer that. Guess you'll have to ask him." Chris paused and met the tracker's struggling eyes. "but how about waiting for another sixty years or so?" He met the soft smile with one of his own and settled back onto the crate.

"I got alot t'be thankful fer," Vin said, his eyes warming as Buck's large frame filled the window of the sheriff's office. "So why can't I get rid o'this hole?" He rubbed his stomach.

"You would if you ate more," Chris deadpanned, "Reckon a rib poked a hole in there..."

"I been eatin'" Vin defended, squaring his shoulders.

"Vin I've seen birds eat more than you. You won't feel better until you start eating better."

"I'm tryin' Chris," Vin sighed, "But I can't eat when I got somethin' weighin' on me, it don't stay put."

"I got two hands," Chris offered his palms and saw the shaggy head rise.

"...and I quote 'a man ought to know when to take a hand'..."

"Shut the hell up, Buck," Vin chuckled, of the gunslinger's mimick. But as his laughter died, his eyes darted back to the boardwalk, where Buck was making time with Colleen Morgan, a seamstress who was new in town. The pretty redhead was smiling and nodding as Buck was using every one of his charms to woo her. He leaned forward as the pale green skirt went around the corner and Buck's head turned and his head lifted. As their eyes met, Vin kept his gaze on the rogue, but directed his words to the leader. "When I was in the army, ran with an Irishman named Muldoon. He had a sayin' 'I'm a better man fer the knowin' of 'im.'" He smiled and nodded as Buck gave him a mock salute then waved and took off after his prey. "I swear he was talkin' about Bucklin."

Chris tossed a half-smile as he heard the catch in Vin's voice. He found himself nodding and refilled both cups with coffee. He tapped Vin's and nodded again. "Truer words were never spoken. He feels the same way. Give it a little time, Vin. Healing inside takes a little longer. I'm always here." He sipped his coffee and inhaled the breeze, which suddenly seemed sweeter. He felt the change inside and snuck a glance at the recovering Texan. The eyes were a little bluer and the shoulders just a bit straighter. There was a light in Vin's face again and although he knew the wound wasn't totallyhealed, the tide had changed. "Better?" he asked quietly and saw the head dip once. "Good... now you gonna hog them popovers you got hidden in your pocket?"

"Yer gettin' bold in yer old age, Larabee." Vin growled and snaked his hand inside his pocket, drawing out a worn, but still whole cheese popover. "I'm partial t'sharin..." he offered with a shy smile. " half?" He held out the Travis product and the two exchanged a warm smile, that had nothing to do with the cake.

Chris took the popover and produce a knife with his other hand. He eyed the cake and frowned, screwing his face up. "Damn, Vin, didn't you wrap it a napkin? It's got pieces of that ratty hide coat stuck to it."

"Fuck off," Vin mock-ired, grabbing for the popover with his free left hand. Chris dodged the hand and sliced the baked item in half. He suppressed a grin as the hand next to his snaked out and grabbed the larger piece. He finished the cake and leaned forward, enjoying the warm sun on his face. He heard a rustling sound and jerked his head over, spotting Vin munching on another popover. "You had two?" he hollered and heard the sinister laugh from the drawling trickster. "Why didn't you give me a whole one?"

"Ya didn't ask," Vin muffled, shoving the remaining half in his full mouth. "...sides, ya ain't totin' a sling."

"Oh I bet Mary never knew what hit her," Chris noted of the pretty widow who baked the popovers just for the tracker. "She spoils you..."

"Yeah," Vin sighed wistfully, draining his coffee. "Must be something about that name."

"I'll drink to that," Chris toasted both strong women, then rose to leave. "Duty calls. Ezra, Buck and me are riding out to McTavish's. Craig scared off some rustlers last night, we want to have a look around and check with the other ranchers. "You take it easy," he spied Vin snaking his right arm from the sling. "You remember what Nate said, it's gonna take some until your a hundred percent. Don't overdo it..." Chris paused and saw Vin scowling. "I know you're impatient, Vin, but Nate said your shoulder's a lot better than he'd thought it would be at this point."

"Yeah, I know... it don't make it any easier. Seein' y'all ridin' out... workin'... helpin' folks... doin' m'job fer me." He paused and frowned, his handsome face darkening, "...don't like it..."

"I know, Cowboy," Chris sighed, squeezing Vin's shoulder and turning to leave. "You get a good nap today, so you don't embarass me and fall asleep during the game tonight."

"Fuck y'all Larabee!" Vin chuckled, his eyes shining as the lean figure in black approached the stairway to the street below. The smile of his face died and he parted his lips. "Hey, Chris..."

Chris turned and saw Vin's somber expression and tossed his head up, indicating he was waiting.

"What's it mean t'ya?" Vin paused, tilting his head slightly, "Faith..." he offered the question in the green eyes.

Chris's reply came automatically, thrust from his heart and uttered with total conviction and without any hesitation. "Vin Tanner," he lauded, drilling the sky eyes with his own, before nodding and disappearing down the stairs.

Buck looked up when Chris appeared through the batwing doors of the saloon. He stood and stretched, rubbing the small of his back. "Well?" he asked, grabbing a cookie from the plate Inez left. "He okay?"

"His body's healing," Chris replied, "It's gonna take a little longer for his spirit to catch up." He paused and saw Buck's crestfallen face. "He'll be okay, Buck, he just needs some time. Where's Ezra?"

"Upstairs changing his coat," Buck replied distractedly, thinking of Vin.

"What the hell for?" Chris snarled, eyeing the stairs, "Ezra, get your ass down here, we're late..."

"I don't believe they heard you in Denver, Mr. Larabee," Ezra drawled, appearing on the landing above, with a new green coat. "How fares our suffering sharpshooter?"

"Better..." Chris answered, watching the change on Buck's face. A dangerous light appeared in the scoundrel's eyes, one the gunslinger knew all too well.

"Buck..." Chris warned, his eyes narrowing.

"Hah!" Buck clapped the bar and wagged his eyebrows. "Sometimes I scare myself."

"A sentiment echoed by most people who have ever had the pleasure of making your acquaintance."

"Hell, Ace," Buck slapped the conman's back, "You play your cards right and I'll let you in on it..."

"Spare me the details," Ezra denied, waving his hand and heading for the door.

"No." Chris said narrowing the gap between the two old friends. "I'm warning you Buck, put out the fire in your eyes. He's not up to it, I mean it, Buck."

"I wouldn't hurt him," Buck snarled in a voice so venomous, it stopped the man in black in his tracks. For a tense moment, neither man moved, the only sound was the twin echo of sharp breathing. Then Buck's face softened a bit. "I got this idea, you see..."

"I don't have a deathwish," Chris put his palm up and brushed past Buck.

"You two move slower than molasses in July," Ezra's voice sauntered inside, "Shall we depart, the midday sun isn't good for my delicate complexion." He noted of the full day ahead.

"What the hell is good for your delicate complexion?" Buck retorted, putting his boot in the stirrup.

"Well, there is a certain courtesan in New Orleans..." the southerner drawled, his green eyes full of mischief. This got the rogue's attention and he rode to catch up. As he passed the middle of the street, he paused and cast his eyes skyward. His handsome face broke into a smile as the shaggy head appeared over the edge of the roof.

"Ya give 'em hell, Marshal," Vin hollered down, wearing a broad grin.

"You can count on it, Tanner." Buck boomed back, waving his hat and whooping after Ezra.

Part 24

Chris eyed the nearly deserted saloon carefully through the batwing doors before entering. It was too early for Ezra to be up, Josiah was picking up new windows at the train depot east of town, Nathan was at the Seminole camp and he saw J.D. heading for the telegraph office. He figured the chore the youth was completing would take a good bit of time, so breakfast this morning would be a threesome.

"Mornin' Chris," Buck's head lifted as the somber figure entered. He refilled the Texan's cup and turned his face back to Larabee's. "Coffee?"

"Thanks," Chris consented and took the empty chair next to Vin, who appeared to be still half asleep. The tracker's head was dipping and Chris moved the mug from Vin's hand, before the hot liquid ended up in his lap. He placed the mug well across the table and wondered about Buck's unusual high spirits. The leader sipped his own strong brew and studied his oldest friend closely. The buoyancy in Buck's blue eyes was more than a little unsettling. He watched the tall man fidgeting in his chair and got a sinking feeling in his gut.

"Buck..." he said suspiciously, watching the dark blue eyes shining in triumphant glee. Before the mustached-man replied, Vin slumped forward. The younger man's head would have hit the table, if not for the black-clothed arm that shot out and halted his progress. "What the hell did you do?" Chris hissed, standing and easing Vin back into the chair. He tapped the Texan's face but the blue eyes never opened. "Vin?" The sinister laugh behind him caused the green eyes to narrow. He kept one hand on Vin's shoulder and turned to face the chortling rogue.

"Aw, for Christ's sake Chris," Buck lamented, moving in to capture his slumbering bounty. "Get the burr outta your britches, will you?" But the man in black didn't budge, keeping his lean torso between Buck and his blue-eyed prize. The tall man sighed in exasperation and his hand went through his dark hair. "Look, it's been over a week since he got free of that sling. He's gained some weight back, he's aim's almost perfect again," he relayed of the target practice the recovering man had been taking. He paused and huffed again as the lean body didn't move an inch, still blocking his path. "It's only some laudanum, just enough to keep him quiet until I finish getting him ready."

"Ready?" Chris exhaled, not sure if he wanted to know what was spinning around behind Buck's twinkling eyes. "If he ends up back at Nathan's..."

"Do you ever fuckin' listen to me?" Buck shot through clenched teeth. "I told you, weeks ago, when I got this idea... so listen up, I'm only repeating it once." Buck leaned in and grit his teeth. "I'd never hurt him."

Chris stared hard at Buck's angry face, before relenting. He moved aside and Buck slid in, grabbing the motionless man under the arms. "Well?" the voice grunted, as the head turned back, seeking assistance. "No way," Chris denied, taking his seat. "In case you didn't hear me... I don't have a death wish."

"It's brilliant," Buck beamed, slinging Vin over his shoulder, "Buck's revenge and raisin' money for a good cause too," he grunted, shifting his feet. "You see..."

"Save your breath." Chris put a hand up. He heard Inez clattering pans as the succulent aroma of frying peppers and sausage filled the room. He shook his head as the other man left, whistling happily. Chris sighed and raised his coffee to his lips. "When will you learn not to play with fire, Buck?"

Buck nodded and tipped his hat from his stance on the large porch of the empty store. It was just past the middle of the street and everyone in town had to pass by. He'd spent most of the day before cleaning it out and getting it ready, now all the pieces were in place. The sign was tacked out front over the doorway, the prize was secured inside and he had a table, chair and cashbox ready. Now it was time for the fireworks to start. He saw Carolyn West and two of her friends pause and read the sign. His own smile broadened as they flushed and whispered behind their hands.

"Mornin' Ladies," he oozed, "Don't be shy now, your privacy is guaranteed. Small price to pay, wouldn't you agree?"

"Are both options available?" Becky asked, caressing the coins in her hand.

"You bet, Miss Rebecca. You make sure and tell all your friends. You come back in ten minutes and you can be first in line."

"Oh, I'll be back," Becky vowed, her voice dropping, "...with bells on... girls?" she tossed her head and the giggling trio followed her.

Buck's eyes followed them down the street, where the met several women coming out of Mrs. Potter's store. After a few seconds, six more heads turned and looked towards him. He watched them searching their purses for coins and clapped his hands.

"Hot damn!" he shouted, smacking his hand against the post on the porch.

"We're gonna bust the bank..."

"Which I'm sure will make excellent reading material in Mrs. Travis's periodical as you recover."

"Recover?" Buck turned to face the gambler, who'd slunk up beside him.

"Quite," Ezra repeated, eyeing the figure inside the near empty room. "You my good friend," he turned back to the gleefaced Buck Wilmington, "have lost what's left of the gray matter that used to sit so uncomfortably between your ears."

"You're just jealous, Ace," Buck snickered, slipping inside to check the main event.

"Ezra's right, Buck," J.D. followed the tall man into the room and flinched when he saw Vin Tanner. "You're outta your mind. He's gonna take you outside town and practice that stuff the Kiowa's taught him."

"Nah! Never happen," Buck tossed back, unbuttoning Vin's new shirt and exposing his tanned chest. He stood and walked a few feet to the bag on the table and pulled out a small vial.

"What's that?" J.D. asked as Ezra moved inside to join them, bringing two chairs with him.

"Just a little something to make the boy smell good," Buck supplied, pouring the musk onto his hands and rubbing Vin's neck and chest. "Draw's woman like mad..." He tapped the tracker's face and watched the muscles begin to twitch and a low moan sound. "That's a boy," Buck tapped the slack jaw again, "Come on now, Old Buck wants happy customers." He turned and saw J.D. and Ezra lounging lazily nearby. "Well ain't you two the hypocrites..." he hissed, eyeing the pair. "Get out... in case you missed the fine print... privacy guaranteed. Now move..."

"Aw come on Buck... I'm might learn something." J.D. said mischievously.

"Son, what you need to learn would take too long and require painted women." He paused and winked at Ezra. "Many very patient painted women..." he added, giving Ezra a good, solid laugh and causing the youth's face to flame.

"I know more than you two think I do," Dunne defended, rising and taking his chair.

"Come on, my young Romeo," Ezra placated, "For a slight fee, perhaps we can drum up some business from the hotel. Mr. Wilmington?"

"Ten cents for every new visitor," Buck tossed back, watching in mirth as Vin's eyes began to focus.

"...the hell's goin' on..." the Texan rasped, licking his dry lips. He rubbed his eyes and squinted, letting them adjust to the vacant room. A mug was thrust in his hand and he drank, then clicked his tongue. "Water's off..."

"It's minted, so's your breath will be fresh."

"Fer what?" Vin asked, trying to stand, and then realizing under the large shirt, he was tied securely to the chair, which didn't move.

"It's nailed to the floor," Buck supplied, keeping his distance from the glowing eyes. "Now Vin, this is for the good of the community. Everyone will applaud you for being such a humanitarian."

"Buck ya better start makin' sense..." Vin growled, trying to figure out how to get at the ropes knotted behind him, under the free flowing soft pastel blue shirt. His nose twitched and he screwed his face up. "What's that smell?"

"That's you, Slick," Buck grinned, as the watch in his hand crept up to the hour of ten a.m. "I got you all cleaned up pretty and put some cologne on you. The ladies like that..."

"Ladies?" Vin hissed, still pulling desperately to free himself.

"Best save your strength, Vin, you'll need it for other things." Buck warned, wiggling his eyebrows. "Besides, I got that rigged good, you won't get free unless I cut you loose."

"Get the knife..." Vin snarled, eyes flashing. "Buck..." he stopped as outside he saw a group of very feminine shapes paused to look up at the front of the building, over the door. They giggled and peered inside, before blushing and searching in their purses.

"What the hell does that sign say?" Vin growled, eyeing the lounging huckster.

"Ladies, ladies, don't be shy now," Buck ignored Vin and moved to the porch.

"Come right inside, one at a time, of course."

"Can I do both?" Katie Parsons asked, stepping forward to the doorway and smiling coyly at Vin.

"Sure thing, Miss Katie," Buck oozed, "Two bits should cover that. Go on now, he won't bite."

"Can I get back in line?" Katie asked as Buck's deft hand grabbed the coins.

"Sure thing, he'll be only happy to oblige. Vin's just that kind of a man, always looking to help others. All this money will buy Mary some books for the new school and other stuff the kids need. "

"We're lucky you're so civic minded, Buck," Kate lauded, moving towards the bound tracker.

"Yes, Ma'am," Buck tipped his hat as the pretty blond leaned over Vin, running her hands through his long tresses. "Oh, sweet revenge..." he whispered at Vin, whose face was blushing a nice shade of red.

"Oh, your hair is like silk, Vin," Katie sighed, stoking his cheek as she bent lower, her pink lips parted. "What's your secret?"

"Uh... uh..." Vin croaked, his heart hammering.

"That'd be eggs and honey and well... can't give all the secrets away," Buck plied of the shampoo he'd used on the snoozing victim earlier. "Hah!" Buck grinned, as the blond woman kissed Vin long and hard, well out of sight of the others in line. "Buck, you're a genius," he commended himself as he saw a mountain of silver in his mind's eye.

"I'll be back," Katie's husky voice caressed Vin's flamed ear, as she rubbed his chest once and slipped out of the room.

"Buck," Vin growled low at the smirking rogue, "Yer a dead man... I'm gonna cut off yer ba.."

"Et... et... et..." Buck warned, clicking his tongue. "You best watch that mouth of yours, Slick. There's ladies present. I believe you're next." The rogue tipped his hat and eyed the large pile of silver she handed him. "Well now... you are a mighty givin' person, Miss Rebecca. Just uh... remember the rules... don't get carried away," he warned as she leaned forward and raked Vin's curls, sighing deeply.

"Oh, Vin..." she purred as the tracker's protest was muffled against the bodice of her dress. "It's like spun silk..." her fingers danced through his hair, before massaging his neck. She tipped his face forward and bent lower, capturing his lips.

"Yes, Madame, I assure you it's not a prank," Ezra commented to the pretty woman who'd ridden in the day before on the stage. "Just up the street... a fine specimen," he noted of Vin, "and it is for a good cause. After all, who can resist a needy child seeking education." He nodded to the curious female and took her arm, leading her outside. "Just over there, as you can see..."

"Ezra, you ought to see the line!" J.D. enthused, rushing towards the hotel.

"Good Lord!" Ezra mused of the gathered throng, pocketing the silver the woman handed him before making her way to join them.

"Jealous?" J.D. elbowed him. "Just think of the fat commision you could have made."

"Commision?" Ezra drawled, sliding the coin in his pocket with the others he'd collected. "Moi? Out of the goodness of my heart, young man, nothing more."

"You're full of shit, Ezra," J.D. tossed back. "Hand it over... I get half." He wiggled his fingers until the smooth-talking gambler tossed three pieces of silver into it.

"I was born to this," Buck boomed, slipping past the mob to freshen up his client. "Damn Vin, you sweating too much. The ladies don't like that." He picked up a cloth and handed it to Vin.

"I'm bleedin' fer 'em," Vin snapped sarcastically, wiping his face.

"Oh, cut it out," Buck chastised and handed him a cold mug of minted-water. "It ain't like I'm askin' you to walk over hot coals. Kissin' pretty women ain't that much of a chore. Besides, I heard you're a pretty fair kisser."

"Don't get any ideas," Vin deadpanned, seeing the other man's eyebrows wiggling. "Least ya could do is sell cups of that fancy water." He paused, his face giving Buck a good laugh, "...some of 'em need it."

"Okay, Vin," Buck patted the irate man's shoulders and took the jug outside.

"I guess that's only fair."

"Mornin'," a low voice caused Vin's head to jerk up.

"Aw, hell," he snarled, his eyes burning into the smug green ones a few feet away. "Come to watch the hangin', did ya? Some friend yer turnin' out t'be... where the hell were ya when he drugged me off?"

"I was waiting for my breakfast," Chris replied, arms folded across his chest. He hated to admit it, and he'd never tell Buck, but was enjoying this prank.

"Thanks..." Vin spat back.

"Well, after all, Vin, breakfast is the most important meal of the day." Chris replied, eyeing the sweat on Vin. "Neck's not marked yet anyhow," he implied of wandering teeth. "Nice lips... looks like you've been a naughty boy..." he teased, as he studied the bruised, swollen tracker's mouth.

"Ya best cut me free, Larabee," Vin growled, "Or I'll give ya some bruised lips of yer own..."

"Sorry, Cowboy," Chris tipped his head and ducked outside. "Some of us have real work to do. Have fun..."

"Larabee, get back here and cut me loose or I'm gonna fff..."

"I warned you about cussing, Vin!" Buck clamped a hand on Vin's colorful mouth. "Hey, you got some lipstick down here," the rogue's hand dipped inside Vin's shirt over a nipple. "Damn..."

"Fuck off." Vin hissed low, smacking Buck's smirking face with his free hand. "Ya best get yer will done..." he warned as the chuckling man moved out of harm's way.

As the morning slipped away and the afternoon slid in, the crowd finally dwindled down. Buck had already given Mary two large bags of coins and was quickly filling a third. He nodded to the departing females and darted his eyes inside. Vin's eyes were closed and he was clearly worn out. "The boy's peakin'" he muttered, rising to end the contest. Then an evil smile split his face, as one last customer waddled up the street.

"Afternoon, Miss Gisella," he hollered and tipped his hat. His grin broadened, when he heard a sharp intake of breath from the now roused Texan.

"Gisella?" Vin croaked, eyes wide and pleading at his captor. "Look, ya had yer fun and I been a pretty good sport. Get these ropes offa me... " his panicked voice matched his pleading blue eyes. "Come on, Buck, have a heart," he begged, as the grinning jackass handed him a mug of water.

"Sorry, Slick," Buck patted the tense shoulder in sympathy, "It'll only be a minute. Just remember it's for a good cause. All those children who will benefit from your unselfish actions... mine too."

"Ya fuckin' humanitarian," Vin hissed, eyes glowing like blue coals, "Yer gonna pay..."

Buck blanched for a moment, knowing how calculating Vin could be. "Much as I'd like to help you, Vin, uh..." he paused and smiled, "My hands are tied, so to speak. You know I'm a giving man and I gave my word. A Wilmington's word is as good as done."

"I know what I'll be givin' ya when I get loose," Vin vowed, "I got a long memory." Vin saw the large shadow on the porch and began to sweat. "Buck, she's likely to bust something iffen she leans on me... I ain't recovered yet... Buck..." he pleaded without avail, "...she's got a heavier beard than me and one of her eyes is spinnin' around in her head. Buck... Buck..."

"Right this way, Miss Gisella, you take your time." Buck left the room, wincing inwardly as Vin's protests were reduced to smothered whimpers.

"That didn't sound good," J.D. lumbered onto the porch. "Was that Vin?" he asked of the strange choked moan.

"The boy can't get done thanking me," Buck replied, as Ezra joined them.

"Keep dreaming, Buck." J.D. shook his head and laughed.

"Was that who I think it was?" the southerner asked of the amble body that disappeared into the room.

"Miss Gisella," Buck crowed.

"Ouch!" J.D. cringed. "Buck, he's gonna kill you... real slow like. I just wonder how long he's gonna wait. Hell, the waiting alone might kill you off," the youth noted of whatever the tracker was planning for revenge.

"Care to make a wager?" Ezra teased, joining J.D. in a good round of laughter.

He paused at the crossroads and weighed his decision carefully. He leaned back and grabbed his canteen, taking a healthy swig of water. Capping the canteen, he rested his hand for a moment and eyed the shorter road to town. He jerked the reins and urged his horse onward, not looking back.

The small curl of smoke coming from his cabin, gave the blond a short smile. His instincts had been proven right again. As he got closer, the distinct smell of food cooking assaulted him and he slid off his horse and tended to the tired beast. As he stepped onto the small porch, he chuckled softly as his eyes took in the sight of the tracker, sprawled out on the rocker, sound asleep. Chris eyed the material on Vin's lap and shook his head.

"Wearin' himself out..." he muttered, walking into his meager home. His green eyes were drawn to the stove, where a pot of stew was simmering. Fresh biscuits were in a basket, covered with a red cloth. His rumbling stomach reminded him how long it had been between meals. Grabbing the whiskey bottle from it's perch on the mantle, he headed back towards the porch. He'd been gone for over three days, leaving Vin to his work. The sharpshooter had requested the favor just over a week earlier, only saying he needed 'time and space'. Curious, Chris watched him come and go earlier in the week, still not sure what the hell he was doing. The other request had been harder; keeping the rest away from the privacy Vin sought.

He stood over the weary body and uncorked the fresh bottle with his teeth. He placed the cork on the window ledge and took a good swig, before tapping Vin's shoulder with the bottle.

"Wake your ass up, Tanner..." Chris grumbled. "Your dinner's cooking away."

"Yer welcome," Vin croaked, rousing himself and stretching. "Goddamn ungrateful grouch." He grabbed the bottle offered and took a drink, before passing in back to the dusty figure in black, resting against the porch rail. "How's things at the Fort?" he inquired of Chris's trip to the nearby army base.

"'bout the same," Chris sniffed, taking a sip. "The Major looked great... hasn't aged day," he noted of the old friend he visited. "You gonna tell me about all them trips you been taking?"

Vin smiled evilly and chuckled, taking the bottle back. "Ye'll find out t'morrow, round about lunchtime."

"Payback time?"

"I don't know what yer talkin' 'bout." Vin huffed, chuckling slightly.

"How's it coming?" Chris nodded at the package Vin was gathering up.

"I don't know Chris..." Vin's voice dropped and his brows knit together.

"...been studyin' on it... now I ain't so sure it was a good idea."

Although his face remained unchanged, Chris heard the slip in his voice and saw the shoulders drop slightly. He waited until Vin's eyes asked silently, then he responded.

"Can I help?"

Vin stood and carefully handed the item to his best friend, before turning towards the door. "Stew's nearly done..." he called back as he went inside.

Vin stirred the rabbit stew and cast his eyes towards the door. He continued stirring and finally left the pot, taking two plates from the cupboard. Several minutes went by as he set the table and carried the basket of biscuits over. What could be taking Chris so long? He dropped onto the bench by the table and drew his handsome features into a frown. His mind whirled, thinking of all the hours he'd worked on it... wasted time? He studied the wood grain in the table and thought on all the things he could have done instead. Better choices? Sighing, he slipped his fingers under his shirt and winced, rubbing his scar. He jumped slightly when the door latch moved and Chris entered the room. The blond's face was stoic and Vin's heart sank. He rose without a word and filled his plate with the tender stew. Taking his seat again, his spoon clanked down onto the plate as he took a hefty spoonful. He hissed and grabbed the mug of cider he'd poured for himself and drained it, dousing the fire in his mouth. He shook his anger like a dog ridding itself of freeloading fleas.

"It was a stupid idea... shit... wasted m'time all week..." Vin's words were silenced by the look of fierce intensity from the man in front of him. The green eyes nearly burned a hole right into him.

Chris picked up his plate and paused next to his anxiety-ridden friend. He rested a hand on the anxious man's tense shoulder, before approaching the stove.

"Don't think I've ever laid my eyes on anything finer."

Vin's sharp exhale of breath followed Chris to the stove. He ladled a hefty amount of stew on his plate, grateful that Vin was such a good cook. He moved back to the table and took a seat, eyeing the emotive younger man briefly, before digging in. He was dipping one of the crusty biscuits into the succulent gravy, when the raspy voice finally emerged over the bobbing Adam's apple.

"Really?" Vin's eyes spoke louder than his voice.

"...said so didn't I," Chris stated strongly, biting the dripping biscuit. He continued to eat the tasty stew, eyeing Vin carefully. Finally, the spoon lifted and the tracker's meal began to disappear.

The next morning just before dawn, the two ate a silent breakfast. Sipping coffee on the porch, they watched as Dawn stretched lazily, sending showers of gold and rosy light onto the handsome faces. Sighing, Vin roused himself. The Texan slid his holster and jacket on, before reaching for his hat.

"I'll get him," Chris noted of Tanner's fine black horse, watching Vin nod and then look back to his parcel on the porch. "I'll see to it," he vowed, handing Vin the reins. "He'll be moved Vin, I know I was."

"Thanks, Chris," Vin gripped the gunslinger's forearm and knew Chris understood how far the gratitude reached. He sighed as he slid his boot into the stirrup and vaulted onto the horse. "It don't feel right..." he worried aloud, scratching his cheek. "Ya sure about this?"

"It has to be done," Chris replied, resting his hand on Diablo's neck. "It's for his own good."

"Still feels itchy," Vin fretted, squinting at the road ahead, "It ain't right puttin' the worry on 'im. Don't like it..."

"By tonight, it'll all be over, Vin." Chris squinted up at the tired face above him. "You up to this? You been pushing yourself awful hard this week."

"I'm fine." Vin yawned and rubbed his face, "I'll see ya this afternoon, by Headley's point."

"Alright," Chris sighed, still confused at Vin's cryptic behavior, as he watched him disappear over the crest. "Watch your back..."

It was almost eight a.m. when Chris Larabee's long strides took him into the saloon. His green eyes skirted the perimeter, taking in three of his friends eating breakfast. He shook his head and moved into the room, casting his face to the landing above.

"You're living on borrowed time Buck," the gunslinger advised, taking a seat and reaching for the coffee. "The ax is gonna fall sooner or later."

"Never happen," a familiar voice boomed from the upper floor. The body followed, cautiously eyeing the room below and the doorway. "That boy knows when he's been bested."

"Is that why you've been hiding all over town," Josiah cocked his head up and grinned at the flustered rogue.

"I'm not hiding!" Buck boomed, "I was just making sure Ezra was okay. It was getting late, even for him."

'Harumph!" The southerner chortled, his jade eyes creased in mirth, "Weak, Mr. Wilmington, very weak..."

"You know, Nate," Josiah's deep voice imparted, "I've seen this happen before. Man gets to worryin' all the time. Things start to happen... gets real ugly."

"I hear that, Josiah," Nate nodded somberly, "Weight falls offa him, he gets to shakin' and tremblin', then starts babblin' and talkin' to himself."

"Like them sideshow acts that travel with the circus?" J.D. inquired, watching Buck make a face.

"It could happen." Nate nodded, as Buck draped his long frame over a chair.

"Ha ha... very funny." Buck grabbed a plate and began to eat.

Chris eyed Buck's worried face and suppressed a grin. Vin's exit the day after the prank didn't concern Buck at first. But when Vin needed the favor, Chris complied, telling the others that Vin needed some space. Buck didn't know it yet, but the last grains of sand were running out of his hourglass.

"Hey Josiah, I knew fella once back in Boston, worried himself into a frazzle; ended up in the nuthouse. Was a fearsome sight..."

"I'm warning you, J.D." Buck silenced the giggling youth and directed his attention to the leader. "How's he doing, Chris?"

"'bout the same," Chris answered, refilling his mug.

"Damn... it's been a week now, I didn't think he was that bad off." Buck's voice dropped.

Chris's face screwed up in puzzlement, unsure of what Buck meant. Before he could press the matter, the preacher, the healer and the sheriff started to grin. He eyed the trio and got an uneasy feeling that in his absense, Vin's retreat had taken on a new dimension. A quick glance to Ezra caught a small evil grin and a wink.

"Man gets an infection like that..." Josiah let his voice trail off, kicking J.D. under the table.

"I'd know if that happened to me, I'd be madder than a wet hornet..." the youth nodded.

"It's that bad?" Buck paled slightly, eyeing Nate's somber face.

"Haven't seen a case like it in a long spell," the healer advised, nodding intently, "Fever, chills, weak as a kitten at the outset." Nate sighed.

"Damn shame about his face," Josiah winced, "Never seen a rash like it."

"Ain't is safe to ride out there yet?" Buck asked Nate.

"No," the other denied, "He's got plenty of food and medicine. He's gets all riled up when your name comes up... gets his sores to oozin' but good."

"Sores?" Chris grunted, before someone kicked his ankle.

"Yeah... busted out after you left for the Fort," Nate barely contained the laughter dying to be born.

"Weepin' up a storm... that puss is a nasty mess." Josiah decided, "More cream Ezra?" He offered the small pitcher to the smirking gambler.

"I'll take my chances," Buck vowed, through a veil of guilt, "I'm riding out to see him."

"Later." Chris ended the ridiculous goose chase. "Right now we have a job to do. Eat up, I can't afford to have you keeling over in the saddle today." He urged of the full plate in front of Buck's toying fork. Clive's expecting us by ten with those stallions," he noted of the rancher's delivery. He sent a 'cease and desist' message to the others, who resumed their meal in silence.

"Yeah, okay," Buck consented, piling his ham and eggs into a hollowed out section of bread. He lifted his sandwich and drained his coffee. "I'll meet you at the livery."

The silence remained until the scoundrel was well out of earshot. Chris stood as the others burst into laughter.

"You need help," Chris shook his head of the antics. "You got way too much time on your hands."

"Poor Buck," Nate lamented, "I feel kinda sorry for him."

"You weren't feelin' so bad a few minutes ago when poor Vin's face was oozin'" Josiah commented.

"Yeah, Nate, we were trying to eat you know!" J.D. remarked.

"How are you going to keep him out of town all day," Ezra asked Chris, who was at the door. "Even if your gait is slowed considerably, you'll be back by midday."

The gunslinger paused at the batwing doors and smiled, his green eyes glowing in evil delight.

"Uh-oh!" Nate sat up. "That looks like a Vin-grin."

"Damn..." Josiah noted of Larbee's smug face.

"Something is most definitely amiss," Ezra agreed, "Care to share, Mr. Larabee?"

"Might be a good idea to be close to town come noontime." Chris grinned again and raised an eyebrow.

"It's today!" J.D. enthused, jumping up and rubbing his hands together.

"Vin's revenge... Oh Man I can't wait. What's it gonna be?"

"Don't know..." Chris shrugged. "But he's been cooking something up all week." With a final nod to the group, he departed.

It was nearly midday when Buck and Chris returned. Chris couldn't help darting his eyes in every direction, including the rooftops, expecting an assault from the unknown. The town seemed quiet enough. They left their horses outside the saloon and entered, joining their friends. They discussed the horses and the news in the Clarion, when J.D. rose to get two more beers.

"What's that smell?" He frowned, leaving the bar and heading for the door.

"If I didn't know better," Nate cocked his head. "I'd swear that sound was..."

"Good Lord!" Ezra exclaimed from the doorway, "We've been invaded by an army of swines bearing adornment."

"What!" Chris and Buck shouted in unison, jumping and running outside.

"Oh My God... look at them!" J.D. laughed as a voice boomed from down the street. Over a dozen pigs in various sizes, all wearing colorful kerchiefs were scampering down the street and into the stores.

"Buck... Buck Wilmington, Get your damn pigs outta my store!"

"My pigs!" Buck hollered back, "They ain't my damn pigs!"

"Hey, look at this!" J.D. scampered down the boardwalk and captured a runaway runt. Carting it back to his friends, his voice was pealing in laughter. "These look familiar?" he tugged on the colorful scarf the squealing pig was wearing.

"Looks like Brother Vin found a good use for all those slings he wore." Josiah's deep voice cracked in laughter.

"Bucklin's Beauties," Ezra read the crooked lettering. "Mr. Tanner's is an adept pupil," he noted in pride of the progress the new student made during the last month.

"Get him in the wagon, J.D.!" Chris grunted, herding two small pigs into the corner where Nate grabbed them.

"What wagon?" J.D. asked, trying to keep his grip on the wiggling animal.

"Buck! Get your ass down here and get your damn pigs outta my store!"

"They're not my fuckin' pigs, Lyle!" Buck roared back at the irate shopkeeper.

"Buck, you better watch your mouth," J.D. warned, "Or I'll have to fine you for swearing in public."

"Since when?" Buck retorted, herding a pig into the deadend alley, where Josiah was playing shepherdto several more.

"It's a new ordinance, it was Vin's idea," the sheriff responded.

"Ain't he just the concerned citizen!" Buck huffed, scrambling after a large pig.

"Buck, start putting your pigs back in their wagon!" Chris growled.

"They're not my fuckin' pigs!" Buck screamed back, sliding into the dirt as another slippery swine eluded him.

"Buck, I warned you... " J.D. started.

"Shut up!" Buck hollered from his belly in the dirt. "I'm gonna kill him..." he eyed the wagon where the army of boars descended from. It's high sides were painted white and in bold red and blue lettering, it proclaimed 'BUCKLIN'S BEAUTIES', along with a startling likeness of himself. "Hey, who's that weasel?" He rose to his knees and wiped the mud from his face, jerking his head at a thin, quivering man by the wagon.

"I don't know," Chris hauled Buck upright, "But unless he can herd pigs, I don't give a rat's ass." He shoved Buck towards the suspicous man and turned his head towards the alley, spotting Nate and Josiah housing most of the creatures in the alley. He saw the end of a scarlett coat disappear into the saloon. "Ezra, get your lazy ass out here and help!"

"I think not," the southerner drawled.

"I'd think again!" The leader threatened.

"Point taken," Ezra agreed, spotting the paperwork in the strange, little man's hand. "Perhaps I can ascertain where these delightful creatures came from."

"Did you haul these pigs here?" Buck towered over the shaking man, his blue eyes glowing through the mud on his face.

"I was looking for their owner... they got loose..." the man stammered.

"Hey Buck, you decide to sell them little critters, I got a smokehouse all ready!" a voice yelled from behind the irate rascal.

"Shut up Clive," Buck yelled back, "They're not my damn pigs!"

"Yeah, Buck, they are," J.D. skimmed the papers he took from the trembling man, "It says right here..."

"I don't give a fuck what that paper says," Buck's voice trembled in rage,

"Vin! Vin Tanner... get your scrawny ass down here!" His flashing eyes scorched the rooftops, seeking out a shaggy head.

"I'm afraid they are, Buck," Ezra smirked, "Bucklin's Beauties, L. Byron Wilmington, Esquire."

"That's your real name?" J.D.'s voice quaked in laugher. "What's the L for Load of..."

"Of course that ain't my real name!" Buck boomed, squinting his eyes suspiciously as Ezra and Chris both began to laugh. "What?"

"Lord Byron..." Chris smirked, "The boy sure has a way with words..."

"Lord Byron?" Buck puzzled.

"One of England's most famous womanizers at the turn of the century. I was regaling our missing Texan with some of his more colorful escapes. Apparently, he saw the resemblance." Ezra paused, reading further. "It would appear that the previous owner was of a patriotic nature."

"How's that?" Nate asked, putting two small pigs in the back of the wagon.

"Miss Liberty is the moniker that..."

"What!" Buck interrupted, grabbing the papers from Ezra. "Where does it say that?" His eyes followed Ezra's finger and his mouth dropped open. "Rash huh! I'll give him a rash... Vin!" he screamed.

"The Miss Liberty?" Chris smirked, trying hard to contain the belly laugh that was fighting its way forwward. He saw Buck's chagrin and got his answer, causing the laughter to rush past his parted lips. "I can't believe you told him..."

"Aw, hell, Chris," Buck defended, wiping his face with a blue scarf bearing his name. "I was all shot up in the desert, I thought I was dying... I was delirious."

"You must have been..." Chris continued to laugh, amazed at the fete pulled off by the nimble sharpshooter.

"Who's Miss Liberty?" J.D. asked.

"Well you see, J.D...." Chris started, only to be cut off.

"Chris you say one more word and I'll give Mary a front page story about a rainy night in Louisville..." Buck warned about a wild nightjust after the war.

"Damn Buck, you don't play fair!" Chris gasped, wiping the moisture from his eyes and taking a heaving breath.

"That's the last of 'em Buck," Josiah grunted, putting a large pig in the wagon. "What are you going to do with 'em?"

Buck eyed the rainbow of color in the wagon, in the form of the scarves on the pig's necks. He picked up a discarded cloth and eyed the crooked, childlike scrawl with wonder. "His scratchin's improved..." Try as he might, he couldn't help but smile. "How the hell did he pull this off? Is that what he was doing out your place all week?"

"I guess... he didn't tell me a thing. Made a whole lot a mysterious trips..." Chris's voice caught and he eyed the street and the rooftops. "Wore his sorry ass out."

Buck noticed the change in the leader's features and moved to stand next to him. "What?"

"When's the last time Vin wasn't here to rake in the glory?" he noted of the tracker's frequent practical jokes.

"Damn..." Buck hissed, hands on his hips. "Anybody seen Vin Tanner today?" Buck hollered and saw the negative responses from those gathered.

"Alright, I guess we're going to need to..." Chris paused and eyed the nervous man by the wagon. "Mister, if you got something to say, you best speak up..."

"Well, I was told to leave this envelope with the post office, to deliver later to Mr. Wilmington."

"Where'd you get that?" Josiah asked, nodding to the paper.

"Young feller, long haired, hide coat, blue eyes... nice enough feller... real polite like."

"That's our boy..." Josiah beamed, grinning. "He still out there?"

"Gimme that!" Buck grabbed the envelope and ripped it open. His face flamed and his mouth formed a brief grim line, before curling up again. "Goddammit Vin!"

"Uh-oh!" Nate smirked, "That don't sound good."

"What's it say, Buck?" Chris asked.

"That shifty, underhanded, no account, sorry-assed... I'm gonna get him back for this. Shit..."

"Buck..." Chris's patience was wearing thin.

"They're McGowen's pigs, he rented them. If they're not returned by 1 p.m. today, there's a twenty percent charge for interest."

Ezra stared over Buck's shoulder and did a quick calculation, then smiled, his tooth glinting in the sun. "Mr. Tanner may be my new hero," he mused, "It's one p.m. now, by the time you return these lovely creatures..."

"Shut up Erza," Buck snarled, "It ain't a goddamn bit funny."

"Are you kidding, Buck?" J.D. reveled. "It's ingenius! I can't believe he thought all this up."

"It's always the quiet ones..." Josiah assessed, patting Buck's shoulder.

"There goes your profit from the kissing contest," Chris calculated, grinning like a cat. "Right down to the last penny."

"Looks like Vin's gettin' good at math..." Nate chuckled.

"Oh, I think he had some help..." Buck turned to the gambler, whose chest was poofed in pride. "Ezra...."

"Mr. Wilmington, I'm shocked that you'd think that I'd..."

"You look like a cat that ate a fuckin' canary. I'll pay you back for this, in spades..."

"Hah!" the other scoffed. "When pigs fly..."

"Ouch!" J.D. smacked Ezra. "...and you accuse me of telling bad jokes."

"Is he still out there?" Buck demanded of the man.

"I guess so. When I left, the farmer's wife was shooing him into the house, talking about his 'poor misfortune' and lunch and a rest."

"Misfortune!" Buck boomed, jumping on the rig, "He don't know the meaning of the word... but he will."

"Somebody better go with you, Lord Byron, in case those critters get loose again." Nate wiggled his eyebrows at the infuriated rogue.

"I'll go... it'll be dark when we get back." Chris noted, as Vin's mysterious message from that morning took shape. "Let's get this over with, Byron."

"Shut up, Chris," Buck pulled the wagon out, "I'm warning you..."

"He doesn't have the slightest inclination," Ezra relieved and turned to the others. "Gentlemen, we have work to do and not much time until they return."

"Amen to that," Josiah agreed, patting J.D.'s shoulder. "Let's go..."

"Hey Buck, where you taking your pretty little piggies?"

"Them neck scarfs are a real nice touch, Buck, real classy!"

"Buck, can I see your pigs?"

"They ain't my damn pigs!" Buck screamed to the voices calling to him from the boardwalk as he departed town. The echoes of their laughter chased after him. He glanced backwards at the troop of pigs and the names printed so carefully on every colorful scarf. He couldn't fight the urge any longer and he caved in, letting a broad smile form. He thought of his trickster friend, snoozing in the sun at McGowen's farm, wearing a dopey, contented smile. His own grin broadened and a laugh snuck out.

"I heard that..." Chris called over, eyeing Buck's white teeth through his mud-streaked face. "Vin sure outdid himself this time."

By the time they got to McGowen's farm, it was after three p.m. The laundry was flapping in the breeze and Chris noted the empty hammock slung between two trees. He got off his horse and trotted up the steps of the porch. Before he could rap on the door, it opened and a kind-faced woman with a crown of white hair appeared.

"Afternoon, Mrs. McGowen, how are you?"

"Fine Chris, How are you?"

"Fine Ma'am... Is Vin here? We brought the pigs back."

"Charles is around back," she noted of her husband. "Did you boys eat? I have some pie left. That poor young man was a pile of bones. Landsakes, he's underfed..."

"Yes Ma'am..." Chris nodded, hearing Buck growling from behind him. "Take 'em around back Buck..."

"They're all there..." Buck called as he jumped down. The owner counted every head as the happy pigs ran out of the wagon. "How much?"

"Five dollars even, including the interest."

"Five dollars!" Buck boomed, "Hell, I'm losing money on this!"

"Well, don't forget the cost of the whitewash to repaint the wagon and then there's..."

"Yeah, alright!" Buck groaned, handing the silver to the sated farmer.

"Pleasure doin' business with you boys. Quite a profitable week for me."

"I'll bet..." Buck grumbled. "Where is he?" His eyes roamed the property, searching for the prankster.

"He's not here." Charley McGowen answered.

"What!" Chris wheeled, staring intently, "What do mean?" Now he was worried. Vin hadn't told him what he'd planned, only that he'd be waiting for them. He was a key in the plan to get Buck out of town. But this wasn't in the scheme.

"After the missus gave him somethin' to eat, Amos come by..." he paused, "you know the stage driver, they stop just down the road..."

"Yeah, I know Amos...what about Vin," Chris pressed.

"Well, he got all upset, I didn't hear what Amos said to him, but there was somethin' he was waitin' on... it didn't come. He said somethin' about havin' to go to Mule Pass to get it."

"Mule Pass?" Chris hissed, gritting his teeth and eyeing the road east. "What did you get yourself into, Cowboy?"

Part 25

After pie and coffee at McGowen's farm, the pair set out for Four Corners. It was past six p.m. when they rode in and the sky was a striking deep blue, slashed with vibrant shades of pink. Both slid off their horses and tossed the reins to the kid at the livery. Chris saw Buck heading for the saloon and tapped his shoulder.

"How about a couple of thick, rare steaks at the Hotel?" Chris invited. "I"m buying..."

"That's funny?" Buck peered in the empty saloon, then rubbed his growling stomach. "Guess we'll catch up them later. Okay, Old Man, I guess your silver's good anywhere. Let's go..."

Chris let Buck walk into the side entrance of the hotel, which led into the dining room. A booming chorus of voices sent the stunned cowboy rocking on his heels.


"You okay?" Chris laughed, steadying the wide-eyed Buck Wilmington, who jumped backwards. The blond manuevered around the gap-mouthed man and chuckled again. He rested a hand on Buck's shoulder and gave a good squeeze.

"Come up for air, Buck..."

"Huh?" Buck wheezed, staring as if dazed.

"Happy Birthday, Buck..." Chris said quietly, as the other man's face turned to meet his. The eyes were blinking again and finally Buck remembered to breathe. "Got you good, huh?"

"Jesus, Chris..." Buck stammered, eyeing the room and hearing the calls of the well-wishers. A large cloth banner was draped from one side of the decorated dining hall to the other. It read 'Happy Birthday Buck Wilmington' in large red paint. A table in the corner was laden with gifts and a journal, where the guests were invited to write their favorite memory of the guest of honor. He moved his numbed features again and saw the large buffet table, groaning with food and a huge cake with white frosting.

"Uh... uh... I... God..."

"Can I quote that?" Mary teased, lifting her face to kiss Buck's red cheek. She rested her hand there and caught his emotive eyes. "Happy Birthday."

"Finally, we have discovered a means by which to silence that golden voice," Ezra teased as he offered his hand, "Best Wishes, Mr. Wilmington."

"Thanks, Ez... Mary..."

"We scared the shit outta you... Hah!" J.D. chortled, smacking Buck's back.

"Happy Birthday Buck. Surprised you good!"

"That you did," Buck nodded, grabbing J.D.'s neck. "Thanks, Kid..."

"Here you go birthday boy," Josiah boomed, thrusting a mug of beer in Buck's hand.

"Thanks, Preacher," Buck exhaled hard, his hand still trembling. "I can't believe it. This was all a ruse... the trip today... Vin's being away?"

"It was Chris's idea, Vin's part just fit in fine," Nate offered his hand and congratulated the blushing tall man, "Chris's been planning it for months, he's a helluva friend."

"You got no idea, Nathan," Buck whispered, raising his mug to the blond gunslinger, who was lounging against the bar in the corner. Chris's smile was so relaxed, it took Buck back more than a few years. For a moment, time was suspended his mind flashed through all the adventures that the pair shared over a dozen years. Then he stared harder at the group of men next to the leader. They raised their mugs to him and all wore wide smiles.

"I can't fuckin' believe it..." he wiped a hand over his face and felt someone shove him forward. His legs took over, carrying him ahead past the patting hands of the town's folk, to the men at the bar. The handshakes and backclaps were welcomed and moved the tall man. He wiped the moisture from his eyes and his mouth split into a genuine grin.

"Lee... Bobby... Dave... Matt... My God... it must be..."

"Since that three-day party in Louisville after the war..."

Buck's head jerked at the familiar voice, one which he'd followed into battle and still held in awe. He found his hand gripped tightly and nearly saluted, out of instinct. "My God... Major McCall. How are you sir?"

"Fine, Sergeant Wilmington," the silver-haired military man greeted, "At ease, Son..."

"I can't believe you came... I'm honored." Buck stammered, trying to recall where the Major was posted. Virginia, no... South Carolina, maybe.

"The honor is mine, Buck," the other man rested his hand on the shocked rogue's shoulder, "You're still one of the finest soldiers I ever had the privilege to command." The senior officer moved away, letting the rest of the former unit greet the star-struck guest.

"He hasn't aged," Lee Riddlin suggested, breaking Buck's emotional moment, "Can't say the same for you, Buck."

"You look like shit, Wilmington," Dave Mason agreed, moving forward slowly on his wooden leg.

"Hey Dave, It's good to see you." Buck shook the young man's hand. The boy couldn't be much older than Vin, just as scrawny and as tough. "How are you?" He recalled the painful amputation all too well and the close call the young man suffered.

"Good days, bad days... I get by okay. I'm a teacher in New York."

"That's great, Dave!" Buck exalted, "You always did have a way with words. Matt, make yourself useful and grab a bottle, we got some serious catchin' up to do..." he boomed, herding his old friends towards a table. "Chris?" he turned back and saw the blond lost in thought. He motioned to the group that he'd join them in a minute and moved beside the somber blond. "You okay?"

"Yeah," Chris rasped, "Just thinking about Danny..."

"Shit..." Buck slumped, "Goddamn kid was all heart... 'member that crazy red hair of his?"

"Yeah..." Chris swallowed hard, remembering the terrified eyes of the dying sixteen-year old on a battlefield all those years ago.

"Listen, Chris, I want you to know how much this means to me. I'll never forget it... makes me realize how fuckin' lucky I am."

Chris nodded, dropped his head and curved his lips into a smile. "You and Miss Liberty..."

Buck's laughter exploded and he shoved Chris sideways. But then he latched onto the other's hand and gripped it hard. "Thanks Chris."

"Anytime, Pard..." Chris returned, with a hard stare, "Now bring on that whiskey!"

"Now you're talkin'!" Buck lauded, "I'll be right over, I want to say thanks everybody. Hell, half the territory is here."

"That'd be the free booze and food, Buck." Chris winked and drank in the deep laughter.

"Hey Guys," J.D. ambled over with the others trailing behind him, "Where's Vin?"

"He'll be here... he's running a little late." Chris replied.

"Took his sorry ass over to Mule Pass," Buck grunted as he moved away.

"Mule Pass?" Josiah screwed his face up, balancing a large plate of food.

"The rail depot? What for?"

"Don't know..." Chris sighed, "But he'll be along soon."

A couple hours later, the party was in full swing. Buck was regaling his friends, old and new, with battle talk, amidst the table littered with full plates and half-empty mugs. They teased him relentlessly, contradicting his version of the past events. Chris got up to get another beer when he saw a familiar hide coat shuffling over, behind Buck. He gave the tracker a nod and held up his mug, the other consented and Chris headed off to get two beers.

"...was on of the toughest nights I remember," Buck drew out the tension. "I was outnumbered, out of ammunition and flat on my back."

"Reckon that'd be yer own fault fer shackin' up in cheap cathouse, fer the old and toothless," Vin offered, sending the table into hysterics.

"Goddammit Vin!" Buck startled and jumped up. "Where have you been? I wasted a whole damn day chasin' your sorry ass all over creation."

Vin slid into Buck's now vacant seat and eyed the full plate. His stomach growled like an unsated lion and his mouth watered. Fried potatoes were piled high along side of a huge sandwich. The lean meat was housed inside a hot crusty roll and dripping with gravy. The starving Texan picked up the upper lid of the bread and wrinkled his nose.

"Ya got hot peppers in here," he complained, "...don't care fer 'em."

"Too goddamn bad, I do... and get out of my chair!" Buck thundered, smacking the smaller man's hand. "Paws off... get your damn plate. Jesus, you give the word squatter a whole new meaning."

"Ya mind not screamin' s'loud," Vin tossed a pained expression and slid his hand under his shirt. "My shoulder painin' me somethin' fierce... I'm a mite weak..."

"I think 'addled' is the word you mean," Buck hauled the smirking man upright, "If anyone's weak it outta be me. This body is meant for lovin' women, not chasing animals."

"Oh, I don't kow about that Buck," J.D. goaded, "I've seen some of the women you chase and they don't hold a candle to Bucklin's Beauties..." he laughed and ducked as Buck swatted him. "By the way, Vin... brilliant... pure genius."

"Thanks, Kid" Vin grinned.

"The boy has a point Buck," Matt Devlin grinned, "You sure did cut a fine figure chasing after them pigs."

"You didn't..." Buck winced, eyeing all the shaking heads. "All of you?"

"Funniest damn thing I've seen in some time." Bobby Taylor agreed, "This the guy who set you up?"

"Damn Buck, you're losing your touch." Lee joked.

"Son, you look a little worse for the wear," the Major stood and offered Vin chair. "Go on, take a load off. I was going to stretch my legs anyway."

"Ya sure?" the weary tracker asked. "Thanks, yer the Major Chris was talkin' 'bout? The one he visited?"

"Yes, I'm Major McCall," the formidable man extended his hand.

"It's good t'meet ya. Chris thinks alot o'ya..." Vin commended, shaking the other man's hand.

"The honor's mine, Son," Tom McCall replied, "He told me a great deal about you and the ordeal you've been through."

"Can't believe everythin' he says... but thanks..." Vin eased into the chair and looked up when a full mug of beer appeared. He nodded to his blond friend, who remained standing, just behind him.

"You're the sharpshooter?" Lee asked of the young man who joined them. He recalled someone mentioning Tanner's abilities earlier. "What unit were you in?"

"General Peterson's," Vin said somberly, taking a sip of his beer.

"Peterson?" Matt frowned, "He was Reb general, wasn't he?"

"What difference does it make!" Buck's shield whipped out, his voice sharper than intended, "War's been over for five years."

"I'm sorry," Matt said to Vin. "I didn't mean anything by it."

"I know," Vin reassured, then turned to the red-faced rogue, "It's okay, Bucklin... blood sheds red on both sides."

"Nicely stated," The General nodded, "Excuse me for prying, young man, but... General Peterson's outfit were a team of elite snipers. You're so young..."

"Didn't nobody care 'bout that... on either side I reckon. I marched past some dead blue... yankees," he corrected, "young as twelve and thirteen. I didn't start out in his outfit, but he found out pretty quick."

"How good were you?" Bobby inquired, intrigued.

"I've never seen better," Chris Larabee stated and saw Vin turn his head sideways. The men who rode with Chris during the war knew just how much those words meant and now looked at the young stranger with new eyes.

"Reckon ya used up yer three words fer the day, Larabee..." he warned, clearly uncomfortable.

"Hey Buck, ya wanna finish that sandwich?" J.D. broke the silence, "Some of us want a slab of cake."

"Slab?" Vin laughed, "Guess I better fetch a plate, 'fore the kid eats all the cake." He stood and went to move by Buck, who had taken a huge bite of the tasty sandwich. His face grew serious as he bent down, close to Buck's ear. "Sure was nice of Mr. McGowen to donate one of his pigs fer the party. Reckon ya met some of his kin today... sure was cute little critters, dressed up in them purty scarves..."

"Aw, hell..." Buck swallowed hard and coughed, pushing the plate away as a mental image of the pigs adorned with bright red, blue and green kerchiefs scorched his brain. "Goddammit Vin!" he swatted the nimble body, who moved quickly away, laughing.

Chris took Vin's empty chair and looked up a few minutes later and saw Vin wolfing down a sandwich. The tracker wiped his mouth and moved towards the table of gifts, his blue eyes skirting the pile. Chris caught his gaze and moved his green eyes to the left and tilted his head. Vin nodded and moved, finally finding the gift which he'd worked so hard on. Chris's brows drew together as he watched Vin reclaim the gift and disappear behind a partition. He kept up with the bawdy conversation and noticed after fifteen minutes, Vin hadn't returned. Mary's voice drew him away from the field of vision.

"Buck, maybe you could cut your cake and then open some gifts?" she suggested, "I think some of the people who live outside town will be leaving soon."

"Oh sure, Mary, I'm sorry..." Buck jumped up and walked to the table where the cake was. "This is too pretty to eat."

"No it isn't," J.D. disagreed. "'s chocolate and has buttercream icing... my favorite."

"Well, that's real generous of you, Kid, considering it's my birthday!" Buck jostled the youth, and cut a large piece. "Here, now quit buggin' me..."

Chris moved away from the throng of guests and behind the partition. Vin was busy, huddled over his gift. The blond walked closer and waited until his friend was done. Then he rested his hand on Vin's shoulder and appraised the effort.

"You done good, Cowboy."

Vin sighed, shrugged and stood up. "We'll see..." he hoped, sliding the gift back onto the table.

"Mule Pass?" Chris asked, when Vin's hand hovered over a small rectangular package poorly wrapped in brown paper.

"Yeah," Vin nodded, "Fergot about it, ordered it in Salerno," he paused, rubbing his shoulder for real, it did ache tonight. "...seems like a long time ago... anyhows, it was supposed t'come last week, but got fouled up. Amos fergot t'get it at Mule Pass..."

"Who the hell wrapped it?" Chris frowned at the awful mess.

"I did!" Vin snarled, eyeing the humorous eyes of the blond. "Shut up, Larabee!"

"You look like shit, Vin..." Chris appraised of the shadowed face and bleary eyes.

"Feel like it, tonight," Vin agreed, flopping in a chair and lifting his head as a breeze sailed through. "...tired t'the bone. Aw, hell, I lost m'beer..."

"Stay put." Chris shoved him back down and wandered over to the bar.

Buck's gifts were many and varied; he was truly moved by the generosity of the group. "This one don't have a note, Buck," J.D. suggested, giving a brown parcel to the guest of honor. His hazel eyes narrowed when the paper fell away and revealed a fine leather book, with gold edges on the pages. "Tales of the... the... Buck move your hand..." J.D. complained.

"Tales of the Round Table." Buck finshed, his trembling hand stroking each fine embossed letter. His emotions sailed through clearly in his voice and his eyes, as they met the giver's. He flipped the cover and then smiled softly. "Thanks Vin, it's beautiful."

"How'd you know it's from Vin?" J.D. asked, peering over Buck's shoulder.

"He signed it..." Buck whispered, eyeing the fine drawing inside the flap of two victorius knights at the front of a cave, standing next to the head of a dragon.

"Signed it? Where?"

"Here," Buck said, tapping his chest. "Damn it's getting warm in here..." he sighed, giving the group a small chuckle. He composed himself as J.D. handed him a box tied with string.

"Wow, all the way from Delaware," the youth proclaimed.

"Delaware?" Buck frowned and slit the strings, taking out a letter that was folded inside. "Hey, it's from my Aunt Boom Boom."

"Aunt Boom Boom!" a chorus repeated, then burst into laughter.

"Buck, you had an Aunt Boom Boom?" Josiah inquired, blue eyes twinkling.

"Everybody should have one... she helped raise me, was my Ma's best friend."

"Oh." J.D. nodded.

"...that kinda boom boom..." Nate agreed, biting back a smile.

"She's a fine woman..." Buck argued, folding the letter up and opening the box.

"Hey, Buck, that's a beauty," Chris whistled, eyeing the fine craftsmanship of the silver watch on a new fob. "Looks like an antique..."

"It... it..." Buck popped the watch open and read the inscription, then flipped the letter open. "She's been sick for a couple months, couldn't come out to give it to me. It was her brother's... my father's... he died before... he never knew about me."

The group grew silent and somber, suddenly uncomfortable. "Well now you have no excuse for being tardy for duty, noctural and otherwise," Ezra soothed, giving them a tension breaking chuckle.

More gifts followed, including a new rifle from Nathan and Josiah, a saddle from Chris, Ezra and J.D. and then Buck got another shock. He opened a small square box and read the small note first.

"Happy Birthday Marshal," Buck read aloud, "Hey, it's from Colt and Mary."

"She's been a little under the weather and Colt didn't think she was up to a long ride." Nate supplied, of the wire sent a few days before. "She really wanted to come."

"She's okay isn't she?" Buck's head spun around to the healer.

"She's fine, Buck," Chris supplied, "I met Eddie at the Fort a few days ago. Colt sent him out with that and a letter from Mary. I'll give it to you later."

"Wow, would you look at that!" J.D. exclaimed, "It's a badge... no a buckle."

"It's the Marshal's badge," Vin said thickly, eyeing the familiar piece of silver, which was now a belt buckle. "Sure is nice..."

"Beautiful," Ezra agreed.

"You know what," Buck marveled, "Them two are real special... real special."

His fingers caressed the fine silver. "It's a damn fine gift."

"Speaking of which," J.D. took a large burlap bag from the table, "You have one left... no card..." he supplied, eyeing the large, leather bound book in Buck's hands.

Chris's panther-like movement went unnoticed, as he blocked Vin's exit. The younger man kept backing up as Buck unwrapped the gift. Vin halted when his slow backward motion hit a black wall. Chris saw the uncertainty in the anxious, wide eyes and silenced all fears with one look. Vin's deep exhale went right through him.

Buck cocked his head and opened the book, which appeared to be an artist's sketch book. His breath caught at the first image, an exceptionally well drawn figure of himself, hands on hips, the star sitting proudly on his chest. One by one, he turned the pages, every breathtaking image scoring him deeply inside and causing his heart to swell. Renderings of the ordeal in Fanning and the desert caused his gut to clench. Then the image that caused his eyes to well up. A battered, bruised, ragged body pulling a wounded man on a travois on his shoulders.

"Oh God..." he choked, tracing the delicate memory with trembling fingers. "Oh God... Vin..."

"Vin?" J.D.'s head flew up. "You drew these?" His voice was full of awe, as were the wide hazel eyes.

"You, my good man, are wasting your talents," Ezra appraised of the fine drawings, "A gift like that isn't something to be hidden. You could make a fortune in San Francisco or St. Louis."

"Got all I need right here." Vin silenced Ezra and the gambler's gold tooth glinted as his smile was born.

More images presented themselves and then the one that caused the big man's heart to break open and threatened to spill his busy eyes. It was a wall of a building, and a hand reaching through the barred windows. Another hand reached for it, the only thing visible was the arm, and part of the chest and a silver star. Bendix... Buck inhaled painfully as the memory of that day slammed into him. A miracle... that's what it was... finding Vin in that hellhole and their escape afterwards.

"I... can't... Vin it's... My God... " Buck stammered slowly, taking several minutes.

"You want slow down, Buck," Chris teased, "We're only catching every other word."

"How many hours?" Buck wondered aloud.

"Days..." Chris corrected, "...cleaned me out... ate like an army."

"Yer a cheap old bastard, Larabee!" Vin shot back, grinning. He moved forward, worried about Buck's cracking exterior. One look at the dark blue shimmering eyes told him his gift was worth every hour he'd spent creating it. He paused in front of Buck and rested a hand on the shaken man's right shoulder. "Happy Birthday, Marshal. I ain't never gonna ferget what ya done fer me... never."

"Me either, Tanner." Buck choked, handing the book to J.D. and embracing the former bounty.

"Hey, this is half-empty," J.D. complained, flipping through the blank pages.

"No, Kid, it's only half-full." Buck stated with a sharp exhale and saw the shaggy head before bob and the Texan show a half grin. He saw now, what Chris did, a bone-weary body, a face full of shadows and pain in the blue eyes. "You look like shit, Tanner."

"Fuck y'all, Bucklin!" Vin hissed, smiling wearily. He didn't duck when the large hand clamped across his shoulder and led him back to the table. He settled in at the very end, with his boots propped on an empty chair. He slid down low and rested his head against the back of the chair, relaxing as Buck's warm voice and animated hands told yet another yarn. Right now, he wouldn't trade his seat on the hard chair supporting his aching body, for all the gold at Fort Dix.

Sunrise, the next morning

"Give ya a hand, Marshal?"

"Hey Vin!" Buck turned from the front of the deserted dining room. It was into the wee hours of the morning, when the last of the revelers finally staggered back to the hotel. Now the large room was in the process of being cleaned up. "The manager said there's plenty of food left, he's gonna put it out again at lunchtime." Buck noted, eyeing Vin's haggard appearance. "Didn't think I'd see you until this afternoon sometime."

Vin just shrugged and moved closer, eyeing the treasures Buck was packing away. "Ya sure got a nice bit o'loot."

"Yeah, how about that?" Buck agreed, "I got here early, thought I'd tote it over to my room. I'm still in shock, I think." Buck raked his hand through his mussed up hair. "I can't believe it..."

"Yeah, them eyes o'yers is speakin' real clear... looks painful." Vin teased of the red orbs.

"Hah!" Buck shook his head and winced, "That's nothing compared to the drums in my head. A night to remember."

"Sure was." Vin agreed, "Them fellers are okay, seem like good men."

"Yeah," Buck agreed, "I made one trip already, this is the last of it." He handed Vin a pile and they quietly made their way to Buck's room. Vin set the boxes down on a table, and saw the sketch book opened on Buck's bed. He dropped his head as his friend appeared next to him.

"I wanted t'write somethin' inside... even got out one o'Chris's poetry books... but m'scribin' looks like chickens with a wicked itch."

Buck wasn't expecting that and burst out laughing hard, so much so, he couldn't get his breath and his contagious laughter caused the amused Texan to laugh also. But the sight of the book and the page it was opened to, sobered Buck up quickly. When he moved to the bed and gazed at the sketchbook, his throat tightened. He moved past the image out by a river, just after he pulled Vin from the coffin. It showed Buck tenderly ministering to the fevered man and calming his fears. He flipped the pages past more pictures, until he spotted the last entry. It showed Chris, himself, the Major and the rest gathered around the table the night before.

"That where you skittered off to?" He asked of Vin's disappearance the night before. He saw the quick smile and nod and shook his head. "Sure do live up to your name, Slick." He took a deep breath and turned back. "Seems that last night I had something caught in my throat." Buck turned to face Vin, "I want you to know how much this means to me Vin," he whispered painfully, picking up the book. "Some people, most people, will only see lead images, drawings on paper. That ain't what I see." Buck's voice dropped, "I see blood and sweat and tears and a broken body. I see heart and soul and a spirit soaring... It takes my breath away, Vin."

It was the right choice and Vin swallowed painfully. He felt his face flush. Now, listening to Buck's moving speech, he was proud of every line he drew. For when he made those memories, it was from blood, sweat and tears and full of soul, from his heart. Buck not only understood it, he felt it, deep down inside and that made it worth every bit of pain.

"Kinda like Miss Liberty, huh?" Vin teased, his eyes crinkling in mirth.

"Ouch!" Buck winced, "That's playing dirty, Vin!"

"I knew ya'd see it was more than paper..." Vin commented and saw Buck's emotion rising again.

"Oh yeah..." Buck whispered.

"Guess yer tired," Vin moved to the door, "I'll be movin' along. I'm headin' out t'the Pond t'do some fishin'."

"You want some company?" Buck raised his head and smiled.

"Ya sure?" Vin cocked his head. "What about yer friends?"

"Nobody will see the whites of their eyes before noon," Buck vowed, "Besides, I can't think of anyone else I'd rather be with." He paused, resting a hand on the smaller man's blue shirt. "... friend..."

"Well," Vin shuffled, trying to rid himself of the band on his chest. "Ya gotta promise ya ain't gonna be spoutin' them tall tales... ye'll scare the fish..."

"I'll woo 'em right into your basket," he said of the ratty basket Vin took fishing with him. He grabbed his things and followed Vin to the livery.

They had the bank of the waterway to themselves and Vin set his pole up. Buck stretched out on the grass, easing his head onto his folded jacket. The slight breeze and the warm sun, accented by the gurgling water, caused his mind to wander.

"You ever wonder about it all, Vin... I mean I do..." Buck asked, "When I got back from Salt Flats, after... when we thought you were dead," his voice dropped. "I had a real hard time, it was like I was drowning. I couldn't sleep for the nightmares and the days were worse."

"I know." Vin sat down next to Buck and offered him the canteen. "...felt it right here." He tapped his stomach. "Like a cannon ball was sittin' in there. Weren't no reason fer me t'still be breathin'."

Buck hitched himself up on his elbows and took a swig, eyeing the emotion on Vin's face. "Shot in the head and the gut, trapped in the desert... didn't make any sense." Buck sighed, "How'd you get over it?"

Vin stared at the blue sky and the puffy white clouds that dotted the heavens. He took several minutes to think, before turning back to meet Buck's intense stare. "Chris helped me... and I looked in here," He tapped chest and then eyed the sky again. "and I put m'faith in the man upstairs."

"Just like that?" Buck sat up and toyed with a blade of grass. He saw Vin nodding and then the younger man slid onto his back and closed his eyes. Buck watched him for some time, his soft breathing was like music. He eyed the river and the sky and let the purest gift of all become absorbed and a part of him. He glanced at the lean body, sleeping soundly beside him and smiled, feeling the hole inside himself closing. Somewhere in the course of the conquest to slay the Dragon, Vin Tanner had become more than a friend. He was a part of Buck now, bound by blood, sweat and tears. He sighed and let his tired body rest, thanking God for his precious gift.

As the lazy morning wore on, Vin's basket began to get full. Buck was snoring softly, and Vin smiled at the book next to the contented body. He moved Buck's arm and opened it to the next blank page. It only took a few minutes to capture the moment; two friends on the banks of a river. The tip of his tongue darted out, as he carefully printed three small words under the rendering. Satisfied, he eyed his latest memory and then closed the book, placing it near Buck.

Later that night, when the town was dark and quiet, Buck was sitting on his bed flipping through the book. His brows furrowed when he saw the new picture. The three scrawled words caused his handsome face to split into a huge grin. He traced the image and the words with his finger and recalled the quiet morning they'd spent. He moved to the window and caught sight of the tracker walking towards his wagon.

"Goodnight Tanner," Buck called down, causing the body to turn.

"'night Marshal," the drawl came back, giving him another smile. He moved back to the bed, leaving the book open on the table. His gaze caught the three words and he was once again amazed at the depths of the soul of the blue-eyed poet. He thought on those words as he drifted off to sleep.

'The Healing Place'.


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