Magnificent Seven Old West
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A Shining Place Called Hope

by Deirdre

Authors' Note- this story contains references to child abuse that might been disturbing to some readers.

DISCLAIMER: I don't own any part of the show or characters. This story is for entertainment purposes only, without profit or gain of any kind.

This short story was inspired by Eric Close's work with Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch which pairs abused children with rescued horses and adult leaders at 24 wilderness ranches around the U.S. and Canada, to help restore the heart, soul, mind and strength of the kids.

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


Part 1

The sky was gray and even though it was just a few hours since dawn, it was clear that it would be a cold and cloudy day. The mustached rogue turned the collar of his coat up and hunched down against the chilly air. It was a couple weeks until Christmas and the stores were stocking up on extra merchandise. That meant his fellow peacekeepers and himself had to keep a sharp eye out. The extra money in the registers was often a temptation to the unsavory elements in the territory.

A harsh voice from down the street drew his eyes away. He recognized Gus Harcom the owner of the dry goods store. The object of his wrath was a tall youth who had been shoved from the doorway into the street. He couldn't hear all the words spoken but the ones he did hear indicated that Gus had accused the boy of something underhanded and the boy was denying the charge in very colorful language. He rose up and shoved the owner hard, standing over him with his fists clenched. Buck put his mug down and was ready to move into action, when the youth turned and ran off. He sighed hard and shook his dark head.

"That boy's got a lot of hurt in him."

Buck Wilmington's soft tone edged in sorrow brought Chris Larabee's head up. He'd just stepped out of the saloon with a mug of coffee. The air had a bite in it and the warmth of the liquid was welcomed. His green eyes followed the tilt of Buck's head towards the youth in question.

Justin Dalton was the newest member of the community. He lived with his grandfather in a small cabin outside town. The fourteen-year old had been in and out of trouble since his arrival a few months back after his parents died. The infractions in the beginning were minor. Starting fights in the schoolyard, breaking windows with rocks and pulling pranks on some of the businesses in town. But lately he'd turned violent and two of the stores had been broken into and one of the clerks had suffered a minor injury. They couldn't prove it was him but the items taken along with the narrow window broken led them to believe it might be him.

"I'll handle it."

Both heads turned at the raspy drawl that came from behind. Vin Tanner's soft tread often caught them all off guard. He moved like a panther, sleek and silent. He edged up next to Buck and took the mug of coffee offered. He took a sip and handed it back.

"I don't know know, Vin."

Buck was seated between the two standing peacekeepers and his eyes shifted from the question in Chris's reply to Vin's adamant stance. It was no secret that Tanner was stubborn and often he and Larabee didn't see eye to eye on a subject. But the respect they held for each other was strong and that was the difference.

"I won't be back until after dark," Vin replied, tugging his floppy hat down and stepping off the boarded sidewalk.

"Leave it go, Chris," Buck suggested, not missing the concern in his friend's pale eyes which were following Tanner up the street. "That boy's got a bone in his teeth and you ain't gonna pry it loose."

"That kid's becoming a problem," Chris dictated.

He was the unofficial leader of the seven peacekeepers and it was him that the storeowners had turned to with their complaints. The vandalism and broken windows were getting out of hand. A few witnesses thought it was Dalton but couldn't be sure. Chris had ridden out to the shack to talk to Otis Dalton, the boy's grandfather. The old man was frustrated as well, lacking the strength and patience to handle a rambunctious teenager.

"Maybe Vin can talk some sense into him," Buck answered, sipping his coffee and watching as the Texan rode out of town. "Before that kid becomes the undertaker's problem."

+ + + + + + +

Justin was perched high on a hill, watching the cabin. He saw Vin Tanner riding towards it and flinched. For a moment, he felt fear creep into his gut. Tanner was smart and no doubt he'd been in town and seen what happened. He'd have to be more careful. He couldn't afford to get caught. Tanner should mind his own business.

He shook his head and climbed down from the tree. He stole through the woods until he reached the haven he'd created. If only he could stay here; if only they'd leave him alone. They didn't understand, how could they?

He crawled back inside and only when he was alone in the dark did he relax. They'd find him, especially if Tanner was elected. He knew from what he'd heard around town that he was a tracker. He even lived with Indians for awhile. The voice came then, his father's voice. That cold, arrogant and overbearing tone. He shut his eyes and held his hands over his ears. But the voice only got louder

"You're a stupid piece of shit, you hear me boy! You can't do anything right. It's a sad day that you were born. I should have drowned you then and saved us all the trouble you are. You're worthless...you hear me boy. Answer me.!"

He flinched as the painful words drove into his soul like hot nails. His mind's eye revisited those dark years. He saw the small boy run for cover but his little legs were not match for a large man. His mouth formed a silent scream of agony as the beefy hand grabbed him. The pain exploded again as it always did when the board his back, backside and legs.

 WHACK

WHACK

WHACK

WHACK

 Hot tears sprung from his eyes and he rocked in agony, crippled to drive away the leering face that haunted him still.

"You're a stupid, worthless piece of shit...You'll never amount to anything."

"Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!" He screamed, kicking the crates and rampaging through the cavern. "SHUT UP!"

But the echo still found him.

+ + + + + + +

Otis Dalton eyed the gray sky and sighed hard. Just past seventy, his bones ached whenever cold weather was on the horizon. Managing his own needs was hard enough. Since his grandson came to live with him his troubles multiplied overnight. Now there was barely enough food to keep them going and without firewood, there would be a cold hearth. He also had to get the water from the spring and try to fix the hole in the roof. His gray eyes roamed to the broken fence that surrounded his cabin. He'd told the boy to fix it a month ago. Half the time he had no idea where the angry youth was.

He struggled with the ax, wincing as his back protested. He trudged to the clearing where a short stand of trees were waiting. He eyed the trees and then ax. Frustration sent a soft curse through the breeze. Life had become a trial every day since he'd shed a younger man's clothes.

"Hold on, I got it."

Tanner eased off his mount and secured the horse, then walked to where the fragile old man was standing. He laid a hand on the woolen shirt and gave a tug. He knew Otis was a proud man and how hard it was for him to accept the changes in his life.

"Where's the boy?" He asked, his blue eyes not missing the hopelessness in the old eyes before him. The slump of the shoulders cried out in a show of defeat.

"I don't know, Vin. He didn't come home last night..." Otis sighed hard and scrubbed his weary face with his hand. "I just don't know what to do..."

'It's alright, Otis, ya git back inside, it's cold out here. I'll get ya plenty o'wood. Then I'll find him."

 He nodded and started back to the house. He turned then and watched as the young man easily moved into action. The axe went through the wood without effort. Funny it didn't seem like that many years gone by since he'd built this cabin with the same muscle and grit as this man had.

With every swing of the ax, Vin tried to calm his temper. It wasn't bad enough the boy was causing trouble in town, he was causing grief to the only person in his life who'd shown him kindness. He saw the bruise on the old man's face and that angered even more. He had to find some way of reaching Justin. He also knew that wouldn't be easy. The trail was as clear as any he'd come across. He knew the signs and from the small hints that Otis let slip out, he'd guessed the rest.

Otis was at the small table when Vin entered the room. It was freezing inside the cabin and that set his jaw even more tense. The boy had no reason to leave the old man without heat. He quickly got a fire going and shook the coffee pot. He moved outside and found the rain barrel empty.

"Otis, how long ya been without water?"

"I been bringing a few buckets up each day, Vin. That's been empty for..." he shook his head and shrugged. "I just don't know..."

"S'okay, Otis, I'll take care of it. "

An hour later, the barrel was almost full and a hot pot of coffee was brewing. Vin found enough flour to make some biscuits and a old jar of honey. He put the meager meal in front of the old man and eyed the empty cabinet. It was clear Otis couldn't continue like this. Then he saw something in the old man's eyes that hurt. Shame was clearly spelled out.

"No call fer that, Otis."

"I'm so sorry..." he whispered, "It's not his fault. His father was too hard on him."

"I suspected as much," Vin replied, his brows creased in worry. "He been strappin' that boy since he was a little feller?" The white head dipped and tears came to the old man's eyes.

"...worse..." Otis managed. "Broken bones...he'd say the boy fell or..." He paused to try to gather up his scattered emotions. "He's almost a man Vin. It's too late...he's gonna end up with a bullet in him or gettin' his neck stretched. Sometimes I see the want in his eyes. I just don't know how to reach him. I tried...he denies he's hurting. I don't think he knows how to handle it."

"It's rough..." Vin agreed. "But he ain't hopeless. All this actin' out he's doin' is a call fer help."

While the old man ate, Vin's eyes were on the horizon. Then he got an idea and saw a glimmer of hope born. It was a long shot, but then anything worth fighting for usually was. First order of business was getting the old man into town. It was clear he was hungry and tired. Then he was going to find Justin Dalton and start him on the road home.

"Otis, git yer things together, I'll take ya inta town," Vin announced when the old man rose to clean his dishes.

"Into town?" Otis frowned, "I don't understand. I told Will Brown I didn't have any more money. I'm awful sorry, I didn't think I'd end up in jail."

"Jail?" Vin spun around his eyes hot. "I ain't takin' ya t'jail. I'm takin' ya t'the boardin' house. I got a room the judge pays fer that I hardly use, somebody oughta get use out of it. Food comes with it. I'll square it Mae Kramer. She's a good women, she'll take good care o'ya. Ya can't stay here Otis." He paused and frowned . "What's Will Brown got to do with this?"

"He rode out last week after his store was broken into. He was looking for Justin and he was angry. I told him I didn't know anything about the store or where the boy was. He said I had to give him six dollars for damages. Vin, I don't have that kind of money. I gave him a few pieces of silver I was saving. He said that wasn't enough and he took my watch."

"Took yer watch!" Vin was seething. "What he done was wrong, Otis. He ain't the law. I'll git yer watch back."

Part 2

Will Brown heard the jingle of the bell above the door that signaled he had a customer. He put down the leather saddlebag he'd been working on and moved to the front of the tannery. He peered around the store but didn't see anyone. Then he found himself shoved hard into the wall. Two gunbelts that were hanging on display clattered to the floor.

"Ya listen up ya stinkin' varmit!" Vin hissed, pressing his forearm harder into Brown's throat. "Ya ain't the law in these parts and ya had no right strong armin' that old man. I want his money back and the watch."

"I took restitution!" Will choked over the steely grip. "Unhand me!"

The words no sooner left his lips when he was flipped around and his right arm twisted up his back. He was then forced across the room to the display case. His face was shoved down only inches above the glass.

"Ya can hand it over or I'll shove yer face through and ya can fetch it with yer teeth!" Vin ordered.

It was then Will saw a low slung black gunbelt trimmed in silver riding low over black pants. He knew before his head turned sideways.

"Mornin' Will," Chris greeted, casually leaning against the wooden counter where the register was located. He pressed the sale button and the drawer opened. "How many?"

"Answer 'im!" Vin ordered, pulling Brown upright.

"Three...pieces..."

Chris took three pieces of silver and then ambled over to the counter. He tapped the glass and didn't hide his disdain. "Get the watch..."

Brown fumbled badly but pulled out the watch. He nearly dropped it but Larabee took it. He backed up so far he knocked a vase over, sending it to the floor. The green eyes were lethal.

"Don't fuck with me again, Will!" Chris charged. "Next time, I'll lock your sorry ass up."

Chris took the money and watch and left the trembling store owner with a quivering bladder.

Vin watched until Larabee was across the street and headed into the boarding house. Mae Kramer had quickly taken over, preparing a hot breakfast for the feeble old man and assuring them he'd be looked after. Then he turned and walked slowly towards Will Brown. The weasle's eyes darted as if seeking a hole to crawl into. Vin cornered him and left his own calling card.

"Ya even breathe wrong near that old man and yer hide's gonna be hangin' over the door, understand!" Vin warned and then spun on his heels.

Chris was exiting the boarding house when he saw Vin Tanner storm into the saloon. His spurs chewed up the boardwalk and he used long strides to catch up to his troubled friend. Ezra was behind the bar taking inventory. A few patrons were seated at the other tables.

Ezra turned when his side vision caught a blur of tan. He watched as Vin Tanner helped himself to whiskey and poured a shot into a mug of coffee. He saw Chris arch a single brow in surprise at the unTannerlike action.

"Starting a bit early aren't we Mister Tanner?"

"Shut up, Ezra," Vin growled. "I ain't in the mood."

Vin took the mug to a table and sat down. He took a sip of the coffee and his disgruntled features didn't go unnoticed. He shook his head and wrapped his fingers around the hot brew.

"Otis said thanks," Chris imparted, tossing his hat on the chair next to him. He raked a hand through his hair and watched the normally staid features of Vin Tanner morph into dangerous territory. "The kid's lucky he's not wearin' a hole in his chest."

"It ain't his fault," Vin replied, taking another sip.

"Look, Vin, whatever problem he's got, he's big enough to know right from wrong," Larabee argued. Then curiously, Vin's anger dissipated and he saw something he didn't like in the sky eyes. The Texan took a quick look around and noticed Ezra wasn't in the room anymore. The softness in Vin's voice was colored with pain from long ago, the kind of ache that never truly leaves you.

"I know where's he's at, Chris and it's a shitty place. Ya git kicked around like a dawg fer years, talked down ta, beat the fuck up. It's wears on ya, 'til there's nothin' left inside. Ya lash out cause when yer in a corner, it's the only way ya know." Vin sighed hard and shook his head.

Chris drank in every painful word and realized just how much this was hurting Vin. The hand that lifted the mug was trembling a little bit and it made him wince. Looking at Justin was like looking back in time. Vin never disclosed much about his past but it would seem that after his mother died, he'd been living in a very dark place.

"Damn Tanner, that's more words you've said since I met you." Chris heard the soft chuckle and the light reappear in the sad eyes. "Anything I can do?"

"Ya already have," Vin replied, "Jest by sayin' that. I know he's done wrong and he's got makin' up t'do all over town. But I think I can reach 'im."

"Sounds like quite a job," Chris supported quietly. "And only one man I know to handle it."

"Thanks," Vin's gratitude was evident and he rose, draining the mug. The arm came out automatically as it always did. He locked onto the forearm and gave a single nod.

Now that Otis was safe, the hardest part of his task was ahead. He knew the hills around that cabin and there was only one place that a kid like that could hide. A place where he could store away the things he'd taken. A refuge from the cold world that he felt had kicked him in the teeth.

An hour later, he eased off the horse and eyed the broken boards that had been nailed over the opening to the Emily Rose. The old mine had been deserted for years. Every once in awhile they had to nail the boards back up. He ducked inside and tread softly, watching the amber light. A small fire was burning and he could smell meat cooking. His eyes took in the items lying around. He'd only what he'd needed. Some blankets, a shirt, some food and dishes. Before he could go any futher, something hard hit him from behind.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was on his way to the post office when J.D. intercepted him. In the reflection of a window across the street, he saw the derby first and tried to look away.

"CHRIS!"

Too late.

He turned and waited for the slight built figure to catch up to him. The youthful sheriff was out of breath and his cheeks red from the wind. He was wheezing a bit when he reached his side. Dunne started to talk and ended up coughing.

"Don't be pukin' your milk up on me, J.D."

"...not..funny..." Dunne gasped, finally catching his breath. "I've been looking all over for you. I had a full office waitin' on me this morning. Gus Harcom wants me to bring Justin Dalton in, he claims he stole something."

"Stole what?" Chris inquired, lighting a cheroot.

"He's not sure, but he thinks Dalton definitely took something."

"You can't arrest somebody for that," Larabee decided " Besides, Buck and I saw part of that. I didn't see anything in the kid's hands."

"And just what the hell did you and Vin do to Will Brown? He wants me to wire the judge and have you two locked up on assault charges."

"He rode out to Otis's cabin last week and strong armed him for the few coins he had and he took his watch. Vin and I stopped by to ask him about that incident. He wants the judge wired? Fine, you add that to the wire. Last time I checked, robbery was a jailable offense."

J.D. saw Chris's eyes scan the horizon and he had a feeling what was coming. At the town meeting three days before when the subject was brought up, Vin was clearly angry by the cries to have the boy arrested. He'd slipped outside and disappeared. If Vin and Chris had spoken to Will Brown, it was because Vin had ridden out to see Otis. Otis couldn't come into town on his own. Vin was now out hunting for Justin.

"Look, Chris, I know Vin's got a soft spot for that kid but I'm still the one wearing the badge. It's me all these angry store owners visit every day demanding a pound of flesh. It's getting out of hand."

"Vin's gonna find the kid," Chris stated.

"And then what?" J.D. pressed, "He sure as hell won't bring him here. Dalton's a troublemaker, Chris, not another wounded animal Vin can fix." He stopped when the green eyes turned icy.

"He knows what he's doing, J.D. And I'm the law here. You get any complaints about how things are being handled? You tell them to see me."

"Okay but..." J.D. sighed in frustration when the black duster clad lawman spun away and headed up the street. He took his hat off, smacking it against his leg. He had a feeling things were going to get much worse. This was shaping up to be a powder keg and an explosion was imminent.

Part 3

Justin stepped back as Vin Tanner's body hit the wall of the cave hard and slid to the ground. He waited a moment and took a tentative step. The tracker was on his side, the hat had tumbled off but his long hair kept the face blocked. He knelt down and reached for the infamous mare's leg that Tanner had been holding when he hit him. Like lightning, a strong hand gripped his wrist and twisted painfully, causing him to yelp.

"I outta bust it!" Vin seethed, rolling over and using his legs to pull the youth off his feet. He straddled the startled victim and pinned both arms down. "Ya listen real good, Justin, cause ya jest about fried m'last nerve. Half the town is ready t'lynch ya and right now I'm the only thing between yer ungrateful hide and jail cell. What ya did t'yer grandfather makes me sick. That old man took ya in, fed ya,  tried t'do right by ya. Ya thank him by stealin' from folks, leavin' 'im in a cold house with no water? That bruise on his face is from yer hand? Proud o'yerself? Beatin' an old man!"

"You don't know anything." Justin returned, trying to free himself but it was as if he was chained. Tanner used his legs well, he couldn't move at all. The livid features above him were scarier than the long knife strapped to his boot.

"I know more than ya think," Vin replied. "We're gonna talk about this Justin. Yer gonna listen t'me, even if it means I gotta tie ya up." He saw the dark eyes shift to either side then rest on the knife in his boot. "Don't git any ideas!"

Justin weighed his options. Tanner was no fool and his fighting skills were far superior to anything he had to offer. He heard his father snickering in his head. He failed again. He should have hit Tanner in the head instead of in the back. He could have taken his money, horse and the gun. But now he was caught in a trap. He would have to play the game. He would listen and be contrite, he'd even shed a tear if it got him out of here. As soon as he had the chance, he'd find a way to escape.

"Okay, I give."

Vin stood up and moved back, swiping the blood running freely from a cut over his eye. Dalton had hit him in the lower back, sending him face first into a rocky wall. His whole face hurt and he knew the left eye under the cut was swelling. He took off his kerchief and tied it around his head, covering the cut.

"It ain't hurtin' him none, what yer doin'" Vin assessed, reading the brown eyes of the angry manchild.

"Who?"

"Yer Pa, he's the one yer pissed at. He's the reason yer hittin' the stores in town, startin' fights in school, actin' out at home."

"You don't know nuthin'!" Justin retorted, but felt his face flame with color.

"He's dead, kid, he can't hit ya no more." Vin saw the eyes flicker in pain and he knew he'd hit a nerve. "Bad as the beatin's are, the words hurt worse. 'Fore long ya feel lower than an ant's belly."

"Shut up..." Justin choked.

This wasn't going as he'd planned. How could Tanner know about the hell he was still trapped in? His father's wrath showering down with the awful beatings and the disgust in his eyes? How could anyone understand the ripping pain in his gut that those words still caused? How could Vin Tanner know that he couldn't even look at his reflection in the glass windows in town? That the pain roaring through him caused him to shatter that image?

"I been where yer at," Vin disclosed, making a mental list of the items stolen.

The troubled youth was sitting on an upturned crate. His dark hair make the pale skin stand out even more. But the lost eyes mirroring that familiar pain told him his arrow had found its mark. The wound was open now and raw. Exposing it was the only way to have it heal.

"Fer me, it was the sound o'them boots," Vin rasped, swallowing hard. "I'd hear them boots and try to run. Weren't no good...he'd always find me. After he was done, whilst I was curled up and bleedin', I'd still hear them boots in my head. Sometimes when it's quiet at night and somebody's walkin' through town on the boards, it sends me back t'them nights."

Justin's head came up slowly and he saw the pain in the peacekeeper's eyes. He wasn't alone. Somebody did understand the inner rage that consumed him. But Vin Tanner wasn't possessed by the demons that seemed to control him. He didn't lash out at anyone who came near him. Was there a way out of this living hell? Was Vin proof of that? For a few seconds he was tempted to concede then he thought better of it. It was just another trick. Tanner was just here because the store owners in town wanted him caught. He wasn't going to help; he was going to take him to jail.

Vin knew all too well the pain that was throbbing inside Justin. He also knew that the olive branch he'd extended was not going to be accepted yet. That was to be expected. The boy had no reason to trust him; the only male figure for most of his life had abused that trust. It would have to be earned but there was a flicker of hope in the youth's eyes and that was a spark he'd have to stoke into a full fire.

"It's time t'pay the piper, let's go," Vin stated, "and I'm still faster with one eye than y'are with two. Ya try anything funny and I'll tie ya up."

"You're gonna be sorry..." The irate youth warned, clenching both fists and charging.

"Shut yer trap!" Vin seethed, lifting him and shoving him hard against the wall. "Ya best listen cause I'm only sayin' this once. First thing ya gotta do is apologize to yer Grandpa. He's a good man, a proud man and ya got his gut all torn up. Once ya git done fixin' the mess ya made at that cabin, ya got all the folks in town ya owe. Ya gotta pay 'em back fer the damages and fer what ya stole."

"I don't have any money," Justin vented, springing to his feet. He began to pace the small cave, feeling the eyes of the town upon him. Eyes of loathing, full of hate; his father's eyes. "This isn't going to work."

"Yer gonna earn the money," Vin stated, "the right way, with sweat and hard work."

Justin snorked in contempt and try to shove past the tracker, hitting him hard. He knew Tanner's horse was nearby and he would use it to escape. He was quickly thrown down and before he could blink, his hands were tied up with a piece of cord that had been lying on the ground.

"Let's go," Vin decided, swaying a bit as his throbbing skull caused him to lose his balance. He grabbed the back of Dalton's jacket and propelled him towards the entry.

+ + + + + + +

The midafternoon had yet to yield even a glimpse of the sun. The gray sky seemed to bleed into the buildings, giving the whole town a dismal coat. Josiah Sanchez was outside the church, fixing a window. Just to his left, Ezra Standish was seated shuffling a deck of cards.

"The Lord does appreciate a man who makes good use of his time." The preacher tapped another nail into the newly whitewashed wood.

"Hah," Ezra chuckled, "there are many definitions of the words 'good use'."

"Wouldn't hurt you to work up a sweat once in awhile, Ezra," Josiah replied.

"Animals sweat, my good man of the cloth, not a Standish." The gambler stopped shuffling and rose, narrowing his jade eyes to see who was riding into town. "Well, well, it would appear as if the prodigal son has returned home. Although I don't think this story will end up in quite the same fashion as the Biblical version."

Josiah tapped the nail in place and turned to follow Ezra's eyes. Vin had Justin Dalton in front of him on a horse. The youth's hands were tied and the tracker's face was bruised, with one eye swollen. The bloodied forehead and kerchief made the preacher wince.

"Vin doesn't do anything the easy way," he commented.

"A foolish waste of time and energy," Ezra replied, leaving the boardwalk to head out of the chilly air into the warmth of the saloon. "He'd best watch his back, that boy will turn on him."

"Maybe," Josiah agreed. "But I think that boy is looking for a ray of hope and Vin is the one who offered it."

+ + + + + + +

Chris was leaving the livery, having just returned from patrolling the perimeter of town when Vin rode up. He winced at the bloody upper left side of the Texan's face. The one eye visible called at him openly. He nodded, came forward and took the reins. He didn't hide his disdain for the youth who was looking down at him with hot eyes.

"If it was me, you'd be slung over the saddle," Chris warned and was rewarded with some of the fire of defiance left the youth's eyes. He hauled the kid down and shoved him hard, sending him sprawling onto a stack of hay bales. The lethal green eyes left no room for negotiation and the kid was smart enough to stay put. He turned to Vin then. "You got this?"

"I'll see ya in the saloon," Vin replied, kneeling to untie Justin's hands. "Get yer ass up and see t' the horse. Then we're gonna to the boardin' house and yer gonna apologize t' that old man. And it better be good..." His lips curled up in contempt and he shoved the slowly moving boy towards his horse.

Otis was reading the paper in the parlor when the door opened and his grandson was propelled into the boarding house entry. He put the paper down and set it to the side. His worried eyes didn't miss the loathing in the boy's stormy ones. He winced when Vin Tanner appeared, bloodied and battered.

"Oh Justin, what have you done..." Otis grumbled.

"Like you care!" Justin retorted and was rewarded with a sharp hand between his shoulder blades. He flinched but held his ground.

"The boy's got somethin' t'say," Vin rasped, shoving the youth forward. The silence caused his hand to grip the back of the kid's neck. 'I can't hear ya!"

"Go to hell!" Justin hissed, shoving Vin and heading for the door. He ran into a solid wall of resistance and found himself face down on the settee by the door with one arm twisted up his back.

"Now if there's one thing I hate is having my lunch interrupted by an uppity youngun." Buck hauled the boy up and used all of his grip until the kid flinched in pain. "You're damn lucky Vin Tanner's in your corner, because I respect that man so I won't take you out back and teach you manners. Now I believe he requested something from you."

"I ain't sorry and I ain't gonna apologize!" Justin retorted.

"Well, I guess you'll have to be persuaded then," Buck decided, turning to Vin. He shifted his eyes across the street to where the jail was. It could be spending a few hours there would change the boy's mind. Vin caught on and nodded, turning back to Otis.

"Ya gotta trust me, Otis, I know what I'm doin', okay?" Vin asked quietly. "Buck'll keep an eye on him in the jail fer a little bit, then I'm gonna take him outta town for a few days. He's lost, Otis, but I can reach 'im, I know I can. I been where he's at..."

"I'm sorry, Vin," Otis replied. He knew that the quiet Texan had his grandson's best interest at heart and he nodded.

"Good," Vin sighed, tapping the old man's shoulder. He turned back then pausing in front of Buck. His eyes bespoke his gratitude, then when he glanced at Dalton they turned cold again. His words were directed to Wilmington but his gaze bore deeply into the troubled youth's eyes. "Lock 'im up, Bucklin."

Justin panicked. His mouth opened to protest but he was quickly shoved through the door. His legs stumbled badly as the long strides of the mustached lawman caught him off guard. He saw the storeowners nodding in approval as he was directed into the jail. He paled at the catcalls of 'string 'im' up', 'lock 'im up and toss the key away' and worse. He swallowed hard and flinched when the iron door clanged shut and the key turned into the lock. He felt his face flame with shame and anger, his dark eyes studied the floor. He'd make them all pay for this!

Part 4

Vin was outside the jail, dabbing water onto his bandaged head when Buck reappeared. He didn't miss the concern in the dark blue eyes. It still startled him to have friends who truly cared for him. All the years riding on his own left him a bit distrusting of others. This sensation of having brothers ride with you, watching your back and supporting you without question was new to him.

"You okay?" Buck asked.

"Looks worse," Vin replied, ignoring the throbbing pain in his face. "I appreciate the hand, Buck. I gotta get some grub and get some gear. I'll come back after supper and fetch 'im."

"Where you headed?" Buck asked.

"The ranch," Vin answered and saw the disagreement coming. "I know what I'm doin', Buck."

"You I trust, that hot-headed colt I don't," Buck answered, getting the familiar jut of the Tanner jaw. He, Chris and Vin had put a lot of time and effort into the place they dubbed 'the ranch' and were hoping their efforts would pay off in several ways. But it was in a very rural area, dangerous even. And he didn't trust Justin Dalton yet. "I'll ride out with you."

"Thanks, but it won't work that way," Vin answered. "I gotta do this alone. I know what he's feelin', Buck. His Pa done that, usin' a strap and worse on the boy." His lone working eye clouded over in pain then, he swallowed hard as the memories returned unwelcomed. He sat down on a barrel and took his hat off, drawing his slim fingers through his matted hair. "After m'Ma died, me and Pa done alright fer a spell. He was a good man, you'd have liked 'im. We roamed around, trackin' and huntin', tradin' pelts and stuff with the Indians. Then when I was about ten'r so, he up and died, cougar got 'im."

"Shit!" Buck hissed and saw such a pain morph onto the fair features next to him it physically hurt. "You saw it, didn't you?" The shaggy head bobbed and he gave the downcast shoulder a tug. "Helluva thing t'bear, sorry, Vin."

"Life ain't peaches and cream fer most sorry bastards," Vin commented, his eyes hard and cold. "It took 'im a few days t'die. That was the hardest...he knew he's leavin' me..." he choked then, his eyes burning. He was glad for the strong hand on his shoulder. "After I buried 'im, I took the pelts t'the nearest Tradin' Post. The bastard that owned it claimed m'Pa owed him money, he said I'd have t'work it off." He seethed then, his hands fisting and his eyes hot. "That lyin-sac-o-shit used me like dog. I's t'little at first t'know any better. Nothin' was ever good enough fer 'im, not fast enough or hot enough. He called me names, told me how worthless I was and shit like that, over and over," his voice choked up then and his eyes roamed away, staring a place far beyond the horizon. His voice became disconnected and strange. "After a while, ya start t'believe it. I slept in the cellar on a mat, most times t'tired t'eat the shit he slung at me fer supper. But then I'd hear them boots upstairs, crossin' over and then each step...one...another one..." he choked and felt his face grow hot. "Sometimes he used his fists 'r a wooden paddle. But sometimes...he...had...he kept a strap o'leather with bits o'metal in it..."

"Aw, fuck," Buck whispered, totally undone by the horrid tale and the throbbing pain coming from the cloudy sky eyes. "Vin you don't have to do this."

"Ain't jest anybody I'd 'fess upta," he complimented, lifting his troubled blue eye to the very sympathetic ones and gaining untold strength.

"How long?" Buck's voice was a suppressed hush, so full of pain it hurt to speak.

"Years," Vin rasped and shrugged. The time in his life was one long blur at times. "four mebbe. Once I started growin' and fillin' out I got harder t'handle. He'd planted them seeds o'hate in me and I was jest like Dalton. Usually he'd hit me hard enough first shot t'knock the senses outta me. Then whilst I was in a stupor, he'd take m'pants and shirt. This time he got careless, he's t'drunk and missed. I picked up the fryin' pan I'd been eatin' outta and hit 'im. Then I got his shirt off and I picked up that fuckin' strap. It was like a red cloud come over me, I jest kept hittin'..."

"Did you kill him?" Buck asked.

"Don't ritely know," Vin replied, "I took off and didn't stop until m'horse dropped over."

"Is that when you lived with the Indians?"

"Kiowas," Vin agreed, "I was jest like Justin, full o'hate. I caused them s'much trouble them first few weeks it's a wonder I didn't end up dead. But Gray Eagle wouldn't let go, he was m'adopted grandfather. Taught me how t'be a man and a whole lot more."

Buck nodded, seeing and hearing the love that Vin had for the elderly Indian. It was clear the old man had a strong impact on Tanner's life. Very possibly a reason why the tracker turned out to be the strong man that he was, someone proud to call friend.

The trip down memory lane was a long time coming and it hurt a lot worse than Vin was prepared for. Every memory stirred up caused his stomach to churn. He felt dizzy and sick and on the verge of throwing up. He eyed the alley seeking a place to vomit. He got to his feet, staggered a few steps and doubled over, his face and body covered in a cold sweat. He gagged and had dry heaves and then felt a strong hand on his back. That hand lifted him up and eased his shaking limbs down onto a barrel. A cold cloth was pressed to his hand and he nodded, swiping his face and neck.

"Sorry," Vin rasped, he didn't like losing control

"For what?" Buck diffused, keeping his place by Vin's side and his hand firmly planted on the back of the trembling Tanner's neck.

"I need a drink," Vin decided something stronger than water would be required to put this fire out.

"You take all the time you need, Slick, I'll watch the kid," Buck offered, giving the buckskin a solid pat and heading back to the doorway. His hand was on the knob when the soft drawl tickled his ear.

"Bucklin?"

"You forget something?" Buck asked, nearly undone by the soft call of the nickname that warmed him and the emotion pooling in the blue eyes.

"Yeah," Vin rasped, holding his arm out.

Buck was startled when his forearm was gripped, a gesture reserved for Chris Larabee alone.

"I never told anybody before, a part o'me still hears that bastards words. It feels good...like a hunert pounds come off m'chest." He looked away then, swiped his eyes and then locked onto the very moved dark blue ones. "Thanks...fer lendin' a good ear."

"Shit!" Buck whispered, "You best get that scrawny Tanner ass movin' before folks spot a couple o'cryin' gunslingers." He released the heartfelt grip and gifted the nimble bounty hunter with a wide smile, a Wilmington special. He kept his eyes on the buckskin clad body until he went through the saloon doors. It wasn't often you got the chance to lift a burden like that from a friend and it felt damn good.

Vin stopped at the bar beside Chris and took the shot offered. Two more went down before he paused to collect his scattered emotions. He didn't speak; he didn't trust his voice yet. The purging of his soul had really shaken him to him to the core.

Chris glanced twice at Vin , trying to figure out what had happened between the livery stable and here that would cause a change so drastic. Gone was the anger and defiance he'd seen. In its place was a shaken, hurting body. Whatever it was, Vin would tell him when he was ready.

"It would appear as if your ill-begotten effort netted quite the reward," Ezra noted, spotting the bloody eye and swollen face.

"Ya best not be speakin' on things ya don't understand," Vin warned, glaring hostily at the gambler.

"Far be it for me to correct you, Mister Tanner, but I am not the only member of this community that recognizes the fact that the ill bred youth is quite lacking in several areas, including manners. A sound thrashing perhaps..." Ezra's voice was aborted when he suddenly found himself thrown against the wall with Vin Tanner's eyes blazing at him and his forearm pressing hard against his throat. Fear glittered in his jade eyes as they watched the clenched right fist pulled back.

"Vin..." Chris issued in a warning tone, easing his lanky body between the narrow gap separating Vin's temper from Ezra's dental work. "Why don't you go over to Nate's and get that eye looked at?"

Vin felt as if the room had suddenly shrunk and climbed several degrees. The internal heat he felt now caused annoying beads of sweat to run freely down his face and back. He heard Larabee's voice but didn't break his gaze on Standish. He felt the southerner tremble and saw the fear in his eyes. It was only then he loosened his grip and jabbed his finger into the fleshy area under Ezra's collarbone.

"Don't spout that shit again, I'm warnin' ya!"

Like any gambler, Ezra knew when it was time to fold. He kept his mouth shut and didn't breathe again until the wiry tracker had slipped outside. It wasn't often he felt true fear like this, he'd never seen Vin so worked up. If the Texan wanted to end up on the wrong side of the boy's temper, it was none of his concern. He would be the sorry one, putting his faith in the wrong place. He righted himself, brushed the front of his green jacket and returned to his chair He felt the heat first and knew why there seemed to be a burning sensation on his skin. He knew before he lifted his eyes where the fire was coming from. He caught Larabee's intense stare and nodded once, indicating he'd keep his word. The man in black turned away then, easing his lean frame through the batwing doors.

Nathan looked up when his name was called. He already had two basins of hot water, carbolic and soap waiting along with a needle and some thread. He'd seen Vin ride into town and knew how impatient his most frequent visitor was.

"Go on and wash yuhr face some, then we'll sew that cut," Nathan greeted, nodding to the basins of water.

"Hell, it can't be good when the doc's ready fer ya," Vin grumbled, taking off his hat and coat.

"Yuh hurt anywhere else?" Nathan's trained eye didn't see any signs of limping , stiffness of pain from the neck down.

"Nah, the kid jumped me, sent me inta a wall. Eye's a mite sore." Vin gingerly washed his face and then used warm water to get the dried blood off his eyebrow and cheek.

"It's swollen shut," the healer commented as Vin turned towards him. He jerked his head towards the chair by the window. Vin took a seat and laid his head back, while he turned up the lamp. He gently probled the eye, cheek and brow, glad to find no signs of fracture. He didn't miss the hiss of pain or the twin fists clenching. "It ain't too deep, only take three'r four."

Vin was glad it wasn't worse. He didn't miss the scent of soup coming from the back of Nathan's clinic. The ex-slave had a small stove where he often boiled cloth for bandages and made supper for himself as well as his patients should they be staying. He felt the pinch of the needle and tried to relax. The cut was just above his right eye. In a matter of minutes it was done. He was ready to get up and strong hand stopped him.

"Not so fast," Nathan chuckled cupping the squared chin and studying the good eye. "Yuh seein' okay? Dizzy? Sick?"

"No more than normal," Vin snapped, pulling his head away. "I'm okay, Nate, head hurts a bit is all."

"Yuh lose consciousness?"

"Nah," Vin eyed the cot and the determined eyes. He was a veteran of Nathan's office and knew the drill. He didn't have time to waste arguing. "Look, if it makes ya happy, I'll pack m'gear and then rest here fer a spell. Ya can keep an eye out, okay? Ya got any soup? I could eat."

"Chicken and dumplins," Nathan offered, leading the way back. He ladled out two dishes and set them on the small table. "Where's the boy now?"

"In jail, Buck's keepin' an eye on 'im. I'm headin' out to the ranch after dark."

"Yuh sure about that? Nobody around that place for miles and that boy's temper could get the best o'yuh."

"He won't," Vin answered meeting the concerned dark eyes. "I ain't about t'baby 'im. He's gonna be hurtin' at the end of the day but from hard work not from a strap. I been down this road, Nate, I'm only passin' on what I learnt first hand from Gray Eagle. It saved this sorry assed Texan from a grave."

"I'll pack yuh some supplies just in case," Nate offered, picking up his spoon. Vin was a good man and he hoped that the Dalton boy would realize just what he was being given. It wasn't many times a man gives you your life back.

Part 5

It was dusk when Vin Tanner ambled through the door of the sheriff's office. JD was behind the desk and sat up when the bruised tracker walked past him.

"Vin, you want some company?"

"Thanks, JD, but no," Vin replied, taking the keys from the hook. "He eat?"

"Yeah about an hour ago." Dunne tried to read what he could see of Tanner's features but could see nothing.

"Git up!" Vin ordered, kicking the boy's bunk. He tied the boy's hands in front of him and grabbed the back of his coat collar and shoved him through the office.

"Buck rode out about an hour ago, Vin. He took the wagon of supplies you asked for."

"Thanks, Kid," Vin answered, hustling Dalton to the lone horse.

"Don't touch me!" Dalton warned, shoving his shoulder backwards into the Tanner's arm. In a matter of seconds he was manhandled and face down in the mud.

"I warned ya," Vin hissed, standing over the angry youth. His cobalt eyes didn't hide the fact that he meant business. "Yer hell bent on fryin' m'last nerve, Justin. Now git yer sorry ass up, it's time t'go."

"Go where?" Justin used his tied hands to shove off the muddy ground and got onto his knees, then to his feet.

"A place beyond them hills," Vin replied, propelling the struggling boy onto the horse, then swinging up behind him. "A place called Hope."

+ + + + + + +

Buck was just adding some salt to the beef stew he'd made when he heard horses. He covered the cast iron pot and rose, pausing to pull out his gun. He crossed the wood planked floor of the spacious ranch house and peered through the blue curtains. Sighing, he put the gun back in the holster and opened the door.

As he rode under the wooden arch that announced the entry to their property, Vin spotted Buck standing on the porch. The sprawling ranch house was in ill repair when they purchased it, but they'd worked hard for months, restoring the floors, shoring up the walls and replacing the roof. Next to the house was a large corral where three horses were being cared for and also a barn in progress. By spring they would have it completed. He eased off the horse and nodded to Buck, not missing the eyes trained on the newcomer.

"Gimme a few minutes, Buck," he stated, easing off the horse. He helped Justin get down and then secured the horse. He watched the tall man nod and retreat into the house. It was something they were all very proud of and he hoped their idea would grow as quickly as the house had.

The hearth in the main room was stone, large and spacious, sending heat throughout. There was a good sized kitchen with an iron stove, a sink with a pump and a large table that held ten comfortably. On the other side of the main room were four smaller rooms, each with two beds, dressers and a small table and chair. Beneath the ranch house was a full sized root cellar where they kept their supplies.

"Who's that belong to?" Justin asked of the horses, his eyes quickly trained on a red one trotting restlessly around the corral.

"Ya stay clear o'im," Vin warned, "That's Red and he's meaner than Lucifer's kin. The others are almost ready fer Eagle's Bend. We got a buyer lined up."

"Where'd you get them?" Justin asked, eyeing the skeleton of the barn and the comfortable house. "Who owns this place?"

"Me, Chris and Buck do," Vin said, walking over to the corral. From the shadows an old friend appeared. Before Vin could greet him, Justin flew past him, quickly squatting and using his bound hands to grab a rock. "Dammit!" he hissed, shaking his head as the rock missed its target. The victim quickly grabbed the boy and forced him hard to the ground, putting a knee in his back and yanking his head up by the hair. "Sorry about that, Chanu."

"Get off of me you stinkin' redskin!" Justin hollered and found a blade pressed to his throat. He didn't understand a word of the dialect but the metal against his skin translated clearly. Then Vin Tanner's hot eyes appeared before him. The tracker was squatted down with the fire from flickering torches nearby illuminating him.

"I ain't gonna warn ya again, Justin. I'm tired and hungry and we got a long day tomorra. We can do this easy'r hard. Ya keep actin' like a wild animal, ya sleep outside tied to a post. I'll leave ya food n 'water. Ya apologize to Chanu and we go inside and eat supper. Then yer goin' t'bed. We'll be up before dawn and workin' until dark."

Justin didn't reply right away, but he was hauled up. He frowned at the conversation in Indian dialect between the two men. He scrunched his face up in disgust when Tanner shook hands with the heathen. He jutted his chin out and clamped his mouth shut. It would be a cold day in hell before he apologized to an Indian.

"Well?" Vin asked and the snort coupled with the dark head tossing was his reply.

"You are a spoiled child," Chanu decided, shoving the boy aside. "You are not worthy of my anger."

"Yer a lucky fool," Vin raged. "Chanu respects me enough t'walk away." He took the boy over to the porch and shoved him down, quickly tying his legs around the post. He went to his saddle bag and got a pair of JD's handcuffs. He secured the right hand with one cuff and attached its mate to the post, then he cut the ropes. Justin struggled and cursed but couldn't get free.

"You can't leave me out here!" Justin raged, "I'm not a damned dog."

"I'll bring some grub out fer ya," Vin tossed back as he walked to the door.

"You're crazy!" Buck stated, having witnessed the incident from the window. "That kid's gonna jump you again first chance he gets. He's wild, Vin."

"I know what I'm doin'."

Vin took his jacket off and headed for the sink. He pumped water and washed his face and hands. He took the towel offered and headed for the stove. He ladled out a tin bowl with stew, shoved a biscuit on the side and filled a large mug with water. He put a spoon in the stew and headed outside. He no sooner placed it near the seething youth when it was thrown over.

"S'all ya git," Vin stated calmly. "best git t'scrapin' in up before the bugs come runnin'." He turned away without looking back and went back inside. Two bowls of steaming stew were waiting.

"Chris and me are gonna head to Eagle's Bend in a couple days. Dan Lynch was here when I got here, he was mighty impressed. He's giving us fifty dollar bonus for having the horses ready early."

"Fifty!" Vin whistled, shoveling the stew in his mouth. Lynch had heard about the ranch and needed horses for his own spread. Chris knew Dan from his time in the Bend area and liked him. "That'll come in handy.Ē He took a swig of cider and saw Buck's eyes hit the window. In their line of sight was the big red stallion. He knew why the concern rimming the blue eyes was deepening. "Yer gonna make a fine mama one day, Bucklin."

"Leavin' you alone with two hot heads is a recipe for disaster," Buck predicted. "You can't watch that kid and work Red."

"We'll be fine," Vin replied. He finished his stew and took a biscuit, then reached for the honey jar. After slathering honey on it, he took a bite and reflected. "It's like lookin' back in time. I'm tellin' ya, I was worse than him, Gray Eagle's the reason I turned inta a man, he taught me about respect and a helluva lot more. I'm only passin' that on..."

Buck nodded, took the dishes to the sink and began to wash them. It was hard to believe that only six months ago this idea was hatched over beers one night in town. The trio had taken a group of rustlers there to meet the prison wagon. On the way back they found an abused horse, starving and left tied up to die. His once fine coat was bare in places and worn with scars from beatings. Vin's eyes sparked and he said he'd remain behind and care for the animal. Two weeks later he rode into town with that same horse, now healing. His coat was shiny and he was on his way to a full recovery. A nearby farmer was in town and saw the horse. He offered to buy it and that was where the idea was born. Chris had some money saved up and Buck chipped in his share. Vin had the expertise and background.

Rescuing horses and restoring them from the abuse to healthy, confident animals again was a way to do a good thing and make some money. It was after they found the old ranch house that Vin eyed the archway still standing at the edge of the property. Buck smiled when he thought of that softness and wistfulness in Vin's eyes that morning. Buck stood next to him and eyed the same archway, not seeing what Vin did. When asked what he was looking at, Vin had said he'd found the name for their new ranch.

Hope.

Hope indeed was what they gave the horses, who were healed and restored. But now Vin was offering that same ray to another kind of specimen and Buck didn't know if this was one that Vin could mend in body and spirit as he'd done so well with the horses. Chanu and his brother often helped out, keeping an eye on the horses and working with them when they weren't there. Each of the trio spent time there alone with the horses and often the three worked together. By the time he got done with the dishes, he turned back to find Vin dozing on the large leather couch by the fire. It was a gift from Ezra, who had become an investor in their enterprise.

Justin waited and watched but the door didn't open. His growling stomach propelled him into action. He used the spoon to pick up the meat and vegetables from the ground. He shoveled the food in, then picked the bowl up, using the biscuit to swipe the gravy. He drained the water and frowned. He was sure Tanner would have come back by now. He shivered as the night wind kicked up. Was he to be left outside all night? He huddled against the post and closed his eyes. A few moments later the door opened.

"You listen to me you ungrateful whelp," Buck dictated, cutting the ropes from the boy's feet. "That man inside is someone I'm damn proud to call friend. Someone I can trust my life with. He's the only person in this whole territory who reached out to try to help you. He's giving you a chance to redeem yourself. So you damn well better take that chance, because if you don't listen to him and toe the line, I'm not going be as patient as he is. Now we're gonna go inside and you're gonna bunk down. You so much as step one toe outta that room before I call you in the morning, and I'll bring you back out here, understood?"

Justin nodded and winced when the cuffs were taken off. He was so cold and tired he couldn't argue. All he wanted was that warm bed. His teeth were chattering and he barely felt the floor under his feet. He was shoved inside a room and cringed when the door was locked behind him. He tried to open the window but it wouldn't budge. He doubted he could escape, he was too tired. So he took his boots off and hit the bed. He'd have to play this hand carefully. He would play their game well and once Tanner trusted him, he'd take that horse and find his freedom. If Tanner got in the way, he'd take care of that too.

Part 6

 Vin was up before the sunrise. His whole face was throbbing. He gingerly touched his swollen eyed and cursed. The one eye that was working peered through the room. He was confused at first; he didn't recall falling asleep. He sat up and fingered the blanket covering him. He'd been sleeping on the floor in front of a warm fire. His eyes narrowed and he spotted Buck's coat hanging by the door. He scrubbed a hand over his face and vaguely recalled eating. Rising stiffly and wincing, he rubbed his back and shuffled outside to answer the call of nature. Just as he was finishing up he recalled their houseguest. He buttoned up and ran to the front porch, spotting the ropes.

"Dammit..."

Then with his hand on the door, he realized that Buck must have taken care of that as well. The first two rooms were empty; Buck was snoring in the third one, his face wearing a telling smile. Vin tried the knob on the last door and the found it was locked. He went back into Buck's room and took the key.

Justin was rudely awakened, his dream of riding free without any adults nagging him was ended abruptly. He sat up and squinted in the darkness, shivering as the cold air his him. For a moment, he didn't know where he was and then he saw the long hair and features before him.

"Git up...time's awaistin'."

"Up?" he coughed and tried to lay back down. "It's dark, ain't time to..."

Vin interrupted the sentence by hauling him up. The boy's fist came back but Vin ducked and grabbed it, twisting it up behind the struggling youth.

"I ain't doin' this again, today, Justin. Ya best settle down and git t'yer chores. We got three horses t'tend t', hays gotta be tossed and firewood cut. Then ya git breakfast if ya finish."

"I don't gotta do shit!" He rebuffed and found himself shoved against the wall. Tanner's eyes were hot and he flinched just from their steam.

"Ya watch yer mouth! Ya ain't wearin' a man's clothes yet. Ya don't like yer chores, fine. I'll take ya back t'town and you'll wait fer the judge. He outta be by in three weeks'r so."

"I ain't goin' t'jail!"

"Seems ya got an opinion on jest about everythin'," Vin replied, shoving him out the door. "Git started."

Justin shrugged off the arm and headed for the large wagon full of hay bales. He picked up the large pitchfork and paused. Although it was a small moment, it was quick enough for Tanner to notice. A single brow was arched at him in challenge. He chuffed, squared his back and began to unload the wagon. By the time he'd gotten the bales done the sky had lightened to a new morning blue. Tanner nodded towards the woodpile.

"Split up a couple dozen." He'd no sooner turned his back when a piece of wood hit him in the shoulder.

Justin ran but stumbled. His arm went up instinctively over his face when the tracker approached. He didn't see Vin flinch. He waited but no blow came. He saw the boots by his side and pulled his arm down.

"Easier t'cut it now 'fore it gets t'warm. Yer choice."

Vin was horrified that Justin's first reaction was that he would be beaten. He waited and the boy silently got up and headed for the wood. Vin kept an eye on him while he worked with Red, the newest horse they'd rescued.

Buck had the coffee going and stepped outside, eyeing the two warily. Vin was talking in Indian dialect in a soft voice to Red. He never got tired of watching Vin work his magic. He'd whisper to the horses, run his hand on their neck and then look at them. Buck swore the horses could sense that compassion in the blue eyes. Justin had been cutting wood but was listening and watching what Tanner did. A short smile crossed the rogue's lips. Vin was working his magic twofold.

"I'm gonna make hotcakes, you want ham?" he asked and Vin turned, nodding once. "Okay."

Vin left the horse and waved to Justin. "That's enough, come on over here." He waited until the boy was on the outside of the larger corral. He locked the small corral where they were keeping Red and climbed over the post.

Justin saw Vin bend and pick up an odd shaped metal instrument with a hook on the end.

"First thing ya do in the mornin' is clean out their hoofs." Vin then illustrated his point on the first horse. "Ya gotta git the dirt from around the frog."

"Huh?"

"This part here," Vin answered, tapping the 'V' shaped area in the center of the horses hoof. "Ya go real gentle like," Vin updated, cleaning the area with two quick swipes. "It's real important that stays clean'r the horse can get thrush. Stinks t'high heaven, the frog gits black and he'll git t'limpin' on it." He did the other hooves and then approached the second horse. Before he could lift the hoof, he was shoved aside and the horse skittered away.

"What the hell are ya doin'!" Vin growled, shoving him away and grabbing the horses reins. He spoke softly to the animal and calmed her down.

"I was doin' was you said!"

"Ya ain't ready yet, I was showin' ya." Vin ordered. "Yer t'rough, ya'd have hurt 'er." He read the hot eyes easily. "She ain't yer enemy, she's already been abused and starved. Jest watch."

Justin studied every move the slim man made and then watched the horse trot away happy. He didn't miss the scars on her backside and flank. His eyes then imagined ribs sticking through the now filled out chest. He felt a pain inside so deep he ran his hand over his gut.

"Them boxes need t'be cleaned out and fresh hay put in 'em. Ya git that done and y'll eat."

"Why do they get to eat first?" He grumbled, ignoring the pitchfork.

Vin sighed, rubbed the back of his neck and counted to five. His temper was brewing and he didn't want this confrontation all day. Then he got an idea and hopped over the fence. He returned a few moments later with the grooming brush. He walked over to the smaller of the dark horses and motioned for Justin to follow.

"This here's Sadie, she's a little shy but if yer nice t'her, she'll take a shine t'ya."

Vin handed the brush over and watched the angry boy grab it. His first impulse was to holler at him again, he was afraid Justin would be too rough. But then he saw the youth's dark eyes move to the back of the horse, where the whip marks still were showing through her new coat growing in. He saw the disgust and sorrow in those eyes and felt that the connection he'd hoped for was being born.

"We found 'er about ten miles'r so from here. Tied up, no water'r feed. She's half starved and beat pretty good. Chris and me took turns nursin' 'er, took a while fer 'er t'trust us. All she knowed was a hard hand and abuse. Jest talk soft t'er and be gentle, that's all." He paused and saw the trembling hand reach out to stroke the horse's mane. Justin didn't have to say a word; his eyes did all the talking. Vin felt the first rays of hope shining this new day. He picked up the pitch folk. "I'll do the cribs, y'can brush 'er and Pepper," he nodded to the larger black horse.

Buck had a plate full of hot cakes and was just putting a platter of ham on the table, when Vin came inside. The tracker's one eye was swollen shut and his face was blue in places from the incident the day before.

"Mornin'!" Buck boomed, eyeing the smaller man who headed for the pump.

"Yer gonna make somebody a good wife," Vin grumbled of the 'bedtime' ritual the night before. "Jest not me."

"Oh, I don't know," Buck teased, leaving the table to come up behind the unsuspecting Texan. He was bent over with his face dripping wet. Buck handed him a towel and gave the lean backside a pat. "You're got a damn fine ass and you're cuter than a June bug when you're sleepin'. You got longer eyelashes than most of the girls in town."

"Yer scarin' me, Buck," Vin replied, drying his face and hands. He saw the dark blue eyes of the rogue stray to the window.

"Looks like you're workin' some magic," Buck advised, watching Justin grooming Sadie. He didn't miss the fact that the boy was speaking to the gentle little horse.

"I hope it works," Vin stated, taking a seat and pulling the platter of hotcakes towards him.

"Yo!" Buck boomed, slapping Vin's hand and tugging the plate back. 'That's for everybody."

"I'm starved!" Vin argued, "Some o'us was workin' whilst others was havin' questionable dreams."

"Well if you're still hungry after you eat the hotcakes and ham, there's oatmeal." Buck paused and grinned, waggin' his eyebrows. "And there wasn't anything questionable about my dreams. Could be you I was wooin' and doin'."

"Aw, hell, here comes m'coffee back up," Vin teased, shaking his head.

+ + + + + + +

While the two peacekeepers were discussing the sale of the horses and the leads they'd received on others that needed their help, outside another kind of partnership was forming.

"Easy, girl..."

Justin eased the brush over the silky coat and the horse nuzzled him. He wasn't sure why but the minute his hand touched her mane, something happened inside. His eyes caught the scars on her body and he felt her pain. The idea of her being tied up and starved struck a cord inside him. He continued to brush her gently, talking to her in soothing tones. In a choking voice, he told her of his own hurts. When he stood in front of her, it was as if her dark eyes looked right into his soul. Then she nuzzled his neck and he choked up.

"You understand, don't you?" he whispered, rubbing her neck. "They don't." He spent several more moments stroking the horseís mane. "I won't let anybody else hurt you. I know how it feels..."

And so under that new morning sun with a soft breeze signing the pact, the two bruised souls began to heal and a kinship was born.

+ + + + + + +

Buck rode out the next morning, taking the wagon back to town. While he updated the others on the progress Vin was making, the Texan had his hands full. Twice in the last two days, Justin had tried to flee and twice Vin had caught him and brought him back. It was very frustrating to him that although it was clear the boy had formed a strong bond with the horses, he was still distrustful, disrespectful and angry when it came to humans. He eyed the boy now, brushing Sadie and talking softly to her. He wasn't sure how Justin would react when Buck and Chris arrived this morning to take her to Eagle's Bend.

"Food's ready," Vin announced, but Justin didn't move. "Ya listenin'?"

"Yeah," Justin called back, "I'm not hungry."

"It ain't that kinda question," Vin replied ."We got a lot o'work t'do today and ya need t'eat."

"Fine..." Justin seethed. He turned away from the horse and gripped the rails of the fence. He felt the familiar anger rising and fought hard to quell the urge to shut Tanner up. It seemed all the older man did was give orders and he was tired of it.

Part 7

Josiah was applying varnish to the new pews he'd built when Nathan Jackson appeared inside the cozy church. The low whistle and admiration in the dark brown eyes gave him a smile. Nathan was a good man, better than most and had suffered a lot in his life. Yet he had a light inside him, a healing force that seemed to touch all that knew him. The Lord had given him the power to heal and he used it well.

"Looks like the baby will sleep a little better," Nathan noted of the crib the carpenter had constructed. It stood just to the left of the simple altar. The babe that would rest inside wouldn't arrive until Christmas Eve. Judge Travis and his wife couldn't share their holiday, but had sent the porcelain infant Jesus as a gift.

"The Lord does like a warm bed," Josiah agreed, nodding to the door across the room. "I'm just about finished here. How about breakin' some bread?"

"Sounds like a fine idea," the healer agreed.

Josiah lived in the trio of rooms behind the church. The stone building was at the edge of town and had been restored with loving hands. Nathan knew that the graying preacher spent a lot of time here, praying and doing penance. He didn't speak of whatever hell he'd suffered through and the dark-skinned man was wise enough not to pry. But he also knew that every stone and brick placed here building the strong church was part of that penance. And maybe that was enough. He saw the speckled dish that held herbs above Sanchez's iron stove. He didn't miss the hole left by a wayward lead ball. Like Buck and Chris, Josiah and he had served the Union during the war years.

"I reckon that little bowl has a tale to tell."

"More than one," Josiah noted. "I had this with me for most of the war."

"I remember one Christmas Eve," Nathan said, his voice prayerlike. He took the bowl of stew and nodded, dipping a hunk of crusty bread in it. "Just south of Richmond. We'd been fightin' Rebs hard fuhr three days. There was a lot of blood shed on both sides. We were all tired and hungry, freezin' and sick. Then this star appeared in the sky, bigger and brighter than anythin' this sorry old soul had ever seen. It was dark; I was hunkered down, tendin' to the wounded. I never did find out who started it."

"Started what?" Josiah asked, taking a sip of apple cider. The warmth of recollection that pooled in the soulful dark eyes of his best friend caused him to take pause.

"A song. A young voice, very young singin' a Christmas hymn. The bullets started to die down, until it was quiet, except fuhr that boy. Then somebody from the other side joined in. Then a couple of our guys added on. Before long, it was the finest damn choir yuh ever heard. Then under that star a white flag appeared. A very tired man in gray appeared." He smiled then thinking back. "Couldn't have been more than a dozen of us on either side...he said, 'we got some coffee'. Captain Davis, he was wounded but still in charge. He replied, 'We got some biscuits.' He got to his feet and they met halfway. And for a few hours around a sad, sorry assed fire there wasn't any war. The blue and gray went away and took the hate with it. We talked about our folks, our sweethearts, kids left behind. Christmas's from long ago. We sang, we cried..." His voice broke then and he didn't stop the lone tear that ran down his face. "...we prayed...together..."

Josiah was so moved by the story that he couldn't utter a sound. He watched Nathan's head drop and the strongest hands he knew wiping damp eyes.

"Then that dark died and the new day started to come, we both heard the horses and I knew it was our troops. We let them scramble back fuhr cover..." Nathan's voice died away then, tinted with a sorrow so deep it was painful. "Later on that day, we found him...that soldier in gray who offered up that white flag and his heart...we buried him."

"Not many who have been touched by the Lord's hand as you were that night, Nathan."

Nathan nodded and eyed the illustration in a bible that was lying on the table. Josiah was working on his Christmas Eve sermon. The drawing was of Mary cradling her new son under the protection of her husband and a score of angels.

"That baby and his Ma, they sure have a powerful force."

"Amen to that brother." Josiah complimented.

+ + + + + + +

It was midmorning when Vin heard the familiar hooves sounding. He was on a ladder inside the frame of the barn. Justin was below, securing the wood to be nailed into place. Vin kept hammering as his eyes scanned the horizon and two familiar bodies crested the hill. He sighed hard and eyed the horses waiting in the corral. It was hard to believe a month ago they'd both been given up for dead. He felt the board slip and cursed, grabbing for and causing the ladder to sway.

"What the hell are ya doin'!"

Justin ignored Vin and ran, pausing only long enough to see him fall. The logical part of him knew that Sadie and Pepper were leaving today but his heart refused to agree. He eyed the distance and the path from the backside of the property. This was his chance! The cry of 'freedom' echoed in his ears. He ran to the coral and grabbed the tether around Sadie's neck. He spoke softly to her, shivering a bit when she nuzzled his neck.

"I know, I know..." he rasped, his chest tight. He eased himself onto her back and trotted to the edge of the corral. He gently moved with her until they cleared the barn and then he urged her into a full run.

"Where's Vin?" Buck hollered as Chris and he spotted Justin fleeing. His blond companion didn't reply, rather he took off in a full gallop.

Justin didn't get far. A gunshot startled both rider and horse. Sadie pulled up, kicking up her feet and tossing her head. He slowed the horse and stopped, his dark eyes frantically skimming the landscape. Then the rider closed in and the ice in the voice stopped him cold and put fear into his heart.

"Get down!"

Chris rode over and grabbed the reins, his pale eyes hot and his temper even more so. He didn't trust himself to get down, his first urge was to throttle the wild child. But he respected Vin Tanner and so he curbed that instinct. He leaned over the pommel and drilled the youth first with his eyes, then his voice.

"Where's Vin?"

"Go to hell!" Justin rebelled and saw Larabee's lip twitch and a fist form. "Go on..hit me..." He challenged and began to back up. But the lean man in black got down and approached slowly which cut his words off and his voice died. He would have backed up further but there was no place to go, a tree was already pressed into his back.

"I'm not Vin," Chris leveled with an icy warning, jabbing the sullen youth's shoulder "And last time I checked, horse thieves get hung." He paused long enough to hear Dalton's bladder begin to quiver. The dark eyes began to show the signs of surrender. "Get moviní. You pull another stunt like this and you'll pay for it."

"He's...in the barn," Justin squeaked and turned, stumbling back towards the half erected building. He was just at the edge of it when Larabee rode by, quickly getting off his horse.

"Vin!" Chris called out, turning and heading for the half-formed building. He saw Justin come stumbling past him and grabbed him, propelling him at Buck. The rogue had been kneeling over Tanner's prone body.

"I think he just got the wind knocked out of him," Buck appraised. "He's moanin' and stirrin' a bit."

Vin didn't remember falling. So when Chris Larabee's voice echoed in his throbbing head it caused him to frown. But then he blinked and a worried face appeared above him, it caused his brows to furrow. He saw the sky over Larabee's shoulder and heard Buck hollering at someone. His blurry vision cleared and he saw Buck's finger jabbing Justin, who then stumbled and fell backwards. Vin started to rise and the whole world went by in a queasy circle.

"Easy," Chris warned, keeping his hand pressed to the dusty blue shirt. He scanned the area; saw the ladder on the ground and the crooked plank.

"You okay, Vin?" Buck knelt down on the other side and gently probed the legs and ribs. Vin winced but began to sit up again. Although the ex-bounty hunter's arms moved freely, he swayed a bit and the rogue held on.

"Yeah..." Vin coughed. Then he spotted Justin and his eyes gave him away. "I outta..." He bit off that thought but not before the simmering youth read the intent.

"Well why don't you!" Justin hollered. "I know you want to...go ahead..." He threw a long piece of cord they'd used to secure the wood. It landed by Larabee's hand.

"Buck, take Vin inside," Chris ordered, easing the lean tracker to his unsteady feet.

"I'm fine," Vin objected and stood just about the same time his legs turned to jelly. "...mebbe not..."

Buck and Vin disappeared around the side of the skeletal frame and Justin went to follow them. A voice pierced the morning air and the edge on it halted his feet in place.

"We're not done yet."

"I am!" Justin managed to utter even though his bowels were trembling just a bit. He turned and wished he hadn't. He swore there was an invisible sparks of fire shooting at him from the pale green eyes. "You ain't my Pa! I can ride outta here. You can't tell me what to do."

"I can't?" Chris quizzed and stepped closer. "That's a bet you'd lose. But seein' as how I'm a fair man, I'll offer you a deal. You don't want to work here? Fine. I'll take you to Eagle's Bend, there's a circuit judge there. While your ungrateful ass is riding the bench in the jail, I'll get statements from every store owner in town you robbed. And don't think I won't mention you stealin' that horse. The judge in Eagle's Bend isn't a very forgiving man, I'm sure he'd be mighty interested in what those angry storeowners had to say."

Chris was surprised by the amount of hatred in the eyes regarding him. He didn't miss the fact that Vin Tanner had looked tired to the bone. He doubted if the lean Texan had gotten much sleep, if any, over the last few days he'd been alone with the powder keg. He didn't agree with Vin's idea but for now he'd have to resist the urge to 'teach' the boy some manners.

"Why don't you tell me what happened?" Chris asked, nodding to the ladder. "How did Vin fall?"

"Why don't you ask him?" Justin shot back, "Like you'd believe me!"

"What happened!" Chris ordered through clenched teeth and took a step closer.

"I don't know," Justin flared, his eyes trying to see beyond what appeared to be a solid wall of black encased muscle. "He was up there nailing and got distracted. Maybe he was thinking about them dirty squaws he was gonna poke at the village tonight." He flinched when the unearthly growl sounded and he was shoved hard against the pile of hay bales. He tumbled backwards and glared up at the towering figure.

Chris had to ball both hands into fists in an attempt to resist the urge to thrash the boy. It was clear he was testing all of them. He knew that Vin felt this was the only way to heal the boy of that inner demon but it was harder than hell to keep his temper at bay.

"First, you're gonna apologize for that filthy remark," the leader dictated, "then you're gonna finish the job that you screwed up. Finally, we're gonna go inside and you're gonna apologize to Vin."

"Go to..." Justin began and thought better of it when Larabee's eyes nearly popped out of his head.

"Excuse me?" Chris grit through clenched teeth. "I think I heard you wrong. Didn't you mean to say, 'Yessir, Mister Larabee?"

"Yeah..."

"I didn't hear you!"

"YEAH!" He paused, stood up and squared his shoulders. 'Mister Larabee."

+ + + + + + +

"You look like ten miles of bad road, son," Buck appraised to the exhausted man now lying on the sofa. He handed Vin a cool cloth which the wheezing man wiped his face with.

"I knew it wouldn't be easy," Vin admitted. He was glad they were here; he doubted if he could have gone on any longer. "He's taken a shine t'the horses, he's pickin' up real good."

"But?" Buck hedged.

"But he don't trust two footed critters yet..." Vin winced and his shoulders jumped when the door slammed. He peeked over as the lean black legs moved past and then a set of tan ones land next to him.

"Go on!" Chris used a low thunder and waited; his hand on the tense youth's shoulder. One good squeeze was all it took.

"I'm sorry...Mister...Tanner..." Justin spat the words out and felt sure his shoulder was broken. He saw the sky eyes regard him a moment and then the head nod once.

"You got work waitin'," Chris dictated and eyed Buck. "Buck."

"I'm on it," Buck gave Vin's knee a pat and moved past Chris, taking the ungrateful houseguest with him.

Larabee then headed for the bottle of whiskey on the mantle. The brisk pace of his steps dictated the mood.

"You're out of your mind," Chris offered, pouring a shot into a mug and then topping it with coffee. . "That damn kid is lucky he's not a permanent fixture in the wall."

"That ain't the way," Vin rebelled, sitting up and sighing hard. As if sensing his thoughts, Larabee read him.

"You're worn to the bone, Vin," Chris suggested, pouring a second mug and dousing it with the usual Tannerful of sugar. He crossed the room and sat next to his weary friend. "You need some rest. Buck and me'll go to Dan's tomorrow. It's only a three hour ride." He was surprised when the usual pitbullish Tanner didnít argue. "What happened in the barn?"

"He seen the handwritin' on the wall," Vin answered, taking a long sip and resting his head on the leather back sofa. He rubbed his throbbing eyes and sighed hard. "He heard ya comin', seen me lookin' and let go o'the ladder. I don't recall the rest until I seen ya lookin' at me."

"He was on Sadie tryin' to ride off when I caught him." Chris saw the square jaw tense up and the shaggy head shake in despair. "It's not the first time, is it?"

"No.." Vin sat forward and let the warmth of the mug go through his cold fingers. "He's run off a couple times."

"Look, you've tried, Vin. Hell, you've given that ungrateful whelp a helluva lot more than he deserves. There isn't much left on you not bruised, battered or swollen. Maybe it's time to let the law..."

"I ain't a quitter!" Vin rasped, sipping the hot brew.

"It's not about you, Vin. There's not many men I'd have given a snowball's chance in hell of reaching that kid but...

"It is about me!"

The words burst forth and caught the gunslinger by surprise. Not so much that they went airborne but at the longing in the sky eyes. Chris's hand shot out automatically when Vin stood up. He kept that hand on the unsteady elbow until the swaying figure remained stilled. He didn't miss the cloak of sadness and something much deeper that now shadowed the fine features. He watched Vin gingerly move to the window, watching the horses in the corral.

"It's like lookin' in a mirror..." Vin recalled sorrowfully, seeing that familiar ghost of his troubled youthful alter ego appear. "I know what he's feelin'...I lived it..."

That Vin had encountered difficulties and suffered in his life didn't surprise Chris, he read those eyes better than most. That whatever happened was linked to Justin Dalton did surprise him. It would appear as if a long festering wound was about to be purged.

"After my Ma died, me and Pa done fine fer a spell." Vin turned away then, unable to look at the fire in the eyes of his younger self. He made his way back to the sofa, hoping to sit down before the moving floor took his unsteady legs. He sat down, raked a hand through his matted hair and shook his head. He took a long sip of courage and let the hot liquid warm him. "He up and died when I was about ten, a cougar got 'im. He didn't die right off..."

'Aw, fuck..." Chris hissed.

"Yeah," Vin admitted and then his voice dropped, the pain so overwhelming it choked him. "I still see his eyes, Chris, he knew...he was...hurtin' me...by leavin'..." He bit off the sob and swallowed it, dropping his head and tryin' to recover. The strong hand that gripped his neck gave him the courage to continue. After a few moments, he drew his head up and nodded once in gratitude. "I buried 'im and went t' the Tradin' post t'git money fer the pelts. That sorry bastard told me my Pa owed 'im a lot of money. I didn't know any better...so he said I had t'work it off."

"Sick, son-of-a-bitch!" Chris vented, already reading what the anguished eyes had yet to yield. "How long?"

"Four years mebbe." Vin shrugged. "He usually knocked me senseless, then took m'clothes and beat the tar outta me. A strap, a belt, a piece o'wood, them fists..." He crossed his arms over his gut and began to rock. "He kept tellin' me how useless I was, stupid, worthless...after awhile I believed 'im. All that hate built up...and I started fillin' out, growin' some and got harder fer 'im to handle. One night I heard them damn boots on the floor and I decided I'd had enough. I played dead and when he took a swing, I hit 'im with the iron pan m'supper was in. I got his pants off and took that fuckin' strap with the metal teeth...I jest kept hittin' and hittin'. I rode off, kept goin' until the horse dropped over. That's when Gray Eagle's scouts found me. That old man saved m'life, no matter how many times I run off, hit 'im, he never gave up. Only reason I'm standin' here today is 'cause of Gray Eagle." He took a long gulp of coffee then and swiped his mouth. "Ya think Justin's a handful..."

Chris didn't say anything at first; the anger in him was so great it choked off any possibility of vocalization. But at the same time, he felt an enormous swell of pride rising in his chest. Having had a fairly normal upbringing with a good family, a loving mother and strong father, he was stunned at the hardships Vin endured. His best friend had no foundation during the early teenage years when a boy needs his father to learn how to be a man. He wasn't gifted with a mother's love or a father's smile of pride. He'd read about courage, even seen courageous acts in his life. But he'd never sat next to a living, breathing example.

"Could be God's a lot smarter than I gave him credit for."

"Huh?" Vin's brows crossed in confusion at the odd group of words and his heart filled up at the tender tone.

"Puttin' me in a dusty town with a parade of drunken cow pokes fixin' on a lynchin' across the street from a long, haired river rat with a broom and some attitude."

"Texas variety!" Vin boasted and found a half-smile.

"And thanks to that man upstairs," Chris saluted and reached his hand out. Vin's shot up automatically and their forearms locked. "and what you give me everyday with this, I'm walkin' a lot taller now."

"Shit..." Vin rasped, overcome by the resilience of pride ringing in his ears. He pulled his hand away and shook his head, shifting uncomfortable. "Ya used up yer three words fer the day, Lar'bee."

"You're sure about this, Vin?" Chris asked of the seeming Herculean task.

"Yeah...he's stubborn but he ain't a Tanner," Vin noted of his own muleish tendency. He sighed wearily and found a wARM smile when the blond gifted him with a cocky grin and lifted his cup.

"I'll drink to that," Chris complimented, tapping the mug. "Go on and get some sleep."

Vin was too tired to argue and every muscle was screaming at him. He drained the coffee and stumbled into the first bedroom. He didn't feel the quilt pulled over him and he didn't see the deep concern chisled into the handsome features of his best friend. He was already asleep when the gunslinger took a parting glance, shook his blond head and shut the door.

Part 8

Vin paused under the midday sun to take a long draw from his canteen. He'd been working Red for over an hour and it was time to check on Justin's progress. Justin had been sullen the night before and his surly comments to both Chris and Buck had earned him bed without supper. He'd not come out when the pair left taking the horses. Vin had explained that it was a business and the horses belonged to the customer. He knew the youth had become attached to Sadie and he had to learn to let go.

He left the corral and headed for the barn. He had to admit, having Buck and Chris stay overnight had been a good idea. He was rested and ready to tackle whatever Justin threw at him. He was more than a little frustrated that the troubled youth still resisted him. He knew Chris didn't approve of this idea and he hoped his best friend's gut instinct proved wrong this time. It would be a few days before Chris and Buck returned and he had his hands full.

Vin ducked inside the doorframe and his eyebrows rose in surprise. Justin was applying vanish to the back of the barn. Three quarters of the frame was now done and the varnish would seal the cracks and protect the interior from the elements. Not wishing to disturb the worker, he ducked back outside. He was heading to the house to check on what he could throw together for lunch, when he saw a rider approaching. He unhitched the strap on the mare's leg and kept his hand on the weapon. The man had a horse with him and as they drew closer, Vin's color rose when he saw the signs of abuse.

"Name's Solebury," the rider paused to spit a wad of tobacco, "heard tell somebody bought this old place. You the fella runnin' things?"

"One o'em, " Vin replied cautiously . He didn't know this man, who appeared to be in his mid-forties with sandy hair and light eyes. The scar that ran the length of his face gave him a chilling appearance. Vin's gut kicked into action and he kept his gun trained.

"No call for that," Solebury replied tossing the reins of the extra horse away. "I was in Lakewood and heard there was some fellas who took these nags in. He ain't good for spit, he won't listen."

"Could be he don't like what ya have t'say," Vin hissed, his eyes hot. He had no time or tolerance for anyone who abused animals. He also noticed that the horse's brand was not the same as the rider's.

"How much ya gimme for him?" Solebury asked, not missing the blue eyes noticing the horse's brand.

"I let ya ride off," Vin dictated, moving forward. He saw the man's eyes go over his shoulder and train on Red. "It's best ya move along."

Justin heard the voices and moved to the front of the barn. He shivered a bit when he saw the mean looking man Vin was speaking to. Then he saw the horse and his anger rose. He watched Vin keep his gun trained on the stranger until he rode away. It was only after he'd cleared the hill that Vin put his gun down and took the reins. Justin met him by the large corral.

"Who was that?" he asked.

"Trouble," Vin answered, rubbing his neck. He couldn't shake the feeling that the man was up to no good. "Name's Solebury. He dropped the horse off." He paused to examine the fresh wounds on the animal's back and flanks from a whip.

Justin saw Tanner's eyes go to the horizon again. "Is he comin' back?"

"I hope not," Vin answered. "I got a feelin' he stole this horse, the brand ain't local and it wasn't his. He seen me lookin'."

"Why would he risk being caught?" Dalton asked.

"Could be he's got bigger fish t'fry," Vin answered, eyeing Red in the smaller corral. "Come on, I'll show you how t'make the liniment."

Justin watched Vin take mud and clay, mix in some kind of oil and herbs from a tin on the shelf. He carefully mixed it and then took it back to the corral.

"First we're gonna clean 'im off a bit," Vin decided, approaching the skiddish horse. "Come on, it's time ya learned from the start."

Justin approached the horse and stood next to Tanner, who was talking in a low, soothing tone. He wasn't prepared for the older man to let him go.

"Go on, talk t'im easy like, jest like Sadie." Vin moved away and let Justin have control. He knew the youth needed this more than he realized. While the pair bonded, Vin got some water and together they cleaned the mud and muck off of the horse, revealing a chestnut coat. "He's gonna be fine. Here, like this."

Justin stood over Vin who hunched down and began to apply the liniment. The horse nickered and moved but Tanner never stopped talking to him. He then rose and nodded.

"Me?" Tanner stepped back and Justin moved his hands over his shirt to try to get the damp palms dry. He rubbed the horse's neck and talked to him, looking him in the eyes. Then he mimicked what Tanner had done. To his surprise, the horse calmed down.

"Yer doin' fine, he knows yer helpin' 'im. Take yer time, when yer done, come inside fer some lunch. We got a lot o'work this afternoon and I want t'be inside b'fer dark."

Justin's hand froze on the nasty wound and again he saw Tanner's pale eyes riding the horizon. He didn't like it that Tanner was worried, he didn't know anything that would or could scare him. He also didn't like the looks of the stranger, so he did as he was told.

The afternoon passed quickly and one side of the barn had every beam nailed into place. The exhausted pair headed inside to eat the stew Vin made. Then Justin asked to go outside and feed the horses. Vin cleaned up the dishes and watched from the window as Justin first spoke to Red and left some fresh hay. But he could see it was the new horse whom the youth was interested in. He poured two mugs of coffee and went outside.

Justin left the chestnut horse and walked to the far end of the corral. He eyed the road and wondered where it went. Was that the road to freedom? He fingered the callous on his hand and the ache in his limbs from the hard work he'd done. He thought of Sadie and the new horse, both ends of the same kind treatment. Seeing the broken spirit renewed in the healing of the horses gave him a sense of satisfaction. And he hated to admit it, but the weariness he felt was for the first time, honestly earned left him content. Was this his crossroads? He realized he'd not heard his father's call in the last few days. Was that evil voice quieted forever?

"Justin?" Vin repeated, keeping close to the fire he'd lit in the tin drum by the corral. "Stay close."

Justin moved away and came to warm himself by the fire. The flames bathed his face and hands in a golden light. He took the coffee offered and sipped it thoughtfully. He was all torn up inside. It wasn't supposed to be like this. His plan was to wait until they were alone and Tanner fell asleep. Then he'd take the horse and go. But everything changed when he touched the new horse's wound and felt the power. That horse was depending on him to heal body and soul. Maybe he needed this more than he realized.

"Yer ponderin' on something mighty hard," Vin prodded gently, suspecting what the frown and troubled dark eyes were hiding.

"I didn't realize...how much it would...could change."

"I know where ya been, it ain't easy t'trust again. But today, ya done a man's job and ya can't tell me it don't make ya feel good." He saw the boy nod once and then eye his worn and blistered hands. "I got somethin' fer that, iffen ya..."

"I'm fine," Justin spat back in a harsh tone. Why wouldn't Tanner back off? No matter how hard he pushed him away, the older man kept coming back.

"Sometimes it helps t'talk," Vin suggested, misreading the dropped head and slumped shoulders. He made the mistake of grasping the shoulder.

"I SAID I'M FINE!" Justin rebelled, shoving Vin hard into the corral. He saw Tanner flinch in pain and turned away. "Just leave me alone!"

Vin sighed hard and shook his head. He watched Justin return to the chestnut horse's side and bury his face in the mane. He gave the boy a full half hour to talk to the horse and then he approached. He saw the man in the boy trying hard to be born. It was that kind of fight that would make Justin stronger in the long run.

"I ain't the enemy, Justin."

"I know," he rasped, he didn't like the feelings of guilt washing over him. "I don't know why I lose control. It's like I need to..."

"Ya need t'hurt someone," Vin finished the thought, seeing the ghost of another troubled youth hovering in the shadows. "All that anger builds up and yer jest about t'splode. I know, Justin, cause I walked the same road yer on now." When the face turned up and the dark eyes finally were beseeching him, he knew the silent cry had finally gone airborne. "I can help ya, but ya gotta trust me."

"How...do...what can I...do..." Justin stammered and tears sprung from his eyes. "I don't want to live like this anymore."

There it was and it came much stronger for the wait. Vin let the boy spill a few tears and then watched as he regrouped, wiping his wet face. "I know kid," he replied softly, gripping the back of the tense neck "Ya ain't alone anymore. Ya gotta learn t'put the fire out on that hate or it'll kill ya. Yer smart and strong, ya got a good heart and a gift." He saw the eyes widened. "It ain't jest anybody that can find the hurt inside these horses. They feel ya, kid, yer reachin' 'im. Ya got this if ya want it," Vin offered with his open palm.

Justin studied that hand and saw the scars. He knew that Vin suffered like he had and he also saw how tall he walked now. People respected him and he was a man to admire. He could learn a lot just by watching him. But that Vin Tanner was offering to take him under his wing, well that was something only a fool would turn away.

"Alright, Mister Tanner," he decided, taking the hand and all that went with it.

"Good!" Vin grinned. "Cause I don't think these bones are up t'chasin' ya again tonight. I'll tell ya what, I finish out here. Why don't ya go inside and warm up that apple cobbler. I'll be right in."

"Okay," Justin answered and then turned back, "Mister Tanner, thanks...thanks for having faith in me when nobody else did."

"Yer welcome kid," Vin answered and felt the relief coursing through him.

Eagle Bend

It wasnít often that Trixie McCall had such fortune deposited right in her lap. It had been a slow week, another in a series of slow weeks. She was going to call it another early night when two handsome strangers came into the Golden Nugget. They stopped at the bar to order beers and dinner. The blond one looked hard and although the thought of a rough ride excited her, the minute the taller one with the mustache smiled at her, she found herself moving towards him.

"Evenin' Darlin'" Buck oozed, taking his hat off and running a hand through his hair. He eyed the pretty blonde who was very well endowed and barely hiding her assets. "Now what's a pretty little thing like you doing all alone in this place?"

"Waitin' for a good lookin' stud to show up," Trixie said, running her hand up the inside of his thigh. "And keep me warm tonight." She offered, leaning in and kissing him while her fingers moved to explore what he had to offer.

"Actually I had a hot bath in mind," Buck whispered into her ear and used his hand to slip a coin inside the warm bosom.

"I have a special brush," she purred, cupping his chin and using her thumb to caress his cheek. Her other hand continued to explore his upper thigh. "For those hard to reach places."

Buck just groaned and kissed her again.

"I need about fifteen minutes to get the tub ready," she replied, nodding to the back. "It's in the backroom."

Buck drained the beer in one gulp and swiped the foam away, unable to take his eyes from her swaying backside. He turned and spotted Larabee seated at a table with a beer across the room. He took a new beer and made his way over.

"Don't let them boys get too comfortable," Chris decided, trying to shake the uneasy feeling he'd been harboring all night. "We're not staying long."

"Dammit, Chris!" Buck hissed, trying to ignore the fact his pants suddenly seemed two sizes two small. He kept his eyes trained on the shapely backside and when she turned back, sucking her finger suggestively, he damn near burst. "I got my evening planned."

"Then you best get started or find a cold stream," Larabee dictated, tossing back the whiskey. The waitress appeared and put a bowl of stew down.

"You know, Chris, that boy did fine for a lot of years before you came along," Buck replied, knowing full well Tanner was on the gunslinger's mind.

"I don't trust that kid," Chris answered. "You saw him, Buck. Hell, he left Vin in a heap yesterday. He's gonna bushwhack Vin first chance he gets. If we wait until morning, he'll be long gone. What if that temper of his goes off and he's got Vin's gun?"

Buck chuffed out a breath and his handsome features turned into an annoyed mask. He hated it when Chris pulled just the right strings. If they stayed and rode back to find Vin hurt or worse, he'd have to live with the guilt and Larabee's wrath. He took a long swig and shook his head. "Okay, I'll be back in a half hour."

"Half-hour?" Chris grunted, "You're getting old, used to be you could get a good ride in half that time."

"I'm maturing," Buck shouted back, heading to get the itch in his drawers scratched.

"That's what I said, you're getting old." Chris chased, then turned back to his stew. He hoped the nagging feeling in his gut was wrong, but since Tanner entered his life he had an uncanny knowledge of trouble when it came to the long-haired Texan. And right now, his gut was screaming at him. The sooner they got back to the ranch, the better.

+ + + + + + +

Clete Solebury silently crept down the hill, using the darkness as cover. His horse was tethered nearby. He had his gun drawn and was intending on having that Red horse. He could get a pile of silver for it at auction. He also wasn't going to leave any witnesses. He saw Tanner by the corral with his back turned and took aim.

The sound of a gunshot split the quiet night. Vin felt a hot pain in his upper back and shoulder and the force spun him around. He didn't have time to react before the second shot stuck and a blinding force exploded in his head.

Justin jumped at the sound of the shots. He ran to the window and his stomach dropped through the floor. Vin Tanner was lying on his back, arms splayed. The flickering light from the fire in the metal can showed the blood pooling under his head. Half of his face was already covered and a scarlet stain was spreading on his upper left chest. His mouth went dry and his heart was slamming into his ribs so hard it hurt. He ducked down when a man ran over to where Vin was lying. The next words caused ice water to run through him.

"Dead man tell no tales," Solebury commented, taking time to spit on the corpse. 'Rot in hell you son-of-a-bitch."

Justin watched in muted horror as the man went towards Red and then turned around. Instead he headed straight for the house! Justin recognized him as the same man who'd abused the horse and left it earlier. He turned swiftly, grateful that the dishes were done. He tugged the trapdoor to the root cellar and dropped down, closing the lid. He closed his eyes and felt sweat pouring down his face. He heard the boots crossing the floor and began to pray.

Satisfied that Tanner had been alone when the search turned up empty rooms, Solebury took two bottles of whiskey and some silver coins that were on the mantle and he left, taking the Red horse with him.

Justin didn't know how long it was before he found the courage to leave the cellar. He was shaking all over and freezing cold. He remained paralyzed by the front door, unable to open it. He didn't want to see Vin Tanner's corpse. How could he be dead? It happened so fast. He had to get somebody or tell somebody. He staggered outside and kept his back to the wall, skirting the edge of the building. Tears ran down his face and blurred his vision of the bloody face and body. That same hand that he shook in friendship, offered in total trust was now cold and lifeless. He saddled Vin's horse and then his hand froze on the pommel.

"They're gonna hang me!" he whispered in horror. There were no witnesses and nobody would believe him. Tanner was the only person in town who would have and he was dead. He saw the feral eyes of Chris Larabee appear in his mind's eye and felt his soul tremble. He paused long enough to cast a blurry eye back on the lifeless Tanner. "I'm sorry..." Then he did what any panicked, fear-consumed teenager would do, he ran away.

He didn't get far before the cold echo of his father's voice broke the cold night air. He tried to ignore the hate-filled words but they only got louder.

"You're a stupid piece of shit, you hear me boy! You can't do anything right. It's a sad day that you were born. I should have drowned you then and saved us all the trouble you are. You're worthless...you hear me boy. Answer me.!"

But instead of turning away and hiding, cringing in fear or being consumed with self-hate, the young man who Vin Tanner saw when no one else could took command. He sat tall in the saddle and turned to his father's ghost.

"You're wrong!"

He eyed the road again and trotted back until he found the tracks. He was going to find the man who killed his only friend. He would get Red back and prove to Vin Tanner that he'd not misplaced his trust.

Part 9

With a lusty full moon as their guide, the two peacekeepers crested the hill overlooking their property and eyed the quiet ranch house. While Buck voiced his thoughts on the lights streaming from the windows, a chill ran up Chris Larabee's spine.

"Looks like Vin's up late," Buck observed and galloped ahead.

But as he secured his horse and had one foot on the porch step, something stopped him dead in his tracks. It was at that moment that the combination of the full moon and the light from the kitchen window sent a ghastly collision onto a body sprawled a few feet away. Buck's mouth went dry and his legs felt like lead but he moved. He tossed a match into the large metal can they kept outside full of wood. The flames shot up and illuminated the yard.

"Aw, Jesus...no...no..." he whispered, dropping down by Vin Tanner's side. The tracker was on his back, arms splayed out. His face was covered in blood and he was lying on a large dried stain that appeared to be blood. Buck's hand was shaking so badly at first; he thought the icy skin on Vin's neck that met his trembling touch was the parting blow of the Reaper.

Chris had just dismounted when Buck flew past. His eyes quickly found the source of the rogue's concern. His heart began to jackhammer and his gut clenched when his eyes filled with the agony grotesquely displayed before him. For a fleeting moment, he thought it would be alright, then he saw Buck's hand move to Vin's neck. Then the worst ticks of the clock in is current life seemed to overpower him.

Buck Wilmington slumped.

Chris sucked in a gulp of air and held onto the hitching post as his world crashed down around him. The air seemed to die out and even the noises of the night disappeared. Everything seemed to move in slow motion and he could hear his own heart beating. The slow intakes of air he managed to produce were painful. He remained frozen in place, his legs seeming to have taken root. He saw Buck's head rise and his mouth moving but he couldn't hear anything.

"Chris!" Buck barked, staring hard at the immobile blond. "Did you hear me? He's alive!"

Yet his oldest friend remained utterly still. Then Buck looked closer and saw it- dead man standing. The face he'd seen only once before in the dozen years he'd ridden by this man's side. It was on another cold night next to a ranch house. And as if Fate could be that cruel, Buck had knelt over another body that night but this time, the results were different. So he rose up and walked over, laying a gentle hand on the grim man's shoulder.

"He's alive, Chris, let's get him inside, okay?"

Chris's head turned slowly, cocking at an old angle when Buck touched him. Had he heard right? Was Vin Tanner still breathing? He opened his mouth to speak yet every word crashed into a tangled mess in his throat. He looked back at Vin and backed up shaking his head. No, Vin was dead. He'd been here before and shivered, recalling the only other time his soul had been stolen.

"Chris, you're scarin' me, pard," Buck issued softly, grabbing Chris by both shoulders. "Look at me. Vin is alive and he needs our help. I'm gonna open the door and put a mat by the fireplace. You stay with him and I'll be right back. Chris?" He snapped his fingers and the dead man gasped and blinked.

"Yeah..." he rasped, eyeing his trembling hands. He dropped his face into his right hand and took a long breath. He was glad for the strong hand of Buck on his back and nodded once. The light clap sent his feet into motion. It seemed to take forever and the short distance to his leaden legs seemed like miles. But once he dropped down and brushed the sticky, blood encrusted hair from Vin's face, the ice in his veins turned back into blood. It coursed through him, reinvigorating him and defining his sense of purpose. He bent over Vin, putting his mouth close to the blood soaked right ear. Keeping his hand on Vin's face, he found his voice.

"I'm right here, cowboy."

"You check for any other wounds?" Buck asked, dropping down on the other side.

"Huh...no..." Chris whispered, his face screwed in horror at the redden mask where Vin Tanner's face should be. "It's a head shot Buck..."

Buck didn't reply, rather he gently felt Vin's legs, chest and arms. Everything moved and that was a relief of sorts. "You got him? I"m gonna roll him towards you and check his head."

"Yeah," Chris managed, accepting Vin when Buck rolled the body.

"Shit!" Buck cursed, seeing the bloody fabric on the upper shoulder. "Bastard shot him in the back first." Then Vin was laid back towards him and Chris rose up in a flash, fury shooting green fire from both eyes.

"I knew that kid was trouble, this time he's gonna get what he deserves!"

"Hold on!" Buck growled, cradling Vin's limp body. "Our first order of business is tending to Vin. Justin isn't in the house and I'll check the barn..."

"He's not there," Chris replied, his voice flat. "Vin's horse is gone." His head turned and he saw the small corral where Red had been housed was empty. "He shot Vin and stole the horse. The fuckin' wild animal..."

"CHRIS!" Buck hissed, his eyes hot. "Get your head out of your ass and help me."

They carried Vin inside and laid him on the mat Buck put by the fireplace. The large living area had the best light and would be easier for now to work in. Buck already had a pot of water boiling and he ran for spare sheets. He grabbed a knife and began cutting them. Chris was stripping Vin of the bloody clothes. Buck brought over two pails of warm water and together they began to clean up the scarlet mess.

"It's bad..." Buck stated, seeing Vin's skull peeking through a long gash on the left side of his head above his eyebrow where hair and skin had been torn away. He used nimble fingers and carefully inspected the entire area. "Creased him...thank God."

"The bullet's still in him," Chris dictated, when Buck eased Vin onto his side and onto his lap. With Vin's head resting on his thigh, he and Buck examined the wound. His hand moved and felt Vin's back and then his cheek. "He's not too warm yet, fever's still comin' on."

"That's good, that means he wasn't lyin' out there long and it'll give us time to get Nate. It's gonna take me a couple hours or more to get Nate and get back here. Keep him warm and bathe the fever."

"It's gonna take longer than that," Chris stated, eyeing Buck. "The horses are spent Buck, we rode hard and fast to get here."

"Use my horse."

Both heads turned at the voice from the doorway.

"Chanu," Chris's voice was both suspicious and puzzled. "What are you doing here?"

"His spirit was restless," the Indian replied, moving closer and sighing hard. "I was hoping I was wrong."

Chris didn't understand the connection Vin and Chanu shared but more than once the quiet chief's son had 'felt' trouble and arrived at Vin's side. Vin too shared that sense, something drawn from his years spent living with the People.

"Thanks, Chanu," Buck's voice couldn't have been more sincere. "I'll be back as soon as I can."

"Hey, Buck, get some pillows and quilts, I think he's better on his side." Chris nodded to the large supply closet in the hall.

"Yeah," Buck agreed, quickly following suit. By the time he was ready to go, Vin was propped on his side, covered to the waist in a quilt. Chanu's head was bowed, one hand was over the wounded man's heart, the other on the side of his face.

"He has one foot in both worlds," Chanu said solemnly and his gaze went to Chris Larabee. "He searchs for you. He cannot find you and I fear he'll cross over."

"Like hell he will!" Chris angered, leaning over Vin's profile and trying to keep his queasy stomach from rebelling at the skull bits peeking at him. "You ain't dead, Vin. You hear me? You haul that skinny ass of yours back here." He waited as if the blue eyes would open and the raspy growl would send back a colorful reply. But the limp body remained terrifyingly still. "Don't piss me off, Tanner."

Chanu smiled then and nodded, meeting the blazing eyes over their mutual friend. "He hears you. He's confused but he has turned away. It seems that green fire has much power."

"Hah," Buck chortled, winking at Chanu. "Deadlier than his gun. I'm headin' out. There's a little bit of medicine in the top drawer of the dry sink."

"I will get what he needs from the land," Chanu decided, watching Chris gently brush the hair from Vin's face. He didn't miss the waves of emotion pouring from the eyes that had been full of fire just a moment before.

Buck was on Chanu's horse when Larabee appeared on the porch. It was then with the light of the house shadowing his dark clothes that Buck saw the devil in disguise in Larabee's eyes.

"Chris, we don't know what happened."

"Don't we?" Chris spat back, waving his arm. "The kid's gone, Vin's head is damn near blown off and the horse is gone. You do the math."

"He could be in town now, getting help for all we know," Buck defended but Chris chuffed in disgust.

"Vin was too soft on that kid, I won't be," the leader vowed.

"Now you listen to me, Chris Larabee," Buck dictated in a voice he used rarely. His eyes grew hard as he continued. "I'm gonna get Nathan and then head out to find Justin. You're gonna stay here where you belong."

"Belong?" Chris shot back. "I'm not in short pants and you're not my Pa."

"Your best friend's lyin' in there hangin' onto this world by a thread. You ride off and you're gonna kill him as much as them lead balls." He saw Larabee recoil and pressed salt onto the very visibly open wound. "You heard Chanu, Vin's lost and lookin' for you. It's your voice he needs to hear, your hand he needs to feel and that damn sorry face of yours he needs to see when his eyes open. And I ain't totin' that kid's corpse back to Otis to bury with your bullets in his hide. Are we clear on this?"

Chris didn't speak, but his eyes remained on the livid ones of Buck Wilmington. He was right, of course. Vin's life was the most important thing. "I hate it when you do that," he noted of the six foot conscience. He moved closer and gave Buck's leg a tap. "Watch your back."

"Ain't that your job?" Buck teased, tipped his hat and rode off into the night.

+ + + + + + +

Justin had never been to Eagles Bend and the size of the town surprised him. There were many small streets running from the large one. It was dark and he had no idea where he was going or where to start. He pulled the horse to a stop and thought for a moment. If Solebury was going to sell Red, he'd have to board him.

"Livery..." he whispered.

It took him a while to find the livery and he didn't want to get caught, so once he spotted it, he took his horse to an alley next to a large building for sale. He tied the horse up and jogged back to the edge of the stable. He climbed onto the crates against the side of the horse tender and peered through the glass. Once his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he judged the horses by their size. There was only one horse tall enough to be Red and he stared intently. He'd found him! He eased back down and jogged across the street. He hunkered down behind a large wooden crate that the locals were using for trash. He tugged his coat closer and cradled Vin Tanner's gun in his lap. The coward who'd shot his friend would be sorry.

+ + + + + + +

BAMN! BAMN! BAMN!

"What the hell?" Nathan Jackson grumbled and sat up in bed. He turned the oil lamp next to his cot up and picked up the watch on the little wooden bedside table. "Three a.m..."

"Nathan!"

"Buck?" Any remaining fuzziness from sleep evaporated when Buck's voice split the night. Jackson jumped up, tugging a shirt on and ran for the door. "Buck?"

"It's Vin, it's bad...real bad. He's barely alive," Buck wheezed, clutching his side.

"Yuh okay?"

"Yeah, just old," Buck teased of the fast dash up the street and a long flight of stairs. "Chris and me got to the ranch and found him lyin' outside. Somebody shot him in the back, here." Buck tapped the area high on Nathan's shoulder. "The other one's a head shot."

"A head shot?" Nathan's hand froze on his medical bag. "Buck, I ain't that kind o'surgeon. I can't cut into his skull."

"You won't have to, it's a deep crease, right here," Buck replied and moved his finger on his scalp. "Nasty bugger and he bled a lot. His skull's showin'. The other bullet is still inside. He wasn't too warm yet, so that's good. Chanu's with Chris, he said he had some herbal crap."

"That ain't crap and yuh know better!" Nathan barked, opening his medicine cabinet.

"What can I do?" Buck asked and was directed to the chest where the bandages were.

"I'll head out, yuh stay here and get some sleep. Daylight comes, yuh get t'the boardin' house. We're gonna need some chickens for broth and a lot of supplies."

"Yeah," Buck answered, watching as Nathan wrote a list. "I'll be back as soon as I can."

"Was the boy hit?" Nathan asked as they made their way down the stairs. "Yuh didn't mention 'im."

"He's gone and Chris's ready to hunt bear."

"If that boy has any sense, he'll turn hisself in," Nate answered, clapping Buck on the shoulder and heading for the livery.

Buck watched Nathan ride off and frowned. What if Chris decided to ride out? Or what if Justin ran into more trouble? Vin trusted the boy and there was something about this mystery that gave him an uneasy feeling. He decided to forego the boarding house and head for the church. Josiah got up predawn for his prayers and he could leave the list with the preacher. Then he'd ride to Eagles Bend. If Justin had taken Red, that was the closet place to sell the horse. If he used Hawk Pass, he'd cut his time in half. It was a rougher ride but he'd get to Eagles' Bend just after sunup.

Part 10

Eagle Bend

Six a.m.

It was quiet in town but then not many would be up this early. Dan Lynch was headed for the Freight Office. He had been expecting a late night shipment of furniture for his ranch. He knew that Lars Swenson, the owner of the Freight Station, was an early riser. He'd con a cup of coffee and some of Mrs. Swenson's sweet rolls from the congenial man. He'd have to rent a wagon from the big Swede and leave his horse at the livery. His first stop was at the livery. He knew the shack next to the livery was where the owner slept. He tapped on the door and called out.

"Cal?"

"Who's there?" The liveryman squinted, sitting up and tugging his suspenders up. He peered through the dirty glass window and frowned, scratching an inch inside his pants. "Dan? What in tarnation are you doing here this early?"

"I gotta pickup from Swenson's, I gotta leave my horse."

"Go on...write it in the book," Cal yawned, rolling over. Lynch was as honest as they came, he could trust him.

Dan secured his horse and found the tally book easy enough. He'd just recorded his name, date and the time when he saw a familiar steed. He walked closer, his brows drawing together in mystery.

"What the hell?"

Cal was just dozing off again when the door was rapped loudly. He peeked through the glass and saw Lynch outside.

"What?"

"Where'd you get that red horse?"

"Aw, Dan, I didn't get to bed until after one, I'm tired. Can't this..."

"Get out here, Cal!"

Cursing a streak that would make a sailor blush, the grumbling liveryman shoved his boots on and made his way out side. Dan Lynch was already headed back into the barn. By the time he caught up to the lean rancher, he was flipping through his books.

"Hey! Leave them be, they're private!"

"Where'd you get that horse?" Dan demanded.

"Feller brung 'im in late last night, I was just closing up."

"Chris Larabee?" Dan asked, knowing the pair had been in town earlier.

"No."

"Are you sure?"

"Do I look like a fool to you! He ain't the kind o'man I'd be likely to forget. Odd feller, mean looking, with yella hair and nasty scar all over his face. Solebury, there...there...see..." He tapped the book.

"Where is this Solebury?"

"Hell if I know, he paid me extra in silver up front, said he was lookin' t'sell that big horse."

"It ain't his," Lynch said, watching the uneasy horse bucking slighty. "You stay clear of him; he's not ready to be sold. That horse belongs to Larabee and his group. That guy who left him here, he stole it."

"Stole? You sure?"

"You keep him here, understand? Don't let anybody take him. I'll get the sheriff and wire Paso Del Norte," he stated of the small border town where Larabee and Wilmington called home.

He would have to wake up the clerk at the Post Office in order to send the wire. But first he wanted to let the law know. He was halfway to the sheriff's office when he spotted another familiar horse. He walked over and felt the horse's flank. He wasn't sweating. Could Vin Tanner have followed whoever stole the horse? He walked down the alley next to where Tanner's horse was tied up and saw a teenage boy slumped against a box. Then he saw the unusual gun the boy held. A one of a kind custom made weapon.

"Hey, kid! Where'd you get that?"

"Huh?" Justin coughed and jumped up, sending the mare's leg to the ground. He went to reach for it and a black boot landed on it.

"I wouldn't," Dan interjected, recognizing shock on the kid's face. "That's Vin Tanner's gun. Only one way he'd give it up or his horse. You best answer me boy!"

"He's dead!" Justin blurted, then his eyes widened when he saw a graying man with a badge headed for him. "Oh no...no..."

"Hold it right there, boy!" The Sheriff called out.

Justin saw the man before him turn briefly and took that moment. He reached behind him and grabbed a hefty handful of dirt and sand. He tossed it into the man's eyes and took off out of the alley.

"Shit..shit..." Dan cursed, rubbing his face and staggering.

"I talked to Cal..." the Sheriff stated. "A couple of Tiny's girls saw the boy sneaking around the Livery last night," he stated of the seedy boarding house owner who housed prostitutes. "Could be he's hooked up to that horse thief."

"Could be," Dan agreed, dipping his kerchief into the trough and wetting it, then wiping his eyes. "He was riding Vin Tanner's horse and carrying his gun."

"Tanner?" The Sheriff frowned, "He's one of Travis's men. He runs with Larabee."

"I hope for his sake he didn't do anything stupid," Dan predicted. "Cause I wouldn't want to be on other side of Larabee's wrath."

+ + + + + + +

Hope Ranch

Six a.m.

Chanu lifted the poultice from the black kettle on the stove and used a stick to carry it over to his stricken friend. He kept a cautious eye on Chris Larabee. The blond had not moved an inch all night, other than to occasionally gently pull his hand from Tanner's and shake it, restoring circulation. Then he'd take some coffee, grimace, let out a worried breath and take the limp hand again.

"There is food, you should eat," Chanu directed, laying the poultice on the ugly scalp wound.

"If it smells like that, I'll pass," Larabee wrinkled his nose at the foul smelling mess now nestled over the raw wound on Tanner's head. "What the hell is that?"

"I do not know the names in your language," Chanu replied, putting a different herbal pack on the back wound. "It is taken from the trees, ground, and plants. I have seen it work."

"I didn't mean to snap," Chris replied and frowned. "I'm losing him, Chanu, his hand is cold."

"That is because you hold it too tight," Chanu found a small smile. He bowed his head; put his hand over his friend's heart and the other on the side of his face.

Chris sat back a bit to give the Indian some room. His pale brows furrowed at the odd dialect that came from Chanu. For several moments he spoke, then just as he finished, it was Chris's turn to gasp. He eyed his hand and then the kind Indian.

"His finger moved! I felt...I thought..." He stammered.

"This place that holds him is very dark and cold. He fights hard to find his way but cannot do it alone. He cannot find what he does not hear. There is only one voice, you must guide him back." Chanu rose and gave Chris's shoulder a squeeze, then went to dish out their breakfast.

Chris licked his dry lips and took a deep breath. He studied the damp features on the fever flushed face. Vin was unnaturally still and the infrequent hot rasps of breath that left the parted lips felt like a butterfly's wings on his arm. But that was a comfort to him; he waited for each uneven breath to his hand. So he kept that limp hand gripped in his own and bent close, just near Vin's ear. He tried to ignore the stench of the poultice which was making his eyes tear up.

"Dammit Tanner," he finally found his voice. "Helluva mess you put me in. Chanu says you need me to guide you. You're the damn tracker...." he whispered and tried to will the sky eyes open. Instead he got his reassurance from the slips of air coming through Vin's slightly parted lips. "You gotta get your ass in gear, Vin. Patience isn't my strong suit. Nathan's on his way, you gotta slug in your shoulder and that damn mangy hair of yours got parted by a bullet." This wasn't going well at all. He was running his mouth without any thought. That alone would be likely to confuse the Texan. So he moved his free hand and touched the stilled cheek. "I'm right here, Vin, If you can't walk, I'll carry you."

+ + + + + + +

Justin didn't know how long he'd been running. He didn't stop until he was a long way from town. He didn't hear any horses coming after him and dropped to the ground. He didn't move for quite some time, his chest sucking air greedily. He crawled to the creek and drank his fill, before sitting up. He needed a plan.

He never meant to fall asleep. If only he'd heard that man in the alley. He punched the dirt in frustration and heard his father sneer.

"Shut the hell up!" He hissed. Then he heard another voice, low with a drawl.

I believe ya, kid."

Vin Tanner had put his faith in him and now he was dead. He felt his eyes burning with tears and didn't check them. For a few moments, he allowed himself to feel sorry. What was he going to do? He needed a horse. He had to get out of the county before the sheriff caught up to him. Thanks to him blurting out Tanner's death and them getting the horse and gun, they would lynch him for murder. The sound of hooves drew his head up. He swiped his damp eyes and rose, crawling up the steep hill. He laid flat on a rock which was high over the road. He saw a single rider coming and stood up. Fate was offering up a horse and he was going to take it. He dropped onto the rider and they both went tumbling, head over heels down the hill on the other side. He landed on the man's back and his right hand went for the gun. There was a brief struggle before he clocked the guy. He rolled him over and sat back stunned.

"Great...great...how could this possibly get any worse."

"...could...be...Chris...you...jumped..." Buck whispered, gingerly rubbing his head. He sat up and felt the sticky lump. Then he saw something that did sober him up. A very scared young man with a very loaded gun that was aimed at his chest. The kid was walking backwards without looking and the gun was cocked. One trip could prove fatal for him. "Easy, son, nobody's gonna hurt you."

"Shut up!" Justin screamed. "I ain't goin' back there. They're gonna hang me from the highest tree. I didn't kill Vin, but nobody will believe me."

"He's not dead, Justin." Buck sat back, leaning against the tree. His right knee was throbbing from where he made contact with a rock or a tree.

"You're lying!" Dalton accused, narrowing his eyes. "It's a trick. You want your gun back. I didn't shoot him, that man with the scar did and he stole Red and I wanted to catch him but..."

"Listen to me, Justin..."

"I fell asleep, I mean I found him...the horse not him ...in Eagles Bend but the sheriff and some man found me with Vin's horse and gun and they..."

"Kid..."

"...damn near caught me but I ran away. Now I don't want to shoot you, Mister Wilmington."

"And I appreciate that, son." Buck nodded. "But if you'll just listen to me."

"But I need your horse, cause if that sheriff don't catch up to me, Mister Larabee will and he'll kill me. He didn't like me much before and now Vin's dead and..."

"No, he's not!" Buck argued, putting his hands up. "Justin, if you'll just listen to me..."

"I ain't stayin' around long enough to get caught and hung!"

"Look, I'll take you back to the ranch and you can see for yourself. He's not dead, Justin."

"You're lyin!" Justin kept moving backwards, his trembling arm keeping the wavering gun aimed at the large man's chest. "I saw him...his head was all broken...that guy shot him in the head...I saw his body...and all that blood...he said he was dead...he stole Red."

Buck thought for a moment and realized that Justin fled for more than one reason. The shock of seeing Vin, the only man who trusted him, shot before him and especially in a gruesome manner was also a culprit. It might be the first time he'd seen a man shot. But there was nothing more dangerous that a shaky hand holding a gun.

"Chris and me found Vin last night, Justin. He had a nasty crease in his skull and a bullet in his shoulder. But he is alive and Chanu is seein' to him. I rode to town to get Nathan, he's gonna take that bullet out. He's probably there by now."

"No...no...I don't believe you..."

"You don't have much choice, son."

"I AIN'T YOUR SON!" Justin hollered, whipping the gun up. "QUIT CALLIN' ME THAT!"

"Okay, okay!" Buck decided, keeping his hands in front of him. "Just calm down, Justin. Think this through. You come with me and we'll get this mess fixed. I'll talk to the sheriff in Eagles Bend."

"Sure you will!" Justin shook his head. "I ain't that dumb."

"You gonna shoot me? Steal my horse?" Buck prodded. "You do and there's no tomorrow. Because the posse that follows you isn't gonna give you this chance. They'll shoot first. Vin took a chance on you when nobody else would. You owe him that much."

Buck waited but saw only fear and desperation looking back at him. Then the gun came up again and the youth dark head shook back and forth. The right hand was trembling badly now almost as much as Buck's heart.

"I'm sorry, Mister Wilmington," Justin stammered.

+ + + + + + +

Hope Ranch

Chris's head came up when the door opened. His right hand shot out automatically, whipping the colt into place.

"Mornin' to you too, brother," Josiah noted dryly, carrying a large box into the house.

"Where's Nathan?" Chris demanded, holstering his gun.

"I'm right here," Nathan replied, using long strides to reach his fallen comrade. He put his black bag down and gently tipped Vin's head. "Good thing yuh were here, Chanu."

"For me as well," Chanu stated of his loyalty to his friend. "The bullet is poisoning him."

"Not fuhr long," Nathan said. "Chris can yuh move, I need to roll him on his belly. Chris?"

"Yeah..." Chris muttered, bending over Vin. "Vin? Nate's here. He's gonna take the bullet out of your shoulder. You fight like hell, you hear me? "

"Let me at him, Chris," Nathan persuaded. He took a few minutes to check his patient's pulse and respirations. He lifted both eyelids and pulled out his listening device and checked the heart.

"Well?" Chris asked, stopping his pacing for a moment to glare at the healer.

"His heart's good, pulse is weak and his breathin' ain't good. But he's lost a lot of blood, Chris. Even when the bullet comes out, he's got an uphill fight."

"You get it out, I'll take care of the rest," Chris vowed.

"Chanu?" Nathan turned. "How old's this poultice?"

"It came with the sun," Chanu replied. "But I have no more. I must return to the area near the village to get what I need. I will not be long."

"Your horse is outside," Josiah offered, "Tied to the back of the wagon. Godspeed, my friend."

"Chanu?" Chris left the house and jogged to catch up to the nimble Indian. He held his hand out and was grateful when the other man took it. "Thanks. Without you, he'd have died."

"With your spirit bound to his soul, he lives, "Chanu returned, nodded once and left.

Chris grabbed a crate from the wagon and went inside. He saw Josiah heading towards him. "I got this, Josiah, you help Nathan," he offered.

"Not much I can do now but pray," Josiah said. "You should eat, Chris. Won't do Vin any good if you get sick."

"It won't stay put," Chris replied, returning outside. Between the two of them they got the goods unpacked.

Josiah immediately started to make a hearty chicken broth. He saw the small pot simmering and dished out a bowl for Chris. He stuck a biscuit in it and poured some coffee.

"I'm bigger than you," he warned when the green eyes objected.

"I got a bigger gun," Chris chased back and arched a brow.

"I got bigger feet." Josiah kept a straight face but his blond friend didn't. It started as a smile but the nervous tension that built up overnight needed purging was released and Larabee laughed.

"I can't argue that," Chris grinned, offering the coffee mug in salute. He was just finishing his oatmeal when the door opened.

"Ezra?" Josiah announced, putting a clean set of steamed tools down for Nathan.

"How is he?" Ezra inquired, moving back when he saw a silver object cutting through Vin's back. Blood soaked the cloth around the wound and was quickly wiped away by the preacher. The smell of blood and pus made his stomach turn over.

"He's still with us," Nathan said. "Bullet ain't deep but it's stubborn."

"Vin's hide," Chris added, eyeing the gambler. 'What are you doing here?"

"I was concerned for my fallen comrade." Standish ambled past the makeshift operating table on the floor by the fire and went to the kitchen.

"What are you really doing here?" Larabee repeated.

"This came just after they left," Standish nodded to Sanchez and Jackson. "I thought it prudent to deliver it without haste."

"What is it?" Josiah asked.

"It's from the sheriff in Eagles Bend. Vin's horse and gun turned up there, along with Red." Chris spat out each word as if it were bad food. "And guess who they found with them?" He filled the name if of the description given. "Justin Dalton."

"It might not be what you think, Chris," Josiah suggested, holding a clamp for Nathan so he could use both hands to tug at the bullet.

"The sheriff is the one thinking it, I'm just agreeing," Chris dictated, grabbing his duster and hat. "I'll be back."

"Buck's already there," Josiah shouted after him.

"You better dust off your bible, my good friend," Ezra noted, watching the blond gunslinger ride off. "Because I'm afraid young Mister Dalton will be requiring a befitting eulogy."

Part 11

Buck truly felt the sincerity that echoed in Justin's eyes. He knew the boy was confused and troubled, but he also saw a glimmer of doubt. Although the gun was still aimed at him, the intent in the eyes didn't have the same fire as it had before.

"I know you're sorry, Justin. Vin doesn't blame you, nobody does. But if you pull that trigger, you're buying yourself a heap of trouble.".

He saw just enough of another ripple of doubt wash over the youth and took that opening. He rose slowly and was going to attempt to approach the boy when the trees around him began to spin and everything went black

"No...no..." Justin cried out as the tall man fell.

He pressed the side of the gun to his face and winced. How had everything gone so bad so quickly? He eyed the road above and knew Buck's horse might lead him to freedom before Chris Larabee or a posse caught up to him. How much time did he have? Was Buck right? Would they shoot first? He began to breath heavily as his heart raced. He eyed Buck Wilmington's prone body and winced. How hard had he struck him? What if nobody found him and he couldn't leave on his own?

Justin walked over to where Buck was lying and kept the gun drawn. He tucked the gun in his waistband and turned Wilmington over. After straightening out his arms, he checked the head wound. It didn't look so bad, not too much blood, just a sticky lump. But it was a good sized lump. He began to tap the stilled man's cheek then, willing him to rouse.

"Wake up...Mister Wilmington...come on, wake up..."

Yet the body remained unmoving and the eyes closed. So he untied Wilmington's kerchief and jogged down to the creek nearby. He doused the cloth and returned, pressing it to the injured area. A low moan was all his actions wrought. He sat by Buck's side for quite some time, thinking through the last few days and what road he needed to follow. He kept calling to Buck and shaking him. It was all so confusing. He'd meant to do the right thing, how could it have all gone so wrong? He had no more time to waste, so he stood up and walked up the hill. He climbed on Buck's big gray horse and made his decision.

+ + + + + + + Ezra poured a mug of coffee and eyed the worried healer across the room. Although the surgery was completed, Nathan Jackson was clearly worried. The tracker was on his side with his injured back loosely dressed. Nathan was allowing it to drain, gently wiping the yellowish seepage that ran between the loose stitches.. The lower part of the arm was in a sling to take pressure off. The head injury was ghastly and watching Nathan clean and dress it had literally turned his stomach. But it was the rising fever and shallow breathing that he knew worried the dark-skinned man.

Nathan looked up when a mug appeared in front of his eyes.

"Thanks."

"Why don't you get some rest? He offered. "It might be quite some time before he rouses. I'll call you if..." He paused then, not able to speak what his heart felt - 'if Vin took a turn for the worse'.

Nathan took a sip of the coffee and frowned. He didn't like Vin's breathing, which was steadily declining. He didn't like the rising fever or the possibility of infection increasing. What of the head injury? How much damage was done that they couldn't see? How hard could Vin fight?

"I don't like it," Nathan uttered, feeling helpless. "He's fightin' but...'tween the fever and that head wound."

"He's a Tanner," Ezra complimented with a smile as Josiah entered the room.

"That horse was in bad shape," Sanchez stated crossing the room. "I wonder where he came from? I don't recall Chris or Buck mentioning a new one. I put some liniment on him and fed him. How's Vin?"

"I don't know, Josiah," Jackson stated simply. "I think he's slippin' away. I wish t'hell Chris hadn't left."

"Chris is doing his job," Erza corrected. "And rest assured he'll return forthwith. Mister Sanchez and I can manage here. You might do well to rest now in case later he becomes worse."

"Ezra's right, Nate," Josiah suggested, resting a hand on the tense shoulder. "Chanu outta be back in a hour or so, we can handle it."

"Alright," he agreed. "That blue bowl has rubbin' alchohol and water in it, you keep bathin' that fever." He nodded to the bowl on the table by the cot set up next to the fireplace where their fallen comrade was lying. He rested his fingers against Vin's neck and sighed hard. "I just don't like it..."

"Anything else we can do?" Josiah asked, wringing a cloth out. Nathan's dark eyes were never more solemn when they met his smokey ones.

"Yeah," Jackson rasped, eyeing the pocket in Josiah's pants where he kept his prayer beads. "Yuh can talk t'yuhr boss and cash in some chips."

+ + + + + + +

It was cold in this place, the kind of cold that goes right through your bones and steals your soul away. The darkness that engulfed him was so thick with a pitch so deep it had no end. He'd travelled to many places in his life and he was a good judge of distance and territory. So he knew part of the icy grip he was consumed with was due to the fear that gnawed at him. Like a rabid rat, the fangs chewed away at his sanity. He knew that his place was not of the living. Although he didn't know how or why, he knew that if he turned around, he would never get back.

Was this Hell?

No, he didn't think so. But the odd sounds that attacked his senses were not of anything living. The high pitched shrills and horrific wails seemed to be from other lost souls. From the anguish that assaulted him, he surmised that they had been trapped here for a long time and lost what little sanity they had. Was that what was in store for him?

Although the blackness was so rich he couldn't see his own hand, he kept looking ahead. As leaden as his legs were, he kept trudging forward. Twice he'd seen a white fox appear briefly and seek him out; although the animal didn't make a sound, he 'heard' a message. As much as he'd welcome the fox again, it was not that which he sought. He needed the silver eagle and he needed it desperately. He missed the warmth that engulfed him when the strong wings wrapped around him and carried him so badly, he hurt worse than the cold and pain he was in. The eagle was strong and the heat that filled him when those feathers bathed him was the only kind of healing he knew would save him. Why had the bird deserted him? Had he angered him? Was he not fighting hard enough? The strong voice from within the heart of the winged beast willed him to fight.

I'm sorry..." Vin called out over the fierce gale, hoping somehow the eagle would find his word. "Please...I need ya."

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee had just exited a short cut that lead to Eagles Bend, when he saw a familiar horse ahead. He slowed down, narrowed his eyes and then his rage nearly glowed through them, sending twin scorching rays onto the unlucky rider.

"Get down off that horse!" Chris hollered.

"I didn't steal him!" Justin's voice reflected the panic now spreading through his system.

"Just like you didn't steal Vin's?" Chris returned, using his most lethal eyes. "Start talking, kid and it better be good."

"Mister Wilmington is back there," Justin wheezed, turning to point to the road he'd just left. "He got...hurt...sorta...he won't wake up, I waited for a long time."

"Hurt how?" Chris's gaze narrowed on the gun now nestled in the youth's waistband. "Did you shoot him?"

"NO!" Justin squeaked, desperately trying to find his voice. Sweat was not running freely down his back and pooling in his drawers. "I jumped...I needed his horse..." He winced when he saw the eyes turn to an even deadlier shade. "Not like that...well...anyways...I sort of hit his head..."

"And you just left him there?" Chris's voice rose a pitch and it seemed the boy shrank down several feet.

"No..yes...no..." he stammered badly as a heart attack appeared in his eyes."I was gettin' help.":

"Eagles Bend is the other way." Chris was now abreast with the trembling youth. But he saw something in the dark eyes he'd not seen before. The boy was telling the truth and the bold defiance and hatred that was a previous resident was gone.

"I can't go there, they're gonna hang me..." he stuttered. "I was goin' to get you or somebody at the ranch."

"Take me to Buck!" Chris ordered, holding out his hand. "And give me that gun."

Buck had just finished unloading his breakfast into a dirt pile and closed his eyes for a moment. He wasn't quite sure of what had happened or why his head hurt. He felt better now that he'd thrown up but he was very dizzy. He put a hand on the tender spot and winced, then heard the sounds of gravel crunching. His hand automatically went to his holster, but there was no gun.

"Lookin' for this?"

He blinked a bit at the sound of the voice, one he knew. He waited for the stars dancing before his eyes to part and saw his gun. Then he saw black boots and black pants. The silver conchos on the gunbelt on the slim hips were a dead giveaway. He sat up, took his gun and eyed the blurry face above.

"You look like shit, Buck," Chris observed, hauling his oldest friend up to his feet. "Whoa..." He gripped the unsteady body when it lurched.

"Fuck you...Larabee..." Buck gasped, holding on tight and nodding to the creek. He was grateful for Chris's support and knelt down, then dunked his head into the cold stream. He managed to get himself to the flat rock nearby and sit. His hand went out and his fingers wiggled at the man in black . "Give it over..."

Chris shoved Justin over towards Buck and indicated that he should sit down. The boy took a seat a few feet away and remained silent. Chris left for a few moments and returned, handing a half-empty bottle of whiskey to the injured man.

"God....dammit...." Buck hissed, biting his lip in pain when he doused the wound and it burned. "I hate wastin' good whiskey."

"Waste all you want," Larabee deadpanned, peeking down at the wound. "It's not mine."

Buck eyed the label and chuckled. "Kentucky's finest," he noted, saluting his rescuer and taking a long draw. "God bless Ezra." The blurry vision began to clear and he saw Justin sitting nearby. He glanced at the guilt ridden youth and then back at Chris.

"I ran into him on the road," Larabee grunted. "Claims he was gettin' help."

"I was!" Justin defended and sent his contrite glance to the mustached man. "I waited Mister Wilmington but you wouldn't wake up." Then he backed up and all his air died when his throat tightened as Chris Larabee slowly came towards him. "Please don't kill me..." he stammered, "I didn't kill Vin, I swear on my Ma's grave."

"First of all," Chris drilled. "Vin ain't dead. Second, don't ever disrespect your mother like that again." He paused then when his gut warned him the guilt-riddled eyes spoke the truth. The kid did believe that Vin was dead and he wasn't the shooter.

"How's Vin, Chris?" Buck asked. "Nate get the bullet out okay?"

"Yeah, but he's in a bad away. We got a wire from Eagles Bend that his horse and gun showed up in town, along with Red." Chris said.

"He's not dead?" Justin was stunned. "I thought...the man said he was dead...all that blood...I thought..."

"You ran out on him," Chris spat, "You left him there like that?"

'Chris," Buck warned in a low tone. "He's a kid and he saw Vin get shot down. He thought Vin was dead and he tried to catch the shooter."

"I'm sorry, Mister Larabee, honest to God, I didn't mean to do that...well I did but not like you're thinking. Mister Tanner and me...we had a real good talk just before Solebury shot him. I know you got no reason to believe me, but I'm not the same Justin Dalton anymore. Mister Tanner...he took the hurt away...the hate...the anger. And now he could die..."

"It's not your fault, Justin," Chris said, shocked at the sincerity his heart put into the words. He sat down next to the upset youth and hoped his support would help. "Why don't you tell me what happened? Who is Solebury?"

"Yesterday after you left, this guy came with a beat up horse. He's got yellow hair and a nasty scar across his face. He brung that horse. After he left, I could tell Mister Tanner was suspicious and he even said so. Then later at night time, I was in the house and heard the shots. I saw...him stand over...Mister...Tanner..." He paused and swallowed hard, his eyes filling when he recalled the horrific head wound. "He said...he...he...said..."

"Easy, kid," Chris soothed. "Take a deep breath."

"He was dead...and he took Red."

"That bastard back shot him," Buck recalled of the wound. "He waited until dark when Vin's back was turned. Son-of-a-bitch!" He vented, anger flushing his face and restoring color there. He turned his gaze to the boy's then. "So you rode to Eagles Bend and found him?"

"Red, yeah, he's in the livery." Justin stated. "I was waitin' across the street to see if he came out but it was late and I got tired. Some man in town caught me; he thought I stole Vin's horse and gun."

"Why'd you run from town?" Chris asked.

"Because I thought Vin was dead and they'd hang me, I had his horse. Nobody ever believes me..."

"Alright, alright..." Chris replied, laying a hand on the shivering youth's shoulder. He caught the solemn dark eyes then. "I believe you, kid."

"You do?" Justin gasped and saw the light of truth. "You do!"

Chris nodded and stood up, walking to where Buck was seated. The color had returned to the ashen features and he looked human again.

"Can you ride?"

"To Hell and back," Buck boasted, rising slowly and waiting for the dizziness to pass. He recognized the look in the green eyes. Years of experience riding by this man's side told him that justice would be served very soon.

"You fixin' on huntin' some bear?"

"You're damned straight!" Chris vowed. "And that bastard's gonna pay, Larabee style."

Part 12

Eagle Bend

Mid-morning

Chris and Buck entered the livery at the same time with Justin close behind. Despite their reassurance, he was still worried about being arrested. Their long strides had the youth hurrying to keep up with them.

"See, I told you!" Justin defended as they paused by the stall where the impatient horse was stomping and shaking his head.

"That bastard better not be dead already," Chris growled as Buck went to check on their prize stallion.

"Easy there, fella," Buck cooed, running his hand on the dark mane. "I know I ain't Vin, but I smell better, don't I? Course, them buckskins of his probably smell good to you though."

It was brief but Buck didn't miss the agony that flickered in Chris's pale eyes when he moved two stalls down to where Vin's horse was grazing. The black head came up and nuzzled the hand it knew well. Buck couldn't see Chris's face but when the blond head dipped down he could hear the faintest shudder of a breath. He couldn't imagine how much this was hurting Chris. Nor could he think of how dark the days would be if Vin didn't survive. Finally, with a few soft words spoken and gentle pat to the neck, Larabee left the horse and turned back to them.

"He's gotta be close by, he wouldn't leave the horse long." Chris theorized of the coward who'd cut down his best friend.

"We can split up, cover more area in town," Buck suggested.

But the wheels in Chris Larabee's mind were spinning a different way. Before he could reply, a loud voice hollered at them from the entry of the livery.

"You fellas stay away from that horse, I got orders to..." Cal's words died in his throat when a tall stranger in black stepped out of the shadows.

"My horse, I'll do what I damn well please with him," Chris answered and moved closer. "You know where we can find him?"

"Who?" Cal rasped, his eyes flicking to the gun strapped low on a lean thigh.

"The bastard who stole him!" Larabee replied.

"Solebury," Cal updated, "mean lookin' fella with yella hair and a scar runnin' clear across his face."

"That's him!" Justin blurted out, "That's the guy who shot Mister Tanner."

"Where's the sheriff?" Buck asked, "We have to straighten this mess out. I don't want any yahoo takin' potshots at the kid."

"Potshots?" Justin backed up.

"Nobody's gonna shoot you, kid," Chris advised and eyed the stocky liveryman. "Well?"

"Well what?" Cal asked.

"Well how's your fuckin' mother?" Buck hissed, shaking his sore head.

"The sheriff!" Chris barked.

"Oh...oh...uh...his office is uh...across the street up a few stores."

"You make sure nobody takes that horse, understand?" Chris warned.

"Yessir..." Cal nodded.

As they strode across the dusty street, the two peacekeepers kept the nervous Dalton between them. They were each eyeing every face they could see, both on the sidewalks and through the windows that they could see. Just as they were passing the hotel a familiar voice sounded.

"Chris? How'd you get here so fast? We only wired a couple hours ago."

"Dan!" Chris nodded as the likeable rancher they'd sold the 2 horses to approached. "I was already on my way. I figured whoever stole Red and shot Vin would end up here."

"I caught that kid with Tanner's horse and gun, I wired you in town, Sheriff Dunne replied." Lynch briefed.

"This is Justin Dalton," Buck introduced the youth who'd moved behind him. "He was workin' with Vin when some low-life coward backshot him."

"Aw, damn," Dan reacted in genuine concern, he liked Tanner. "How bad? Is he alive?"

"Barely," Chris answered, "The second bullet put a good crease in his skull. Justin saw it and thought Vin was dead."

"He panicked and headed here to find the shooter, he thought he'd be blamed," Buck completed their story to date.

"He was," Dan nodded and eyed the dark-eyed boy. 'I'm sorry, son, but you shouldn't have run off like that. It didn't look good."

"Yeah, I guess, but I thought you'd hang me."

"Where's the sheriff?" Chris asked.

"He took a couple men and headed south after the kid," Dan answered. "He figured that Solebury might be his partner and hold up outside town somewhere."

"You seen this fella Solebury yet?" Buck asked.

"No, but he might be hidin' out of town or maybe he's shackin' with one of the girls," Dan nodded to the seedier end of town where the local prostitutes lived.

"Who'd be that desperate?" Buck scoffed of the scarfaced outlaw.

"So what do we do now?" Justin asked, eyeing each of the three older men.

"Well," Chris said, pausing to light his cheroot. He squinted into the new morning sun and a cold grin appeared on his face. "It looks like we're gonna buy a horse."

"Uh-oh," Buck lamented, already too familiar with that grin. He could already hear the sounds of bones crunching.

"Huh?" Justin perplexed. "I don't get it? Why would you buy back your own horse?"

"Not me, kid," Chris answered, "What we need is a horse breeder from the south who has a shitload of money."

"And a silver tongue," Buck chucked. "That just might work. It'll flush that snake out. I'll wire Ezra."

"Send it to Mary, have her send one of Angus's sons out to the ranch to get Ezra." He saw the confused look on Wilmington's face. "He was there when I left. If J.D. already left..."

"Yeah...yeah...Sean outta be in town, he works at the store, he knows the backroad to the ranch," Buck noted of Craig MacTavish's older son.

"Dan, can you keep an eye on the horse? I don't want Solebury sneaking into town and taking him," Chris asked.

"Sure thing." Dan nodded.

"Damn, I hate fishing," Chris grunted as they headed for the Post and Telegraph.

"Fishing?" Justin eyed the gunslinger.

"Tossin' out the bait and waitin' to lure in the catch," Buck answered.

"Oh, we'll lure him in alright." Chris flexed both fists and turned to Lynch and Wilmington. "But he's mine, understood?"

+ + + + + + +

Ezra's fine hands worked professionally, shuffling the cards in precision. So attuned was he to the task, he didn't even have to look. Rather his eyes were trained on the all too still body of his friend. Vin's face was bathed in sweat and his damp chest was barely rising and falling. The ghastly head wound was covered with a foul-smelling mixture. He would have given a king's ransom to hear that slow drawl issue some dry humor and see those sky eyes crinkling in mirth beneath the trademark floppy hat. But his friend was slipping away; he could feel it and it troubled him greatly.

Friend

A curious word for him to study. Oh, he'd had schoolmates as a boy in the various private schools his mother had sporadically enrolled him in during her brief marriages, or when he wasn't convenient to use in a scam. But they weren't friends, not in the true sense of the word. Also his mother had planted a seed of distrust in him as a child and watered it at every given opportunity. As he grew, that seed blossomed and twisted inside of him. During the war, he found ways to keep one step ahead of the Confederate Army that sought officers. He'd used the uniforms more than once during various profit making endeavors. And he'd watch the real soldiers confide in each other and the fool inside of him mocked that camaraderie. He still harbored doubts and until his tenure in the dusty town where he was currently residing, he trusted no one.

But that was slowly changing as he grew to know the six men he worked with. But only one had caused him to begin to use the word 'friend'. A wiry tracker from Texas with a price on his head,; a sharpshooter whose deadly aim was scary and whose drawling comments shadowed a bright mind. Ezra had seen his skill first hand in reading a trail or a crime scene. His instincts about strangers were deadly accurate. He was a man who was more comfortable in Mother Nature's embrace that that of her slick city cousin. And he walked comfortable in both the white man's world and that of the Indians who he'd lived with. Vin Tanner was one of the few men he'd ever met who was totally comfortable in his own skin. Oh, how he envied that and admired it. Vin was the one person who he felt closest to among the group and who he trusted.

What if he died?

The cards stopped in his palms, his fingers unable to move. He tried to avert his eyes but could not. He found himself drawn to the fine features before him. The flickering flames of the fire cast a golden glow on his skin. He wondered if in their few private conversations, Vin had ever picked up how he felt. Did the Texan realize how much he'd helped him to change? Were some of those amusing smirks as warm as he'd taken them to be? Ezra hoped so. He put the cards down and leaned forward, laying a hand on the slick shoulder.

"Mister Tanner, I am rather at a loss. It concerns me that perhaps I have not expressed my gratitude sooner for your uncanny gift. I use uncanny because I am not sure you realize how very talented you are. You never wear a mask, something I have not been able to do for most of my life. Oh , how I envy that, the easy grace of which you carry yourself.. And for not telling you sooner how much I've learned and benefitted from the open hand that you extended, even when I did not deserve it." He sighed hard and bit his lip then, giving the shoulder a gentle tug. "Fight," he encouraged, then his voice dropped, "my friend."

+ + + + + + +

Vin wasn't sure what to make of the snake. He wasn't afraid of it but wasn't quite sure of what it wanted. He'd never seen a snake with a bright red skin before. But somehow he liked it, so as he travelled with him, he didn't feel quite so alone. It seemed to want him to follow, so instead of stopping the grueling effort it was just to issue one step, he fought forward, following the odd creature. But he kept waiting for the sound of the mighty wings of the silver eagle. He was so very cold...so very, very cold.

+ + + + + + +

Eagles Bend

Mid Afternoon

It wasn't much of a hotel but it was the only one in town and therefore, it would have to suffice. An old and dust ridden green carpet led to a small lobby with a scattering of old chairs. In one corner was a wooden counter with a bell on the top. He rang the bell at the desk and coughed when dust flew up in the air. His scowl was still in place when a chubby woman appeared, licking her sausage-like fingers before wiping her sticky hands on a dirty apron.

"Afternoon," she greeted, "Something I can do for you?" She pushed one of the stray greasy curls in place and offered a smile that was missing a tooth. She hoisted her large bosom forward and winked.

Ezra didn't know whether to laugh or be appalled at her offer. He arched a single brow and cleared his throat, trying hard not to count the hairs sticking out of the mole on her face. "The proprietor if you would."

"Excuse me?" She wrinkled her face.

"The owner? I wish to rent a room."

"Oh, sure..." She turned, scratched the crack in her calico covered backside and hollered. "PA, YOU GOT A CUSTOMER."

"Charming," Ezra drolled, rolling his jade eyes.

A small man resembling a cross between a mouse and a weasel appeared. He stood only about five feet tall and was bald with a thin pencil mustache and beady eyes. Ezra almost expected a forked tongue to flick out and catch one of the many flies hovering nearby.

"Afternoon, sir, Harvey Bloom at your service. "This here's Minerva, my daughter. She's a real handy little gal."

"Yes, quite the 'little' lady," Ezra remarked and gained another toothless grin over her double chin. "Oliver Barret Markman, of King's Crossing Farms outside Lexington. I need a room."

"Farms? You don't look much like no farmer I ever seen," Minerva remarked, eyeing the expensive suit. "Never seen a farmer with a fancy red coat, neither."

"Rest assured Madame, these hands do not mingle with dirt, they were meant for finer things. King's Crossing where I breed the finest horses in Kentucky."

"Well, sir, it's your luck day," Harvey tapped the book, "sign here." He reached behind and took a brass key from the hook. "Number five, last room at the end, the best room in the house."

"Is there a bath house about?"

"Bath house is down yonder, near the end of town," Minerva updated, walking around the counter. "The Chinamen run it. But I can fix ya a real nice bath..." She frowned when the well dressed man began to choke. 'Something stuck in your throat?" She bent to pick up his bag and was brushed aside.

"That's quite alright, I can manage." Ezra took his bag and headed for the four steps that led to the hallway. He'd just crossed into the hall when his backside was squeezed and the large hand then rubbed his right cheek before moving to his thigh. He turned around, putting several feet between them.

"You let me know if you need that bath, Ollie," Minerva oozed, bending a bit to expose her huge cleavage. "I got real good hands."

"To be sure, not unlike the blonde d'Aquitaine," he noted of the muscular, deep chested breed of cow. "A distant relative prehaps?" he murmured as he turned away.

"Oh my..." She blushed, watching him until he turned the key in the lock.

Ezra entered the room and would have grimaced if not for the urgency of the matter at hand. Once he'd been given the message that Chris Larabee had summoned him to come at once, he'd wasted no time. He hoped this matter would be cleared up quickly, because he had no intention of sharing the thin, mildew covered cot in the corner with the variety of bugs that were waiting for his tender skin. A few moments later the dust in the air fled in a panic.

"Where the fuck have you been!"

It was a statement, not a question and Ezra calmly placed his bag on the stained wooden table by the far wall.

"Well seeing as I have not been gifted with the ability to fly, Mister Larabee, I was forced to ride upon a horse."

He turned in time to see the green eyes lose their harshess but the tension that was screaming from every inch of him was due to fear. Something that nobody would ever associate with the infamous gunslinger. But the thought of losing Vin Tanner, a man who they all recognized had become like a brother to him, had created a gnawing fear. Buck Wilmington followed his oldest friend through the window and grinned openly.

"Well now, Ollie, I see that little gal who works here took a real shine to you." Buck wagged his eyebrows and enjoyed every bit of Ezra's discomfort.

"I have no idea what you mean," Ezra deferred.

"Bullshit!" Chris opened the gambler's bag and drew out a new bottle of bourbon. He uncapped it and took a swig. "She had that paw of hers halfway up your ass."

"Unhand that!" Ezra grabbed the bottle back. "As if you would appreciate the fine nuance of this over that rotgut you so easily swill."

"I think he insulted us," Buck sniffed, headed for the bed to sit down and then thought better of it when something with too many legs to count ran towards him.

"Why on earth was I made to endure this?" Ezra inquired.

"Because that weasel at the desk is the biggest gossip in town." Chris grabbed the bottle again and glared openly. "With any luck, Solebury will come calling on you by sundown. Pull all the plugs, flash that gold tooth and do whatever it takes to get him down to the livery."

"Yeah," Buck teased, eyeing Standish's well-honed backside. 'Could be he'll be after your ass too."

"Your humor leaves much to be desired." Standish turned away, eyeing the street.

"Same side as the hotel, down a block," Chris answered of the 'need' to play cards he saw. "The Gilded Rose. Buck and me will be around, your back is covered."

"Who exactly is this reptile?" Ezra asked.

"Clete Solebury," Buck filled the southerner in, "is the maggot-eatin' dog that shot Vin in the back first, then damn near took his head off. He stole Red and ended up here, he's looking to sell. Medium build and height, yellow hair, light eyes and a long scar across his face."

"A sight not to be missed," Ezra noted as the pair made their way back to the window to depart. "Very well, gentlemen, the game is on."

Part 13

Chanu paused on the porch of the ranch house and peered through the window. The sight that he didn't see caused him to scowl. He held onto that anger for a moment and took several deep breaths of air. He felt the anger leave his head, travel through his chest and exit out of his feet. It was only then he shifted the large bag he carried and entered the house.

Nathan looked up when Chanu came through the door. He didn't have to hear the younger man speak to absorb the mixture of anger and concern on his face. Chanu nodded once to him and padded by, putting his bag down on the large table in the kitchen. He immediately began preparing the poultice.

Vin didn't stir at all when Nathan used the warm water to take the old poultice from his head. He remained motionless when the soggy shoulder dressing was removed. He didn't feel the strong hands that gently bathed his wounds.

"He is too still."

"Yeah," Nathan replied, shaking his head. He moved out of the way to let Chanu put the herbal mixtures on both wounds. "I'm worried Chanu. He's slippin' away."

"He is strong," Chanu dictated as he laid a clean cloth over the shoulder wound. He used several long strips of cloth to bind it. He studied the severe head wound before applying the poultice. He probed the edges and noticed the raw parts were less red. His hand lay on the unmoving man's cheek and the heat remaining worried him. "The fever is like a mule...much like him." He applied the herbal mix to the lacerated skull and then washed his hands. He knelt in front of his friend and laid a hand on his face and heart. He huddled over Vin, putting his lips close to the lost man's ear.

Nathan watched curiously as Chanu spoke softly to Vin, although he didn't understand the words, he heard the tone clear enough. He theorized that they were words of encouragement. Then to his amazement, Vin's brows moved and his lips parted.

"Hey, he's movin'!" The healer grabbed a mug of water and when Chanu moved back, twin blue eyes were half open. "Lift his head a little."

"Easy, my brother," Chanu reassured the injured man while Nathan put a mug to the parted lips. "Drink."

"Good...real good." Nathan very slowly got a whole mug of water into Vin and then tapped his cheek. "Vin? Can yuh hear me?"

"He is still in the land of dark shadows," Chanu answered, gently placing the head down on the wall of pillows. Sure enough, the eyes closed again. He was still on his side facing the fire. It allowed him to breathe easier and gave both wounds room to heal. "His heart is calling out. He searches for his eagle. He should be here."

"I know," Nathan agreed, eyeing the darkness settling outside the windows. But he also knew that their leader was human. "And Chris knows too."

Nathan gave Chanu's shoulder a pat and moved to the kitchen. He cut up some of the roasted chicken Josiah had prepared for supper and added potatoes and carrots from the roasting pan. He put it inside the stove for a moment to warm it up. The preacher had gone back to town with J.D. and would return sometime the following day. As he grabbed two biscuits, some honey and a mug of coffee and ate his supper, he watched Chanu praying over Vin. He hoped that whatever power the brave was summoning would hear his call.

Nathan went outside to feed the horses and apply liniment to the newcomer and was surprised when Chanu appeared beside him, leading his horse.

"Yuh headed out again?" He inquired and saw the dark eyes gazing at the path Larabee had taken early that morning. "Chris?"

"He needs to ride with the new moon. I must find him."

"Be careful, Chanu, most folks in that town ain't gonna take a kind eye t'yuh."

"They cannot fear what they do not see," Chanu answered, and then gripped Nathan's shoulder. "You did well, my friend, thank you."

"When that ornery mouth o'his starts complainin'," he choked, recalling Vin's familiar scowl and threats issued whenever he was injured and recovering. "Then yuh can thank me."

Chanu turned and rode away, swiftly disappearing into the blanket of darkness. Nathan prayed that he would arrive in time and Chris would soon return. For all the medicine he could provide was not what Vin needed. Only one man had that power and until the two were reunited, Vin would have to hold on.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was terribly confused. The bewilderment that consumed him added to the terrific pain in his skull and caused him to moan. It was so dark here and he was so alone. The shrieks and screams of the tortured souls all around him were beginning to affect him. He couldn't walk any longer, he just could not go on. So he huddled in the darkness and winced at the screams that mixed with the fierce wind. He was glad for the fox's company. The gentle creature had led him to water and the burning in his throat was gone. As the liquid gold spread through him, he kept his ears sharp. The fox had wanted to remain but had an urgent mission. Somehow he understood the fox's message to remain where he was and to fight. So he kept fighting as best he could and listened carefully for the sound of wings. Oh, how he needed the majestic eagle.

...please... he called weakly and hoped that the fierce wind would pick up his message.

+ + + + + + +

Eagles Bend

Clete Solebury kept to shadows, eyeing the quiet street before him. He had been out of the town all day and wanted to check on the horse. The few men on the street were nothing to fear, they passed by without notice. He knew that the dead man had partners who worked with him on the ranch and they'd find his body by morning. He wanted to sell the horse as early as possible and move on. If he had no buyers by mid-morning, he'd take the horse to Gray's Ferry, a town about thirty miles away that had a train stop. That meant more customers staying overnight.

Cal jumped when the ugly man returned. He tried hard not to be nervous but the threat issued by Chris Larabee hung heavy in the air still. He didn't want to be the one responsible for letting Solebury escape.

"Howdy," Cal managed, keeping his voice even keel.

"Come to check on my horse," Clete replied, moving to the stall.

"Sure is a fine piece of horseflesh, that's what that fella said." Cal hoped that his voice wasn't reflected the frogs jumping in his gut.

"What fella?" Clete turned sharply and studied the large liverly man.

"Some fancy talkin' fella from the South. He's boardin' his horse here overnight and noticed that red horse of yours. He said somethin' about havin' a horse farm somewhere. Kentucky? I dunno, but he was dressed prettier'n most of the gals in this town. Had a nice watch and such."

"Yeah?" Clete's eyes lit up like the firecrackers on the Fourth of July. "Where is this fella? What's he look like?"

"Oh, you'll see him clear enough, he's got a bright red coat and lots of money. He asked about findin' game of chance..." Cal paused and scratched his chin. "I guess maybe you could check the saloon."

"Thanks."

Cal waited until Clete was gone and sat down hard on the bales of hay. He whipped out his kerchief and wiped his face. His heart was pounding so hard he had to reach behind the bale to the bottle he kept tucked in the corner. It took two shots of Redeye to kill the frogs that were jumping around. His part was done, so why was he still nervous?

Although he was keeping three of the locals involved in a poker game, Ezra's sharp eyes flitted to the windows and the large area over the batwing doors of the drinkery. The place was crowded and the noise and smoke gave fitting cover to Buck, who lounged in the darkest corner. He saw the rogue nod once at the window. The gambler caught the dark blue eyes and turned his own to the glass. Sure enough, under the gilded lettering a tall stranger with dirty yellow hair ambled past.

"Very well, gentlemen," Ezra stated, laying his cards down. "I have four ladies who have come to call."

"Shit!"

"How the hell..."

"Dammit!"

Buck just grinned at the triple exclamations and perplexed faces of the three sorry souls who made the mistake of playing cards with Ezra. He sipped his beer and watched as the nimble fingers drew the coins inward. He cleared his throat as the man that both Justin and Cal described entered the room. Buck tugged his hat down and kept his face hidden. His hand, however, remained on the gun strapped to his lean thigh.

"Git movin'!" Clete ordered of the lingering bodies at the table. The liveryman was right, this guy stuck out like a sore thumb. And the clothes, rings and watch and clean face bespoke a gentlemen with money.

"I am sure, sir, I would have remembered crossing paths with you," Ezra noted of the scarred face. "So I assume this is new business?"

"You 'assume' right," Clete declared, sitting down and grabbing the expensive bottle of bourbon. He poured a shot and eyed the gambler who was shuffling cards. "I ain't interested in losin' money, I'm here to collect some."

"Hah," Ezra scoffed, tapping the cards and returning them to the case he kept them in. He then slid the slim leather case into his jacket. "Pity the fools who've tried and failed. If not cards, what is the game you seek?"

"I ain't seekin' no damn game," Clete repeated, helping himself to the whiskey. But the gambler's hand shot out and grabbed the bottle.

"Then kindly unhand my liquor and move your vermin-infested body from my table."

"I heard you're interested in my horse." Clete paused and jerked his head. "The big red one in the livery. I have a buyer in Gray's Ferry but I'm open to new business."

"What line does the animal come from?" Ezra asked. "And what caused those whip marks? If the animal cannot be controlled..."

"He ain't wild and I don't know about any kind of lines. You interested or not?"

Ezra smelled the desperation building and took a small sip of whiskey. The man was repulsive both inside and out. Try as he might, all he could think of was this coward shooting his friend in the back and then while he was down, in the head. He controlled the urge to whip out his derringer and give him, as Vin would say, 'what fer'. He kept his eyes cold, letting his anger turn them icy. He studied the blue eyes and saw no soul, this man would shoot his own mother for a silver coin. Twice during their conversation, Chris appeared over the batwing doors and it was if the devil himself was standing there. He knew the leader was impatient; it was time to end this charade.

"Very well." Ezra rose, capped the bottle and nodded. "I wish to examine the horse closer. Then we shall discuss a mutual settlement."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Clete grumbled, following the gambler through the door.

+ + + + + + +

Buck met Chris outside and they silently followed, keeping several yards between them. He could feel the rage simmering from Larabee. It raised the heat dramatically, causing his own body to tense up. His head was splitting in half and he didn't tell Chris that his vision was blurring up. He wanted nothing more than to get lost in a soft bed for three days. But business came first. He paused at the edge of the livery. He could hear Ezra and Solebury speaking near Red's stall. He grabbed Chris's arm and winced. It was like gripping a piece of steel.

"He ain't armed, Chris."

"Neither was Vin!" Larabee hissed, pulling his arm away.

He knew Buck was worried. He also knew it was taking every bit of his self-control not to shoot the bastard now. He kept seeing that Godawful head wound and wondering what damage it had done. What if Vin woke up blind? Or what if his mind was affected? What if he never woke up?

"Shit..." He hissed, gripping the gun on his hip.

Buck watched as Chris fought the internal demons attacking him. They were like tiny devils, using their well-honed pitchforks to jab at the leader's soul. One by one, he silenced them. Finally his fingers left the gun handle and he saw Larabee exhale slowly. Buck wiped the sweat that had formed as he watched the heated duel. Then he followed his combative friend into the barn.

Part 14

With the stench of manure clinging a bit too close for comfort and the nervous horse shifting in the stall, the sly conman didn't take long to pursue the charade. It was a fine animal and with the right care and training, it would fetch a handsome price. He examined the horse's teeth and hooves and eyed the whip marks with his belly churning in disgust.

"Since I am in a generous mood tonight, "Ezra dictated, turning to face Solebury and watching Chris move into place. "Thirty dollars."

"Thirty?" Clete cleared his throat and spit a large wad which landed next to the fancy man's expensive boot. "I wanted fifty, but the price just went up. Seventy five." He grabbed the bottle that the gambler left on the hay when they stopped to look at the red horse. The lip of the bottle was just married to his own, when a voice sounded behind him and caused a chill to race up his spine.

"You better drink up, Solebury, because it's the last drink you'll be stealin' for a long time."

Clete nearly choked, spitting the bourbon out. The bottle was grabbed from his hand and the fancy talker stepped away, joining the other two men.

"What's going on here?" he demanded, feeling every sweat gland in his body opening and the sweat making a mad dash for every pour. The other two were dangerous, but the man in black was the one who caused his blood to turn to ice. There was no mistaking the pure hatred blazing from both light eyes under the flat brim of the black hat. "Who the hell are you?"

"Your worst fuckin' nightmare, you maggot-eyed piece of shit," Chris snarled, stepping closer. "You're first mistake was stealing my horse. Your last mistake was shooting my friend in the back."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Clete squeaked, backing up until his back his the wooden post of the stall. "I found that horse and I don't...uh...know nothin' about ...uh shootin'...anybody."

"If there is anything I detest more than a coward who would shoot a man in the back," Ezra proclaimed, flanking Chris on the left. "It's one whose reptilian tongue lies about it."

"Yup," Buck agreed, flanking Chris on the right. "A lyin', yella bellied, maggot-eyed', horsethievin' snake." He moved his right hand, pulling his long tan coat aside and revealing a gun. "We're takin' you in, Solebury," he noted, unsnapped the cord that held it. "One way or the other."

"Like Hell you are!" Solebury barked, "You got no proof and you ain't the law!"

"I beg to differ," Ezra spoke, "We work for Judge Travis and you sir should thank whatever deity you worship that you will live to stand before him."

"And we got a witness," Chris said in a low, lethal voice. "Who saw you gun down the owner and steal that horse." Larabee was careful not to mention Vin's name.

"That's bullshit!" Clete disagreed. "There wasn't anybody there, that long-haired fella was alone."

"Good Lord!" Ezra's sarcasm rose along with a single brow. "A psychic in our very midst. Imagine the odds."

"Yeah," Chris grinned, "How about that Buck. This lyin' sack o'shit is a mind reader."

"Hmmm," Buck nodded, scratching his chin. "Powerful stuff, you knowin' about his hair bein' long. But I guess you must be a little rusty, cause you didn't know there was someone in the house who saw you."

Clete's mouth opened and shut in quick succession. He was cornered with no way out. His ferret-like eyes darted around the room. Why did it seem to shrink by several feet with each passing moment. The sweat poured freely now, soaking his shirt and drawers.

"Am I correct, gentlemen, that in this county by the authority granted to us, horse thieves are to be hung by the neck until dead?" Ezra asked, exposing his gold tooth in a devilish grin.

"I spotted a big tree about mile outside town," Buck added, eyeing the gear stowed on the wall. "That rope outta do fine."

"Why waste a good rope?" Chris stated, flipping his jacket back and unlocking the cord over his colt.

"You...can...can...can't...do...this..." Clete stammered as his bladder almost gave way. But what happened next caused his heart to begin to quiver. The blond man laughed, whipped his hat off and ran his hands on the gunbelt. "I'm not...arm..ed..." He tried to move again and fell onto the ground.

"Neither am I!" Chris grinned, giving his gunbelt to Buck. He wiggled his fingers at Ezra who passed the bottle over. He uncorked it, took a long draw and handed it back. Then he stood over the quivering mouse, unleashing his full fury in his eyes. "Get up!" He curled both fists but Solebury just mutely shook his head. He eyed the tall man to Larabee's right and made a plea.

"Do something!"

"Okay. How about I give you a hand? Buck leaned down and hauled the coward to his feet. He turned him to Chris who used his right hand with brutal force. Then he stepped back and joined Erza, taking the bottle offered.

"Five minutes," Ezra stated of the amount of time it would take for their leader to dispose of the enemy.

"Three," Buck replied, handing the bottle back.

The pair watched as Chris vented all his anger on the other man. To his credit, Solebury fought back, getting in several solid punches to the lean gunslinger's torso and face. But then the demons inside overpowered the blond. Solebury was on his knees and Larabee grabbed his neck from behind and began to squeeze.

"Hey, Chris..." Buck warned, when the life began leaving the bloodied pile of refuse. Worse yet was the nearly trancelike unblinking gaze on his oldest friend's face. "Let go."

"Buck's right," Ezra moved in, grabbing the black clothed arm. It was like gripping a tree limb. "You'll kill him."

"Shit!" Buck spat, moving in front of Solebury and ducking down to try to find Larabee's eyes. Twin light green blocks of ice without remorse or course was what he saw, but Chris couldn't see him. He was in a dangerous place; one Buck hoped he could pull him back from. "Enough!" He gripped the soft side of each of Larabee's wrists and applied pressure. "You gettin' strung up for murder ain't gonna help 'Vin. Chris? Let him go..."

"Let Judge Travis take care of this stench-ridden mass of worm food," Ezra agreed.

It happened then. The strange buzzing that had overcome him drifted away. Instead of insect noises in his ears, he heard voices. The room returned and the odd black mist he'd been engulfed in disappeared. The rush of reality his him so hard, it staggered him. He was dizzy and blinked hard, swaying a bit.

"Easy, Chris," Buck soothed, holding him by the elbow for a moment until Chris shook his head and then pushed off.

"I'm fine," Larabee replied in an unsure voice.

He'd been angry before in his life but he'd never been so consumed while fighting with someone that he lost his touch with reality. It really jarred him. He watched Solebury crumple and Ezra drop down to check his pulse. He eyed his two hands and shook his head again.

"He's alive." Standish stood up. "I'll get the local lawman."

"No need." Dan Lynch's voice sounded from the doorway. The trio turned and saw that the sheriff was standing next to him.

Buck and Ezra moved to exit, Chris was slower and the force of the fight took its toll. He cradled his ribs and swiped the blood running down his face. He was gasping a bit and spit out a mouthful of blood. '

Ezra was about to turn away when he heard a sound. Buck's keen ears caught the distinct sound of a knife leaving a sheath at the same time. Both men spun around and Wilmington cried out.

"CHRIS!"

Trusting that voice he knew so well, Larabee dropped like a rock. He rolled over painfully and watched as one bullet split Solebury's forehead and the other his neck. He flinched at the knife in the new corpse's hand. He felt a bit of envy that the bullet hole between the animal's eyes wasn't his own.

"You okay?" Dan asked, dropping down by Larabee's side.

"No," Chris answered, allowing the other man to help him up. "But thanks Dan."

"It's okay, son," the sheriff said, moving past him. "I saw the whole thing. You three just give me a statement, then you can go if you want. I know you are anxious to get back to your ranch."

"Thanks Sheriff." Larabee nodded in appreciation. He was anxious to get back to Vin.

"Helluva shot," Ezra commented to Buck.

"Dreadful," Buck mimicked Ezra's voice. "I was aiming for his arm."

It was then that Chris noticed that Buck was squinting and rubbing his eyes. He stepped closer and peered more intently and then the rogue began to duck and weave, all the time moving his eyes.

"You can't see?" Chris barked and cursed softly as the lip split again.

"I can see..." Buck defended weakly at the peach and black blur. "...sort of..."

"Jesus, Buck you could have shot me!" Larabee growled.

"Nah," Buck grinned, clapping a hand on what he thought was Larabee's shoulder and hitting air. "Never happen, stud. I may be blind but I'm not crazy."

"That is debatable," Ezra disagreed, grabbing Buck's elbow and leading him outside. "Perhaps you need something to clear your vision."

"Perhaps you're right," Buck agreed, sitting on a bench in the yard and taking the bourbon. He rubbed his eyes again and watched a blurry scarlet coat move away.

"Are you alright?" Ezra asked Chris who was standing by the edge of the property. He knew the gunslinger was shaken by the events.

"I need a minute." Chris bent down and soaked his kerchief. He wiped his face, wincing at the cuts on his eye and lip. "You and Buck give the statements, okay? I'll be right in."

"Alright," Ezra agreed.

"Here, Chris." Dan ambled over and gave the gunbelt he'd found inside.

"Thanks," Chris managed, strapping his belt back on. He then shook the hand offered. "I mean that, Dan, I won't forget this."

"What are friends for, right?" Dan nodded, then thought on his houseguest, Justin. "I'll bring the kid to the ranch tomorrow."

"Okay," Chris answered and leaned heavily on the post.

He eyed the sky and again thought on his loss of control. It came a close second to when he'd found what was left of his family in the charred ruins of his home. That black cloud had remained for some time. But he'd not yet found the animal or animals who'd murdered his family. What would happen then? Would he kill in cold blood? Did the fact that those men were murderers make a difference? Or by taking that life, did he become the hunted as well? He knelt down and dunked his head under the pump, using his right hand to send cold water on his face and neck. Something caught his ear and he was instantly alert. He stood up, turning his head toward the road he'd come into town on. Then it sounded again and he knew he was not mistaken. There was only one man he knew that made that odd bird like call

"Vin?"

For a split second, he feared the very worst. That his best friend had died and his restless spirit was calling out. The third time the sound hit the air; he found his horse and chased it.

"Mister Larabee!" Cal called after the fleeing horse. "Hey...Mister Larabee..."

Chris was about a quarter mile down when the sound called again and close by. He halted the horse and waited. Then a figure stepped out of the shadows.

"Chanu," he sighed in relief, pressing his hand to his eyes. His heart was beating so hard it hurt his chest. Chanu? What was Chanu doing here. Unless? That thought brought his head up sharply.

"His heart still beats, but it is weak." Chanu answered the fear riddled features. "But you must ride like the wind. Go...go to him, his spirit searches for you."

+ + + + + + +

A half hour had passed when Ezra finally arrived back at his room. Buck had departed from the sheriff's office first, needing the use of his bed. Ezra wired home to let J.D. know that Solebury was taken care of. He then stopped by the sheriff's office and gave his own statement. He was surprised when the sheriff had not heard from Chris Larabee yet. So he'd backtracked to the livery and the liveryman told him Chris rode fast out of town. After notifying the lawman that Larabee had ridden to the ranch, the sheriff said he'd stop by the next day.

The curtains stirred a bit when the gambler entered the room. He went to the bed first to check on the concussed gunslinger. He was about to reach for the lamp when a hand rose up and touched his hand.

"..mmm...soft as a baby's behind...come a little closer, darlin and let old Buck have a taste of your sweet lips."

"There is not enough gold, silver or dust in your meager bank account to afford a nibble," Ezra deferred, hiding a grin.

"Aw, hell," Buck moaned and peeled an eye open. "Dammit, Ezra."

"My apologies for not being the right gender to satisfy your urgent need." The gambler moved back a bit when the body stirred.

"You don't know what you're missin'," Buck replied, sitting up gingerly and trying not to throw up. "The impact of these lips has been compared to crossing into paradise."

"If you'd like, I could summon up our host's offspring. I'm sure she isn't busy trimming her moles this late."

"I'd sooner bed you," Buck grumbled and cried out. The whole room began to fly around and if not for Ezra grabbing him, he'd have toppled forward.

"Perhaps we should seek out medical assistance," Standish suggested, a bit concerned.

"I'd rather go home," Buck said. "Nathan'll fix it. Chris with you or waiting outside?"

"Neither." Ezra got Buck to his feet and to his surprise, the taller man was able to stand. "He rode out already, and I cannot say I am surprised."

"No," Buck agreed, "Chris is hurtin' deep. If Vin doesn't pull through..."

"Perish the thought," Ezra shuddered. He gathered up his things. He'd already settled the bill and by the time he got outside, Buck was looking pale but better. "Are you sure you can ride?"

"No," Buck found a small grin for the concern he heard. He tapped the blurry area where a gold brocade vest was. "You got a heart in there after all."

"Nonsense," Ezra dismissed, "I am merely looking out for my assets. Should I return without you and your health declines, Mister Larabee would not be happy."

"You're a fraud, Ez," Buck chuckled and the pair made their way to the livery.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan jumped up when he heard the thundering hooves bearing down on the ranch. He took his gun and made his way to the window. He saw the dark horse and by the time the rider vaulted off and ran for the door, he put his gun down. The door burst open and a very battered Chris Larabee paused to catch his breath. Nathan winced at the blood encrusted face, one eye swollen shut and he didn't miss the right hand holding the ribcage. Chris never acknowledged him. He just stood there, taking heaving breaths, but the green eye that was working was riddled in guilt and fear.

"Go on now," Nathan urged.

Chris unhitched his gunbelt and tossed it on the table by the door along with his hat and coat. He strode to Vin's side, wincing at the waxen complexion. He looked like a corpse; Chanu's words were true. For a moment, he didn't know what to do. He took a steady breath to calm his jangled nerves and fisted his hands to keep them from trembling. He studied the fevered face and then flinched at the very slight movement in the chest. The strongest man he knew seemed as fragile as a piece of glass. He wanted to see the infamous Tanner temper shining through the sky eyes and hear that raspy drawl. The idea of Vin dying was just too unacceptable. He didn't want to walk in the shadows anymore; Vin Tanner had brought him into the light. So he eyed the stilled figure's position and took action. He gingerly lifted Vin forward, sat down behind him and leaned back on the banks of pillows. Then he eased Vin back on his chest and kept his arms around him. Vin's head was turned and lying on his chest.

"Hey, cowboy," he whispered, a bit unnerved at the jagged tear in the usually well-tuned connection he always felt in Vin's presense. "It's time to come home."

+ + + + + + +

There was a change in the darkness and even the wind ceased its loud call. Weak and barely holding on, Vin felt the temperature change. He cocked his head and there it was! The sound of the mighty wings flapping hard. Vinís heart sang and his soul rejoiced when the strong wings wrapped around him. He sighed once, relishing in the warmth that now engulfed him. The pain went away, the fear dissolved, his lungs filled with much needed air and his heart began to beat true again. The only thing he was aware of was the healing warmth of his eagle. Safe within the mighty wings of the majestic bird he relaxed and finally let his weary soul rest.

"Thank God yer here..." he murmured.

Chris's throat caught when a single, long sigh escaped Vin's lips. He swallowed hard and was a bit stunned at the power he held. It wasn't that he doubted Chanu's assessment of Vin being lost in some weird, dark netherworld, but he was a man who saw black and white. This was a gray area and he wasn't comfortable being inside it. But he felt the change immediately; there was no doubt in his mind he was cradling Vin Tanner's battered soul. The icy fingers that held his gut captive all day and especially on the ride home were gone. He didn't know how or why but he knew Vin was not in danger anymore. Maybe he shouldn't question it, just accept it and thank God for it.

"You're welcome," he rasped, keeping his hold on the other half of his soul.

Part 15

Although the rest of the ranch house was quiet, the healer was already easing into the day that was about to be born. Dawn's pink fingers were just beginning to stretch across the dark blue horizon. It was cold outside today and Nathan shivered, wrapping his coat tighter. He picked up more wood and went back inside the warm house. His long strides took him quickly across the spacious living area. He gingerly stepped over the two figures resting several feet from the hearth. After depositing more wood and stoking the fire, he returned to the kitchen. The large black pot was full of two chickens, some carrots, celery, and onion bits. He carried the heavy kettle to the stove and set it down, then began dumping water into it. There were already two loaves of bread in the oven and hotcake batter waiting in a large ceramic bowl.

He allowed himself a cup of coffee and sat down on the large leather sofa in front of the fire. He studied the sleeping bodies on the floor and was full of wonder at the power that had manifested itself. He didn't need his tools to see that Vin Tanner's condition had improved dramatically. The awful sucking sound that Vin had been making as he fought for every small breath was gone. His chest was rising and falling in even rhythm now. His color was much better and he knew when he listened to the heart, it would be better. Chanu's assessment was correct; the eagle had landed. Some things were better left to God, he decided, toasting that power with his mug. He'd just enjoyed that first wonderful mouthful when he heard the distinct sound of someone being sick.

Buck felt sure that the house had fallen on his head during the night. He wasn't quite sure how he got here, or when for that matter. His ribs and side hurt from throwing up and he didn't have the energy to get back onto the bed. He just sprawled on the floor, shoving his back onto the wall. For a few moments, he peered around the dark room and his heart rate increased. He couldn't see anything. Had the blow that the boy issued to his skull done more damage than he initially thought? Then the door opened and light spilled into the room. A tall man was in the doorway, shaking his head.

"Mornin', Nate," Buck croaked. "Did I wake you? I'm sorry."

"Wake me?" Nate disarmed, squatting down by the ashen faced man. "This house don't run itself. I had soup to start and breakfast to get ready. Come on," he urged but the dark-haired man shook his head.

"I don't think so," Buck wheezed. "I don't feel so good, Nate."

"Yuh look like shit, too," Nate agreed, "But sittin' on the floor won't cure that. I want to look at yuh better." Nathan poured a mug of water and held the bowl out. "Rinse with half; then drink the rest."

Buck didn't like the idea of moving. He was fine on the floor by the chamber pot. He couldn't fall again if he was already down. But the tall healer was not a man to argue with when he was determined. So Buck obeyed, handed the mug back and then waited for Nathan to return. Then he raised his arm and let Nathan help him up.

"It's okay, I gotcha," Nate stated calmly when Buck's legs buckled. By the time he got the staggered figure to the long sofa and settled; he was worried. Buck's pale face reflected the weakness in the voice he heard. He made him sit up and gently eased the head back onto the leather, tipping it sideways. "Nasty..." he decided of the jagged cut.

"You ought to be on this end," Buck commiserated, looking around the room. His heart sank a bit, the images were not clear; rather there was a fuzzy circle around everything.

"I'm gonna have to clean it out," Nate warned and saw Buck's eyes squinting as he fought to look past him. "Wearin' 'em out ain't gonna make yuh see better. Yuh'll be fuzzy fuhr a few days and most likely yuh'll be dizzy. So I don't want yuh off this couch or the bed. I got enough to worry about with Vin."

"Vin?" Buck sat forward, eager to see his fallen friend.

"He's doin' much better," Nate nodded to the twin bodies reclined by the fire. "His eagle done brought him home."

"Eagle?" Buck coughed, reaching for the mug of coffee that Nate left behind. "Chris? I ain't much for that hoodoo. Could be that you healed Vin, Nate."

"No, Buck, I wish I could take that credit. But Chris was the one who healed him." He took the mug of coffee back and scolded the concussed patient. "I got tea fuhr yuh." He spent a few moments gathering up a bowl of clean water, soapy water and grabbed a bottle of carbolic.

"Aw, shit...skip the tea, gimme whiskey." Buck winced even before he saw the bottle.

"It'll only sting for a few moments." Nathan carefully cleaned the debris out first; then bathed the cut in soapy water. After rinsing, he dabbed it with carbolic. To his credit, Buck inhaled sharply and only hissed once. "Yuh still alive down there?"

"Barely," Buck rasped, "Christ, that shit hurts...Am I gonna live?"

"Hmmph..." Nate picked up the bowls and the bottle. "If anything's gonna kill yuhr sorry ass itís gonna be from all that womanizin' yuh do."

"Never happen!" Buck predicted, laying his throbbing head back on the sofa. Nathan returned with a loaded mug of tea. Buck sniffed and caught the scent of peppermint, which he knew would help his queasy stomach.

"Take yuhr time, it's hot," Nathan warned, handing the mug over.

"Cat piss," Buck decided and wrapped the large quilt around himself. He actually felt a bit better sitting up but the light in the room made his head ache. He took a tentative sip of the hot tea and watched Nathan preparing to check on another patient. He noted that Chris's face was a mess. One eye was swollen shut as was part of his lip. He knew that the right hand would hurt for a while; he'd used it like a battering ram on Solebury. He sipped his tea slowly and watched as the talented hands examined their fallen tracker.

Nathan grinned when his stethescope hit Vin's chest and Chris scowled in his sleep. The gunslinger's arm tightened and he tried to turn his body to shield Vin.

"I ain't gonna hurt 'im," Nate suggested and tried to peel the arm away. "Chris, let go now. I gotta examine 'im. Chris..." He tapped the semi-bearded face and the pale green eyes popped open. Well one only half-opened, right in the middle of a shiner. "Easy now, yuh with me?"

Chris nodded and yawned, keeping his scowl in place as he looked around the room. For a few minutes, he wasn't quite sure where he was. Then the events of the night before returned to his fuzzy mind. He saw a figure huddled on the sofa and a mug was raised to salute him.

"Mornin' stud," Buck managed.

"I ain't talkin' to you." He groused at the pale rogue. "You know he damn near shot me," Chris grumbled to Nate. "Fool shot his gun off when he couldn't see spit."

"That's just pure talent," Buck oozed, lying back on the sofa.

"He's gonna be fine," Nate answered the concern in Larabee's eyes as they remained on Wilmington. "He ain't gonna be chasin' skirts for awhile, though."

"That's got nothin' to do with my eyes, " Buck returned, patting his crotch. "Always armed and ready to fire."

Nathan smiled and put his stethoscope down. He shook his head and tried to dispel the naked fear he saw in Chris Larabee's eyes. He knew that seeing Vin so near death had shaken the leader to his core. But he also knew that the power that radiated from him was the curing elixir.

"Yuh done good, cowboy," he winked and put his fingers on Vin's neck.

"Who you calling a cowboy?" Chris grunted and then caught the warmth in the dark eyes. "Really?"

"I wouldn't have given him a new dawn last night, but now," he marveled. . "His pulse is stronger, his breathin's better and his heart is pumpin' good. I don't have that kind of medicine; that came from here." He tapped Chris's chest. "Chanu was right, that boy was lost and yuhr the one that found him and brung him on home." He eyed the right hand protecting what he knew were injured ribs. "Yuh want I should have a look?"

"Nah, thanks Nate, they're just sore, not broken."

It wasn't that Chris doubted Nathan's words but it was hard for him to accept it. But the fact remained that all of Vin's vital signs had improved and he himself had felt the change. He felt the warmth of Vin's breath on his arm and the power of life cradled against his chest. He didn't want to let go, a part of him worried that Vin would slip away. How was it possible that he had brought Vin back to the land of the living?

"Come on, now," Nathan urged, standing and tapping Chris's shoulder. "Yuh need a hot meal and soft bed. Yuh can't stay on the floor." He smiled again when, without realizing it, Chris tightened his hold on Vin again. "He's turned the corner, Chris, it's okay to let go."

"Fuck," Chris hissed when he tried to move his legs and the long hours of being dormant caused the pins and needles to hit him. He scooted back a bit and Nathan supported Vin's inert body. But his legs were numb and standing wasn't an option.

Buck saw the problem and sat up, but a dual chorus of 'NO' from both his friends halted him.

Chris kept scooting backwards until he was several feet away and eyed the other sofa. He managed to get that far and use his upper body to haul himself on it. He then winced, grunted and cursed for several minutes, rubbing the life back into his legs. He watched carefully as Nathan changed Vin's dressings. His stomach flipped over and he actually gagged when the horrific head wound was revealed.

"It's lookin' better," Nathan answered the gag.

"Sick, fuckin' bastard,' Chris vented, taking the mug of coffee that was left on the table.

"Dead, sick, fuckin' bastard," Buck corrected. "Hope he rots in hell forever. You sure Vin's gonna pull through?"

"He's past the worst of it," Nate said, watching as Vin's features twitched. He laid a hand on Vin's cheek and nodded. "Fever's gone." Then he noticed that the silent tracker had responded to his touch, pressing his cheek against the warmth of his hand. He gently tapped the cheek and the fine features reacted. He filled the mug by the hearth with cold water and eased Vin's head up a bit. "Vin? I got some water. Open that ornery' mouth and take a drink." The pale brown brows furrowed and the head weakly moved away. "I know yuh hear me, Vin. Yuh need some water." Still the weak body fought and the face turned away.

"Quit fuckin' around and drink the Goddamn water, Vin!" Chris chastised loudly, scowling his best friend. His head was throbbing and his face hurt. What nerves hadn't been shorn, shot and severed in the last couple days were lingering by a thread.

"That's what I like about you, Chris, "Buck chuckled when Vin's lips opened and he drank the water. "That sweet charming bedside manner."

"Worked, didn't it?" Chris defended.

Although he didn't know this place, he knew he was going in the right direction. The sky was blue and the air was sweet. The eagle had found water for him and urged him to drink. It tasted so good! He inhaled deeply filling his starved lungs and he felt the pain shifting. He could feel the eagle nearby, flapping his wings and encouraging him to walk on his own. So he took that first step and fell but the eagle didn't pick him up, rather he squawked loudly. Vin frowned and tried again and stumbled, but kept his balance. He had faltering steps at first but by the power of the mighty winged creature by his side, he began the walk home. He knew just over that horizon spread in front of him he would find what he sought.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah eyed the mid-morning sun and shook his graying head. There were only a few days until Christmas and he had a lot of work to do to prepare the church for services on Christmas Eve. He knew a lot of the townsfolk were looking forward to the service. The pews were done, the last nail had been put in place and all he needed to do now was varnish them. The pulpit required a little more work and the windows needed fixing. Despite the grave condition of his friend, he had a good feeling that Vin Tanner would pull through.

He climbed the ladder and began fixing the window that looked out upon the street. It wasn't very crowded today. For despite the bright sun, the air was chilled and the wind was blowing. Twenty minutes later when he'd finished nailing the frame and he'd begun to varnish the window sill, he spotted a pair of riders headed his way. He recognized the boy riding and climbed down.

Just as Dan slowed his horse, the door to the church opened and a man with graying hair stepped outside. He saw the cross hanging on a black cord around the large man's neck. He knew he had found the right place.

"Mister Sanchez?" Dan inquired.

"I'm Josiah Sanchez." The preacher stepped closer and studied the face of what had been a very troubled youth. Although he saw a bit of uncertainty and fear in the dark eyes, the demons were gone. "How are you son?"

"I'm okay, Mister Sanchez, how's Vin?"

"Still cradled by the Lord's hand. I'm riding out there later, if you'd like to go with me."

"Yeah," Justin readily agreed.

"I'm Dan Lynch. I told Chris and the sheriff in Eagles Bend that I would bring the boy back. The sheriff knew you and said it would be agreeable if you'd be responsible for him."

"Justin?" Josiah moved closer and waited.

"I know I screwed up and you got no reason to trust me, Mister Sanchez, but I swear I'm not the same Justin Dalton who rode out of here with..." He dropped his head then, too ashamed to continue. He felt a strong hand on his knee and brought his head up.

"First step is always the hardest son and you've never been alone. The Lord was riding with you. You can't always feel his hand and sometimes he gives a mighty hard test, but it looks like you passed. How about you give me a hand around here for few days? I have an extra cot in the back and there's a lot of work to be done before Christmas Eve."

"Thank, Mister Sanchez, really..." Justin meant every word and it showed.

"Okay," Josiah eyed Vin's horse which the boy was riding. "Why don't you take him down to the livery and brush him down, give him some hay. I'll meet you there and we'll go find your grandfather. He's been worried sick."

"I don't know how to face him," Justin choked, eyes full. "He hates me."

"No, he doesn't, Justin," Dan answered. "You just look him right in the eye and tell him you're sorry. That's all he wants, the rest will come on its own."

"Sounds like good advice to me," Josiah concurred, shaking the man's hand. "Thanks for bringing him back."

"Tell Chris I'll bring Red over in a couple days, I got Cal at the livery in town taking care of him."

"Will do, Dan, thanks again."

"Mister Lynch?" Justin turned in the saddle and held his hand out. "I'm sure sorry for all the trouble."

"I know you are, son, good luck to you." Dan eyed the sheriff's office up the street. "Is the sheriff in? I told our sheriff I'd update him."

"Yeah, J.D.ís in the office," the preacher answered. Once Dan left, Josiah gave the boy's thigh a light slap. "Go on and get the horse to the livery, we got a lot to do before headin' to the ranch for supper."

"Okay."

+ + + + + + +

Otis was dozing in the chair in the large warm parlor of the boarding house when a shadow crossed his face. He blinked and squinted upwards, then gripped the chair with both hands. For a very pregnant moment, neither figure uttered a word. But the old man had wise eyes and years of experience that told him the brightness in the dark eyes was the light he'd been praying for. A smile split his aged face and his eyes filled up. Slowly, he rose up and watched the young man he longed for born right before him.

"Grandpa...I'm so sorry..." Justin stammered, his eyes burning with tears. "I know I got no right to ask...but if you'll have me...I'd like...I'd..."

"You hush up and come here boy," Otis answered, opening his arms. Justin fell into them and he held on, his damp eyes turned upwards. "Thank you..." he whispered, for his prayer was answered.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra had ridden back to town with a list of supplies Nathan needed Josiah to bring back that evening. The healer was taking a much deserved nap in the back. Vin was resting quietly, having ingested water and broth at regular intervals although he'd not opened his eyes yet. Buck left the sofa and walked to the window, holding on carefully. The room still swayed and he felt awful but at least he was home. That's what his ranch had become, the first home he'd felt in a long time. He eyed the lone figure by the corral working with the new horse. Chris had been outside for over an hour and Buck knew he was troubled. He tapped the glass and motioned for the blond to come inside.

"No...he's fine..." he called out in vain when Larabee moved quickly for the door. Buck turned as he entered the house.

"Vin?" Chris called out and Buck shooshed him.

"He's fine. Nate got a half of mug of broth in him. He fussed a bit but he drank it. It's you I'm worried about."

"Me?" Like Thomas, Chris needed to 'see' for himself and walked over to inspect his best friend. He tugged the quilt up and watched for several moments as Vin's chest rose and fell.

"Come on, you can buy me lunch," Buck suggested, slowly heading for the table.

Chris washed up at the sink and splashed a lot of cold water on his face. The eye hurt like hell and his hand still ached but it was worth the pain. He didn't regret Solebury's death but there was something nagging at him. He knew Chanu was angry at his choice of leaving Vin, but he knew it was the right thing to do. He ladled a bowl of soup for Buck and himself and took the bread by the sideboard and threw it in the warm oven. He poured them two mugs of cider and brought a crock of butter from the window where it was staying chilled. His eyes drifted across the room to the nasty bits of Vin's healing skull. He put the soup down and sighed hard.

"But what if I was wrong?" He murmured.

"Huh?" Buck answered, sipping the cider and reaching for a spoon.

"What if I was wrong, Buck?" Chris repeated, getting the bread and butter. He ripped a hot hunk off and slapped some butter on it. He dipped it in the hot soup and took bite, chewing thoughtfully.

"Wrong?" Buck frowned, eyeing Chris's battered face and then the body by the fire.

"What if he died while I was gone?" Chris rasped, shaking his head. "Chanu didn't want me to go. He kept saying Vin was lost and looking for me..."

"He didn't die, Chris," Buck answered. "Is that what's eatin' you? Or is it the 'what if' if Vin did die? That scares you, doesn't it? He's become such a part of you that him leaving isn't something you can face?"

"I never planned for this," Chris objected, shoveling some soup inside. "I was doing find ridin' on my own." He put the spoon down hard and despite himself, found his eyes moving to Vin again.

"Goddamn tracker..."

"Yeah," Buck's voice caught at the break in Larabee's . He watched for several moments as Chris fought to control the emotions he guarded so well. "Don't hide that Chris, it's a beautiful thing to see." The head came up and the green eye that wasn't swollen shut regarded him sharply. "Most bastards don't find that in a lifetime. You outta thank God that drawlin', blue-eyed Texan rode into town. Don't question it, Chris, embrace it for all it's worth. Cause in case you ain't noticed, I have. You're walkin' a helluva lot taller and the light is back in your eyes. Me? I thank God every day for Vin Tanner. Not just for the gift of his friendship, which I do treasure, but for the gift he gave me...havin' you back and whole again."

Chris swallowed hard and turned away, not trusting his voice. He got up and walked over to the hearth, studied Vin for a moment and sat down on the chair Nathan left there. He hunched over, resting his elbows on his knees and studied that fine face carefully. He knew Buck was right, he shouldn't fret over the fact he'd nearly lost Vin. He also knew by the life they led that the chance was strong that a bullet or blade might permanently separate them. But he also knew that the hole inside that had been a hollow, horrid part of his everyday life since he'd buried his wife and child was gone. The tread of his step was lighter and he saw the sun every day. He was seeing the world in color again and enjoying his life. The gray netherworld he'd been riding in for three years was gone. He reached down and gave Vin's bare shoulder a good tug and swallowed hard.

Buck's grin was a mile wide when Chris returned to the table. He knew that Larabee was shaken by the fact by his power alone Vin was returning to them. He saw some questions lingering in the green eyes. "You ain't gonna cry are you?" He laughed and ducked when the end of the roll was thrown at him.

"Don't make me shoot you Bucko," Chris said and then watched Buck blush at the use of the nickname that had been dormant far too long. Born of time when two young colts rode hard and partied wildly, drinking and fighting their way through the west. For a moment it was Buck who was speechless and he smiled then. "Thanks..."

Part 16

Nathan shut the oven door and placed two loaves of bread on the sideboard. The ham was already done and the turnips were done and about to be mashed. Carrots and sweet potatoes were roasting in the oven. Ezra arrived about an hour before and JD and Josiah were coming any time now and would be bringing fried chicken from the boarding house.

They were rallying around their injured, trying to cheer up Chris and hoping that the noise and familiar voices would reach Vin. The healer looked over towards the hearth where Chris was sitting on the floor, quietly talking to Vin. Every once and awhile, he'd tip Vin's head up and let him drink. So far, he was the only one that Vin was responding too. Although he was encouraged by this, he was also worried about Vin's mental capacity and if the wound did damage they couldn't see. He knew by the deep lines of concern Chris wore, he was worried too.

"Come on, Vin," Chris coached, nudging the slack lips. "Pretend it's Redeye. You know how pissed off Nathan gets when you don't follow his orders. Vin...!" Chris hissed, watching the brows furrow. "Quit cussin' and open that damn Tanner mouth."

He snorted in triumph when the lips parted and Vin drank a good three mouthfuls. He gently eased his head back down and resumed his vigil. Vin was definitely improving. His breathing was better, his color was better and he reacted to noise. If only he would wake up.

"You must be exhausted," Ezra commented, handing Chris a mug of coffee and taking a seat nearby.

"Yeah...it's been a rough few days. I just wish he'd wake up..." the weary blond leaned back against the wall and sipped the coffee.

"He will when the time is appropriate. He's been through a trauma and that fact that he's responding to stimuli is a relief."

"Yeah, I guess." Chris kept his eyes on Tanner's face.

"As much as I enjoy the solitude, I do miss our fearless tracker's colorful use of cursing in a variety of languages within the same text."

"Vin does have a way with words."

Both men turned when the speaker walked very slowly towards them and eased himself on the couch.

"You look like shit, Buck," Chris stated of the pale face pinched in pain.

"I concur, why are you about?" Standish eyed the body next to him.

"I can't stand bein' in bed alone, can't sleep. Might as well be out here." Buck eyed Vin sleeping peacefully. Nathan had encouraged them to talk to Vin whenever possible. "Hey, Vin...you're lookin' better. Chris isn't giving you a hard time, I hope. You ought to see his face, only a mother could love that."

"Yours did!" Chris teased and got a grin from both his friends.

Ezra and Buck were talking about the new girl who was working at the saloon. Buck was making sure he included Vin in the conversation. Chris was stiff from sitting so many hours and stood up, groaned and rubbed his back. He grabbed his duster and headed outside for a smoke. He lit the cheroot and watched the purples and pinks dance across the dusky sky. He saw a wagon in the distance and a rider beside it. He hoped Nathan was right, that if they began talking and laughing Vin would wake up. The healer had read that surrounding a comatose person with things he knew sounds, voices, sometimes helped to wake them up.

But he was troubled about a few things and was thinking about riding out in the morning to visit with Chanu. Firstly, he owed the man an apology and also, he was hoping that the spiritual brave would be able to help him understand what he went through with Vin. It shook him to the core when he grabbed Vin and literally stole him from the Reaper. He still got chills when he thought about how he'd felt the power almost like an internal fire burst when Vin's soul returned. He turned when the door opened and Buck hobbled out.

"You catch a cold on top of a concussion and Nathan'll have your hide."

"I ain't plannin' on being out here that long," Buck replied, wrapping a blanket around his shoulders. "You okay, Chris?" He didn't get a reply, just a non-committal shrug. But Buck knew by the set of the jaw and the roaming green eyes, something was not quite right.

"I think maybe tomorrow morning I'll ride out to the village, it's not far."

"Chanu?" Buck asked and the blond head dipped once. "Might not be a bad idea. I was expectin' he'd stop in today to check on Vin. You think he's angry with you?"

"I do...he'd have that right. Vin's his friend too and to him, I ran out on Vin."

"You did what you had to do, Chris. Vin would have done the same."

"Yeah, I know," Chris agreed.

"But..." Buck drew his voice out, as he read the lingering question in the air.

"But it's gettin' cold and the troops are here," Chris dodged, tossing the cheroot in the dirt and turning back to Buck. "Get inside and keep warm. I'm gonna chop some wood."

Buck shook his head and hobbled back inside. He shuffled to the table and sat down, shivering under the blanket. He jumped a little when Nathan shoved a mug at him.

"Is this loaded?" Buck sniffed the mug. "Cause I am a little hungry. I don't want to throw up or fall asleep at the table."

"No, it's just tea." Nathan replied, watching Buck's eyes.

"They're better," Buck answered the gaze. "Really, they are."

"Honey?" Nate asked, his hand on the brown ceramic jar.

"No, thanks, sweetheart." Buck wagged his eyebrows.

"Good Lord, that dent in your head didn't improve your humor any!" Ezra rolled his eyes.

"How long yuh been waitin' to use that?" Nate tossed.

"Aw, come on, give me a break, I have a concussion." Buck's plea fell on deaf ears. "Vin would have laughed, wouldn't you Vin? You appreciate my humor."

"He'd have shot you, most likely," JD said, coming through the door. He stopped at the fireplace and knelt down. "Hey Vin! You're lookin' better. You can't believe the stuff people have been leaving for you. We had to empty your wagon twice. I put them in your room."

"Stuff?" Buck asked, his curiosity rising, "What stuff?"

"Shirts, suspenders, kerchiefs, muffins, cookies..." JD paused as Josiah and Justin entered.

"A wool scarf, flannel underwear, and big pile of promissory notes for personal care when he's stronger." Josiah updated. "Every woman over eighteen's left something. That boy sure does have some talent"

"It's that damn 'blush and Ma'am' shit!" Buck growled. "He cheats! 'Aw, hell Ma'am, if it ain't t'much trouble, wouldn't wanna put ya out'. "He mimicked of the Texan's ability to melt just about any female heart he encountered.

"You're jealous!" Ezra grinned amidst the laughter raining down. "He is, after all, a sharpshooter."

"He's a cheat! Between them damn eyes of his and that drawl..." Buck grimaced and pointed to his head. "I got a dent in here...I damn near went blind. Did I get any gifts?"

Josiah walked over to their resident womanized and handed him a bottle.

"What the hell is this?" Buck asked.

"It's from Caresse," Josiah answered. "Now, I don't speak French, but she seemed really mad. She hollered out a blue streak and shoved that bottle at me. The few words I did catch had something to do with a rash."

"That's bullshit!" Buck roared as they continued to laugh. He read the bottle. "Duponts Medicinal Cream, imported from Paris." He read the rest to himself and flushed. That caused Ezra to grab the bottle. "Hey, that's mine, give it back..."

"A soothing balm that eliminates the embarrassing rash and itch that occurs to that delicate area between the legs." He translated from the French.

"You know, Buck, you need to take care of that stuff. I had a notion to ask Miss Caresse for visit. I can't afford to catch your crotch rot." Josiah stated.

"I don't have crotch rot!" Buck growled. "Gimme my fuckin' bottle!"

"Good choice o'words," Nate laughed. "It's the only thing yu'll be fuckin' fuhr awhile."

"You ain't a damn bit funny, Nathan!" Buck defended, wondering why his groin was suddenly itching.

"Hey! Hey!" JD called out and didn't get anywhere over the loud laughter. "HEY!" He nodded to Vin. "He smiled...it was Buck's crotch rot that did it."

"The powers of your pathetic manhood continue to amaze me," Ezra drolled.

"Pathetic!" Buck argued standing and putting a hand on his waistband. "You wanna compare? I got you beat by at least 3 inches."

"Buck, you're scaring me," Chris stated, having just arrived.

"Unless you and Ezra got something to tell us..." Josiah stated with a straight face. "There's nothing wrong with two men who give comfort in the night..."

"Very funny, preacher," Buck made a face but moved to where the others were watching Vin. Sure enough, a wide smile was on his face. "You shut up, Vin. I thought you were my friend. I don't laugh when your boys are gettin' picked on."

"How about that?" Nathan said, watching Chris study Vin's face. "He's tryin' hard. I wouldn't be surprised if he wakes up tomorrow."

"You don't get the credit you deserve, Nathan," Chris lauded quietly. "I've been to hospitals in the city, have had bullets taken out by surgeons. But you have them all beat. I don't think we thank you enough for savin' our collective hides."

"Yuh do..." Nathan nodded and rubbed his neck. "Wasn't fuhr y'all, I'd be dead now. Seems to me I got the better end of that deal."

He noticed that Justin had disappeared into a bedroom in the back. He saw Chris eyeing the room as well.

"I'll talk to him," Chris said. "Why don't you get the others to the table."

Justin looked up when Chris appeared in the doorway. He was putting his things away in a drawer.

"How you doing, Justin?"

"Good...better," he replied. "I want to thank you, Mister Larabee, for giving me a second chance. It's more than I deserved."

"We all do things that we regret, Justin, me included. I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of. Ownin' up to'em and makin' amends, that's what takes guts. You did that, and I'm proud of you, I know Vin is too. Why don't you talk to him? Nathan says it does him good to hear voices."

"Okay..." Justin nodded.

He waited a few moments after Chris left and slowly moved to where Vin Tanner was lying on a quilt by the fire. The others were already eating and he saw the empty place set for him. Funny, he'd practiced all the way to town, what he would say. Now he couldn't produce a single word. He thought of the advice Dan Lynch had given him about 'opening your heart'.

"Hello Mister Tanner, it's Justin. I'm real glad you're doin' better. I'm sorry I run out on you, I thought you were dead. I didn't leave...well I did but I wanted to get the man who shot you. He's dead now. I did a lot of thinking about what we talked about. Me and Grandpa are doin' good now. As soon as I fix up the cabin, we're gonna move back. JD's gonna help me. Well, I guess I'll get some supper." He paused and lifted the limp hand, giving it a tug. "Thanks for having faith in me, Mister Tanner, when nobody else did, including me." He gasped when the fingers in his hand moved. Vin heard him! He swallowed hard and gave another tug, then eased the hand down.

"You feel better, son?" Josiah asked and Justin nodded. "Good...it does a soul good to confess, it's like takin' a bath. You eat up...you got a lot of work to do tomorrow."

"Yessir," Justin agreed and decided he'd spent part of that time in the church asking God for a favor.

+ + + + + + +

He was warm and content, there was no pain here. Now that he left the dark place, he wasn't afraid anymore. He knew his journey was not over but this place was nice. Soft breezes, a bright blue sky, rolling meadows and wildflowers. But he knew he couldn't stay, he could hear his friends calling to him. Their voices were so close! The warmth they bathed him in was the fuel he needed to get over that next hill. He knew it would be difficult, but most things worth fighting for are. So Vin kept walking, drinking in the sounds of the laughter of his brothers.

Part 17

It was early when Chris Larabee arrived at the Seminole Village. A few of the tribe were up and about, preparing for the new day. He could smell bread baking and some other kind of hot cereal that he coudn't readily identify simmering in a pot. He nodded to a few of the women as he rode past the cooking area. Raine gave him a wide smile as Kojay appeared in front of him. He got off of his horse and turned to greet the camp leader.

"Come, my friend, eat , we have set a place for you." Kojay extended his arm to where several mats were lying on the ground.

"How did you know I was coming?" Chris asked and the older man gave him an odd glance. "Oh...sorry I asked."

"Your spirit is troubled, Chanu has told me of your distress. How is Vin?"

"Better. Nathan's hopeful. He's responding...well..sort of..." Chris sat down and took a bowl offered by one of the women. "Thank you." As he ate a mouthful of the cinnamon tasting hot cereal, he thought on his friend. "He's taking liquids and he seems to hear, but he hasn't opened his eyes yet."

"Soon he will see the light, you must have patience. His journey was long and very difficult. He is resting."

Chris swiped his mouth and picked up a mug of cold fruit cider. He wondered how Kojay seemed to know so much about Vin. He didn't totally understand the mysticism connected with the Indians. He liked to see things in black and white and this was a shade of gray he wasn't comfortable with. His eyes kept roaming the camp and as he ate some bread, the wise old Indian seemed to read his thoughts.

"Chanu waits for you in his prayer hut," Kojay answered the eager eyes. "You will speak from the heart, Chris Larabee." He warned. "For you must heal too, if Vin is to find his way back."

"I'm fine," Chris lied, nodding once. "Thanks for the meal."

Chanu's prayer halted and he lifted his head. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor on his prayer mat. In front of him were several bowls with herbs and burning sage. Through the pungent smoke he saw the tent flap lift. He nodded mutely to the mat he'd prepared on the other side. The man in black took his hat off and sat down.

Chris wasn't sure of what to do, so he rested his hands on his folded legs and waited. Chanu continued to pray for several more minutes and then he stopped. The dark eyes opened and seemed to look right through him. He squirmed and scowled, it was bad enough Vin could read him. He didn't need Chanu to do that.

"Well?" Chris asked bluntly.

"Your anger is harming Vin. Until you lose your blackness inside, he cannot cross over the river. He waits at the bank. He sees his friends, he hears them, he laughs but he cannot join them."

"Quit talking in riddles, Chanu," Larabee directed, "I know you're pissed at me. You think I was wrong for riding out when Vin went down."

"It is not my place to..."

"Bullshit!" Chris interrupted. "Look, there wasn't anything more I could do for Vin. Nathan had to get a bullet out of him. I did my job, tracking down the coward who back shot him."

"You went on a blood hunt!" Chanu accused, his eyes hot. "He needed you. He was lost and could not find his way. He cried out for you in pain..." He shut up when the other man stood up and began to pace. It was clear he had touched an open wound with salt. "Sit."

Chris took several moments to calm himself. He raked a hand through his unkempt locks and tried to lose his scowl. But the image of Vin in pain, crying out for him hurt like hell. What if Chanu was right? What if during the hours he'd spent hunting down Solebury, Vin suffered? Could he have relieved his best friend of undue suffering? Was it a blood hunt?

"You are losing time and you will sit." Chanu waited and finally the troubled man resumed his place. He knew by the change of light in the stormy green eyes that he was getting someplace.

"Look, maybe you're right, maybe I fucked up by chasing that guy. But...if I didn't , if he got away and killed someone else."

"That was not your reason," Chanu argued. "And that matters not. Vin did not die, his faith in his eagle was stronger than his pain. You are lucky to have such a brother."

"Yeah, I know," Chris said quietly and raised his eyes. "I'm sorry, Chanu. I guess I could have sent Josiah or someone else to find Solebury but..."

"The fire inside you would have created a disturbance and Vin would have felt that. It could have become too much for him to bear. Perhaps we can agree to leave this behind."

"Yeah," Chris agreed. "There's something else. I saw...a place...or I dreamed it, I'm not sure. When I found Vin and held him, there was black place...cold...colder than anything I ever felt. But when I rode back that night and held him, I felt his soul. I mean I could feel it, just like this..." He tapped the ground.

"And that troubles you?"

"Hell, yeah," Chris directed, "How is that possible?"

"It is not with most people but your connection to him is far beyond this world. That is why he lives, because you are his eagle and you captured his soul, restored it to him. But you resist, you must accept that and only then is the journey complete. Now you must pray and heal inside. When you return to him, you must reach out for him and he will follow you across the water. But you must lose the bitterness inside you still carry."

"How?" Chris asked.

"Drink," CHanu offered a mug. "Then you will close your eyes and pray. Your thoughts will cleanse..."

Chanu waited until the mug had been emptied. He imitated the deep inhalation exercises over the bowls of burning herbs. Larabee followed suit. A few moments later he saw the white man blink rapidly and sway. He leaned over and tapped the pale forehead once. The body tipped sideways and fell over. He moved around and straightened out his legs, then prayed over him.

Kojay looked up when Chanu appeared beside him. The younger man began to eat and finally stopped. He stood up and gathered his bow and arrows. He was joining his brothers for a hunt this morning.

"How long?" Kojay asked, eyeing the prayer hut.

"Before the sun is overhead, he will wake. He will walk better; the sleep of prayers will heal him. Vin needs him and he knows that."

+ + + + + + +

It was a beautiful place, so rich in color and texture that he wanted to reach out and touch it. The sky was a shade of blue that defied description. The grass was a rich shade of green and sprinkled with the most beautiful flowers he'd ever seen. They made a rainbow carpet spread out before him as far as the eye could see. The air was so sweet it was intoxicating. A river rushed by, sending a breeze in this face. There on the other side of the river was Vin! He looked good, strong and healthy with his normal tan. He was trying to cross the river but he couldn't get to it.

Vin!"

His friend looked up and without saying a word, cried out for him. Although Vin did not speak Chris heard him clearly. He opened his wings and exposed his chest to the mighty sun. He turned then and spread his wings, tossed back his head and embraced the sun. He felt a warmth spread through him and invigorate him. With strength untold he soared high into the sky, heading for home.

+ + + + + + +

Kojay was skinning a rabbit when Chris Larabee stumbled out of the tent. He stood up, got a skin of water and walked over. Wordlessly, he handed it to the young man who drained it. He saw the difference right away. The troubled pale eyes were clear again and he felt the strength radiating off of him. Chanu had been right; the journey was completed.

"You are healed," Kojay proclaimed, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Go and find your brother, bring him home."

"I will," Chris answered, eyeing the area.

"He waits for you near the river," he answered of the eye for Chanu.

"Thanks, Kojay, for everything," Chris said and headed out. Chanu was right where Kojay said he would be. Chris halted his horse next to Chanu's and held out his arm. They gripped forearms and Chanu offered a smile.

"Go," he directed, with a sly grin. "Vin does not wait well. For him it is much like having fire ants in your breeches."

"Yeah," Chris laughed, then his smile faded. "Chanu, I'm not sure what exactly happened in that tent, but I feel better. I feel whole again, like a blackness was taken away."

"It was as you have said," Chanu explained. "Dreams are not what most white people accept them to be. You went on a healing journey. Do not question it, accept it and learn from it."

"I have, and thanks again." Chris said and headed for home.

"Go in peace, my brother," Chanu called into the wind.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah noticed as he rode the wagon through town with Justin next to him, the eyes of the townspeople on the boy. He knew too that Justin was upset by how they looked at him. That would distract him and trouble him. It might be better if he purged some of that guilt. He pulled the team over by the livery and got down.

"This ain't the church," Justin said, eyeing the preacher.

"No, it isn't. Come on down from there Justin." Sanchez waited for the youth to join him. "I know how hard it was riding through town for you. Your gut feels like you ate a bunch of bad crab apples doesn't it?"

"Yeah..."

"Okay, well it could be the best way to get rid of that is to purge it. We'll stop by each store you robbed and you apologize, make a list of what's owed. I'll pay you a fair wage to help me at the church and I know Ezra needs somebody to clean out the basement of the saloon. There's all kinds of ways to earn that money, son. But you have to pay it back."

"I can't..." he denied, "...they don't like me...they hate me...how can I look them in the eye?"

"Hardest part of any tough journey is the first step," he encouraged, laying a fatherly hand on the downcast shoulder. "And you're not alone, Justin."

"Okay," he said. "Uh...I guess since Mister Harcom is the one really hates me. That's the best place to start." He eyed the Dry Goods store at the far end of the street.

An hour later, Josiah waited out on the street while Justin lost his breakfast. As hard as it had been to see the look on Justin's face when some of the storeowners called him vile names, it had been worth it. He was proud of how the boy squared his shoulders and took the verbal blows. He had a list of what was owed and that was the first step. He'd learned the hard way that sometimes even when you forgive someone, they don't always forgive you.

"Feel better?" he said when the youth returned.

"Yeah, I do," Justin honestly answered. "A little shaky inside. I can give the money back but they still hate me."

"Their bitterness will choke them, son. And you can't worry about how they feel. You show them, this whole town, by example. You let your work, how you carry yourself, your actions speak for you."

"Where do we start?" Justin asked.

"Let's go talk to the Lord, he's always home." The preacher eyed the stone building. "Christmas Eve service is only a few days away, we got a lot to do."

"Sounds good," Justin agreed and enjoyed the strong arm that was cast across his shoulders. It wouldn't be easy, but nothing worth having ever is. He felt better, for the first time in his life, his steps had a true purpose.

+ + + + + + +

The sunset brought Chris back into the ranch house. He checked on Vin on his way to the kitchen. The tracker was sleeping easy, his color was good and even the horrid head wound was beginning to heal. If only he'd open his eyes. Chris tugged Vin's blanket up and continued to the kitchen.

"He's doin' a lot better," Buck suggested, not missing the concern on the leader's face.

"Wish to hell he'd wake up," Chris grunted, pouring himself a mug of coffee. He moved to where Ezra was shuffling cards at the table and wiggled his fingers.

"Why am I the constant source of your need for alcohol?" Standish replied as he handed his flask over.

"Cause you got the good shit," Chris argued, poured a healthy shot into his coffee and returned it. "Five card stud?"

"Buck?" Ezra asked and the rogue pulled his chair over.

"Yeah, deal me in," Buck sighed, shaking his head. 'Nathan's got me under house arrest for a few more days. Gonna be another long night, no sleep..."

"Did it ever occur to you that if Mohammad cannot get to the mountain, then the mountain should come to Mohammad?" Ezra dealt them each some cards.

"Hell, why didn't I think of that?" Buck's eyes got bright and he sat up.

"Because you can't pee and think at the same time," Chris teased and picked his cards up. He tossed a coin on the table and put two cards down. "Two."

"Very funny," Buck made a face and eyed his cards. "Josiah'll get word back for me. Blossom and Pansy, maybe Colette..."

"Not a good idea," Ezra answered, tossing a coin in and card down. "The dealer takes one."

"Why not a good idea?" Buck asked, eyed his cards and tossed two down. "Two"

"Her cousin Caresse?" Chris answered, picking up his new cards.

"Name ring a bell?" Ezra concluded and laughed when Buck's face soured.

"I'm guessin' your name ain't worth shit in town right about now. Them girls love to gossip." Chris sipped his coffee and kept his eyes on Ezra's often tricky hands. "Till this crotch rot of yours blows over, you're gonna have to get imports."

"Dammit that ain't funny!" Buck exclaimed, while his friends laughed.

The game ran on for a couple hours. Buck finally lost his last coins and tossed his hand in. He rose, stretched his legs and walked to the fire. He poured a mug of water for Vin and sat on the chair next to the cot. They had moved a cot in front of the fireplace that morning and lifted Vin onto it. He tapped Vin's face and lifted his head up carefully.

"Got some water Vin," Buck said and then his hand froze. "Vin?" Buck couldn't believe it. Vin's blue eyes opened wide at the call of his name.

"What's wrong?" Chris's head spun faster than his gun usually did. He saw a startled look on Buck's face but couldn't see Vin's eyes. "Buck, what's wrong?" He stood up and dropped his cards.

"His eyes are open!" Buck said, gently tapping Vin's face. "Vin, can you hear me?"

"Vin?" Chris crossed the room and Buck gingerly eased Vin's head back down. He was turned on his side so he was facing the fire. The amber gave his face a golden caste. "Stay there, Buck, get the mug." Chris eased Vin up from behind, so his upper body was now lying against his chest. "Vin? Vin?"

"Nothing," Buck said, but the eyes were watching the flames. "Open up, I got some water." The lips parted on command and Buck tipped the mug and Vin slowly consumed it. Buck waved his hand in front of Vin's face and the blue eyes blinked.

"He moved his head back, he saw that," Chris said and leaned sideways, bending over so he could see the Texan's face. He wiggled his fingers in front of VIn's eyes and the weak man butted his head back, twisting his face and scowling.

"He can see, that's a relief, I was worried," Buck said.

"Should I ride for Nathan?" Ezra asked, joining his friends by the fire.

"No, he's been busting his ass for a week, he needs a night off. And Rain deserves to see him more than she does, thanks to us being busted up. He'll be back tomorrow."

Before where there had only been voices, now there were images. He saw a man's face with a mustache and fireplace nearby. The man wanted him to drink, so Vin opened his mouth. He was so very thirsty and the water tasted so good. A word formed in his mind when he looked at the dark-haired man with the mustache. Buck. Friend. Buck. Friend. He relaxed a bit, then felt a set of hands lift him from behind. Someone else was calling his name and he knew that voice. Chris was here; Chris held him. He was safe. Buck and Chris had him. What happened? Why did his head hurt so much? Why couldn't he wake up? Was he awake? No. He wasn't talking. What was wrong? He began to panic then, his fear consumed him and he began to gag.

"Whoa...whoa..." Buck called out, reaching for towel. "The water's coming back. Go on, Vin, spit it out, it's okay. Don't swallow that shit, it'll hurt worse."

"He's frightened," Ezra noted, "his eyes are full of alarm."

"No wonder, hell, who wouldn't be? You wake up, your head's caved in, you're naked and don't know where the hell you are, or what happened." Buck soothed, rubbing Vin's lower leg over the thick quilt. "It's just old Buck and Erza, Vin. You got hurt but you're gonna be fine."

"It's okay, Vin, just take it easy," Chris directed and felt something hit his leg. He looked down and Vin had his hand curled tightly around his black shirt tail. He'd yanked the shirt out the last time he went out to use the outhouse and never tucked it back in. He eyed the white-knuckled grip and moved his hand over Vin's bare chest. "His heart's racin'..."

"Work your magic," Buck suggested, eyeing his oldest friend. If anyone could calm Vin down and soothe his fears, it was Chris.

"Vin?" Chris bent over so his lost friend could hear him better. "It's Chris, you're at the ranch. You got shot. Took one in the back and another parted that damn mangy head of yours." He felt Vin shivering and his breathing was labored. "Quit panickin', Vin, you're gonna get sick. You better not puke on me."

"Too late," Ezra said as Buck moved the bowl and Vin lost his water. He continued to cough and gag, so much so he lost tears as well.

"Christ, that's gotta hurt like hell," Buck sympathized, knowing how bad his head had to hurt.

"Chris?" Ezra moved the chair. "If you sit, he'll be closer to you."

"Yeah, thanks Ez...we got any broth? He's freezing." Chris asked, then moved Vin up a bit so Ezra could wrap a small quilt around his upper body. Vin's hand began to thump and he twisted the grip on his shirt even tighter. 'I'm not going anywhere, Vin, take it easy." Vin's head began to twist and he was gasping. Chris wrapped his arms around the blanked body and held the head firm from behind. He cupped Vin's chin and moved closer to his ear. "Easy, cowboy...I'm right here."

Chris was here. Chris was here. Vin fisted the cotton tighter and began to relax. The combination of tobacco, liquor and sweat that was Larabee was the wind in his sails. The strong chest that supported him was real. He wasn't lost anymore, he finally came home! He slowed his breathing and stopped shaking. Chris urged him to drink and he sipped something warm and wonderful. The fire next to him felt good on his skin and with his eagle's wings keeping him warm, he let his eyes close and he rested.

Part 18

The next few days fell into a routine and the trio had shared turns tending to their fallen comrade. Nathan was expected back tonight and Ezra would then leave to help out in town. Vin was getting stronger and each time he woke up, he stayed awake for a longer length of time. They sat near him and included him in the conversations, but he made no facial expressions. Experience told Buck that Chris was disheartened. His dark blue eyes followed the lean body as it crossed the room and stood by the window. Ezra was reading a book out loud, hoping that Vin was listening. The rogue stood and joined his friend.

"He took a helluva shot, Chris, it's gonna take some time."

"Is it?" Larabee asked, shaking his head. "What if this is it? What if he can't come back?"

"Then we take care of him," Buck replied without hesitation, "But I think you're selling him short. He can hear us, he responds to commands, his brain is working Chris."

Chris didn't reply and went outside to smoke. His eyes roamed over the land and lingered on the barn. Vin had been so enthusiastic about this place, working on it and putting time in with the horses. Thinking back, he realized that it might be the first true home Vin knew since he was a boy. Just the fact he trusted them enough to share in this place spoke volumes. If only he'd wake up. He longed to hear that soft drawl that had come to be such a part of him the loss of it created an ache inside. He sat down on the porch step and remained out there, pondering how his life had changed for quite some time. The door opened and he heard Buck's voice.

"Hey, Chris, I'm headin' to bed. You want Ezra to stay with Vin? He's still awake."

"No, I'll be right in," Chris answered, rose and went back into the house.

It was quiet and Vin missed the voices and noises. He liked it best when there were lots of voices and noises. He saw a line of black cloth and the familiar scent of Larabee surrounded him He relaxed then, feeling the ease that always came with Chris. Ezra read books and he liked the sound of the voice but couldn't understand much else. Buck loved to talk and told funny stories and he had such a warm voice it was like being inside a blanket. But although Chris didn't talk much, he liked it best when Larabee was with him.

"Hey, Vin," Chris sat on the sofa and stretched his legs out.

He scowled at the placid features and controlled the urge to shake the stillness out of his quiet friend. For a long time he sat and waited, the ticking clock on the wall irritated him. He tried to read the paper and tossed it aside. Vin slept on and off, opening his eyes sometimes for a long period of time, others for just a moment. Sometimes he'd take water, other times not. Chris dozed off and woke up with dawn tapping on the window. He was surprised to find Vin awake and his brows furrowed.

"Sorry...didn't mean to fall asleep on the job," Chris apologized and stood, stretching his back and legs. He filled a mug of fresh water and offered it but Vin didn't budge. He eyed the jug of cold apple cider and drank the water himself, filling the mug with cider. "You want some cider?" The mouth opened and the scowl disappeared. "Redeye?" He teased, moving closer. Vin's brow shot up hopefully and he made a face. "Sorry, guess that wasn't funny." He offered the cider but the annoyed face remained in place. "Don't piss on my oatmeal, Vin, I said I was sorry. You lose your sense of humor?" The mouth opened and he cradled Vin's head carefully, easing the cold cider into the thirsty man. "Bet that tastes good. Looks like it's gonna be a nice day. I think Josiah and Justin might be by..."

Justin. Vin frowned and thought about that name. An image came to mine of a tall boy with dark hair and haunted eyes. Justin was here with him wasn't he? No...no...Chris said Josiah had him. Justin was working the horses...or had been. He was so confused. He didn't understand why he could hear and not talk. He wanted to talk, but didn't know how to make the sounds come out. Justin would be safe with Josiah. He missed the preacher's deep voice and hoped he'd stay for a while.

He heard Chris's voice change and more noises in the room. A distinctive sound and odor caused his nose to wrinkle.

"Jesus, Buck, what the hell did you eat?" Chris complained of the long passing of gas. "Open the damn door before you kill all of us."

"It wasn't that bad," Buck argued, scratching his butt and moving to the door. "I'll be back..."

"Don't come back until you get rid of that," Chris ordered and turned back to his best friend. "Sorry about that Vin." He put the empty mug down and studied Vin's face again. It was so hard to see him, eyes wide and just laying there like a piece of wood. "I miss you Vin. Buck thinks you're gonna come back fine. I hope he's right..."

Aw, hell,"

Vin aired his silent broken-hearted plea. It hurt him worse that his headache to hear the sorrowful tone in Chris's voice. His face was painted in the same shades of sadness. Vin wanted to reach out and take Chris's arm, reaffirming their brotherhood. But he couldn't move, save wiggling his fingers. Maybe that would be enough. He saw Chris cock his head and watch, his green eyes full of emotion

Don't quit on me, cowboy," Vin urged silently.

"Fight like hell," Chris whispered, taking the flopping hand. He knew Vin heard him and he hoped he hadn't upset him.

"Damn, I feel good." Buck boomed, patting his now empty gut while entering the room. "I could eat a cow." He strode over and clapped Chris's shoulder. "Shift change, get some sleep." He bent over and winked at Vin. "Mornin', slick, old Buck's on duty."

Chris was tired and the worrying on Vin was a large part of that weariness. He gave Vin's knee a pat and caught the blankish blue eyes. "Don't give Buck any shit, Vin, I'm gonna get some sleep."

He looked awful and Vin was glad that his best friend was going to a bed. He liked Buck and knew that he was in good hands. Buck handled him just right and he didn't feel too embarrassed when Buck rolled him over to change the linens under him. He usually made jokes and there was an ease in his voice and manner that was comforting. He heard pans rattling and Buck talking about cooking. He drifted away, letting the warm voice soothe him.

"...guess I'll hafta eat all of 'em, Ezra crawl out here until noon," Buck commented, mixing flour into a batter for Johnnycakes. He turned and noticed Chris was still standing at the edge of the room, near the bedroom door. "What's wrong?"

"Fix your shirt!" Chris ordered, scowling at the white shirt tucked neatly into Buck's pants.

"What's wrong with my shirt?" Buck quizzed and saw the nasty expression. Then he realized that Chris's shirt was totally out and recalled Vin's hand clutching at whoevers shirt was holding him while being fed. "Oh for Christ's sake," he grumbled, putting down the bowl and unbuttoning his top two trouser buttons and yanking his shirt out. "Satisified?" He asked, but Chris didn't reply, he glanced him over once and then entered the nearest bedroom. "And they call me a mother hen..."

Buck ate, cleaned his dishes and was reading the paper when Vin moved. He tossed the paper away and walked next to the cot. He knew Vin would be thirsty and poured a large mug of cider. He eased behind Vin and peered down from above. Two fuzzy blue eyes opened and the pale brown brows were furrowed. He put the mug on the small table next to the cot, lifted Vin up and rested the lanky tracker against his lower chest. He smiled when the hand immediately latched onto his shirt. But usually Vin was relaxed, this time he stiffened up. Buck wondered if he was in pain or sick.

"What?" Buck asked, leaning over and spotting confusion at first. Then Vin's nose wrinkled up, he pressed his face sideways and he began sniffing again. He face creased in annoyance and he turned away. "You got a lotta damn nerve, Vin Tanner. This here is my best shirt, specially made by a tailor in Denver. It's my woo 'em and do 'em shirt. There's ladies scattered over a half dozen states that melted in my arms in this shirt."

It wasn't a stranger, it was Buck. The smell was different due to the strange shirt. The fabric wasn't soft like cotton and it felt funny against his face. But that warm voice was like butter melting and he sighed once happily and opened his mouth hopefully.

"Well now this here is only cider, usually it'd be my tongue workin' magic but as cute as you are, you ain't got the right tools," Buck teased, holding the mug carefully. Vin was so eager to get all of the cold apple cider into his dry throat that he began to gulp. "Slow down, you're gonna choke. Vin...slow...down...I got plenty...shit!" Too late, he began to sputter, choke and cough. The fist on his shirt went into a deathgrip and the slim body began to tremble. Tears formed in his eyes as he continued to cough, pressing his body closer. "Easy, son, Old Buck's got you," he soothed, putting the mug down and sitting on the chair. This way, Vin was against his upper chest and neck, his head tucked under his chin. He knew coughing with that severe of a head injury had to hurt like hell. So he wrapped his arms around Vin and held on. "I'm right here, Vin, we'll ride this one out together." He noticed that Vin's shoulders and upper body were jerking. Frowning, he peered over and saw Vin gagging. "What the hell..." Then he realized the Vin was trying not to throw up. The shirt...it was because of the shirt. "Vin, just throw up, never mind the shirt, it ain't that valuable." He managed to snag a towel by his boot and held in under Vin's chin. "A got a towel..." Sure enough it was only then that the cider came back.

It was a little while before the coughing stopped and the body stopping shaking. Buck continued to talk to Vin is a low tone, rocking slightly. Vin finally lost his tension and his head dropped onto Buck's shoulder. He felt an odd tapping on his outer leg and noticed that in the last anxious moments, Vin had lost his grip. Buck shoved the end of his shirt into the frantic hand. "Here...better now?" He noticed the fist went right into a white-knuckled state and felt a stabbing in his gut. He knew how hard it was for Vin to trust anyone and that he was putting all his faith in him meant a lot. "You okay now? Good. You just take slow breaths, Vin. I'm not letting go, I'm right here."

Right here. Vin held onto that and felt such comfort by the enveloping embrace that he was able to relax. The coughing had caused his throat to hurt and his head was throbbing. It was very hard to breathe and he continued to wheeze for some time. But being surrounded by the strong chest and arms and being blanked by that rich voice made all the difference. He didn't fight the black curtain and let it fall, slumping sideways.

"Damn..." Buck hissed, gently rising and easing his friend onto the cot. He got an unexpected lump in his throat when he had to pry each finger from his shirt. He wiped Vin's mouth and chin, then worried about any residue. So he tugged on the jaw and the mouth opened, it was empty. Satisfied he couldn't choke, Buck covered his ailing friend up and sat on the sofa. He shouldn't have teased him, maybe it caused him to cough. What if he choked? As much as he meant the buoying words he'd spent on Chris, now he was worried. What if Vin never came out of the weird coma? Realizing the date, he yanked out the small cross he wore, the only thing he had of this mother's. He sat back and began to pray for Vin Tanner.

+ + + + + + +

Christmas Eve services were about to start and Josiah was glad to see the church was full. The seven p.m service was something he knew the whole town was looking forward to. Although he'd been preparing for this, he was a little nervous. He hoped the passages he picked would be well met and that he'd reach the hearts of those gathered. This was the holiest night of the year and one that was always special to him. He thought of his fallen friend and fingered the prayer beads around his neck. He raised his eyes upwards and let his heart to as well.

"Lord, I know I ain't got the right to ask, but we need a miracle here. He's more than just a friend, he's pretty special. But I guess you know that. If you could just bring him back..."

"Josiah?" Nathan ducked his head inside the small back room and saw the large man turn. "They're ready."

"Praise be to God, brother," Josiah answered, walking and gripping Nathan's neck.

"I hear that," Nathan replied.

The service went well and the voices raised in song were especially moving. Josiah saw more than one person swiping damp eyes. There was just something about gathering in the Lord's house at Christmas that gripped the heart. He walked to the top of the rows of pews, pausing to wait for the murmuring to stop. They were ready to leave and head to their homes, preparing for the busy day to come.

"I want to thank you all for sharing this time and space with the Lord. It's the holiest night of the year and sharing this wondrous event with your brethren always makes it more special." He paused and swallowed hard. "But I have a favor, when you hit your knees tonight, please pray for Vin Tanner. He needs all the prayers he can get. He suffered a bad head wound he's a little too close to meeting God than he should be. God's got his window open and if any night can lift that spirit, it would be tonight."

Justin ducked into a side hallway when the others left the church. Finally, it was empty and he was alone. He walked slowly to the front of the church and paused by the small, hand made Nativity. Jesus was resting in the crib with his parents close by. Mary had a very peaceful look on her face and Justin felt badly. He missed having a mother's touch. He knelt down and kept his face on that baby's serene one.

"Hi..I mean...uh...well...it's Justin Dalton. That's stupid, you already know that. I'm not real good at prayin', I was never much for church. But tonight, when Josiah...Mister Sanchez...the preacher...when he was tellin' the story of how you got born, I felt something inside. Like after you drink hot cocoa...all warm and good. "He paused and put his thoughts into order. ďMister Tanner, he's the one we're all prayin' for, he's real special. You see, he was the only one who had faith in me, even when I had none myself. I got a life ahead of me now, thanks to him. So, I don't want him to d..d...die..." he choked, letting the tears burning in his eyes to fall. "I promise, if you let him live, wake up and be himself again, I'll come to church. I'll take care of Grandpa and the cabin. I'll be the kind of person you'd like...more like you." He vowed, swiping his eyes. "Please don't take him..."

+ + + + + + +

Christmas morning found some of the seven at the ranch. J.D. and Ezra were in town, keeping the citizens safe. Josiah would join them later, after dropping food and gifts at the Indian Village. Nathan arrived at midnight and they'd sat up a few hours, talking and sipping whiskey. Later, there would be turkey, ham, sweet potatoes, corn pudding, chestnut dressing, cranberries, biscuits, green beans and a load of pies. But now, it was early morning and breakfast was in order.

Buck shook his head at the pair by the fire. Vin was sleeping and Chris was asleep on the chair next to him. He tugged the quilt higher on Vin and then proceeded to the kitchen to cook some ham and his special Wilmington eggs. Nathan was having coffee and eating some pumpkin bread that Raine sent to them. As soon as Buck began to make noise, the blond head popped up.

"Yuh want coffee?" Nathan asked.

"Yeah," Chris answered dully. He'd actually been looking forward to Christmas this year but now he wasn't so sure. He padded across the floor to go outside and relieve his full bladder.

"Do somethin' with your hair," Buck complained. "the back of it looks like a porcupine's ass."

Buck and Nathan were still chuckling at the colorful reply Chris had given, when the blond returned. He walked past Vin into his bedroom, most likely seeking clean clothes. His shirt was open and his head and chest wet. Nathan guessed he'd used the pump outside.

"Chris, you want ham or just eggs?" Buck hollered.

"Both. We got any bread?" Chris yelled back but got no reply. "Buck?" He walked to the doorway and ducked into the hall, naked from the waist up. He frowned at the odd expression Buck wore.

"Chris, he can see you!" Buck elated.

"What!" Chris exclaimed, moving back a bit as if he'd stepped on hot coals.

"He followed you..." Buck called out. "When you answered me, he turned his head and listened to you."

"Vin?" Chris's voice was prayer-like when he turned and saw Vin looking at him. The blue eyes blinked normally. "Vin?" He tested, walking back towards the door past his fallen friend. Sure enough, the head followed him, moving with every step he took. "Shit...you damn near scared ten years off me!" He moved and knelt by Vin and was met with a weak smile.

Vin just continued to smile when Nathan and Buck joined Chris crowding around him. They were all talking at once and he was only getting every other word but it sounded like music to him. He licked his lips and tried to sit up, shoving on his good arm.

"Hold on," Nathan spoke, easing Vin into a sitting position. "Let me look at yuh." He moved his finger in front of Vin's face and the head turned. 'No, just yuhr eyes, follow 'em with yuhr eyes, but not yuhr head." Vin did as he was told. "Yuh seein' okay? Blurry or double or..." The shaggy head shook no and Nathan was pleased. But what did Vin know how he was and where he was. "Can yuh tell me yuhr name?"

"I'll bet he's thirsty," Buck said, moving to the kitchen to get some cider.

Vin got annoyed and his face screwed up. Why was Nathan talking to him like a child. Of course he knew his name. What kind of question was that? He scowled and tried to look past the tall healer, his eyes zoned on the empty mug by Chris's knee on a table. He rubbed his throat and pled silently to his best friend.

Chris started to move for the mug but Nathan's head shook. He knew what the healer was doing and he knew it was for the best but it bothered him. He pulled back, not lifting the mug.

"I'll bet yuhr drier than a buzzard's butt, huh?" Nathan asked, using one of the Texan's pet expressions. "Yuh tell me who yuh are and yuh'll get yuhr drink. How 'bout if I help. Yuhr last name Carson? Miller? Wilmington?"

Vin made a sour face and pointed to Buck, annoyance clearly spelled out.

"You got balls, you know that?" Buck replied, "It's a damn fine name, not everybody gets to wear it."

"Come on, Vin, just tell Nathan what he wants."

"Yuh want this?" Nathan poured a mug of cold water and held it up. The blue eyes went like saucers. "Ask fuhr it..."

Vin sighed hard, brows scrunched in anger and cast his eyes to his best friend.

"Sorry, cowboy, Nathan's right." Chris crossed his arms over his wet chest.

Vin thought for a moment and changed his strategy. He painted his features with the saddest expression and put all of his sorrow in his eyes. Then he turned his scope and zoned in on his target.

"Aw, hell, Nathan, he's gotta be dyin' o'thirst." Buck argued, when Vin's eyes pierced him like hot bullets. He started over with a mug and got a dual complaint.

"There's not a damn thing wrong with his head," Chris stated.

"Our sharpshooter's still got deadly aim!" Nathan countered of their 'weak' link.

"Goddammit Vin, I'm hung over, tired and got a shitload of a headache. My breakfast is waiting. Just answer the fuckin' question and tell Nathan your name!" Larabee growled.

Vin thought for a long moment, carefully eyeing each face. He grunted then before replying. "...'pears t'be 'Goddammit Vin'." He cringed at his voice, so weak and frail it surprised him.

"Welcome back, son!" Buck boomed, moving in and handing over a full mug of cider.

"How yuh feelin'?" Nate asked.

"...like I been rode hard, stomped by a Buff and put up wet..." Vin managed, holding the mug out again. "It's water!" He complained, eyeing the bottle by Nathan's boots.

"Yuh ain't ready fuhr that and I ain't wastin' Ezra's imported bourbon only t'have yuh toss it back at me. I got soup simmerin'..."

"Lucky me," Vin sassed and shivered. "...s'cold in here. I'm just 'bout havin' peenomonia..."

"The 'p' is silent," Chris corrected of the mispronunciation.

"Not no more it ain't," Vin sighed as his bladder emptied.

"Again!" Buck complained. "You piss more than a flock of pregnant woman."

"...pickin' on an invalid..." Vin rasped and moved to allow Buck and Chris to pull the damp linen out and put a clean on under him. He then began looking around the room

. "...where's m'pants..."

"In town where they belong," Nate replied, returning with soup and tea on a tray. "Yuh ain't got nowhere t'go and yuhr legs ain't moved in a couple weeks."

"Don't think about gettin' up without your pants," Chris warned. "Buck ain't had a woman in a couple weeks and even your scrawny Tanner ass would be fair game."

"You should be so lucky," Buck replied, bringing the plates of food to the table.

"...ham...taters...bitty taters..." Vin's mouth watered.

"Sorry, pard!" Chris commiserated. "You keep that soup down and maybe you can have some turkey and potatoes for Christmas dinner."

"Christmas?" Vin mumbled, sitting back and going silent.

How could that be? Had that much time gone by. He took the mug of soup Nathan left and drank it slowly savoring the warmth. He flexed his fingers in the sling and tiny stitches of pain hit his back but they weren't too bad. His head hurt, though and he thought back on what could have happened. He fingered the bandage on his head and felt his wrist lightly tapped.

"Don't touch it, Vin," Chris said, having finished his meal quickly. He had coffee and a mug of tea. "I loaded it," he warned of the large dose of sugar Vin required. "You remember any of what happened?" the blond asked and saw the shaggy head nod.

"Bits and pieces," Vin answered, frowning at how odd and weak his voice was. It didn't sound much like him at all. "...It was that ugly feller, wasn't it?...knew he was upta no good..."

"Yeah, name was Solebury. He's worm food, he died too quick!" Chris growled.

"Ya went huntin'?" Vin asked and saw a flash of guilt wash over Chris and regretted his words. "'s'okay, Chris, I'dda done the same."

The conviction in his words caused Chris to eye the tracker sharply. The blue eyes that never lied to him were open and honest as always. He blew out a long breath then, one he felt he'd been holding since finding Vin's body. He sat up, dropped his head down and rubbed the back of his neck.

"When Buck and me found you that night," he paused and bit his lower lip, feeling that horrid sickness again. "I thought you were dead."

"Leave it be, it's done. I'm okay now." Vin requested quietly and thought of something to lighten Larabee's load. "The boys is cold but I reckon they'll live."

"Them damn boys of yours," Chris growled lightly and Vin grinned widely.

"Texas growed!" he bragged.

The morning passed quickly with the trio keeping their injured friend warm and safe. Their laughter, teasing, and warmth was the best medicine for him. But soon his headache began to grow, so much so he thought he'd get sick. He peeked up and looked for help.

"...Nate..."

"Yuh gonna get sick?" He asked, spotting the pinched features and recognizing the pain in the narrowed eyes.

"...no...don't think so..." Vin managed, casting his light eyes to the dark ones. "...cat piss..."

"Yuhr special blend," the healer answered, mixing a good dose of laudenum into Vin's tea. "Here yuh go."

"Go on, son, we're not leavin'" Buck issued gently with a wink and a smile. The blue eyes were fighting hard to stay awake. "He looks like Adam when Sara be tryin' to get him to nap."

"Yeah," Chris smiled, watching Vin fight the medicine. Buck joined Nathan in the kitchen to help get the preparations for dinner started. He watched as Vin's eyes closed finally and he sat back, then bent to lift his coffee mug. The blue eyes popped open, blinking and trying to find him.

"Crisss..."

"What's wrong? You sick?" Chris was up in a flash, dropping by Vin's side by kneeling on the floor next to him. Vin's mouth opened and Chris thought he wanted water, so he handed him a mug. The tracker drank a little and handed it back. Then, Vin's arm came up and he snapped it, catching it in their familiar grip.

"Thanks." Vin managed even though his tongue seemed like it was too big for his mouth. It was hard to talk, the medicine was strong. But he needed to get this message to his brother, and he needed to do it now.

"It's just water, Vin," Chris was confused at the raw emotion shining from the doped up eyes.

Vin shook his head then, keeping his grip true and his eyes trained with fervor. "...fer yer wings..."

Chris gasped in shock and swallowed hard. Vin was there! It wasn't a dream, it was real. How could that be? Although he'd felt the power of healing Vin's soul when he returned, he didnít think Vin knew or was aware. It awed him and took his breath away. He kept his vigil long after Vin's eyes slid shut. He gently pried the hand loose and put it under the thick quilt. It was only after Vin was truly in a deep sleep that he got dressed and went outside. He leaned on the railing and eyed the mountains, their white caps painting a pretty picture on this Christmas morning. That was Vin's church and it was time to pay homage. The hole inside was gone; he felt the power of the miracle.

"Thank you," he whispered over his tight throat, letting the wind take his prayer through the doors of Vin's chapel to God.

Part 19

It had been a fine Christmas and the six peacekeepers were very grateful for the safe passage back to the land of the living of their injured brother. By nightfall, Vin had eaten his small platter of turkey, potatos and a biscuit. With some help from Nathan and a warm mug of spiked hot cocoa, he was still dozing in front of the fire.

Buck watched as Josiah drove the wagon back to town. J.D. and Ezra went with him. Nathan had some gifts for Raine and rode to the Indian Village to spend a few days with her. That left Buck and Chris spending a quiet Christmas night with Vin. There was one other guest who was inside the corral, tending to the horses. Buck walked over and leaned on the post, watching Justin talking to Red. The animal was very calm around him and was responding to his voice and gentle touch.

"Looks like you got a friend there," Buck commented.

"He sure is pretty," Justin replied, hoping Buck wasn't here for another reason.

Like the others, he'd been very glad to see Vin awake when their arrived for dinner. Vin shook his hand and thanked him, that didn't help the knot in his gut any. But there were other people who wanted to talk to Vin and he hadn't had any time alone with him.

"You skipped out right after dinner, you missed the pie..." Buck hedged.

"Maybe later," Justin deferred, stroking the glossy mane of the fine horse.

"That's not all you missed," the wise rogue noted. "Vin was lookin' for you." He saw the hand stop on the horse's neck and the dark eyes drop to study his boots. "Nathan dosed him pretty good, but he'll be awake soon. I think you'll sleep better if you have a word with him."

"I..." Justin faltered, then shook his head.

"I ain't that blind, son," Buck soothed. "And that weight you're totin' around ain't gonna get any lighter. He's a good man, maybe the best I know. He's worried about you, and right now he needs all his energy to recover."

"I never meant to be a worry," Justin said. "I guess you're right, Mister Wilmington. I just wasn't sure where to start."

"Vin's pretty good at findin' the worries inside of a person. He's got a way of talkin'...he'll coax it right outta you."

"Alright, I'll finish up with the horses and come in..."

"Good!" Buck turned away and a voice called out.

"Mister Wilmington?" Justin waited until the tall man turned. "Thanks..."

"My pleasure, son."

+ + + + + + +

Chris was getting coffee when Buck came back inside. He held the pot up and the dark head bobbed. He saw Buck rub the bridge of his nose and realized that the concussion symptoms were bothering him. He took the two mugs past the soft snoring Texan and eased his frame down on the sofa, setting the mugs down.

"You okay?"

"Yeah, headache...Nate said it's gonna be a couple more weeks or so..." Buck sat down, took a sip and put the mug down, then laid back, resting his head.

"How's the kid?" Chris asked, then chuckled when Vin burped in his sleep.

"Attaboy, Vin!" Buck laughed and eyed the window. "Justin's comin' along. He's got something inside though, he needs to talk to Vin."

"I think Vin needs that too, he's worried about Justin. By the way, Nathan thinks Vin should be moved to a bed. I got the small room ready, it's closest." He saw Buck blinking and jerked his head. "Catch a nap, I'm gonna need your help later moving Vin."

"Yeah," Buck agreed, waiting for Chris to move to the chair and then he stretched out.

Chris kept guard on his two sleeping friends. It wasn't the Christmas he'd planned but it was one that he'd remember. Just keeping the feeling inside of euphoria when Vin looked at him that morning and that weak smile was the best gift he'd gotten. Funny that the true gifts were like that, gifts of the heart. Until those blue eyes looked back at him, sparked with the warmth he'd gotten used to, he'd been cold inside. Now the fire was back and he felt whole again.

+ + + + + + +

Vin blinked himself awake and sighed hard, eyeing the room. It was late and very quiet, the house was still. He wondered if Buck and Chris had gone to bed. Then he heard voices from behind him, most likely in the kitchen. He was very thirsty and desperate for water.

"Chris?"

"Yeah?" Chris called over, rising from the table. He watched the top of Vin's head turning, trying to see him. He heard the cry of pain and saw Vin's hand move to the bandage. "You can't be moving your head too much , Vin."

"Drier...than a buzzard's butt..." Vin croaked.

"Hold on," Chris answered, moving to the sideboard and grabbing a jug of apple cider.

"Let me," Justin offered.

Chris saw the need there, reflected back at him in the sorrowful dark eyes. He knew by the nervous energy the youth was wasting that he had something on his mind. Buck met his eyes from behind Justin and nodded.

"Okay," Chris agreed, handing the mug over. "I'll give you a hand."

Vin heard the footsteps and relaxed, he knew Chris's step. He allowed the strong hands to draw him up and hissed once as the pillows were shifted. He was now sitting up and resting on a lot of pillows. He nodded his thanks when the hand gripped his shoulder .He shifted his injured left arm in the sling and saw a mug appear.

"Looks like you need a little help," Justin offered when the shaking right hand attempted to take the mug . He steadied it with his own and kept it in place, until the mug was drained. He saw the blue eyes studying him and felt his face flush. Finally Vin was done and he put the mug down.

"Thanks, Justin. Sit down." Vin encouraged. He watched the lanky boy sit and begin to play with the buttons on his shirt cuff. He wondered if the boy would be more comfortable alone. "We could use some wood..."

"We got plenty," Chris stated and felt Buck kick him. He frowned when Buck's dark head jerked sideways toward the uneasy boy. "But I guess we could use more."

"I'm gonna check on the horses," Buck stated, following Chris out of the door.

"Might as well spit it out, kid, 'fore m'eyes close again. Can't seem t'stay awake," Vin requested.

"I'm sorry, Mister Tanner," he blurted, shaking his head.

"Fer what?" Vin asked, "git yer head up!"

"For that night...when you got shot... I left...rode away...I thought you were dead. There was so much blood... I ...just...left you..." he babbled.

Vin saw such pain in the dark eyes it hurt worse than his headache. He rubbed his throbbing shoulder and frowned. He didn't remember much about that night, but he knew it was probably the first time the young man saw someone gunned down. It had to be scary and he most likely panicked.

"Go on..."

"I followed him...Solebury...I was gonna get Red back. I was gonna keep my word."

"Yer either real brave'r a fool, he's a deadly killer." Vin touted. "Did ya go t'the sheriff?"

"No...I wasn't sure. I was gonna watch the livery. I found the horse and figured heíd come back. But then Mister Lynch found me, I sort of dozed off in the alley. He spotted your horse and thought I shot you. I ran away...I thought they'd hang me."

"Ya got scared, I understand that," Vin said. "But why didn't ya jest tell 'em?"

"Who'd believe me?" Justin blurted. "They all like you, they respect you. Nobody likes me...Anyway, I ran into Buck...Mister Wilmington" He corrected. "I was the one who hit him...I didn't mean to hurt him. But I stayed with him, took care of him. Then Mister Larabee found us."

Vin had to hide a grin as Justin blanched outright. He could only imagine the fear of God that the boy must have suffered through. Chris wasn't the easiest person to reason with, especially when someone he cares about was hurt.

"He didn't shoot ya?" Vin teased.

"No..." Justin sighed hard. "He was okay, he was pretty mad but fair about it. We talked and then we rode back to Eagles Bend and found the sheriff. Mister Wilmington and Laraebee found Solebury in the barn. Well, you know the rest."

Vin knew some of the details, Buck had given him most of the story. But there was something missing, he saw it in Chris's eyes. He'd find out what his friend was hiding later. Right now, he needed to reach out to this boy. A boy who tried hard to do a man's job. A young man he was very proud of.

"I'm proud o'ya, Justin," Vin said simply, conviction hanging on every word. He knew Justin had to get the story out, or it wouldn't be the same. "Bein' scared and standin' up, doin' the right thing, that's what courage is. I'm scared lots o'times, ya jest gut it out and do what's right. First step in walkin' in a man's boots."

"Really?" Justin was startled and then felt the flow of warmth coming from the tell tale blue eyes. "Thanks Mister Tanner. Mister Wilmington said I'd sleep better if we talked. My stomach don't hurt no more."

"I'm glad," Vin smiled. "Ya learned a lesson , though. Iffen ya trusted the sheriff, things wouldda been different. Yer lucky ya didn't git hurt hightailin' it outta there .Some fool could have shot ya."

"Yeah...I know better now. You know, it's different in town. I don't feel like I gotta hide nomore from folks. JD's gonna help me fix the cabin up so's me and Grandpa can live there. I want to show him how much better I am..."

"He knows that, kid," Vin answered, watching the bright light in the youth's eyes.

His own eyes drifted to the window and he saw a starfield outside. He recalled another night when he'd been alone at the top of the hill overlooking this ranch. In the sky was that same light, he saw it now, shining from Justin's eyes.

"I've been takin' care of Red. Mister Wilmington's been workin' with me. You don't gotta worry none, Mister Tanner, you just rest and work on gettin' better. I'll take good care of the horses."

"I know," Vin managed. "I have faith in you, kid. I'm damn proud of ya."

"You never gave up on me, even when I did...you trusted me...even when I fought you."

"Hey," Vin teased, "It ain't jest anybody I bring up here." He turned when the door opened and his friends came back in. He nodded once to Chris, who was silently inquiring on the right to enter.

"I got to hand it to you, Vin," Buck boomed, walking over to pallet where the pale tracker was reclining. "You got an eye for talent. This boy is a real find, he's doin' a helluva job." Buck toussled Justin's hair and winked.

"Jest needed a hand is all," Vin tried to dismiss.

"It's more than that," Chris lauded, depositing the firewood. "You saw something when nobody else did. It could have turned out a whole lot different if you hadn't reached out." He dusted his hands and stood, resting them on his hips. He smiled then, gifting his friend from the heart. "Damn fine gift too..."

Vin heard the pride dripping on each word and a bit of envy there too. He flushed and swallowed hard, accepting the noble compliment from a man who he admired so much. He sucked up that green light that was pouring from the true eyes and took a deep breath. Then he nodded to the window.

"See it," he drawled quietly, his voice hoarse. "That's the same thing I felt when we first found this place. Felt it here," he tapped his blanketed gut. "Now I know the Lord's hand was workin'. He shed a light here, shinin' down on a place called Hope."

"Amen to that," Buck added, watching the miracle unfold.

Justin went to bed and a couple hours later, Vin was ready for his medicine. Chris didn't have to be told, he sensed it. He tossed the newspaper down and moved silently to Vin.

"Buck, you want to give me a hand?" He asked, waiting for the tall man to join him. "Okay, like this." Chris moved his right hand behind Vin's back and met Buck's Then he moved towards Vin's knees. "One under here and we lift."

"Hell no!" Vin decided, shoving weakly with his one hand against Chris's chest. "I got legs. I ain't no baby t'be carried about."

"Your legs won't work, Vin, you've been layin' around too long. You don't need to break anything else." Chris warned but the defiant blue eyes narrowed and the square jaw jutted out in defiance.

"Cut that out," Buck warned. "You're too old for a tantrum. Chris's right, your legs ain't worth spit." The cranky face turned towards him and there was an attempt at a glare. "Don't waste your energy, son, you don't have enough spark t'shoot down a fly, let alone a Wilmington."

Vin ignored them, moving his good hand up to grope Chris's shoulder. "Lean down, I can't reach ya..."

"Vin, I swear to God!" Chris seethed, but he bent down. "Easy..." He coached helping Vin to turn. Once the legs were over and Vin's bare feet touched the floor, Buck moved around to the other side. Nathan had given Vin a bath that afternoon and put some new flannel long johns on his legs. The buttons on the back weren't done and the pink cheeks were exposed. "Damn fine ass..."

"Helluva sight better'n yers..." Vin gasped, gripping Chris's shoulder hard. He peeked up and didn't hide his fear. His legs were like jelly.

"You ain't losin' me, Tanner," Chris said quietly, nodding to Buck' "Ready? Grab him around the waist. Vin, I'm gonna grab your arm under the elbow. You lean on us, don't try to walk."

"Okay..."

Vin rose up and gasped when the room seemed to shift. But with the strength of his friends blanketing him, he felt the wind go back in his sails. He sucked his breath in, stuck his chest out and began to shuffle. It seemed like five miles inside of about thirty feet but at last they were there. Vin's brow was covered in a light sheen of sweat when they went through the door. Buck slipped in first, then Chris moved sideways, so Vin could get in. His eyes caught and odd looking chair by the bedside. The seat was missing and a large bucket was underneath.

"What the hell is that rig?" Vin panted, letting his full weight go on the others. His legs were done.

"That's so we don't have to wipe your ass anymore," Chris grunted, shoving Vin's wobbly legs towards the contraption.

"It's gonna be awhile before you're strong enough to get out to the outhouse." Buck panted.

"Get his pants down, Buck, he's dead weight." Chris hissed, holding on to Tanner.

"I don't hafta go," Vin protested. "Don't I get a say?"

"NO!"

"I got rights," Vin answered of the dual chorus. "I don't go until mornin', my innerds don't work at night."

"Then you best sweet talk them, son," Buck panted, pulling Vin's longjohns down as Chris shoved him on the chair. "Because I've had me a day and I'm sleeping all night tonight. You best shit now, Vin..."

"I ain't gotta go!" Vin growled, trying to stand only to be shoved down again by a Larabee hand.

"It's not a multiple choice question," Chris growled. 'You ate dinner and it's gotta come out sometime. I'm not runnin' in here when that damn Tanner bowel of yours decides to wake up at two fuckin' a.m. Chrisss..ya there..." he mocked in Tannerish drawl.

Vin glared up at his two friends, both standing in front of him with their arms across their chests. He wasn't going to win this battle. He made a sour face and huffed in annoyance and took the thin paper that Chris held out. '"Git! It ain't a train depot..."

While Vin took care of business, his two friends waited impatiently. Chris looked over at Buck and didn't like what he saw. If anybody worried for the world, it was Buck Wilmington.

"What?"

"He's got a concussion. What if he falls off? Nathan's gonna kill us..."

Chris chuffed and tapped on the door. "Vin? You done yet?" The silence called him to frown. "Vin?" He tapped again and pushed the door open a bit. He was on the opposite side so Buck actually could see inside. When Wilmington began to laugh, Chris relaxed and peeked inside. He dropped his head and laughed, too.

"Well, now I have seen a lot of things in my day," Buck paused, eyeing the dozing body on the makeshift toilet. "But this is a first."

Chris swept his grin away and walked over, gently tugging Vin's shoulder. "Hey..."

"Huh?" Vin blinked, then heard his friends chuckling.

"Fallin' asleep on the job, again, Vin," Chris chastised.

"...weren't sleepin'!" Vin defended weakly, "I's jest restin' m'eyes."

"Yeah..." Buck grinned, "that's what it looked like."

Five minutes later, when Vin was snug in the bed and a quilt pulled up, Buck excused himself to retire. Chris lingered, pacing the room for a few moments, before sitting on a stool by the window.

"What's wrong, cowboy?" Vin asked quietly, sensing trouble.

"What if you died?" Chris suggested.

"What if I did? Chance we take every day, Lar'bee." He frowned then, reversing the setting. He saw Chris back shot and lying near death. "Some varmit back shot ya, ain't a place on this green earth he coudda hid. And I'd have taken care of 'im, the hard way."

Chris didn't doubt for a minute Vin spoke the truth, he knew the man that well. He felt that tug inside, the same one he first felt when they locked eyes over a dusty street in the middle of a lynch mob. He took a good breath then and nodded once, sending his thanks. It wasn't every man who had a friend this fine and he thanked God for Vin Tanner.

"I ran out on you..."

"Bullshit!" Vin stated so hard he coughed. "Dammit..." He waited for the head pain to stop and addressed his friend. "Idda done the same. What good was parkin' yer ass next t'me gonna do? I wasn't awake. Nathan was tendin' t'me. What if that fella kilt someone else? Hell, what if ya hadn't left and Justin got t'em? He'd be dead now."

"Yeah, I guess..." Chris agreed.

"Spit it all out, Chris," Vin warned, knowing something else was still festering. He watched the blond head dip down and a hand run through the short locks. "What happened in that barn?"

He owed Vin that much, so Chris slowly told the story of his arrival and how enraged he'd been. He paced the room, kicked the wall and vented. Then he sat on the chair by Vin's bed and relived the moment where he'd nearly killed an unarmed man in cold blood.

"I just..." Chris used his hands in the same motion, 'choking' Solebury yet again. "and I didn't stop. Buck was callin' me, I never heard him Vin. If Buck hadn't been there...Jesus, killing an unarmed man in cold blood...that makes me as bad as that fuckin' animal. There was nothing inside, Vin...I never felt...I lost it..."

Vin winced and watched the slight tremble on Chris's hands, now mimicking that near strangulation. He calmly reached over with his only good hand and gripped the wrist, halting the painful observation. Chris looked up at him sharply. "Ya didn't kill 'im, Chris. Ya said ya didn't hear Bucklin, so it weren't him what stopped ya. And ya ain't no animal like that, if ya spout that shit again, I'll have t' knock some sense inta ya. Is that what's put the worry on ya? Bury it, Chris, it's done. Hell, that ya rode after that lowbelly snake means a lot t'me. Weren't much long ago that nobody gave a rat's ass fer me. Now I got me all kinds o' kin...watchin' m'back..."

"Wipin' yer scrawny ass," Chris spoke low and gave a half grin. The warmth in the blue eyes was 100% conviction and it made all the difference to him.

"It ain't hardly scrawny..." Vin defended. "Seems t'me Bucklin's got an unnatrual attraction t'it. Reason enough t'git m'drawers back."

"Sorry, cowboy, no dice," Chris chuckled at the juvenile pout. Sometimes he forgot how young Vin was, he had such an old soul, as old as time.

"Aw, hell," Vin complained, sighed once and rubbed his throbbing eyes. "Iffen ya got that shit o'Nate's, now'd be a real good time fer dousin'."

"Yeah, hold on," Chris took the full bucket from Vin's chair and left. Five minutes later he came back. He saw the blue eyes startle and widen in surprise, the entire mug was drained and a sound burp was the exclamation point.

"Damn...what the hell was that?"

"Chocolate milk," Chris answered. "I melted some chocolate and added milk, then put it outside to get cold. Figured you'd get that shit down easier mixed with chocolate."

"We got more?"

Chris had to laugh at the tinge in Vin's voice, he sounded just like Adam, who also had a sweet tooth. "If you're a good boy and listen to me, maybe at breakfast."

"M'fine, ain't goin' no place, don't need no six-foot nursemaid..." Vin yawned and settled back into the soft pillows.

"I know," Chris said, but he stayed anyway, until Vin was sound asleep. Then he went outside and lit a cheroot, enjoying some whiskey and the stars above. He thought on Vin's words and how true they were. "A Shining Place Called Hope..." he echoed, letting his prayer go airborne.

Ten Days Later

Sunday Service

Josiah eyed the full house from the pulpit. His smile came fast and easy, lighting up the whole room. Today was the last day of what had been quite a year for most of the people gathered before him. They'd gone from a lawless town where trouble ran wild to the birth of a real community. He'd found part of his soul he'd thought he'd lost forever when he joined company with the six unlikely men who'd become brothers. Yes, there were a lot of reasons to celebrate the new year coming. Just as he was about to lead the congregation in song, three more entered from the back.

"Praise the Lord!" Josiah boomed, spreading his arms. "Our missing lamb has found his way back to the flock."

"What lamb?" Vin whispered, leaning heavily on Buck's arm. Chris was on his other side.

"Don't look this way," Chris answered. "I don't have curly hair..."

Vin narrowed his eyes at Buck who winked and ruffled the long locks. "Cut that out. I ain't no Goddamn lamb."

"Yuh best watch yuhr mouth, Vin Tanner, yuhr in the Lord's house!" Nathan chastised, frowning at the red shirt he saw. "Button that coat up, yuh don't need t'catch a cold."

"Good Lord, no," Ezra agreed, smiling at Vin. He'd missed the lanky Texan who he felt closer to than any of the others. "Haven't we suffered enough?"

"Shut up, Ezra!" Vin hissed, pausing at the spot next to the grinning Southerner. He let go of Buck long enough to hit the bright red coated shoulder. "Spread a cheek...m'legs is goin'"

"Charming as usual," Standish replied, hiding his smile. He moved in to accommodate Vin and Chris. Buck gave Vin's shoulder a tug and moved one pew up, next to J.D. Dunne.

Finally, they were all seated and silent, watching him for their cue. So Josiah led them in a prayer first, thanking God for their health and wellbeing. He paused then, eyeing the slim young man in the last pew.

"Lord, we're especially grateful for the return of our missing brother, Vin Tanner. He's a special part of our family and we're grateful for you keeping him safe in your hands until he healed."

Vin flushed when the people gathered around him paused to clap. Some turned and waved, smiling at him. Others whistled and he wanted the floor to open so he could drop into it. He never liked being the center of attention. But the color that flooded his face was very real. He felt his eyes stinging and dropped his head. For most of his adult life he'd ridden alone, without the benefit of a clan. But that all changed when he met Chris's gaze over a broom during a near lynching. For now, he had a home. A place where he could allow the emotional tide that now swept through him to cause his unshed tears. That's what family does, they care. And it felt damn good.

"You gonna cry, cowboy?" Chris whispered and tugged the back of Vin's neck. He then gave Josiah a nod. It was time to move on.

So they listened as Josiah read from his bible, they joined his strong voice in song and gave thanks to God for all they had. When the final chorus of Amazing Grace ended, Josiah held up his arms before the gathering could depart.

"I know you're anxious to get home, some of you have hams and turkeys to cook for Sunday supper. And I know others are going to celebrate the arrival of the New Year in town tonight. But there's a new member of our humble family who I'd like to introduce. He met Justin's eyes and moved down off the pulpit, holding out his arms.

"Come on, son."

Justin took a deep breath and with a hug from his grandfather, he moved to the front of the church. He accepted Josiah's warm embrace and gathered all the strength he could from it, for he would need it. He was nervous; he wasn't sure how these people would greet him. Would they keep the feeling that Josiah had spread with his carefully chosen psalms and songs? Or would they turn away from him?

"This is Justin Dalton, he moved in a while back with Otis, his grandfather. Justin's had a very hard life, and I know he got off to the wrong start here. He was in a lot of pain, lost in a very dark place." He gripped the boy's shoulders and turned him to face the crowd. "But while most of you looked at him with anger and used cruel words when he acted out his inner demons, one among us didn't. He took the hard road, reaching out to this boy and because of that very courageous act, the young man who stands before you now had been reborn. He'd like to speak to you."

With one final rug on the neck, he stepped away. Justin suddenly felt very alone. But then he caught Vin's eye and surprisingly, got a huge jolt of strength from the man in black standing next to Vin. Chris Larabee gave him a look of encouragement so strong it nearly stole his air. So he kept that green -eyed gaze and squared his shoulders. His hands were trembling and his heart was racing, but he felt good, better than he had in some time. There was a new year about to be born and if there was a time to make amends, it was now.

"My name is Justin Dalton and I'm very sorry for what I've done. I never had much love in my life, my father..." He halted then, hearing the vile words in his mind. "was a cruel man. When I came here, my grandfather..." his voice broke then, his eyes filled up and he didn't wipe the tears that fell. "...is a fine man, better than I deserved. He tried to reach out...help save me..but uh...uh...I ...I...didn't...I..." He let out a long breath and took a moment to calm his nerves. He swiped his eyes and met his grandfather's kind ones, seeing only love pouring from them, he drew on that and found his voice again. "I hurt a lot of people; some of you here today know that. But I want to say I'm very sorry. If you would take it in your heart to forgive...me. You see I had such anger and hate inside, growing for a long time. I thought nobody cared...nobody understood the kind of pain I'd endured and carried." He moved his eyes to the back of the church and saw Vin's suffering right along with him. "But someone did, someone had the courage to reach out to me in the darkness. His name is Vin Tanner and he found me in that dark place and nearly died..."

"Go on, kid, yer doin' fine," Vin whispered, fisting his working hand and feeling his heart ache. He knew just how much courage it took to do something like that and he never felt prouder of anyone in his life than he did now of Justin Dalton.

"...he brought me home..." He paused then thinking of Vin Tanner's words on Christmas night. "...guided by a star over a shining place called Hope." He met Vin's eyes and saw that same light reflected back at him tenfold.

Those gathered listened as the young man purged his soul. They felt his pain and rejoiced in his triumph. Later some would say they had witnessed a miracle. It wasn't every day you saw a soul reborn. The light that shone from the boy's eyes was real. So there in the shadow of the place where Mary held her newborn son, a broken heart was healed. The entire room seemed to glow. They were bathed in the warmth of that healing force, straight from a shining place called Hope.

END

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