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Word by Deirdre

Word

by Deirdre

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

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


It was a glorious day, this first day of June. The sky was blue and the air was sweet. High above the dusty town, the blue-eyed eagle drank it all in. From his perch on the roof of the mercantile, hidden behind the sign, he could have his open space and watch over town. His keen eyes went up one side of the boardwalk and down the other.

All was calm. Women chatted in clusters, their light voices carrying in the air. Men gruffed and argued loudly by the livery and more male voices sauntered out of the Saloon. Three children rolled a hoop down the street with a tiny dog chasing after them. The stage would pull in soon, bringing the mail and maybe a new face or two. He eyed the rising sun, judging it to still be several hours until noon. He had time to reflect.

Leaving the busy street behind, he settled back, lying flat with his arms crossed behind his head. His handsome features were relaxed as they contemplated his fate. He'd been just another drifter, just passing through, hiding in the shadows and warding off a chill that didn't come from the weather.

His soul has been cold.

Now, those who were once strangers were a multitude of familiar faces. Sighing, Vin shut his eyes and let the sun bathe his face. He inhaled deeply, thinking on how he wasn't cold anymore. He had friends now. People nodded to him in the street, saying hello. When he was sick, they stopped by asking for him, bringing 'get well' wishes and sometimes food. Just this morning, on his way up to his private little hideaway, he'd nodded to three women that greeted him, giggling coyly behind their hands. He blushed after he passed, hearing their whispers.

He sighed again, scratched his lean abdomen and thought on that warmth that he now housed. Gone were the endless string of no name towns and blank faces. From the strong man of the cloth, Josiah Sanchez, the eldest, to the not-so-green-anymore kid from Boston, J.D. Dunne, in the last couple of months, he'd acquired a family.

"Tanner, get your lazy ass down here!"

His lips curled into a wicked grin when that familiar gruff voice hit his ears. The six men he'd come to ride with these last eight odd weeks had become close friends. But one had crossed beyond that, creating a niche deep in his soul. The tracker had lived enough years with the Indians and firmly believed in the guiding ways of the Spirits. He truly felt he was brought to this dusty town that fateful day two months past, the day his blue eyes locked on intense green ones across a crowded street.

It was as if time stopped for a scattering of seconds. The noise on the street died down and he heard his own heart beating. Dressed head to toe in black, with the brim of the dark hat casting a shadow on the fine features, was the other half of his soul — Chris Larabee.

Chris glanced upwards and waited, then made his way into the alley. He kicked an empty box and eyed the metal stairway that led to the roof.

"Goddamn Texan... can't sleep on the ground like normal folks..." he muttered, easily mastering the stairs. He chuffed a breath and shook his head when he crested the top.

Vin Tanner was one of the most dangerous men he'd ever met. From his uncanny shooting skills to his prowess tracking in the wild, added to that his knowledge of several Indian dialects, and the young man was certainly well rounded. He'd grown up hard and tough, giving tit for tat and living on the edge. But he also had a deep spirituality about him. There wasn't another living soul he trusted with his back like he did this man. The depths of those blue eyes took his breath away.

Most of all though, he was grateful. For in this raspy-voiced, sometimes ornery and often hot-headed ex-bounty hunter from Texas, he'd found a healing balm. Inside, where there was once a jagged, open raw wound, now there was healing. The pain of the loss of Sara and Adam, his wife and son, would never leave him. But now, for the first time since he'd ridden from their graves, he was living again.

"You're lucky I didn't send the Kid up here to fetch your scrawny ass," Chris grunted, easing his lean frame over the roof edge. He wrinkled his nose at the near naked body lying in the sun. "He'd have to lock you up. Seems to me there's a law against that..." As he strode closer, he found a half-grin at the total serenity on that sun-kissed face. "You look like a fuckin' lizard, sunnin' yourself like that."

"Jealous?" Vin smirked, peeling one eye open and lifting his arm.

"Of what?" Chris shot back, hauling his bronzed young friend up. "You got no ass to speak of and nothin' but a chicken's chest."

"Jealous," Vin yawned and scratched his chest. "...it's as clear as dirt," he added, walking carefully to a box nearby where his shirt and shoes were resting. He shucked his arms into the bright red shirt and saw the blond's features wrinkle up in distaste.

"Like it?" He wagged his brows. "Nora bought it fer me."

"You slay me, Tanner," the blond chuckled, shaking his head at yet another 'gift'. For some reason, women loved to give Vin things. Shirts, kerchiefs, suspenders, food; half his wagon was now filled up with the trinkets. "Nora, huh?" He thought on the pretty seamstress. "That why your ass is hiding up here? So Lynn won't notice her blue shirt got replaced."

"It's dirty." Vin tugged his boots on. "'Sides, it ain't like I ask fer 'em. I can't help it if women like t'fuss o'er me." He paused, cocked his head and then threw a dopey grin at the blond. "Drives Buck nuts..."

"That it does!" Chris agreed, leading the way back to the ladder and down to the alley. "Town's been too quiet, even the air isn't moving..." He paused when he realized he was talking to air.

"Vin?"

He turned back and saw only the lower half of the baggy pants. The upper body was bent inside the beat up wagon Tanner called home. "What the hell are you doing? It's not bad enough I had to climb up a Goddamn building to find you. I didn't even have coffee yet!"

"I'd'a never guessed," Vin tossed back, scowling. "...grouchier than a bear with a hot poker up his ass." Vin leaned his body further into the back of his wagon. His first thought was to pick a subdued dark blue scarf until he heard more curses sailing down the alley. Then he smiled evilly, thinking on annoying his irate friend even more.

"Jesus, just pick one!" Chris ordered, then sighed in exasperation when Vin rummaged in the box among a flock of colorful kerchiefs. "For Christ's sake, Vin, while I'm still young!" he hissed, his hands riding on slim hips.

"Look, jes' cause ya got no taste in clothes, don't beat m'ear in," he grumbled before finally selecting a bright yellow scarf, a present from Tammy, the postal clerk. He could hear Chris cursing as he tied it around his neck. Then his eyes lit up when he spotted the blue and white suspenders he'd not worn yet. They were a gift from Jeanne, a shy girl who worked at the bank. He turned back just in time to see the edge of the telltale black duster whipping as the lean man strode off.

"Damn, I'm starved. I got m'mind set on hotcakes with lots o'syrup, some sausages and biscuits and maybe some pecan rolls iffen Inez made some," he prattled, jogging to catch up to the man in black.

"Don't," Chris warned, shooting his arm out, "...come anywhere near me lookin' like that."

"Like what?" Vin crowed, drawing his full height up and hitching his hands on his slim waistline. "Mrs. Crawford at the bank says I got the fairest face in town."

"Mrs. Crawford also says that Ben Franklin has lunch with her," Larabee dismissed of the kind but not-altogether-there woman.

"Mornin', ladies!" Vin boomed to three women who were coming from the laundry.

"Hello, Vin."

"Hi, Vin."

"Mornin', Mister Tanner."

"Mister Tanner," Vin called after the fast-striding leader. "Hear that? Real 'spectful."

"Get away from me!" Chris called back, shoving his body through the batwing doors that hit his friend in the chest. "You look like some fuckin' peacock that exploded."

"Mornin', boys!" Vin boomed, ambling over to the table where Buck, J.D. and Ezra were eating.

"Good Lord, you're enough to rouse the dead from their eternal rest!" Ezra pained playfully, eyeing the beaming tracker.

"Damn, Vin, couldn't you find any green and purple too?" Buck winced and shook his head at the grinning fool who leaned over and picked a biscuit oozing butter off his plate. "Help yourself, Vin! Hell, it wasn't like I was eating that!"

"Green?" Ezra scoffed, slapping the sharpshooter's hand as it dunked the biscuit in his coffee. "I would wager his undergarments are a lovely shade."

"Undergarments?" Vin muffled, making a face. "Ain't Christmas."

"Attaboy!" Chris lauded.

"Damn!" Buck leaned over, eyeing Ezra's custom made, precisely configured coffee. He saw the southerner wrinkle his nose and peer into the cup. "Floaters... I hate that..." he noted of the buttered crumbs now dotting the hot brew.

"Purple..." Vin grinned, grabbing the tortilla wrapped up with eggs and peppers nestled inside from Standish's plate. "That'd be yonder." He slid into a chair and continued to munch while nodding at Larabee's crotch. "Them poor boys o'his is a rite nice shade."

"Coffee," Chris grunted to J.D. who was standing near the bar.

"Sure," the youth's dark head bobbed. "Vin?"

"Naw... I'm good," Vin nodded, picking up Ezra's mug.

"By all means," Ezra waved his hand, "since it's already become a repository for Tanner spit." Then he groaned out loud when an unholy amount of sugar went into the mug.

"Somethin' wrong, Ez?" Vin peered at the disgusted face. "Ya ain't gonna be shootin' out any hot peppers are ya?"

"You're a swine!" Ezra tossed back over the laughter while eyeing his half empty plate and frowning. Then he narrowed his gaze, zoning in on the moving jaws of the would-be cherubic Texan. "You have no shame, sir."

"Aw hell, Ez, ain't like I stole yer woman," the thief rasped, grabbing a sausage from Wilmington's plate. "'Course given the choice, that wouldn't be too hard."

"Hah!" the southerner scoffed. "The only female that would dare to share your bed would be furry and bearing fleas."

"Damn, Bucklin," Vin grinned. "Ya gonna let Ez talk about Miss Luscious Peaches like that?"

"Ha, ha." Buck pushed his plate away and chuckled again at the curious looks the colorfully garbed tracker was getting. "You know, in the city they got names for pretty boys like you who like to flash a lot of color."

"Dandies," J.D. nodded. "Some men pay good money to get some of that."

"Talkin' from experience, kid?" Chris added over the rim of his mug.

"No! Of course not!" J.D. huffed, turning red.

"Anything we need to know?" Chris inquired of the yellow paper sticking out of the youngest's pocket. He nodded as Inez approached with a plate.

"Your usual." She set the plate of eggs, peppers and ham down.

"Thanks, Inez." He picked up a fork and eyed the sheriff. "J.D.?"

"What?"

"The wire, kid, try to keep up!" Buck rolled his eyes.

"Oh... it's from Tom Haskill at Eagle Bend."

"Haskill?" Vin frowned, snatching a pecan roll from the youth's plate. "Ain't he the new sheriff over there?"

"Yeah, he took over when Cyrus Barker died," Dunne prattled. "Anyhow, the bank got robbed two days ago. He's warning all the surrounding towns. Five men, all in hoods, and they got away clean."

"Anybody get hurt?" Buck asked, watching Chris scan the wire.

"No. But they got close to three thousand dollars." Larabee sighed and handed the wire back to Dunne.

"That's the third bank this month," Buck noted. "I can't believe they got away clean again."

"Good morning, Señor Vin..."

"How come you call him 'Señor Vin'?" Buck demanded.

"Because that is his name!" Inez sauced back as the nimble tracker leapt to his feet.

"Miss Inez." Vin dashed over and took the heavy tray. "Let me git that fer ya. That a new hair comb? Sure is pretty."

"Thank you." She flashed a smile at the charmer and then scowled at Buck. She followed the tracker to an empty table, where he set the tray down. He nodded once and returned to his seat.

"What did I do?" The rogue's voice rose in indignation.

"Nothing!" she huffed. "As usual."

"Goddammit, Vin!" Buck smacked the smirking younger man with his hat.

"It ain't m'fault iffen ya lost yer animal maggots."

"Animal Magnetism!" Buck corrected as the pretty tavern owner set a huge plate full of food in front of the beguiling Texan.

"Aw hell, Inez, ya didn't have t'go t'any trouble. Any old biscuit'd been fine."

"It's no trouble for you Señor Vin!" She kissed his cheek, gaining a sought after blush. Then she cupped his chin. "Eat! I have plenty more."

"Now hold on a minute," Buck protested, eyeing the large plate of hotcakes, sausage and apple fritters. "I didn't see any silver cross the table. How come he didn't pay?"

"Damn!" Vin grinned at the long stream of Spanish that trailed behind the pretty woman as she made her way to the bar. "That didn't sound good, Bucklin."

"Shut up and eat, Vin!" Buck ordered, slightly annoyed at the ribbing he was now suffering at the hands of his friends.

+ + + + + + +

The morning wore on, lazy and listless, and the peacekeepers were lulled into a relaxed state. Josiah and Nathan were visiting the Seminole village. Chris was writing a letter to his folks; Vin was dozing in the chair next to him, his slouch hat pulled down over his eyes. Buck and Ezra were playing cards and J.D. was reading the paper.

"Hey, it says here that the month of June is named for Juno, a Roman goddess..." The youthful sheriff scanned the daily edition of The Clarion, the town's paper.

"A magnificent woman, the wife of Jupiter," Ezra drawled, tossing a card and taking a new one. "She was referred to as the 'Queen of Heaven' and the 'Queen of the Mighty Ones'. Although some would argue that the name is aligned to Junius Brutus or perhaps that it's the month when crops are in full bloom."

As Ezra continued with the history lesson, a grinning J.D. elbowed Buck. Over the fanned cards in his hands, the rogue's eyes followed the nod of the bowler hat. Across from them, the tracker was barely visible, his body slouched down in the chair and his face all but obscured by the large hat. Buck bit back a chuckle when the deft hand slid over to Ezra's unguarded plate.

"...she was also the goddess of marriage which is curious given that she was Jupiter's sister as well." Ezra sipped his brandy and reached for his sandwich. His green eyes narrowed and followed the snickering trail. The only visible scan of flesh was the moving jaw that was devouring his lunch.

"You slithering vermin, I was eating that!" Standish scolded, allowing both Dunne and Wilmington to laugh outright. The tracker didn't move at first, then popped the last of the sandwich into his mouth.

"The hell ya were," Vin shot back, paused to burp loudly and swipe his mouth. "Ya was spoutin' some nonsense about a bunch of queens squattin' on fruit. B'tween that and eyein' up how deep them pockets is lined," he jerked his still covered head to the businessmen bearing sample cases by the door, "Ya ignored that bird. Seein' as how Inez went t'all that trouble fixin' ya that chicken sandwich, fryin' peppers and slicin' cheese and such, it weren't right t'let it spoil. This way ya ain't gotta waste any more time eatin'. Time ya stop flappin' yer jaws t'eat, most likely them slickers would be headed out and ye'd lose yer chance t'swindle 'em." Although his face remained hidden, his hand came out to pat the scarlet coat of the gambler. "No need t'thank me."

"Shoot left as good?" Chris inquired without looking up from his letter as the sly trickster's hand moved towards his beer, then quickly retracted.

"Cheap bastard."

"You got balls, Tanner!" Buck accused with a wide grin. "Half your clothes come from the women in the town..."

"Even married ones," J.D. added in admiration.

"It'll snow before you buy a round in here..." Wilmington continued.

"Furthermore, the day has not yet arrived when you've parted with any silver to pay for a meal," Ezra admonished.

Vin sat up slowly, pushed his hat back, rubbed his lean abdomen and eyed the table. He scowled when Buck pulled his beer over, hiding it behind his arm.

"Like I'd be that desperate," Vin sassed, rising and eyeing the door. "Think I'll stretch m'legs."

"Good idea," Chris imparted, still writing. "Stretch 'em way down the street. There were hot peppers in that sandwich."

"Vin, why'd you eat that?" J.D. asked. "You know hot peppers give you diarrhea."

"Cause it was free," Buck replied, tossing a card down.

"Shout it a little louder, J.D., could be some folks in Mexico didn't hear ya!" Vin bristled.

"Don't stray too far," Chris called after the fleet-footed Texan. "It's been too quiet, I don't like it."

+ + + + + + +

After Vin's stomach settled back down to normal, he ambled over to the newspaper office. He ducked inside and cocked his head. Before the sounds caught his keen ears, his nose tilted.

"Aw, hell..." he whispered, salivating for what he detected to be something warm and sweet. "Miz Travis? Billy?"

"Vin!"

"Hey, pard!" Vin bent down and caught the flying blond bundle of boy who charged from the kitchen.

"We made oatmeal cookies with raisins and everything. Want some?"

"Ya up fer dunkin'?" Vin teased.

"I can dunk better than you!" Billy challenged, tugging on the sharpshooter's wrist. "Ma... Ma..."

Mary looked up from the table as her six-year old son's excited voice sailed into the room. She lifted the remaining cookies off the tray with a spatula and moved the hot pan to the sink. She hid a smile, knowing that Vin had a sweet tooth.

"Afternoon, Vin," she smiled coyly. "What brings you here?"

"Well, I was passin' by and thought I'd see if Billy wanted t'go fishin'..." Vin's voice trailed off as his eyes watered, spotting the warm cookies.

"Can I, Ma?"

"Okay, you get your gear and wash up. Maybe Vin would like a cookie while he waits."

"We was gonna have a dunkin' contest," Billy protested.

"A what?" Mary frowned.

"Here." Billy tugged on Vin's hand and shoved him towards a seat. "We need two mugs and some milk. I'll pick the cookies out."

"Don't be touchin' all o'em, Billy. Folks hafta eat 'em," Vin warned, nodding as the mug of milk was set down. "Thanks, Mary."

"Okay?" Billy offered a cookie.

"Okay," Vin agreed, holding his cookie over the mug. "Ready, on three... one, two... three..."

Mary chuckled as both 'boys' dunked the cookies into the milk and shoveled them into their mouths. In order to eat the cookie faster, more milk needed to be consumed. That left two sets of white mustached faces staring at her and twin burps wafting into the air.

"Lovely... I wonder why that never caught on?" She shook her head and had to smile at the dopey grin Vin wore.

"I won!" Billy touted.

"Ya sure did," Vin agreed, wiping his mouth. "Go git washed up and git yer pole. I'll get Diablo and meet ya out front."

"Okay, Vin!" Billy called back as his mother and friend headed outside.

"Thanks Mary," Vin stood, grabbing one cookie for the road.

"My pleasure," she returned, watching him head outside.

Mary packed them a snack and tucked it into Vin's saddlebag. "Be back by four, Vin, Billy has homework," Mary advised as Vin hauled Billy up on the horse in front of him.

"Will do," he nodded.

"Billy, you mind Vin, you hear?"

"Yes, ma'am."

+ + + + + + +

Vin and Billy rode right past the hotel, where inside, four men were situated in a room on the third floor. From this room, a clear view of main street could be seen. On the bed was a carefully constructed map of the street and the freight office. Of special note were the alleys that led from the back entrance.

The four men were discussing the plan when the door opened and a fifth man entered. He nodded, took his hat off and headed for the table. He poured himself a shot of whiskey and walked over.

"We gonna do this or not?"

"Patience is a virtue, Walters," the leader addressed the lean man bearing a scar under a short head of black curls. "A large shipment is arriving tonight. The bank doesn't open until ten a.m. the next morning. The contractor is picking up that order late, in order to meet the train. So all that money will be in the safe at the freight office. Let's have it..."

"Okay," Jenson, the youngest at age twenty-one began. He could easily pass for fifteen and they used this often as a decoy. His blond waves and large blue eyes hid a soul far from angelic. "Max and me spill the kerosene here and here..." he tapped a spot on the map at the other end of town. It was an abandoned store, near the livery. He indicated two precise places in the building "...under a pile of debris near the window and against the wall." Although is was not close enough to damage the animals in the livery, it would rile them up. That would take all the men in town to the diversion, while they robbed the safe at the freight office.

"We wait for the action to start," the third men noted of the rush to put the flames out. He was stocky and balding with a ruddy complexion. "Then we use a small charge to blow the lock on the safe." Curly Hoover, the powderman finished.

"Meanwhile, me and the kid will double back and keep the middle clear." Max Santiago, a lean and mean hombre from south of the border stated.

"Go high," the leader ordered. "They got too many good guns in this town. Anybody gets a whiff, take them out. You two clean out the safe and head for the stage depot. " the leader nodded to Hoover and Walters. "Ditch the horses at the pass and don't forget to change clothes. "Kid," he nodded to remaining members of the gang. "You and Max wait until you see them clear the rise and then take off. You catch the train in Reading at daybreak. We meet in Elkins Crest at noon. Any questions?" He eyed the motley group, "Good, You know your jobs. Lay low until the town goes dark. Don't fuck it up!" He turned, pausing by mirror and smoothing his perfect hair.

"Where are you gonna be?" Walters addressed. He didn't like the leader, but the man was slick and smart. They'd been pulling off heists for over six months and had yet to be caught.

"Having dinner with an old friend..." His lips curled into a smile and he laughed.

+ + + + + + +

It was a lazy afternoon, full of sunshine and stories. Billy, like mostof the kids in town, thought Vin was a living legend. Vin told them about being raised with the Indians and he could speak in their language. Vin knew everything about tracking, hunting, animals, shooting... Billy's eyes were like saucers whenever the lean Texan spoke. Now, he sat next to Vin by the water, enraptured as the drawling man patiently answered all his questions.

"Did ya go to school?"

"We learned from our elders, not in a buildin' like yer usta." Vin stretched his back and lifted his face to the sun. "We was raised in a village, all the adults was our aunts and uncles. They learned us 'bout everythin'. One of the first things I learnt was t' be respectful. Ya mind yer elders, ya don't ever whine or fuss, ya behave or ya get shunned."

"What's shunned?" Billy cocked his head.

"If ya carried on and got t'fussin'," he paused, "like that kid Jimmy does whenever his Ma takes him into Mrs. Potter's."

"He's spoiled, that's what my Ma says," the blond decided.

"That wasn't allowed. If ya carried on like that, nobody would talk t'ya. Ya earn respect, ya ain't given it. Ya don't ever cheat or steal and ya never lie..."

"Vin, look!" Billy squealed, pointing to a spot a few feet away. "Where's he going?"

"She," the tracker corrected, eyeing the fox. "It's a girl, a female. See," he knelt up and put his hand on Billy's shoulder, pointing with the other one. "She's got a real good set o'feeders on her chest, they're full o'milk t' feed her babies. All the mothers do that, takin' care of the little one's 'til they're big enough t'eat on their own. Shh! Be real quiet now... we can't disturb 'er."

Vin crept closer, lying flat and pressing Billy down next to him. He smiled as the young boy's eyes widened in awe. There, a few feet away, in a hole in the deep grass, three pups were nursing. Finally, Vin tapped Billy's shoulder and drew him back, leaving the young mother her privacy.

"Where's the papa?" Billy asked when they went back to retrieve their poles.

"Out huntin'," Vin replied, eyeing the sky. "It's gettin' late, pard, we gotta make tracks."

+ + + + + + +

Vin and Billy arrived back in town just as the Ladies Auxiliary was concluding their fund raising event. They were selling donated items, such as books, dolls, tools, glassware and other items to raise money for the school. Mary looked up from the table with books for sale, watching the two ride past. Billy was still chattering away and Vin was patiently answering every question. She wished some of the smaller-minded citizens of the town would take the time to see Vin as she did.

"Hi, Ma!" Billy waved and paused as Vin reined the horse in and lowered him down. "Look what I caught!"

"Billy, how about thanking Vin for a nice day?" Mary suggested, watching Vin ease off the horse.

"Oh, yeah!" He dropped his basket and ran back, giving the weary man a hug. "Thanks, Vin! I learned a lot. You sure are smart."

Mary was glad that Vin didn't see the rolling eyes of some of the townsfolk who heard her son. Or the snide remarks about letting a child near that 'heathen'. Gloria Potter appeared with a mug of lemonade for the thirsty traveler.

"Here, Vin, on the house," she offered.

"Thanks, Gloria!" Vin drained it, eyeing the nearly empty tables. "Looks like ya done good."

"We raised almost a hundred dollars."

"That's a lot o'books," Vin nodded.

"...and desks and a salary for a proper teacher," Mary added. "Buck was Daniela's best customer," she chuckled, nodding to the smitten rogue and the pretty dark-haired clerk from the hotel. She was selling sandwiches and refreshments. The customers began to line up and reluctantly, the handsome man bid her farewell. He took a beer and ambled over to sit with the town's sheriff and his girl.

"I'll bet," Vin chuckled. "He'll have her readin' t'him under the moon somewheres." His eyes roamed around, skirting past where J.D. and Casey were talking quietly. Buck was lifting a full mug of beer just next to them and Ezra was shuffling cards eyeing up potential customers from the door of the Saloon. From the corner of his eye, he spotted a drift of blue smoke and just a hint of a black clothed arm.

"Hey, cowboy!" He ambled over, hitching a thumb into his waistband.

"How's the ears?" Chris inquired, having experienced Billy's chatter firsthand.

"What's that?" Vin cupped his ear and laughed. "I like takin' 'im out. He's a good kid."

"You're just a sucker for little critters, four-legged and two."

"Reckon," Vin sighed, just as a cry split the air.

"My Ma is so a girl, she's got a great set of feeders, Vin even said so!" Billy shouted at two of his snickering friends. "Ain't that right, Vin?"

"Huh?" Vin squeaked, feeling every set of eyes in town plastered to his face.

"What?" Chris puzzled, his face screwed up in confusion as Vin began to backpedal.

"Buck, you okay?" J.D. clapped the womanizer's back. He had the misfortune of having a mouth full of beer when Billy's words hit the air. He was laughing so hard he choked and still couldn't stop.

His face flaming, the nimble tracker suddenly developed two left feet. Stumbling poorly, he seemed to be mired in mud as well. He couldn't get away from the eyes or harsh laughter. He tripped and fell, landing hard on all fours. He was figuring out how to gracefully escape the mess when he found a dark blue skirt inches from his scarlet face.

"Give you a hand?"

Vin swallowed hard and tried to say something that wouldn't sound awful. After several unintelligible grunts, he stood up and faced her. Once he saw her, his mouth opened and all kinds of words flew out.

"Mary... I wasn't talkin' 'bout yer feeders... I mean I'm sure they're real good but I wouldn't never talk t'Billy 'bout yer... uh... a real woman's feeders... " Vin prattled. Chris shook his head, buried his face and groaned. Buck was now purple and causing great concern to J.D. and Casey. Unaware of any of this, Vin rambled on, his nerves in a frenzy now and unable to stop his wayward mouth.

"Not that I didn't notice yer feeders but Billy seen a fox and didn't know it was a mother 'til I told 'im about her feeders and how she's givin' milk that way t'her little ones..." Vin winced when it seemed the volume in the town intensified.

"A linguist and a biologist extraordinaire, Mister Tanner!" Ezra saluted.

Mary felt like she'd been punched in the stomach when Vin half turned, seeing the faces that matched the riotous laughter. Ezra, Buck and J.D. were openly laughing and making catcalls and she felt her anger grow. Seeing how very upset Vin was, she grabbed his shoulders, but he pulled away.

"I'm sor...ry..." Vin managed, pushing through the crowd and disappearing.

+ + + + + + +

"How could you?" Mary vented, shoving Ezra hard and kicking the table next to Buck. "What's wrong with you? How could you laugh at him like that?"

"Aw, come on, Mary," Buck defended, wiping his damp eyes. "Vin gives it out pretty good. There ain't one of us who hasn't been shot down by him. He's gotta learn to take it."

"Among you, in the saloon or on the road," she sent back. "Where he's safe. Not in the middle of the street with most of the town listening!"

"She's right, Buck," J.D. admitted, feeling guilty.

"Hold it, Mary," Chris moved closer. "To be fair, if the shoe was on the other foot, Vin would have found it funny."

"You didn't laugh." Mary drilled the pale green eyes until they turned away. Then she turned, eyed the crowd and raised her voice. "And he wouldn't have either. He would never hurt anybody's feelings, that's just not in him. It's a shame some of you don't have the moral composition that man has."

"Mary, wait..." Chris called, chasing after her as she moved through the crowd.

Mary skirted the street, eyeing the side streets and alleys. She paused at the end of town, heart hammering and needing to fix the wound. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder.

"There he is," Chris said, nodding to a deserted spot next to Josiah's half-built church.

"Where?" Mary squinted and then saw a hint of wind-blown hair and a red sleeve. She felt Chris move to cross the street and stopped him. "Let me, okay?"

Not able to find a hole to crawl into, Vin sat next to the last building in town. He almost felt Josiah's presence hovering about. He swallowed hard, his eyes pained as the ghosts of the catcalls and mocking laughs still echoed in his head. He'd put his foot in his mouth again. When would he learn? He jumped and gasped when a hand touched his shoulder.

"Mind if I join you?" Mary asked, and then when the head bobbed, she sat down on the loose pile of boards. "Vin, I'm so sorry. They're wrong and I told them so. They had no right to treat you that way." She paused, but the head never lifted.

All she could see beneath the large hat was the bobbing Adam's apple. Then she saw his hands trembling. She reached over and took them, turning them over and holding them out, palms up.

"You have wonderful hands, you know?" She saw the head rise slowly and continued. "They're so unique. They tend to an injured friend with unwavering compassion, rebuild the home of a neighbor, lovingly tend to a lucky horse, create the most moving poems I've ever read and reach out openly and willingly to your friends." She paused, feeling the full effect of those magnificent blue eyes as they exposed his soul.

She touched the side of his face then and heard him gasp a little. "They're strong enough to support the broken heart of a brother," she said of his close ties to the blond leader, "and gentle enough to cradle the mind of a child. God doesn't give hands like those to just anybody, Vin Tanner, just a chosen few. I'm so glad I'm privileged enough to call one friend." She bent and kissed his cheek, then smiled. "You know, when Stephen died, I was worried Billy wouldn't have any role models to learn from. I was so very wrong. Thank you, Vin."

"Aw, hell..." Vin finally managed to squeak over a very tight throat. He swiped his damp eyes and took several steadying breaths. "I'm really sorry, Mary, fer embarrassin' ya like that. M'nerves was so fried it got my mouth to runnin'. I don't even know what I said, only it was awful..." he rasped painfully, his face hot.

"Oh, I don't know," Mary grinned, taking his hand again and squeezing it. "I wasn't the least bit embarrassed, Vin. I think I have a very good set of 'feeders'."

Vin laughed then, and with that laughter, all the tension that was eating at him left. He squared his shoulders and sat back, resting his aching back against the building. "Reckon ya do at that, Mrs. Travis."

"There's still some cake left on Mrs. Schmidt's baked goods table. I know for a fact, she's hiding a chocolate cake, saving it for you."

"Mebbe later," Vin replied quietly, not ready to face the town yet. "Think I'll ponder fer a spell, but thanks, Mary. I won't never look at m'hands the same way again. Could be I sprouted an inch 'er two thanks t'yer words."

"Could be, Mister Tanner," Mary sent back, rising and dusting her skirt off. She saw the worried green eyes burning into her as she came across the street. "He's upset but he'll be okay. He's 'pondering'," she added, but still the green eyes went past her and remained fixed on the church. Then she saw him lean against the post and realized as long as Tanner wasn't himself yet, neither would be Larabee. She thumped her hand on his chest and raised an eyebrow, feigning surprise. "Well, how about that? There is a heart in there!"

+ + + + + + +

J.D. had taken Casey for a ride by the river and Ezra was three deep in card players. It was dark when Chris spotted Buck's backside disappearing up the side stairs at the hotel, one girl on each arm. That brought a bawdy grin. The gunslinger had patrolled the streets for a while, checked the stores and eyed the strangers. Then he'd gotten thirsty. Chris had lit a cheroot and ambled over to the wagon, but Vin wasn't there. He'd waited for a bit across from the church before he was distracted by a minor fight that needed breaking up. When he'd returned to check, Vin was still gone. But since his horse was in the livery, the blond knew the quiet tracker was lurking about somewhere. Chris paused in the entry of the saloon, eyeing up the half empty room. Then he ambled over to the bar, leaning sideways.

"Get you somethin', Mr. Larabee?"

"Bottle of whiskey," the reply came. "Any grub left?"

"Some chili I think," the bartender replied, sliding a bottle and a glass at the man in black. "I can check."

"Well, look at you, Larabee, wearing boots and mixing with the civilized folks. Guess appearances are deceiving after all. I thought this looked like a pretty decent place to have a drink. Guess I was wrong given that they let you ooze in here. Should have guessed from the stench."

Chris's head turned sharply and his hand automatically caressed his Colt, but before he could reply, a blur of tan flashed by. The stranger who had spoken the words seemed just as startled when a hot-tempered, long-haired man in buckskins shoved between them. Chris hadn't even seen Vin in the room. The man appeared and disappeared like a phantom.

"Listen up, ya ball-less wonder," Vin seethed. "Ya aim on keepin' what little ya got, ya best turn and haul yer tight ass right on outta here, 'er I'll do it fer ya."

The stranger sipped his drink while eyeing Chris Larabee's stoic face over the brash younger man's irate one. He pushed his hat back, turned slowly and raised the empty shot glass.

"You've got yourself quite a watchdog, Larabee," he toasted. "A real blue-eyed terrier."

"...kind of scrawny if you ask me," the man next to the stranger added, elbowing him. "Most likely he's got rabies. Maybe we should up him down... " He didn't finish the thought when a knife was suddenly pressed to his throat.

"Now I thought I was real polite," Vin warned, pressing the blade tip closer. He eyed the nasty scar that ran down the dark-haired man's face and narrowed his eyes. "Ya don't want me t'lose m'temper."

"Feisty little devil," the stranger saluted. "You sure know how to pick them, Larabee."

"Ain't so bad once you get past the smell," Chris sent back, causing Tanner's head to swivel in confusion. He cast his eyes past Vin to the stranger and the man with him. Then he poured himself a shot of whiskey and raised it, along with a single sandy eyebrow. "Mine's prettier."

"You got me there, Chris," the stranger admitted, sliding over two ten dollar silver coins. "Back off," He warned his Mexican cohort and waited until the knife pulled back. Then he dismissed his associate with a nod of his head. Turning back to the blond, he continued his conversation. "My half of the bill from the Three Oaks. Seems I recall you leaving in a hurry."

"I damn near got my ass shot off," Chris grinned. "Seems you forgot to mention that she was married."

"Her English was bad and my French was worse," he chuckled. "Could be that part got lost in the translation."

"On behalf of my 'wounded pride'," Chris tapped his groin and took the coins, "thanks. Damn, that was a night to remember!" he recalled of the celebration after graduation. "How long's it been, Jeff?" He extended his hand.

"Fourteen years I guess," Mason took the hand and eyed his former classmate. "You look good, Chris. I heard about your wife and son. My dad ran into your Uncle Charles in New York a couple years ago. Damn shame."

"Yeah..." Chris sighed and studied the bar until an annoyed chuffed breath drew his head up.

"Aw, don't mind me," Vin spat testily. "I'm jest the smelly dawg, remember?"

"Hey, he's real cute when he gets riled up," Mason winked, which only made the tracker angrier.

Chris chuckled and nodded to the stranger. "This is Jeff Mason. We went to West Point together."

"Sorry for the ruse," Jeff extended his hand also, "but I couldn't resist. I owed him one. This guy is quite the prankster."

Vin ignored the hand offered but let his eyes study every detail of the other man. Two inches over six feet, lean and handsome. Short auburn hair over fair features and icy blue eyes. The suit was expensive, and the ring and watch were too. Something about those icy eyes sent a chill through him though. Almost a deadly premonition, one so strong it made him shudder. He kept his somber gaze fixed on the other man's until the hand was withdrawn.

"I'll be around." He offered a double message, updating Larabee and warning the newcomer. Then as quickly as he appeared, he was gone.

"Something I said?" Jeff eyed the slim man as he exited the bar.

"No," Chris replied.

"He's a little rough around the edges. Who is he? Known him long?"

"Long enough," Chris replied, not divulging Vin's name or any other details.

"Okay," Mason nodded, seeing that Larabee was tight-lipped about the buckskinned man. He lifted his glass and waited, then offered the creed they'd sworn to at school. "Duty. Honor. Country."

Chris tapped the glass and drained his shot.

"What brings you this far west, Jeff?"

"How 'bout we catch up over dinner? You eat yet? I came in on the stage and was worn out. Took a nap."

"No, but steaks are good over at the hotel." Chris took the bottle and waited. "It's good to see you, Jeff."

Jeff Mason nodded and smiled, thinking just how true his 'old' friend's words were. He kept that devious smile on the man's back as they walked to the hotel.

+ + + + + + +

Vin hustled to his wagon, wincing several times as the paper-thin soles in the bottom of his worn boots gave way again. The others had all been teasing him about the ratty boots. He vowed with the next payment from Orrin, he'd get a new pair. He cursed several times and lifted his foot, plucking out a large splinter.

"Dammit!"

He paused at the back of his wagon when he spotted the soft brown boots sitting just inside the back. He picked them up,fingering the smooth leather in appreciation. Curious, he shucked his own off and pulled them on.

"Smoother than a baby's ass!" He tested them and frowned. "Who the hell...?" he wondered, until a warm voice split the night behind him.

"You were gettin' just too embarassin' to ride with," Buck Wilmington offered, leaning against the alley wall. He reached down and picked up one of Vin's old boots, sticking his hand right through the bottom. "Would have been just as easy to go barefoot. How old are these?"

"Hell if I know," Vin shrugged. "Plucked 'em off a corpse. He weren't needin' 'em where he's headed and I didn't have none."

Buck laughed hard at that, tossed the boot away, then clapped the smaller man's shoulder.

"Well, you do now, son and they sure are pretty!" the mustached man boomed, one hand ruffling the long hair. "Just like you."

"Don't be touchin' m'hair!" Tanner pulled away, snarling lightly. "How much I owe ya?" He pulled a few meager coins out. "I was aimin' on buyin' some but it weren't enough."

"Keep your money, slick." Buck folded the fingers over the dirty coins. "Those boots are from a friend. Someone who would appreciate it if you used them to kick his ass when he gets out of line again. Okay?" he offered, watching the keen-eyed eagle appraising him. Somehow, when Vin Tanner stared at you, he seemed to look right through you, deep down inside to where it counted. He felt his own body relax a bit when his hand was taken.

"Fair enough," Vin took the hand and eyed his feet. "These is from a store, right? I don't cotton t'havin' m'ass shot off by some fired-up husband."

"I'm wounded, Vin," Buck tapped his chest and laughed. "Don't you recognize them? You've been starin' at them in that window for three weeks. All I did was follow the drool puddles."

"Can't be too careful!" Vin eyed the hotel and shivered.

"How 'bout we test them out? You can buy me dinner."

"I ain't hungry," Vin said in a distracted voice.

"That's words I thought would never meet," Buck eyed the concerned etched on the other man's face. "You okay, Vin?"

"Ain't sure what's wrong," the disturbed voice came back. "M'guts on fire and I feel like I'm jumpin' outta m'own skin. Somethin' jest ain't right 'bout that fella."

"What fella?"

"Some friend o'Chris's... from WestPoint. He run into him in the saloon. Mason?"

"Jeff Mason," Buck nodded. "Used to be Chris's best friend. They grew up together. Mason's family moved to New York when they were about ten, I think. They entered West Point together."

"Ever meet him?"

"No, they split up, got sent to different regiments. Then the war came..." Buck shifted his weight. Vin's sense of doom was legendary among them and now he was feeling nervous. "Why?"

"His eyes ain't right... put a chill right thru me..." Vin shivered.

"Maybe you're just tired, Vin," Wilmington suggested. "Get some sleep..."

"Mebbe..." Vin kept his eyes on the quiet street and shivered again.

"Well, I'm starved. Working on them Callison twins sure brings up my appetite,"the ladies man lauded, patting his gut. "Could be that's what you need, Vin. Maybe the boys need some air."

"Ya kept yer boys busy enough fer both of us," Vin snorted as Buck turned to leave. "Hey?"

Wilmington turned and saw a hint of a smile as the slim fingers tipped the side of the floppy hat. "Thanks, Bucklin..."

His own smile was born then, a real soft Wilmington winner. He eased into the shadows, lingering and keeping his eyes on the smaller man. He waited until Vin rumbled into that pile of wood he called home and then left to get some dinner.

But despite his weariness, Vin Tanner didn't sleep. And when sleep finally did come, his dreams were stark and vivid. The images of blood and carnage were very real. So much so, he could smell death all around him. The stench so strong, it caused him to cry out in agony. In the center of the nightmare, covered in blood, was Chris Larabee. The night terrors finally wore him out and he rested, unaware that it would be the last night he spent in his humble abode.

+ + + + + + +

Chris yawned as he made his way to the street. It was well after midnight and the town was quiet. After dinner, he'd gone back to Jeff's room at the hotel and they killed off a bottle of whiskey. Now, all he wanted was to walk without stumbling and falling, then find himself a nice, soft bed. He paused on the boardwalk, his eyes narrowing at an unfamiliar sight.

"You sleepwalking?"

"Nope." Buck yawned but didn't rise from the rocking chair he sat in. From the flickering fire in the can in the alley, he saw the inquisitive green eyes bearing down on him and peeled an eye open. "Can't sleep...room's too damn lonely." He heard the snort of sarcasm and eyed his friend with a bemused stare.

"First time for everything," Chris noted of the idea of Buck sleeping alone. "Nathan and Josiah due back today?"

"Yeah, if they head out early, we'll see them before noon sometime I expect."

"Good," the slightly tipsy leader noted. "I should be up by then."

"Yeah...I heard you ran into an old friend." Buck rose and stretched, rubbing his back. "What's he doin' in town?"

"Passing through," Chris said as they slowly made their way up the boardwalk. "His father's got an idea to buy a mine north of here. He's a stock broker in New York."

"Silver? Up near Santa Fe?" Buck guessed and saw the head bobbing.

"Apparently, he bought a large one in Mexico too. Jeff was coming north from there and just happened to get off the stage here."

"Small world," Buck added, thinking on Vin's eerie feelings.

Just as they approached the alley where the sharpshooter's wagon resided, a jagged cry split the still air.

"CHRIS!"

"Shit!" Chris flew into the alley and then stopped short, throwing out his arm to halt Buck's progress. Out of breath and not quite steady on his feet, he needed a moment to get his bearings. Even the light cast off by the full moon didn't prepare him. He groaned and shook his head, rubbed his throbbing eyes.

"Now *that* is a picture!" Buck stated of the Texan who was facing them wearing only his new boots and the mare's leg.

"He's not awake, Buck," Chris warned.

"He has to be, his eyes are open."

"He's not awake!" Chris hissed. "Don't rile him up!"

"Vin? You okay?" Buck asked tentatively.

"Put the gun down, Vin, it's me and Buck," Chris tried, but the wide blue eyes didn't blink.

"Git the hell away..." Vin rasped, blinking into the dark storm. He couldn't see their faces but he knew they were back. Where was Chris? All he remembered was blood - a lot of blood. "Chris...Chris...?"

"Shit!" Larabee seethed while taking a deep breath. He inched forward, making sure both hands were in the air. "Vin, look at me. Vin Tanner. VIN!" Chris bolted when the gun was leveled at his body.

"Chris, be careful!" Buck warned when the lean gunslinger shot forward and grabbed hold of the dazed man.

"Get the gun, Buck!" Chris gritted, wrestling the body down. Then he felt the tension leave and the near-naked form slumped.

"Hell's goin' on...?" Vin murmured, then eyed his surroundings. When the fog cleared, he saw Buck's boots and Chris's face looking at him. "Git offa me!"

"You were dreaming," Chris said, rising and hauling the younger man up. "You okay? Did I hurt you?"

"Naw," Vin winced and rubbed his backside. "Great. Nate's gonna love this..." he sassed, grabbing his gun from the chuckling rogue. "Shut the hell up. It ain't funny," Vin growled, eyeing his palm.

"What?" Chris peered in the dim light, seeing something wet on the disturbed man's hand. "You get cut? Let me see." The mare's leg came up under two hot blue eyes. "Suit yourself!" Larabee backed off. "Just make sure Nate gets a look, so you don't become more of a pain-in-the-ass than usual."

"Must have been a helluva dream," Buck offered his support. "You want to talk about it?"

"Hell, yeah," Vin crowed. "As long as I'm nekkid and bleedin', let's shoot the breeze." He paused then hollered, "GIT!"

"Alright, alright," the womanizer backed away. "Damn near got shot and that's the thanks I get. Goddamn on'ry Texan!"

Vin tossed his pants on and grabbed his shirt and some other things from his wagon. He gingerly walked to the clinic. He paused out front to pick up the buckets Nathan left outside. He filled both with water from the pump and made his way up the stairs. Once inside the clinic, he lit the lamp and stripped down. He filled a pot with some water and got the soap out. As the water heated, he thought on the troubles that plagued him overnight. What sleep he did get was disturbed, leaving him with a dull headache. He soaped up his hands and washed them good before applying the soapy cloth to the raw, bleeding scrape on his backside.

He thought on the disturbing images that disrupted his night. As he applied carbolic and did a mad dance, cussing a blue streak, he tried to shake off the premonition. He kept pressure applied until the bleeding stopped. Then he rummaged through his things until he found a clean set of drawers. After he dressed, he used the leftover boiled water to make a cup of peppermint tea. He hoped the herbal remedy would soothe his upset stomach. He walked to the window, lifted the curtain and eyed the still of the night. As he sipped his tea, he wondered on how to give Chris and Buck the answer they sought.

His heart sank and he rubbed his aching eyes. It wasn't a dream; it was a vision. His background with the Comanche and the Kiowa taught him that. Leaving the window behind with the curtains open to let the breeze in, he eyed the cot. Suddenly, that bed looked a lot more inviting to his exhausted body than his wagon. He gingerly eased his weary body down and lay on his side.

He sighed deeply, thinking again on the window that had been opened in his mind. A brief glimpse into the future. He winced and moved his hand over his heart, once again seeing Chris Larabee's chest covered in blood, holding his limp and lifeless body. It wasn't the jagged portrait of his own death that hurt so much. It was the unspeakable agony on Chris Larabee's face that broke his heart. Exhaustion took over, leading him into the treacherous waters again.

Something interrupted his night terrors. Before he saw Larabee once again covered in blood, his eyes shot open. The room was cloudy or so it seemed to him. He rubbed his eyes and sat up, coughing.

His eyes hurt.

Cloudy.

Coughing.

"...the hell..." he choked, shaking the groggy cloak off his body just as the full realization hit him.

"SMOKE!" he coughed hard, stumbling a few feet. "Fire?" he rasped. "Aw, hell...the lamp..." He stumbled through Nathan's clinic, fearing he'd caused the blaze. But the lamp wasn't on. He staggered to the stove, touched it gingerly. It was cold. He turned, still coughing, and fell to his knees. The air was clearer down here. As he headed for the door, a splash of color fell through the window. He jerked the door open and saw orange flames dancing in the abandoned building next door.

"FIRE! FIRE!" he screamed, then his eyes caught movement. Through the edge of the window, just ahead of the flames, he saw a shadowy figure. An arm tossed something backwards and another burst of orange flames shot up in front of the window. He saw the man emerge from the back of the abandoned building.

"Hey!" he called out, grabbing his gun from the hook by the door.

"Shit!" Jensen, the youngest of the gang, cursed as a slim man raced up the alley towards him. He shot at the figure who then ducked and returned fire, nearly hitting him.

"Dammit!' Vin swore as his shot hit the wall next to the fire-starter's head. He kept pace as the quick figure sped into the night. He paused at the narrow opening between the bank and the café. Vin heard a grunt and looked up just as a body slipped over the edge of the roof. He quickly took pursuit.

Buck sat up in a hurry, breathing hard and not sure why his pulse was racing. What woke him up? He paused and eyed the window, then a flicker of color caught his eyes.

Color?

Easing his body over the bed, he padded to the window and saw flames leaping from the other end of the street.

"Shit!"

He roughly threw on his pants, shirt and boots and ran into the hall, banging on the doors.

"FIRE...FIRE...GET UP!"

He paused at the last door in the hall and banged hard, using his boots as well.

"CHRIS, GET UP...FIRE UP THE STREET....CHRIS...FIRE!"

"Huh?"

The sour stomach and foul taste inside his mouth were barely enough to get his eyes half open. His limbs seemed to be mired in mud and somehow he'd acquired a hatchet in his skull. He blinked several times, not sure why the noise outside his head was so much louder. Then the high shrill of his name knifed him hard in the eardrums.

"CHRIS!"

"Buck?" he croaked. "SHUT UP!"

He curled up and covered his throbbing head. The noise got louder. Attempting to throw his boot at the door, he fell out of bed, hitting his eye on the bedpost.

"God...dam...mit..." he hissed, grabbing his gun and heading for the door. "Buck, I swear..."

"FIRE!" Buck hollered, still pounding when the door opened, revealing a face that was pale and ghoulish. "Thank God. Get dressed, there's a fire up the street. It looks bad."

The words accelerated the sobering process. By the time he pulled a pair of pants on and a shirt, his head, although still pounding, was clearer. He poured water in the basin, doused his face and rinsed his sour mouth. He shoved his boots on, slapped his gun belt around his waist and ran out of the room.

Vin lifted his face over the roof, giving himself only enough room to see. His eyes, guided by the moon above, did a fast roam. The second time around, he saw a figure hiding behind a chimney stack. He saw the gun and face were trained the other way. Taking advantage, he slipped over the side. The phantom quickly made his way across the roof, pausing a few feet away.

"Git yer hands up!"

"Don't shoot, Mister!" Jensen whined, dropping his gun and casting his 'young' eyes, doing his best to take five years off his appearance.

"Hell, yer a kid..." Vin scrutinized the youth's face. "Who the hell are ya? Ya ain't from these parts. I seen ya dousin' the buildin'. What the hell fer?"

"Money!" he shot back. "He...promised me...it'd be easy...I got no money...my Pa took off after we buried my Ma..."

"Right before he shot yer dog?" Vin snorted. "Save yer breath," he grunted, waving his gun hand. "That's a load a horse shit and I ain't that stupid. On yer knees, facing the wall, put yer hands behind..."

The peacekeeper's sentence was broken off by a gun slamming into his head from behind. He fell forward, hitting his face against the bricks.

"No!" Jensen cried out when Max placed the gun against the unconscious man's temple. "Folks are already in the street. He saw me...he called out and woke 'em up. You start shootin' and they'll know we're up here."

"No problem." Max knelt down and rolled the body over, drew out his knife and placed it across the exposed throat.

"No..."

"Why not?" Max eyed the hand grabbing his wrist.

"Think for a change, will you?" the youth hissed. "He's the guy that was with Larabee! The one you told me about with the long hair and the drawl!"

"Yeah, so?"

"So, Jeff scoped this town out. He's one of the peacekeepers. You kill him and we'll have Larabee huntin' us down. What if somebody heard him shooting? They could be here, find him and get to us before the safe is empty. No dice, it's too risky."

"We can't leave him here, he saw you."

"I know that!" The young man knelt down, taking out a long, thin cord that he'd cut from the kerosene container. "Get him on his belly...hold his hands back." After securing the hands, he jogged to edge of the roof. A dozen men were down by the livery, some taking the frightened animals out while others, joined by several women, were making a bucket line.

"Good, going right on schedule. Get him up. Once we get out of town, you can carve him like a turkey if you want. We'll dump him in the river. Let's go!".

"All the horses get out?" Chris asked, then watched the youth's head dip. Chaos rained down on the town; shouts and cries split the night air. People were running, voices were shouting, and it was hard for the semi-sober man to try to make order from the mess. They expected it though. It was his face they sought when he arrived.

"Yeah, Mark and Jimmy took care of it," Dunne noted of two of the townsfolk. "Chris, if we don't get ahead of it, it's gonna spread!" J.D. panted, wiping the sweat from his eyes. "Buck can't spare anybody from the bucket line, but I'm gonna need help getting the water barrels over here."

"Yeah, okay, J.D.," he rubbed his eyes as smoke hit them.

After a town in another territory burned down, the town council decided to store barrels of water in a warehouse in town. So if a fire struck one of the buildings, they need only load them on wagons and roll. The water was stored in an old depot at the end of town.

"I'll run down to the hotel," the youth offered. "I can get some of the guests to help. There's two wagons in the depot ready to go. Mark and Jimmy are over there, I'll get them to bring some horses."

"Just do it! GO! GO...!" Chris ordered, tugging a scarf over his nose and mouth and joining the line. His head was pounding and the thick smoke only made his sobering up process harder. His eyes stung and between the shouting and the chaos, he couldn't think straight. Then his eyes caught sight of Buck, leading the bucket line. He was giving orders, keeping the pace up and the line was working well.

"Chris, it don't look good!" Buck called out as his oldest friend ran over, the bottom of his face obscured by a black kerchief. "We're bustin' ass over here but..."

"Just keep 'em moving, Buck!" Chris issued, grabbing a bucket and passing it along. "J.D.'s gettin' help from the hotel. They're gonna bring the water barrels over by wagon."

"Water? We got water in town?"

"At least I was at the town meeting, not having a poke in the room over it," Larabee shot back before turning to the third man down the line who ran the hotel. "Harry, wake your guests up. We need more help. We can form a second line on the other side, start dousin' it with the water the kid is bringing." He turned back just as Buck handed a full bucket to the man next to him. The rogue's face fell in shock and then he started to run towards the inferno.

"BUCK!" Chris screamed. "What the hell are you doing?"

"Gus!" he hollered even as he tried to wiggle free of Larabee's grasp around his waist. "You know he sleeps in there. He don't ever hurt nobody. He's a harmless drunk..."

"Buck..." Chris said softer, shaking his head.

"Maybe he got...out..." the large-hearted man panted, wiping his smoke-stung eyes. His shoulders dropped a bit, thinking of the old timer who always had a story to tell. "I hope...if...he didn't...at least...he was...asleep..."

"Yeah." Chris clapped his shoulder just as a body in the window of the boarding house caught his eye. "EZRA, GET YOUR ASS DOWN HERE!"

"You know snakes don't like fire..." Buck teased, then his eyes widened and his heart began to race. "Where's Vin?"

"Vin?" Chris coughed, his alarmed eyes going over the crowd.

"KID!" Buck cupped his hands and screamed, getting J.D.'s attention as the first wagon ambled down the street. The youth was directing them, standing on the boardwalk. His face turned immediately, his large dark eyes seeking his best friend's voice. "WHERE'S VIN? CHECK HIS WAGON!"

J.D. took his hat off and waved it to the rogue, signaling he'd do just that. The youth took off, easily sprinting the distance to the alley. "Vin...? Vin...?" He peered in the back, but it was empty. He ran into the street and shook his head.

"Where the hell is he?" Chris said just as Buck's eyes caught a curtain flapping above the wall of smoke near the livery. "FUCK!" The leader read the rogue's mind. Tanner was headed to the clinic earlier to clean his cuts.

"If he fell asleep..." Buck's voice died off at the thought of Vin inhaling all that smoke.

"EZRA!" Chris called out as the scarlet coated figure ran by the alley next to the livery. "Vin...Nate's...GO!"

"Vin? Vin?" Ezra coughed, blinded by the wall of smoke that greeted him. He covered his face with his coat flap and ran inside the clinic. "VIN?" The flames gave an eerie illumination to the room. The outer room where more than often, one of the six was tended to on a cot by the healer, was empty. He ran past the small stove to the back where Nathan's room was. As his tearing eyes skirted the empty room, Larabee's voice called out from the outer room.

"TANNER!"

"He's not here..." Ezra wheezed, having trouble breathing from the large lungful of smoke he'd inhaled upon entering.

"He has to be!" Chris coughed, smoke stinging his eyes. "Ezra?" He turned when he heard a thump.

"I may require...some...assistance..."

"Hold on..." Chris called out, closing the windows. He got the southerner to his feet, took one arm over his shoulder and they ran outside. He eased Ezra down in front of Potter's store.

"Is he hurt?"

"No, Gloria, I think he sucked in too much smoke." He watched as the normally suave man fell to his knees, coughing so hard he threw up.

"I'll stay with him," she offered. "Vin?"

"He's not...around." Chris saw her fear. Vin had wormed his way into the hearts of most of the good people of the town. Gloria had a real soft spot for the tracker. Chris moved over and gave her shoulder a squeeze. "You know Vin takes off...probably sound asleep under a tree by the river."

+ + + + + + +

He wasn't aware of his friend's concern. He wasn't aware of time or space. Being trussed up and upside down on a moving horse did things to a man's equilibrium. Put a head wound on top of that and it spelled trouble. His fuzzy brain didn't work. He couldn't open his eyes. It took double the effort to find time to snatch small breaths. The motion of the moving animal he was tied to drove pain into his ribs. The dizzying pace caused a normal reaction and he vomited. He tried to focus, to figure out why he was so sick. Why was he on this horse? He tried and failed, surrendering to the blackness with sour residue lingering in his mouth and nose. The last image he had before the darkness called was of an intense pair of green eyes. His lips parted, silently forming the name.

"Chris?"

+ + + + + + +

As he made his way back up the sidewalk to join the fight to save the town, Larabee hoped his words convinced the worried woman. They didn't convince him. He was still lingering on the tracker's whereabouts when J.D. appeared.

"How'd it go?"

"Good! I got ten men loading two more wagons. If we need more water, Harry says we can use the pump behind the hotel. We'll take the empty ones back to the hotel for refills.”

"You may have just saved this town, J.D. Could be I might make a suggestion at the next town meeting. How's renaming the town Dunneville sound?” Chris grinned.

"Awful!" the beaming youth replied, finding a cocky grin. "Anyhow, I asked Mary and Daniella to take a head count, just in case anybody is missing. I checked with Jimmy, Diablo was in the livery. He's safe," he noted of Vin's fine black horse. "I'll look for him, Chris...I'll find him!"

"Thanks, John Daniel!" The leader caught his breath between coughs and gripped the kid's forearm. It was a gesture usually reserved for Tanner and the younger man knew it. But tonight, in the midst of this chaotic storm, the kid showed his true colors. The leader was grateful.

J.D. kept that glow all the way up the street. But when he came to the freight office, his face dropped. He ran through the entryway after spotting broken glass. Then he saw the safe.

"It was planned..." He turned back, seeking his friends. Then his heart sank and he thought of their missing man. Had Vin stumbled upon them? He ran back into the building, his heart stopping with every crate he checked. When the last one didn't reveal Tanner's dead body, he allowed himself a moment to be relieved. Then he took his legs to the door to find Chris Larabee.

"It's working!" Buck enthused, clapping Chris's back. "Right man for the job! Looks like I'm rubbing off on that kid," he exuded, then saw the green eyes, like a honed hawk, searching the street, the rooftops and the road out of town.

"He's not here, Chris. Most likely he took off for the hills. He was pretty shook up..."

"He wouldn't run over some bad dream..." Larabee denied, not telling Buck of the nagging fear that was growing in his gut.

"He had other reasons," Wilmington stated, thinking on Vin's uncanny ability to read a man. Was he right about Jeff Mason?

"What's that mean?" Chris asked sharply, seeing something he didn't like in Buck's eyes. "What aren't you telling me?"

"Later," Buck turned away. "Let's get this done. The wind is kicking up. We can't afford for one ember to hit the other side."

"Fine," Chris argued. "You can talk and work at the same time. What's eatin' Vin?"

Before Buck could reply, a sharp cry split the night, causing both men's heads to turn.

"CHRIS! CHRIS! We've been robbed!" J.D. coughed, dropping to his knees and gasping for air.

"Robbed?" Buck grabbed a bucket of water and knelt down. "Get a drink. Catch your breath."

"Robbed how?" Chris demanded, watching J.D.'s breathing ease a bit. Just as he started to speak, he wiped a hand over his sweating face.

"The freight office. We were set up."

"Dammit!" Buck hissed, pounding his fist into his open palm. "While we were busy down here..."

"They cleaned the safe out." Dunne shook his head. "It was full...had to be close to ten thousand. They had a busy week."

"Fuck!" Larabee whirled and kicked the post next to him.

"I checked...all...the boxes..." J.D. paled under the soot on his face. "I was afraid maybe Vin caught them and..." He bit if off and shook his head. "Thank God...he wasn't there..."

Buck gripped the back of the youth's neck and sighed. Then he looked at the storm brewing in Larabee's eyes.

"Your call, Chris."

Larabee walked a few feet away, pulling the kerchief down to take a swig of water. He doused his face with it, feeling the heat of the flames. He scrubbed a hand over his face, then eyed the men and women of the town. The large barrels of water were drowning the troublesome fire. They were winning the war.

The flames were dying down and it would soon be contained.

"Damn, Ace!" Buck managed a weak smile. "You look as green as your eyes."

"You look awful, Ezra," J.D agreed as the gambler staggered towards them.

"Thank you," he spat back. "Any sign of our elusive tracker?"

"No," J.D. answered. "The fire wasn't an accident. The freight office was robbed."

"The take?" Standish inquired.

"About ten grand near as we can figure. Clem will have to check his records. Did you tell him?" Buck asked Dunne who shook his head.

"Chris?" Buck moved away from J.D. and approached the brooding male.

"Yeah...gimme a minute, Buck..." Chris saw the middle-aged owner of the freight office and waved him over. He spoke privately to him for a moment and then shook his hand. Then Mary stopped and spoke to him briefly. He nodded and bit his lower lip in pain. He stepped into the street and hopped up on top of a wagon. He eyed the sky, just beginning to go from black to dark blue. He eyed the soot-covered faces of the townspeople and shifted his weight, resting one boot on the edge of the side of the wagon.

"I need your attention!" he called out, waiting for the faces to turn towards him. "I want to thank you all for working so well together. You all know what can happen when a fire gets out of control. Wind shifts and we lose the building or worse. You did good."

"What's caught in yer throat, lad," a voice called out, "besides the smoke?"

Chris sighed and raked a hand through his short hair. He caught the eye of the speaker, a man he knew and respected. The Scotsman was a rancher outside town, raising a brood of fine sons. He served on the town council and always offered his support to the peacekeepers.

"MacTavish," he nodded, acknowledging the question. "We've been robbed. While we were fighting the fire, the freight office was robbed. They got away clean." He put his hands up when the murmuring started.

"The black-hearted devils!" Craig MacTavish fisted the air.

"It looks like they set the fire as a ruse," Larabee noted, then his face wore a dark shadow. It outweighed the smoke residue on his features. "Mary says we're all accounted for, except Gus and Vin."

"Gus isn't missing..." Ted Frankson, the blacksmith stepped forward. "He's inside...well, what's left. I saw him when we split up and began pouring water in the east side of the building.

"You sure?" J.D. asked, fearing for his missing friend.

"Too big for Tanner...it's Gus..." Frankson noted of the large, charred body.

"Thanks, Ted." Chris slumped a bit, then turned when the wagon moved. A hand landed on his shoulder. He tensed up initially, then relaxed as the familiar brogue hit his ear.

"We'll handle this, won't we?" MacTavish eyed the men in the town who readily agreed. Both Larabee and the tall, well-built Scotsman were forces to be reckoned with. "We'll clean up the mess. Ye've a job tah do, don't ye then?" Craig gripped the hand offered and read the pain in the green eyes. Like the others, he knew just how much Tanner meant to the leader. "Ye find them devils..." He paused, gripping the shoulder harder, "and ye bring the lad home, do ye hear?"

"Thanks, Craig," Chris nodded before jumping down. He made his way to the trio waiting for him on the boardwalk. Mary joined them, giving his hand a fast squeeze. "Okay, Ezra, you and Mary wire the Judge, then the rest of the towns in the county."

"It had to be that gang..." Buck thought aloud. "Somebody started the fire...one or two at the safe..."

"A lookout or two..." J.D. noted, then his eyes found the roofs. "You don't think..."

"Check it out!" Chris drilled, knowing that Tanner often slept up top.

"So, it's a likely possibility that if it was those creeping vermin," Ezra paused, wheezing, "they planned this well, which means..."

"They had an escape route planned," Mary finished. "Maybe more than one. Five men riding hard out of town would be easy to track."

"But one or two would be harder," Chris agreed. "Wire the depots and rail stations. Sun will be up in an hour." He eyed Buck and J.D. "Get cleaned up and packed. We leave in a half an hour.”

"After you eat," Mary added. "You'll ride better on a full stomach. You need to check out the freight office anyway and it's on your way out of town. I'll meet you there and have food ready. Harry told his help to start cooking. All these people will be hungry. I'll make a few platters up for you."

"Speaking of the hotel," Buck eyed the widow. "Are you sure everybody was accounted for?"

"Except Gus and Vin." She pulled out her notes. "Yes...all the guests were either in their rooms or fighting the fire. Why?"

"Jeff Mason?"

"Buck, what are you saying?" Chris got defensive, moving closer.

"You asked me earlier why Vin was upset..." he replied honestly. "He met your friend in the saloon?"

"Yeah, and…?"

"He didn't trust him. He said his eyes weren't right. You know when Vin's gut starts talkin'..."

"Look, Jeff and me had some fun at Vin's expense!" the leader fired back, his hackles rising. "He got sore and maybe took off. That's no reason to accuse Jeff of being involved in this!"

"Did you say Mason, Buck?" Mary scanned her list. "I don't have anyone here by that name. This is from the register."

"I was in his room!" Chris dictated, a flutter of something he liked was born in his gut. "He's got to be there."

"Look for yourself." She handed the list over.

"What the hell?" Chris read the name. "Edward Dillon?" He frowned, eyeing the newswoman. "You spoke with him?"

"Let me think...yes, I did. He was ill. He came to the door and opened it a crack.”

"But you didn't see him?" Buck guessed.

"No, it was too dark..." she replied. "And I'll bet he was already dressed and ready to ride. He probably figured by the time we got to checking back, he'd be long gone. I'm gonna get that food ready. I'll see you in a half-hour." She nodded to the weary men and left.

"Dillon...Dillon...?" Wilmington mused. "Why is that name familiar?"

"He's the bank manager at the bank in Eagle Bend that got robbed," J.D. offered, returning to the group.

"That's rich!" Ezra scoffed of the bold statement.

"Ballsy fuckers, aren't they?" Buck muttered, then met the pained eyes of the leader. "I'm sorry, Chris."

"He's not there," J.D. updated of not finding the missing tracker.

"Thirty minutes," Larabee managed in a low growl, then stalked off.

"Chris..." Buck started out, but Ezra caught his arm. "Let him go, Buck. If Mister Tanner's uncanny instincts are proved right again and this Mason is involved..."

"You think he caught them in the act?" J.D. asked.

"No, they'd have left him here," Standish pondered. "Unless he was previously upset as you suggested," he eyed the worried face of Buck Wilmington, "and was outside of town already. It might be he was riding back and saw them flee.

Perhaps he took off after them."

"Maybe..." Buck sighed, rubbing the base of his aching back. "I sure hope so. Because if we find Vin hurt or worse and Jeff Mason is involved..." he paused, his mind's eye drawing up past episodes of Larabee's wrath, "Chris'll break him in half with his bare hands."

+ + + + + + +

Reading, the tiny depot where they were to catch the train in a couple of hours, was just over the next rise. It was normally a water stop. Not many passengers boarded there. This was one of the reasons Jeff Mason, their leader, selected it. Jensen reined in his horse and slid off, heading to the river. Dousing his golden locks and taking several long gulps, he turned back as his partner approached. His blue eyes slid to the third horse, stolen on their way out of town. The body hadn't moved.

"He's covered in puke," Max said, dropping down to get a drink. "We do it here. We can get washed up, shave and change."

"Just a couple of law abiding citizens," the youth agreed. "Okay, I packed some biscuits, ham and fruit and there's a couple tins of peaches. We can eat first."

"Okay," Max nodded, rose and eyed the prisoner. His fingers twitched, caressing the knife strapped to his belt.

"Get him down," Jensen assessed, untying the burlap bag of food. "I'm gonna double check the train schedule. I'll be back in ten minutes."

"It looks like you'll die like the rabid dog you are," Max grunted, recalling their first meeting. He cut the ropes securing the body over the saddle and grabbed the back of the bloodied collar on the tan shirt. He yanked hard, tumbling the prisoner into a dusty heap at his feet.

Their voices drew him out. Despite the overwhelming dizziness and nausea he suffered from, the injured man pressed onward. The foul taste of bile in his mouth gagged him and he struggled to overcome it. He pushed hard through the thick mud marring his senses. He furrowed his brow, listening as two male voices were heard. From what he could hear, one was leaving for a while and the other was ordered to get dressed.

Breathing was difficult; his chest ached. What was wrong? Why was he so sick? Why was his head pounding? He peeled his eyes open but everything was very blurry. He heard splashing and fought hard again to peel his eyes open. The blurry brown and blue melded into a picture in his brain of the landscape.

Water.

New daylight.

Pain.

Prisoner.

Then another word intruded into his aching skull - FIRE!

Snatches of imagery surrounded him. The livery...smoke...choking...the roof...a kid...then nothing. What happened? Why wasn't he left on the roof? Before he could think further, two words pierced through the fog. Two words that made him act...two important words...two words his life depended on.

*"...kill...Tanner..."*

He tried to move. He screamed inwardly, berating himself. Run, roll, get up, move, crawl, get up...but he remained on his side, breathing in dust. The sound of a horse forced his burning eyes open wider. Leaving. The horse was riding away. In a distorted image, he saw the other man at the water's edge. His back was turned. He seemed taller than anyone Vin had ever seen and the ground was tilting up and down, making the odd figure appear to be on the deck of a turbulent ship.

"...shit...eyes...fucked...up..." he panted. Where did the other man go? Was he coming back? He eyed the man at the river again, but the severe motion was making him sick. He had no time to think. The order to 'kill Tanner' was too vivid. With one gone, he had to try and escape. He eyed the trees just ahead. How far? His blurry eyes and confused mind couldn't figure it out. Taking several steadying breaths, he rolled and rocked until he tossed himself on his knees. The whole world began to tilt and twirl.

"Oh God...Oh God...!" he hissed, trying to figure out where the real ground was. He took one look back at the figure by the river and watched it disappear under the water. He had to go now. So he said a silent prayer and shoved himself forward as hard as he could.

"Anything yet?" Buck called ahead, watching as J.D. reappeared.

They'd ridden hard and fast, making up for lost time. J.D. took the lead, scouting out in advance. The younger man had learned quickly riding with Vin Tanner and was out ahead of them, picking up the trail.

"They ain't far," J.D. panted. "Fresh horse shit, a wad of wet tobacco and some vomit. They can't be crossing here," he noted of the river.

"There's nothing in that direction..." Buck frowned.

"Reading," Chris said. "They're heading for the railhead."

"Not with Vin..." Buck noted in an ominous tone as the hurricane in black reined his horse in and took off.

If the ground hadn't been moving up and down and sideways, his rubber legs would have had an easier time. His bound hands made it almost impossible to keep his balance. The rolling ground caused him to stumble. He was almost clear. The trees were right there.

"...no...no...!" he rasped as the ground disappeared and he fell.

He began to roll over and over, his uneven equilibrium not warning him he'd reached a hill. Rocks tore at his face and neck as he plummeted until he hit water.

"...git...up...'er yer ....dead...git...up...Tanner...!" he urged himself, forcing his disagreeing body to work. He got to his knees and used the rock next to him to shove off but fell hard, face first into the river. He rolled onto his side, sputtering and coughing, tossing up water. He shoved off again, wary of the current dragging him towards the area where he'd last seen the other man. He was no longer in the water but Vin's blurry eyes saw him moving by a group of rocks and trees. He couldn't see what the outlaw was doing and didn't know if he was coming after him.

Desperate, sick, dizzy and confused, he eyed the hill and it was still moving. How high? How far? He couldn't climb up without his hands. He turned to the other side of the river. How deep? His bound hands made swimming impossible. Float? He'd have to. He shoved off on his feet, took a deep breath and positioned himself.

Chris spotted the horses first, ahead in the distance. He urged his mount onward until he was quite a bit closer. Then he reined in, dismounted, tethered the animal to a tree and pulled his rifle out. He jogged to the clearing at the top of the hill and eyed the ground below.

Water. Rocks. A pile of clothes.

He saw a wet figure struggling in the current downstream. The bright scarf on the man's neck caught his eye. Then the man fell and got back up, turning sideways to look back at the makeshift camp. Chris's left hand fished into his breast pocket, taking out Vin's spyglass. J.D. had thought of that, getting it from the tracker's coat that was left behind in the wagon.

A face. Not just any face, Vin Tanner's. The fine features were clearly disoriented. His hands were tied and he was swaying badly. The blue eyes were bruised and confused. How did Vin escape? Where were the others? He put the glass back in his pocket when something from his side vision drew his eyes. Just as he spotted movement in the brush far below and to the left, it happened.

Time stood still.

The air seemed to crush his chest.

The sound came just a split second before Vin's head snapped back, the cracking noise so familiar to him. It echoed in his brain, the harsh whine of a bullet splitting the air. A bullet that found its mark. Vin Tanner's head.

"VIN!" Larabee screamed, whipped the rifle up and blew the head off the man who'd fired the shot.

"Buck...Buck, he shot Vin in the head...!"

"Yeah, kid, I saw..." Buck lamented, jumping from his horse and running to catch up with Chris who was trying to get down the steep incline.

"Hey, he moved...he's not dead!" J.D. exuded, watching Vin's head pop up from the water only to flop down again.

"Vin!...get your head up...Vin, you'll drown...Vin...!" Chris screamed, watching Tanner's body bob in the water. Then it moved, the face came up and the body followed, weaving badly on its knees. "Goddammit, Vin...!" he sighed in a mixture of anxiety, fear and gratitude.

Somebody was calling him but he couldn't focus. He was sick and his head was exploding in pain. Waves of confusion washed over him. He didn't know where he was or why he was wet. The only thing he knew was that he hurt...bad. Then for a few seconds, the world righted. There was a figure close by, skittering down rocks and calling to him. It was a man with blond hair; a lean body in black pants. He gasped in a fluttering mixture of surprise and relief.

"Chr...chr...is...?" he whispered, heart soaring. His best friend was here. He wasn't alone. He was safe. Chris found him. Chris found him. Chris. The name was driven from him when something hard hit him from behind. His eyes widened in shock, as his body jerked once and fell forward.

"NOOOOOO!" Chris screamed, pulling the Colt from his holster and firing.

Buck and J.D. fired too, into the area behind some trees where the shot came from. There was no return fire and they kept running.

+ + + + + + +

The lone rider stopped, his keen ears hearing several gunshots nearby. Close enough to town to mean trouble. This road, the very one he rode on, was often used by the ranchers in the area as well as the freight operators picking up deliveries from the train. More often than not one of the peacekeepers rode with them, especially if there was valuable cargo being hauled.

Sensing one of his friends might be in trouble, Nathan Jackson urged his horse forward. He wished now he had been able to convince Josiah Sanchez to return home with him. But the older man needed to 'cleanse his soul'. So Kojay invited him to remain for several days, and the eldest of the seven decided to do just that. Now he was glad he'd decided to leave the village early.

"Come on, boy..." the ex-medic urged his horse, riding swiftly to the pass.

+ + + + + + +

"He's dead!" J.D. rose from the bullet riddled body. "He's just a kid..."

"He *was* a kid." Buck shook his head, eyeing the unblinking blue eyes of a fair-haired youth. "You got anything?"

"Maybe." J.D. fished through the pockets of the dead man's shirt. He eyed the folded paper and handed it to Buck.

"Reading," the rogue nodded, eyeing the train schedule. "Chris was right."

"Look at this!" J.D. called out from the side of the dead man's horse. "It's a map of town. It's got the freight office marked..."

"...there's the fire," Buck tapped the building drawn. His keen glance didn't miss the other marks on the map, indicating the rest of the gang's placement. "So we got two dead...where are the others? If this is the same gang, three are missing. Anything else?"

"Soap, a razor, jerky." He fished around. "The usual stuff...wait...!" He peeled out a small black journal the size of a deck of cards. He scanned the first few pages. "They're all here...the other towns, the dates, the times..."

"Is Mason in there?"

"No...no names..."

"Let's get him back with the other one." He lifted the body and dropped it over the horse. He saw a strange look on Dunne's face. "What?"

"He's dead isn't he, Buck?" J.D. whispered painfully, swallowing hard.

"I don't know, kid," the veteran answered, his gut telling him yes. "But I guess we'll find out." He gave the downcast shoulder a pat. "Come on..."

"Vin? Vin?..." Chris jumped into the water, grabbed the floating body and dragged him onto the bank. "Fuckin' animals..." he vented, cutting the cords that bound the unconscious man's wrists. Then he examined Vin's back, spotting the hole on the upper left side. Fingering the telltale spot where the heart would be, Chris felt as if he were drowning on dry land. He couldn't breathe. His hands were shaking so badly that they danced across Tanner's back like the broken wings of a desperate bird. Gently, he rolled his best friend over, eyes and trembling fingers trying to find an exit wound.

There was none.

He slumped, his eyes closed for a moment as his heart sank. He swallowed hard and lifted his shaky hand to the tracker's neck, quickly being covered in blood.

"Come on...come on..." he urged desperately, seeking, no needing to find a pulse. "Dammit, Vin, don't you die on me."

Nothing. No movement of life beneath his fingers. Fear exploded inside, unleashing a cold and wild beast with jagged teeth. The demon ripped through his body, shredding his guts, tearing up his heart and exposing his naked soul. He gripped Vin's jaw hard, shaking the crimson covered face in a frantic rage.

"OPEN YOUR FUCKIN' EYES AND LOOK AT ME!"

Denial turned to anger which in turn became a series of rat-like creatures that gnawed away at what little was left of him. He opened his mouth and greedily sucked air. He moved his hand, gently stroked the Texan's face that was now covered in blood. His reddened fingers, wet and sticky with the last of Tanner's life force, gingerly touched the long hair. The gunman felt like someone had taken a jagged knife and ripped him from his balls to his neck. The thought was so brutal, he couldn't even begin to fathom it. Chris went numb then, shutting out the rest of the world. He lifted the limp body, pressed it against his chest and jammed his eyes shut.

The world went away.

There was no sound. There was no pain. There was nothing.

Vin Tanner was dead.

+ + + + + + +

A few miles away, two riders were splitting the wind. Gravel, dirt and dust sprayed behind the pounding hooves of the animals they rode. A fork in the road ahead caused both to rein their sweating mounts in.

The stocky man was behind and took a swig from his canteen while his partner rode ahead. The ruddy face was sweating and he used his kerchief to wipe the excess moisture away. He watched the slim man ease from his horse and examine the left trail first. It ran along the river. He capped his water holder as the scar-faced man approached him, leading his horse.

"The only tracks are rimming the river," Dutch Walters updated the pudgy gang member he rode with. He took a long swig from his own canteen and then frowned, eyeing the sun burning in the new morning. "This feel funny to you? I mean Mason never made a mistake before, let alone one this big."

"Maybe he didn't know," Curly Hoover replied. "Could be the stage changed the routes in the last couple days."

"Yeah, maybe, but I don't like it. I'm gonna tell him so..."

The two had arrived at the stage depot, as part of the plan to divide and conquer. They were to arrive at the meeting place by stage, the other two by train and Mason would meet them later. They'd arrived at the depot only to find it empty. There were no stage stops listed there for two more days. So they'd ridden like the wind, making up lost time, in hopes of catching the train at Reading.

"We're not gonna make it." Hoover pulled out his watch from inside his vest pocket. "It's almost nine now."

"They ship freight more than once a day," Dutch said, climbing back on his horse. "We can..."

Walter's words were cut off by the sound of gunfire ahead. Both men exchanged a worried glance and swung into action.

"Sounds like they ran into trouble..." Curly called out, following this partner's lead.

+ + + + + + +

Buck and J.D. both paused at the top of the steep hill that led down to the river. Buck sighed heavily, took his hat off and walked a little closer. His handsome features twisted painfully, strongly etched with sorrow.

"Oh God..."

"Buck, is he...dead...?" J.D. choked, not willing yet to view whatever caused his best friend's face to become a mask of mourning.

The mustached face turned halfway, the utter grief telling the youth what words couldn't. J.D. turned away, not ready to face the inevitable. He tethered his own horse and took the one with the corpse on it across to a clearing.

"Kid?"

J.D. paused, took his hat off and swiped the sweat from his brow. He pushed Buck's voice away and tried to cut a path of reason through the awful numbness spreading through him. How could Vin Tanner be dead? His dark brows furrowed over the angry tears forming in his eyes. The unwelcome sound of the tracker's soft laughter invaded his brain. He shook his head and balled both hands into fists.

"Don't..." he warned the easy drawl that lingered. It was followed by the image of the trickster's hand sliding across the table only the day before, stealing Ezra's food. The smile that greeted him from the rooftop each morning, when he stood by the door of the sheriff's office, assaulted him next.

*"Mornin', Kid..."*

"Vin?" he whispered, swallowing a lump in his throat.

"Hey."

Buck tapped the back of the struggling younger man and moved his hand, gripping the back of the dark-haired youth's neck. Most of the time, J.D. Dunne wasn't as green as he was at this moment. He wasn't just a young man wearing a star; he was one of the Seven. The older man was damn proud of the 'kid'. But today, for the first time, John Daniel Dunne looked every one of his tender young years.

Green.

The unwelcome stench of the death of a friend assaulted him for the first time. There would be no pacing outside Nathan's clinic, needling the ornery Texan who hated to be confined. There would be no more call of 'hey y'all' and that beat up buckskin coat ambling into the saloon. As the two youngest of them, Tanner and Dunne had formed a unique bond. Many mornings outside town, they could be heard whooping and celebrating the joy of riding full out, kissing the wind. Since banding together on that fateful day in an Indian Village, the seven unlikely heroes had become more than peacekeepers. Now, they'd lost one of their own.

It hurt.

He wanted to take away the pain that glimmered with new tears in J.D.'s eyes. He saw the lower lip tremble as the struggling lawman fought hard to wrangle his wayward emotions. He wanted to say it would get better in time. That awful pain would subside and life would go on. He sighed hard, trying to remember how it was to be that young and have someone so precious stolen so suddenly.

"Let it out, kid..."

"No!" J.D. shook off the arm of comfort and swiped away the tears. "I got a job to do. Two dead here means three more out there!" he pointed to the landscape. "I'm gonna...I have to...I..."

The anger inside him couldn't overcome his shaken center of gravity. The air was too thick. The ground was too hard. Buck was too close. He didn't want comfort. He didn't want any soft words. He wanted Vin back. The tidal wave built inside, forcing more water from his eyes and causing his small frame to tremble.

"Dammit, J.D., listen to me!" Buck tried, watching the face flashing in anger. "I know it hurts. My gut's bustin' in half too. He was one of us...maybe the best of us," the rogue theorized of the poet's heart he'd been honored to view all too briefly. A man who'd lived through hardship and brutality, a killer by trade with a soul as old as time. "But he's gone..."

"The hell with him!" J.D. snarled, his eyes darting like a fevered rat. "To hell with you too. Just stay away from..."

"Stop it!" Buck demanded, his long legs taking him across to where the younger man was flexing the muscles in his arms into hard knots. He grabbed him by the shoulders and spun him around. "I know how you feel. I've been there...Hell, kid, we all have. It's nothing you can prepare for, the knife that rips your gut apart. But denying it ain't gonna make it change. He's dead, J.D....it happens that way. This ain't Boston, it's untamed and wild out here. We all take the same risks he did every day. It could have been any one of us..."

"I got a job to do," J.D. said flatly, his wild eyes now dulled by the numbing pain. "I'm gonna scout ahead, see if those tracks lead anywhere."

"You're gonna stay right here. If they are out there, you getting your fool head shot off won't change anything."

"I'm wearing this star, you're not!" Dunne vented, shoving Buck hard.

"I'm gettin' too old for this shit," Wilmington sighed, shook his dark head and offered himself over. He knew the kid needed something or someone to hit. All that rage inside, the hurt and anger had to come out. He followed the walking powder keg to his horse.

J.D. had one leg in the stirrup when he felt a strong arm pull him back. He turned and lashed out, using his balled fist like a lightning bolt. He followed up with several more, his hot tears adding a score to the short play. Finally, spent and out of breath, he dropped to his knees, hugging his chest and rocking slowly.

"Vin...!"

Buck swiped the blood from his lip, rolled over and stood up. He winced at the broken call of the Texan's name and placed both hands on the shaken man's shoulders.

"I'm sorry, J.D."

"See to Chris," Dunne gasped. "Go on, Buck, he needs you. I'll be okay."

"Okay, sheriff," Buck lauded quietly, gripping the torn up youth's chin firmly and gracing him with a proud smile. "He's still here," he tapped the area of J.D.'s heart. "He'll always ride with us. You keep him there, okay?"

"Yeah..." J.D. choked, then watched Buck make the longest walk of his life.

It never got any easier. Could be as he got older, it hurt more. He'd buried friends before. He'd seen so many cut down in front of his eyes, especially in the war. But nothing felt like this. It was surreal. He sighed heavily, his broken breath lifting the blood-coated brown hair under his chin. He pulled Vin closer, wincing as the warmth that still lingered in the fallen man's body touched his skin. He moved his hand then, rubbing the back of Vin's neck. He wanted to keep that warmth as long as possible. His eyes burned with unspent tears, bravely wavering on anguished lids. He almost chuckled then, hearing the ornery tracker cursing him.

*"Dammit, Larabee, quit pettin' me, I ain't no fuckin' dog!”*

"Shut...up...V...V...Vin..." he managed, embracing the limp form. "V...in..." he whispered painfully, raising his wet eyes to the sky. "WHY?" he demanded. "Why him? Why now? Why'd you do this to me?" he seethed of the hollow hole in his chest where his heart had been.

Cold.

He shivered as an unwelcome flow of ice replaced the blood inside him. But he continued his vigil, his empty eyes watching his soul escape, bleeding into the ground with Tanner's spent blood. He began to pant then, felt the icy hands of Death reaching in to take his precious cargo.

"GET THE FUCK AWAY!" he warned the Grim Reaper. "You....ca....can't...have...h...im!"

Buck stopped dead in his tracks, just a few feet from where Chris Larabee knelt in the dirt by the banks of the river. In his arms, pressed against his chest, was the limp body of Vin Tanner. The angle at which the leader held onto the fallen man obscured the face. Vin's red, sticky hair covered his slack features, preventing Buck from seeing the chiseled profile. His pained eyes saw the left hand instead. Four slim fingers, reddened and uncurled, lay unmoving on the wet, stone-colored pants. Water from the river still clung to them. He thought on those fingers and how adept the skilled Texan had been at using them.

The rifle.

Buck hadn't ever seen anyone who used a rifle as fine as Vin Tanner. He could hit just about anything moving or stationary from incredible distances. How many nights had he watched those fingers cleaning and polishing that gun? How many times had that sure fire precision saved their hides? They'd gotten lazy that way. Running and firing without question, knowing the blue-eyed eagle was guarding their backs.

The prankster.

He smiled then, thinking on that hand sliding effortlessly across the table and snatching food. The devilish blue eyes would be hidden under that damned floppy hat. He figured the Texas rat had yet to pay for a meal. But he got away it. Half the fun was that half-assed, raspy drawled explanation. Especially when directed at Ezra. Vin, with little difficultly, had left the smooth-talking gambler speechless and incredulous at times.

The harmonica.

He couldn't play worth a damn. Sounded like a damn animal dying and crying out for its mama. But he did anyway. To torture them most likely. Sometimes though, blowing air in that beat up mouth organ had its reasons. Like when trouble came to town. Seven men often had seven opinions on how to handle the situation. Just in the middle of the heated discussion, that awful sound would start. Josiah would scowl, Nathan would groan, Ezra would wince and shake his head, and J.D. would sigh and roll his eyes. Chris would level a death-glare at the would-be mouth harpist and the words would come out, short, tense and hot.

*"Put that fuckin' thing away before I shove it up your ass!"*

Buck laughed softly then, recalling all too well those wide eyes, bluer than a summer sky, harboring mock hurt.

*"I think m'feelin's is hurt...Bucklin, check fer blood."*

They'd laugh then and watch Larabee and Tanner exchange a silent series of thoughts. Vin knew just how to break the tension. Chris was grateful and a nod and a shot of whiskey sliding across the table would be the payment.

But sometimes, that damned bounty hunter would blow on that harmonica and the haunted look in his eyes would break your heart. The old, beat up mouth organ was all he had of his father. Sometimes, in the dusky time when the sun was setting and night had not yet arrived, the wind would carry an old memory. They'd hear it then, that mournful sound that lingered too heavy in the air. Nobody silenced him then as the slim fingers caressed that piece for all it was worth, needing to feel his father's hand again.

The grip.

He'd lost count of how many times he'd seen it. Often without the ruination of words. Two arms shot out, locking onto the other's forearm. It was a gesture Larabee and Tanner reserved only for each other. Buck knew just how much that grip meant. There were few men that Chris Larabee would trust his back to. And only one he'd allowed to invade his soul. That grip was the lifeline. It was the melding of souls, the sharing of pain and the silent exultation of brotherhood. No matter how many times he saw them do it, it always made his chest swell.

But now the grip was broken, lost forever. No more would that same light shine from Larabee's eyes. He'd go on; he was not a defeatist. He'd given his word to the judge to protect the town, the people, their backs. That wouldn't change; he was a man of his word. But the easy smile that formed naturally whenever Vin Tanner's dry humor was born was lost forever. A part of him, the best part maybe, was lying limp and lifeless, cradled against the vacant spot where the gunslinger's heart should be. When Vin Tanner died, he took a piece of Chris Larabee with him.

Buck slid his hand into his pocket and withdrew the bottle he'd brought down with him. He pulled the cork and took a swig.

"You look like shit, Vin..."

His familiar greeting to the often bruised, damaged and scraggly Texan was offered one last time. But instead of the snappy comeback, riding on a sharp drawl, there was nothing. The breeze lifted a few strands of the long hair and he closed his eyes, reaching for that refrain.

*"Fuck yer sorry ass t'hell and back, Bucklin!”*

He held the bottle down, using the neck of it to offer it. Chris's right hand shot out, then the lips curled angrily around the glass, nearly raping what was left of the contents in one unnaturally long swig. Some of the liquid comfort spilled out, running down his chest. The empty was thrust back up at him. He took it, corked it and tried to find words of comfort. But none came. What could he say? What magic words would take that awful agony from Chris Larabee's face?

"Chris..." he tried, reaching down with his right hand. "God...!" he whispered painfully when his oldest friend moved away, using his back and leg to shield him, or anyone, from taking his Tanner away. That was bad enough, but the awful sound that followed, an unholy cry from the depths of a dark place only visited once before, caused him to crush his own eyes shut. "Okay..." he offered, deciding to give the grief stricken blond more time. Just as he backed away a foot or so, J.D.'s voice split the air.

"Buck! Rider comin'!"

"Shit!" the rogue hissed, spinning back around. "Three of them bastards are still out there." He spotted the spyglass jammed into the top of Chris's gray shirt and grabbed it, running up the short steep hill. "Where?"

"There!" Dunne called back from where he stood on the path they'd ridden earlier.

Wilmington ran over, stopping next to the youth and put the glass to his eye. He saw the horse first and his tension left. Long legs in dark pants, a brown coat and a familiar brown face.

"It's Nathan!"

Still maintaining his death grip on Vin Tanner, Chris turned his face toward the area where Buck disappeared. He waited, squinting his burning eyes and cocking his head to listen.

"Buck?" he called out. "What's goin' on?"

"It's okay, Chris," Buck ran back to the top of the small hill. "It's Nate!"

"Great!" the leader scoffed, his lips twisted into a cold feral grin. "He's too fuckin' late..."

Someone was talking. Someone was here. He was warm and safe. His face was pressed against a damp shirt. Through his crushed ear, he heard a heart beating. Someone was holding him. Pain exploded through the numb blanket he was wrapped in. His head felt like it had a hatchet buried in the side of it. Queasiness followed, using brute force to cause his stomach to fire up. God, he hurt! Someone was holding him. Someone...someone...who...who...someone. Through the damp chest wall his face was pressed against, he was able to inhale. That distinct combination gave him his answer.

Tobacco. Sweat. Whiskey.

They danced around the voice, blending and invading his nostrils. His heart quickening, he moved his fingers. He took another breath, inwardly rejoicing at the stench.

Someone was cradling him, keeping him safe.

Strong arms protected him.

Not just anyone...someone.

Someone with a name. The pale lips parted, fighting the damp cotton. It was a brief war.

Unable to open his eyes or move, he used what little energy he could find and forced that name out.

"Chris?"

+ + + + + + +

As the long ribbon of road ahead of him got considerably shorter, Nathan Jackson's dark eyes scanned the growing field of vision. He saw the horses first, recognizing Buck Wilmington's gray right off. Then he saw the tall man waving frantically. His heart began to pound and his thoughts raced wildly.

Something was very wrong.

"Who? How bad?" he called out, reining his horse in and sliding off, his hand going for the soft leather satchel tied to the pommel.

"It's Vin, Nathan," Buck began.

Before the healer could question the eerie toneless voice that came from a face filled with internal pain, another voice piped up. It was as loud as the mustached man's was quiet.

"VIN'S DEAD!"

"Wh...what?"

The words shook him to the core and halted his movement. For a few seconds, the only thing that moved was the sweat pouring down the racing rider's face. He swiped at the errant flow and let his gaze shift to the rogue.

"Buck?"

Buck dipped his head once and then motioned to where the road declined into a short but steep hill. He heard the river racing by and moved forward, his legs willing what his heart didn't want to see.

The sight rocked him back on his heels.

Vin Tanner's limp body was lying inside Chris Larabee's fortress. One look at the gunslinger's face told him that no one would be taking the tracker from him anytime soon. As he studied every anguished feature on the leader's face, he felt his own grief building. Funny, he couldn't remember the last time he spoke to Vin. They'd all eaten supper together a few days back, just before he and Josiah left for the village. He sighed heavily and turned away; the pain in the pale green eyes was too hard to bear.

"What happened?" he asked, listening to the explanation while looking for the quickest route down the hill to Vin Tanner.

"It all happened so fast, Nate," Buck replied, sighing heavily and rubbing the back of his neck. "You know several towns have been robbed in the last couple months. Same gang, five men and they get away clean. Well, a fire broke out last night down by the livery..."

"The clinic's okay, Nathan...just real smoky..." J.D. blurted.

"Anyhow," Buck continued, "while we were fighting the fire, the freight office was robbed. The safe was loaded, over ten grand. We think it's the same gang. Somehow, in all the confusion, we missed Vin."

"We picked up their tracks from the freight office and followed them..." J.D. continued. "We saw...He was tied up...hurt...in the water...he didn't see..."

"Somehow, we're not quite sure where Vin was when the fire started," Buck broke in. "Vin got tangled up with the robbers. Could be he was out of town and heading back, saw them leaving..."

"...or he saw them bust in and they took him..." J.D. offered, "but I don't think so. Why would they do that?"

"It doesn't matter," Wilmington sighed. "His hands were tied behind him. He was trying to get away. Chris was the closest, dead set on getting to him. The first shot got his head, sent him in the water. It looked like...for a minute...that was the shot that killed him..."

"But his head came up," Dunne recalled, dark eyes shifting. "Chris was screaming at him...he was looking for Chris...trying to keep his balance in the water on his knees....then...then...a second...shot...."

"He never knew what hit him," Buck lamented. "It caught him in the back, high up. Chris..."

Nathan understood that part of the story. One word. Chris. He couldn't imagine the pain that man was wrestling with. He turned away, studying the blue sky and the trees. On any given day, they would find Vin here, soaking up the sun and enjoying Mother Nature's bounty. He thought of another day when a soft-drawling stranger dropped a broom and picked up a rifle. If not for Vin Tanner, he'd not be standing here.

"Are yuh sure?"

"Chris said...so..." J.D. stammered.

"I'd like to check 'im tah be sure," Nathan noted, turning toward the hill.

You wouldn't think one word could feel like an elephant sitting on your chest. The wounded man tried to form his lips to utter a second word, but he couldn't. It hurt to breathe. It hurt like hell. Cold. He was so terribly cold and his body began to shiver.

Chris froze. He didn't dare move. He was almost afraid to check. Had his mind been playing tricks? He licked his lips and felt his heart begin to hammer against his chest, so much so that it caused a sharp pain. Was he hearing things? Had he been so lost in thought that he imagined that raspy whisper?

What the hell's wrong? Why were they squattin' in water? Why was Chris shaking so badly? Why were those long arms holding him so tight? His throbbing skull was making it difficult to stay awake. The crushing pain in his back and chest made it so hard to breathe. Air. Air. There was no air.

"Chris, let me at 'im."

Nathan set his bag down and waited a few feet away, watching the blond's face melt into a curious mixture of fear, loss and hope. Chris was kneeling in the mud, sitting on his heels, with Tanner draped across his legs. The tracker's upper body was lying against the gunslinger's left chest and arm. Nate watched the right hand move then from where it held Tanner pressed against that strong chest. The tangled crimson-tinged head lolled against the gunman's left arm as the trembling fingers moved towards the pale throat. That hand, one he'd seen clenched in anger, curled in defiance and skillfully brandishing a Colt, now moved the long locks of hair from Vin Tanner's face with a gentleness that took his very breath away.

"Chris, lay 'im out now, I want to have a look."

Who is that? Through the pulsating red pain that consumed him, he pressed hard for an answer. A deep voice, rich and warm. A picture came through the mud in his skull. A pair of warm brown eyes in a dark face with a beautiful smile. Nathan. Nathan was here. Maybe Nathan could help him breathe. Nathan. Nathan. What was that? Fingers pushing on his neck. Too hard. Can't breathe. Don't, Chris. Can't...can't...

"Jesus!"

Chris's whole body jerked when two blue eyes peeled open and blinked up at him. A monstrous rush of fear, frustration and shock consumed him. "GODDAMMIT, VIN!"

Nathan found a half smile then as that familiar bellow caused the wounded man's eyes to soften and a smile to form on the bluish lips. A deep sigh of relief managed to squeeze through them. Then he watched that slim hand flopping in the water while the blue eyes never left Larabee's face. The hand flopped and jerked, fingers weakly flexing and scratching at damp cloth pressed to the gunslinger's chest. His eyes shifted from those warm blue ones to the cool greens. Without breaking that sky-eyed gaze, Larabee's hand moved. It left that throat, briefly extending just fingertips against the square jaw, before moving south and grabbing that trembling hand. It was a picture that took all his words away and left a large lump in his throat.

"Hey...hey..." Buck called down, having moved at the sound of Larabee's shout. Like the healer, he too was moved by the picture below. "Hey, kid, come 'ere..."

"Not now, Buck. I can't..."

"No, you need to see..." Buck whipped his head around, grinning. "He ain't dead!"

"WHAT?"

"Look!" Wilmington gripped Dunne's shoulders hard and pointed below. "Isn't that the most beautiful shade of blue you EVER did see?" he noted, his own eyes fixed on the emotive stare Tanner gave Larabee.

"But...how...?"

"Hell if I know," Buck grunted, eyeing the steep hill. "Hell if I care, come on!"

"Chris, we need tah move 'im out of the water. We'll lay 'im out flat, then I'm gonna tip him over. Yuh hold onto 'im and I'll look at his back...Chris? Yuh hear me?"

"...than...na...th..."

"Right here, Vin. Yuh cain't let me get a few days off, huh?"

"...mis...sed...ya..."

"I can see that!" Nathan gently gripped Chris's shoulder and the tense body jerked. "Ease 'im over, okay?"

"Yeah..." Chris managed, feeling totally and utterly gutted like fresh kill.

Between the two of them, they gently moved Vin several feet to a shaded area near a tree and a cluster of rocks. Nathan was on Vin's right, gently placing one hand on the slim man's hip and the other on his shoulder.

"Vin?" Chris panicked when the eyes he'd just seen open closed again.

"...shoutin' fer...?"

"Get your eyes open!"

"...rabid...fuck...in...dog..." Vin frowned of the growl but got his eyes open. "Nate...sick..."

"I know, Vin, I won't be long."

As the body tipped towards the gunslinger, both his arms moved, one hand on the hip, the other under Vin's head. He watched Nathan take his knife out and slowly begin to cut the damp fabric of Vin's shirt. Chris saw the weak upper body jerk and lifted Vin's head a bit as his stomach emptied.

Vin's head felt like a sledgehammer was being slammed into it and his chest felt crushed, precious little air making its way inside. He fought a losing battle with the horrid nausea and was barely aware of Chris wiping his mouth and nose. But it was the cold that told him. It was a new cold, one he'd not ever felt before. It was not the cold of the air on a winter's morn under a crisp blue sky. It wasn't the cold after a drenching storm or the cold of an early autumn without a warm overcoat. It was then that the unfamiliar chill bore a name. He lifted his pained eyes past the damp fabric of Larabee's pants and greeted Death.

"...ris...?"

"Easy, cowboy," Larabee soothed, watching the silver blade move through wet cloth. "Just a few more minutes. Hold on..."

He couldn't wait. He needed to see those green eyes. He had to make sure Larabee understood. He didn't know how long those cold fingers would stroke him before clamping onto his heart for good. God, it was hard to breathe. Blood ran down his face causing his eyes to burn.

"...hurts...ris...eyes..."

"Okay, Vin." Chris put Vin's head down briefly and saw the problem.

"Here," Buck offered, reaching over Nathan. He and J.D. were standing behind the healer.

"Thanks, Buck." Chris took the kerchief and wiped Vin's face.

Then the hand came up, snagging his wrist. That's when Chris saw it. Something nothing could have prepared him for. The eyes that normally were bright with anger, soft with emotion or lit up with animation were utterly and totally void. A coldness crept into his chest, gripping his heart and wrenching it hard.

"No...!"

"Yeah..." Vin countered the awful broken word the grief-stricken man managed. His hand tightened on the wrist holding the cloth. "Last...call...cowboy..."

"Fuck that!" Chris denied. "Nathan's here now. He'll..."

"I'm dyin', Chris."

"Nathan, tell him," Chris began and then his words died when the healer's face shook negatively. "Oh, God...!" He slumped, closing his eyes and feeling incredibly dizzy. He heard movement and felt a pair of hands on his shoulders. He knew, by the touch, for how many times had he felt that grip?

From his stance behind Larabee, Buck let his gaze fall downward. He watched those amazingly lucid eyes peer up at him through a bloody veil on skin too pale. They blinked rapidly, seeking him out. He dipped down a bit as the short ride they'd shared too briefly sailed by in a misted blur of time and space. He watched the eyes darting and felt every rapid breath that escaped. He sucked his own breath in, past his wavering heart and drew up those words. He needed Vin to hear it, one last time.

"You look like shit, Vin!" Buck managed in a small voice while keeping vigil at Chris's back.

The tracker's breathing slowed then, and he strained hard, seeking out the face. The warmth of those words pushed Death's icy grip away for a bit. He let that warmth invade him and he floated in a sea of emotion. His lips trembled as he fought hard to find the refrain. A half dozen words...hell, he could do that. How hard could it be? He pushed and fought, taking several small breaths, and finally let them sail free.

"...fuck...yer...sor...ry...hide...t'hell..." Vin coughed, wildly sucking air.

Dammit, he needed one more word. Just one more. He had to say it; he needed to hear it as much as he needed Buck to embrace it. A word that meant a lot to him every time he said it and then saw those dark blue eyes crinkle in amusement. A good man, a strong man, a man he was proud to ride with. He had to find that word, one last time. He had to let Buck Wilmington know just how deeply he felt. He gasped several times and curled his tongue up, pressing it out with a good burst of air.

"Buck...lin..."

That hurt, more than he ever thought one word could. Wasn't it just yesterday the wise-pranking Texan had christened him that? It was a nickname reserved only for Tanner and one that warmed his heart every time that scratchy voice found cause to call him. Suddenly, forever seemed like a long damn time. He'd not hear that call again. God, how that hurt! Buck felt his guts ripping and he swiped his damp eyes.

"No exit, Chris."

Nathan's grim voice only confirmed what the leader already knew. He raised his empty eyes upward and saw those brown ones reaching out to him.

"Yuh saw the hole, yuh know then," Nathan continued and saw Larabee dip his damp head once. "It's gotta be in his heart, he's bleedin' out inside, that's why he can't breathe."

"...up...Nate...air..."

"Yeah, Vin, that's a good idea," he agreed. "Okay, Chris, I'm gonna lift 'im up. Yuh scoot behind him and I'll ease 'im against yuh. It'll help him breathe, make 'im more comfortable."

Chris nodded mutely and rejected the words. More comfortable? That's not what he wanted for Vin. He wanted him sassy and spittin' fire. He wanted to see that hot-headed temper in action. He wanted to see that lithe body vaulting across the rooftops, gun in hand and whooping it up. He wanted to share another sunset like that first one in the Indian village. He wanted tomorrow.

"Chris?" Buck prompted, watching Nathan gently take Vin from the numb gunslinger's slack grip and roll him onto his back. "Go on..." He shoved a hand between the shoulder blades and the body moved, shifting to a sitting position against a large rock.

When Vin's head hit his shoulder and that weak, warm breath danced across his neck, Nathan Jackson almost wept. He eased one broad hand up and cradled Vin's head a moment, saying a prayer.

"S'okay, doc," Vin rasped, feeling the healing hand tremble.

"I told yuh," Nate choked up, "I ain't no damn doctor!"

"...no damn...paper...with fancy scratchin's....proves...thing..." Vin struggled, grasping air and seeking words. "...seen God workin'...his Grace in...in...yer touch..."

"God!" Buck whispered in awe as Nathan's eyes filled. The former Union stretcher bearer was too moved to speak. So he spoke with those hands, gently rocking Vin against him for a moment before easing him down against Chris Larabee.

As soon as the damp body hit his chest, Chris's arms reacted automatically, wrapping around the weakened form. He wanted to give Vin as much warmth as he could for whatever time they had left. The bloody head rested just under his chin and the face moved. One limp hand fluttered and landed badly, flopping over his own.

"Thanks...cow...boy..." Vin sighed heavily, letting himself melt into the embrace of his brother. He took his glance up to Buck and then Nathan. J.D.was somewhere nearby. He was sorry he wouldn't get the chance to say goodbye to Ezra and Josiah. But if he had to die, being in the bosom of your brothers wasn't a bad place.

Nathan pushed his grief away and let his natural healing instincts take over. The blood running down the Texan's face had slowed up somewhat. But it still ran down into his eyes, causing him to blink. He felt a pang of guilt, wondered that if making Vin 'comfortable' wasn't cheating somehow. After all, he was supposed to be a healer, a restorer of health.

"Buck, wet that cloth. I'm gonna clean up his head wound. J.D., get me some bandages so I can..."

"No, I gotta boil the water so you can clean your tools," Dunne denied, unable to move any closer to where the Grim Reaper was shining his scythe over Vin Tanner's bloodied body. "We got time. You gotta try..."

"Listen to me, J.D.!" Nate stood and towered over the confused youth. "Even in a hospital with a good surgeon, he'd be a million to one shot. Look at him, J.D., he's sufferin' and weak. Yuh want me tah hurt 'im? Yuh know what cuttin' inta 'im now will do? He's got a right to spend what time he's got left as peaceful as he can...I'm sorry, J.D., there's nothin' anyone can do now, except God."

"Kid?" Vin's heavy eyes wouldn't open. "...there...?"

"Go on!" Buck shoved him, handing the cloth to Nathan.

"Thanks, Buck."

"What's wrong with you? He's dyin', J.D., he needs to say goodbye. Don't hurt him any worse," Wilmington ordered the flustered youth.

Chris eyed the youngest from the corner of his eye as Nathan cleaned the blood from Tanner's head, neck and face. Had he ever been that young? He was only a few years older than Dunne when he'd worn Union blue and saw his own friends blown away right before his eyes. The first time it hurt like hell. It was almost surreal. You went numb or got sick or both. Seeing the large doe-eyes full of angry denial took him back in time to the blood-stained battlefields in Virginia.

"Leave 'im be, Buck," he addressed. "Get the bandages."

"No...piss...cat..." Vin teased as the cloth went around his head.

"How 'bout some whiskey instead?" Nate asked. "Could be I have some of Standish's finest tucked away."

"Ezra?" Vin sighed heavily, seeing the grinning, gold-toothed gambler flash into his head. He curled a fist up and fought hard again, unable to say goodbye. "Ya tell...ya tell that no-account...cheatin' bastard...ya tell 'im..."

"I will, Vin." Nathan saw the raw pain in the blue eyes, both from the pain of loss and the severe head wound. "I saw some meadowsweet and willow bark back yonder. It'll help with his pain and settle his stomach some."

"Get going!" Chris agreed.

"I'll be back as quick as I can," he promised, tapped Vin's hand and departed.

"Buck, get some water. Use that bottle," Chris directed of the empty whiskey bottle lying by the water's edge.

"Look, kid, I know where you are," Buck noted in a softer voice, watching the anger and confusion covering Dunne like a heavy cloak. "I've been there. I know it hurts...hurts like hell. But you're gonna have to trust me on this one, J.D. If you don't say goodbye to him, you'll regret it forever. You don't get a second chance. He needs this, J.D..."

"It hurts."

"I know." Buck stood up. The bottle was full and he gripped the back of the struggling younger man's neck. "Get yourself together and come over, okay?"

"Yeah."

"Chris?" Vin whispered, tipping his head back and trying to find Larabee.

"Yeah?"

"...ye'll stay...'til...m'ride...gets here?"

That hurt, and for a moment, he couldn't speak. It was a request so poignant that it burned a hole right through him. The last ride. No one wanted to die alone. It was such a simple request, yet it rendered him unable to reply. Vin Tanner never asked more of him than an open hand. From the moment he took that hand, his whole world changed. All the man wanted was his word. He didn't want to die alone.

"...see...ya...?" Vin's brow furrowed, eyes darting.

"Hold on." Buck dropped down. "You're a pain in the ass, you know that?"

J.D. froze in his tracks, horrified that Buck would say something like that. Then he saw Vin's face melt into a smile and heard that familiar laugh. He swallowed hard when Buck held that bottle and let Vin drink.

"Sloppy drinker to boot," Wilmington noted as some of the water spilled down Tanner's chin. "Hold on..." He wiped the excess. "Chris, let me take him, he needs to see your face."

This was it, a moment he couldn't face. He froze and shook his head over Vin's droopy one, but Buck's eyes blazed into him. Chris turned away, ignoring the glare from that damned scythe the Grim Reaper was waving.

The final goodbye.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee wasn't ready. Instead of relinquishing his grip, he held on even tighter. Damn them all to hell. He wouldn't do it...until one word cracked his defenses.

"...please..."

"Shit!"

"Come on." Buck tapped Larabee's lean leg and eased Vin up, hugging him until the blond moved. Then Chris supported him until Buck got behind and took him back.

"...dammit...like...some cheap...whore...bein' passed...the fuck...around..."

"You oughta be that lucky," Buck teased, wrapping his arms around the shivering body. "It ain't just anybody I let snuggle up."

Vin sighed contentedly, took several minutes to catch his breath, and let his head slide against Buck's shoulder. His nose wrinkled and he frowned.

"Ya stink...rite...good..."

"Yeah, well, had I known you were checkin' out, Vin, I'd have taken a bath."

"Buck!" J.D. gasped, numbed by the dark humor. Yet again, he saw Vin laugh and force his eyes open.

"S'okay...Bucklin..." Vin chased back. "...wouldn't be...same...jest right...smell...cheap whiskey and...cheaper women..."

"At least I got women to bestow my love on..."

"...jealous..." Vin touted. "...ya ain't got m'boys...legend..."

"Legend?" Buck scoffed. "Them damn boys of yours..."

"Texas growed..." Vin added proudly with a wet cough. He felt the rumble of Buck's laughter being born and drank in that wonderful sound.

"You got me there, Tex!" Buck agreed. "Chris, the bottle..."

"Chris..." Vin managed after taking a drink.

Vin stared as hard as he could into the lost green eyes. That hurt, more than his mortal wounds did. To see such agony rippling where pride should be. Didn't Chris know that? How since they first met, he stood taller? How could he ever thank him for that? What words could ever paint a picture that fine? This man had given him his soul back. Vin swallowed hard. How could he say goodbye?

Chris heard the silent thoughts easily. He read every fuckin' letter in those damned eyes that were burning a hole right through him. The air seemed to be charged and time stood still. He saw only those blue eyes and heard a roar of thunder in his ears. He saw the bluish lips part as the final request was born. Something so simple and yet so rare. Something he would give Tanner with all he had or die trying. He knew before the voice uttered it.

"Word?" Vin asked with wide wet eyes, sending all his emotions in one burning gaze.

"Word!" Chris vowed, snapping onto the forearm that lifted weakly to meet his own. Vin Tanner wouldn't die alone.

"I got a spot picked out...under that big tree..near the creek by yer place. Ya know that spot?"

"I do." Chris studied the face now, seeing the tension leave. "Damn, I was hoping to put crops in there..."

"...wise...fuckin'...ass..." Vin managed, coughing again and grateful for Buck's strong arms to hold him up.

Chris saw the blue light reappear once the request was granted. That was all the tracker needed to hear to reassure him. No man wanted to die alone. He met that gaze and nodded once. "I'll take care of it."

"Good," Vin decided, snuggling back against Wilmington. "Bucklin?"

"Yeah, Slick?"

"Ya make sure...Ezra...takes...south...pass...back ...from...from...Clairmont."

"Clairmont?" Buck frowned. "Oh, where that casino is? The one that he hits once a week?"

"...takes...shortcut...by Lar'bees...drinks...fancy...shit..." He paused, screwed his face up. "...don't cotton t'havin'... him pissin' on... m'head."

Buck laughed long and hard then and saw Chris's lips turn up briefly.

"Flowers...ya make sure..."

"I ain't planting flowers. That's all I need, to have some fool see me with flowers..." Chris grumbled.

"...be ...sorry...haunt...ya..."

Twice Buck's eyes strayed to where J.D. stood shifting his feet. Twice Buck's eyes drilled the younger man's, cursing him.

"B...uc...k..."

"Yeah, Vin?"

"Take...boots..."

"Vin, I can't take..." Buck began, the very thought of removing something from Vin Tanner's corpse chilled him to the core.

"...won't...need 'em...where...I'm...goin'..." Vin gasped. "...ain't used 'em but once..."

Chris shot Buck a warning look to go along with Vin. For some reason, Vin was upset at Buck's reluctance to take the boots. What he didn't want was Tanner being upset now, by anything. Buck met his gaze and nodded once.

"Okay, Slick, I'll take care of it."

"...Kid....?"

"Easy, Vin." Chris moved in to grab the sagging arm when Vin moved to find J.D. and pain shot through him, causing his limb to jerk.

"Uh, yeah, Vin?" J.D. avoided Chris's stern look and shuffled forward. He sucked his gut in and knelt down, making it easier for the wounded man to see him.

"...ya take care...horse..."

"Sure, Vin," J.D. nodded of Vin's fine black horse.

"Yer a helluva sheriff, John...Dan...iel...D...D...unne..." he managed, wheezing hard and gripping somebody's hand even harder. "Aw, hell..."

Buck shifted forward, taking Vin with him in an effort to give the gasping man more air. It seemed to work. Several minutes passed with the pale man taking horrid, sucking breaths. He saw Chris's face go pale and an unfamiliar fear creep into his eyes.

"...don't...grieve..."

"Don't grieve?" Chris shot back without thinking.

Vin winced as every bit of how deeply this man felt for him was suddenly staring back at him. He thought on the many years he'd shut out the world, choosing a solitary life. No pain. No loss. No hurt feelings. No feelings at all. Don't let anyone get close.

How wrong he'd been!

He suddenly realized just how strong and warm Buck's hold was and relaxed a bit. He eyed J.D. and saw maturity where once there had been uncertainty. He thought on Josiah and Ezra and Nathan and how knowing him had helped each of them grow. Trusting someone enough to watch your back was the ultimate compliment and these fine men had paid him back in spades.

Then there was Chris Larabee.

He was turned away now, his strong profile gazing at the river. A breeze kicked up and took the sweat-dampened blond hair from his forehead. He saw those mesmerizing eyes squint and study the horizon. There it was...reflected in the intense gaze...peace. Something that hadn't been there when he'd met this man. That perhaps was his final gift.

"I rode too many years alone...." he whispered, waiting for the face to turn and meet him. "I know ye'd went through the fires o'Hell losin' yer kin. Fought more'n yer share o'demons, includin' the one in the glass," he observed of Larabee's internal battles. "But know this, Chris Larabee..." he paused, taking several small breaths. "..ya ain't the same man I seen o'er a broom that first mornin'. Ye've changed...ya walk a little taller...yer eyes shine again...I'd like t'think I had somethin' t'do with that. Sure would make me sleep easier."

"You did."

Chris imparted in a hushed tone and moved closer, taking the shaking hand Vin offered. He thought on how that hand had effortlessly invaded his heart and freed his soul. He saw Vin's lips moving and bent closer.

"Word?"

"Word," he vowed.

"Good." Vin coughed, gripped the hand tighter. "Then ya know...this....when ya stretch yer legs outside in the mornin' and kiss the new day, I'll be there. When yer in the mountains and the snowflakes git t'dancin', I'll be there. When the folks sing on Christmas Eve...and the Lord is born...I'll be there. When ya see the eagle fly...high...in...the sky..soarin'...I'll..be..."

"Buck!"

The rogue's words had been stolen by the moving testimony of the dying man. He heard the urgency in Larabee's voice and saw the body moving. It was time to go. This was it, Vin's final moments, and Chris needed to hold on to this warmth as long as he could. The blond needed to embrace it and store it deep inside, to fuel him for the rest of his days. Numbed at first by the awful finality, Buck shook his head as if to clear it and nodded. Gently, they made the transition.

"Get Nathan," Chris ordered of J.D., sensing Vin wanted to say goodbye.

"Okay," the youth started and felt his wrist snagged.

"Ya ain't green no more, kid...was proud t'ride with..."

"Same here, Vin," J.D. squeaked and studied the fighting eyes. "Thanks, Vin, for always looking at me straight away. Most folks look down or treat me like some fool from the East..."

"You are a fool from the East," Buck teased, ruffling the dark hair.

"No...yer...be...best...fuckin'...ranger...in...in...Tex...as...." Vin heaved painfully.

"I will, Vin!" he choked.

"See ya...next...ride..."

"Okay." J.D. gave the shoulder a pat and staggered a few feet away, senses reeling. Chris's head followed him and jerked hard. So he shoved his jangled nerves aside and ran for the healer.

Vin rested his eyes a moment, needing to take some more precious breaths. He couldn't help shivering; he was awfully cold. He didn't think it would come this fast. He wondered what Heaven would smell like? Flowers maybe? The wonderful scent of the air after it rains? Or maybe the intoxication of a glorious spring morning? He was still gathering his waning strength when a hand tugged on his chin. He forced his eyes open and saw a beautiful Buck Wilmington smile. It leveled him and he found himself smiling back.

Buck didn't let words spoil the moment. He gave Vin the biggest sun he could find and sent every bit of admiration in the emotive gaze. He absorbed every fine feature on the tracker's face and stroked his cheek once with his thumb. He heard Vin inhale sharply and gave that cheek a light tap once, then he rose and left. Only when he was several feet away did he lose his composure and dissolve in a mask of pain.

"...been a good...ride..."

"That it has," Chris agreed, desperately trying to keep Vin warm a little longer.

"...ain't got much...in..m'wagon...ya see t'em?"

"I will." He thought a moment and grinned. "Hell, the money I get from selling all them fuckin' scarves will build me a barn." He heard the soft laugh and caught it, stowing it away for a cold night.

"...Chr...is...?"

"Right here, Vin." He winced as a razor-like pain began to slice through his gut. This was it...the beginning of the end.

"...m'book...with scratchin's...and...the girl..." He fought hard for each word. "...yers."

"Thanks, Vin," he said of the gift. Vin's poems and his mare's leg were two integral parts of him.

"...tell the prea...cher...goodbye..." he panted, carefully taking small breaths. "...'siah?" His mind drew up a picture of Sanchez and he felt a warmth blanket him. He could almost hear that deep voice and feel that strong hand easing his pain. "...he's...a...good...m...m...an."

"That he is," Chris agreed. "I'll tell him, Vin."

"...harm...on...ic...a...keep..."

"What the hell do I want with that damn thing?" Chris teased.

"...always...'member...Tan...ner...my...Pa...my..."

"I know, Vin," Chris lauded. "You tell your Pa thanks for me. You're every inch a Tanner."

The beautiful moment was suddenly shattered when shots rang out, causing both men to jerk. Chris felt Vin stiffen in his arms and instantly moved, easing the injured man down and covering his body with his own. In one fluid motion, he drew out his Colt.

"...hell ya doin'...?" Vin protested, too weak to move. "I'm already dyin'...ain't takin' ya with me...this time...ride...alone..."

"CHRIS!"

"Buck?"

The blond head snapped up, trying to determine where on the ground at the top of the hill the cry for help came from.

"BUCK?" Chris repeated.

"...git...offa me..." Vin hissed. "...go...help..."

"J.D's hit...he's bleedin' bad!" Buck called out, trying to stem the blood flow in one hand and keep his gun firing. He didn't see where the shots came from. Moreover, several were coming from another direction. Up river, where Nathan had disappeared. He didn't hear return fire.

"Nathan?"

No reply.

Buck shifted his body, keeping his left hand pressed to the blood pouring from Dunne's side. As soon as the kid fell, he had scooped him up and dove behind a fallen tree. Now, he cautiously lifted his head, peering at the brush where he last saw the healer. Something brown amongst the rocks moved, crawling from cover into plain sight. He couldn't see a face, just blood pouring down the brown skin.

"Shit...aw...shit..." Buck feared, knowing at least two gunmen were firing on them and Jackson was moving right into their sights.

"CHRIS! NATHAN'S HIT...HE CAN'T SEE...HE'S DEAD MEAT..."

"Nate?" Vin panicked. "Chris...git goin'...don't let them bas...tards...kill..."

As Chris took his body off the prone man, he saw something. He saw cold fear in the telltale blue eyes. A degree so icy, it chilled him to the core. He knew what that fear was and saw the single bloody fist curled up. Vin didn't want to die alone. He was helpless, unable to defend himself, and now his shelter was gone. The tracker's Adam's apple bobbed and Chris bent low, putting his lips close to Vin's ear.

"I won't leave you, cowboy. You hold on, I'll be back." He paused, locking his eyes onto the frightened ones and chasing some of the frost away. "WORD!"

"W...o...r..d" Vin managed, his heart gyrating wildly as the strong hand gripped his neck once and then the boots quickly moved away and heading for the hill.

Buck heaved a sigh of relief when Chris flew past, hitting the dirt just ahead of him.

"How bad?" Larabee asked, eyeing the scarlet ribbons trailing through Buck's fingers.

"It won't stop..." He pressed harder, causing the unconscious youth to cry out. "Chris, you got to get to Nathan."

"Shit!" Larabee ducked down when more bullets rang out. He saw them kissing the dirt all around the dazed healer's staggering progress. "Sick bastards are playing with him."

"Up there...one at least." Buck jerked his head to a high rock overlooking the area. "The other is down past him, closer to the ground."

With that, Larabee took off, like a bolt of greased lightning. His face screwed up in a sneer when bullets danced at his heels. He returned fire, his rapid shots dead on. A body fell from the rocks, a bloody hole where the right eye had been, hitting the earth with a loud thump.

"Nathan, get down!" Chris screamed, diving for the bloody zombie.

Nathan's confused brain didn't hear the words. Dazed and bleeding badly, he staggered onward, oblivious to the shots and voices shouting at him. Then a hot pain seared through his thigh and he felt something hard hit him in the back. By the time he hit the damp ground near the water, he was already unconscious.

"Dammit!" Chris swore, shoving his gun into the waistband of his pants and taking his bandana off. He grabbed a stick and wound it through the cloth, tying it tight and stemming the flow of blood. He turned the leg over and felt around, hoping his eyes had deceived him. "Shit!" The bullet was still inside.

Chris reloaded his own gun and took Nathan's from his holster as well. From where they were lying, just where the hill was almost even with the ground, he could survey the area. The slight swell in the ground gave him just enough cover. He lifted his head just over the dirt mound and a bullet zipped by.

"Fuck!"

He eyed the blood running from Nathan's head and examined it closer. A deep track ran above his left ear. Close, too close, he thought. His fingers moved to Nathan's neck and he felt a fleeting pulse. The healer was losing too much blood...too fast.

For twenty minutes, they exchanged gunfire. Time was slipping away, precious moments that Nathan and J.D. didn't have. Something had to be done. Larabee saw movement from the side and watched curiously as Buck disappeared in the edge of the trees.

"Flush him out," he whispered, sensing the plan. He'd shared more than a few fire fights with Buck Wilmington and knew his moves well. "Hold on, Nate." He gave the unconscious man a pat and lifted both guns. He eyed the water and ran, firing at the high spot where the shots had come from.

"Rot in hell, you bastard!" Buck shouted, firing three shots into the stocky man's neck and face. He walked over and kicked the corpse several times, then spit on him. He eyed the waterline and jogged down. Larabee was just under the water, peering from behind a slippery rock.

"CHRIS? I GOT 'IM...CHRIS!"

"J.D.?" Chris asked, shaking the water from his face.

"Bad, I wedged a stick between him and a tree. It's keeping the pressure on. Dammit, Nathan got hit twice?"

"Was that Mason?"

"No, either he wasn't here or he got away clean."

"Not for long," Larabee vowed in a voice that chilled Buck to the bone.

"Come on." Larabee holstered his gun and put Nathan's in his waistband. He bent down and grabbed the injured man's boots. "Let's get him back up the hill, next to J.D."

"What the hell happened here, Chris?" Buck asked, after they'd brought the wounded Jackson to rest beside Dunne.

Larabee sighed and eyed the two bleeding men on the ground. He then saw raw anger, pain and confusion in Wilmington's eyes. The handsome mustached man's hands trembled just a bit as they wiped the blood off Nathan Jackson's face. He didn't reply at first, seeking out the bag of supplies Nathan left with J.D. when he went for herbs.

"Bastard fucked with the wrong town!" Larabee vented, waiting while Buck lifted Nathan's head.

As Chris doused Jackson's wounds with whiskey and wrapped them in bandages, Buck saw the fierce eyes straying to the hill. More specifically, to a spot beneath the landscape where Vin Tanner lay. Finally, it was done. Buck eased Nathan's head down and turned back to J.D. He took the stick away and grabbed the whiskey bottle.

"Chris, we need help."

"Figured that out on your own, Buck," Larabee spat in frustration.

"Go get Vin and move him up here. I'll keep an eye on the three of them and you ride for help."

"Yeah..." Chris sighed, jogging down the steep hill. "Vin? Vin...?"

His words died in this throat. He stopped, rocking back on his heels as an invisible force hit him hard. Stunned, he let his shocked eyes rake over the ground. Frantically, he dropped down, his hands moving over the empty spot where he'd left his best friend dying and unprotected. Panicked green eyes darted around the immediate area which was barren. A rush of frigid air embraced him, chilling him to the core. Senses reeling, his numb fingers raked the dirt and he jammed his throbbing eyes shut. The sheer starkness of the brutal reality hit him like a sledgehammer.

Vin Tanner was gone.

+ + + + + + +

The numbness that attacked every part of him soon gave way to unparalled rage and fury. Determined strides caused the landscape beneath his hot boots to tear away in chunks. He didn't see the hill disappearing beneath him or the trees that became the horizon. All he saw was Vin's eyes seeking that last promise. He'd given his word and God help the bastard that took that away.

"Chris?"

Buck's head cocked to one side when he saw a six foot wall of wrath scorching the path in front of him. His eyes narrowed in confusion, for Larabee was without Tanner and heading for his horse.

"Chris, where's Vin?"

"Gone!" he managed through clenched teeth. The bitter taste of the act filled his mouth and nearly caused him to gag.

"Aw, hell," the big man slumped, his aching fingers pressed to the wounded youth's side. He knew how much of himself Chris Larabee had given with that vow. He couldn't imagine the pain the other man was consumed with, feeling that he'd broken his promise to his mortally stricken brother. "I'm sorry. I know how much you wanted to be there when he died..."

"No, not dead!" Chris spat, shoving his foot in the stirrup and turning long enough to nearly burn the eyes right out of Buck Wilmington's concerned face. "GONE! He's not there!"

"What do you mean, 'he's not there'?" Buck's shocked voice replied.

"Fuckin' bastard took him! I'm gonna kill him, Buck," he vowed, sending sparks of green fire to everything that his tormented gaze touched. "And anybody that gets in my way."

"Who took him?"

"Mason!" Chris snarled. "Had to be him. One set of hoof prints going downstream. He set them all up, lead them into a turkey shoot. Then he rides off with all the money, plus whatever they have hidden from the other robberies."

"Why? Can't be the bounty?" Buck frowned. "What's five hundred when you got what? Fifty, sixty thousand?"

"I don't know, but I'll ask him," Larabee promised. "Right before I slit his fuckin' balls off and shove 'em down his throat."

"Hold on a minute!" Buck saw the lean body swing in one fluid motion onto the mighty black horse. "YOU'RE NOT LEAVING!"

Chris turned his body, using the reins to steady the horse. Two sets of angry eyes met over the dust-filled air. Buck hadn't said 'can't' as if he were giving him a choice. He'd said 'not', no room for reasoning. He was giving him an order. That idea alone was nearly enough to make him laugh sarcastically. Nobody ordered Chris Larabee...nobody.

"Who the hell do you think you're ordering around?"

Buck thought carefully before answering. He knew he had to choose his words well or the black storm would ride off and face the consequences later. He didn't like doing this, not one bit. These were the hardest words he'd ever had to bestow on his oldest friend. He felt sweat pouring down his face and didn't have a free hand to swipe at it. He blinked as the beads ran into his eyes, but he didn't break that consuming gaze. He licked his dry lips and parted them, hoping his words would somehow break through that steel armor.

"Ride away then, Chris," he said so softly it surprised even himself. "But know this, it's their blood you won't ever be able to wash off your hands. If you cross that river instead of heading to Reading to get help, they'll both die. How many times has that man saved your life?" His eyes shifted to the ashen face of Nathan Jackson. "The kid needs you too..."

"I promised him..."

"Thanks, Chris!" Buck's angry voice didn't hide his own pent-up emotions. "You think I like playin' Solomon?"

Chris didn't reply. Instead, he took his eyes from the strong face of Buck Wilmington. He gazed at the river and the land beyond. Was Vin still alive? Was he calling for him? Were those anguished eyes crying out in silent agony? He took several short breaths; it seemed like his lungs couldn't get any air. He heard Vin's voice then and the jagged slashes inside of him felt like salt was poured on the open wounds.

*"Ye'll stay 'til m'ride comes?"*

"Word..." he whispered painfully, closing his eyes and shutting out those soul-shattering blue ones. "I'm sorry, cowboy."

"Chris?" Buck had to jar the shaken blond from the saddle. The agony masking the leader's face was enough to shred his own insides. But time wasn't on their side and he had no more to waste. "Chris, my hand's cramping."

"Huh?" Chris blinked and eyed Buck's hand, stained with sticky, red blood. He took his pained eyes to the pale, wet face of John Daniel Dunne. The slack features under a dark crop of unruly hair made the youth look even younger. "Christ, he's just a kid..."

Chris climbed down, dropped to his knees and pressed his hands to the wound. It was just a few inches above the hip. Neither man spoke and Chris watched as Buck rinsed his hands, wincing and flexing his fingers.

"I think it's slowin' down some," Chris finally found his voice. "Still inside?"

"Yeah." Buck moved his hand, resting his fingers on Nathan's neck. "Jesus...come on, Nate..." Finally, he found a weak pulse and slumped in relief.

"Get his coat off," Chris said, waiting for Buck to move closer. He tipped the younger man ever so slightly so that Wilmington could get the left shoulder and arm free. The tweed jacket slipped away. He watched Buck lift the crimson-stained shirt and cut it, yanking the tail from the back. In seconds, he had long strips laid on the ground. Then the blue eyes came up and met his.

"Hold 'im..."

"Yeah," Chris grunted, shifting his weight. He moved his hands, knelt up and forced them down hard on Dunne's shoulders. "Go." He gritted his teeth when the youth bucked as the burning liquor hit his open wound. J.D. gave a short cry and his eyes jarred open briefly, wilding gazing about, lost in time before closing again. He kept his hold until he heard Buck's voice.

"Okay, I got it."

Chris sat back, took the bottle from Buck and took a swig before setting it down. He watched the tall man easing the tweed jacket over the now bandaged body. He took several hard breaths and his mind began putting a plan together.

As if reading his thoughts, Buck spoke.

"The depot ain't far. They got a telegraph there. They can wire ahead...make the next train an express. It's a lot faster than using a wagon."

"Yeah," Chris agreed. "If we get them to the depot in Reading, put 'em on board and they push it, skipping all the stops..."

"They'd be at Fort McDaniels in a couple hours. They got a surgeon there. It's our only hope. You gotta ride like the wind, pard."

"I'll send a wagon back, wire home and have the clerk notify the Judge."

Buck nodded, hearing more between the words. Chris wasn't coming back; he was going on a blood hunt. Jeff Mason stuck his balls in a hornet's nest when he rode off with Vin Tanner. The tall man still couldn't figure out why. Why tote a dying man? What motive could he have? Was he luring Chris into a trap? Why go to all that trouble? He could have gunned him down just as easily. He had to have had Chris dead to rights when he went back to get Vin. It didn't make sense. Boots crunching gravel drew his head up.

"You forget something?" he asked the pensive blond.

"Yeah," Chris managed, extending his hand. He wanted the other man to know that he understood just how hard it had been for him to utter that order. Buck was right. Had he ridden off and these two men...two friends...brothers in arms...had they died, he'd never have been able to purge the stain. It took guts and he admired that.

"You know what that boy meant to me, Chris," Buck managed, seeing a mental image of Vin at the table in the Saloon.

The slim body slouched in a chair, floppy hat covering the eyes. That sly hand deftly stealing any food it could find. He saw that cocky grin from above the sign on the General Store where the Texan would hide and then pop up just as he was wooing a woman beneath it.

"Damn sorry-assed Texan..." Buck choked as the cold realization hit that his drawling friend might be dead as well as missing. He took the hand offered and felt that strong embrace. It coursed through him and gave him strength. "Watch your back, Chris Larabee," he offered with his whole heart. Then the man in black gave a nod, slipped back onto his steed and was gone.

+ + + + + + +

Some clever writer would find a long string of adjectives to color his article. His words about this desert would captivate an audience back East. In the thick of cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia, where tall buildings stood over a bulging populous, they would spell relief for the impoverished. They gave those souls a brief glimpse of just how wild and rugged this country was.

But he wasn't a writer and those words didn't mean a thing to him. As for the color, that lovely shade of currency, be it silver, gold or cash, was the only thing that spelled beautiful to him. He wanted his own empire and the successful string of robberies over the last few months would get him there.

He fingered the silver flask in his pocket and fished it out, scowling at the initials 'TJM'. He'd stolen it several years before and still got a rise when his old man brought it up. It was a gift from his own father and not replaceable. Every time he took a swig, he saw the older Mason's face glowering. He'd offered a reward for its return, but of course, none came. He'd even been properly sympathetic when his father's rage turned to loss. He'd taken it right from his jacket at a dinner at the governor's mansion in New York. It had been about eight years now. That was the first taste of the thrill, feeling that power that consumed him when he saw how devastated his father was.

His father, Thomas Jefferson Mason, got out of Harvard and never looked back. Like Midas, everything he touched turned to gold. He got a job in Indiana right out of college at a small bank. But that wasn't enough for the power hungry man. For ten years, he worked his way up the ladder until he was the president of the Midwest chain of First Union Bank. Then came the offer from the New York Stock Exchange. He went back East and by the time he turned forty five, he was a millionaire. He passed that laurel wreath to his only child, Jefferson Adams Mason.

Like his father, Jeff was power hungry. But unlike the older man, he wasn't willing to work for it. By the time he was twenty one, he was sick to death of being 'TJ's boy'. He had no identity of his own. His father was well known in New York, close friends with the mayor and governor both. Every financial circle knew his name and reputation. So once the war ended, even the medals the young hero wore couldn't compete with the gleam of the old man's name. He'd begun to despise his father and his name.

It started small. He began to invest in the stocks of his father's competitors. Twice, small companies that his father set his sights on, to buy, restructure and sell for a profit, fell through. The old man couldn't understand how this anonymous bidder won both printing houses at auctions. Jeff was contrite, vowing that 'we'll get them next time, dad', all the while counting his coins and adding to his growing wealth. So when the old man suggested buying a mine in Mexico and another in New Mexico, he'd jumped at the opportunity. He'd read about the West and knew from his corporate operations, how to find and hire the very best.

Cannon fodder.

That's what they started out to be. He had wired his father that the negotiations for the mine in Mexico would take months. In a matter of weeks, he'd negotiated a great price and spent his free time forming his gang. He did his research, reading the papers, train routes and keeping track of freight deliveries and pickups. Banks became easy targets, especially when the town had a mill or other endeavor that brought money into the fat safes. He found that he could live in Mexico like a king for very little money.

He found a large villa on the Pacific Ocean on a beautiful white sandy beach in Mexico. With the money he'd already compiled under his alias in New York and the money he'd get from the string of robberies, he could buy it and live the rest of his life there. Pretty women, good wine and a silver mine to keep him happy. So after the first robbery, his silver tongue convinced the gang to invest the money. By the time they were done, the dividend would triple. They'd all be filthy rich. Like lambs to the slaughter, they bought every word. He knew, of course, that when he got to fifty thousand, he'd have to kill them. The law was closing in and it was time to cut them loose.

But two things changed the outline that he'd drawn out. One was Andy Jensen, the doe-eyed kid whose angelic face and fast gun had become his right hand. He saw something of himself in the twenty-one year old and decided he was worth keeping. The second was riding into Paso Del Norte. What was supposed to be a dusty border town near the Rio Grande had turned into so much more. He'd heard about the seven peacekeepers that guarded the territory. This was 'their town' and nobody messed with it. That only got his blood fired up. Then he found out that Chris Larabee was the leader of the 'seven magnificos'. The game was never so sweet. His former close friend would become his most worthy adversary. So he planned and plotted, then sat back and watched the town burn.

A moan drew him back to reality.

He eyed the horse drinking by the river and then glanced at the body several feet away. The curled up fingers on the right hand began to move. Curious, the kidnapper moved closer. He watched the fine features twitch and the dried cracked lips part. The fact he was still alive was nothing short of a miracle. He pressed his hands on the vulnerable throat and applied a little pressure. He chuckled when the weak body moved and two eyes opened.

Vin stared up through what appeared to be a wall of water at a body. He saw a shot of tan above a bright green and gold blur. He couldn't breathe. He fought weakly, jaw working like a fish out of water. He heard the sharp laugh and his brows furrowed. Confusion rained down and the hand was taken from his throat. He gasped and tried to put the pieces together. His throbbing head didn't help. Throbbing head. Head wound.

Then it came back in jagged pieces but enough to give him the answer.

A fire in town. A figure in the dark. His own body taking pursuit. Confrontation on a rooftop and then waking by the river. Tied up, sick and hurting, he'd heard his own fate spelled out. Escape. Running. Falling. A shot and pain in his skull. Then a voice calling to him. A shock of blond hair and a lean body coming for him. Chris. Chris. Chris. More pain exploded in his chest. Water. Voices. Shots. Wait. More voice. Hands pulling at him. Chris. Chris. More images flew past of Buck, Nathan and J.D. Chris pledging to stand by him, not let him die alone. Buck's voice frantic and sharp. J.D and Nathan shot. Chris's hand on his face and the vow.

"W...o...r...d..." he gasped.

"Yes, very touching," Jeff replied, having witnessed the sickening scene from the brush nearby.

That's when he got the idea. It was more than revenge. He wanted Chris Larabee to pay for what had been done. He'd seen them bring Andy's bullet-ridden corpse back to the camp. He nearly exploded in rage when the youth's dead body was thrown to the ground and bound. He'd grown to love the boy like a younger brother. He was going to mold him, groom him and share the wealth with him. But that was stolen by Larabee's precious 'gang'. So when he'd watched the unadulterated agony on the blond's features as he held his dying friend, he knew what had to be done. He wanted Larabee to pay the hardest way he knew how.

The unknown.

By shooting two of the men bad enough to require immediate aid, he'd forced his former classmate to make the unthinkable choice. He'd deserted his dying comrade in his time of need. Having known Larabee since they were boys, he knew the mettle too well. Breaking his word to the dying man would eat away at him. But not knowing what happened to the long-haired man would break his spirit and crush him.

"Thirsty, Tanner?" he cooed, watching the blue eyes full of pain and confusion appeal to him. He capped his flask and put it away. He got the canteen lying nearby and uncorked it, pouring it quickly over the weak man's nose and mouth. He laughed again as the sputtering turned into coughing. The blue eyes went wide and panicked, unable to find air.

More pictures came to the broken body, filling his throbbing skull. The shots echoed nearby and he'd waited. Unable to move, too weak to do anything but breathe, he'd waited. His eyes slid shut until a harsh set of hands roughly rolled him over. He'd been gagged and carried to horse. The thoughts of the bounty on his head were his first guess. But that changed as they rode off. They were heading west, away from Texas. His seemingly paralyzed body sagged against his captor. He'd felt expensive cloth under his cheek and inhaled something almost floral. A flash of the gambler came to mind just as he'd passed out. Now, as the water ran away from his parched mouth, he focused on the laughing face. Reddish brown hair, icy blue eyes, expensive clothes...

"...Ma...son..."

"Good dog!" Jeff rewarded, tapping the wet cheek.

"Why?" Vin asked, his eyes fighting to stay awake.

"To make him suffer," Jeff spat out. "To break his heart into a million pieces. Don't you see?" His voice became almost childlike. "He has to pay. He took Andy away from me. He'll never find you. I'll see to that. He'll die by inches, haunted by your face and that ridiculous vow. He'll never know what happened to you. He'll be crippled for the rest of his life for breaking his precious vow."

"...kill ya...bas...tard..." Vin fought weakly, curling one fist and raising it. Nobody hurt Chris Larabee, not while he still drew a breath.

"Yes, my little blue-eyed terrier, there it is." He stroked the unmoving man's cheek, watching the hot eyes regarding him. "You're his Achilles heel. And that will be his final penance. He'll ride the rest of his days blaming himself."

"...don't...fuck..in...touch...m...me...e..."

"As much as I've enjoyed our little chat," he eyed the horse, now rested, "it's time to go. Don't get up, Tanner, allow me!" he growled, roughly grabbing the dirty collar, stained with mud and blood, and jerking the limp man up. He heard the sharp intake of air and the weak cry before those hot blue eyes fluttered and shut.

He rode hard, his goal driving the horse to push beyond the normal limits. With every passing mile, he saw Jensen's sweet face shot full of holes. Chris Larabee would pay in the most painful way possible.

+ + + + + + +

Fort McDaniels, NM
Dusk

The young private entered the large room, his dark eyes moving around the neat collection of tables and chairs. He saw the man slumped over, clothing still bearing the bloody remnants of what had transpired earlier. He moved quickly, setting the tray down on a table nearby. The tall man didn't seem to hear him. He was still in the same position on a hard chair staring into the fire.

"Sir?" He waited but the tall man with the weary face and sad eyes didn't move. "Sir, you have to eat. The Captain said to make sure. It's beef stew and biscuits and some cider. Sir?"

"Allow me, young man."

The twenty-year-old, late of Kansas City, turned to see a slim man approaching. It wasn't so much the expensive clothes he wore but that the coat was bright red. A smile revealed a gold tooth and a set of jade eyes.

"Ezra P. Standish, at your service." He bowed slightly and moved closer, wincing at the six foot plus wreck of humanity that was collapsed in the chair.

"You, sir, look like the wreck of the Hesperus."

"Ezra?" The sound of a familiar voice cut through the fog. He lifted his head and rubbed his eyes, squinting at the figure next to the soldier.

"I assure you, I am not a mirage. Furthermore, not eating won't solve anything. Young Mister Dunne and our good healer will need your care if they are to survive."

"How'd you get here?" Buck stammered, seeing the dark blue in the glass where sun and light blue had been. How many hours had gone by?

"The Biblical version notwithstanding," Ezra noted wryly, eyeing his pocket watch, "on the last train out of Reading."

"You rode in a freight car?"

"Mother would be appalled," Standish smiled at the confused features. "I've seen better faces on the newly dead." He gently tapped the shoulder, flinching at the maroon stains on the once clean shirt. "Young man, can you bring another bowl of..." he peered at the bowl.

"Stew."

"Yes, well, our versions of that might disagree," the conman noted, wrinkling his nose. "But when in Rome..."

"Yes, sir, anything else?"

"You'll advise me immediately if a telegraph comes through for me or Mister Wilmington here?"

"Yes, sir...oh, the captain left a clean shirt but he won't move..."

"Thank you, young man," Standish nodded. "You'll have the surgeon meet us here when his job is completed?"

"Yes, sir..." the young man said, scurrying to the door.

"Come on, Buck," Ezra said softly, moving his hand under the other man's elbow. Wordlessly, the tall man consented, rising, then staggering slightly. "Sit down before you fall down. Eat!"

"It's been hours. They won't say much. At least they're not dead..." he mumbled, raking a shaky hand through his matted dark hair. He took several spoons of the stew without tasting it and lifted the pewter mug, draining the cider. Then he cast a woeful set of eyes on the southerner. "Longest fuckin' day of my life, Ezra."

He winced at that, missing the normally gregarious and often biting call of 'Ace'. Buck was the first to brand him with a nickname that meant something. Oh, he'd been called a long list of names in his time, but never from a friend and never one that meant so much. He was their wildcard, the one that didn't fit. Yet he was accepted and pressed into the bosom of this unlikely gathering of men.

"I came as soon as the wire arrived," Ezra finally spoke. "Mister MacTavish is guarding the town and has dispensed someone to retrieve our wayward preacher. I was told by the young man at the gate when I arrived that J.D.'s surgery went well."

"Yeah," Buck nodded. "Some kid came in and said they were finishing up. No details yet...and Nathan...it's bad, Ez. Something about an artery. They asked me...wanted me to give the okay to take his l...l...e...g..." He shoved the bowl away, hands shaking badly. "Christ...what should I have done?"

"Here." Ezra moved over and handed Buck his flask. "Steady man," he teased of the shaky hands that threatened to spill the liquor inside. "Your quick thinking undoubtedly saved both their lives. You delivered them to a surgeon and the rest is up to God. Even if the surgeon must make that decision, Nathan's skill lies in his mind and his hands. That won't change."

"I guess...but..." Buck shook his head as the door opened and three men entered. The young soldier who had previously spoken with them deposited a tray and left.

"Captain Harrison," the leader identified. "Major Charles Stillwater, one of the U.S. Army's finest surgeons."

"This is Ezra Standish, he's one of us," Buck spoke to the captain whom he'd met earlier. His stomach threatened to toss back the stew when he saw traces of blood on the other man's shirt sleeves.

"I'm sorry, Mister Wilmington," the surgeon offered, seeing all the color drain from the exhausted man's face. "Usually I bathe and change after surgery.

But I didn't have time... I tossed the smock away and washed quickly. They're both alive."

"Thank God," Buck sighed, then sought the white-haired doctor's eyes. "His leg?"

"Intact."

"God," Buck slumped, dropping his head, too overcome to continue. He pushed his fingers to his eyes and felt the moisture forming. Then he felt a hand on his neck and heard Ezra's voice.

"I want to thank both of you for all you've done. They're fine men...Mister Jackson is quite skilled in the healing arts as well."

"So I was told, and I admire that. They're both resting now, won't be awake until sometime tomorrow. Both have fevers and will require constant care. My wife is a skilled nurse, and she'll tend to them tonight. The younger man..."

"Mister Dunne,” Ezra filled in. "John Daniel...J.D., our sheriff."

"Really?" The captain was surprised. "He's quite young."

"And very adept," Standish replied.

"The bullet nicked his intestinal wall. I had to cut part of it away and then reconnect. It also hit part of his liver, but so far, it looks like that won't be a problem. His two biggest challenges are the blood loss which was extensive, and the fact that until his intestine heals, he cannot have any solid food. But he's young and very strong. It will take a little while, but I'm confident he'll survive."

"And Mister Jackson?" Ezra pushed, hearing Buck's low sob at the good news for J.D. He kept his hand on Buck's back as the doctor continued.

"The superficial portion of his head wound was repaired, but until he wakes up, is able to speak and answer questions, we won't know if there was any damage done. His leg...and this is critical," he noted sharply, "must be immobilized. He cannot put any weight on it. I was able to repair the artery but it's delicate work. He won't be using that leg for some time. It has to heal properly.”

"We'll see to it," Buck managed, bringing his face up.

"Son, you look like ten miles of bad road," the captain noted. "Did you eat?"

"Yeah," Buck nodded.

"Get a hot bath and some sleep. You'll be needed in the next few days," the doctor commented. "I'll be checking on them this evening and during the night."

"I want to see them," Buck announced.

"Okay," the surgeon agreed. "Right now, my wife and my assistant, Doctor Chambers, are cleaning them up. Wait about twenty minutes and come to the Infirmary. If you'd like, you can use the cots in there."

"Thanks, Doctor, for everything." Buck stood and pumped the man's hand. He sighed heavily as they left, taking his seat again.

"I'll send word to Mrs. Travis," Ezra noted, lifting his spoon to eat the stew that was brought in. "Maybe we'll get word from our missing comrades. I'm sure they're worried."

"Comrades?" Buck paused, eyebrows furrowed.

"Yes, our often ill-humored leader and his trusty drawling sidekick." He paused when Buck's face again lost its color and the dark blue eyes filled with a pain that the southerner found extremely disquieting. "What?"

"The wire...didn't you...get...?" Buck stammered.

"Yes," he pulled it out of his pocket. "Come immediately...ambush...J.D. and Nate down...Vin's gone with Chris after Mason."

"No...no..." Buck lamented, shaking his heavy head. The clerk got it wrong. It was 'and' not 'with'. His heart lurched. For a few hours, worrying on J.D and Nathan had taken his mind off the dark day.

"I'm not a mind-reader, Buck!" Ezra issued sharply, snapping the reeling man back to his senses. "What's amiss? Where are Chris and Vin?"

"We were ambushed, not far from Reading. Same gang that hit the town...they...they...shot..."

"Yes, I know, they gunned down our young sheriff and the good healer. You brought the wounded here and Chris and Vin left..."

"Chris sent the...a...wagon...back from the depot. He got them to...uh...uh..." Suddenly, Buck was exhausted as the mighty weight of the entire last few days collapsed on his broad shoulders. "...hold the train up the line. We...they...brought...them...into the train and...skipped...all...the stops."

"Yes, yes..." Ezra drilled. "And Chris and Vin..."

"VIN'S DEAD!" Buck blurted, shoving his body away from the table. He pounded the walls, taking out his frustrations on the unfortunate wood.

"What?" Ezra repelled as if invisible bullets riddled his chest. "How? Where is he? Did you leave him out there?"

"Shut up, Ezra!" Buck hissed, turning around, eyes rimmed red from exhaustion, guilt and tears. "I didn't want to...he's gone. Don't you see? I made him choose...I sacrificed Vin for J.D. and Nathan..."

"You're not making any sense." Ezra crossed the room and shoved Buck down onto a chair. He drew up the closest one and handed the flask over as he sat down. He waited until Buck took two long draws. "Start at the beginning, when you left town in pursuit of the bandits."

So Buck took a deep breath and began. His rich voice wavered at times and his eyes filled with blue pools of sorrow, but he got it all out. By the time he finished, his voice was a mere shadow and he was utterly and totally spent. He sighed heavily and dropped his head, finally letting his grief out.

"I'm sorry, Slick...God...!"

"Shhh!" Ezra shifted, gripping the back of Buck's head.

He buried his own pain even though the sense of loss nearly smothered him. Vin, of all them, was the least likely for him to become so attached to. But despite their vast differences, there was something about the soft-spoken, drawling Texan that had drawn him in. Without even trying, the long-haired man had slipped inside his armor and those blue-eyes had completely disarmed him. He couldn't begin to imagine what state of mind Chris Larabee was in. He'd never seen two men more connected by blood, sweat and fate than Larabee and Tanner.

"Enough!" he barked. "Pull yourself together, man. Our fearless tracker would be appalled by you flogging yourself like this. I suggest a hot bath and a change of clothes. Then we will go and keep a vigil by our two wounded friends. They need you, Buck, so will Chris when he returns."

"If he returns," Buck croaked, pulling himself together. He saw the same light in Ezra's eyes, a shade of fear that they all knew wouldn't flicker out, not until Vin Tanner was found.

+ + + + + + +

The moon kept him company as he rode along, singing softly and enjoying the light breeze. His dark eyes rose to the black sky and he paused to admire the bright stars beckoning overhead.

"Sho' is pretty..."

It wasn't long before he reached his destination. He climbed down from his horse, gave her neck a gentle rub and ambled inside. His hands felt along the wall until they came across the torch. He paused to light it, then made his way down the passage. He picked up the song again, his deep voice echoing through the caverns.

- - - - - - -

It was getting harder to stay awake. Where was Chris? How long before he came? He furrowed his brows and thought as best as his muddled, fevered brain would allow. How long had he been in here? Hours? Days? He sighed weakly and shivered, unable to keep warm. The warmth of his urine was long gone leaving him cold and wet. Despite his best efforts, his eyes slid shut. His breathe caught for a moment and one fist curled up. Fear stabbed at him...would these be his last moments on earth? If he closed his eyes, would he open them again? His soul trembled as the green eyes that had kept him company in the dark abyss faded away.

"...m'sorry...Chrisssss...."

- - - - - - -

"Swing low, sweet char...riot. Comin' fuh tah carry me home. Swi-ing low, sweet char...riot. Comin' fuh tah carry me home. I looked ova Jordan and what did I see...comin' fuh tah carry me home. A band o'angels comin' aftuh me...comin' fuh tah carry me home... "

Voices?

From the black mud he was quickly sinking in, he fought back. He couldn't open his eyes but he pushed with what little reserve he had to remain awake. There was something else in this dark place with him.

Singing.

He thought on the words and they stayed with him. Angels and that river Josiah talked about. Someone was coming to take him 'home'. Who? An angel? A peace came over him then as he realized that the decision was made. He didn't have to fight anymore. An angel was here to carry him home. Isn't that what Josiah preached? That when you died, your soul went 'home to the Lord'? The voice was getting louder, the singing stronger. He moved ever so weakly to listen as pain shot through his head. That puzzled him, drawing his brows together. How could he feel pain if he was dead?

The singing came to an abrupt halt. He exhaled once and remained very still. The angel would know what to do. He was so cold. He hoped the touch of the angel would take the cold and pain away.

"What yuh doin' in here, boy? Ain't nobody suppose tah be in dis place," he gasped, his aged features a mask of surprise. He set the torch in the slot over the young man's head and squatted down. One massive brown hand moved over the pale boy's nose and then the lips that were slightly parted.

"Oh Lawd, yuh's dead."

He eyed the bloody hairline under a filthy bandage and then cast a sorrowful gaze at the bare feet and barely clothed body.

"Some devil robbed yuh?"

He shook his bald head, his large frame hunched in dismay. "I'm sorry, boy. Ain't right that yuh died alone," he lamented, studying the fine features on the young man's face before resting a hand on the cold cheek.

"Lord, it's me, Moses Jefferson. I knows yuhr busy, but dis boy was done wrong. If yuh would...please help him find his way tah yuh. He had him a Mama who give him life. Somebody done took dat away from 'im. He's cold...Lord...hold 'im in yuhr hands...keep 'im warm on his way home."

He inhaled sharply when two blue slits appeared. As if touching a flame, he pulled his hand away. He was still reeling in shock when something as light as a feather touched his hand.

Through the fever and haze of pain, he heard those words. Then the angel touched him and his fear went away. He wasn't alone. The angel was here to take him home. He furrowed his brows, having heard the angel mention his mother. Was she here too?

"...M...a......ma...he..re...?"

"Yuh supposed tah be dead!" Moses gasped, rubbing his hand where the boy had touched it. In the sixty plus years he'd been on this earth, he'd never experienced anything like this. He stood and moved back, twisting the brim of his floppy hat and shaking his head. The bluish lips cracked open again, calling out.

"Dat ain't right. He's lookin' fuh his mama..."

Vin heard the deep voice and painfully turned his head a bit, crying out. Through what seemed to be a waterfall in front of his fevered line of vision, he saw the angel. The strong body rose high; to the weak fevered man, he seemed to be ten feet tall. With all the effort he could summon, he peeled his eyes open and parted his dry lips. He tried to move his hand but couldn't tell if it worked. He thought hard, trying to recall the story Josiah told him about heaven.

"...Gab..riel...?"

"Huh?" Moses backed up again, wincing as two of the wounded man's fingers wiggled. The blue eyes were bright with fever and pleading with him. The lips were moving again but he couldn't hear.

He shook his head and turned away. From as far back as he could remember, the men with blue eyes and pale skin had done nothing but hurt him. His earliest memory was that of being ripped from a woman's arms. He later learned from his older brother that the screaming woman in his dreams was their mother. They were taken from her and sold at an auction. So he learned young, with every lash of the whip, to hate the pale faces. He rebelled at every turn, seeking to escape. But his size and strength made him a prize catch. He was six inches over six feet and close to two hundred and fifty pounds.

His Maisie was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. He'd loved her deeply and the only time he ever really felt free was at night in her arms. Like his own mother's grief, he had to be strong for her when their first born was sold at the age of five. One by one, his babies, the fruits of their joyous union, were taken from them. Robert Taylor, the master of the plantation, was mean to the core. His own children even felt the force of his wrath. As the years went by, Moses learned to keep his simmering rage under control, for his woman's sake. He was afraid that brute would hurt her.

Then the war came and the Yankee soldiers invaded the town, taking everything and burning what they didn't steal. As the plantation burned, he felt no vengeance inside, only a cold emptiness. He took Maisie and left, hoping they could find happiness up north.

But that was not meant to be. They had no money and nowhere to go. They lived hand to mouth, hunting what he could to feed them. She wasn't well and the winter was hard. He tried to find a doctor, but all those Bible-thumping pretenders turned them away. When he buried the only woman he'd ever loved, his heart went into the dirt as well. He'd stopped trusting a long time ago, too many years to count.

So he kept moving, never staying in one place very long. Living off the land and keeping to the shadows. That worked well until six weeks ago when he'd become ill. He'd been living by the river in this very cave where he'd crafted odd bits of wood into crude furniture. He didn't remember passing out on the riverbank. But three days later, he came to in a small cottage. A kind face with pink cheeks and a tuft of white hair greeted him. Doctor Thomas Murdoch had saved his life and never asked for more than a handshake. He was one of the few good white men Moses had ever met. And the only one he'd ever come to trust. A weak cry of pain snapped his mind back to the present.

He shook off those lost blue eyes and kept moving. He didn't need that kind of trouble. That's all the folks around here would have to see. A large ex-slave hauling a wounded white boy to town. His old eyes had seen too many of his family and friends hung by those short-sighted white folks.

"No, suh," he trumpeted, sitting down on a crate and picking up a bottle of whiskey. He took a long draw and nodded his head. "Old Mose don't need that kind o'trouble."

"...there...Gabe...ri...al...time...go...?"

"He'll be dead soon 'nuf," the slave noted, trying to convince himself when the weak voice echoed through the cave's tunnels.

"....cold...s'cold...pl...e...e..z...e..."

"Go 'way...go 'way..." he canted, rocking slightly and then scowling as a new voice entered his mind. "Don't start on me, woman!" he warned, hearing his Maisie's voice. Dead close to seven years, he still heard her whispers in the wind and felt her touch in the still of the night. She'd be sassin' him good now if she could see him.

"...there..."

"It ain't none of m'business, Maisie, yuh knows dat. Boy's time is comin'. I cain't help him none."

"Wa...ter...Mister...Gab..riel...?"

"I'm goin', woman! I'm goin', quit shoutin' at me!" he growled, taking his canteen and retracing his steps.

+ + + + + + +

Fort McDaniels, NM

"Buck?" Ezra whispered, shaking the sorrowful man's shoulder. "Buck, wake up. You can't sleep like that."

"Huh?" Buck squinted in the near darkness. He saw the low light from the lamp on the table between the two beds and blinked. "Kid?"

"He's sleeping, they both are. As well you should be. You heard what the doctor said. Those fevers will require work. You becoming sick is not an option. I have only two hands and I have no intention of playing nursemaid to both our wounded comrades."

"Huh?" Buck croaked, catching about every third word of Ezra's speech.

"Get across the room and onto your cot. The sun will be up in a few hours and you'll need all your strength."

Buck stood, wincing as the harsh payment for sleeping in a wooden chair hit his lower back. He eyed the wet face of J.D. Dunne and sighed hard. He moved to get the cloth nearby and poured fresh water in a bowl. Wringing the cloth out, he wiped the youth's face, neck and chest.

"Jesus, he looks about sixteen." He turned towards the other bed where Ezra was lifting Nathan's head and holding a mug. "Is he awake?"

"Shhh!" Standish warned. "Not fully. He can hear, he's too weak to open his eyes. But he's drinking. That's enough for now," he whispered, placing the mug down and turning the wet pillow before resting the fevered man's head. Then he turned to face the exhausted rogue. "Sleep. It serves no purpose to have both of us stumbling about in the dark confines of this place."

Buck nodded, yawned, took a drink of water and then found the nearest empty cot. Through eyes slitted from worry, exhaustion and a headache, he watched the gambler move between the two beds, doing careful inspections before sitting down. He found a smile then as the silver flask appeared from beneath the scarlet coat.

"Ezra?"

"I sincerely hope you're talking in your sleep."

"You're a fraud."

Ezra peered into the darkness across the room, almost seeing the handsome man's face splitting into a grin. He took a sip of peach brandy and let the warmth burn a path down into his belly. He tucked the flask away and took out a book of sonnets.

"Goodnight, Mister Wilmington."

"Pa?" Buck called out softly. "Is he here? What's he look like?"

Buck heard the soft laughter then and saw a glint of gold tooth. He let that warm sound lull him into a deep sleep.

+ + + + + + +

Moses cursed all the way back down that tunnel. He was still angry and full of vinegar when he knelt down. Even when he lifted the boy's head and tipped the canteen, he was angry.

Then something happened.

"...sorry..."

The broken weak voice coupled with those lost blue eyes and the water trickling down the fevered man's chin squelched his anger. He felt the young man trembling and frowned. The boy's chest was rising and falling too fast. The weak hisses of air were too rapid.

"Hold on, boy..."

He moved his large body around, gently lifted the wounded man up and heard the shivering soul gasp audibly. His dark eyes saw the bloody hole in the middle of the back. Glancing quickly, he noted no marks on the front of the undershirt. The breathing became a little better and the long lashes fluttered over the confused eyes. He sat down, resting the helpless man against his chest and shrugged his jacket off. He moved the cloth around in front so the boy would have warmth from his body surrounding him.

"Dat bettah, boy?"

The matted head nodded. From his position several inches above that head, he saw the angry wound. Then a long contented sigh slipped past the bluish lips and the smaller man snuggled back.

"...thanks..."

The trust that came on that small rasp stabbed him hard. How long had it been since anyone trusted him? This boy was utterly and totally giving himself over. He wrapped his long arms around the shivering frame and felt his own warmth invading the cold, wounded white boy. Then from under the crude blanket, two weak fingers moved, seeking comfort in his hour of need. The shaking fingers managed to hold onto his index finger and it was if a fire shot through his entire body. This young stranger, so frail and weak, was depending on him. He felt the trickle of warm breath on his forearm and moved one hand to the icy brow.

"Here, boy, open yuh mouth...slow now...dat's good...Old Mose has yuh..." He slowly tipped the canteen and drop by drop, got water to trickle inside. He heard the small moan that only came when sated thirst is quenched.

Vin wasn't sure where he was. This wasn't heaven. He didn't think so anyhow. He still had too much pain, but he was safe and getting warmer. The angel was strong and he felt that strength invade him. Maybe he wasn't ready to go? Or maybe he wasn't going? The long line of corpses he'd sent ahead loomed in his fevered brain. Then it hit him hard. How many times had he joked about it with Chris?

*"Go t'hell, Lar'bee."*

*"Thought we was going together cowboy?"*

"...Hell...no...can't be...angel?"

"Angel?" Moses repeated, trying to figure out the desperate voice.

"Gab..ri..el..." Vin whispered, fevered eyes rolling and trying to focus. "J'siah said...said...so...preacher..."

"I ain't no angel, boy. I ain't nobody. Yuh hear? I ain't no damn angel!" Then he realized what the confused young man thought. He held on tighter and tried to reassure him. "Son, this ain't Hell. This here's New Mexico. Yuhr in a cave. Yuh hear? Yuh ain't dead."

Not dead?

Those two words swirled through his brain which was consumed by the fires of a fever. His weakened heart was beating wildly and his breathing intensified. Through the waterfall in front of his eyes, he saw a light flickering on the cave wall. He smiled then, trying to move his hand.

They were back.

Scorching a hole in his hide and sending the fire of life back into him. He felt renewed and fought hard. He kept his eyes fixed on them and heard the call. He inhaled it, digested it and made sure it wouldn't leave. Even as his eyes closed, the mighty power that those green beacons held remained.

"W...o...r..d..." he sighed and let his eyes flutter shut.

"Word?" Moses repeated. "Fever's got yuhr brain addled, boy."

He sighed hard and weighed his options. He couldn't go to town; he feared his neck being stretched on a rope. He was a runaway slave, a stranger, and they were white, like the wounded boy. What if the boy never woke up? There would be no way to prove his story. He sighed again and heard her voice.

"Alright, woman...yuh never could resist a stray."

He eased his body up and gently laid the boy down. He lowered the torch closer to the floor so the flames would give him some warmth. Twice, he made trips to the back of the cave to bring blankets. Once the wounded young man was covered and secure, he squatted down, turning the now flushed cheeks. The heat burned into his hand.

"Yuh hear me boy," he ordered, watching the sandy brows twitch. "I'm goin' fuhr the wagon. I'll be back. Yuh ain't gonna die alone...yuh hear?"

He heard. He heard. He nodded and heard it again.

*"You won't die alone, Vin, I promise."*

He saw the blond man as clear as day, saw those lips move, and it came out. He caught it and held on, too weak to repeat. So silently he sent back the refrain. He wasn't gonna die; he was gonna fight. He saw the blond dip his head once, the eyes catching the vow and keeping it.

*"WORD”*

+ + + + + + +

The new dawn was breaking when he arrived in town. He hadn't slept much and his face was sporting a corpse-like hue. He scratched his stubbled chin and squinted up the small street. Only a few people were stirring this early in the morning. Could be a good thing since he was sure his appearance could cause a minor stampede. The grime covering his skin was itching something fierce and he smelled like a rabid polecat. From under the brim of his hat, he eyed the hotel. Right next to it was a smaller building with a white sign bearing the word 'Bath' in bright red letters. His eyes drifted again, carefully scrutinizing every building, alley and rooftop. Satisfied, he arrived at the livery and tossed a silver coin at the wiry man by the door.

"When's the telegraph open?" he asked, taking his saddlebags and rifle.

"Not for three more hours."

He sighed hard, rubbed his tired eyes and then scratched his head. Three hours never seemed so long. Three hours until he found out if J.D. and Nathan were still alive. He felt a pang of guilt stab at his lean abdomen. In the long hours spent yesterday chasing Mason, he'd put the two men out of his mind.

He noted the two lone horses inside the livery and took a closer look. He tried to recall the horses of the men they tangled with. Neither of these horses looked familiar.

"Somethin' I can help you with?"

"Any strangers come through yesterday?"

"Nope. You're the first in a couple weeks."

His shoulders slumped a bit and he shifted the bags. Mason wasn't here, no reason to stay. He'd get a bath, shave and eat. He'd take a nap, send a wire to Buck and one to town. Then he'd keep moving. He wondered where Mason was headed. Was Vin still alive? Where was Mason? Why had he taken the wounded man? Had Vin crossed paths with him before?

He sighed heavily and thought of the large amount of land in any direction that the fleeing coward could be hiding in. He headed back towards the street just as the other man spoke.

"Didn't catch your name."

"No, you didn't," Chris replied, tugging his hat down and crossing the street.

+ + + + + + +

By the time Moses arrived back at Doctor Murdoch's house, the sun was up. He reined the horse in, eased his large body down and leaned over the back of the wagon. His young charge was so still it was as if he was a corpse. He placed his hand over the slightly parted lips and felt a tiny breath.

"Good boy...yuh hold on..."

He ducked down into the doorway and entered the tidy house. He recalled the doctor mentioning he would be out of town for a while. Moses knew he couldn't just ride into a strange town with a wounded white boy. His mind was scarred by too many lynchings. He made his way to the back and was dismayed when he saw that the doctor's bed was covered with medical books, journals and dozens of heavy boxes. He'd forgotten he helped the doctor move some of his things from town.

Sighing, he eyed the long wooden table in the kitchen. He grabbed some clean sheets and a pillow from the large hope chest under the physician's window and laid them out. Then he went to the wagon, dropped the back down and slowly pulled the wide board out. Just as the injured man's waist appeared, he halted, carefully lifting him and carrying him into the house.

"There yuh go..." he spoke softly, gently easing the fevered man down. He took off the filthy undershirt and dirty bandage around the head. Then he made several trips outside, filling buckets and pouring water into the sink and two pots. He warmed some of the water over the stove and poured it into a basin. Then he got out the soap and lathered up a soft cloth. Ever so gently, he washed the blood and dirt from the young man. He knew the brown bottle on the top shelf was the medicine the doctor put on cuts. He dabbed some on the nasty head wound and the pale face twitched in distress.

"I knows dat stings..." he comforted, patting the warm shoulder. "Yuh got a nasty crease...fever's comin' up..." he noted, pulling the sheet up to the fevered man's neck.

He walked to the window over the sink and looked outside. What should he do? He didn't want to leave the boy, but the doctor wouldn't be back for a few more days. The road to Willow was far too rough for the wagon or the injured man. He didn't know the folks in town; he only knew the name because the doctor had his office there and spoke of it.

Strangers.

He absentmindedly rubbed his neck, feeling a rope choking him. Then he touched his hand, still feeling the feather light brush of the dying man's fingers. He tried to shrug it off but it lingered. Two lost eyes, bright with fever and confusion, the scratchy whisper and that total trust thrust in him.

"Best I kept ridin'," he muttered. "...mindin' m'own." He stepped outside onto the porch and eyed the new sky. One face entered his mind, one that still took his breath away. "Woman, I need t'hear yuh..." he pleaded. "Boy needs help..." He paused then, thinking on how very close to Mexico he was. If only he'd gone after he got well. A gentle breeze kicked up then, surrounding him and embracing him. He nodded, his old eyes lingering on the horizon. "Yeah, I hear yuh, woman..."

He went back inside and shuffled over to the makeshift bed, pausing to pick up a wet cloth. He wiped the boy's face again and his neck and chest as well. He picked up the limp hand, recalling how much faith was in those fingers that found his hand in the dark.

"Angel," he scoffed, creasing his forehead, still hearing that weak voice. "Yuh hold on, boy, I'm fetchin' a doctor for yuh."

He pulled the blanket up and walked to the door. He paused on the porch and knelt down, holding his hat over his heart. He cast his soulful dark eyes to the sky and caught a ray of sun cresting a puffy white cloud.

"Lawd, dis here is Old Mose. I ain't da best man yuh put here on this green earth, but I ain't the worst neither. Dat boy inside, he's in a bad way. If yuh could put yuhr hand on 'im, keep 'im warm 'til I get back with the doctor..." He paused, nodded and dropped his head. "Help me find the strength, Lawd." For he was still full of fear and felt that rope on his neck, the sting of the whip on his back and the hateful stares from pale eyes.

"Moses? What's wrong?"

He was so startled at first he dared not move. His breath caught inside, sending his massive chest into an uneven rhythm. He dared not look for fear it was all in his head. He kept his eyes fixed on the white boards on the front porch. Then a hand touched his shoulder and he jumped a bit, his breath crashing out loudly.

"Moses?"

It was then that Moses felt the power of prayer and moreover, the touch of God's hand as it retreated from the sunny porch. He raised his eyes to that ray of sun and nodded, feeling a grace wash over him.

"Thank yuh..."

With that he stood and followed the homeowner, Doctor Thomas Murdoch, into the house.

+ + + + + + +

Nine a.m.
Fort McDaniels, NM

"Buck?"

"Hey!"

The womanizer's dark head came up and the chair made a Godawful racket when he flew out of it and leaned over the bed. Two hazel eyes, or rather slivers of hazel, were trying to find his face. He moved a hand, wiping the dark black bangs off the youth's forehead. Damn, the kid looked about sixteen. He swallowed hard, took the limp hand that was near his own and found a smile.

"You look like hell, kid."

"...bet...ter..than...you..."

"Yeah, well, it was a long night. The doc took a bullet out of you. It did a little damage inside, but you'll be fine. You need to rest and eat good and drink and..."

"...hap...pen...ed...?"

"You remember us leaving town, huntin' them bastards that robbed the freight office?" Buck inquired, then moved to get the feverish youth a mug of water. He saw the damp head nod and eased it up. "Here, just a little now. Good...that's good, J.D." he coached as the water slowly disappeared. He turned the pillow to the dry side before gently easing the wounded man's head down.

Through the haze of pain and the mud that the fever left in his sluggish mind, the young sheriff thought back. He closed his eyes and felt Buck wipe his face again; the man was worse than an old nanny. He recalled the race from town and then gunshots. He saw Vin Tanner's body draped in Chris Larabee's arms and a look so icy in the pale green eyes that it chilled him.

"Vin's dead!" he blurted, shoving his heavy lids up. "Buck?"

"I don't know, kid," he admitted. "You and Nathan got shot. Me and Chris tossed some lead with the bastards that did it. Time we got finished..." He paused, scratched his stubbled face and sighed hard. "Vin was gone."

"Oh, God...he's dead...I'm sorry...Chris?"

"No, no," Buck interrupted. "That ain't what I meant. I meant. . . well, he might be dead. He was gone, missing, not there. We think Mason took him. Chris got help and then took off after them."

"Nathan?" J.D. moved his head painfully and saw a still dark form across the room.

"He's in bad shape, damn near died on the table. One creased his head, the other hit his thigh. Damn doctor wanted to take his leg off..." He saw the startled face and shook his head. "No, it's still there."

J.D.'s eyes saw something bright red and moving. He squinted and saw a face. His voice came out in a wayward, high-pitched squeal.

"EZ....RA...?"

"Why is that everyone's reaction? You would think I had grown the proverbial second head.” The Southerner paused. "Mister Dunne, welcome back to the land of the living."

"So...rr..y..." J.D. managed, eyeing Nathan's ashen face. "Nate?"

"Nothing yet, but the doctor said it may be some time. He's breathing better," Standish replied.

"Good," J.D exhaled loudly.

"Get some sleep, kid, that's an order!" Buck teased, ruffling the dark hair.

"Buck? Favor?"

"Anything, kid," the concerned man replied, leaning closer. Two flame colored slashes set on the pale damp skin only made the hazel eyes seem brighter.

"...find a bathtub...you stink..."

"Shut up, Ezra!" Buck retorted to the laughing conman. "That's the thanks I get, sacrificing my beauty sleep..." He pulled the blanket up over the sleeping Dunne.

"Now there's a real loss," Ezra quipped, moving his body to the chair between the beds. "Our young lawman brings up a valid point. If you are to remain anywhere near the living today, you need to cleanse and purge."

"Purge?" Buck drew his body up and eyed his clothes. "Well...I guess I am a bit ripe."

"Just a tad." Standish wrinkled his nose. "The doctor and his assistant will be over in about a half hour. That should be enough time for you to become something resembling a human again. I'll meet you in the dining hall."

"The mess," Buck corrected, leaning over Nathan's bed. He moved his hand, touching the dark, wet skin of the proud man's cheek. "Dammit, Nathan..."

"Go on, Buck," Ezra said quietly, hearing that awful ragged pain in the tall man's voice. He doubted if anyone had a heart as big as Wilmington's or suffered so deeply when a friend was hurt.

"Yeah." Buck sighed hard and took his numb and weary body out into the sunlight. He paused, eyeing the horizon and wondered how and where Chris was.

+ + + + + + +

Thermal Springs, New Mexico

It was just past noon when Chris rode out of town. The hot bath, shave, a large breakfast and a good nap had done wonders. By outward appearances, he looked much better. But inside, the large ragged hole was growing colder by the minute. Then there was the itch in his hands, one that wouldn't be quelled until he wrapped them around Jeff Mason's neck.

While waiting for a reply to his telegraph, he'd drawn a crude map of the towns that dotted the landscape on either side of the river. Whatever Mason's goal was, Chris doubted he'd have toted a wounded man very far. It would slow him down. If he made good time, he could hit two towns and a mining camp before sundown.

The reply from Buck made his ride easier. J.D. was alert and talking, expected to make a full recovery. Nathan was still unconscious, but that was normal given the severity of his head wound. . Both men were weak and fighting fevers. The gunslinger was glad Ezra had arrived so quickly. He would keep tabs on Buck. Josiah was heading out of town and would be at the Fort by sundown.

He paused on the rim of a canyon, eyed the rippling heat on the horizon. He took his wide brimmed hat off and hoisted the canteen. He took a good swig and pulled a red bandana from his pocket. He doused it and wiped his face with it. He considered it a moment, running his fingers over the cloth. He could still see that dopey grin Vin wore whenever he tied the damn thing around his neck.

Was his best friend still alive? Hope was waning faster with every hour. Vin had been so weak when he'd last seen him, over twenty fours ago. How could he have survived? What if he woke up and Mason tortured him? Chris's gut turned to ice water as a grisly picture of those blue eyes screaming silently in agony ripped through him.

One hour, one day, one week, one month, it mattered not. He'd ride until he found Vin Tanner, no matter what condition he was in. Even if it only meant bringing his body home to bury it underneath that damned tree. Then he'd hunt down Jeff Mason and make a tobacco pouch out of his balls.

"Word!" he whispered on the wind, tapping his fist to his heart.

+ + + + + + +

Three p.m.
Outside Willow, NM

The old man left the river, putting the basket in the wagon. His nerves were bad. He'd paced all that he could and rocked in the damn chair for what seemed like forever. Finally, he decided to go fishing. He eased his frame back on the seat of the wagon and headed back towards the doctor's house.

At first, the doctor had been dead set against it. He'd argued that the boy was too weak, that he'd never survive the surgery. But Moses stood his ground and stated his case. He'd asked the Lord for an answer and got it. The doctor wasn't due back just yet; he'd arrived unexpectedly early. Wasn't that the answer from above? Bringing the skilled hand right to where it was needed. The boy would surely die without the doctor's help; there wasn't anything to lose. The old man stood firm, still feeling those fingers on his own and hearing the broken call of 'Angel.'

Hours.

He'd thought it'd be done by now. The doctor had spent an awful long time examining the boy and then boiling his instruments. Murdoch had warned him it would be a long afternoon, that the surgery would be tedious due to the location of the bullet. So Moses paced and rocked, then he took his old bones to the river to fish. He hoped when he got back that he'd find the boy alive and over the operation.

"Remarkable..."

Thomas Murdoch was astounded by the young man whose back was opened before him. By all that science and medicine dictated, this wounded man shouldn't be alive. Yet here he was, breathing and holding his own under very grave circumstances. Lying flat on his belly, his pale face tipped to the side with a wisp of a breath emerging from between the slightly parted lips, he was clinging hard and fighting for life. The wire-and-metal mask filled with cotton-saturated ether lay just close enough to the slack mouth to keep his patient sleeping soundly.

The surgery had been extremely delicate and he'd used his experience, keen eye and steady hand to track the probable path of the bullet. Slowly and with pinpoint precision, he'd cut through the layers of skin and muscle, expecting to find the bullet lodged somewhere near the heart. So far, he'd repaired several small bleeders and noted the broken rib. But no bullet. He peered inside the exposed area and then scanned the paper above the young man's head.

He'd drawn several diagrams of where the bullet could have gone.

"I'll be damned!" He squinted, delicately pulling tissue aside. "It moved...by God, it moved." He withdrew the bullet from where it ended up inside the left lung cavity. He dropped it in a metal pan and glanced briefly at his young charge. "You, my friend, must have God's grace. A miracle...truly a miracle!"

"Whoa...whoa..."

The weary doctor looked up as the wagon pulled in. He waved to the large dark-skinned man whose eyes were wide and anxious. Murdoch doused his face and head with water, then scrubbed his hands, wrists and arms, ridding himself of the blood.

"Hand me a towel?"

"He be livin'?"

"He is!"

"Praise God..." Moses jumped down, grabbed a white cotton towel from the porch rail.

"Thank you." The doctor dried off and then picked up the mug hanging on a hook near the pump. He took several drinks of water and gave the worried man's shoulder a tug. "He's alive, by God, he's alive. You were right, Moses. I believe God spoke to you this morning. You saved that boy's life.”

"No suh, yuhr the one who cut dat bullet out..."

"Faith, Moses, was just as responsible. You had faith in me and that young man in there. Remarkable. That bullet should have killed him. The path clearly dictated a wound to the heart. But it wasn't there...it was lodged just inside his lung cavity, probably deflected by his rib.”

"He gonna live?"

"I don't know, but he's got a much better chance than he had before you found him. I hope you caught plenty of fish, I'm hungry!" He paused to let the worried man in the door. "I'll need your help. I left him on that board you carried him in on. If you can just lift it and hold him for a few moments, I'll take those bloody sheets away, give the table a fast rinse and put clean linens down.

"Yuh take yuhr time," Moses offered, leaning down and putting his hand near the pale man's parted lips. "Dat's good boy...keep breathin'..."

Moses lifted the board as if it held an infant. He held it steady, allowing the doctor to get rid of the soiled linens. He kept that strong grip as the blood and gore were washed away. Then the thin mattress from the bed was placed on the table and two clean sheets over it.

"Okay, gently now...then we'll ease the board away....good...." the doctor pronounced as the limp body was at last resting on the makeshift bed.

While the doctor went to change his clothes in the small bedroom at the back of the house, the old man stood vigil. He lifted the limp hand and let his large, calloused fingers rub the pale ones. He eyed the fine features on the young man, now covered by a fine sheen of fever.

"Yuh fight, boy...Old Mose ain't gonna let yuh die now..."

Vin never heard the doctor's words. He never felt the pinching and pulling as those skilled hands repaired the internal damage to his body. He didn't see the weary but exhilarated smile the physician wore. He couldn't smell the metallic odor of his own blood that had pooled beneath him. He floated in a dark, murky ocean. While his body was torn, limp and helpless, his soul was guided through the uncertain waves by a single powerful pledge. Four letters wrapped in faith, unbound and carried by green eyes and a soft whisper.

*WORD!*

+ + + + + + +

Midnight
Juanita, NM

It was all a blur and with every swallow of liquid courage, the lines became more difficult to discern.

Hunter or hunted?

He tossed down another shot of redeye and rolled the glass between his thumb and forefinger. Another town with no answers. Another set of strangers seeking solace in a saloon. Another scratch on his map. With that stroke of lead, another mark on his soul. For every mile he rode on this journey through Hell, his world got smaller and darker. Soon there would be no sun at all, just the black of the unforgiving night.

Through the haze of smoke and regrets in the dusty haven on the border, he examined his mission. The predator, sleek and mean, seeking an elusive prey. The moment he knelt in disbelief on the spot where Vin Tanner should have been by that river, he'd unleashed the hounds of Hell. With every mile he stalked Jeff Mason, the hollowness inside him grew. Only when under the hot flesh of his fingers, he felt the last of that bastard's life leave his excuse for a body, would his mission be completed.

Hunter or hunted?

He tossed another shot back and screwed his face up as the ghost appeared again. He moved with the same grace and agility as he'd done when he was flesh and bone. That raspy voice echoed in his head, every minute of every endless day. Every time he passed a window, he saw that chiseled face and stubbled square chin. Every time he looked in the mirror, seeking an answer to the icy grip that Fate had on his insides, it was a set of cerulean eyes that looked back.

*"Word, cowboy?"*

Damn him.

He hadn't asked for this. He was doing fine riding solo, going from town to town. Then across a dusty street over the drunken shouts of a lynch mob, he'd gained his soul back. One glance was all it took. He'd never questioned it; there was no reason to. Vin Tanner caught his soul that day and held it still.

Damn him.

He eyed his hands and still felt that weak grip of the dying man's hand. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't shake it. Those icy fingers were gripping his guts, twisting them in knots as that vow echoed again and again, making his life a living Hell. Did he die in pain? Did Mason torture him? Were those blue eyes, filled with pain, seeking his to hold onto? Did that hand that so trustingly latched onto his when that vow was forged fall onto the cold ground seeking him still when the end came? Was his name the last word that left the cold lips as the Grim Reaper lowered its scythe?

*"You won't die alone, Vin....die alone...die...alone...WORD....WORD....die...alone... die....die...DIE..."

"SHUT UP!"

He seethed, stood up and hurled the bottle across the room at the buckskinned ghost with haunted blue eyes that appeared in the mirror where his image should be. That hand reached out again...seeking that promise made. The demon inside began to dance again, shrieking and poking holes with a white hot pitch fork.

"SHUT THE FUCK UP!"

"Hey Mister, you mind keepin' that mouth of yours shut?"

Chris turned slowly, venom dripping in a narrow string from his sneering lower lip. His hand played on the pearl trim of the iron on his hip. His chest heaved in slow painful draws of breath. His eyes, cold and deadly, burned a path of ice across the room. The fingers danced again, itching to whip around the Colt and bring her out.

"Why don't you make me?"

"Jesus, Bubba, what the hell's wrong with you?" Earl Parker felt his bladder quivering as the six foot snake unfurled and exposed his fangs. He slid from his chair and put a tentative hand on his brother's arm.

"Bubba?" Chris mocked, his lips turning into a feral grin. He eyed the hairy belly hanging below the massive man's shirt. An uneven beard spread sparsely over the double chins and only a handful of teeth inside the offensive hole. Beady eyes peered back at him under a mop of greasy hair.

"Bubba? Take after your mother, 'Bubba'? She a fat sow with a hairy belly and three teeth too?"

"No!" Earl moved in front of his huge brother. "He's drunk...we can't afford to get locked up again. Come on, Bub..."

"Shut up, Earl!"

With one meaty paw, Bubba lifted his annoying brother and hurled him through the next table. Then he launched himself at the stranger.

Normally, Chris Larabee had cat-like reflexes, but he was drunk. His gait was sluggish and his actions slowed down a bit. Although he ducked, his inebriated state caused him to sway badly and spin as the saloon floor seemed to move like the deck on a storm-tossed ship. Something hard hit him between the shoulder blades and he went to his knees.

"Ugh."

Bubba towered over the stranger, placing one log-like leg on either side of the slimmer man's hips. He grabbed the back of the dank blond hair and rammed the face hard into a chair seat. Blood shot out just as a piston-like fist shot backward, hitting him hard in the groin.

Chris spit out the blood from where his tooth went through his lip and turned, gripping the legs of the chair. He brought it up as he rose, hitting the mountain in the side of the head and chest. The giant blinked at him and unleashed a fist of his own which caught Chris in the eye.

*"Ya fight like a girl, Lar'bee."*

"SHUT UP!" Chris ordered, confusing his opponent long enough for the lethal blond to unleash a powerful right to the throat.

He whipped his body around and continued to pummel the man until a bottle hit the back of his head. On his knees, dizzy and unable to stop the swirling room from flying around, he didn't have time to defend against the brute lifting him and sending him through the doors.

"That's it, Bubba!" Earl dropped the end of the broken bottle. "We can go out the side before the sheriff gets here. Come on..."

The battered man coughed and rolled onto his back, then onto his side and finally his hands and knees. Just ahead was a hitching post. He crawled towards it, enough to get himself onto his feet. He managed to stagger a few steps and his legs gave way again.

"Señor? Señor?"

"Huh?"

From the edge of the alley where he was on his hands and knees, he couldn't see the face. The voice was low and decidedly feminine. He saw a plump thigh and a black lacy garter peeking through a worn robe.

"Señor?"

Somehow, she got him on his feet. He lurched, sending them both into the wall. His chest landed against two very large and soft breasts.

"Come...my room...it is close..."

Maria Perez didn't know much English; she didn't need it in her profession. Often, when the midnight hour drew close and the better looking gringos were already busy with the younger, prettier girls, she'd find the odd drunk who wasn't as picky. She'd seen this one fly through the doors from her window and couldn't believe her luck. It was a long time since she had been this lucky. Underneath the swollen eye, split lip and bruised face was a lean body.

Chris managed to nod, staggering sideways towards the small group of stairs. Somehow, he got up them and inside the small room. He fell hard into a chair, swiping at the blood running from his mouth. Through slitted eyes in the dim light of the small lamp, he saw her pouring water in a basin. She took a needle and thread and stuck it in the material of her robe. It hung open, exposing the somewhat flabby body.

Maria tied her robe and moved across the room. She washed the injured man's face and gently pushed back his hair. As she wiped the blood away, she felt his hands move under her robe and a calloused thumb introduced itself to her very willing bud. She pulled the needle loose and pressed his head backward. She ran the needle over the flame in the lamp and then blew on it to cool it. After several moments, she was ready.

"Keep still...it only needs a few stitches," she warned him.

The tiny tweaks of pain got his dulled senses to come back to life. He nodded when the ample body pulled away. He looked at her face for the first time. Long dark hair fell to her shoulders. She had dark eyes that had seen more than their share of wear and tear. They looked back at him without revulsion or pity or even fear; instead, there was loneliness. He mulled that over, his own body and soul so very cold. She wasn't a pretty girl; actually, she wasn't even a girl. The lines around her mouth and eyes told him she had a few years on him. Still, the hand that touched his cheek was warm and the sad eyes too hard to turn away from.

"You got a bottle?"

"Sí."

She crossed the room, reached up into her closet and took down a half empty bottle of tequila. As she pulled the cork out with her teeth, she felt his lean body press against her from behind and those strong hands rub her thighs. She turned around to offer the bottle and he kissed her hard, his hands cupping her backside and pulling her close. She felt the heat rising and groaned as she began to melt.

Chris paused long enough to take the bottle and a long swig of liquor. He fell back onto the bed, took another swig and lifted his right leg. She knelt down and pulled each boot off. Then he lay back as the deft fingers unbuttoned his pants. He growled and twisted their bodies, pinning her to the bed. The demon inside woke up then, clawing desperately to get out of the hell that the blue-eyed Texan had locked him in.

+ + + + + + +

Three a.m.
Outside Willow, NM

Hot.

Lord, but it was hot. Hotter than anything he'd ever experienced. He gazed at the black sky and tried to find the moon. All around him, the water was on fire. Red and orange flames leapt and danced, vying for his attention. The heat was so intense, it took his breath away. He felt sure the moisture running down his face was his skin melting. The wall of fire was expanding, rising and creeping closer like a giant tiger. He began to swim, for what destination he knew not. He paused as the flames exploded all around him and his wide eyes darted with fear. Suddenly, a thought so horrid occurred, it took away the little air he had left. A sickening feeling overwhelmed him when he realized where he was.

Hell.

Desperately, he thrashed in the boiling water. The searing flames seemed to melt the skin from his bones and he screamed as his chin hit the scalding liquid. His last thought as he succumbed to the bile from Satan's belly was an unconscious one. The one word that leapt from his heart as he sank under the flames was his last shred of hope.

*"CHRIS!"*

"Doc...Doctuh...?"

"Moses?"

Thomas Murdoch sat up from the quilted mat he'd placed on the floor where his bed should be and eyed the large black man.

"Sumthin's wrong with dat boy...he's burnin' up and tossin'..."

"Okay, get some cool water..."

By the time Moses got back, the physician had opened a bottle of rubbing alcohol. He poured it into the basin and nodded for the other man to pour the water there. He made his way to the bed in the middle of the room and placed the basin on the small table next to it. He drew the sheet down to the young man's waist.

"Get two cloths from the pile I made in the other room. We need to get this fever down."

He wiped the fevered man's face and saw the twitches and heard tiny sounds. Not quite a cry or grunt, a weak signal that his patient was in distress. As they worked, he noticed Moses dark eyes never left the stranger's face. A thought then occurred.

"Talk to him, Moses, he heard you before in the cave."

"Talk?" He paused, then wrung out the cloth. He placed it across the hot skin on the slim neck and rested one large hand against the entire side of the stricken man's face. He pushed the wet tendrils of hair away and saw the frantic eyes darting under the closed lids.

"Yuh calm down now, boy. Old Moses and the Doc is right here with yuh. Yuh hear me, son? Yuh got no call tah fuss like dat."

"Good, look, he's turning towards you," the doctor encouraged, seeing the wet face move.

"I gots no more words..." he paused, eyed the sky through the window and heard her voice. He nodded in agreement. "Thank yuh, woman...dat might work, sure 'nuf." He kept stroking the wet hair and began to sing.

By the time the last verse of Amazing Grace died down, the basin was empty and the patient was resting again. He was cooler and his distress had fled. Doctor Murdoch paused at the sink, washing his hands. He smiled then, watching Moses settle into a chair much too small and stiff for him and keeping his one dark hand engulfed around the limp pale one. He hoped that if this young man survived, he'd realize just how lucky he was to find such a guardian angel. He poured some water in a mug and made his way back.

"Let's try to coax some water into him. Lift him up very gently, Moses. Talk to him, tell him he needs to drink."

"Okay." The tall man stood, reluctantly taking his hand from the damp one. He saw the pale brown brows knit in confusion as he lifted his fragile cargo.

"It's okay, boy, I's right here. Yuh needs tah drink. Come on now, open yuhr mouth."

Vin spun around in the cool black sea, his mind whirling in confusion. The fire was gone and the water was warm, not hot. But the singing ended. He couldn't find the angel. A mighty angel had carried him from the flames, taking his frail body under its strong wings. The messenger sang a beautiful song that lulled him to sleep. He couldn't find it now but he knew it was near. He was so thirsty. He heard the angel's call then and completely relaxed. He obeyed, opening his lips.

"Good boy, dat's it..."

"He's much too weak to drink from the cup. Whenever possible, we'll get water, cider, herbal tea and broth into him using a spoon like this." Murdoch placed the spoon in the center of the opened mouth and pressed down. The swallowing occurred instinctively and the water disappeared.

"Well, I'll be..." Moses amazed.

"I'd like you to try it, Moses. I have to go town tomorrow and I will be gone for some time. You'll be taking care of him."

"Okay." He shifted his precious burden, moving behind the table so that the wounded man rested against his broad chest. Then he used his right hand to dip and lift the spoon. "It's Old Mose, boy, yuh open up now. I gots water fuhr yuh."

"Excellent," the physician commended when the mug was empty. "You can put him down now, Moses. I'll sit with him for a while. You need to rest."

"Yuh sleep now, boy. Old Mose is right here. I ain't leavin' yuh."

He gently laid his charge down and tapped the pale cheek, then gave the limp hand a squeeze before departing for the mat in the corner.

+ + + + + + +

Fort McDaniels, NM

It was that quiet time just as Dawn appeared wearing a spectacular rose and blue gown. Gold shimmered from her eyes, showering the sleepy town below. She extended her fingers through the glass panes and stroked the face of the handsome man in the chair. He sighed hard and groaned, yawning and trying to open his eyes.

"Mmmmm..."

"Mornin'."

Buck blinked and squinted up at something tall and grayish. He rubbed his eyes and saw the cause of his moan. Steam rose from the mug just inches from his face. The wonderful aroma of rich strong coffee assaulted him again. He sat up, took the mug and blinked again.

"Josiah?"

"None other." The preacher gave Buck's shoulder a tug. "You look awful."

"Thanks!" Buck toasted with the tin mug, sipping the hot contents slowly. "When'd you get here?"

"A few hours ago. I've been visiting with Nathan."

"He wake up?"

"Not yet, but he's been moaning and twitching. His breathing's good. What's the word on his leg?"

"The doctor said if he don't move it, he's got a shot but he won't be walking for a while. That is if he wakes up..."

"Hey, don't you give up on Nathan..."

"It's been two days..." Buck stood, walked to the window and watched the soldiers starting to appear in various parts of the fort.

"How's J.D.?"

"Weak, fevered...but at least he's talking. He ate some broth last night and it stayed down."

"How are you, Brother Buck?"

Buck sighed hard, raked a hand through his disheveled dark hair and scratched his chin. "I'd feel better if I knew how Chris was."

Josiah had been bending over their youngest, adjusting the blankets, and heard the worry in the rogue's tone. He eased his body down in the vacated chair and considered that thought. Knowing how much Vin had meant to Chris, he doubted if there was a hole deep enough for Jeff Mason to crawl into. But at what cost? What would the loss of Vin Tanner mean to Chris Larabee? How would that void be filled? Could it be filled?

"Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," the would-be minister quoted of Hebrews: 11:1.

"You buying or selling?" Buck chased back, sipping the coffee and turning back towards the preacher.

"Maybe a little of both." Josiah saw something in Buck's eyes that puzzled him. "You gonna get rid of that burr you're cartin' around?"

Buck leaned against the window frame and eyed the young soldiers scurrying by. Some looked younger than J.D. He wondered how many would live to see their next birthday. Too many young men in a rush for adventure came west to join the Calvary. Chasing Indians and taming the West was a colorful picture to most kids from back East. He shook his head and felt Josiah's smoky eyes bearing on him.

"Chris gave Vin his word, that he wouldn't die alone."

"He couldn't have known that Mason was gonna take Vin and neither could you."

"I made him choose...when Nate went down. He left Vin to..." Buck kicked the post by his foot and furrowed his brows.

"Oh, I see." Sanchez shifted his gaze to where Nathan Jackson was lying. "So Vin's life is more important than Nathan's?"

"No, of course not!"

"Then where is the cause for your trouble? If Chris didn't leave Vin, Nathan....and JD.... could be dead now."

"You make it sound so simple, it's not." Buck walked to the door, opened it halfway to let air in. The morning breeze caught him and lifted his hair a bit. "You weren't there, preacher. You didn't hear how that boy's voice caught when he asked Chris...and Chris gave his word."

*"Ye'll stay with me 'til m'ride comes?"*

Suddenly, the confines of the room seemed to crowd the tall man. He needed air and sky over his head. Knowing J.D. and Nathan were in good hands, he placed the cup on the nearest table and exited, shutting the door on Josiah's sermon. He knew the older man meant well, but he wasn't the one who'd heard Vin Tanner's final plea.

"Buck ...wait..." Josiah winced as the door shut. He cast his eyes upwards, lifted his homemade cross and fingered it. "Stay with him...he's worth the extra effort."

+ + + + + + +

Juanita, NM

"FUCK!"

From the painful netherworld between sober and hung over, the lean body stumbled blindly. In an effort to diminish the piercing light from the window that was tearing his eyes out, he'd stubbed his toe twice. The paper thin curtains did nothing to shield the abrasive sun from battering his already aching body. Barely adjusting to the sun that dared to confront him, he spotted a pitcher on the table across the room. He drank two full mugs of water, but that did little to quench his thirst. He spotted an empty whiskey bottle on the floor and had no recollection of it or how he'd gotten to this small room.

He splashed water on his face and walked a few feet away to where an old towel lay. Drying his face, he spotted his naked reflection in the mirror across the room. He walked closer, tipping his head to inspect the damage. His left eye was purple and black and his lip had been stitched. But the shadows that lingered there were reflections of the demon within.

Hunter or Hunted?

He shoved his legs inside his pants and buttoned them up. He found his shirt and tossed it over his left shoulder. He looped his gunbelt over his bronzed shoulder and put his hat on. Picking up his boots, he eyed the street below. The sign next door, spelling out the twenty-five cent bath, was just the place he needed to think.

He walked back over to the bed and paused. His throbbing gaze caught the bruises and bite marks covering a slightly pudgy, dark haired woman's chest and neck. A brief flash of a rough ride and that same bottle being consumed rose up. He pulled out two extra coins and put them on the bedside table. He double-checked the room and left, eager to leave another town behind.

The bathhouse was empty and while he waited for the Oriental man to fill the tub, he pulled out his map. Despite the fact he'd covered far more ground than almost humanly possible, with every mile his heart grew harder and colder.

Endless miles to nameless towns bearing soft bodies for sale and cheap liquor. Hardly a fitting epitaph for a man whose brutal death had torn his heart to shreds and crushed his soul.

He barely gave the old man a nod as he walked to the tub. He eased his aching body into the hot water and picked up the soap and a harsh brush. He scrubbed hard, taking the filth, grime and sticky residue away. With every scrape of the hard brush, the confusing dilemma echoed in his tortured mind.

Hunter or Hunted?

Like a man possessed, his only thought every waking moment was to hunt down Jeff Mason and kill him. He wouldn't use a gun or a knife, he decided, bringing his lathered hands up before his burning eyes. He flexed the soapy fingers and felt the power surge that filled him as those fingers would close around Mason's throat, choking the life from him. Then his hands fell back into the water as the ghost hovered. Just on the edge of his reality, with every breath he took, Vin Tanner's ghost haunted him. When his quest was done and the prey crushed, would the hunter that stalked him depart?

*"WORD."*

"Goddammit, Vin!"

He slapped the water, hurled the brush across the room and banged the side of the tub. They never left him. Whether rutting with a cheap prostitute, riding hard across the desert, falling into a bottle of redeye or tossing in a disturbed sleep, those damned blue eyes haunted him. The very essence of everything that Vin Tanner had been enveloped him at all times. The loss was overwhelming. He laid his aching head back onto the rim of the tub and drew his knee up. He closed his eyes as that trusting hand came towards him again.

*Word?"*

"I'm sorry, Vin," he whispered as the thorns lanced his chest drawing beads of blood unseen.

+ + + + + + +

Doctor Murdoch's house
Three p.m.

Moses placed the mug of herbal tea down and gently lifted the weak young man. The long hair had been washed and now was clean but damp. The head eased onto his strong shoulder and he tapped the pale cheek. The brows twitched but the eyes didn't open.

"Come on, boy, I gots some tea for yuh. Doc says yuh needs tah drink it...come on, now..."

He watched carefully as the fine features grimaced. For the last few hours, the unconscious man had begun to respond to his voice. The sandy brows would draw together and the face would puzzle up whenever he lifted him and spoke to him. Lastly, the lips would part and he would slowly and carefully spoon tea, broth or water into the slack mouth.

"I ain't gots all day, boy. Yuh open dat mouth fuhr Old Mose. Yuh knows I won't hurt yuh," he soothed, nudging the lips with the spoon.

From deep within the dark maze that had become his world, Vin Tanner pressed hard. The voice was back and the strong wall held him again. Although he was lost, he wasn't alone. But he didn't know where he was or what was wrong with him. He couldn't speak or move, but he knew that voice, so rich and strong it sent waves of hope coursing through his frail body. The voice spoke again and he parted his lips and waited. There it was! God, it tasted good. He stuck his tongue out again, desperate for more.

"Hey, now!" Moses chuckled at the scowl his young friend wore. The lolling tongue was impatient. "Don't rush Old Mose...Yuh'll end up spittin' it back. There now...easy...boy..." He placed the spoon in the center of the tongue and pressed down gently, just as the doctor had instructed. "Sure 'nuf!" he praised, when once again the weak man's body reacted and accepted nourishment.

Soon the whole mug was gone. Moses carefully eased his charge down and brushed the stray lock of hair from his cheek. He looked so young and vulnerable. He rested a hand on the slight rose that colored the young man's cheek. That fever just wouldn't die off. The doctor had warned him about that.

"Yuh done good, son," he soothed, patting that cheek and eyeing the water pump. "Yuh rest now. How 'bout a song?"

He filled the basin with water, combining it with rubbing alcohol just as Doctor Murdoch used. As he moved back to the makeshift bed, he began to sing. He pulled the sheet down to the stilled man's waist and gently bathed that fever, never missing a note.

*"I know that song."*

A tall man with graying hair and smoky eyes was on a ladder. Vin watched as his strong hands put mortar and stone together, rebuilding a church. As he worked, he began to sing Amazing Grace. Vin was below, carrying stones and mixing more mortar. He smiled and let the words to the hymn invade him. It felt good, adding to the warm sun that smiled down and the soft breeze in the air.

"Yuh likes dat, huh?" Moses paused, watching the pale lips form into a smile as a soft sigh slipped through the parted lips. He found his own smile, tenderly bathing the fevered face. "No...no..." he chuckled when the cloth was snagged by the waiting mouth. "Dat ain't fuhr yuh tah drink. Give it back..."

He took the rag back, completed his task and moved again, getting a cold mug of cider. This time, he lifted the head only, placed the cup next to the young man's neck and brought the spoon up. One nudge and the mouth opened; five minutes later, the mug was empty.

"Yuhr gonna wear Old Mose out, yuh know dat?"

He sat down then in the chair next to the table and wondered how the doctor was making out. Doctor Murdoch had gone to town to get them supplies. It wasn't a long trip, but the physician was also checking in at his office and running other errands. He was expected back by supper. As Moses mulled over his day, a feather light touch brushed the side of his finger.

"Huh?"

He watched in amazement as the weak hand moved a fraction, trying to find him. He eyed the face and saw distress on the features that were covered in a fine sheen of sweat. He sat up, taking that hand and using his free one to cup the boy's chin.

"Hey, now, no call fuhr dat. Old Mose ain't left yuh. I be right here, son. Yuh take it easy. Yuh got scared..." He thought a moment and recalled that the night before, when the fever spiked, that same song seemed to soothe the lost soul. "Yuh wants Old Mose tah sing?" He stroked the blushed cheek and sat back, keeping the limp hand in his strong one.

*"Thank God."*

Vin sighed and let his whole body relax as the song came back. He didn't know why the deep soothing tones gave him such peace. He didn't need that question answered. It was so hot here in this awful place and he just wanted to go home.

Home?

Where was home? Where was he? He tossed his head, trying to find air and maybe his answer. Then the angel came back, bringing a cool rain. He sighed and let himself go, his hand locked onto the angel's wing and his eyes trained ahead in the dark, waiting for the green lights to return. He didn't know what they were but he knew he needed to see them to survive.

+ + + + + + +

Six p.m.
Several miles outside Willow, NM

The wagon was loaded with two weeks' worth of supplies. Stacked high with the medicine, bandages and other things from his office were food, grain, flour and dry goods of every sort. Three large containers of chicken soup from the boarding house, along with a smoked ham, some pies, muffins and cheese were also packed inside.

But the heaviest item of the load rested in his breast pocket. He'd just completed tying down the tarp over the wagon earlier when a clerk from the Post and Telegraph ran up the street calling his name. He'd scanned the lines on the yellow paper and his heart had sunk. The timing couldn't have been worse. Before he could think any more on his decision, his attention was drawn to a lone figure approaching on a horse. Both man and beast were wearing black as if riding from Hell itself. Wary of his heavy load and the potential for robbery, he moved his hand to the rifle.

"Evenin'."

He nodded once but didn't relax his grip. The eyes that looked down at him from the horse were an icy shade of green. He knew by the cut of the man he was a gunslinger. His eyes glanced briefly at the pearl-handled Colt strapped to the lean thigh.

"No cause for that," Chris addressed. "Town ahead?"

"Willow, about an hour, maybe less."

"Telegraph?"

"Went down just as I left, trouble down the line."

"Dammit!"

Chris rubbed his eyes, sighed hard and slumped heavily over the pommel. He'd hoped to get a wire to the Fort to check on J.D. and Nathan. After this town, the next one was a hard push, over a day's ride through desert terrain. He didn't even know if they were still alive.

"I believe that the trouble is west of town. Perhaps if you ride northeast to Danning Fork, you can use the one there at the railhead."

"How far?" Chris asked, hope rising again.

"Seven miles, give or take."

"Thanks." Chris paused, eyeing the road the man had journeyed from.

"Glad to help," Doctor Murdoch nodded, then watched as the blond man rode off.

+ + + + + + +

Moses was stirring the stew when the physician arrived. He set the pot to one side and moved across the room, taking a heavy box from the other man.

"How's our patient?"

"Doin' bettah...a little. I got some tea, cider and broth in 'im. He passed a little water, I cleaned him up. He's been sleepin' good, no tossin'."

"That's good, Moses." The doctor was pleased with the patient's pulse and respirations. Given the serious condition he was in, the young man was tenaciously clinging to life.

By the time the former slave had brought the last of the packages inside, he noticed the worried face across the room. He saw a yellow paper in the doctor's hands and wondered on it.

"Sumthin' wrong?"

"I'm afraid so. You remember the Keanes? I might have told you about them. They run an orphanage about ten miles from here."

"Big house on dah river...trees all around it?"

"Yes, that's the place. They're very good people, kind people, they have children there that are hard to place for various reasons. It seems John and some of the children have come down with a fever. Normally, Doctor Marshall from Andalusia would handle it, he's much closer. But he's in Colorado on family business. I'm sorry, Moses, I have to go. The wire said the babies are very ill."

"But...I cain't takes care of him by m'self. I don't know how. What if dat fever comes?"

"The bullet's out, Moses. I've done all I can for now. The rest is up to that young man and God. I've seen you with him, he hears you, not me. You're the one that's been feeding him, bathing him and changing him. Just keep that up. I'll show you where all the medicine is. Use your judgment, if he begins to get stronger, increase his food. Once he wakes up, it'll be easier. I'll be back as soon as I can."

Twenty minutes later, he was gone and Moses went outside and eyed the twilight sky. He caught hold of the brightest star and began to pray. He needed this boy to live and he didn't understand why. He only knew he wanted to hear that voice again, the soft drawl that called out to him in that cave.

"Don't let him die, Lawd. I need yuh tah help me. Dat boy's life is right here..." He held out his hands. "Don't let me drop 'im..."

Dawn

Chris rode out of Willow, his mind only half at ease. On one hand, the news that Nathan was improving and J.D. getting better was a load off of his mind. Both men were expected to live. On the other hand, Willow was another dead end. Now, he had a long hot ride ahead of him through unforgiving terrain. He had an extra canteen and turned his horse towards the river to refill both.

He'd just capped the second canteen and was about to leave when he heard a sharp cry. He turned to see an elderly dark-skinned man with several bunches of plants in his hands. Chris's keen eyes recognized two of them, having seen Nathan collecting them. He didn't know the names but knew they were for fever and infection.

"I ain't huntin' you, old man," he grunted, returning to his horse.

"Yuh sure as hell is huntin' sumthin'," Moses replied, not missing the lean body, precise movement and the pearl handled Colt riding low on one hip. "Yuh ain't out here tah fish."

"I make it a practice to mind my own business," Larabee returned. "You'd be well advised to do the same. You alone?" His mind was playing out all kinds of scenarios, seeing those medicinal herbs. He saw the dark head nod once. "You come across any strangers hereabouts?"

There was something about the way the question came out that had a cold lump settling inside of Moses. He thought on his stricken and silent friend who was left to die alone in a cave. Somebody had robbed him and shot him. His eyes went to that Colt again before looking at the menacing eyes. Deadly eyes...a killer's eyes.

"No, seen nobody. I's jest passin' through, I keeps m'own company."

Chris nodded once, went to his horse and swung up in one fluid motion.

"Yuh lookin' t'kill this man...the one yuhs huntin'..."

"I got business with him," Chris replied, turning away.

"What kind o' business?" Moses asked, fearing for his young charge's life. He worried now that the man would get to the doctor's house on that horse faster than he could walk back. He didn't regret the trip for the bark and other things. The boy needed it for his tea, to fight that fever.

"The kind you don't want to know about, old man," Larabee warned and left.

Moses tied up his bundles and started back, twice checking behind him to ensure he wasn't being followed. He was on the porch when the distinctive sound of a hammer pulling back on a gun halted him.

"Who you hidin' inside that house, old man?"

Chris kept the gun on the man, his eyes having already taken in the discarded bloody bandages on the porch and the drying linens with signs of an injured person still clinging to them. Something he hadn't thought of occurred to him then. What if in that hail of bullets that felled J.D. and Nathan, Mason was wounded? That all this time he'd been housed up being taken care of? He'd known at the river the old man was lying.

"Yuh best move along." Moses turned, standing up and casting his full large frame in defiance. He wasn't going to let anyone near his young friend, so helpless and lost. Especially the man who might have robbed and shot him. "There's nuthin' fuhr yuh in dis place."

"I got an itch to scratch," Chris warned, already feeling Jeff Mason's throat under his fingers. He raised the gun again. "I'll take you down if I have to."

Moses feared for his friend now, knowing that the unknown boy's life was placed in his hands. If he let this killer get by, the young man's blood would stain his hands forever. He felt that weak tug again, in the cave when that hand latched onto his and the weak voice called him 'angel'. No, he wouldn't let this killer take his friend. He stared hard at the deadly eyes, a shade just past deadly and made his mind up.

"Ride on...leave me be..."

Chris stepped closer, nearly deafened by Vin's call echoing in every chamber of his head.

*...word...word...word...die alone...die...CHRIS....I need ya...word...die...word...CHRIS...* He lifted the weapon and fingered the trigger, aiming it dead center into the broad chest.

"Move, old man, or I'll do it for you."

There wasn't a bird within miles that dared to chirp. The air died and even the sun had the sense to hide behind a cloud. A dual set of intense gazes, one dark and one fair, blistered the stillness. The man whose soulful brown eyes had seen more than a lifetime's share of tragedy squared his worn shoulders and kept his vigil. Neither the gun trained on him nor the icy stare of the younger man in black would deter him.

"Yuh gonna shoot dis unarmed old man, son, yuh best git it done."

Chris's hand didn't waver and he kept the gun trained as he stepped forward. His icy green eyes never left the hard brown ones as he moved across the porch. The only sound splitting the tense air was the creaking of the wooden planks under the black boots. He paused several feet away and aired his hot reply.

"I don't give a rat's ass how old you are or if you're not packin' iron," Chris leveled. "I want that wounded man you're hiding. You want to end up dead too, that's your call."

Moses didn't have much time to think up a plan. Every wisdom line scoring his face told him that the killer's glint in those pale eyes meant business. The only weapon he had was his weight and size. He was taller and heavier than the lean gunslinger. If he moved aside, pretended to leave the doorway, maybe he could grab the slimmer man as he made to pass him. He nodded once and slowly moved.

Then it happened.

From the angle where he stood near the open door, Chris's eyes shifted briefly, seeking entry into the room. He was prepared to see a man his own age with auburn hair and bandages lying inside. But that's not the sight that scorched his eyes. A young man, pale and unmoving, lay on a raised bed of sorts. A thin sheet ended just below his neck. Long brown hair splayed haphazardly on either side of the nearly waxen face. He was so still, so very still that for a scattering of heart-wrenching moments, Vin Tanner died all over again right before Chris Larabee's stunned eyes.

That brief flicker lasted only a few seconds, but it was enough of a distraction for Moses to make his move. His right hand moved to the spot next to the door where the ax was kept. He gripped it under the blade. Keeping his eyes on the shifting ones of the other man, he made his move.

The shock of his unexpected discovery was still screaming through his rattled system. The shaken gunslinger wasn't prepared for the large old man to shove him hard. He whipped his gun hand up, but his elbow was met with a hard blow, sending his gun clattering across the floor. He fell sideways on his knees and then ducked just as a thick arm bearing wood narrowly missed his skull. He grunted in pain as the ax handle made landfall on his upper back. Then he drove off his knees into the old man's stomach, sending them both crashing into the room.

Moses landed hard and his eyes saw the gun lying on the floor. He moved for it at the same time the other man did. Two hands fumbled and hit the Colt which skittered under the table where the object of the struggle lay peacefully unaware.

"Get away from him, he's my..." Chris started to warn when the large fist hit his mouth.

He lashed out with his boot, hitting the back of the old man's knees and sending him sprawling. He gripped the edge of the table and drew his numbed body upwards. Gasping for breath, he swiped the blood running from a cut over his eye and spit a wad of blood onto the floor. He reached out a hand, trembling badly and full of raw fear. His fingers sought the pale throat, needing to feel life coursing under the stilled skin. His heart racing, his shaking hands couldn't a pulse. So he moved his hand over Vin's nose and mouth, hoping and praying for air. Praying so hard it hurt his chest.

Moses was exhausted, too old to keep pace with the lean young gunslinger. He crawled a few feet and got the gun, then pulled his worn body up slowly. His eyes saw the stranger's hand on his young charge's nose and mouth and he feared the worst. The stranger was trying to smother his unconscious young friend! Every protective force in him exploded and he reacted on instinct, firing the weapon.

+ + + + + + +

Fort McDaniel, NM

Pain.

More than he'd felt in some years, unending rippling waves of agony that tore through his tender skull. He moved in the dark world he was trapped in, trying to escape the awful pulsating pain that drove his body to react. Unable to contain himself any longer, he screamed.

J.D. was sitting up, eating some soup and listening to Buck snore. The older man was dozing in the chair next to him. Josiah had brought his lunch tray in and ordered him to eat every bite. It wasn't hard; he was starving and the chicken soup, hot bread and cider would go down easy. Josiah had offered to help him, but the young sheriff denied him. He allowed the older man to raise him up and prop him against some pillows. Then the former priest went to wire home to update the judge and Mary Travis. It was a slow process and more than a few drops of broth ended up on his shirt, but the soup was going down. He rested after every three spoonfuls, regaining some of his strength. He picked up a piece of bread, dipped it into the small bowl of honey and was about to eat it when a muffled cry stopped him. Curious, he leaned forward and studied Nathan's unmoving body.

"Nate?" he called over, watching the dark man's face then begin to twitch and move. Two brown eyes shot open and a small choked cry of pain escaped. Fearing for the injured leg, J.D. blurted out a warning, rousing his best friend.

"BUCK!"

"What?" Buck leapt to his feet upon hearing the loud call. Still half-asleep, he nearly toppled onto the started young Easterner.

"No!" J.D. put his arms out and cried out as his stitches protested. "Nate...he's moving...his leg...Buck, do something."

"Nathan?" He frowned, then the cobwebs cleared and he turned. "NO!" he cried out, covering the short distance in two large strides.

He arrived at the bed just in time. He grabbed the dazed man's shoulders and pressed hard, keeping him pinned to the bed. He watched as the dark eyes rolled in pain and darted around the room in unadulterated confusion.

"Nathan, you need to keep still, you got shot. Understand? It's Buck. You're gonna be okay but you can't move. Nate? Nate?"

"Buck?" Nathan managed in a small hoarse voice. "Buck...shot...where...how...?" he paused, then sagged back exhausted.

"Jesus," Buck sighed hard, releasing his grip and wiping his face. "I'm gettin' too old for this shit."

"...wat...er..."

"Aw, hell, Nate, I'm sorry." Buck poured a mug and gingerly lifted the wounded man's head. "Easy now, there's plenty. Good...good..." he coached, watching the healer take small sips until the whole mug was gone. Finally, he laid the injured man's head back on the pillow and eyed him carefully.

"...hell...happened...?" Nate rasped, eyeing the unfamiliar room.

"We followed some robbers out of town a few days ago. There was a shootout, you and J.D. got shot. We're at Fort McDaniel." Buck left out the part about Vin's death, not knowing how it would affect the gravely wounded man. He watched Jackson's hand move to the bulky bandage on his head. "Yeah, you got a real pretty dent in your head. The other bullet landed in your thigh. They got a real good doctor here, Nate, he repaired all the damage. But you need to keep that leg still. Understand? You can't move it."

"...damn..." Nate managed, seeing a lifetime's worth of wear and tear on the other man's face. Sometimes he felt Buck Wilmington bled for the whole world. Whatever had transpired, he knew by the dark circles he saw and the fatigue that lined the handsome man's features that he'd been through Hell. "...wanted t'dance...with yuh..."

Buck laughed then, his weary body sagging in relief. He reached a hand out and took the wavering one offered, gripping it solidly.

"Nothin' personal, Nate, but you got peaks and valleys in all the wrong places."

"...check...blood..." Nate sent back, tapping his 'broken' heart and getting another laugh. "Thank...you..."

"Me? I didn't..."

"...bad...liar..."

"Nathan?"

"J.D.?" the ex-Union soldier called back. "He okay, Buck?"

"Took one in the side, did some damage. Hell, that kid's tough, you know that. Doc says he's gonna be up and driving me crazy in no time."

"...J...D..." Nathan moved his head slightly until he could see the pale youth. "...look like shit..."

"You ain't in any position to criticize, Nathan!" Dunne called back with a wide grin.

"I'm gonna get Josiah and the doctor, you stay put."

"Okay..."

Nathan laid back and thought on Buck's words. A shooting. He had said they were chasing robbers. They? Who were they? Just the four of them? What about Chris, Ezra and Vin? A shooting? He shut his eyes and thought hard. Flames. Bright orange and yellow flames engulfing a building.

"...fire..."

"Huh?" J.D. heard the confused tone and looked over. "Nate?"

"He said...we got shot...chasin'...chasin'...rob...bers..." Nathan wheezed. "But...I can't recall...just...fire...in...town?"

"Yeah, we got set up," Dunne prattled, sipping his cider. "That gang that hit those other towns, they hit ours. While we were fightin' the fire, they robbed us. We took off after 'em and..." He stopped then, seeing Vin's body jerk as a bullet hit it.

"...and what?" Nathan eyed the telltale hazel eyes that were far too wide. He saw the young man swallow hard. "J.D....what are yuh hidin'?" he pressed, then turned cold when one thought entered his throbbing brain. The doe-eyed kid's face was full of sorrow, one that came from...from..."Who died?"

"Vin," J.D. blurted. "It was awful...all he wanted was Chris to stay with him...until...well... Chris promised but then they started shooting again. You and me got hit and while Buck and Chris were fighting back, Mason took Vin. Chris...he...he's been ridin' from town to town..."

"Hey, brother! It's good to see those eyes open!" Josiah boomed as he strode across the room, Buck at his heels. He frowned when Nathan's shocked face went past his to Buck's.

"Why didn't yuh tell me about Vin?"

"I wasn't sure...you're so weak. I didn't want to shock you," Buck deflected.

"Oh, geez..." J.D. slumped. "I'm sorry. I never thought."

"It's okay, kid." Buck took the pressure away then turned back to Nathan. "I wouldn't lie to you, Nathan. I would have told you."

"Did he...suffer?" Nathan wondered aloud. He hoped that the brave blue-eyed tracker whose scarred body housed a soul as old as time had not lingered.

"No. Chris was holdin' him...talkin' to him. He found comfort in that, that's all he asked, not to die alone. That bastard...I swear if Chris don't cut his balls off I will..." Buck vowed, flexing his fists. "Ezra left out yesterday, trying to catch up to Chris. He's been going from town to town, trying to find Mason."

"Gentlemen?" The doctor paused, feeling tension in the room. He saw the two tall men move aside and he went to examine his patient.

+ + + + + + +

Pittstown, NM

Ezra's keen eyes slid slowly around the saloon, taking in every face. He'd eliminated the towns Chris had already searched and headed in a different direction. The first two towns he'd ridden into were dead ends. But the livery owner in this town recalled someone matching Mason's description being there. He'd searched the stores, the cafe and was headed for the hotel. He'd paused briefly, flicking his eyes inside the dank room in case Mason had slithered in.

"A fitting name," he murmured of the name of the town, noting the motley group of denizens scattered in the worn, ratty tavern.

"Oh, I don't know, a man could get lucky."

Ezra turned and was surprised to find a familiar face, a tall man with silver hair and dark eyes dressed in a very expensive suit. It had been more than a few years, but the handsome face remained unlined. He extended a hand and smiled, letting the gold tooth reflect the sun.

"Colonel Smith, always a pleasure," he oozed. "How long has it been?"

"November of sixty-four as I recall, Elysse DuChamp's boudoir. You were tied to her bed and she was punishing you."

"You should have paid more attention to your bride and perhaps you'd still be married," Ezra shot back.

"Maude?" Smith grinned, recalling his brief liaison and trip down the aisle. "That woman fired my blood like no other woman did before or has since. Still...Elysse was a very beautiful woman," he noted of the famous Creole courtesan.

"And not without her charms," Ezra lauded, recalling that night and many others, the memory of which nearly aroused him.

"How is your mother?"

"Hah!" Ezra shook his chestnut head. "Mother always lands on her feet, she'll bury us all. She's somewhere in Texas. A very wealthy rancher has become enamored of her. Pity the fool..."

"Free for dinner?" Smith pressed, and then raised an eyebrow. "And perhaps a game of chance?"

"Music to my ears, Colonel," Ezra grinned. "Shall we say seven? Are you at the hotel?"

"I am," Smith sent back. "I look forward to taking your money."

"Still humble," Ezra bowed of his very worthy adversary. Jamison Smith was one of the very finest card players he'd ever encountered. His prowess at the table was legendary. His manners and winning ways with the ladies had earned him the moniker of 'Gentlemen Jim'.

While Ezra chatted with his old friend, he didn't see his prey walk from the hotel towards the livery. By the time Ezra registered, checked into his room and then found his way to a hot bath, Jeff Mason was already on the road, well out of town.

+ + + + + + +

"VIN!"

Something loud invaded the warm blissful sea he was floating in. The cool blue and purple water was so beautiful and alluring, cradling his helpless body like a mother does a child. But the loud sound exploded overhead causing the tranquil sky to crack and his balance was disturbed. Then a second sound, just as loud but different. It was near his ear: a voice, deep and feral. The water rippled and overhead, they returned. Those twin green beacons appeared again.

"WHAT THE HELL'S WRONG WITH YOU?" Chris roared, keeping his body over Vin Tanner's.

Moses was frozen in place. His face was creased by wrinkles of confusion. He narrowed his eyes and shook his head a little, as if trying to make the odd picture match what his gut had told him. A stranger asking questions followed him, threatened him and demanded entry at gunpoint. He was so sure the unconscious young man he was tending to was the target of the dark fury he'd seen in those cold eyes.

A killer's eyes.

But the picture before him didn't match that theory. The blond male whose rippling wrath had caused a chill in him, that desperate to kill something, the prey he sought, was now protecting that very same object with his own body. It didn't add up; something was very wrong.

"PUT THAT GUN DOWN!" the human shield ordered, keeping his best friend under an armor of flesh and bone. "You could have killed him."

"I thought...yuh...that he was the one...yuh ain't aimin' t'kill him?"

"No!" Chris growled. "And I will kill anybody who tries, you included. Now put that fuckin' gun down."

"Who are yuh? How yuh know dat boy? Yuh kin?"

"Yeah."

Chris shifted gingerly, careful not to touch Vin. The old man's bad eyes and wavering hand had sent the bullet passing just in front of him. But the sound caused him to react instantly. He had thrown his body over Vin's, landing hard on the makeshift bed. He'd used the heels of his hands on either side of Vin's neck to support his weight, covering Vin without touching him. He pulled up slightly, tapping the stilled face.

"Vin...Vin?" He frowned, needing to see his own soul reflected back at him in those blue mirrors. The pale brown brows furrowed as if seeking him. "Come on, cowboy, open your eyes. Vin?"

He was flying now, so fast and furious it stole his breath. Colors exploded all around him, showering him with royal, aqua and cerulean blue. It was scintillating and he gasped as the green lights disappeared in a giant white explosion that took his body as well.

Vin?

Someone was calling...touching...it was warm and wonderful. A hand on his face and a warm tone caressed his heart. He reached out, needing to touch that voice. He wanted to feel it run through his fingers.

He knew the voice.

He knew the voice.

He knew....

He....

Blurry shapes appeared in front of him and he felt cold and hot at the same time. His shivers were more of fear for the air was warm. He didn't know where he was or why he hurt so very much. He couldn't see very well, just blurry black and pink shapes. He blinked and strained his eyes, trying to see him. See who? Green eyes in his storm, a strong voice, the full sail that led him home. God, he hurt. He'd never felt such pain. Every small breath felt like he was breathing in fire while spikes were driven in his back and chest. His heart was gyrating so fast it made him sick and dizzy.

Wait.

Wait.

Sweat, tobacco, whiskey and something very male. He knew that smell; it went with the green eyes. A cool face appeared, chiseled features under sun-kissed hair. A crooked group of letters appeared in his mind. His soul reacted before his brain could form the words. He was here. He was real. He was Chris.

Chris.

Chris was here. He stopped shivering then for the fear was driven out and he was cold no longer. He wasn't entirely sure who 'Chris' was but his heart ruled his head and the feelings associated with that name, the 'Chris', melted through.

Safe. Warm. Protected.

The guardian had returned.

"Move offa da boy b'fore yuh hurt him. Doc took a bullet outta his lung. He almost died. I've been tendin' t'im and..." Moses' words died in his throat when through a tiny space between the blond and the top of the other man's head, he saw a single blue eye. "Boy? Hey, yuh woke up...."

"Vin?" Chris gasped, pulling back further.

He cupped the square chin and saw the bruised eyes with pupils far too large darting to and fro. The short ragged breaths coupled with the frantic movement bespoke the anxiety and terror the younger man was experiencing.

"It's okay, cowboy, you're safe. You with me, Vin? Look at me," he coached, waiting for the tremors to stop. The breathing slowed and the eyes tried hard to focus on him. "Good, that's it. You got shot, Vin, but you're gonna be fine. Can you hear me, Vin?"

Hear.

He could hear and feel and smell. He wanted to scream Chris's name and reach out, needing to hold onto what he knew he needed, but he was too weak to move his lips. Sweat beaded on his brow as he fought hard to speak. He kept his eyes trained on the green ones above him, allowing the healing light to invade very pore.

Chris.

Chris.

Chris.

"Huh?" Chris moved again, feeling the dance of a butterfly's wing brush against him. He pulled the blanket aside and watched in amazement as two of Vin's fingers twitched, trying to reach him. He grabbed that hand and lifted it, gripping it hard. The fine line of perspiration that cloaked the desperate man's face only made the intensity in the lost eyes shine harder.

"Quit cussin', Tanner!" he chided, bringing the other man's hand up and clasping it to his chest. He leaned in closer, insuring the Texan would hear him and moreover, would understand the full effect of what needed to be said. He waited until the restless blue eyes stopped moving and trained solely on his own. He pressed the cold fingers so securely wrapped in his own warm ones closer to his heart. He issued it, slow and strong, just as it was meant to be.

"Word."

The soft gasp that escaped quietly through the pale lips stole his own breath. He felt the change as the repercussions overtook the wounded man. The tension left and the body sagged in relief. The lower lip trembled, trying so hard to speak. But the eyes were creating an epiphany and he heard every decree.

For a brief shimmering moment, the agonizing pain ripping through every inch of him left. For a scattering of seconds, in the heat of the room, there was only the one word that was spoken with such quiet force that it drove the agony from his wounded body. He felt a warmth invade, mingling with the healing process already taking place. He didn't know how he got shot or how he got here. He didn't know where he was. He didn't have to know. All he needed was looking right back at him. He wanted to say something to send that feeling back. To let Chris know how he felt. He tried hard to speak, straining against the weak body that held his bound spirit. Frustration mounted as his lips remained sealed; he couldn't utter a sound. So he issued his decree the best way he knew how. He let those mirrors resting deep within open up and speak for him.

"You're welcome," Chris rasped, gently replacing the hand under the blanket. He used his finger to take the lone liquid trail of gratitude that was snaking a crooked path down the shaken man's face. He rested his hand there for a moment, absorbing the blue stream of hope radiating. He tapped the cheek playfully and gave an order.

"Sleep."

He saw a flicker of something crop up in the shining eyes and smiled. Fear combined with confusion. Vin wasn't yet back in the land of the living. He couldn't begin to imagine just what was going through the weakened man's mind.

"I'm not leaving, Vin." He waited until the eyes softened in release and brushed the tangled locks from the damp forehead. "Get some shuteye."

Safe and secure, cradled in the green velvet blanket, Vin sighed once and obeyed.

Moses put the gun on the side table and backed up. His dark eyes widened a bit when the strange light that had shone through the curtains and captured the pair disappeared. He followed the light, nodding once as God's hand retracted.

+ + + + + + +

Fort McDaniel
Late Afternoon

"Welcome back."

"Trip I couldda done without," Nathan managed, steeling himself against the endless throbbing in his head. "...like a hangover without the pleasure of the party...J.D.?"

"He's sleeping," Josiah updated, lifting Nathan's upper body carefully and sliding two pillows behind him. He watched the pain-riddled brown eyes tracking the room. They paused on a large body curled up on a bunk far too small. "He's napping, long overdue. Man's carryin' a large burden."

"It ain't his fault," Nathan noted of Buck before accepting a mug of cold water.

"You know Buck, he bleeds for the world. He's worried about Chris."

"I hear that," Jackson managed. "Where is Chris?"

"We got a wire early this morning from a town called Willow, down near the border."

"He's out huntin' alone?"

"According to Buck, he's trackin' Mason. We got a partial list of what town's Chris hit already and came up dry. Ezra's hitting some of the towns on the other side of the river. I hope to God he finds him first. I'm worried, Nathan."

"I don't think he'll kill him. I mean, he's not that Chris Larabee anymore," Nathan paused. "Is he?"

"Mason took Vin from him, made him break his word. That changes the rules. Every empty town he hits makes the shadows grow longer. He's gonna be cloaked in darkness soon and then all bets are off."

Josiah paused, crossed the room, pulled a blanket over Buck then poured himself a cup of coffee. He poured hot water over the herbal tea the doctor left and took it back to where Nathan was waiting.

"I've been where he is, and it's not pretty." Sanchez sighed hard, shaking his gray head. "I feel bad about Vin. He was a good man. He never got the chance to clear his name. That was important to him. He won't rest easy and that troubles me."

"Texas ain't so far," Nathan vowed, still hearing the echo of the soft drawl in his ear. He swallowed painfully as the image of Vin grinning at him from a rooftop appeared. Then the cranky Tanner complainin' and cussin' at him from the cot in the clinic, and lastly the beautiful young man whose gift with words humbled all of them. "As soon as I can ride..."

"I think we'll have company," Sanchez noted, tapping the mug with his own and eyeing the space above his head. "You sleep easy, Vin Tanner, we'll get the job done."

+ + + + + + +

Doctor Murdoch's house
Sunset

Moses carried the clean linens inside after hanging them to dry all afternoon in the hot sun. He left them on the small bench by the wall and shook his dark head. The blond man was a stubborn one. Save the time he'd taken to care for his horse, he had been sitting in the same spot for hours, in a chair next to the bed. His eyes, however, were trained on something far beyond the room. Something was weighing heavy on him and he was troubled. But the softest sigh from the bed brought him to his feet. He'd lean over, scrutinize the injured man's face and once satisfied nothing was wrong, he'd take his seat again. It was a pattern that had played out all day.

He didn't know much about him, just that his name was Chris Larabee and he knew this man, this 'Vin', from the town they worked in near the border. They'd been caught in a gun battle with a gang of sorts, the leader of which took Vin with him for reasons unknown. Moses only relayed that he'd found the wounded man near death and brought him to the doctor. That had been the extent of the short conversation. After that, the man in black took the seat and turned into stone.

"He ain't goin' anywhere, son," Moses advised, walking toward the stove. He stirred the stew a few times, added some pepper and placed the lid back down. He opened the oven and checked on the bread, pleased to see it turning a golden brown. He shut the door and turned back toward his young charge. He dipped a ladle into the simmering broth and drew some out. He sipped a bit, ensuring it was just warm. Then he walked over to the bed, setting the cup down on the table nearby. Before he could move towards the young man, a black cat unfurled and jumped in his path.

"What are you doing?" Chris demanded.

"Time fuh his broth," Moses replied. "Yuh wanna help? I'll hold him up and yuh can spoon it in."

"He's not awake..."

"He's too weak t'keep his eyes open. It's like a new baby, yuh gotta nudge 'im a bit t'git 'im goin'. Yuh'll see."

Chris was leery but since the old man had obviously taken good care of Vin so far, he backed down. He waited by the side of the bed until Moses got behind Vin. The old man placed a red cloth on Vin's chest and slid his hands beneath his shoulders. With hardly any effort, he lifted the unconscious man and held him against his strong chest. Then Chris saw Vin's face crease in pain and he grabbed at the old man's shoulder.

"You're hurting him!"

"I know yuh's hurtin', boy." Moses ignored the glaring blond and the hand on him and concentrated on his charge. "I's sorry t'rouse yuh, but yuh needs t'eat. I gots some broth. It's jest Old Mose, son, I won't hurt yuh, yuh knows dat."

Chris stared in amazement as every line of pain on Vin's face melted and he sighed once, snuggling back almost contentedly. He gave the old man a begrudging nod and lifted the cup. He paused, eyeing Vin's closed eyes and the mug.

"Yuh use dat spoon. Jest nudge his lips and tell 'im. He'll open up. Den yuh puts dat spoon on the middle o'his tongue and yuh presses down a bit. He'll swallow it. Go on now ..."

"Okay." Chris moved closer, got a spoonful and nudged Vin's lips. "Open up, Vin, I got soup for you." His eyes widened in amazement as Vin's lips parted and his tongue came out a bit. He placed the spoon inside and tipped it. The effect was instantaneous as Vin began to sputter and cough painfully. "Shit...aw, shit...I'm sorry..." He dropped the spoon and grabbed the cloth that Moses had placed on Vin's bare chest. He wiped the liquid that ran from Vin's mouth and chastised himself for being so careless. Coughing over the damaged lungs and ribcage had to hurt like hell.

"Press it, don't drop the broth off it," Moses instructed, then saw the blond man's hand trembling. He saw the pain in the green eyes and relieved him. "Here, yuh come back here and take 'im. I'll show yuh."

Chris took Vin from the old man and gasped slightly when the body met his chest. Instinctively, he wrapped his arms around the feeble form. The power of the position he was in overwhelmed him. Vin was utterly helpless and totally dependent on him to survive. The head that so trustingly lay back against his upper chest felt like a flame in his heart. He felt distanced from the room and the world in general. Was he strong enough to carry Vin? His injuries were critical and recovery would take some time. Just how strong was the power of the 'word'?

"Son?" Moses waited, seeing the green eyes staring at the wall behind him. "Yuh with me?"

"Yeah," Chris grunted, shaking off the odd sensation.

"Boy? Dis is Old Mose, I won't hurt yuh. Yuh needs t'eat dis soup. Come on now..." Moses tried, but the lips remained closed. "Quit sassin' me, boy. Yuh knows I won't hurt yuh."

The pain from the coughing fit still burned deep within the frail body. It hurt, hurt more than words could say. He didn't know who hurt him, but he knew it came from the spoon that was put in his mouth. No, he couldn't do that again; it hurt too much. He kept his lips pressed shut.

Moses frowned and then got an idea. He put the spoon back in the cup, stirred it a bit and began to sing.

Chris's eyes narrowed, wondering what the old guy was up to. While Moses sang, the gunslinger watched as one large dark hand stroked Vin's face as tenderly as if he were soothing a small child. And Chris felt the change. The tense, trembling body in his arms relaxed. He was amazed when Moses lifted the spoon and tried again.

He was back!

The angel was here and the deep rich voice surrounded him like a time-worn quilt. He snuggled against the words of the song, letting them warm him. It felt wonderful and the soothing tone invaded him like a summer sun. He sighed, totally and utterly content. Then the song stopped.

"Okay, boy, open up..." Moses tried, prodding the lips, but they remained closed and the sandy brows furrowed in anger.

Tired from too many days on the road and fighting a fierce headache along with the bruising he sustained in the fight earlier, Chris lost his patience. He shifted his weight, leaned over and saw the protest on Vin's face.

"Enough, Vin!" he growled. "Quit poutin' and eat the fuckin' soup!"

Moses was so startled he nearly dropped the spoon. He was about to voice his protest to the blond for the harsh words when to his amazement, the lips parted and the tongue came out.

"How 'bout dat...!"

"Music may soothe the savage beast," Chris relayed, watching the spoon disappear successfully. "But long-haired Texas river rats are tough. Sometimes they need to be persuaded a bit."

"Yup," Moses agreed, getting two more spoonfuls inside. "Boy hears yuh...sure enough."

Finally, Vin was done and Chris eased him down. He stepped back, stretched his back and winced as his ribs bit back, a move that didn't go unnoticed.

"Dinner won't be done fur a bit yet. Why don't yuh take a rest?" Moses asked. "Dat way, we take turns watchin' o'er da boy."

"Tempting," Chris admitted, his body aching. He was bone tired and eyed the floor in the bedroom. "But if I lay down, I won't get up. I'll eat first." He watched as Moses stirred the stew, added some more chicken and water to the pot containing the broth and checked on the bread. "How do you do it? You've been taking care of him all alone?"

"Only since yesterday when the doc left out. A family of sick folks up the river. And it ain't s'easy, son. I feel every bit of my age these last few days." He paused, turned and eyed the sleeping man on the bed. "Boy's got a hold on me but good."

"Yeah," Chris agreed, rubbing his neck. "Anything I can do?"

"Could use some wood if yuh up to it?"

After using the unfortunate wood for a sad replacement of Mason's face, Chris dumped the kindling by the stove.

"Pump's out back, take a towel," Moses said, putting the bread on the sideboard.

Chris stripped to the waist, dousing his head and chest under the water. From his saddlebags, he dug out a worn bar of Pears soap. He scrubbed his skin until he hurt, trying to wash it all away. As he dried off, he tossed the soiled shirt in the bottom of the pump well and used the soapy water to scrub it clean. Pulling on and buttoning up a clean shirt from his bags, Chris wondered why he felt so cold inside. Vin Tanner was alive. Nothing else mattered, did it?

*"Word."*

He whipped around, hearing the lazy drawl as sure as if Vin were standing right there. His hand moved to his abdomen and he rubbed the lean muscles beneath the cloth. There it was, just like Vin to remind him. Damn him. It was the gnawing fear, that coldness inside. That 'word' was choking him. The deep feelings that had exploded when he thought Vin was dead were now chewing him up from the inside out. The unrelenting power of it was drowning him. He thought once he'd found Vin, that clawing inside would stop.

He was wrong.

It hadn't.

"Supper's on."

"Yeah." Chris shoved Vin's ghost away and walked towards the back door.

+ + + + + + +

Chris lit a cheroot and eyed the rising stars overhead. He sat down on a chair on the porch and leaned back, using his legs to push the rocking chair to and fro. The creak of the boards beneath the rocker was in a steady rhythm and he found some strange comfort in that sound. There were a few crickets busy in the brush and the moon overhead was brazen and full, showing a silver coat.

He took a drag on the tobacco stick and grimaced as the various aches in his bruised body protested even the slightest movement. Could be it was a long day. Could be he was getting too old to be collecting punches. Could be both.

A long day, longer than any he'd known in recent time. He squinted as the headache that had been on a slow simmer all day began to heat up. Not twelve hours ago he'd been following another dead end trail out of town. What if he hadn't stopped at that stream and encountered the old man? What if he'd denied his gut feeling that the man was hiding something? What if he'd ridden off and Vin hadn't woken up? What if Vin had died?

"...fuck it..." he hissed, deciding he was too tired to play this game.

"Yuh okay, son?"

"...been a long day..."

"And den some."

Moses handed the younger man a cup of coffee. The blond head dipped once in gratitude and the free hand disappeared down towards the side of the chair. A silver flask appeared. Moses shook his head when the liquor was offered. He watched as the gunslinger poured a shot into the hot brew. Twice he saw the silver glint of the night flash in those green eyes. They were studying him and seeking something.

"What yuh ponderin' on?"

"The cave."

"What 'bout it?"

"How I missed that bastard."

Moses shifted, taking his tall body from the porch rail and across the planks. He eyed the night sky, watching the silver glittering gems overhead. He knew by the viper-like hiss that came between the words that the young man had revenge on his mind. He thought again on that strange light that came into the room when the blond had touched his fallen friend. He eyed that sky again and spoke carefully.

"The Lord gives a gift, yuh best take it, son."

"The 'Lord'," Chris spat out, "gives and the 'Lord' takes away. I don't want any more gifts from Him."

"Yuh gonna choke on dat bitterness," Moses returned, seeing the features twist with rage.

"You don't know me, old man, don't you preach at me."

"I know 'bout that glint in yuhr eye. I carried it fuh a whole lotta years. Swallowed so much bitterness, it turned me cold inside." He sighed hard, thinking on that night in the cave. "I been runnin' fuh so long...no place t'call home, no family. That night, when I found da boy, I was runnin'. I thought he was dead...den his eyes opened. I left him, told myself he was gonna die, to mind m'own business. But..." He sipped his coffee and peeked in the window. The young man in the bed was sleeping peacefully, his features relaxed. Moses held out his hand and stared at his wrinkled brown fingers. He offered them over, recalling the profound moment.

"He thought I was an angel...comin' t'take him home. Den..he..he...grabbed m'finger. He was holdin' onta me...me...a damned no good slave. He trusted me...been a long time since anyone touched me like dat boy."

Chris nodded once, again wondering just how much Fate was stirring this pot of murky soup. What if the old man hadn't gone into the cave? What if he'd left Vin there? Too tired to joust with the churning waters inside, he concentrated on his cheroot and the spiked coffee instead. For a long time they remained silent, each pondering his own thoughts and what course lay ahead. Finally, the old man spoke.

"Yuh don't look like him..."

"So?"

"Well..yuh said yuh was kin..." Moses paused. "Yuh got a family near here? Somebody worryin' on yuh?"

"I had a family." Chris ignored the last of the coffee and drank the liquor straight from the flask. "...once..." He toasted The Almighty, his voice biting with sarcasm. He was overwrought, worried about Vin and far beyond exhausted, too far gone past weary to care. "He took them away from me. That Lord you were spoutin' about. Some God He is..."

"I had me a family," Moses rose up and towered over the other man, "and I had tah watch dem get sold off, one by one." His lips curled up in rage; his features twisted into a dark mask. "Like dey was nothin'. I had tah hold m'woman while that animal took her babies away, one by one." His voice shook with anguished rage, glaring hard at the silent man who seemed far too pale in the moonlight. "Like dey was nothin'..."

Chris's face screwed up and he followed the large man who paced on the confining porch. The muscles beneath his old shirt rippled and both fists were curled into sizable clubs. Chris couldn't help but think that forty or fifty years ago, this man would have been a force. He sipped from the flask again as the old man turned and faced him. The age lines in the deep brown skin seemed to paint the mood that the voice blended. The worn brown eyes seemed to look right through him, giving him a chill.

"Yuh can walk free...go where ya please...yuh don't got no chains..." Moses warned. "I gots dem inside no matter how far I run...dey never leave. My woman, she was beautiful, never seen the like, she never lost faith," he recalled. "When Isaiah got took, he was our last child, she never cried again. She said she had no more salt t'waste. But I can't let it go. Sometimes I dream it again, see dem screamin' fuh me, from the back of da wagon. Beggin' me t'help...their father...their..."

Chris flinched in pain when Moses' voice broke and he stole off the porch, seeking comfort in the darkness that fell. He swallowed hard, not able to fathom the depth of the pain that the old man lived with. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't imagine seeing Adam tied up and taken away from him, sold like cattle. He'd have died tryin' to stop them.

Or would he?

Sara.

No, he wouldn't have left her behind; that would have been a worse pain to bear. Moses had a wife; he'd mentioned her. That was the reason he'd stayed. His voice was still full of love for her. He couldn't leave her, so his life had been a living Hell. How did a man find the guts to go on? His own flesh and blood taken from him....over and over? Chris shivered then as an unfathomable coldness crossed over him.

"My God!" he choked, thinking on just how brave that woman had been, watching her children sold off one by one.

A tiny sound from inside drew him up sharply. He peered through the window and saw Vin's face twisted up. He entered the house and made his way to the bed.

Vin's face appeared flushed and to his touch, the younger man seemed warmer than he should be. He poured fresh water into a basin by the sink and added some rubbing alcohol. Taking a fresh cloth, he went back to the bed. The tracker's skin was covered in a fine sheen of liquid and the pale brown brows were furrowed.

"Easy, Vin," he soothed, using the wrung out cloth to wipe the clinging fever from the fine features.

He drew the sheet back to Vin's waist and continued to wage war with the rising heat. As he worked, he thought on Moses' words on the porch. What of this 'gift'? Until Vin lay 'dying' in his arms by the river, he'd never given it a second thought. But those moments when he'd made his vow changed everything. As he'd ridden from town to town seeking the man who had broken his promise, it was that very 'gift' that drove him beyond exhaustion, pain and remorse. A blue-eyed drawling ghost who'd hounded his days and haunted his nights.

His job completed, Chris pulled the sheet up and poured some cool tea into a mug. It had fever fighters in it, the dark weed-like herbs he recognized all too well. He placed the mug on the table by the bed and leaned over the now peaceful features. He tapped the silent face, calling gently to his friend.

"Vin? Vin? You need to drink. I'm gonna give you some cold tea...Vin?" He paused when two blue eyes blinked up at him. For a moment, the face was a mask of confusion, then they saw him and a soft smile appeared. The eyes softened and a sigh snuck out. "I missed you too. Thirsty?"

The head dipped once and Chris moved behind him. He lifted him up and ignored the weak cry of pain. Once Vin was settled against his chest, he dipped the spoon in the mug and peered down over Vin's tangled hair. "Ready? Open up." The jaw dropped and the tongue came out. It hit hard then, that the frail body lying against him so totally and completely trusted him. Vin's life was resting on his shoulders.

His soul?

That was a much harder weight to gauge. The dark days that had enveloped him after Vin's 'death' were a place and time he did not want to revisit. But even though Vin wasn't dead, the light had yet to return. The fragile form he held was bound to him, in life or death. He took a steadying breath and snaked the spoon inside just as he'd seen the old man do. He pressed in the right spot and Vin swallowed. Somewhere between the third and fourth spoons, it happened. The familiar fear began to grip his guts and squeeze. Vin was so weak and utterly dependent on him, physically, emotionally and otherwise, that it scared him.

The mug was empty and just in time, Vin's head lolled against his shoulder. He put the mug to the side but he didn't lower the sleeping man just yet. He moved his hand over the weak heart and pressed his fingers against the warm flesh. That touch, somehow coupled with the shallow warm breath that left Vin and danced across his hand, gave him strength.

Every journey started with one step, right? He nodded, answering his conscience and thought on the weak body in his arms. Vin was still in bad shape and if he did survive, it would be a long time before he was healed. How long was this road they were on? Where would the journey take them? Something beckoned from across the room. He gently eased Vin down and pulled the sheet up. He drew the tangled hair from Vin's face and tapped that rosy cheek.

"You done good, cowboy," he noted, then crossed the room.

It didn't take him long to find it for it was never far from his reach. It was a slim brown leather book. Upon its purchase, it had plain, unadorned, tan colored pages. Now, those same sheets were filled with words so beautiful, so very fine, it stole his breath. And not just any words, but the life song of the poet who was now fighting for his life. He took the chair next to Vin and flipped through the pages.

"I write them down, you know," he whispered, recalling that first poem, A Hero's Heart, which appeared in the paper. Once Vin found out just how much that poem meant to him, he'd shared more of those treasures when they were alone. "They bring me comfort, Vin. When I'm down, they take me to a place I thought I'd lost forever. I never told you, I should have, just how much...these pieces of your soul..."

He faltered then, his eyes moist and took a moment to compose himself. Then he opened the book and began to read. He read every poem, each word filling him with awe all over again. Finally, the last song was done. He watched the slightly parted lips drawing in breaths far too shallow. He saw the fever beads forming again and wondered on the path of that bullet. How was it Vin had survived? The bullet should have been fatal. He could imagine that Mason had been rough on Vin. Then there was the cold cave. He sighed hard, thinking on his near naked friend lying confused and alone in a dark cave. Moses' words came back, that Vin thought he was 'an angel coming to take him home'.

*"Ye'll stay 'til m'ride comes?"*

That drawled request wouldn't leave him alone. What had Vin thought about while lying in that cave dying? Had he known the word was broken? That the vow given with all his heart was shattered? Or had that promise sustained him? He felt the power of the poems in the small brown book burning his palm. He eyed the limp, pale body before him and stared hard. How did you measure a man's worth? Did a stronger force drive him into town that day he met those telltale eyes over a broom? Were their paths destined to cross, each finding something within that neither knew they'd sought? And what of the path alone? What if Vin died? He shivered then as a glimpse of that dark, cold place that he'd visited returned.

No.

It mattered not how long the journey would be until his friend was able to walk again, strong and healthy. He'd carry him on that road no matter how tired or worn. It was a weight he'd bear proudly. He gripped the book again and nodded. He'd fight for Vin until the infirmed body was strong enough to fight back. He had to; it was his own soul he was saving. For in the depths of those blue eyes was reflected the best of himself.

He moved the sheet to the side and found the limp hand. He gripped it, bent over the body and moved his mouth close to the silent soldier's ear.

"Stay."

The wind kicked up and swirled around him, sending dirt, stones, tree limbs and everything in its path into a dance through the air. He fought for every step, his eyes stinging with pain. Every part of him ached from the mere effort of pushing one foot in front of the other against the invincible force of Mother Nature. The sky was black, so much so, he couldn't see a thing. A sound drew his head up. The wind whipped frantically, sending his long hair swirling around him. It twisted and knotted, making a crude noose. He dropped to his knees, fighting the fierce wind and clawing at his neck. The sound intensified, horses' hooves drumming rhythmically and getting closer. The moon peeked shyly from behind a dark cloud, shedding a bit of light on the rider. A black horse, a dark rider, pale gold hair.

CHRIS!

He rejoiced; his waning strength was roused. He lifted his hand to the rider, seeking shelter from the storm. Then a body rose up in front of him, blocking the path. A cruel grin split the evil man's face and the rope in his hand sent a chill through him. Before he could react, his hair was yanked back and his neck exposed. The noose was pulled tight, cutting off his air. Then the ground gave way and he felt himself begin to fall.

Chris heard the strange sound and shot out of the chair he'd been dozing in next to Vin. The Texan was struggling weakly, tossing his wet head from side to side. His mouth was open, creating that strange sound. It was almost as if...as if...

"SHIT!" Chris hissed, realizing Vin was choking. He slapped the wet cheek hard. "WAKE UP! COME ON, VIN, WAKE UP!"

He tried, he really tried, but he couldn't. It hurt too much. Someone or something was hitting his head with an axe. He'd never felt so sick. Yet the hand tapping his face and the harsh voice were insistent.

After what seemed like forever, two blue eyes peeled open. Chris got the wet cloth and wiped the damp face, worried when no sign of recognition appeared. Then the mouth began to work and suck air like a fish out of water. The eyes began to dart frantically and when he pulled the damp sheet back, he saw the right hand fumbling and jerking.

Sick.

Sick.

Sick.

Chris?

Chris?

Please...

He gasped and blinked, unable to see clearly. Everything was blurry and distorted. His stomach was on fire and sending eruptions up his throat. That brought a convulsive action that caused a ripping tear in his chest. Fire and pain exploded in both his head and back. So much so, it forced tears from his eyes. Why couldn't he just die and be done with it?

"Hold on, Vin." Chris moved quickly, gently lifting and turning the younger man. He held the cloth under Vin's mouth but only a little liquid came out. Mostly, it was dry heaves, painful wracking motions that tore through the injured chest and lung area. He offered the best painkiller he knew. He held on and moved his lips close to the tortured man's ear.

"Ride it out, Vin, I gotcha. I'm not letting go."

Somewhere in the Hell he was lost in, that brought relief. Satan's workers dropped their pitchforks and fled. Gradually, the flames that had started in his chest and in his head died down. He didn't know where he was or how long he'd been here. But he did know whose arms guided him through the storm. He moved to find Chris Larabee, his anchor.

Please?

Please?

Please, Chris....?

Make it go away.

Please?

"Hey," Chris ordered, grabbing the floundering hand with his own. He dropped the cloth and cupped the square chin, commanding the full attention of the lost soul. "Jesus, you're shaking like a virgin on her wedding night. Calm down," he directed, trying to reach the darting eyes. The short breaths were more frantic than usual and the trembling body hadn't slowed. "Bad dream?"

Bad.

Bad.

Bad.

Vin decided he wouldn't sleep again. Not if it meant going through that. It had been so real. If only Chris would drop his hand, he could try to rip the rope from his neck. He still felt the coarse fiber eating into his skin.

Cold.

Thirsty.

Wet.

Aw, hell.

Damn.

"What?" Chris saw a flush appear that was not fever. His nose told him what caused it and he rolled his eyes. "For Christ's sake, Vin, it's only a little piss. I ain't got time for your tantrum." He eyed the clean linens and realized Moses had not yet returned. He'd have to do this on his own. He flashed back to his stint during the war in a Union hospital.

"Vin, I need to move the bed a little. I won't hurt you, okay?" He saw the eyes dart to the left to where the window was. "Yeah, that's where we're goin'. Hold on." He inched it over, trying not to cause any more stress. Finally, it was done and he took the quilt from the corner and rolled it, placing it against the window sill. "Okay, Vin, I'm gonna lean you against the window. Then I'll take the wet sheet off and roll a clean one under, okay?" The matted head dipped and he didn't waste time.

Vin was too sick to care about Chris cleaning him up. His chest hurt and his head throbbed and it hurt to breathe. His stomach was twisting and turning, making just breathing an effort. His back was burning and even Chris's gentle touch caused pain. He gasped weakly when something warm and soapy eased down his back.

"Bath time, cowboy," Chris addressed, glad to see that the wound in his back was not red or festering. But the raw marks on Vin's back and buttocks were painful to look at. He reasoned somehow it was from lying on the stiff sheet too long. Must feel like burn, same color. He eyed the medicine cabinet and completed the bath. "Sorry, Vin, that must hurt like a bitch. Hold on..." He crossed the room and got some ointment that the label stated was for burns. He rubbed a bit on each of the red marks and heard Vin sigh deeply. "Good booze, huh?"

"...unh...unh..."

"Vin?" Chris capped the bottle and moved, watching the lips part. He bent lower, trying to capture the tiny sounds. "How about we leave you on your side for a while, okay?" he updated, drawing a clean sheet over the bathed man.

"...urt...urt...pees...ris..."

"Aw, hell, Vin, I'm sorry, but it's gonna hurt worse if I roll you back."

"...ter...waw...ter..."

"Yeah." He scooted quickly, getting the water into the mug and a spoon. It took some work but he got Vin three quarters up and against him and slowly got the water inside. He put the cup down and noticed the haggard breathing had lessened. "That better?" The damp head nodded. "Okay, you rest easy, Vin, I got your back." He felt the long sigh of relief as the warm breath tickled his arm. As he carefully laid his injured friend back down, he saw the pale lips moving and bent down, thinking the weak man was speaking. "What?"

"...pray...him...thank..." Vin whispered, fighting hard to get each word out. Lord, it hurt to talk. He fumbled badly, moving his hand until he hit Chris. "...yer...here..." Shaking badly, he dug down deep inside, found what he sought and summoned the strength for one more, just one. "...wa...wah...word..."

Chris saw the tear slip away and that hit him hard. He swallowed painfully as Vin's simple declaration filled him. Again, he was strongly reminded of just how fragile his friend was and how hard the road ahead would be. Despite the trembling and the horrid breathing, the body still fought hard.

"Go to sleep," he directed, but the head shook negatively.

"...bad..."

"Nightmare?" Chris quizzed. "Not on my watch. Sleep!"

The pain and fever won out and the troubled man slept. But the best medicine was that faith that held him. As long as those green lights led him, he could and would find his path home.

+ + + + + + +

It was almost dawn when Moses returned. He'd walked for miles, every step thrusting out a little more of the bitterness. He'd slept for a while by the river. He hoped the cool breeze would chase away the fire inside. It wouldn't help him now and this young man needed his head clear. He eyed the blond guardian whose head rested on the table next to the patient.

"Yup," he sighed of the bond. "...them boys is kin, sure 'nuf."

He walked over and shook the dark blue shirt.

"Son? Chris?"

"Vin?" Chris sat up too fast and then regretted it, rubbing his stiff neck. "Shit..."

"I'm gonna fix some coffee and breakfast in a little while. Why don't yuh finish up over dere?" He nodded to the bedroll on the bedroom floor in the other room. He saw a flicker of hesitation before the younger man stood and leaned over the patient.

"His backside was raw. I thought leavin' him on his side would help."

"Looks like it did. I'm gonna check on his dressing. Then I'll roll 'im back. I'm gonna need yuh later, so yuh best get some sleep."

"Yeah," Chris stated distractedly. "After breakfast, I'm heading to town. I need to send a wire. You need anything?"

"Don't know yet...we'll check the supplies 'fore yuh leave." Moses watched the unsteady figure swaying. "Go on now, I don't got time fuh two sick ones."

By the time Moses had the coffee started and was making pancake batter, the blond guardian was sound asleep. Frowning, he left the bowl of batter and picked up a blanket. He put it over the sleeping man, then picked up the clean dressings and more of the cream. He eased the sheet down and gently took the bandages off the injured man.

"Good, dat's good," he noted of the incision. It was not as red as it had been. He cleaned it and put a loose dressing on it. Then his dark eyes creased with concern at the raw marks that the other man spoke of. He gently dabbed the cream onto the red marks, singing an old song.

He's back.

He's here.

He's right here.

That feels so good....so good.

Don't stop.

No.

No.

No.

"...urts...no...don't..."

"Hey now!" Moses lifted the damp head, drawing the tangled hair back and turned the pillow over. "...'bout time yuh woke up. How 'bout a drink?"

He was half asleep and viewing the world through blurry eyes. He forced his eyes open and the light filtering through caused the pain to kick up. Everything was blurry and everything hurt. Hurt more than anything he'd ever felt. Even his breath hurt. He blinked and coughed painfully, gripping the strong hand. Dark skin, deep voice, gentle touch. A name formed and he gave the hand a weak squeeze. His raspy voice was full of gratitude and surprise.

"Nate?...thank God. I had a dream...yuh got shot. Yer here..."

"Nate?" Moses shook his head and picked up the mug of water sitting by the table. There was no mistaking the trembling young man's emotive voice. Whoever 'Nate' was, other than being a man of color, he meant something to this young man. "Yuh needs water."

"...'kay..." Vin's hand flopped badly; he was too weak to reach the cup. He scowled and hissed, then heard a deep laugh.

"Yuh settle down, boy, Old Mose'll take care of yuh."

Mose?

As the strong hand lifted his head, he thought on that voice. Flitting images filled his thick mind. A dark place, a cold place, a place of death. Too cold, like a grave. Then a voice singing and a hand touching him. As the mug touched his lips, he puzzled over the picture. Another face appeared, not Nathan's. An old man with kind dark eyes and a healing touch.

"Angel!" Vin blurted, his chest heaving from the effort of drinking. He was still gasping when the old man bent closer.

"Son, I told yuh, I ain't no angel. I'm just Old Mose. I found yuh lyin' in a cave near'bouts. Thought yuh was dead. But...well, I brung yuh here to the doc's house. He took a bullet outta yuhr lung." Moses paused, watching the slim man's chest rise and fall and the blue eyes cloud up as the information was processed. "He had another family to tend, left me here. Then yuhr friend came..." He saw the clouds disappear and worry reappear. The blue eyes zoned in on the body on the floor in the other room.

"Chris?"

"Just wore out, been tendin' to yuh all night. I got some broth. Yuh up fuhr it?"

"Yeah," Vin nodded, resting his eyes until the wonderful aroma of chicken broth assaulted him.

"I'm gonna lift yuh and tuck yuh against m'chest. All yuh gotta do is open yuhr mouth and swallow. Ready?"

Vin nodded, saving his strength for the task of eating. He hissed and then cried out in pain as his body was lifted. Pain so intense it stole his air and caused tears to fall. He curled up his fist, needing something to drive it away. God, it hurt, more than anything he'd ever felt. Like a thousand hot needles were stabbing his back. Then a large dark hand moved over his pale one.

That hand remained in place through the unending waves of pain.

"I know it hurts yuh, boy," Moses soothed. "Old Mose has yuh, yuh rest easy. When yuhr ready, we'll start."

Ready? He was ready. He realized that the strong chest he rested upon was more than flesh and bone. As he ate, slowly accepting each wonderful spoonful and gasping for air between bites, more images came back. That same strong voice, singing to him when he was lost. Two strong hands guiding him, holding him, tending to him like family. Finally, the mug was empty and after a sip of cold cider spiked with medicine, he was laid back down. He bit his lip and concentrated hard, needing to thank this man. The old man had moved around the bed, pulling the sheet down and washing Vin's chest with warm, soapy water. He was humming a song as he worked, unaware of the wavering hand that moved.

"Huh?" Moses had just replaced the rag in the water when a tiny tickle danced on his hand. He saw the effort outlined on the damp, creased face.

"Thanks...angel..." Vin managed, panting and gasping.

"I told yuh, I ain't..."

"...are..." Vin insisted, wrapping his fingers around the other man's. "...know 'bout angels. Protectors...cradle ya in their wings. Strong...good heart..." Vin coughed, clenching his eyes as the pain overwhelmed him. It was too much to bear even for a Tanner. The rippling agony drove the tears out of his rolling eyes. He sighed once and went limp. He didn't see the raw emotion on the old man's face. He didn't feel that aged hand wiping the tears of pain away.

He didn't sense that hand resting against his cheek after the blanket was drawn up. He heard the song though. It rocked him gently in his slumber as the ebb and flow of the angel's wings carried him again.

"I'm gettin' soft," Moses gasped, the emotive blue eyes having totally undone him. It had been a long time since someone showed him this much trust and respect. The boy looked right at him, even up. He didn't look down on him or judge him. "Yuh rest easy, boy, Old Mose is watchin' yuh."

+ + + + + + +

Tallow Springs, NM

The gambler's cool green eyes slid across the room, appraising the man before him. Slim, average height, well dressed and easy on the eyes. He nodded, crossed the room and addressed the fancy dressed man.

"You, sir, are a handsome devil," he nodded to the image in the mirror. Then he saw the traces of fatigue in the jade eyes and scowled. "You're also a fool. Gallivanting from town to town..." He sighed hard, then saw a ghost appear in the reflection. Another slim man with mischievous blue eyes and an easy drawl. Someone who'd slid past his defenses with little effort. Suddenly, his weariness didn't seem to matter quite so much. "Mister Tanner," he vowed. "I'll find him, rest assured," he noted of Chris Larabee.

After breakfast, he went to the Post and Telegraph and eyed the map on the wall. There were only two more towns until he hit the border. Mexico? Would Chris go that far? Would Mason? He doubted it. Unfortunately, Jeff Mason could be a hundred miles in the opposite direction by now. Would Chris ever give up the quest?

"Stupid question,...." he muttered, turning back to the clerk. "I need to send a wire to Fort McDaniels."

After giving his next two stops, he mounted up on Deuce and took to the road. He eyed the blue sky overhead and wondered on the somber leader of their group. Was Larabee riding under these same sunny skies or under a murky dark cloud of bitterness and revenge? What if Vin and Mason never turned up? How would that broken promise affect the somber blond? His thoughts drifted as he rode on, heading for Miner's Well.

+ + + + + + +

Willow, NM

"Can I help you, sir?" James Patterson, the young clerk at the Post and Telegraph Office eyed the hard man across the counter. The unshaven face was a perfect match for the gravel in the worn voice.

"Wire up?" Chris asked.

"No, sir, lines are still down. It's gonna be a while."

"Dammit!" Chris hissed, pushing his hat back and scrubbing his face with his hand. He eyed the full mail bags that were lying nearby and thought on that. "Couriers here?"

"They're gettin' some grub. Over at Mattie's. Pete Tilley and Jack Springer. They'll head out in an hour or so. Why?"

"Paper?"

"Sure," James nodded to a pile of paper nearby. "Help yourself."

Chris turned and found the paper and a pencil. He wrote out a note, took an envelope from the pile, sealed the letter and quietly left the room. He eyed the dusty street, looking past the citizens strolling by and the men loading wagons beside the freight office. His eyes hit a sign bearing the name he sought. His long strides took him down the street and across to the café. He peered through the window, eliminated the folks who weren't the men he sought and zoned in on two figures eating alone by the far wall. He entered the room and made his way to the table. He didn't miss the fast flicker of fear that both men had when they saw him.

"Mornin'," he offered.

"Somethin' we can do for you, pal?" Pete asked.

"You headed to Mineral Springs?"

"It's on our route. Three, maybe four days ahead, give or take. Why?"

"I need to get a message to Judge Travis. He should be there for a trial. It's a very important message." Chris dropped a five dollar silver piece on the table. "Can you deliver it for me?"

"Judge Travis?" Jack nodded. "I know him. I've delivered papers to him before. What's your business with him?"

"I work for him," Chris replied, sliding the envelope across the table. "This is urgent, very urgent. I'll be checking with him later," he threatened. "I'm sure he'll be very generous when he receives this message."

"I like generous," Pete agreed. "We'll get it to him, Mister...Mister..."

"Larabee," Chris replied, nodded and left the room.

+ + + + + + +

Fort McDaniel
A few days later
Sunset

"Just a little more," Josiah coached, holding the spoon out.

"Preacher, yuh don't move that hand, I'm gonna bust it!"

J.D. eyed the cranky healer from across the room and snickered at his terse reply. The last couple of days of rest along with excellent care by Josiah and Buck had seen improvements in their patients. Most noticeable was Nathan's frustration at his weakness and total immobility. His constant sniping and Josiah's dry, unflappable stance brightened what were otherwise long days. All J.D. did was eat and sleep.

"Somethin' funny, J.D?" Nathan barked.

"I've heard rabid dogs more social," Dunne sent back. "You best be on better behavior, Nathan, it's almost time for your bath."

"Bath?" Nathan snarled, slapping at Josiah's hand. "I don't need no more damn soup. Seems a waste of time. All it does it come out the other end. I want real food!"

"I know you're not talking to me in that tone of voice." Josiah put the bowl down and smiled evilly, rising and towering over the ornery ex-Union man. "The boy's right, brother, it's time for you to bathe." Then he paused and leveled a serious smoky-eyed departing remark. "You don't want to get on my bad side."

"I ain't gonna forget this, Josiah!" Nathan yelled after the departing figure. "Mark it down, you'll be gettin' Ipecac syrup on yuhr pancakes. Dammit!" He pounded the sheet. The headache that never left only added to his discomfort. He heard the chuckling again and turned his face. "Yuhr on my list, J.D."

"You're all talk," Dunne predicted with a yawn. "Keep it down, will you? I'm gonna take a nap."

"Huh!" Nathan settled back, envisioning the day when he would walk again. *IF* he walked again. He hadn't voiced his fears to anyone but he was worried. The surgeon was very nice and had talked to him at length about the repair work on his leg. Keeping it immobile for at least four weeks was critical. Despite the fact that the doctor stated the pulse to his foot was very good, indicating that the repairs worked, Nate was worried. He slid his hand over the bulky wooden splint that encased his leg from hip to ankle.

J.D. saw the anger melt and the fear take over. He hitched himself up on his elbows and eyed his friend carefully.

"Nathan, you're gonna walk again, that doctor said so. It's okay to be scared."

"I ain't..." he started then stopped, forcing the words between clenched teeth. "I hate this..."

"I know," Dunne agreed. "But it's been a week already. Only three more. Once you get that splint off..."

"Yeah," Nathan sighed dejectedly, then closed his eyes.

- - - - - - -

Josiah wandered around the fort until he found Buck Wilmington. He knew the normally boisterous, outgoing man had his light dimmed a bit. He was about to turn back, to get the basins for Nathan's bath, when he spotted a forlorn profile. He walked to the edge of the fort where the sentry usually stood and climbed up. The other man was scanning the horizon, his handsome face reflecting the gold and roses of the departing day.

"Troubles, brother?"

"I'll tell you," a weary Wilmington replied, rubbing his neck. "Havin' a family is a pain in the ass."

Josiah laughed and stood next to Buck, taking in the quiet sunset.

"You need to eat, Buck. I'm gonna give Nathan his bath and then I'll meet you in the mess. You can't go on like this." He paused, not liking the strain and shadows on the otherwise handsome face. "You get sick and that won't help J.D. or Nathan." He paused. "Or Chris."

That did it. The head shot up and the dark blue eyes flashed. They lingered on his smoky ones for a moment and then went back to the horizon. He knew how deeply Buck ached for Chris Larabee and how frustrated he was that he couldn't help him. Buck's heart was larger than most and right now, it was bleeding all over the place. He rested his large hand on the downcast shoulder and gave a good tug.

"It's been four days," Buck fretted of the last wire from the missing blond. "I don't like it."

"Could be a lot of reasons for that, Buck. The lines go out all the time, you know that. Maybe he's between towns, can't get to a wire."

"Maybe he caught up to Mason and he's hurt..." Buck worried. "...or worse. I need to find him, Josiah. I owe that to Vin. I made my own vow..." His voice trailed off as he recalled that cold moment when he'd held the dying tracker in his arms. "When Vin died, a part of Chris died too. That boy won't sleep easy if I don't keep Chris in the light. He needs to know...to understand,"¯ he corrected, rubbing his weary eyes, "that the best part of Vin is still here." He tapped his chest. "That won't ever leave. I need to see his eyes, to make sure the light's still shining."

"Vin's light?"

"Yeah," Buck nodded. "Damn ornery tracker." His voice quivered and he felt his eyes burning.

"Boy sure had a way of gettin' under your skin," Josiah smiled, eyeing the heavens above. "I'll bet he's keepin' St. Peter busy."

"Aw, hell," Buck mimicked the raspy drawl of the Texan, "...iffen it ain't too much trouble, Lord..."

He swallowed hard as the handsome bounty hunter's face appeared in his mind's eye. Vin Tanner had given Chris Larabee something so special, so rare, it defied logic. Long ago he'd given up trying to figure it out. All he knew was that Chris had been blessed. That in those bottomless blue eyes and hiding under that stubbled face on the whisper of that soft drawl was a shimmering jewel. That undying light that had found its way deep inside Chris Larabee needed to be kept alive. He raised his eyes to the sky and sought out the spirit of the lean Texan. He tapped his own chest once, reaffirming his vow. He found a smile then, his first true one in days, when he felt Vin Tanner's reply in the soft breeze that kissed his face.

+ + + + + + +

Willow Springs, NM
Five days later

They fell into a steady rhythm, each taking turns tending to Vin Tanner. Whereas Moses was patient, never losing his control, Chris wasn't. He was frustrated that his best friend was still very weak. Vin slept most of the day, waking only to be fed or cleaned. Worse yet, he seemed very listless, either not able to work harder at healing or not even trying. The lean gunslinger sighed and moved from the porch. He tossed the remnants of his cold coffee away and yawned. It was almost seven p.m. and he was tired. He slept little, taking an extra shift from the old man. It was the least he could do given their vast age difference. When he was supposed to rest, he dozed at best. His fitful sleep was often interrupted by the mocking laughter of Jeff Mason and echoes of Vin's request bouncing off every corner of his mind.

*"Word."*

For Vin? Without question, no matter how long or far. But what of himself? What of the vow he'd made in the mud that day, when his hand touched an empty spot instead of his best friend? What of the cold dark hunter inside of him that he'd kept under wraps since the day he'd met Fate in the guise of a blue-eyed Texan? That stalker had risen from the sand with the scent of the kill on him. His fingers curled up, needing to feel and pound that flesh. To see that spineless cretin quiver at the sight of him.

*"Word."*

So the scales were tipping to and fro. Where did his path lie? By the side of his critically injured brother? Would the bloodlust die down in a few weeks, maybe months? How far away would Mason be? How could he stop the blood inside him from boiling?

He peered through the window and watched Vin sleeping. He'd reasoned with himself that the gravely wounded man needed his rest. Still, it nagged at him that Vin slept so much. When he was awake, he was very weak, riddled with pain and at times confused. The pain from the head wound was eased by laudanum but that left him with a fuzzy-headed feeling from the drugs, a numbing kind of disassociation that sometimes was hard to fight. Chris skirted the house, washed the mug at the pump and washed his face as well. Moses took a walk after dinner each night and didn't return home until past midnight. He still seemed haunted by his past and Chris felt bad that he couldn't offer more. A weak raspy voice turned his head then.

"Chris?"

"Yeah," he hollered back, entering the back door of the house. The tangled head was twisted around trying to find him. "You thirsty?"

"Whiskey?"

"Cider."

"Hell."

Chris smiled then, hearing the tinges of cranky returning to the Texan's voice. He grabbed the trapdoor, raising it up and pulling in the rope. Attached to the other end was a ceramic jug of apple cider. Keeping it well below the earth's surface kept it cool. He poured a full mug and lowered the jug back down. He eyed the gingerbread that Moses made that morning and broke a piece off.

"Here, you've been a good boy," Chris quipped, setting the mug and bread down.

"...the hell are ya...?" Vin coughed, winced and hissed in frustration. "Can't see worth a damn..."

Vin's nose, however, found the cake. He turned towards the smell and saw a pink blurry figure. It moved closer and the image cleared a bit. His eyes left the tempting bread long enough to view his caretaker. He frowned a bit, seeing the dark circles under the pale eyes. There was also a gauntness to his face; Chris had lost weight. He turned his gaze away briefly, trying to figure out how long he'd been there.

"...seems like ferever..."

"Huh?" Chris paused, reading the eyes wisely. "You damn near died, Vin. It's gonna take a while."

"Ya look awful," Vin countered, his fingers playing with a stray group of threads on the sheet that covered him. He knew from what Chris said prior that Josiah and Buck were busy with his two wounded friends. Chris didn't know where Ezra was and that didn't help.

"You ain't in any position to be pointin' fingers, cowboy." Chris moved behind the infirmed man. "I've seen prettier scarecrows."

"I ain't pretty!"

"No, you sure as hell ain't," Chris agreed, then felt a hesitation. "What?"

"Can't I sit fer a spell?" he gasped, eyeing the rocker outside the window.

"I don't know, Vin," Chris hedged, hating to deny him. It was the first sign of a fight that he'd encountered. Usually Vin let him or Moses feed and bath him without question. But it was a long way to the porch.

"'S'okay," he whispered, eyeing the beautiful colors in the sky.

"Shit!" Chris hissed, that lone waver in the wispy voice undoing him. "If I drop you, that old man's gonna kill me."

"Never happen," Vin vowed, his sagging spirits starting to rise. "It ain't s'far and I'm down a few..."

*"Don't look,"* the inner voice warned.

Too late.

"Dammit," he mumbled, the wide blue eyes melting through his defenses. He moved across the room and opened the door. He moved the rocker closer, so it would be a shorter journey. He aimed it at the sun, knowing Tanner loved baking in the warm rays.

"Ready?" Chris asked, returning to the makeshift bed. The shaggy head nodded once and the blond moved. He rolled Vin to the side and gathered the sheet up, tying one end around the shoulder like a long toga. He tucked the other ends under and then slid his arms underneath. Taking a deep breath, he lifted the younger man. By the time he reached his destination, both of them were panting. He sat down on the porch next to Vin, dropping his head between his gathered up legs. For several moments, he remained that way, gathering his breath. Then he felt a tiny brush against the back of his neck. He looked up and saw a weak but very fulfilling Tanner smile.

"Thanks," Vin relayed, turning his face to the sky. He kept his hand on Chris's neck, needing to feel that strength. Just the fact that he was outdoors made him feel better. This was where he felt his best, with the sky for a roof.

It took a few moments for the throbbing pulsations in his skull to allow his eyes to adjust. But it was worth every nauseating wave of pain. What a sky! It was a beautiful shade of blue with slashes of scarlet, rose and purple. "M'eyes are damn near 'sploded."

"Yeah, sure is pretty," Chris agreed.

For a few moments, they watched the beautiful colors changing, enjoying Mother Nature's show.

"Chris?"

"Yeah?"

"I gotta go."

"Dammit, Vin! Why didn't you go before we left the house?"

"It ain't like I planned it!" Vin soured. "Hell, ya think it's easy dependin' on other folks t'wipe yer ass? Ya think I like this?"

"Alright, alright, don't get your balls all twisted up." He rose and paused, enjoying the blue fire that boldly appraised him, even if the eyes were blinking and off kilter. "You're really pissed."

"Not yet but I will be iffen ya don't move yer ass and get me a can ta piss in."

Chris returned with a large empty tin that used to be filled with beans. He moved in front of Vin and pulled the sheet back.

"Gimme it," Vin protested. "I can do it." He eyed the spot where he thought he saw a can. "It ain't big enough."

"What are you? A racehorse?" Chris rejected, thrusting the can at him. He kept his hand nearby but Vin managed to get the empty tin lined up fine.

"While yer up," Vin panted, the small effort wearing him out. It was frustrating that he was constantly short of breath. "Can ya fetch m'cider and cake?"

"Aye, aye, sir!" Christ saluted. He stopped briefly by the bed and changed the linens. He took the old ones out back and put them in the large barrel of water. When he returned, he paused and chuckled. He put the plate of cake and the mug down, looked again and laughed. It was a deep belly laugh, rare for him but so badly needed and he enjoyed it. He wiped his wet eyes and recovered.

"Now that's a picture." His best friend was asleep, head back with his lips parted. The can was full, not a drop spilled, and still in place. "I can't believe I'm doing this." He bent over and gently took the can, moved Vin's hands and replaced the sheet.

"'S'goin' on?" Vin mumbled, blinked and eyed Chris dumping the can. "Aw, hell...dozed off whilst I was pissin'." He scowled and saw his blond friend's shoulder shaking a bit. "It ain't funny!"

"It's fuckin' hilarous!" Chris disagreed, tapped the empty can and left it. He moved back, picked the mug up and wrapped Vin's fingers around it. He kept his hand in place and guided the mug to Vin's lips. "Them boys of yours never looked better, huggin' that can."

"Shut the hell...hell...up..." Vin sent back, taking a slow sip. It was cold and sweet and he savored it. Over the rim of the mug, he saw the lines of fatigue, worry and devotion so clearly outlining the handsome man's face. He eyed the cake then and pulled the mug back. "...it ain't got chocolate icin'..."

He saw the ire rise and pressed. "Ya know I'm partial t'choclate."

"Icing!" Chris snapped. "It's not a fuckin' restaurant."

"S'okay," Vin pouted. "I'll make do."

"You're all heart."

"I try!" Vin smiled, wagged his eyebrows and got the laugh he wanted. He didn't even protest when the hand snaked out and ruffled his hair.

His cake went down in tiny pieces and eager for more of the sweet juice, he took it too fast. He immediately regretted it, gasped, coughed and then grabbed Chris's wrist.

"Easy, there...it's not a race. Okay?" He waited until the small pressure left his wrist.

"...jealous..." Vin decided, then heard the snort of contempt. "Them midgets yer totin'...can't...breathe..."

"Well, in the twenty or so years I've been slinging them around," Chris returned, "I haven't gotten any complaints."

"...ris...can't breathe..." Vin panicked, hand gripping the air like a desperate claw and eyes wide with fear.

"Shit." Chris moved closer, taking the mug and easing Vin up a bit in the chair. "Don't panic, that's makin' it worse. Take small breaths, Vin, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Slow and easy wins the race. That's it...good..." he coached.

"Sorry." When Vin was finally able to speak, he locked onto the strong forearm and lifted his eyes. "I ain't never gonna ferget this, Chris."

"Don't worry," Larabee sent back with an evil grin. "I don't plan on letting you. I figure I'll get a corral and a barn outta this. Maybe even an addition."

"...push yer luck..." Vin wheezed, gripping the arm harder.

"Slow and easy, Vin," Chris dictated, now worried he'd made a mistake.

"M'fine," Vin sent back, sensing the change in tone.

Finally, Vin's breathing evened out and Chris pulled a chair over and sat down. They sat like that while the sun dipped below the horizon. It was a beautiful sunset, one of the best Chris ever remembered seeing. Vin was by his side. How could it not be? He was still eyeing that glorious display of color when a drowsy but very contented drawl slipped into his ear.

"...word..."

"Word," he answered, turning as the blue eyes slid shut over a very easy smile. He kept that warmth long after he returned Vin to bed. It fueled him during the night when the nightmares began. Jeff Mason's mocking face and that sick laugh. The auburn haired man standing over Vin's dying body, kicking at him. Vin crying out to him, one hand searching for him, needing help.

Even exhaustion couldn't quell the darkness inside the sweat-soaked skin the restless blond wore.

+ + + + + + +

Harmony, NM

"I'm afraid Lady Luck has taken to another bed tonight," Ezra nodded to his fellow card players. "Gentlemen."

He touched his fingers to the side of his hat, rose and eased his body from the saloon. He couldn't scare up luck of any kind, not even at cards. He was tired of this mission and had to force himself into this last town. Furthermore, the wires he'd gotten from Buck dictated that they'd not heard from Chris in nearly ten days. The mustached man was going to conduct his own search.

It was past midnight when Ezra returned to his room. He was so intent on getting to the bed that he nearly missed it. He was undressed and sitting on the edge of the mattress when he saw it. Frowning, he rose, crossed the room and picked up the yellow paper. The eight words on the message from Mary Travis caused his heart to race. His legs buckled and he staggered badly, awkwardly finding the bed. He took two swigs from his flask before he brought himself to read it again.

"Good Lord," he choked, reviewing the shaking message in his trembling hands.

*"Vin's alive. With Chris in Willow. Come home."*

He wasn't a religious man and hadn't seen the inside of a church since he was a boy. But he felt moved to offer a heartfelt show of gratitude. He raised his eyes up and nodded.

"Thank you."

+ + + + + + +

Paso Del Norte, NM

Mary Travis waited impatiently by the wire. The message from the judge came an hour before and she'd wired the two towns Ezra's last message had given and also Fort McDaniels. She hadn't heard back from any of the peacekeepers. She couldn't believe it herself. Vin was alive and Chris was safe, at least for now. She knew the blond wouldn't leave his best friend until he was well enough to care for himself. Her father-in-law's message stated that Vin was critically wounded and Chris was tending to him. She didn't know where Willow was, but to her, now, it seemed like heaven, for that's where miracles were born.

"Mrs. Travis?"

"Yes," she turned, eyeing the clerk.

"They left this morning," he sympathized, knowing how close the men were. "They're headed back here. It's gonna be a while."

"Yes, I imagine it will be. A week at least, given how slow they'll need to travel with two injured men. Very well, thanks. If you get a reply from Mister Standish, let me know."

"Yes, ma'am!" he promised, watching the widow disappear into the darkness.

+ + + + + + +

Willow, NM

Vin yawned and sighed, then began to fidget. He tried to scratch his head for the itching was driving him crazy, but his hand wouldn't reach up that far. Going beyond the shoulder brought a fire wall of pain to his chest.

"DAMMIT T'HELL!"

"Mornin' to you too, Vin." Chris came from the kitchen. He watched curiously as the infirmed man moved his head against the edge of the wooden bed. "What are you doing?"

"M'head itches...s'likely t'drive me nuts..."

"I guess them rattails of yours need a bath." Chris moved to the stove, setting a pot on to boil. "We'll get you cleaned up and fed, then you can go outside for some air."

"...jest like some mangy animal..."

"Yup," Chris agreed, peeling the sheet off. "A long-haired river rat, Texas variety."

"Can't ye hurry? I'm freezin'..."

"That's 'cause you're half lizard," Chris noted, pouring the warm water into a large basin. He washed Vin first, drying him off and putting a clean sheet and blanket on him. Then he moved behind him. He eased Tanner's head over the back of the table and put a bucket on the floor underneath. He used a mug to wet the tangled mess, then worked the soap up into a good lather in his hands. Gently, he worked the suds through the greasy locks, not missing the soft sighs of sated bliss. "Bet that feels good."

"Ya got no idea." Vin closed his eyes, enjoying a guilty pleasure. "First time I had m'hair washed by somebody with a flat chest." He paused, wrinkling his nose. "Ya don't smell as good neither." A flicker of water on his face brought a scowl. "Hey!" he warned before the warm rinse water followed. Then his thoughts took a different turn. From the time he woke up, he'd been trying to figure out how long he'd been laid up. "Chris? How long since I got shot?"

"Uh..." Chris sighed, using the last of the water to rinse. He managed to get his fingers through the tangles and make sense of the long hair. "Goin' on two weeks I guess, twelve days anyhow. You remember anything about that day?"

"Nope. Jest the fire." Vin heard the footsteps departing and then returning again. "The rest is bits and pieces. Flashes like..." He felt himself lifted then and turned so that he rested against the pillows stacked against the wall. "Thanks. Somethin' smells good."

"Sausages and hotcakes."

"Aw, hell, them's m'favorites. Yer not kiddin'?" Hope rising, the hungry man eyed Larabee's back. "Ya been plyin' me with porridge fer s'long..."

"That look like porridge to you?" Chris placed a tray over Vin's lap. It was a small platter of two sausages and two pancakes. If Vin were to get stronger, he needed to start eating more. He'd spoken to Moses briefly before the older man went to the river to get more medicinal plants. Chris gathered his own plate and sat across from Vin, watching the younger man eat. He grinned at the moans of pleasure, knowing just how good real food tasted.

"Hello in the house. Moses?"

"Who's that?" Vin froze, swiping syrup from his chin.

"Dunno." Chris shoved his plate aside and got his gun, then went to the door. He peeked through the window and saw a man with silver hair on a horse. The man's face was familiar but Chris couldn't place him. "What do you want?"

"Who are you? Where's Moses?"

"He's busy." Chris moved outside. "I didn't catch your name."

"Doctor Thomas Murdoch," the physician replied, recalling his original encounter with the bruised and battered blond.

"Murdoch?" Chris cocked his head. "You the one who operated on Vin?"

"If you mean the young man Moses found, yes, I am. That's my porch you're waving your gun from."

"Can't take any chances." Chris lowered his weapon, narrowing his eyes. "I know you...from..."

"The road, the day I left. You were inquiring about the telegraph."

"Yeah," Chris agreed, then heard a cough from behind him. "Vin's doin' a lot better. As a matter of fact, he's sittin' up eatin' breakfast."

"Really?" The doctor's voice rose as he dismounted. "Amazing. The surgery was so delicate. Surviving was a miracle. I'd only given him a fifty-fifty chance. Given the fever that followed and how very weak he was. It's unbelievable."

"See for yourself." Chris moved but the doctor only came to the porch steps. "Something wrong?"

"Did Moses tell you where I went?"

"Some family up river got sick." Chris then added, "By the way, thanks for saving Vin's life. I'm Chris Larabee and very grateful."

"He made quite an impression on Moses, and it's him you need to thank. Had he not found your friend when he did...." He paused, moving to the window. "He's sleeping."

Chris turned and smiled. "He drops off like that, cat naps."

"He looks better. His color is excellent. Fever? Coughing up blood? Passing blood?"

"Nope, nope and nope," Chris boasted. "The fever had him good for a while, but it's been about five days now since he fought it off. He's just tired, he sleeps a lot, most of the day. He's really weak."

"And he will be for some time. That bullet did extensive damage."

"He's still having bad headaches, dizzy spells, and his eyes ain't linin' up right. He can't see too good."

"Normal for a head wound. That should go away. Be careful of what you feed him, he's likely to vomit if it's too much or too rich." He paused. "You should try sitting him up whenever you can. It will help his lungs. How's his appetite?"

"Pickin' up a bit in the last couple of days. I gave him real food today for breakfast."

"Excellent, try small meals, every three hours or so."

"Is there some reason you won't come in and see him?"

"I can't risk it, he's too weak. If he catches that fever, the one that the family I left has come down with, it could kill him. Today was the first day I dared leave to get supplies. Mrs. Keane is too weak to manage on her own for very long. Mr. Keane took a fall in his delirium and broke his hip. They have quite a family, a large brood of orphans that nobody else wanted. There's so much work to be done there and with Mister Keane laid up for the next few months..."

Chris pondered a moment, then went inside and walked over to where Vin was sleeping. He tried to remove the tray only to have his wrist slapped.

"Fuck off, I'm eatin' that!" Vin grumbled in a half asleep voice.

"Keep them Tanner curses to a minimum. We got company." Chris shoved the fork Vin had dropped back into his hand.

"Huh?" Vin squinted and saw a blurry white-haired man looking through the glass. "Some old man lose his way? Who the hell's that?"

"Doctor Murdoch, it's his house you've been pissin' all over in."

"House?" Vin's brow furrowed and his eyes moved in thought. "He plucked m'bullets out?"

"He did." Chris poured more cider and handed it to the recovering man. "Don't spill it."

"Quit sassin' me," Vin fired back, then toasted the doctor. "Thanks, I don't know what t'say. Wish I could see ya better."

"You're quite welcome, young man, and your continued progress is thanks enough," he nodded, amazed to see the man he'd left near death sitting up. "Don't worry about your eyes. They'll clear up as the headaches go away. Just eat, sleep and drink."

"He does that real good," Chris quipped. Thinking on the doctor's problem, he crossed back over to the doorway. "You know, I think I might have a solution to your problem. Vin's doin' better. I think I can handle things here. Maybe Moses could help you out at the Keane's house."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah," Chris shrugged. "He sleeps most of the time, and he's getting stronger."

"Where is Moses?"

"Down by the river, gettin' plants and shit," Chris stated.

"I've been waiting for the wire to go up to send for supplies. I'm meeting the wagon a few miles from here at the crossroads by Red Creek Junction. You tell Moses to meet me there. I'll be back here as soon as I can."

"Good enough," Chris nodded. "We'll be fine."

An hour later, Chris was dropping more wood by the stove when Moses returned. He briefly explained the meeting and saw the old man's eyes stray to the bed. He knew how attached Moses was to Vin and apparently it was hard to let go. Every night while he was outside getting a smoke, he'd hear Vin and Moses talking quietly while the old man bathed him.

"I'm gonna go outside and wash up," Chris said, leaving the older man to say goodbye. .

Moses nodded, hesitated and moved to the bed. He eyed the young man, seeing color where once the skin was far too pale. He moved his hand over the slightly parted lips and felt the warm breath dance on his hand. He took the limp hand and recalled all too well when those fingers grabbed his own. He swallowed hard and brushed the hair from the young man's face just as the eyes blinked open.

"Aw, hell, I fell asleep again."

"Sleepin's good fuhr yuh," Moses countered the disgruntled face. "How 'bout yuh sit outside fuhr a spell? I'll fix yuh a plate."

"Okay." Vin shifted and with the old man's help, he sat up. He stole a glance at the old man and tried to use his legs.

"No, yuh ain't ready fuhr that yet. But could be yuh could work on buildin' yuhr strength up a bit."

"Ain't that what we've been doin'?" Vin quizzed. "Rubbin' 'em and movin' em?"

"Yeah, but we gotta get yuh movin' more. I'll tell Chris, he'll get 'em stronger."

Vin wasn't happy but he let the old man carry him outside. By the time Moses returned with the plate of sliced pears, cheese and cider, he'd regained his breath. He worried about that, the continued weakness that with the slightest movement robbed him of his air.

"Thanks," he nodded, taking a piece of cheese. "What's wrong?"

"I gotta go," Moses said simply. "Them folks the doc's been tendin' need help. They got a house full of young-uns up there. De Mister broke his hip...some of the little ones is still sick."

"Oh," Vin rasped, not realizing just how much the strong, dark-skinned man had come to mean to him. "I'll miss ya," he mused and found a small smile. "Chris can't sing worth a damn."

"He cares fuhr yuh," Moses noted of the blond man. "I don't think I ever seen de like."

"I guess I'll keep 'im then," Vin grinned, then locked onto the other man's eyes. He held his hand out, wincing slightly at the strong grip. "I want ya t'know, Moses, what ya done...pullin' me out of Hell's gate. I won't ever ferget it."

"I reckon I won't either, son," Moses nodded thoughtfully. "Somethin' happened in here," he tapped his worn shirt over the broad chest, "that night in de cave. When yuh grabbed m'hand..." He swallowed hard, giving the pale man's face a tap. "Yuh behave fuhr Chris. His temper's on the short side."

"Preachin' t'the choir," Vin laughed. "Ya take care...angel."

Moses would have argued, but the blue eyes bore down on him with such a strong light, he lost his words. He nodded once and headed for the side of the house.

Chris looked up and saw the emotion-filled brown eyes. He locked onto them and nodded once, sending his own gratitude silently. "Take care, Moses," Chris offered with an open hand. "I'm glad we crossed paths. Keep your head up."

"I will, son, and thanks." He shook the hand and eyed the side of the porch. "Yuh take good care of de boy."

"If I don't go bald first," Chris grinned, "Don't worry about Vin, he's gonna pull through just fine."

"His legs...yuh needs t'stir 'em up. Work the blood back. He needs t'start walkin' a bit." He saw the blond head dip and nodded back. "Yuh take care of yuhrself too..."

Vin swallowed hard when Moses paused at the end of the path to the main road. He watched one large brown hand come up and wave to him. He shivered then, getting a flashback to a strong hand that reached out and snatched him from death. Those same strong hands tended to him, caring for him like family. Then again, riding with the six friends he'd come to know as his own kin had taught him a thing or two about who your 'family' really was. He finished his cider and laid his head back against the back of the rocker. By the time Chris sat down next to him, Moses was a speck at the end of the road.

"He's good man," Vin yawned.

"Saved your life," Chris agreed.

"Ya know, Chris," Vin was enjoying the warm sun on his face, "once I get m'strength back, before we head home, I wanna go see 'im. I wanna thank him eye to eye, shake his hand. I need to look at him straight, not up at him."

Chris didn't reply; he had other plans.

The Wilmington Principle.

He knew by now the Judge would have gotten word back to town. That meant Mary would have wired the fort. He knew without question that Buck would be headed this way. By now, his oldest friend would be far beyond anxious and worried. Once Buck got here, if Vin continued to improve, he'd be leaving him in good hands. His mission wasn't done. His eyes scanned the horizon, seeking the auburn-haired, blue-eyed prey.

Jeff Mason's days were numbered and lined in blood.

"Soon...very soon," he vowed softly on the wind, curling one fist tight. Justice would be served - Larabee style.

After all, what could happen?

+ + + + + + +

Several days later

Another sunset.

Exhausted, he sighed heavily, shifted his weight on the small bench behind the kitchen and stretched out his legs. He sipped at the coffee and wondered what day it was. Tuesday? Friday? He'd lost track. Somehow, when the hours bled into each other so quickly, the dates became blurry. It seemed liked forever since he'd slept a whole night through. His green eyes drifted towards the road and lingered a moment. He longed to see a gray horse with a mustached rider.

Steak and whiskey.

"Damn..." he muttered, rubbing his abdomen. He'd give a month's pay for a hot bath, a thick steak and a bottle of good whiskey. A soft bed would follow and sleeping for three full days.

He had no idea he'd miss Moses this much. Being the sole caretaker to his weak friend had taken him to a place he'd never visited, endless tasks that built up with increasing and annoying frequency. His own needs neglected, Chris used all his time cooking, cleaning and getting the herbs while Vin was napping, hoping that he returned in time to assist the younger man to the makeshift chamber pot. He'd found a broken chair and busted out the inside. He had a chamber pot underneath it and so far, it was working well. But today in the midst of cleaning the linens, putting a stew together and mixing Vin's tea, he'd dozed off outside. Too late, he'd heard his weak friend's call. His eyes moved to the damp bedding hanging on the rope strung across the yard. Worse yet was the awful look on Vin's face when he had to take the soiled bedding away.

He shifted his weight again, wincing and rubbing his lower back. Vin wasn't a heavy man but lifting him constantly had taken a toll. Every inch of him ached, especially his shoulders and lower back. He scrubbed a hand across his stubbled face and sniffed disdainfully at the odor that was surrounding him. He imagined a pack of skunks didn't smell as bad. A stifled cry from the house and a series of coughs drew him to his feet. With a last longing glance to the horizon, he headed for the door, his voice haggard and colored with fatigue.

"I'm coming, Vin."

+ + + + + + +

It was late and a thick, inky blackness cloaked the room. He blinked and sat up, grabbing the window sill and hissing as the room flew around. Something woke him. His eyes adjusted to the night and from the makeshift bed he rested upon, he took a small tour. Twice, he passed the doorway into the room where Chris lay sleeping. Then a series of thumps and groans drew his blurry gaze back. The only light was an eerie silver beam that rested on the blond's twisted features.

"Chris?" He eyed the distance between them and tried to move his legs. Chris worked on them three times a day, rubbing them and moving them. With the blond's help, he could stand and lean against Chris, but only with the other man's full support was he able to walk a few steps. Of course, it took all his breath away and that made him angry. But it was a start.

The body on the floor began to thrash and he turned on his side, biting back a cry of pain. Slowly, he began to inch his legs across the bed so that he could attempt to turn and drop them over the edge.

It was the same dream. Jeff Mason stood leering at him over Vin's battered and bloody body. With every sick laugh, a kick to the fallen man caused his inert friend to cry out. Finally, Vin lifted his head and hand, reaching for him. Pleading with his eyes....

"Chris!" Vin called out, worried about the thrashing body on the floor.

"No...No...Vin! You sick son-of-a -bitch, Mason!" Chris panted. "I'll kill you for what you did to him."

"Aw, hell!" Vin choked on the guilt that rose in his chest. "CHRIS, WAKE UP!" He tugged his legs over the side and panicked when the room turned upside down. "CHRIS! CHRISSS!"

Still half-asleep, he stumbled to his feet, grabbing the gun that hung from the bedpost. He staggered forward, seeking the cause of his misery. Mason was close; he could smell him. He heard Vin screaming his name and headed that way.

"No!" Vin screamed, seeing the wavering body and shaky gun arm. "No call fer that, it's jest me...Chris? Can ya hear me?" He grabbed the sweaty blond's left forearm to keep himself from falling. Dizzy and sick, he collapsed forward, hitting the slick bare chest.

"Vin?" Chris blinked and shook the cobwebs from his head. The dream dissolved, the room reappeared but the echo of Mason's sick laugh still remained. He tucked the gun in his waistband and eased Vin upright. "You okay?"

"Me?" Vin gasped, thinking on the troubled calls he'd heard the other man issue in his sleep. He nodded his head once and the other man moved, turning the lamp on.

He eyed the haggard body and studied every feature. Chris had lost weight; his eyes were swollen and red-rimmed from lack of sleep. Dark circles surrounded them over a face too gaunt and a body painted with total and utter exhaustion. How long had Chris been caring for him? His fuzzy head couldn't get the number. He'd taken care of his every need without any consideration for his own body. Vin's gut burned with shame and guilt and he dipped his face a bit.

"I'm sorry..." Vin managed, taking a mug of water Chris offered.

"You got shot, not your fault. You got taken and left for dead, not your fault. You're laid up, not your fault," Chris hissed, too tired to care that his tone was too sharp. "Look, Vin, I got no time for your hound dog eyes. It happened, we're dealing with it...move on." He took the empty mug and his eyes shifted to the potty chair.

"No," Vin replied softly. He moved back to hitch his legs up and gritted his teeth. Pain ripped through his back and chest. "I can...do...it...I...can..." he protested weakly in a losing effort. Without a word, the other man lifted his legs onto the bed and fixed the tangled sheets.

Chris's sharp words didn't linger long, rather the true words he'd heard the blond utter in his sleep revisited. Especially painful and worrisome was the vow to kill. He knew without a doubt Chris intended to do just that. He wasn't blind; he saw the restlessness, the slight tilt of the head towards the horizon and the clenched fists. There was the set of his jaw when he was irritated and wouldn't talk, the endless parade of cheroots, but it was the eyes that told the truth. Somewhere in those tired green eyes was the Larabee glint. That worried him.

Now, hearing his fears confirmed, it began to eat away at him. As much as he wanted Mason to pay for his crimes, he wanted the law to serve that bone. The thought of Chris gunning Mason down and being strung up for murder brought a chill to him. So deep was the fear, he shivered outright.

"You need anything else?"

Chris waited until the head shook no and turned the lamp back down. He moved to his own bed, throwing his body down and feigning sleep. He knew Vin was watching him. He waited a long time until the uneven, ragged breaths turned to soft snores. Then he got up, grabbed his shirt and tugged it on. He found the end of the last bottle of whiskey and headed outside. With any luck, in a few days, Buck would arrive. Then he'd be on the road to justice. Every bone and nerve screaming for relief, he took a seat and toasted his pledge with a swig of courage.

+ + + + + + +

Noon.

"Hold up, Buck."

Wilmington was in the lead on his horse. Josiah was driving the wagon toting the two recovering men and some food and supplies. He eyed the large man who reined the team in and climbed down. By the time Josiah was at the back of the wagon, Buck was easing himself off his horse.

"What's wrong?"

"I'm fine," Nathan protested, but his fisted hands and clenched jaw told a different story.

"Nathan, I can't give you any more laudanum."

"...ain't...askin'..." Nathan managed, then his body convulsed.

"Hey!" Buck jumped onto the wagon and knelt by Nathan, grabbing him just in time. "Thanks, Kid, you okay?" he asked of the youth who'd handed him a towel for the other man to vomit in.

"Yeah, how much longer?" J.D. asked, his own body aching from the constant movement.

Buck tossed the towel over the side and eyed Josiah who was now checking the road ahead. He cleaned Nathan up and got some water into him. Then he turned the small pillow over to the dry side.

"Sorry, Buck, who'd have guessed?" Nathan apologized for his system's intolerance to the painkiller.

"That's okay, Nate. I owe you. Hell, you'll be old and gray before you get paid back." He turned to the other patient. J.D. was sitting up, resting against some flour sacks filled with sand and covered by a blanket. He poured a mug of water and handed it to youth whose face was damp. The hazel eyes were clouded in pain.

"I'm fine," J.D. answered the worried look. "Really, Buck."

Josiah appeared by the side of the wagon. He took his hat off and wiped his brow. He nodded to the youngest who was keeping a brave face.

"Well, we can't stop here. There's no shade and no water. I know it's asking a lot," he gazed at Nathan who was nearly green from the motion and the side effects of the drug, "but we gotta push through at least three more hours. There's a creek by Devil's Fork. Lots of trees. We can camp there."

"Three hours ain't so much," Dunne managed.

"You ain't throwin' up." Buck poured more water and dropped two drops of the pain-killing drug into it. "You didn't have any this morning. Go on now..."

Ten minutes later, they were ready to go again. Buck shifted in his saddle, leaning over the pommel.

"This is gonna take forever. We're not making much progess."

"We don't have any choice," Josiah replied, slapping the reins.

+ + + + + + +

Sunset
Willow, NM

"Supper's almost done," Chris said, eyeing Vin's somber profile. He put the lid on the pot and walked across the room. "You ready?"

"Yeah," Vin whispered, trying to hide from Chris. Somehow, the older man always knew when he was avoiding something. He knew Chris was exhausted. He slipped his hands over the other man's shoulder and slid down. Chris had found some old long johns in the doctor's chest of drawers and at least he was now covered. He concentrated hard on his tiny steps, not realizing he was wheezing so heavily. By the time they reached the rocker, he was damp and gasping. He closed his eyes, trying to stem the rising tide of nausea. He heard the door slam and sucked in air greedily. He shivered and swallowed hard. He prayed that this new feeling, the sickness and chills that had started that afternoon, wasn't something new simmering inside.

"Vin?" Chris eyed the shakes and frowned.

"Jest wore out a bit." He took the mug. "Thanks. I'll be fine."

Vin sat back in the rocker, letting the setting sun warm his face. Try as he might to convince himself, he was losing that battle. Something was wrong. He felt sick. He was hot one minute and cold the next. He looked over when Chris reappeared with a mug of coffee. Again, he saw those bleary green eyes flick to the horizon. It was as good a time as any to bring it up.

"Chris?"

Larabee sighed, put his coffee down and started to approach, his face painted in so many shades of fatigue it was painful.

"No, I don't need ya, jest sit a spell, 'kay?"

Chris narrowed his eyes suspiciously, then noted the slim fingers playing with the frayed edges of the sheet... He was surprised that the damn thing didn't fall apart, Vin fretted on it so much. The blue eyes were darting around and he knew the younger man was worried about something.

"Got a bug up your ass?"

"I been ponderin' on somethin'," Vin agreed.

"I can see that," Chris nodded to the frayed sheet.

"I'm worried about ya."

"I'm just tired, Vin, it's not fatal," he dismissed with a grain of irritation.

"No, but gettin' strung up is," Vin leveled with a hard stare. He saw the eyes narrow suspiciously and then roll in a combination of disgust and anger. The body moved away, turning from his view. He studied the muscles rippling on Larabee's back. He saw the left hand fist and unfist twice.

"It's not your call," Chris finally spoke in a brutally icy tone that clearly stated his annoyance. Vin Tanner had no right to invade his dreams, his innermost thoughts and desires. Furthermore, he'd made a vow that day by the river. He intended to keep it. Jeff Mason was going to pay.

"The hell it ain't," Vin argued back. "Yer aimin' on killin' Mason. I hear ya at night..." That got the body to turn around.

Chris whipped around and both fists came up defensively. He scowled and raged, kicking the post on the porch. He was a man who did not like to lose control ever. That in his few moments of sleep, his own body betrayed him angered him.

"I gotta hunt him down, Vin," Chris snapped. "It's not just for you. He's killed other people, robbed other towns, stole things, did damage. And that's just the ones we know about."

"I look like a fool t'ya?" Vin shot back. "That bloodlust yer totin's got m'name on it. Don't lie t'me! Ya think I ain't pissed at that bastard fer what he done? Iffen his boys didn't pluck me from town, Nathan and J.D. wouldn't be hurt. Ya think I don't want to gut him from his balls t'his throat fer what he's doin' t'ya?"

"Me?" Chris backed up, taking every hackle on his neck with him. "This isn't about me."

"The hell it ain't!" Vin shouted and the whole porch started to spin. "Shit...Goddammit...!" He closed his eyes and leaned forward as far as his healing insides would allow. He begged and pleaded for the awful waves of nausea rising from within to pass. He tried not to shiver too much. He felt a blanket eased around his shoulders and a strong hand rubbing his back.

"It's chilly outside, maybe we should go in?" Chris suggested, keeping his hand in place, feeling the tremors.

"Naw, it'll pass. I like it out here. I got worked up is all." He licked his dry lips. "Scare up some water?"

"Hold on." Chris went into the house, unaware that behind his back, the younger man was gagging and trying not to vomit.

By the time he heard the approaching footsteps, Vin was steady again. He wiped his face on the sheet and took several breaths. He looked up when the door opened and saw the pause. The tired green eyes were studying him closely.

"I'm fine...jest been a long day I reckon." He held out a wavering hand and took the water.

"You sure?" Chris asked, sensing something still lurking underneath.

The shaggy head dipped and Vin took a small sip, then put the mug down. He offered his hand and waited.

"I want yer word, ya won't kill him."

"No." Chris stared at the hand and shook his head. "You know I can't do that, Vin."

"What he done," he paused, tapping his chest, "I know ya felt ripped up inside. Boots on the other foot, I'da felt m'guts on fire iffen he stole ya away."

"If it happened to me," Chris relayed of the Texan's outstanding tracking ability, "he'd be dead by now. We wouldn't be having this conversation."

"Ya done yer best. Hell, ya think I'm blind? It ain't written in every line on yer face?" Vin tried. "Chris?" He waited until the dirty blond head came up. He stared hard at that haggard face and felt such a swell of emotion that it nearly choked him. "Bottom line," he rasped, swallowing hard. "Ya mean more t'me than..." He sighed and swallowed again, shaking his head a bit. "It ain't worth some star jockey tossin' a noose up. Let the law handle it. He's wanted now, he won't get far."

"Far?" Chris snorted. "He's ass deep in Mexican whores by now."

He turned away then, thinking on Vin's request. Could he give up the hunt? Would the leering face in his dreams ever fade? Would the deep violation he felt ever be sated? The image of Vin, near naked and shivering in a cave, unnerved him. When Jeff Mason stole Vin from that riverbank, it was personal. A soft drawl brought his head up.

"Word."

His lips started to form the instant reply, but he couldn't. He saw the arm offered and his own arm nearly jumped with a life of its own. It was a motion that happened automatically, without his conscious thought. He'd die for Vin Tanner, without question, but breaking a vow? What of the vow he'd made to himself? Wasn't that important? Could he let it go? Let the law handle it? The dragon inside tossed its scaly head and unleashed a fiery wave of protest. Mason's laughter echoed in his head.

"Word," Vin repeated, seeing the inner battle the other man was waging in his red-rimmed eyes. "Ya give it over or we got nothin' left." He saw the head snap up and a question appear. "No, ya don't think I'll do it? Try me! I thought we had somethin'," he tapped his fist to his chest. "Ya can't honor me, respect me, we're done," he decided, even though the thought of leaving Chris was too painful to contemplate. But seeing his body swaying on the gallows was a far worse fate. He knew the man; he knew once he set those hot eyes on Jeff Mason that the Colt would come up and fire before he could even think.

Chris didn't reply; he went into the house. He dished out two bowls of chicken stew and some biscuits. He left Vin's on the table outside, taking his own back inside. He did the dishes, got Vin's medicine ready and prepared his tea. He helped the younger man inside without speaking, getting him settled into his bed. He left the tea and went outside, desperate for a cheroot. He thought on not only Vin's words on the porch earlier but on everything they'd shared since that day Fate took him to that dusty town. Back inside, he pulled the small book of poems from his breast pocket and under the dim lamp light, he re-read every one. He knew without question, Vin meant what he said. The scales of justice reappeared and he lingered on the balance.

He could find Mason and not kill him. That wouldn't be breaking his word to Vin. Tanner's fears were based on his gunning the animal down. He read Hero's Heart once more and every word assaulted him. Taking a deep breath, he made his decision, finally breaking the silence that surrounded the house for hours.

"Vin?"

"Yeah?"

"Word."

The long sigh of relief caressed his soul and wrapped around his heart. He would keep it there, stoking it and kindling it to keep his cold heart warm. On that fatal day, and he knew it would come, when he caught up with Mason, he would need it then. It would take all of that and more to quell the urge to rip that bastard's heart out with his bare hands. But losing Vin was something Chris couldn't accept. Much later, when he returned to the house for the last time that evening, he paused by the bed and saw the fine features relaxed in sleep.

"I found it, Vin," he noted of the 'hero's heart' the tracker sought in his beautiful heart song. "It's right here." He tapped the sleeping man's chest.

+ + + + + + +

Four days later

No.

No.

Please!

No!

He beseeched with all he had but they came again, ripping waves of burning pain throughout his abdomen. He was on his side and curled up, biting his lip to stem the cry of pain. The rumble and gurgle told him his efforts were fruitless. What little food and liquids that he'd managed to get inside were now coming out one end or the other, leaving a burning path on his tender skin. The fever left him very disoriented and too weak to fight.

"..No...God...No..."

"Vin?"

Chris scrambled up from the floor where he'd been sleeping and fell twice getting to the bed. He had extra padding underneath the sick Texan and he leaned over and gripped the weak, flailing hand. He sighed and shook his head, wondering how the fevered man had any fight left at all.

"...God...make it stop...hurts..."

"I know, Vin, I'm sorry." Chris held on tighter, wishing he could do more. "Ride it out...I'm right here..."

Finally, the rigid body went limp with a last rattled breath and Chris dropped his head. He took two breaths himself and stood up, letting Vin's hand drop. He eyed the pot on the stove and trudged across the floor. It was the same trip he'd made for what seemed like hundreds of times over the last four days.

Whatever had gotten hold of the recovering man had gotten him good. The fever wasn't high, just enough to make him weak and confused, but it never left.

Nor did the chills that caused the Texan's teeth to chatter and the lean body to tremble. The vomiting seemed to have slowed up but the diarrhea was painful and frequent. Vin was so weak, he could barely get fluids inside. Worse yet were the fading pleas that the semi-conscious man was unaware he was muttering. The choked cries begging for relief from the burning pain were breaking his heart. Often during the worst of it, tears ran down the gaunt man's face. That, coupled with the raspy, barely audible voice crying out in agony, almost did him in.

He poured warm water into a basin and carried it to the table. He pulled the sheet back, gently untangled the curled limbs and rolled Vin a little further over. He pulled out the soiled padding, tossing it on the floor. He cleaned Vin up again and ignored the cries of pain that slipped between the delirious man's lips. Two blue eyes cracked open a slit and the hand floundered.

"...don't...hurt...me...more...please...risss..."

"Vin, I..." He shook his head, unable to offer any words of comfort. He had no cream left to soothe the raw area, only crushed up aloe plants. He applied a little and placed a clean folded-up cloth under his backside, then rolled him back. "Jesus..." Chris looked away then, not as much for the agony on the younger man's face but the twin tears than ran down either cheek. His own breath came in shudders, trying to control his emotions. He'd not slept other than brief cat naps in what seemed like forever and his nerves were fried. He felt so helpless that he couldn't offer more. He'd never felt so totally inadequate. A tiny tap on his arm drew his head back.

"...ya okay...?"

Somewhere in the midst of the pain and hot mud that resided in his aching head, the sight of the raw emotion on Larabee's face was too much to bear. Guilt oozed inside his fever-wracked body. He'd lost track of how long he'd been sick; his one constant was that the blond man never left him. But that cost was adding up, written in every haggard line on the shadowed face. Chris looked awful and he wondered how his best friend was still standing.

Chris scrubbed a hand across his stubbled face and let out a long breath. He lifted Vin's head and guided a mug there. The fevered face turned away.

"You have to drink, Vin. Eventually it'll stay put. You don't and you're done."

"Seems like a waste'o'time...gonna come flyin' out the other end..."

"Maybe this time..." Chris offered. "For me, Vin?"

The lips parted and he got the whole mug of water inside. He put the mug down and grabbed a pillow, placing it under the damp head. The eyes were dulled and nearly out of fight. That worried him a bit. He crossed the room and poured a mug of broth with some rice inside.

"Vin, you need to drink this..."

"...done drank...done...all done..."

"No, I got broth." Chris stood over the body, wincing as the head turned away.

"...why ya doin' this t'me..." Vin accused, needing someone to lash out at.

"'Cause I give a damn!"

Chris's lethal growl didn't leave room for argument, He lifted Vin and moved the mug towards the pressed line of his mouth. The gunslinger was tired and his headache was cresting again. He'd not eaten all day, the place was a mess and it smelled. His bones ached and at times, he had a hard time maneuvering around the house. What he didn't have time for was a tantrum. "Dammit, Vin, I'm tired! I gotta sleep too."

He flinched then, bitten by his own guilt. The mouth opened and the troubled blue eyes skirted over him as the ill man drank. He wanted to look away; the lack of fire there was painful. Finally, the mug was empty. He laid his friend down and pulled the last clean sheet up over him. He tried to give the slim shoulder a pat but the body turned away from him.

Vin turned away from his touch. That small motion hurt, more than he was prepared for.

"Vin, I'm...sorry..." he offered, but the eyes slid closed. "Dammit..."

He went outside and collapsed in the rocker. How could things have gotten so bad so quickly? Vin was too ill to leave alone. A trip to town was out of the question, but supplies were low and the cough he'd picked up made him fear for them both. That hacking cough, coupled with a pounding headache and the ache in his bones, was becoming a serious worry. The dishes were dirty and piled up; the kindling was low and the house was a mess. His own clothes were filthy and soiled. He cast an eye at the pile of dirty linens that needed to be done wondering when did it all slip away. How long had Vin been sick? Three days? Five days? Time was a blurry plane between soiled sheets, rank odor and the filthy mess. Chris coughed hard and shook his head. He'd never realized that being the sole caretaker of an invalid was a nearly crippling experience.

He was at the end of his rope. His nerves were fried; his health was failing and there was nearly nothing left.

"Where the hell are you, Buck?" he rasped to the night sky, then rested his aching head against the back of the rocker.

It came again.

Somewhere in the hot pool of tar his body was being burned in, the pain ripped through his bowels. He cried out, holding on desperately. His weak hands gripped the edge of the bed and he forced his eyes open.

Darkness.

It was night. His fevered state left no margin for time or hours, only day or night. Light or darkness. The awful stench of his own body rose, fighting with the rank odor that permeated the house. He gagged and gagged violently, causing a rippling pain to explode in his healing body.

"...no...God...no..." he begged to no avail. Then the burning path began to troop through his bowels like soldiers on a forced march. The gurgling and rumbling brought the pain cresting again.

"Chris...Chris...?" he called out weakly, holding on for all he was worth. Just a few more moments, he only needed his friend to get him to the potty chair. "Chris...please...hur...ry...Chr...Chr...issss....?" He hissed in agony as the soldiers used knives to slash his tender gut. "...No...no...." He fought back weakly, his fingers slipping. "CHRIS!"

Too late.

The eruption and pain that ensued drove him to produce a strangulated scream. It burned like fire and he panted, gritting his teeth and rolling his eyes. Where was Chris? The longer he lay there, the more the raw skin burned. He tried calling out but couldn't find his voice. Exhausted, he shut his eyes, trying to catch his breath.

"Chr...is...?" he whispered. "Chris...are ya?"

He lost track of time, the troublesome fever causing him to doze for a while. But the fire in his backside was brutal and as the first light of day stabbed through the window, he tried again. He needed relief. Maybe if he sat up and turned on his side?

Maybe.

Maybe.

Grunting and huffing with all he had, the weak man fought his fevered body and lost. His efforts only produced more pain, stabbing through his head and torso, but he had to try. So he began rolling and rocking, back and forth, trying to work up a rhythm. Maybe if he caused the motion, he could grab for the window.

"Shit!" he hissed when he missed. His hand hit the table instead which caused a stack of dishes to clatter to the floor.

The weak Larabee radar failed to hear the cries for help, but the loud sound of tin plates and mugs hitting the floor didn't miss. Chris's whole body jerked and twitched and for a few minutes, he blinked in utter confusion. Then the dark blue of the new morning sky hit his eyes. He sat forward and winced, grabbing his throbbing head . He felt sure somehow an ax was stuck in his skull. For several moments, he remained hunched over, shivering and coughing violently.

"Chris?" Vin rasped, hearing the awful hacking. He frowned then, his fevered brain racing to find something of a timeline. How long had Chris been sick? How much had his own illness caused the other man to suffer? He knew the blond was ignoring his own needs to tend to him. He tried to move again, to take the searing pain away. The rough fabric tore into the raw flesh beneath him, causing him to cry out.

"Vin!"

Chris jumped up too fast and the porch tilted. His head was howling like a rabid wolf with large yellow fangs ravaging his skull. He shot through the door and stumbled, hitting his elbow hard. Cursing, he wove unsteadily to the bed, his nose telling him the news first. Well beyond the end of his endurance, Larabee's fried nerves were in overdrive.

"Chris, I called ya..." Vin tried, seeing the enraged face. "I held on...I tried...I did..."

His protests were muffled when he was roughly turned on his side and thrust at the window.

"GODDAMMIT, VIN!" the burned-out blond roared. "I GOT NO CLEAN SHEETS LEFT!"

He yanked the sheet back and saw the caked mess clinging to the red skin and the large amount ground into the sheets as well. He eyed the sink overflowing with dirty dishes and the grime and filth on the floors. The air reeked of body odor and waste and sickness. Chris kicked the wall in frustration and anything in his path that was not nailed down felt his wrath.

"FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!"

Vin's shoulders jumped with every livid utterance. For the first time since he'd opened his eyes, he felt shamed. Totally and utterly gutted of his pride, he lay naked and shivering. The only thought that entered his weak, fevered mind was that he should have died. The humiliation choked him more than the stench did and at that moment, he wanted nothing more than to close his eyes and shut out the awful weight that descended. He didn't stop the tears of pain and shame that came as the door slammed closed behind the other man.

"What's going on here?"

Vin couldn't see from where his face was shoved against the wall, but he knew that voice. Somewhere in his addled brain, a picture of a white-haired man appeared. His numbed senses felt a brief tingle of hope, knowing that Chris would have help now. Someone was here to care for his friend.

Chris swiveled from where he stood on the porch when the homeowner appeared. He blinked through a red fog and wondered what had happened. His numb brain couldn't decide what to do. He tried to form the doctor's name but coughed severely instead. The porch tilted again and he went down hard.

Shocked, Thomas Murdoch turned from where he stood on the porch steps and made his way to the blond man's side. The change was startling. Gone was the lean, confident caretaker he'd seen when he left. This dazed man at his feet was gaunt from weight loss and illness. Dark circles rimmed sleep-deprived eyes that were merely red and angry slits. The unshaven face was days from a razor and the smell steaming off him could cause a bear to keel over. He laid a hand on the haggard man's face and frowned.

"How long have you been ill?"

"Huh?" Chris blinked, sitting up and grabbing the porch rail. He jerked away from the healer's hand and scowled. "I'm not..." He coughed again. "...sick. Vin...Vin..." He paused then, gasping for air and seeing a picture that hurt worse than the headache he bore. He'd lashed out in unwarranted fury at the one person whose life he valued above all others. "Aw, shit...Vin..."

"No!" The doctor put both hands up, preventing movement. "You stay here. It's obvious you're ill. He's not as strong as you. You can't cough on him anymore," he leveled. "He has diarrhea?" he asked, having heard the awful tirade that occurred. The head dipped once. "Bad?" Again, the head nodded.

"I didn't mean...it...I...didn't hear him..." Chris babbled, running a shaky hand through his greasy hair. "...there wasn't any more sheets. I guess...I forgot...I didn't...mean it. I gotta tell him."

"You stay here. I'll be back," he warned, lifting and guiding the shaken man to the rocker. He entered the house and rocked back on his heels. It was cluttered with dirty dishes, clothes and soiled linens. Bugs and mice ran over the stacks of dirty dishes. He saw one sniffing at the leg of the injured man and shoved his hand at it, sending it to the floor. "My God...!"

He winced at the open, raw, red wounds on the young man's backside. He moved forward, placing a hand on the flushed face.

"You're burning up," he fretted, his hand moving to the exposed throat. The blue eyes were slits and the lips were moving. He leaned over, hearing the small words, nearly fractured and broken.

"...m'sorry...m'sorry...m'sorry..."

"It's alright, son," he soothed, moving the damp locks of hair from the tortured face. He waved a hand in front of the unblinking half-mast eyes and frowned. "Son, can you hear me?" He shook the shivering man's shoulder and the eyes blinked. "I'm going to clean you up first. I'm Doctor Murdoch. I've got medicine that will help you. You have to fight, understand?" Not getting a reply, he stripped the bed and dropped the linens to the floor. He made a quick mental assessment of what had to be done and set to work.

Forty minutes later, the room was almost habitable again. He'd opened all the windows and the back door, flooding the room with much needed fresh air. Two large tubs were filled with water out back. One held the soiled linens, the other the dirty dishes. A large basin of hot, soapy water sat on a clean, tiny table next to the incoherent patient. The young man was still on his side and never moved while he was gently cleansed. At the first application of the soothing cream, a tiny sigh slipped out.

Murdoch gave the shoulder a squeeze and then left to rummage around his bedroom. High in the closet, he tugged on an old box and brought it down. He pulled out his late wife's linen tablecloths and brought them back into the room. After placing a folded one beneath the eerily silent man, he gently rolled him back and covered him with another. He rolled a third one into a log shape and lifted the damp head, gently resting it there. A hand rose, tapping his arm, and he grasped it. The eyes were wide now and seeping gratitude.

"Thank...thank..."

"It's my job, son, and you're welcome. I'm sorry you've suffered so, but this is one battle I won't lose. It'll take a good fight, but we've got the right ammunition now. Okay?" He saw the head bob and took a cloth floating in the now cool water and wrung it out. He bathed the fevered face and left the rag on his forehead. Then he crossed the room and poured some simmering water over the herbs in the mug. He moved back, lifting the head and saw the eyebrows furrow. "Trust me, I won't hurt you. This will help. I'm going to make some soup, and if you don't eat, you'll die."

"...couldn't be much worse..."

"Stop that," he crossed, guiding the mug to the open lips. "That won't help you..." He saw the eyes float to the profile through the window. "...or him."

"M'fault...I done that..." Vin argued weakly. He saw the doctor then writing on some paper.

"He needs lots of rest and food. He'll get that in town. With these," he held up the folded notes, "I'll get that ammunition we spoke of. The worst is over... Vin?" he recalled and saw the head nod.

"Doc?"

"Yes?" He crossed the room and saw the eyes fighting hard to stay open. "Rest now, son. I'm not leaving. You're safe."

"Fa...fa...fa...vor..."

"Sure. What?"

"Wire...in town..." Vin pressed, fading fast. One image came to mind and he reached out, needing it desperately.

"Vin?" Murdoch listened to the short but very heartfelt words and then the tangled head lolled. He tapped the stilled face and frowned, not liking the fever or the horrible weakness. He had his work cut out for him.

He went outside and paused, eyeing the young man dozing in the rocker. He tapped a shoulder and two bleary eyes reluctantly opened.

For a few moments, Chris tried to find the jagged pieces of the puzzle. He then tried hard to put those pieces together. He stared at the older man's eyes and narrowed his own. A face appeared, two lost blues eyes clouded in shame.

"Vin?" he croaked, swallowing hard. His trembling hand betrayed him.

"He's not good, but with the right medicine and a little luck, he'll beat it. He's very weak and rundown. It's critical I get fluids inside him and get them to stay. I'll need your help for that."

"Anything!" Chris vowed hoarsely, horribly ashamed of what he'd done.

"First, I need you to deliver these to town." He held out the envelopes. "It's urgent I get clean linens, sheets, herbs and medicine from Henry Lee. He runs the bathhouse and laundry. It's at the edge of town. I've explained the urgency. He'll send his son out immediately with what I need. Second, you give this note to James in the General Store. He'll coordinate with the restaurant at the hotel and fill a wagon with soup, food and other supplies." He hesitated, seeing the guilt rise. "Third, and most importantly, you get a room at the hotel."

"No!" Chris denied but was cut off immediately.

"It's not up for discussion. You're sick. If you stay here, you could infect him and kill him. You get a hot bath, shave and a good hot meal. You take this," he pulled out a green bottle, "for your cough. I don't want to see you back here until you've rested, lost that fever and cough, and you're well again. He's not going anywhere for quite some time. He'll be here when you return."

Chris stood then, all the fight gone from his ailing body. He peered in the open doorway at Vin lying all too still on the bed. He heard his harsh edict bouncing off every wall, stopping only when it penetrated his gut like a flying bullet.

"I'm sorry, Vin. I didn't mean it..."

"He can't hear you, he's asleep," Murdoch answered, gripping the filthy-shirted shoulder. "But he knows. He's very worried about you. And right now, he can't afford to worry about anything but getting well himself. Do I make myself clear? If I tell him you're resting and recovering, he'll rest and recover. I'm sorry, Mister Larabee, but it's a long ride to town and I need those things."

"Yeah..." Chris turned away, his eyes scorched so much that he was nearly blinded. He took the envelopes, packed his things, found his horse and with a heavy heart, he left.

+ + + + + + +

"They're here! Mama, I see Josiah!"

"Billy, come back here...Billy...!"

Mary dropped the paper she'd been setting into the printer and ran to the doorway. She saw what her son did, a rider and a wagon approaching. She went back inside, took her apron off and washed her hands, then grabbed the yellow paper and headed up the street.

"Hey, Billy!" Josiah waved to the youngster.

"J.D. sleeping?" Billy asked. "It ain't nighttime, it's only suppertime."

"He's napping," Josiah corrected.

"No, I'm not. Hey, Billy!" J.D. sat up and winced, rubbing his bandaged side.

"You got shotted?" Billy's eyes went wide. He'd overheard his mother talking to Mrs. Potter.

"Yeah, but I'm fine now," J.D. nodded, then eyed the boy's mother. "Mary."

"J.D., you look awful," she assessed. "Their rooms are ready. Mrs. Klinger has two open rooms on the first floor," she noted of the boarding house. "No steps."

"Good." Josiah reined the team in just as they pulled up at the boarding house.

"Hmmprh," another voice echoed. "Be nice not having every bump in the road up my ..."

"Watch your mouth, brother," Josiah warned. "And since I'm the one haulin' that ungrateful part into the house, you'd best apologize."

"Go to hell."

"Nathan!" Mary crossed her arms in front of her chest. She lifted a single mocking eyebrow at him. "I'm shocked."

"I'm sorry, Mary, I didn't see yuh there." The healer gingerly pulled himself up.

"That's alright, Nathan," she replied before touching his shoulder. "You're forgiven." She paused, letting her gaze rest on each road-weary face for a moment. One was missing.

"He headed to the saloon," Josiah answered of her search for Buck.

"Mike?" she called over to a neighbor. "Can you send Buck over here?"

"Sure thing, Mrs. Travis," the older man replied, heading for the saloon.

"I missed you, honey."

"Not now, Lily," Buck protested as the voluptuous hostess sat in his lap and pressed her lips into the curve of his neck. He felt her stiffen and then he sighed. "I didn't mean to snap. I'm sorry, darlin'. I'm just wore out."

"Well now, why don't you let Sweet Lily run you a hot bath and take care of that..." she offered, slipping her hand over his groin.

"Maybe later." He uncorked the bottle of whiskey and spilled some down his shirt. He'd taken a hearty gulp when a voice called out.

"Buck, Mary's lookin' for you."

"Okay, Mike. Thanks." He gave the petulant lips a good kiss and after a brief caress, he left.

She watched him cross the street and her heart went out to him. They all looked worn but one man went beyond that. It was his eyes that she locked on to, troubled dark blue pools that were housed in a haggard face.

"Mary," Buck nodded, resting against the post next to her.

"Vin's alive."

"WHAT?"

She put her hands up, silencing the shocked cries. She addressed them all, but her eyes rested on Wilmington who'd since remained silent. At the news, his eyes shut and he sagged as if all the air were taken from him.

"Orrin got a letter from Chris. The wire in Willow was down and..."

"Willow?" J.D. interrupted. "What's Chris doing there?"

"He found Vin...somehow, I'm not sure of all the details, but Vin's alive. The letter said he survived surgery but was very critical. Chris is with him."

"I can't believe it," J.D. amazed. "How? How'd he get there?"

"What about Mason?" Josiah asked.

"No, well, the letter didn't say. It just said they're in Willow," she stated. "Since the wires were down, he had a courier deliver the note to Orrin and Orrin wired here. Ezra got back last night." She walked past the wagon to the lone figure who was now sitting on the boardwalk, head between his hands. She gently massaged the back of his neck.

"Buck?"

"I prayed," he whispered, eyeing the dusty street between his boots. "I mean, I really prayed, Mary. Harder than..." He didn't finish his thought, his tight throat wouldn't allow another word to escape.

"This came for you a couple of hours ago from Willow. They must have the wires back up. It's from a Doctor Murdoch."

Buck looked at the slim hand and the yellow paper. Furrowing his brows, he took the wire and let his eyes slide over the words.

"Well?" Josiah asked, now standing by the open back of the wagon. Like J.D. and Nathan, his eyes were trained on the forlorn figure.

Buck smiled then, not his usual woman-killer smile but a soft grateful one. His dark eyes were pooled with emotion and his right hand was trembling. He wasn't sure what to make of the message but he'd find out soon enough. He rose, eyed the livery and ruffled Billy's yellow hair.

"You do old Buck a favor, lil' pard?"

"Sure!" Billy gushed.

"You tell Tiny I'm gonna need his fastest horse."

"You leavin', Buck?" the boy asked, perplexed, craning his neck to see up that far. "You just got here."

"I'm gonna go see Vin and Chris," he replied, tapping the youngster's backside. "Go on now."

"Buck?" J.D. egged.

"Huh?" The rogue looked up.

"What's it say? Is it from Chris?" the youth asked.

"No." He shook his head, holding the note to his ear. "It's drawlin'...Damn if that don't sound like music!" he choked, still overcome by Vin Tanner's return to life. "It says...it says..." He took a good breath and rubbed his eyes. "Bucklin, I need ya..."

"You give me time to get these two settled, I'll ride with you, Buck," Josiah offered.

"No," Buck denied, seeing Tiny waving to him. "Town's been without its hired help long enough. You and Ezra keep an eye out. Plus," he nodded to Nathan whose immobilized leg left him in need of care, "Nate needs you here. I'll wire from Willow if something comes up."

"Why wouldn't Chris wire? If Vin is so bad off..." J.D.'s voice trailed off. "Unless something happened to Chris? You think he took off after Mason?"

"I don't know, Kid." Buck ruffled the dark hair and tapped the boy's face lightly. That same thought and a darker one were playing on him as well. He'd known Larabee longer than the others. Being cooped up inside for any lingering amount of time turned him into a caged beast. Had his temper spilled? Or had he stayed until Vin came through the worst of it and then left to hunt Mason? Was the tracker worried? Did he have cause to worry? "But I'm gonna find out."

"Buck...Buck wait..." Mary called after the departing man.

"Let him go, Mary," Josiah advised, lifting J.D to carry him inside.

"What's wrong with him?" the widow asked, waving at her approaching son. "He looks haunted..."

"He is...will be until he finds Chris." Josiah noted as Mary turned and crossed the street.

"You know Mister Wilmington bleeds for the world," Ezra noted, stepping from the doorway eyeing the departing newswoman. "Welcome home. Nathan, perhaps I can be of assistance."

"Yuh wanna help?" the healer asked, holding his hand out. "Gimme some of that fancy shit you got tucked away."

"No!" a voice boomed from inside.

"Shut up, preacher, ain't nobody talkin' to yuh..." Jackson ired. "I ain't forgettin' this."

"My, my..." Standish waited for Sanchez to reappear to aid in transporting the crippled man. "Who urinated in your soup?"

"It's who pissed in yuhr porridge and get the hell outta my way!" Jackson shoved the arm away.

"You, my good sir, are a saint," Standish offered to the returning and grinning Sanchez. That Josiah was not the least bit unnerved by the crusty healer gave him a smile. He eyed the path they'd taken into town. "The road to Hell?"

"And then some," Josiah sent back. "Nathan, I'm warnin' you, you settle down or I'll take the night off and send Hattie in to bathe you."

Ezra smirked as the color drained from Nathan's face. The threat of the huge woman who worked in the kitchen at the hotel manhandling him was too much to bear. She reeked of garlic and more often than not needed a shave.

"Yuhr a cruel man, preacher," Nathan muttered, letting the two carry him inside.

+ + + + + + +

Ten p.m.
Willow, NM

It had taken the better part of the day and night but finally, sanity had been restored. The floors had been scrubbed, the dishes done and a huge stack of clean sheets was piled neatly in the linen cabinet. His own bed had a new mattress on it where he would soon be sleeping. Two kettles were warming, one with water and one with chicken broth. A tin of crackers sat near the queasy man's side. Upon awakening, he gave the sick man some herbal tea, broth and crackers. He tried to do this every couple of hours. Although the bowel problem continued, it wasn't as severe. His patient was resting fitfully, murmuring and twitching in a state of troubled sleep. He sipped some coffee and sighed, feeling every bit of his age. A knock at the door brought him to his feet.

"Yes?"

"Doctor Murdoch? I'm Buck Wilmington."

He opened the door and eyed a tall, young man who looked as tired as he felt. He opened the door wider and extended his arm in invitation.

"I wasn't expecting you until tomorrow. You must have..."

"Vin...?"

Buck dropped his hat on a chair by the door and moved closer. He paused over the converted bed, watching the chest rise and fall beneath a thin, white sheet. He saw the rosy hue on the Texan's cheeks and rested his hand there. He inhaled sharply when the hot breath danced on his hand. He sighed hard and tapped the warm skin.

"Damn orn'ry mangy..." his voice quivered. "I thought you up and died."

"He nearly did and he's not out of the woods yet. The fact he survived the surgery is a miracle. He was making good progress, thanks to Moses and Chris. Then he got hit by a stomach virus of some sort, mostly severe diarrhea and that fever. I don't have to tell you what that does to a man as weak as he already is."

"No, sir, you don't." Buck adjusted the sheet and slid his hand over Vin's heart. Just feeling that thump against his palm made a difference. It made all the difference. The soft thump seemed to go right through his flesh and travel to his heart. "I buried friends in the war, good men. Dysentery...terrible thing." He turned around finally, eyeing the small house. "Chris here?"

"No, he's in town."

"Why ain't he here and who's Moses?"

"Have you eaten, Mister Wilmington?"

"It's Buck, Doc, and no, not since breakfast."

"There's some chicken and potato salad," he offered. "Sit down by the hearth. I'll fix you a plate. It's a rather amazing story."

It was past midnight when Murdoch finally finished his preparations for the next day. He washed, changed and left two low lamps on. He poured a mug of coffee and gave it to the newest house guest. He liked this young man, feeling so clearly just how he ached for his friends. Although his eyes rarely strayed from the sleeping patient, he knew he was worried about the other one as well.

Buck sat by the tracker's side, sipping coffee and watching the younger man sleep. It was an amazing story of luck and fortune. In the morning, he'd ride into town and find Chris. He needed to see those murky green eyes and make sure they were clear. But tonight, he pushed his weariness away and intended to just enjoy the sheer pleasure of drinking in the fine features of the scrappy ex-bounty hunter.

"He's a fighter."

"No," Buck corrected, wearing a proud, almost paternal smile. He cupped the squared chin which caused the pale brown brows to furrow in sleep. "He's a Tanner. Damned if he ain't every inch a Tanner."

"Goodnight, Buck."

"Night, Doc."

+ + + + + + +

Lord, it was hot.

Vin gazed across the desert and wondered how far he was from town. He tugged on his collar and trudged onward, putting one foot in front of the other. The sun beat down and he stumbled, falling to his hands and knees. He crawled then, spying a tree up ahead, shelter from the heat. He was so thirsty. He collapsed and the sand invaded his mouth causing him to cough.

"Easy there, Slick." Buck eased the convulsing body up and against his chest. "Don't you heave on me, Vin. Keep that broth inside."

He cracked an eye open and licked his dry lips. He was too hot and needed a drink. His mouth was burning. Once again, his confused brain couldn't make out the time, just night or day. Darkness outside meant night. A low lamp sent a soft golden light onto the sheet. Someone was holding him and he heard water being poured. He opened his mouth and waited for the mug to appear.

"Slow and easy now," Buck encouraged, smiling as the sleepy features crinkled in confusion.

As he drank, something occurred to him. He sniffed. He sniffed a second time, his nose wrinkling in distaste. The mug was empty and the small effort took his breath. But the smell lingered and his brain replied to his question. The words shot out before he could stop to organize them.

"Cheap perfume...cheap women...cheap...whis...key..." The blues under his slitted eyes darted. He tilted his head back trying to see. A blurry peach-colored form appeared wearing a mustache. The deep laughter caused his heart to surge. "Buck...lin..."

"You look like shit, Vin." Buck's voice broke as the weak prayer went airborne. His throat tightened a bit as he took the wavering hand. He eased Vin back down and reclaimed his seat. The unfocused eyes blinked and moved, trying to find him. He leaned closer, needing to hear the familiar refrain. It was weak, barely a wisp of a whisper but to him it sounded like thunder.

"...fuck...yer...sorry...ass...t'...t'hell..." Vin pressed, squeezing the hand as much as he could. "Bu....Bucklin..." He took a few moments to capture his lost breath, closing his eyes and sighing when a cool cloth wiped his face.

He forced his eyes back open when the aroma of chicken broth hit him.

"You let me do all the work," Buck ordered. He put the mug down long enough to lift a large sack of flour. Holding it under one arm, he lifted Vin with the other and placed it on the table behind the injured man. He grabbed a second one, placing it on top of the first and then added a folded sheet. Finally, he lowered the gasping body.

"Sorry..." He felt the tremors and the claw-like hold on his wrist. "You okay? Somethin' comin' back up or out?" The damp head shook negatively so Buck picked up the mug. Slowly, he spooned every bit of broth into the waiting mouth. Several times, Vin's eyes drifted closed and he'd wait, then gently rouse him. Finally, it was done. He pulled the blanket up and tapped that scarlet cheek. "Sweet dreams..."

A few moments later while he was sipping a new cup of coffee, a light brush on his hand caused him to turn. The eyes were only half open but shining with a blue light brighter than the noonday sun. The lips parted twice and nothing came out. He leaned in and the hand moved, touching his face.

"Thank God...yer...here...Buck...ya got...no idea..."

"Aw, hell, Vin..." Buck replied, totally undone by the wavering voice and those damned eyes. There was something else brewing in the telltale Tanner mirrors and he knew before the struggling lips could produce the word. He took the flailing hand and gave it a squeeze, sending his promise.

"Chris is okay, he's in town. I'm going to see him tomorrow. Don't you worry about him going off half-cocked." He saw the relief pouring out and used his free hand to pick up the cloth floating in the basin of water. He wiped the fevered face once again and saw the eyes drifting shut. "Buck's on the job. You got my word."

"...good...as...d...d...done..." Vin sighed, slipping into a healing sleep.

+ + + + + + +

A loud sound woke him up. He squinted against the fading light that poured through thin curtains and pierced his throbbing eyes. For a split second, he wondered how or why someone was sitting on his chest. Every breath was hard fought and noisy. The sound came back and as he doubled over coughing. He realized that the harsh alarm was his own chest rebelling against unwanted invaders.

He curled up a moment, wheezing and trying to decide whether to sit up or bury his head under the blanket. His dry mouth and scratchy throat made the decision for him. He turned onto his back and rubbed his painful eyes. He squinted at the unfamiliar wallpaper and his ears caught the murmurs of civilian life not far away. Images flickered through his foggy brain. A hot bath and shave, a roast chicken for dinner and finally collapsing in a bed. Then a nightmare invaded, in full living color. A naked body cowering in shame and his roaring tirade.

Vin.

"...fucked up good this time..."

"Just proves you're human after all, just like the rest of us."

"Buck?" Chris pried his fingers from his eyes and sat up, immediately regretting it. His hacking cough returned and the light streaming into the small room hit him square in the eye. "When'd you get here?"

"Here as in Willow? Late last night," the rogue updated the confused blond. "Sat with Vin until noon. Damn mangy head wouldn't stay down, kept houndin' me to ride here. I got here a few hours ago. You were out cold."

"Vin? You saw him?" Chris's voice dropped and his face tinged with a bit of regret then. "How is he?"

"He's real weak, that doctor's a little worried. Seems like most of what we get inside him comes out one end or the other. He's wastin' what little breath he can scare up worryin' on you..."

"Fuck..." Chris punched the bed and sighed hard, raking a hand through his clean hair.

"I promised him I'd check on you and I'm doin' just that. So how 'bout you get dressed, we get some dinner and I'll update you on Nate, J.D. and Vin. I promised him I'd get back tonight."

"Dammit!" Larabee hissed and tried to hide his throbbing face from the harsh sun.

"Hold on." Wilmington moved across the room and tied Chris's discarded shirt to the curtain rod. It blocked out most of the light. He then moved to the chest of drawers and poured a mug of water.

"I'm fine," Chris barked, seeing the all too familiar shades of worry pouring from Buck's dark blue eyes. He drained the water, fumbled badly trying to find the medicine bottle and shoved the empty mug back. While Buck refilled it, he took a hit of cough medicine. "Christ, can't somebody make this shit drinkable?"

"Nate says the worse it tastes, the better it is," Buck replied, handing the mug back and straddling the edge of the bedside stand.

At the sound of the healer's name, the blond's hand froze on the mug. He swiped the excess fluid running down his chin and frowned. How much time had passed? He recalled that both J.D. and Nathan were out of surgery but that was...was...how long ago? His rubbed his jaw and was relieved to find smooth skin where his beard had been. His nose told him the bath was successful as well. He lifted his face, squinting through a pounding headache at his oldest friend.

"Nate and the kid?"

"Took forever but we got back to town yesterday. They're both getting better. Nate's gonna be laid up a while. He damn near lost his leg." He chuckled a bit thinking on the irate man. "Only time he ain't pissin' vinegar is when he's sleeping. Mary told us right off about Vin." He dropped his head then. "I never felt so relieved. I never prayed so hard."

"Never struck me as the religious type," Chris commented. "But for Vin..."

"For you too!"

"Me?" Chris scowled. "What the hell for? Mason don't have the balls to face me."

"I know you, Chris," Buck supplied quietly, his eyes bearing in on the bruised greens. "And I know how much that Texan means to you. You'd ride clear through Hell to get at Mason. Got a picture of you breaking every bone in his body in the middle of some no name town. Some green horn sheriff shoving your hot head through a rope."

"Buck, I wouldn't..." He stopped at the derisive snort that the other man issued. "Okay, I might have but I gave Vin my word I wouldn't kill him. I'm gonna find him," he curled up one fist and sneered, "no matter what rock he crawled under. But I'm bringing him back to face the judge."

Buck ducked his head and caught the clear green light then. Relief poured over him and he stood, gave the naked shoulder a tug and then eyed the chair across the room. He'd brought new clothes from the store and had been waiting for the exhausted caretaker to wake up. He handed them over without comment, waiting patiently while the other man rose and began to dress.

"Did he tell you what I did...?"

"He didn't have to," Buck supplied, watching Chris's fingers tremble as they buttoned the new shirt. The shake in the fingers matched the one in his voice. "It's written all over your face. You've lost weight, you got dark circles under your eyes...but he's still breathin' 'cause of you and that old man."

"No, I shamed him, Buck," Chris whispered, shoving his shirt into his pants and buttoning the fly. "I did what no other friend or foe ever has. I took the fire out of his eyes. He turtled up on me...," He turned then, glaring openly at the other man. "On me, Buck!"

"This may come as a shock to you, Chris." Buck handed the dusty boots over and waited as the shaky man sat down and tugged them on. "But you bleed real blood. Genuine one-hundred percent American stock. You've been livin' on coffee and cat naps while takin' care of him. And he's human too, Chris. Hell, who wouldn't be ashamed? Too weak to care for your own needs? But you didn't take his pride away," Buck added in a softer tone, waiting for the haunted eyes to rise. "You gave it back to him when you gave him your word. Don't you see that?"

There was no reply, only a stiff shoulder as the body moved past him, strapped on the black gunbelt and grabbed the flat-brimmed hat. Buck sighed, raking his hand through his hair before he attempted to follow.

"Okay, we settle this over dinner. Then..."

"The hell with dinner, I need to see him. I have to apologize..."

"No!" Buck grabbed him in the hall and turned him. "Now you listen to me. I sat up all night with that boy. I watched his chest rise and fall and held my breath when that raspy breathin' wouldn't settle. He's weak and he's down now, but he's fightin' hard to come back. You're sick too, Chris. You got a fever and you're hackin' shit all over the bed. You cough on him and give him that stuff and you'll kill him. Now, you swallow that damn pride of yours and get your head out of your ass because you even try to get on your horse and you'll wake up cuffed to that bed."

He saw a single brow arch upward over a blazing green eye. "No? You don't think I will? Try me!" He jabbed his finger into Larabee's chest and nodded his head. "After we eat, I'm gonna haul you back here, watch you drink that medicine and you're gonna sleep. I got another bottle from that doctor and orders. You rest, eat and get rid of that mess. You give him time to get stronger. You think he likes lyin' around like a rag doll? You think he don't feel guilty that you bustin' your balls to take care of him made you sick? Chris, he can't fight for both of you and you both need a little time to heal."

Buck stood back and gave the struggling man some room. He knew how hard it was for Chris not to rush to make amends. He didn't know all of what happened, only the little bit the doctor admitted to. He'd pieced together the rest, adding Chris's exhaustion and illness to the gunslinger's legendary mood swings. Cooped up for all that time with no one to help tend to an invalid would have fried anyone's nerves.

A quiet but determined voice brought his eyes to the other side of the hall.

"Four days," Chris vowed, turning towards the stairs.

+ + + + + + +

Every blink seemed to add tiny weights to his eyelids. He fought through the series of attempted eye closures and drew his eyes up unnaturally wide. He kept them focused on the door, his ears trained to hear hooves.

Doctor Murdoch paused in the entry to his bedroom and smiled at the owl-like blue eyes a few feet away. How his patient was still awake was anybody's guess. In his weakened condition, the mere effort of eating soup and swallowing tea usually sent him straight to sleep. Tonight, for the first time in what his patient said was close to five days, the food stayed down. He hoped that was a positive sign and the young man was finally on the mend.

"Vin, don't fight it. You need to rest."

"I ain't hardly...ti...red..." Vin rasped, blinking again and shaking his nodding head.

"It's been a while since your two friends saw each other. It's just possible that they're catching up and Buck was too tired to ride back..."

"...he give his word..." Vin vowed, peering through blue slits at the door.

Shaking his head, the doctor went to prepare his herbs and medicinal teas for the overnight and morning hours. He would try some more soup and maybe crackers in the morning. If all went well, he could try cheese and eggs at lunch. A small snore caused his lips to curl upward. He turned back and returned to his determined patient's side. He pulled the blanket up and felt the forehead. It was cool.

"It's a wonder you keep any weight at all with all that worrying..."

It wasn't much later when the door opened and a soft voice called out.

"It's just me, Doc."

"Evening, Buck. How's Chris?"

"Better. Looks almost human. Go back to sleep, we'll talk in the morning."

Buck took his hat and coat off and paused at the bed. His hand touched the pale cheek and he nodded, encouraged by the lack of fever. He shook the coffee pot which was still warm and poured himself a mug. As he was returning to his chair by the bed, he saw the Texan's body twitching. He set the mug down and stood over the fighter. The brows were furrowed and a small frown had begun to form.

"Damn, you even sleep hard..." Buck chuckled, resting a hand on the twitching shoulder. "Easy, Slick, you're gonna wear out that scrawny ass of yours."

"...m'ass..." Vin mumbled, "...ain't scrawny..."

"Well, we all can't have Buck stock." He eased his frame into the chair and saw two blue eyes peel half open. For a few moments, they blinked and then they narrowed just as the lips parted.

"Buck?"

"Sorry 'bout bein' late, Vin. But you know how orn'ry Chris can get."

"He okay? Looked like Lucifer's stepfather..."

"He's followin' the doctor's orders to the 'T'. He's eatin', dousin' himself with cat piss and sleepin' round the clock. He's gonna ride out to see you in a few days. Had to practically hogtie him to keep him away tonight. He feels awful about what happened."

"Water under the bridge," Vin hissed, eyes fighting. "Make yerself useful." He nodded towards the empty cup.

"Dammit, Vin, I just sat down," Buck growled playfully, ruffling the wavy brown locks. "You're a pain in the ass, you know that?"

"...try..."

"Here." Buck returned with a clean mug of warm herbal tea. He had a jar of honey in the other hand. "Honey?"

"Yes, dear?"

Buck laughed then, not at the poor joke but at the weak laugh that followed. Vin was proud of his quip and seeing those eyes crinkle up in mirth was something worth savoring. Knowing the tracker's sweet tooth, he doused the tea and stirred it. Then he held the mug out. A shaky hand came up and he followed it, ensuring that the tea wouldn't spill. It went down easy and he took the empty cup back. The eyes were barely open but trained hard on him.

"Thanks...fer...watchin'...m'back..."

"Aw, hell, you never spill your booze, Tanner."

"...weren't talkin'...'bout that..." Vin pushed the words out through his fading body. He could rest now; Buck was here. Chris was safe.

"I know," Buck soothed, sitting in the chair and tucking the patient back in. He frowned when the right arm fought under the blanket. He saw determination mark the younger man's face and drew the blanket back. The arm shot up and latched on to his forearm. For a few seconds he didn't move, taken aback by the gesture that was marked&emdash;no, reserved&emdash;only for Chris Larabee.

Vin didn't say a word; he didn't have to. Buck swallowed hard and returned the grip, a single nod of his head silently shouting 'you're welcome.' He kept it there for a few moments after the eyes slid shut. Then he gently tucked the arm away again. His own arm still tingled from the warmth of the younger man's touch. It was a wonderful feeling and he let it keep him company as he kept his vigil.

+ + + + + + +

Three days later
Dusk
Willow, NM

Buck was right, damn him.

The four days of rest and recuperation had made all the difference. As he shaved, he noticed that he looked a lot better. The cough had died down to a nagging annoyance and the hot food and rest had refueled his exhausted body. He rinsed and dried his face and eyed the man in the mirror. Tomorrow after breakfast, he was riding out to see Vin Tanner. He strapped his gun on and set out to find some dinner.

His upcoming conversation with Vin was on his mind. As he put the words together, he headed across the street to the saloon. He wanted a thick steak and a bowl of chili. He paused to go around a peddler's cart, then stopped dead in his tracks and cocked his head. A cold air of foreboding blew down the street, chilling him to the bone.

Slowly, he turned and retraced his steps. His heart was hammering so loud and hard, he felt sure it would break a rib. His eyes found it...he hadn't imagined it. His hand reached out and touched it, the soft leather nearly burning into his flesh. A molten fire exploded inside him then and all traces of sanity and decorum fled in the same rush of blood that caused him to move like lightning.

"What the hell's wr...?"

Jacob Dienner's words were cut off when he was pulled from the seat of his traveling wagon of wares and shoved hard against the wall in the alley. A face, so livid with anger it nearly blinded him, appeared just inches from his own. He yelped in shock and then gasped when the unmistakable form of the barrel of a gun was thrust down the inside of his pants. The iron pressed hard into his groin and he swallowed hard, his eyes bulging in fear.

"Look, Mister...I don't have much money. It's in the..."

"Money!" Chris almost laughed. He held the object of his wrath up and pulled the hammer of the gun back. "I don't want your fuckin' blood money!"

"Shit...aw, shit..." Jacob grunted, sweat rolling down his face.

"Where'd you get this?" Chris growled, impressing a sense of urgency by the force of the Colt now cradling the quivering man's balls.

"That thing?" The shaken man now had total amnesia. All he could concentrate on was the fact that if he didn't choose the right words, his manhood would be lying in bloody bits and pieces in this alley. "Uh...uh...I don't...I can't..."

"Then you better fuckin' think harder!" Chris growled, using his strength to press his forearm against the peddler's throat. "You got ten seconds. I'm quite a pool player and with the right shot, I can send your balls out of either pocket," he warned, shoving his arm harder as he felt the other man's legs quiver. "You piss on my boots and I'll really lose my temper. Now, I want an answer!" he ordered through gritted teeth.

"Okay, okay..." Jacob bought some time. "Let me see, it..."

Chris kept the gun in place and moved his arm back, dangling the soft leather item in front of the shaken man's eyes.

"Uh...yeah, I remember now," the peddler nodded, his eyes following the slight sway of the Native American item. "It was earlier today near the border. I passed some fella breakin' camp. Seemed to be in a hurry, he tossed a bag of stuff away as he rode out. I picked it up."

"What fella?"

"Tall, reddish brown hair, good-looking I'd say and dressed fancy. He, uh...headed south."

"Mexico?"

"Yeah...Santa Luisa, I think. It's right over the border." He didn't understand why this man was so enraged over the hand-sewn leather item on a cord. "It's just some Indian junk..."

In a lightning fast move, Chris holstered his gun and slammed his fist into the man's soft belly. When the peddler hit his knees, he grabbed the sputtering man's hair and pulled his head back. He pulled his knife out and used the tip of it against the exposed white throat, drawing a bead of blood and making his point clear.

"Your brain's smaller than your dick, hard to believe!" Chris grated harshly. "This is a medicine pouch and highly valued by a very close friend of mine. That bastard you saw shot him and stole it from him. Now, I'm gonna find that yellow dog and I'll take down any son-of-a-bitch who helped him," the irate blond dictated, ensuring that the stout salesman was telling the truth.

"I'm sorry...please, don't kill me. How could I know? The boots looked new, I grabbed them. Be a fool not to. That pouch was shoved inside. I didn't know..."

"Boots?" Chris shoved the slobbering and slightly damp man forward. "You show me!"

"Here...take them..." Jacob threw the soft leather boots at the angry black storm.

Chris shoved the quivering man back towards the driver's seat.

"Drive," he commanded. "Don't stop until you hit Arizona. I keep my promises."

"Yeah...sure..." He jumped up, picked up the reins and didn't waste any time.

When the dust died down and the groveling peddler was gone, Chris scooped the boots up. He tucked them under his arm and headed for the livery. He took a few moments to use his kerchief to clean the dirt off of them. Almost reverently, he then folded them and tucked them inside his saddle bags. Then, he carefully placed the medicine pouch inside the kerchief and secured it. He tucked it inside his breast pocket, near his heart.

Chris knew that area of the border and it was very close. If he hurried, he could be in Santa Luisa before nightfall. With any luck, by this time tomorrow Mason would be locked up in jail and he could deliver that news to Vin.

"The hunt's over," Chris vowed, urging his horse into motion.

+ + + + + + +

Vin yawned and inhaled the wonderful aroma of coffee. Gingerly, he eased his body upright and held on for a moment. The dizziness still plagued him, especially when he first woke up. He kept his eyes closed; it helped to ward off the strange sensation.

"Mornin', son, you're lookin' better."

"Hey, Doc." Vin peeled an eye open and took the mug of coffee. The first sip brought a contented moan. "Jest right."

"Mister Carter appreciates the business," he noted of the owner of the Mercantile in town who had supplied the sugar. "Myself, I like it black."

"When we're home, I switch 'em up sometimes," Vin noted of his sugar-laden coffee. "Jest t'shake Chris up a bit. Wakes 'im right up."

"I'll bet." The doctor put his coat on and paused. "You sure you're alright?"

"Hell, yeah," Vin nodded, patting his flat abdomen, "Nothin' churnin'r gurglin'. Ain't throwed up none since lunch yesterday. Bucklin'll be up soon." He nodded to the sleeping body on the floor.

"Well, all right. I'll be back tomorrow."

"Listen, Doc, thanks fer everythin'. We was in a helluva mess when ya come home. Fine thing, ya open yer door t'strangers and they turn it upside down."

"In my book," Murdoch eyed the recovering young man carefully, "a man is not measured by his height but rather by his heart. I learned that from my own father."

"Smart man," Vin agreed. "Ya done good by him."

"Thank you, Vin." He eyed the ribs that were a little too prominent. "I want you to eat every few hours, small meals. Don't push too hard, you rest. You don't want a relapse."

"No, sir, I sure as hell don't!" Vin decided. "See ya tomorrow. Give Moses m'best."

"I will."

Vin sat back and relaxed for a few moments, watching the dark sky. Dawn would rouse soon, stretching her arms and sending a golden yawn to cover the new sky. He sipped his coffee and contemplated on this day. He frowned and thought on the arrival to come. Chris would be returning and he wasn't sure how he'd find him. On one hand, he was glad his friend was well again. But that meant he'd be riding on to find Mason and that worried him a bit. What if Mason got the drop on him? What if Mason saw Chris first?"

"...comes with the territory..." he whispered of his own fate and that of his best friend, both who'd ridden alone for a long time with only their reputation for company. But the ache remained. That too came with the territory, that new place inside where he had family where once was none. Worrying on someone and having them worry over you was a bittersweet pill. He sighed, placed the empty cup on the table and smiled at the sound from below. Buck was snoring on the thick quilt a few feet away. The warmth inside was not from the hot coffee that invaded him; it was a benefit of being in a 'family'. Having a 'big brother' like Buck Wilmington made the sun shine just a little brighter.

"Buck?"

No movement.

"Buck...ya up?"

Nary a motion.

"Buck? Dammit!"

The body turned away, interrupting the nose thunder briefly and then resumed its slumber.

"BUCK!"

"What?" Buck sat up, bumped his head on the table leg and blinked at his young charge. "You okay? What's wrong?"

"Nuthin'...day's wastin' and we got lots o'work t'do." Vin held out his arm and waited.

"Huh?"

"Work, ya know, I need t'get m'legs workin'."

"Now?" Buck croaked, eyeing the dark blue sky just starting to lighten. "It's not even day yet."

"Shur it is," Vin scowled when the other man flopped back down. "That's okay, I can do it m'self. It ain't s'far to the potty chair. "

He paused, leaned over a bit and waited, but the body didn't move. Frowning, he pulled the sheet back and swung his legs over the edge. Keeping his eyes on the body, he pushed another button.

"Iffen the floor would jest quit movin', I could get m'self started. Reckon there's enough wood out back fer a splint, worse gets t'worst..." The back of the dark head lifted as he slid off the table. His sharp exclamation was from his warm feet hitting the cold floor but it worked. He barely got his bearings when he was face first into a strong chest. He pulled his head back and gave the growling man his best smile. "Mornin', Bucklin!"

"Goddammit, Vin!" Buck sassed, keeping his hand on Vin's elbow as the unsteady body moved slowly across the room. "...splints out back..." he mumbled, settling Vin on the 'throne'.

"I might be a minute 'er two..." Vin warned. "Best ya wrassle with them pots. I'm awful hungry and we got work t'do. Can't run on empty..."

"I only need one pot for hot cereal," Buck replied, moving across to the kitchen. "Why you all fired up? Yesterday, you burrowed under that blanket like a mole."

"Was part of the plan," Vin winced as his tender insides still protested movement. "I was restin' up extra."

"Plan?"

"Need t'be on m'feet when he gits here, so's I can look 'im in the eye when I kick his ass," he noted. "Don't got no time fer his long face'r draggin' chin."

Buck rubbed the sleep from his eyes, then went outside. He took care of the call of nature before using the water pump to fill the two pots. He set them on the stove and poured himself some coffee. He made the mistake of looking over to the other side of the room and saw the bright-eyed tracker. Twice, the slim body tried to rise and the unsteady feet shot out wrong. He l10:55 AM 7/1/2016aughed then.

Vin looked like an overly anxious terrier puppy whose paws wouldn't work right.

"Hold on, Slick." He put his cup down and crossed the room. He helped Vin stand but his arm was pushed away.

"I can do it," Vin protested, eyeing the small table and chairs the doctor set up by the stove. "Jest don't go far."

"Damn Vin, you got no ass," Buck noted from his station just behind the slow-moving man.

"Yer gettin' awful familiar with m'ass!" Vin panted, wondering why the room seemed twice as long.

"Worse things in life," Buck shot back, then moved in and grabbed the younger man when his knees buckled.

"Let go o'me, it ain't much ferther..." Vin protested before his air ran out.

"Rome wasn't built in a day, Vin." Buck supported the sagging man and ushered him to the table. He tugged up the large pink opening in the drawers and buttoned them before depositing Vin on the chair. Immediately, the head went down on top of his crossed arms. He kept his own hand on Vin's damp undershirt, rubbing it a little. "Slow and easy, it's not a race. It's gonna take some time, Vin. Hell, four days ago, you couldn't lift your head."

"I hate this!" Vin soured of his inability to even walk a few feet. "Seems I go sideways fer every three steps I take. Damn beds got m'ass all wore the hell out..."

"Oh, I don't know," Buck teased. "Your ass isn't that beat up. I'm gettin' mighty fond of it." Buck laughed again and even though the tangled head remained buried, a single finger shot up. He ruffled the damp hair and returned to the stove. "After breakfast, we'll go outside and give them legs a little work."

Vin rested on the table, dozing lightly while Buck cooked. He moaned and forced his eyes open when the tantalizing scent of bacon, eggs and potatoes tied up his senses. There it was, just a few inches away. Three pieces of crisp bacon, scrambled eggs with bits of cheese and browned grated potatoes. On a plate nearby were several biscuits. He lifted his head and licked his lips, the anticipation nearly causing his weak body to faint. Just as he snaked a hand over, the harsh slap of reality hit him.

"Ow!"

"Paws off!" Buck warned, shoving a small bowl at the startled ex-bounty hunter.

"What the hell's this shit?" Vin protested, wrinkling his nose at the pasty mix. "I ain't eatin' that. Hell, I wouldn't even use it to slap bricks t'gether."

"Awful long time until your midmorning break," Buck replied, shoving a bowl of honey towards the grumbling face. "Honey?"

"Shut the fuck up!" Vin grabbed the jar. "Yer mean, ya know that? Puttin' the devil's plate in front of an invalid," he soured of the temptation.

"You give that Tanner mouth a rest or you'll get that for lunch too," Buck warned and saw the blue eyes narrow. "Them bowels of yours ain't fully healed yet and I ain't plannin' on spending my mornin' catchin' Tanner shit."

"Why can't I have eggs?" Vin demanded. "Ain't nuthin' in an egg that'll shoot out." He saw Buck raise an eyebrow and frowned. "That were an accident..." he noted of lunch the day before.

"That stays put, you can have cheese and bread for lunch with some soup."

"Aw hell, ain't I the lucky one?" Vin grumbled, picking up his spoon and gingerly stirring the thick mix. "Did ya spit in here?"

"Right after I pissed in it." Buck rolled his eyes, snatching a piece of bacon. He suppressed a smile at the low curses in Kiowa and Tanner talk that rose over the cereal.

+ + + + + + +

Santa Luisa, Mexico
Dusk

The language barrier dissolved quickly when the stranger rode down the street. Every head turned to the lone figure dressed in black. The brawling quintet in the street paused, fists in midair, when he rode past. The whore servicing a drunken bandit pulled her head out of his lap when the man above cursed softly. The other assorted lowlifes, bandits and drunks all paused to take notice.

Even the air stilled in its homage.

He rode past them. His head remained still but the eyes under the flat-brimmed hat moved left and right. He drank in every face, body and building. His trained eyes sought out a pale face and light hair among the dark-skinned locals. He swept past the saloon and his eyes lingered on the rooms above the cheap drinkery. He tied his horse out front, tossed a coin to the street urchin with the promise of more if the horse remained there. He took his saddlebags, tossed them over his shoulder and went inside.

He paused in the doorway before entering the room. One hand caressed his Colt and his stance alone commanded respect. His cool eyes slid over the few occupants of the room. Not seeing Mason or any other threats, he headed for the bar. A burly Mexican man was shoving a burrito down his throat when he approached and he nodded to a bottle behind the bar.

"¿Cuánto es?"

Ciego Canterres eyed the man in black and his blood ran cold. It wasn't just the quiet calm in the low voice or the well-honed body. It was the eyes. He'd seen that look before and it gave him a shiver. He heard the question concerning the price of the tequila and held up two fingers. The stranger nodded and tossed a coin across.

Chris took the bottle and appraised the man before him. The gaze that returned told him the man knew the score. He didn't waste any time. He uncorked the bottle and took a swig. As the liquor burned a path downward, he heard a woman's laughter overhead.

"English?"

"Sí! "

"I'm looking for a man, my height, reddish brown hair, blue eyes. Ladies man, comprendé?"

"," Ciego hesitated, his eyes betraying him. For the split second that he thought on a reply, his eyes darted to the stairs. That was all the stranger needed.

"Gracias! " Chris nodded, took his bottle and headed for the upper floor.

Carmelita Delgado whimpered under the handsome gringo who rode her. It wasn't often someone as good-looking and rich as this man rode through town. He'd paid Ciego well to find her and the silver that she had already tucked into her boot would go a long way. She wrapped her legs around his waist and grunted as he drove hard into her. So wrapped up in the ecstasy that ran through her ripe body, she didn't see the stranger approach. Her lover's eyes widened in shock briefly when the gun hit his head, then he fell on top of her.

"Get out," Chris ordered, hauling Mason to the floor.

Once she'd gone, he concentrated on the job before him. He put his saddlebags and the bottle on the small wooden table by the bed. He squatted over Mason's pale body and pulled his knife out. He thought of the lost hours Vin had spent in the cave, cold and alone. He thought on the pain his friend had suffered before and after the surgery. Those lost blue eyes drowning in fever haunted him. The knife came out easily and he traced a line across the coward's throat.

Easy.

It would be so easy.

Too easy.

He stood, kicking Mason hard between the legs and gathered up his raging emotions. He needed his head clear. He would take Mason back to New Mexico Territory and the charges that faced him. He would make sure he stood in the front of the crowd when they put the noose around the bastard's throat. He'd make sure his face was the last thing that Mason saw. He bent over the unconscious man and issued his threat.

"You fucked with the wrong person," he whispered, holding the knife to the pale skin and gripping the damp auburn hair.

It came to him then and a cruel smile creased his face. He found Mason's clothes in the corner and his luggage. He poked around and found a pair of heavy pants. With quick and precise movements, he cut the pants into several long pieces. He bound, blindfolded and gagged Mason. With his prisoner secure, the man on a mission went back downstairs to get a quick bite to eat. He had a long night ahead of him and needed the fuel.

+ + + + + + +

Willow, NM
Dusk

Before Buck even eased his lanky body from the horse, he met the worried blue eyes.

*"He knows."*

He didn't speak to Vin. The tracker was dressed in cotton pants and a loose white shirt and sitting on the porch. A full plate of food sat next to him. When Chris hadn't arrived by midday, Buck rode back into town looking for him. Despite his thorough search, questioning the help at the hotel, people on the street and even the sheriff, he came up empty.

Chris Larabee couldn't be found.

He got his horse settled down and finally headed over to the house. He paused on the first step, feeling every bit of Tanner's waves of worry.

"He's gone, ain't he?"

"Yeah," Buck nodded. "I asked all over town but..."

"He's huntin'..." Vin hissed, his anger rising. "GODDAMMIT!"

"You didn't eat?" Buck ignored the curse and moved closer. "You wanna have a relapse? You know better." He shoved the plate closer and watched the handsome man's profile remain on the far horizon. Vin didn't reply but the bobbing Adam's apple spoke clearly for him.

"He'll be back, Vin. And he'll have Mason with him. He gave his word." He sat down next to the other man and held the plate out. "Come on..."

He waited but no reply came. He got his own plate of food and ate quietly, glad that the injured man had finally given in and was eating the chicken and dumplings as well. Afterward, he took the empty plates into the house and got them each a cup of coffee. He sat by Vin, keeping a quiet vigil. The blue eyes remained trained on the path down the road. Finally, as the recovering man's eyes began to droop and the head bobbed, he stood. Vin managed to get to his feet and almost to the bed before his legs gave out.

"I gotcha," Buck supplied quietly, helping the younger man onto the bed. He pulled a light sheet up and then went outside to get the empty mugs. He winced visibly when he heard it, a broken raspy call. It slipped out of the window and onto the wind.

"Word, Chris."

+ + + + + + +

New Mexico Territory
Evening

The first thing that struck him as he began to rouse was that he was cold. He shivered and tried to pry his eyes open. The headache that replied was his punishment for drinking too much. He moaned and tried to cough but found he couldn't. The gag confused him at first, but not until he began to tug on his limbs, did he panic. He was bound and gagged, unable to move. He peeled one eye open and his head was forced sideways.

Nothing.

He blinked but the inky blackness remained. As he inhaled again, the damp confines of his prison took shape. The musty smell and icy dampness of the wet ground beneath him were clues to his location. He twitched when water dripped onto his forehead. It was too wet and damp for a mine shaft. He was underground though, naked and tied to posts above his head and below his feet.

A cave.

He shivered again as the cold air caressed his exposed flesh. Then something slimy and wet snaked its way up his inner thigh. The distinct sound of a rattle split the darkness and he screamed. He twisted and tested the ties that bound him to no avail. His heart began to gyrate wildly and tiny rivers of liquid fear began to pour from his body. His eyes darted in the blackness, wondering where the snake went. Had it left to seek out other prey? Or was it just beneath his manhood, ready to strike. He felt sure the pressure in his chest was a heart attack, the fear nearly paralyzing him. The only sound in the dark prison was the thunder in his ears caused by his rapidly beating heart.

He felt it again and his heart nearly stopped. He inhaled sharply, tears running from his eyes. He felt the reptile move again and heard that sinister rattle. It slithered over his groin and stopped, curling up to rest. The slick sensation had his stomach churning and the mental image of yellow fangs ripping into him caused his bladder to empty.

He prayed.

Inwardly, he was shouting every prayer he knew and begging forgiveness. He wasn't a religious man but the cold that hugged his bones told him he was about to die. He didn't know by whose hand he'd been left here. He couldn't remember anything that happened after dinner. How long ago was that? Had he left town and been followed? Had the thieves left him here to die? He closed his eyes and waited to die, cursing his fate.

Through his moaning and frantic desire, he heard the rattling start again. The smooth body nestled against his balls began to dance and twitch. He screamed when he felt the slick skin press against his leg. He was sure those fangs were about to tear into his exposed flesh. The rattle seemed to fill the entire space he was confined in and the fear of the unknown caused him to pass out.

The rattle woke him, jerking his dulled senses to alert. It was by his ear now and he had to smother his first impulse to jerk his head away. He felt the cold scaly skin moving on his neck and he wanted to whimper. He wanted to beg. He wanted to die. He wanted that pressure in his chest to explode and take this away. The rattle sounded by his right ear and the slimy mess moved over his face. He screamed against the rag and passed out again.

The rattle woke him this third time, seeming to move all around. It was in front of his face, then near his stomach, dancing everywhere. The sound to his tortured ears was deafening. It moved again, swirling in a pattern of cold circles on his chest. He cried again, waiting for the bite to come and wondering why he wasn't dead yet.

*"Please...I want to die...just end this torture...please...God...take me..."*

But he didn't die. Not that time, nor the next, nor the time after. Every time he woke up, he wondered again why he wasn't dead. Hours passed and the torture continued. He screamed, cried and begged. By the last rousing, his bladder and bowels emptied once more and he passed out—again.

Dawn was nearly awake when he exited his own stake in Hell. He stretched and rubbed his back, then made his way to the river. He washed his face and took a long drink, hoping the icy water would keep him alert. His eyes moved to the road that led to the distant cottage where Vin was waiting.

"Soon..."

But not yet.

So he returned to the mouth of the cave where he'd left Mason. He lit a torch at the entry and retraced his steps. He placed the small flame over a tiny craggy rim in the wall. Vin Tanner's boots sat on the small ledge. He took the medicine pouch that contained the snake rattle and hung it from the top of the leather. When the cowering mess at his feet woke up, those totems would be the first thing he saw.

He sat down then, pulled out the tequila and waited. It was perfect in its simplicity. The idea had come to him when he touched the coward's face in the hotel room. Justice, pure and simple. So he'd tied up his prisoner and tossed a pile of silver at the boy who held his horse. That money not only bought the boy's silence but brought him Mason's horse as well. In the darkness behind the seedy hotel, he'd secured his prisoner and left town.

It took several hours but it was worth the trip. This fated destination, Mason's own piece of Hell, would end in the courtroom. He heard a moan and saw the dog's eyes twitching. He moved out of sight and watched from the darkness.

He felt a rush of guilty pleasure when those confused blue eyes turned into frightened orbs at the sight of the boots and medicine pouch.

*"No...it couldn't be...he's dead...no...Jesus...no...!"*

A ghost?

Had Vin Tanner's spirit hunted him down? Or had he died already and was now in Hell?

It burned a hole in his brain while creating a flow of ice water through his guts. They stood side by side, twin images of smooth brown leather. Dangling from the right boot was the medicine pouch. His sharp scream was met by a short laugh, one he knew well and thought he'd never hear again.

He twisted his head again and saw a chiseled profile lean forward into the dim light. A thin cheroot was carefully lit and found a home between the grim line of nearly bloodless lips on his warden. The golden light from the flickering torch gave the blond gatekeeper an almost unearthly aura. The lean body stood in the shifting shadows, a silent and deadly specter. Every muscle in Larabee's face was set in granite, held together by a clenched jaw. But it was the eyes that caused the bound man to nearly die from fright right then and there. They were a shade past lethal, well into the killing zone. There was nothing reflected back at him, no remorse, no anger, no sign of humanity.

"What do you want?" he croaked and coughed, realizing that his gag had been removed.

But the cool blond didn't reply. Not one muscle on the six-foot avenger moved. Even those damned green eyes that now appeared totally black never blinked. His own eyes, in rat-like fashion, darted frantically. The words ran out, babbling and out of control.

"It's your fault...he's dead. Tanner..." he stammered, but the statue never moved. "...I had to...do it...so you'd suffer and hurt. I wanted it to eat at you...never finding him...not knowing if he died calling your name." He didn't care anymore, the words spilled out and he didn't' care. The hours or days he'd been in this hellhole had taken what clarity he had and he didn't care. "You had to pay for your crime. You killed that kid...he meant everything to...me. You had to pay...you..."

He gasped then when the lean man disappeared into the shadows. For several moments, there was no movement save the water dripping on him from the ceiling above. Larabee clearly had something very specific in mind. Something slow and painful...or he would have never woken up.

As if sensing his thoughts, a short cluster of icy words wrapped in a raspy whisper escaped from his captor's soul. It was a voice as chilling as earth would allow that caressed his ear. A dark shadow slipped to his side and he jerked at the words accompanied by the warm breath on his cheek. He felt the touch of metal, the tip of a knife, as it traced a lazy circle across his neck.

"Vin's a good student," Chris answered the darting blue-eyed victim's silent question. "The Kiowa and Comanche taught him well. I've seen him work."

He paused and saw the unadulterated fear rippling in Mason's eyes. "Sure is pretty!" He grinned ferally. "Sometimes it takes hours...messy though...and that smell...blood and shit spillin' from the severed guts..." He wrinkled his nose in distaste, then slit the belly of a fat bullfrog and let the entrails drip in blotches over the prisoner's face.

Chris grinned again, but there was no warmth or humor in it, when Mason gagged and tried to turn his face away. The other three frogs he'd caught and speared during the night were on a stake nearby. In the darkness, the slimy creatures played the role well. Accompanied by the rattle in Vin's pouch, they'd caused the terrified prisoner to assume he was being stalked by a snake.

The bound man saw the icy eyes slide down his belly, the wet knife twirling casually between long, slender fingers. His mind began to imagine every horrible scenario he'd ever heard about the Indians and how they tortured their victims. He wanted to plead with the predator's eyes when they lingered on the medicine pouch before lifting to the sharp blade once more. Then Mason saw his saddlebags in the corner next to the tequila.

"No...don't...please...I'll give you the money...all of it...you...can have..."

Mason's muffled pleas fell on deaf ears. His body twitched and jerked when the lean form unfurled and rose in one fluid motion. His saucer-like blue eyes followed the panther-like moves. Larabee paused long enough to spit into the open bag of money, putting that attempted insult to rest. Mason nearly choked on his own vomit when his cold-hearted captor lifted the blade, moved closer and let it dance over the exposed area above his vulnerable manhood. He screamed and pulled back, his heart pounding so hard it nearly broke his ribs.

"Time to party," Chris hissed, sending shards of cold green glass into Mason. "I'm gonna bleed you out just enough to keep you alive, here, in the dark. Minutes, hours, days...you'll never know. Then I'm gonna let Vin send your sorry ass to Hell where it belongs."

The shaking man stilled for a moment, surprised. The shocked confusion brought a cold grin to the blond's face.

"He can't be...he was dead...I left his body..." His voice trailed off then when Larabee's mocking laughter followed the glowing green eyes around the cave. Not just any cave. His heart sank then and his insides turned to ice. He was in the very spot he'd left Vin Tanner to die. His foolish plan had backfired and sealed his own fate instead.

"You fucked up twice," Chris replied to the shocked eyes. "First, you raped my town." His lip curled up in fury then as the broken body of Vin Tanner emerged in his mind's eye. He lowered his voice, leaned in closer to the terrified victim's face and let every word he issued drip in bloodied revenge. He paused as he squatted down and lifted the razor, passing it slowly over the quivering man's exposed shortcomings.

"...and then you hurt Vin Tanner."

Mason screamed hard and his eyes followed that arm moving back and forth in a precise arc, the gleam off the blade sending him into blackness, just after the blond executioner sang the refrain from the song of judgment.

"An eye for an eye...."

+ + + + + + +

Mary Travis paused outside the small church that Josiah had rebuilt. It wasn't fancy, but it was a peaceful place that everyone in town had come to depend upon. More often than not, there was somebody kneeling in the simple pews gazing at the homemade cross on the far wall. She smiled when she heard the preacher's deep voice. For the last few weeks, Nathan had been staying in the room in the back where Josiah lived. The older man was taking good care of his best friend, something that irritated Nathan to no end.

"Get away from me," Nathan slapped unsuccessfully at the large hand that now steadied him. "I don't need yuh..."

"You need to remember you're in God's house and watch that pepper on your ungrateful tongue," Josiah reminded him. "The leg's doing good, Nathan. Don't push it. Just take a few steps, it's still healing."

"I know," Nathan huffed. "It's my damn leg. I oughta know how it feels…"

He kept his eyes on the table across the room and the twin plates of ham and eggs that waited. There was a jug of cider and a fresh loaf of bread as well. With every painful step, he felt another small victory. By the time he got to the table, his face was covered in sweat.

It was also wearing a proud smile.

He sat down and sighed hard, looking up when a strong hand met the damp fabric on his back.

"Well done, Brother," Josiah said softly. "Very well done."

"Thanks!" Nathan eyed the light shining through the window in the outer room. He thought of the cross on the wall and what it represented. "Seems I owe a lot t' yuhr boss."

"He's not my boss," Josiah corrected, taking his seat and picking up a spoon. "He's my Father...your Father...everyone's Father. It's what fathers do, provide faith."

"I guess." Jackson poured a mug of cider for each of them and lifted his. "I'd say He did a damn fine job. I couldn't ask for a better friend or brother. I know I haven't been the best guest..." He frowned when his host nearly choked, the smoky eyes widened and one gray brow arched. "Okay, so maybe I was a little cranky..."

"Just a tad," Sanchez managed with a straight face.

"Fact is, Josiah," Nathan's eyes filled with emotion thinking on the long days that bled into weeks. In every pain-filled and fevered moment, one face had hovered over him. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't fuhr yuh. Every time I woke up...feedin' me, cleanin' me..."

"Puttin' up with that cussin' mouth of yours..."

"That too," Nathan chuckled. "Thanks...I want yuh to know, I'll never forget it."

"How 'bout a promise?"

"Promise?" Nathan broke a piece of bread and scooped some eggs onto it.

"This is all I ask, a lifetime promise," Josiah offered, extending his open hand. He smiled when the dark eyes filled and his friend swallowed hard. Then the hand came over and he gripped it, nodded once and went back to his meal.

A knock on the back door brought both heads up.

"Hello? May I come in?"

"Hey, Miz Travis!" Nathan smiled as the widow entered the room.

"Hey yourself, Nathan." She paused. "And congratulations. I heard the good news. J.D. told me..." she noted of the youth who'd burst into her office that morning announcing that the healer had taken his first few steps.

"Yeah, I'm lookin' forward to gettin' back to business," he noted.

"Well, I hope now that you have seen the other end of the 'business', you'll look at your patients in a new light?" she inquired.

"Next time you sass Vin about bein' orn'ry, I'm gonna tell him..." Sanchez added with a sly grin.

"Yuh ain't tellin' that cranky Texan a damn thing," Nathan warned, his heart warming when a mental image of the complaining, blue-eyed patient came to mind.

"You can tell him yourself in a few days. He's coming home."

"When?" Josiah asked the widow.

"I received a wire from Buck. The doctor feels Vin will be ready to travel in a couple of days. I thought...well, maybe it would be nice to have a dinner, all of us, together..."

"A meal of thanksgiving," Josiah nodded. "I like it and Lord knows after the last six weeks, we need it. Can the judge make it?"

"He's coming in tomorrow," Mary nodded. "I'll tell Ezra and J.D. I saw Mister Smithers in town. I'll check and see if he can deliver a nice pig," she said of the pig farmer who lived outside of town.

"See you later, Mary. Thanks for the good news." Josiah walked her to the door and watched her make her way back down the street.

"She didn't mention Chris..." Nathan fretted, wondering on the angry blond.

"No, she didn't. But Buck's last wire said he was doing better. Speaking of which, if you're up to it, we can take a ride out to the village. Nice day for a picnic..." He wagged his eyebrows and got a growl.

"That ain't none of yuhr business..."

"She's a mighty fine looking woman..."

"She's MY woman and keep yuhr paws off," Nathan grumbled, then saw the sun shining through the window. "Could be some fresh air would be nice."

"I'll tell Mrs. Brown to fix a basket..." Josiah finished his meal, downed the cider and stood up. "You just remember that leg isn't healed yet and you're not that young anymore. Don't go gettin' yourself all worked up..."

"Yuh never mind about my age," Nathan snapped. "And I ain't so old I cain't whoop yuhr sorry ass. 'Sides, Rain ain't complainin', she likes the way I kiss and such..."

"..and such, huh?" Josiah grinned wolfishly and ducked when a crust of bread flew at him.

"I got some moves..." Nathan defended.

"So I hear..." Josiah winked and ducked outside.

"What's that supposed t'mean?" the healer frowned. "Get back here...dammit!"

He finished his meal and thought on Vin Tanner. With every wire from Willow, their hopes rose. That Vin was even alive was a miracle. He'd mourned deeply for the loss of the sharpshooter, a man who'd risked his life to save a stranger. And not just any stranger, but a man of color. That Chris and Vin did that for him, took out a lynch mob, well, it was something that he'd never be able to repay. So when Mary gave them the good news, he'd felt his heart swell. Men like Tanner were rare and calling one friend was even rarer.

+ + + + + + +

Outside Willow, NM

Breathing.

It was something most people took for granted. But he'd never do that again. He inhaled a second time and felt fresh air kiss his face. He cracked one eye open and saw dirt and grass nearby. There was water running downstream under a blue sky. He was on his belly a few feet from the river. Larabee was filling canteens. His eyes shifted and he saw the horses ready for travel. He closed his eyes again and began to form a plan. One thing he knew, he wasn't about to let this man hand him over to a prison wagon. The thought of spending years in a filthy small cell groveling with common animals disgusted him.

He wasn't tied up.

He wondered about that. His hands and feet weren't secured. Neither was he dressed. Surely Larabee wouldn't make him ride into the next town naked? He had clothes in that bag. He didn't dare open his eyes again, but he wondered if his bag was tied to the horse. His mind calculated what distance he thought was between himself and his enemy. His hands and legs were free. With one good leap, he could knock the smug gunslinger on his ass. If he could get that Colt the green-eyed keeper wore...

"Go ahead...I'll put another hole in your ass..."

"Shit!" Mason swore, annoyed that Larabee knew what he was thinking. A boot on his bare ass brought his head up.

"Get your hairy ass up...we're leaving."

"I want my clothes."

"I want a bottle of redeye, a woman and a steak," Chris dictated, grabbing the greasy reddish hair and jerking it up hard. "You want your clothes? Beg. . .!"

"What?" Mason coughed.

"You heard me..."

"Go to hell!"

"Suit yourself." Chris rose, keeping the gun on the body at his feet. "Get moving...I'd just as soon tote your body. Your choice."

"You won't kill me." Mason sat up, then rose. "If you wanted me dead, you'd have never pulled that shit," he nodded to the cave.

"Dead?" Larabee laughed, aiming the gun at Mason's knee. "I didn't say I'd kill you." He narrowed his eyes, ensuring his intent was understood. "I'm good with this." He stroked his gun. "Real good...I can put six in you and make you bleed...cripple you for life. Now, move...!"

"Not like this..." Mason dictated, then saw the slow grin forming. His color rose as his anger grew. He saw his clothes laid out on a rock a few feet away.

"I can't hear you," Chris rasped, cocking his head.

"Fuck you!" Mason snapped, fisting both hands. He saw the black brim of the hat nod once towards the horse. He swallowed hard then before turning back. "Can I have my clothes...?" he gritted through a set band of teeth.

"On your knees," Chris spat back, seeing the defiance leaving.

"I won't grovel," Jeff replied, jutting his wavering chin.

"You'll fuck a snake if I want you to...." Chris ordered, pulling the hammer back and aiming it at the cowering man's knee. "On your knees...now!"

For several seconds, neither man moved. Two sets of eyes locked and the air heated up. Then Jeff Mason swallowed his pride and dropped. He formed two fists; he huffed and puffed, his insides churning. Finally, he spoke.

"Can I have my clothes?" He saw the blond tip his head and cup his ear. He sighed hard, trying to say it. "...please..." He sucked his breath in when the lean man moved behind him.

"Now, that wasn't so hard," he pushed the gun into the pasty skin on the dirty back, "... was it, you yellow-bellied dog?"

Mason wanted to rip that cocky tongue from Larabee's mouth. He wanted to wipe that shit-eating grin off his face. He wanted to shove that gun right down the arrogant man's throat. Nobody told him what to do and nobody made him beg. He started to rise and felt his body shoved forward. He hit the ground hard and coughed as dirt found his mouth.

"Worms don't walk, they don't have a spine..." Chris delivered, booting the coward's bare ass. "Crawl...on your belly..."

"I'm gonna kill you," Mason whispered. "You hear me, Larabee? I'm gonna rip your balls off..."

"You wouldn't know how..." Chris watched the wiggling man start to move. "Worms are short on brains...and ball-less."

+ + + + + + +

Buck eased his long frame into the chair next to the pensive sharpshooter. He studied the handsome man's profile for a moment, well aware where those blue eyes were. He knew Vin was worried about Chris. He wasn't sure what had prompted Larabee to leave town without so much as a note, but he intended to find out.

"As soon as the doctor gets back tonight," he decided, "I'll go after him."

"Might as well spit inta the wind..." Vin muttered.

He knew Buck meant well but Chris already had a good head start and they had no idea what direction he'd ridden in. He silently cursed the man who'd done this to him, for although his mind was willing, Vin's body wasn't able. He was getting stronger but the last bout of sickness had really taken a lot out of him. He still tired easily and his back ached constantly as the lung continued to slowly heal. There was a lingering cough that brought tears to his eyes when the burning pain rose. He'd gotten used to the dull headaches, but his eyes were finally clear.

"Mexico, has to be." Buck scratched his chin. "Man's on the run, he's gonna hightail it over the border until things calm down. Could be somebody outside town saw him...there's a couple of towns just across the border, that's a start."

"I'm sorry, Bucklin," Vin turned and offered a waning smile. "I don't mean t' sound ungrateful. I jest got a bad feelin' is all. It ain't like him t'break his word."

"Yeah, that bothers me a little too." Buck sighed hard and felt the heat of the day coming. It wasn't yet ten a.m. and it was already hot. "Come on." He stood and tapped the younger man's leg. "It's gonna be hotter than Hell today. We might as well get your legs movin' before it gets too bad."

"Ya know," Vin stood and began to walk slowly to the water pump across the yard. "In case I fergot t'mention it, yer one helluva friend."

"You'll get my bill," Buck teased, ruffling the wavy brown locks.

"Don't be touchin' m'hair," Vin growled, trying to duck unsuccessfully. "I jest had it fixed right."

"Them rattails..." Buck shook his head and kept pace with the slow walking Texan who had paused at the pump to take a drink. "You wait until we get home. I'll have Sally and Daisy give you the special," he offered, tapping the Texan's backside lightly.

"Keep outta m'drawers!" Vin poured water over his face and eyed the road back to the porch. It didn't seem so far on the way over. "Boys do fine on their own. Don't need no six-foot interferin' jackass."

"That's Mister Jackass to you!" Buck saw the struggle starting and moved closer. "One step at a time, Vin. It's not a race. You're doing fine."

"Fine!" Vin huffed, totally annoyed. "Limpin' like a geezer o'ninety..."

By the time they reached the porch, his legs were wobbling badly. He collapsed in the rocker and laid his head back, taking great gulps of air. It caused the pain in his back to flare up and he gripped the arms of the rocker hard. He heard the door open and shut twice and then felt a shadow across his face.

"Here." Buck offered cold cider spiked with something to take the pain away. He waited until it was empty and went back inside, leaving Vin to his midmorning nap.

+ + + + + + +

With the last tug of his boot, Jeff Mason made a decision. He would rather die here, taken quickly by a bullet, than slowly over the years in some hole-in-the-wall prison. His gaze moved past the lean black denim-encased legs to where two horses stood. That's where he'd make his move. He knew the brooding gunslinger would secure his hands to the saddle somehow. He'd need two free hands to do that.

"Get up," Chris ordered, poking the dawdling man in the back.

Silently, Mason stood and moved, walking slowly to his horse. He paused by the side of his chestnut and waited.

+ + + + + + +

"I won't be long," Buck offered of his trip to the riverbed to the man dozing on the bed. He smiled at the obvious frustration. The blue eyes just wouldn't stay open and a single fist was protesting. He tapped the younger man's chest and chuckled. "Quit fightin' it and get some sleep."

"...ain't...tired..."

"No, I can see that," Buck laughed. "You'll feel better after I get some aloe for your back. I'll give you a ?Buck rubdown.' It ain't just anybody I gift that too."

"... m'innerds is all a quiver..." Vin rasped, annoyed. He didn't hear the laughter that followed; he was already sound asleep.

+ + + + + + +

Mason put his wrists overlapping as ordered and around the horn. He waited a few seconds and then drove his elbow backwards. He felt the gun slam against his shoulder and grabbed for it.

Chris was bent over, recovering his breath, and saw Mason's hand moving in. He fired but it was at the same time the prisoner's hand hit his wrist, sending the weapon flying. He fisted his hand and drove it into Mason's belly.

They tumbled under the horse, each narrowly missing the sharp hooves. They rolled and grunted, cutting their faces on the sharp pieces of rock near the water. Fists found flesh, lips were split and damage was done. The only sound in the stilled morning air was that of flesh being pounded and the grunts that followed.

"Fuck this!" Chris spat out a wad of blood and unleashed a powerful blow. It was all he had left and the force of it sent him backwards and Mason flying. He landed on his back, dazed and bleeding. He didn't see the other injured man wrap his fingers around the gun.

Chris managed to roll his battered and breathless body onto his hands and knees. He swiped at the blood running into his eyes from a cut above his eyebrow. It stung and he blinked as his vision blurred. His body jerked at the shot that split the morning air.

+ + + + + + +

"WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN?"

"Buck? What the hell are you doing here?"

"Saving your sorry ass!"

Chris blinked in confusion and saw Buck holstering his weapon. He didn't reply; he dropped to the edge of the river and washed his bloodied face. He took a long drink and turned, cradling his sore ribs. He saw Buck tying up Mason and the blood running from what appeared to be a graze on the other man's head.

"He ducked," Buck offered of the minor wound. He hauled the wheezing battered blond up and then shoved him against a tree. "I want an answer!"

"Busy!" Chris coughed up blood and dabbed his wet kerchief onto the cut on his inner lip.

"Where'd you find him?"

"Santa Luisa," Chris offered, shoving Buck's arm away and eyeing a rock nearby. He sat down, collected his breath and felt the dark blue eyes burning into him. He knew Buck was doing the math.

"Santa Luisa?" Buck stood over his bruised friend. He tipped the face up and inspected the damage. That lasted a few seconds before his hand was shoved away. "What are you doing out here? Where the hell were you all night?"

"I had an itch that needed scratchin'," Chris growled, rose and limped over to where Mason was lying in the dirt. "How's Vin?"

"See this?" Buck turned, pulled his hat off and patted the back of his dark hair. "Between you and that damned Texan, I'm lucky there's anything left. It's gonna be gray for sure." He paused, put his hat back on and blew out a breath of frustration. "You had that boy worried good. Them damn eyes of his were workin' overtime."

"Just Vin, huh?" Chris challenged, knowing full well Buck worried for all of them.

"He's doin' good, well…better. Once the doc looks at him tonight, I was plannin' on takin' him home," Buck updated as Chris bent down to pick up Mason. He didn't miss the hiss of pain. "Move out of there. I don't need another patient. I ain't cut out for nursin'."

Chris found a small smile on his way to his horse. He gingerly climbed into the saddle and waited for Buck to secure Mason. He watched as the mustached man tore a piece of Mason's ripped shirt and tied a crude bandage around the wound on his head. Then he slung and tied him belly down over the saddle.

His job done, Buck dusted himself off and found his own horse. Tapping the saddle bag full of aloe plants, he turned to the dazed blond who was not admitting to anything. He was about to press the issue again when a hand shot out.

"Thanks, Buck."

"You know, this was a whole lot easier when we were younger," he commiserated, taking the proffered hand.

"Speak for yourself, old man," Chris grunted and rode ahead, leaving Buck to wonder about their twelve year bond.

+ + + + + + +

He paused by the water pump, eyeing the man dozing on the porch. The wavy brown locks cascaded a bit too long. Damn tracker needed a haircut. He was still down a few pounds but he looked good. The pale features he'd left behind, cowering in a fevered ball, were now tan and healthy. That was a good sign; Vin had been outside in the sun. He gingerly eased off his horse, took the burlap sack and walked closer.

"You done good, Bucko," Chris lauded, turning back to where his oldest friend stood.

He smirked at the angry face. Wilmington was still pissed off. He moved towards the slumbering Texan and stepped onto the porch. Vin's head drooped in his sleep, the chin hitting the chest. He touched the tan-shirted shoulder gently, swallowing hard. He'd nearly lost so very much, it still took his breath away. He let out a long sigh and moved his hand into the bag. He took the boots out, setting them down on the porch. Then he moved his hand inside his breast pocket and gingerly unwrapped the medicine pouch. With great care, he gently placed it around his best friend's neck.

"Well, ain't that sweet..." Mason grunted, then gasped and fell off the horse as a bullet whizzed by his ear.

"You're even dumber than you smell," Buck growled, kicking the downed man.

Chris holstered his gun and his eyes, turning back when the body beside him stirred. He saw the head come up slowly as two blue eyes blinked in confusion. Still out of focus, they roamed the immediate area, then flickered slightly when the body beneath protested the movement.

"What the fuck was that?" Vin mumbled of the gunshot that woke him up. "Dammit, Bucklin, ya damn near..."

His words faltered when his fuzzy eyes righted. He studied the small leather pouch that rested on his heaving chest. Amazed and awed, he fingered his prized possession, swallowing hard. His eyes moved past the bag to black fabric, a holster and a familiar Colt. He lifted his face, taking in the battered set of features before him.

"He's alive, Vin," Chris answered the silent question.

"I know," Vin countered, annoyed that Larabee seemed to be able to read his thoughts. His gaze ran over the very battered and bloody body now wheezing in the dirt. Fresh bruises, new blood, the battle was recent. His curious stare was answered.

"We had a little talk down by the river."

"Fer a fact," Vin replied, a grin forming. He eyed the collection of bruises and cuts Larabee wore. "Ya done a right fine job. ?Course, it ain't a Tanner job..."

"No, I'm still standing," Chris shot back and drank in the softly snorted response.

"Where'd he slink offta?"

"Santa Luisa, just across the border," Larabee answered. "I got a tip last night and had to head out before I lost him. I didn't have time to come out here to let you know. I promise I didn't run out on you, Vin."

"I know that town." Vin's head rose slowly, his eyes burning into the pale ones offered. "It ain't that far."

Chris knew what Tanner was asking. Had he rode straight through, he could have been here last night by midnight. But that wouldn't have quelled the fire inside. A part of him had needed to feed the monster that lurked inside, the one that had been chewing at his guts since Vin nearly died in his arms. Now, the beast was sated and he'd kept his word. The best of both worlds.

"I got thirsty," Chris offered, not willing to go further. He saw the brows over those questioning eyes draw in a bit as the tracker studied him. His face colored some as he felt Tanner searching his soul. He turned up the heat in his gaze and finally the tangled head nodded.

Vin knew Chris had taken Mason somewhere on the way back. The thirst that engulfed him had been building since Mason kidnapped him. Chris wasn't prepared to share what he'd done to quench that thirst. He wouldn't push the issue. He knew the wounds Larabee carried were just as painful as his own. Those wounds were deep and raw, throbbing with a insatiable beat.

His eyes went to the gunslinger's pants, the usually black boots, and he read the colors. The caked mud wasn't very old and it came from the banks of a river. The reddish hue told him it was from the one nearby. The same river where Moses said he'd found him inside a cave. His head shot up and he accused the older man silently.

*He knows.*

Chris merely nodded slightly and turned his gaze away. He pulled a flask from his pocket and took the cap off. He took a swig from it, wincing as the burning liquor hit his cut lip. He dabbed at it with his fingers, feeling the blue fire focused on him.

"It's done, Vin," Chris whispered, thinking on the horrid scene when they'd last seen each other. He dropped his gaze and took in a shaky breath. "About that night...I'm sorry, Vin. What I did..."

"...ya done yer best. Ya saved m'life." Vin's eyes didn't miss the slight tremble in the hand that held the flask. "That's what ya done," he countered. "Yer right, it's over, okay?"

The tracker waited for the blond head to nod and then studied the pouch again, running the fabric through his fingers. He felt that ragged hole inside start to close. The warmth that coursed through his healing body had nothing to do with the sun overhead. He knew just how much Chris would have done to seek justice in his name. He also knew at what cost. His hand shot out, locking onto the other's forearm.

Green eyes met blue.

"Word," Vin saluted, sending all his feelings through his eyes.

"Word, cowboy," Chris rasped, still shaken by Vin's unwavering faith in him.

There.

It was done.

Finally.

Somehow, it hadn't sunk in yet. Vin sat back, closing his eyes as a wave of pain shot through his back. He felt a hand gripping his shoulder and all his tension left. He felt his hand nudged by a flask and peeled an eye open. A slow smile was born and he brought the flask up and took a hearty swig.

"Good for what ails you," Chris predicted and got a soft chuckle for a reply.

"Sure as hell is," Vin answered, his eyes letting the other know it wasn't the liquor he was speaking of. The blond head dipped once, silently accepting the wave of thanks.

Vin handed the flask back and his eyes caught sight of the boots. He winced as he bent a bit lower to study them.

"They're dirty," he noted of the muddy boots.

"You're right, Slick," Buck replied, dragging Mason by the collar through the dirt and letting his face hit every porch step. He shoved the coughing man down and rested his own boot on his back. "You heard the man, fuckface."

"What?" Mason coughed.

"Clean 'em," Chris growled.

"Hold it!" Buck hauled the injured man to his knees and winked at Vin who'd thrust his bare foot out. "Looks like you need some socks."

Mason heard Wilmington leave and dropped his head. That lasted only a few seconds before Larabee's hand grabbed his hair and yanked it back up. He felt the tip of a knife press into the soft underside of his jaw. He flinched when that sharp edge drew blood. He wished Tanner would say something. The eyes that now studied him were burning a hole right through him. He should have known Larabee wouldn't run with anything less than his own mettle. The blue eyes that he'd seen a moment before locking onto Larabee's with great emotion were now cold as ice. He swallowed hard and tried to avert his gaze but those damned orbs were making him squirm.

He heard the door slam and saw two white cotton socks appear. The knife moved away and his hands fumbled badly when the bare foot was thrust at him. By the time he got both socks on, the last shards of his dignity were falling away fast. The boots appeared then, right in front of him. He looked quizzically from Wilmington to Larabee.

"I don't have anything to clean them with."

"You got spit," the lethal blond interjected while Wilmington shoved a torn cotton cloth in his hand.

That took that last shred of dignity. He felt it slip out of him with a resigned sigh as he picked up the first of the dirty boots. He shut them all out, concentrating on getting the job done. All he wanted now was to get out of there. Maybe his father could hire an expensive lawyer. Maybe get him transferred back East. But he wouldn't forget what Chris Larabee had done to him. No, God willing, one day he'd make the smug blond pay for this.

"Now there is nothing quite like a good spit shine," Buck crowed, eyeing the clean boots. "Let's see how they fit."

Mason huffed, felt the color rising on his battered face and shoved the boots on.

"They do look pretty, son," Buck whistled, taking the flask from Chris. He offered it to Vin after he'd taken a sip but the tangled head shook negatively.

"Get this piece o'shit outta m'sight," Vin whispered, white-knuckling the edges of the rocker. Flickers of memory returned, casting shadows of a hellish night in a cold cave. He heard Mason's mocking laughter and felt those rough hands again.

"You heard him," Chris said, grabbing Mason and shoving him towards the horses.

"We'll be back by supper, Vin," Buck said.

"We?" Chris paused by the horses, cocking his head.

"We!" Buck affirmed, his smoking gaze telling the other he had questions that needed answering.

"Hold up!" Vin rasped, still hearing echoes of that sinister laughter. He stood and walked slowly towards the horses.

"Vin?" Buck puzzled at the odd look on the tracker's face. He exchanged a look with Chris, who was equally perplexed.

"What's wrong?" Chris asked, moving to the wheezing Texan's side. He held onto Vin's arm as the younger man knelt and felt the front leg of Mason's horse.

"Feels hot..."

"Hot?" Buck knelt down and felt the horse's leg. "It don't feel..."

"I said it's hot!" Vin hissed, shoving Buck's hand away.

"Okay, Vin," Buck stood, still feeling scorched from the livid blue eyes.

"You heard the man," Chris directed to Mason. He didn't know all the details of what caused Vin's reaction. He knew it was tied to whatever Hell Mason put him through. He'd seen the heat in Tanner's eyes when the injured man met Mason's gaze. He knew what Vin was hinting at and he caught the blue wrath and nodded once.

"What?" Mason blinked as Larabee tied his bound hands on a long rope. The other end was tied to the lean gunslinger's horse. "You can't be serious! I can't walk!"

"So crawl then," Buck offered, steering the shaky sharpshooter back towards the porch.

+ + + + + + +

Willow, NM
Three p.m.

"I'm gonna wire home," Buck said. "We leave tomorrow and ride slow, we'll get there early morning the day after. That okay by you?" He saw the damp blond head nod once. "Okay, you drop him off and I'll meet you at the saloon." He cut the rope that bound Mason to the Larabee's horse and walked back towards the Post and Telegraph office.

James Wilson looked up when the bell over the door told him he had a visitor. From behind the tattered shade that covered the window, a lean man in black appeared. The chiseled features were set and rigid, the eyes gleaming a shade just past lethal. He rose, his hand skirting his weapon and saw the blond head shake. Then a body was thrust at him. His face creased at the sight of the ragged man, his clothes bloody and his face a mess.

"Larabee. I work for Judge Travis. This is Jeff Mason. You got my wire? I believe the judge left orders?"

"I'm Jim Wilson, the deputy. Yeah, I got them here." He paused, eyeing the desk until he picked up a piece of paper. "It's quite a list, federal charges too. He won't see the light of day until he's old and gray."

"Read it!" Chris held the charges in front of the shifting blue eyes. He waited until he saw them finish the scattered paragraphs of charges. "Well?"

"Yeah, I d...d...d....did...it..."

"Sounds like a confession to me, Wilson," Chris stated, grabbing a blank piece of paper from the desk and a pencil. "How about you write it down?"

Wilson's gaze swung from the man whom Larabee thrust into a chair back to the stern look the blond man wore. The judge had hinted that Larabee and Tanner were close. There were testimony and statements from the other witnesses as well. He didn't doubt that Mason would be locked up. He eyed the battered faces and wondered about the ride in. The wire from Santa Luisa only stated that Mason had been caught.

"He's gonna swing," Chris predicted, enjoying Mason's fear spreading all over the floor.

"Not up to me or you, Larabee," Wilson replied, grabbing the keys to the cell. "Judge won't be back for a few weeks."

"Well now, that is a shame," Chris grinned, winking at Mason behind Wilson's back. "Could be if you let me know where he is, I could take this piece of shit off your hands." He leaned down, putting his face close to Mason's ear. "I know a short cut..."

"Nooooooooo!" Mason screamed and bolted, running for safety behind the bars. "Keep him away from me."

"He won't cause any more trouble," Chris assured, glaring openly through the bars. "Will you?" He paused when Mason shook his head. He cupped his ear. "I didn't hear you? Did you hear him, Wilson?"

"Didn't hear a thing," the deputy replied, enjoying the show.

"No," Mason managed, rubbing his aching feet now free of his boots.

"No what?" Chris gritted, leaning in.

"No...Mister Larabee..." Mason sent back, already plotting his own revenge.

"Wilson," Chris turned and faced the deputy, "you wire Paso Del Norte when you get a trial date." He turned back, staring down the cowering mess in the cell. "Front row, remember?"

"Go to hell," Mason spat.

"You'll be there soon enough," Chris replied, nodding at the local lawman and ducking outside.

The sun wouldn't set for a few more hours yet. Time enough for a few drinks with Buck before heading back to the house. He wanted—no, needed—to share tonight's sunset with Vin. He strode over to the swinging doors and entered. Buck was waiting with a fresh bottle and two glasses. He took the seat next to Wilmington and took the shot offered.

"What the hell happened between Santa Luisa and here?"

"Nothing," Chris shrugged, downing the shot and tapping the table for more. "We just stopped to have a talk."

"Talk?" Buck pressed, sipping the whiskey and pouring Chris another shot.

"Yeah, I needed to impress a few things into that half-empty skull of his." He downed the shot and waited for another. "Only one place that suited," he noted of the fated cave. "Helluva talk, took all night."

"What did you do to him?" Buck inquired; he was more than curious. Knowing how deeply Chris felt about Vin, he nearly paled when he thought of all the ways the blond could torture a man without marking him. He shivered a bit, thinking on that unique brand of justice.

"Brought his color out...his true color...took some persuadin'..." He shifted in the chair, thinking on the confession. Added to the evidence, it would bring many years of prison time. Long years where Mason would suffer every day, if he didn't hang first. "Larabee style!" he toasted, tapping Buck's glass.

"You're damned lucky I was gettin' some plants for Vin's back. I heard that shot..."

"...and you're lucky I wasn't drunk that night in Lexington when that big woman was ready to crush you." Chris winked, offering his hand and a beguiling Larabee grin. He heard the chuckle and saw Buck unsuccessfully try to wipe the grin from his face.

"I was handling things," Buck defended weakly of that fateful night, the first time they'd met during the early days of the war, nearly twelve years past.

"Yeah," Chris snorted, shaking his head. "Something about the way you were tied to the bed told me how well you were 'handling' things."

"She was a farm girl," Buck offered in the 'large' woman's defense. "I was a wounded soldier. She was offering comfort."

"That's what it looked like to me," Larabee quipped, tossing another shot down. "Guess we're even. Good thing I was on patrol that night, scouting for a place to shelter my wounded men." He narrowed his eyes and took in Buck's profile. "Wounded? I don't recall you having any wound. You were drunk."

"It was medicinal. I had a fever and stumbled in there..."

"You got the stumbled part right..." He grinned devilishly then, recalling the wide, dark blue eyes peering up at the mountain of rolling flesh that was squatted on him. "You should have seen your face. She scared the shit outta you."

"She didn't seem that big when I fell into the door," Buck lamented, then chuckled.

"She knew enough to tie you up so you couldn't get away." Chris leaned over, enjoying Buck's colors of recollection. "Yer boys was busted up good, Bucklin," Chris mocked in a drawling Tanner accent.

"Don't remind me!" Buck winced, shifting in his chair, then paused. "He's a fighter, Chris. He's been bustin' his balls all week, workin' them legs inta shape." He laughed then. "Said he wanted to be on his feet to cuss you out eye to eye. Worked up quite a lather just thinkin' on it."

"That's my boy!" Larabee lauded, offering another toast.

"We better pick up some fried chicken from that place on the corner and head back," Buck responded, "or we'll be too drunk to ride."

"Never happen!" Chris corked the bottle and rose. "Come on, stud, let's ride."

+ + + + + + +

It was a beautiful sunset, one that colored the sky in breathtaking shades of rose, scarlet and purple over gold. They sat quietly, drinking in the miracle and enjoying just the freedom of hearing the other one breathe.

Chris was sitting on the steps of the porch, drinking coffee. Dinner had been easy. The fried chicken, potatoes and biscuits went down well. The pie and coffee were accented by tales of the past. He smiled then, recalling Vin's contagious laughter when he told the Texan how he and Buck first met. Then the sun began to fall and Buck excused himself and went inside, realizing his two friends needed to be alone.

"Shur is pretty," Vin commented.

"That it is," Chris replied, turning to face the other man. Vin still had some healing ahead. It would be a few weeks yet until he was truly well, but he'd turned the corner. More importantly, the wound inside was healing as well. Chris hoped he'd been a part of that.

"Things went south," Vin said quietly, reading the green-eyed gaze easily, "and I got planted, ya wouldda brung 'im in."

"I don't know, Vin." Chris sipped his coffee and eyed the scarlet and rose-colored sky. The blue that was being courted there was a rich shade, a true Tanner blue.

"I do," Vin whispered, sending his faith in those two short words. He saw Chris's face change to a look of surprise and briefly, he was gazing into the exposed soul. "Ain't got nuthin' without faith. Ya gimme that...when I thought I was dyin'. I could close m'eyes...rest easier. Ya got no idea what that means t'me, Chris."

"Yeah, I do, cowboy," Chris managed, swallowing his emotions.

It was enough and the silence returned. Twin profiles sought out the sunset and saw God's fine hand stroking the night sky. Eve came, not a bit shy and offering a bosom full of glittering stars. Entranced, the two men gave into her charms, totally and utterly seduced. A candle on the table next to the healing tracker offered a light golden glow. Like Hope, it flickered and offered comfort in a world often far too cold.

Chris rose, placed the empty mug next to Vin's on the table and held out his hand. The change in breathing over the last half hour or so told him the younger man was laboring. He'd seen those healing spots on Vin's back when Buck rubbed him down before dinner. He also knew the coffee was spiked and that the blue eyes were fighting hard. He hauled the younger man up and felt the healing power from Vin's fingers right through the fabric of his shirt where they met his forearm.

"Word," Vin rasped, sending his wholehearted gratitude.

"Word," Chris vowed, accepting the silent thanks and letting that soft drawl caress his own wounded soul with a healing force he didn't question but rather embraced.

+ + + + + + +

Early Morn

Buck cleared the plates off and took them outside to the small tin tub. He tossed some slivers of soap in the hot water and began washing them. He saw the horses arrive and smiled. He moved from the back of the house, dried his hands and approached the pair.

"Mornin'," Buck greeted, shaking the white-haired man's hand.

"Good morning to you as well!" Doctor Murdoch got down from his horse. "How's our boy?"

"He's got a belly full of bacon, eggs, pancakes and biscuits. He's walkin' all over, back still bothers him a bit. Headaches are just about done..."

"Splendid, you did a good job."

"Hell, Doc, I didn't do anything. You and Chris did the hard part."

"You're wrong, Buck," he challenged. "Vin sent for you for a reason. He reached out to the person he knew he needed. Not just anyone, you!" He tapped the tall man's shirt and saw a slight blush form. "You're a good friend, and you care for him. I saw that clearly. That's more powerful than anything that comes in a bottle." He turned as his companion walked over. "Buck, there's someone I'd like for you to meet."

Chris turned when the back door opened and smiled.

"Welcome home, Doc."

"Thank you, Chris, it's good to see you again." He hesitated, eyeing the black eye, swollen lip and cuts marring the handsome face. "Rough ride?"

"Somethin' like that," Chris nodded, touching his sore eye. "I'm fine. Vin's out front. I swear he's half lizard."

"I'll have a look at him." The physician moved aside and Buck entered, followed by a large man whose hearty handshake and deep voice gave Chris a genuine smile.

Vin was sitting in the sun, letting the warm rays bake his face. He heard the door slam and held out his hand. When nothing appeared, he frowned.

"Dammit, Larabee! Where the hell is it? I know ya got chocolate hid inside somewheres. I smelt it...I gotta keen sense o'smell..."

"I'm not surprised," the doctor mused and saw the blue eyes startle open. "Hello, Vin."

"Hey Doc!"

Vin stood and walked over, letting his smile increase until he shook the physician's hand.

"Gettin' m'legs back," he touted, rubbing his back. "Back still sassin' me a bit, but I reckon that'll clear up."

"Given enough time, I think you'll heal completely," the doctor noted. "How about we go inside and I can examine you? I'd like to look you over before you leave." He moved to let the other man go ahead of him. He smiled at the surprise that the recovering man was walking into and took a seat at the far end of the porch.

"Can't wait t'git home," Vin sighed, starting to unbutton his shirt. He was inside the house when a shadow fell on him. He raised his face just as the deep voice sounded.

"How are yuh, boy? I sure have missed yuh..."

"MOSES!" Vin croaked, unprepared for the swell of emotion that rose in him. He saw Buck and Chris duck out the back door, leaving the pair alone. Before he could find his voice, he was engulfed in a bear hug.

"I knowed yuh wouldn't die..." Moses moved back, holding the young man by the shoulders. He saw the eyes pooling and smiled then, feeling his own chest tightening. "Yuh looks good...jest like a new penny. All bright and fine..." He nodded to the table. "How 'bouts we sit down and yuh tell Old Mose how yuh'r doin'?"

"I wouldn't be doin' nuthin' put pushin' up daisies iffen ya hadn't plucked m'sorry ass from that cave." Vin sat down at the table, swiping at his damp eyes. He felt Moses' hand on his chin as it was tipped upwards.

"Lord put both of us in dat cave fuh a reason, boy. Yuh gave Old Mose's heart a good tug. Been a lotta years..." he choked, tapping the handsome young man's face lightly. "The Lord, He don't waste his time."

"No, sir, He sure as hell don't," Vin lauded, his heart full.

The doctor waited a full half hour, letting the emotionally drained man get his strength back. Then he gave him a thorough examination and warned his patient, "You keep eating right, resting and don't overdo. In a few weeks, you'll be as good as new." He turned to Buck and Chris. "Slow and easy on the way back. He can't ride yet. You'll need my wagon."

"I ain't ridin' in a damn wagon," Vin protested. "I ain't no damned invalid. And another thing, where the hell is my chocolate? I got rights. Ya can't force me to lie in no damn wagon like a woman..."

"Shut up, Vin!"

"Aw, hell!" Vin sighed in defeat at the twin chorus from Buck and Chris. He felt Moses' large hand ruffle his hair and heard the deep laughter. "Traitor!" he accused and the old, dark-skinned man just laughed harder.

Buck moved over and clapped the scowling man's back.

"How 'bout you move them new boots of yours, slick," he invited with a wink. "Let's go home."

+ + + + + + +

It was just after four p.m. when Josiah Sanchez stepped out of the saloon. He stretched and flexed, rousing his stiff muscles. He'd spent the better part of the last two hours with his three fellow peacekeepers playing poker. Well, one of them was playing; the others were stumbling badly. He saw a rider and a wagon approaching in the distance. He stepped further towards the street and cocked his head while shading his eyes with his right hand. As they drew closer, the rider took on a familiar shape which caused a broad smile to form on the graying man's lips.

"Well...well..." He turned back and approached the Saloon, pausing at the batwing doors.

"Is something amiss?" Ezra inquired, seeing the strange look on Josiah's face.

"Come on..." J.D. tapped Nathan on the back. "We need the fresh air anyway."

"I was makin' a comeback," Nathan protested, getting a scoff from the green-eyed gambler and an eye roll from the young sheriff. "I was!"

"Well?" Ezra asked of the grinning preacher.

"The lost sheep have returned to the fold..."

"DAMN!" J.D. enthused, moving forward quickly.

"I hope they doused Vin good," Nathan fretted. "Yuh know how he gets when he's trussed up and hurtin'..."

"Uhmmm..." Ezra kept abreast of the limping body. "I can't imagine anyone being that irritable. Can you?"

"Shut up, Ezra!" Nathan poked through the swinging doors. "I wasn't that bad..." He turned when the younger man behind him coughed. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously at the grinning southerner. "Dust?"

"Something like that," Ezra grinned, eyeing the post nearby. It was at a vacant spot where he assumed Buck would pull in the wagon. Both men looked tired and the blond out in front was battered as well. "Mister Larabee, you're looking well."

"And your wallet looks fatter," Chris quipped, eyeing the new bright blue jacket the gambler wore.

"Miss me?" Buck boomed, pulling the team to a halt and jumping down. He clapped the protesting southerner on the back and winked.

"Like the plague!" Ezra drolled, peering into the wagon. He found a smile for the slumbering Texan dozing on a mattress.

"Look how long his hair got..." J.D. noted, then recalled the last time he'd seen Vin. A dark day by a cold river where the Grim Reaper lurked with scythe held high. He pushed that awful picture away and instead created a new one of their tanned sleeping tracker. He watched that chest rise and fall and marveled at the simple feat. "He looks good, don't he?"

"He's too thin," Nathan winced, leaning on the side of the wagon. He too couldn't tear his eyes from the movement of that chest. He had heard that weak call by the river; the last time he'd seen Vin Tanner, the barely audible drawl that had put a good crack in his heart. He shook himself clear of the strong feeling and concentrated on the patient. "He been coughin'?"

"Nope!" Chris tossed his reins to J.D. "Make yourself useful, kid." He eyed the youngest of the seven and his lips turned up. "How you doin'?"

"Doin' better than you," J.D. tossed back, jutting his chin out. "I'm not wearin' a shiner."

"No, Sheriff Dunne, you sure as hell aren't," Larabee grinned, tugging the youth's hat over his eyes.

"Wake up, Sleeping Beauty. We're home!" Buck had climbed up into the back of the wagon and tapped the slack jaw.

Six men watched over the seventh as he slowly began his path back to the conscious world. The pale brown brows furrowed and the nose wrinkled. The lips twisted and a disgruntled huff slipped out. Two hands fumbled badly trying to shove away those that pestered him.

"Here, let me get that for you." Buck swiped the spit from the other man's chin. "You're droolin'...downright embarrassin' to be seen with..."

"Quit pawin' me, I ain't no fuckin' dog!" Vin soured, slapping at the strong hand.

"Same fleas!" Buck ruffled the tangled hair. "Who'd have guessed?"

"Ya touch me again, Bucklin, and I'm gonna twist yer balls int'a knots..." Vin blinked at the sunlight that hit his eyes and saw shadowy faces. Then Buck's face wearing a cocky grin loomed in front of him. He felt the strong hands sitting him up and protested. "Git offa me! There's gotta be some cross-eyed woman lurkin' 'bout ya can go play with."

"He's baaaackkk..." J.D. announced.

"Hey, Vin!" Nathan smiled at the confused patient.

"A favor?" Ezra inquired, eyeing the familiar, albeit disoriented, blue eyes. "When you next attempt to play poker with Saint Peter, please do so long after I've retired to that table."

"Huh?" Vin rubbed his eyes and winced as the long stream of words assaulted him. "Goddammit, Ezra, I can't hardly keep up with ya when I ain't full o'cat piss." He paused and blinked again, waiting for the fuzzy faces to clear. "Ezra? Ezra!"

"In the flesh!" The other man smiled at the softening of the cranky features.

"Welcome home, Brother Vin!" Josiah smiled from the foot of the wagon at the look of pure joy radiating from Vin Tanner's heart right through those emotive eyes.

"Hey, y'all!" Vin rasped, swallowing hard. He drank in every face, digesting every broad smile and tucking them safely away. They gave off a glow that he might need some dark night. He paused at Nathan's soft grin, recalling how close the other had come to dying. "How's yer leg?"

"Standin' on it!" Nathan bragged. "Missed that sorry face o'yuhrs."

"Ya must be desperate," Vin managed, turning to J.D. "Hey, kid...ya okay?"

"Keepin the town safe from criminals and other unsavory elements."

"Unsav'ry elements?" Vin made a face and laughed. "I got back jest in time. Yer hangin' around Ez too long."

"I'm wounded!" The charming southerner tapped his chest, then moved aside as Josiah unlatched the back of the wagon.

"I can walk," Vin sassed, slapping at both Buck and Josiah. But the circulation hadn't returned to his legs and they both buckled beneath him. Six bodies moved in unison. "Don't need six fuckin' nursemaids..."

"Yuh quit cussin' and let them git yuh up t'the clinic. Yuhr legs ain't ready for all that walkin'," Nathan touted, moving closer.

"Git away!" Vin tossed back with hot sauce. "My ass ain't goin' nowheres but in the Saloon. Ain't never had such a drought. My gut thinks m'throat got cut. Bucklin!"

"Right here, Slick," Buck chuckled and moved in next to the wobbly tracker.

"Make yerself useful..." Vin held out his arm and let the taller man steady him. Then he turned to his friends and unleashed a devilish grin.

"Let's go, boys, I got me a hankerin' fer whiskey and the night's young..."

"Sounds like a plan," Ezra agreed.

"Yuh need t'eat. Ya ain't got enuf weight on them bones..." Nathan complained as the others moved towards the saloon. "Vin, yuh hear me?"

"Lar'bee, move yer ass!" Vin ordered, limping closer to the large table where the man in black was chasing the dust away with a bottle of whiskey.

"Excuse me?" Chris turned, arching a single blond brow at the cocky sharpshooter.

"Yer in m'chair..." Vin decided, eyeing the nearest chair.

"I'd advise you to find another one." Chris ignored the protester and went back to his drink. He pulled out a cheroot and lit it only to find his wrist snagged.

"I'd advise ya t'move yer fussy ass over one..." Vin panted. "...weren't bad enuf ya drugged me up and toted me on a public road..."

"Christ, you're worse than a woman on the rag..." Chris grumbled and shook the arm off.

"Nice, Chris, real nice!" Buck shook his dark head, put two bottles down and took the seat next to the blond.

"What are you doing?" Nathan eyed the preacher who was wearing an odd smile.

"Listen, brother, listen..." Josiah advised, nodding to the table. "Sweetest music I've heard in some time."

"Amen!" Nathan agreed. "Shall we join the chorus?"

"After you!" Josiah waved his arm.

It was a night none of the seven would forget for a long time. A night where they drank and laughed, enjoying the bawdy business of brotherhood. When Vin began to doze off, they moved the party to his room at the boarding house. Content to have his friends near, laughing and trading war stories, the tracker slept easy. The smile he wore remained long after the six departed well after midnight. It remained in place, locked up by the peace that finally found him back in the circle where he belonged.

+ + + + + + +

Six weeks later

From the shade of the eave of the sign over the depot, Chris Larabee shook his damp blond head. It was a hot afternoon and just standing outside was difficult. His gaze followed the pacing younger man several feet away.

"You're gonna wear a hole in them fancy boots," he advised, getting a scowl, a huff and a snort. "You getting heat stroke won't make that stage come any faster."

Vin stopped pacing long enough to glare at his best friend again. Then he continued his trip. Twenty steps up and twenty more back. He paused at the turn, eyeing the road that led into town and then sighed, cursed, kicked the post and resumed his path. He heard the long sigh and followed it to the line of lip under the brim of black.

"So go plant yer grumpy ass elsewheres."

"Let's get some lunch," Chris suggested, hoping to take the tracker's mind off his business.

"I ain't hungry," Vin sent back, resuming his pacing.

"I thought I saw a pig flying," Larabee quipped, shoving himself off the side of the building.

"Yer 'bout as funny as a mule with a toothache," Vin sassed and saw the leader's face crease in confusion.

"A mule?" Chris quipped, then heard Buck's voice in his head, warning him not to challenge 'Vin logic'. He saw the telegraph clerk waving at him and walked inside the door and over to the desk. "Problem?"

"Passenger took sick. They had to stop at Durning. Gonna be four hours late."

"Shit," Chris sighed. "Which passenger?"

"Wire didn't say, sorry Chris." The clerk paused. "I'll wire and ask for an update."

"Okay," Chris nodded. "Thanks, Tim."

Vin had just cursed and kicked the side of the building again when he saw Chris approach. Something in the grim expression caused his insides to stir.

"What's wrong?"

"Stage is gonna be late, Vin, won't pull in here until supper. Come on, no sense baking out here anymore."

"Why's it late?"

"Somebody got sick, they stopped at Durning."

"Who?" Vin's heart began to hammer. "Who got sick?"

"I dunno, Vin, wire didn't say." Chris paused in the middle of the street when he saw Vin flop down on a crate and his head drop. He retraced his steps and waited in front of the downcast peacekeeper. "Seems to me you won't have to worry about that bounty on your head. You're gonna worry yourself into an early grave."

"It's important t'me..." Vin whispered, raising his head.

"I know it is, Vin," Chris supported, eyeing the sweat soaked features before him. "It's gonna be fine...Hell, you busted your ass for over a month on this."

"It has t'be real special," Vin sent back, wiping the sweat from his face. "...perfect..."

"It will be, Vin," Chris pressed, not liking the unwarranted distress he saw in the worried eyes. "Look, you got four hours to kill. Why don't you go to the river and cool down some?"

"Yeah...mebbe..." Vin sighed hard, rubbing his neck. Every muscle that held him together was full of tension. Maybe a cold swim would release that pent up action. He dropped his head again and thought on all the planning that had gone into this night. He couldn't ever repay the others for all they'd done, and he hadn't even asked it of them. They'd all offered willingly and that made the fruit all that much sweeter. He felt a hand on his back and bit his lip.

"I'm okay..."

"I know," Chris affirmed, giving the damp neck a tug before moving towards Tanner's horse. He untied the leather and waited. Finally, the lean tracker stood and approached.

Vin took the reins and mounted his horse, turning towards the road that led to the river.

"Vin?"

"Yeah?"

"Don't go drownin' out there." Chris cocked his head and grinned. "You know I hate makin' speeches." He noted of the would-be funeral. "Plus with this heat, a dead Tanner would stink the town up."

"Fuck yer ass t'Hell n'back, Lar'bee!" Vin chuckled, extending his arm and locking onto the other's forearm. "Speakin' of stink, wouldn't hurt ya none t'take a dip."

Vin waited and as he turned to leave, he saw a single finger appear on the brim of the dark hat as it was being pulled down. He laughed then before turning his horse toward that cool river.

+ + + + + + +

Six o'clock
Inside the depot

"You okay?"

Chris eyed a very nervous Vin Tanner as the stage approached. The younger man didn't reply, but his head dipped once. The leader's eyes didn't miss the sharpshooter's slim fingers. They'd fretted and flitted for an hour, waiting for this moment. The keen blue eyes were wider than normal and the tension rode high into every muscle on the lean man. Chris rested a single hand on the new bright blue shirt the Texan wore. He wrinkled his nose at the calico scarf, also new.

"Do I have to check the hotel for missing curtains?"

Vin snorted and rolled his eyes, moving away. He knew what Chris was trying to do and appreciated the effort, but this moment was one he'd been awaiting for quite some time. Long before he came home, when he was still flat on his back, too weak to move. From the very start, one strong man had cradled him and tenderly cared for him. One voice, deep and true, singing sweet songs from his soul. They had penetrated the lost world he floated in and guided him through the darkness. Now, he was alive and healthy, thanks to that man.

It was time to give something back.

"It's here, Vin," Chris called out.

"I ain't blind!" Vin snapped, then winced, moving over closer to Larabee. "I'm sorry, Chris. I didn't mean to bite at ya."

"I know," Chris nodded, nudging the other man a bit. "Go on...you've been waiting for this..."

"Yeah...yeah..."

Vin moved outside, his hawk-like gaze sweeping around him. The street was quiet except for the jangling of harnesses and the air was sweet and cool. He nodded to Sam and Duke, the two drivers. Sam jumped down to catch the luggage that Duke was tossing from the top. The door opened and Vin sucked in his breath. His heart was hammering so hard it hurt. He felt sweat beading up and wiped his face.

"Christ, I'd hate to see you when your wife's in labor..." Chris whispered from the shadows.

Vin watched as a middle-aged couple came out and then a stout man. He waited but no one else came off the stage. It was then his heart sank, thinking on the passenger who'd caused the delay in Durning. The wire that arrived earlier only stated that the person died in Durning of a heart problem. He rocked back on his heels and gasped. It couldn't be...not after all he'd planned. It just couldn't be...

Chris saw the waves of despair rolling over Vin's features and winced. He felt a stab of pain in his own gut. Vin had busted his balls for weeks for this moment. Now he was crushed; the bobbing Adam's apple told him just how hard Vin was working to hold his emotions in check. He moved forward as Vin staggered. Then Chris stopped in his tracks, a smile splitting his handsome face. He nodded once and stepped back, letting the play unfold.

"Easy there, boy...yuh ain't gonna faint on me are yuh?"

"Faint?" Vin hissed. "I ain't no damn woman..."

"I got eyes, boy, Old Mose can see dat..."

"YER HERE!" Vin jumped back startled and then sighed hard, relief surging through him. "I thought ya was dead. Damn near died m'self...Shit...Aw, shit..."

"You okay, cowboy?" Chris moved forward. "You're shakin' worse than a virgin on her wedding night."

"Shut up, Lar'bee!" Vin snapped but welcomed the hand on the back of his neck.

"Good to see you, Moses!" Chris offered his right hand and gripped the older man's.

"Same here, Chris. How yuh be?"

"Been keepin' Tanner's ass in one piece," he quipped with eyes full of mirth. "Full time job..."

"Yup," Moses smiled, feeling the easy bond that flowed between the two. "I want t'thank yuh fuh invitin' me out here."

"Missed ya," Vin smiled shyly, "and I wanted ya t'meet the guys. We got us quite a supper planned."

Moses took his bag from the driver and was about to turn back to Chris and Vin when a small boy walked towards him. He was a handsome child of perhaps six with large dark eyes set in chocolate skin. His features were very familiar and Moses studied the small face. Then he saw something hanging on the boy's chest, a smooth round stone the color of light coffee with a hole in the center. It was suspended on a black leather cord. Every inch of him began to tingle and the air seemed to die inside.

"Where'd yuh get dat, boy?" he croaked, his limbs trembling. The child allowed him to lift the stone and when it touched his fingers, he gasped in shock. His eyes locked onto the boy's, searching and seeking. "Who yuh be?"

"My name is Lutalo," the boy replied, squaring his shoulders in pride. "It was the name of my grandfather's father. This was his." He fingered the amulet with great caution. "He came from Africa, from...from..."

"Kiswahili."

Moses gasped and fell back in shock when a deeper voice finished the little boy's sentence. From the shadows of the stage depot, a tall young man emerged. He was several inches over six feet and handsome. He was in his mid-twenties and dressed in a fine suit of clothes. He shared the same fine features as the boy...and someone else. Moses shook his head, denying what his heart sang to him in truth. It couldn't be...it wasn't possible.

"Lutalo, my father's father came from Africa. He was the king of his tribe, a strong man, a good man. His woman, Utiba, was the most beautiful woman but she was living in another village. When they met, she offered her heart to him. She said…" The young man paused to take a long breath and settle his own jangled nerves. "Wenda twas mona kona keamvo. That means..."

"Carry me across de river..." a stunned Moses completed. His wet eyes drank in every feature, his own staring right back at him fifty years past. One hand reached over and touched the young man's face. "Isaiah?"

"It's me, Daddy."

"Lawd...Oh Lawd..." Moses managed, embracing his youngest child, stolen from him some twenty years before. Tears ran freely down his face and he held on for all he was worth. Then a small hand tugged on his pants. He pulled away from Isaiah and knelt down before his grandchild. His grandson...his very own flesh and blood. Tenderly, he took the boy's face in his large hands and his breath quivered in awe.

"He's beautiful..."

"His mother and I think so," Isaiah smiled. "There's two more younger at home and Honore is expecting again."

"Three grandbabies..." he choked, then the small boy's hand came up holding a white kerchief.

"S'okay, Grandpa," Lutalo offered, "Sometimes my eyes need washin' too."

"I reckon dey do, boy!" He wiped his damp eyes and hugged the child. "I reckon dey do..." He stood, keeping his hand on the boy's neck and turned to his son. "How?"

"It's a long story," Isaiah replied, "and I think would be better told over dinner. But you can thank him." He nodded to the quiet man with long brown hair and compelling blue eyes who was trying to melt into the side of the building. "His name's Vin Tanner."

"Yuh done it again." Moses moved then, towering over the quiet tracker. He tapped his chest, his voice catching. "Yuh got dis old heart o'mine lurchin'." He offered his hand then and saw the rippling emotion in the blue eyes. "Thank yuh, Vin Tanner. Yuh give Old Mose his soul back. Dat's quite a gift..."

"Ya gave me m'life, Moses," Vin rasped, "and I had a lot o'help. We best git goin'. Folks is waitin'...friends I need ya t'meet. They all helped."

"You hungry, Grandpa?"

"I sure am, son!" Moses took the boy's hand and followed the others down the street towards the hotel.

"Hey, y'all..."

Vin ducked inside the dining room which had a section set up to the side for the occasion. One long table was set aside for the guests. It groaned with food. Fried chicken was piled high on a large platter. Several smaller platters held mashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing, string beans, and biscuits. There was also chili in a large kettle prepared by Josiah and a large chocolate cake for dessert. The gathered guests all turned and stood as they entered.

"Most o' ya met Isaiah and his son yesterday when they got here." Vin moved aside to let the young man and his boy pass. "Sit right there on them two chairs." He pointed to the seats next to the head of the table.

"This here is Moses!" His voice rang with pride as he made the introductions. "M'very own guardian angel. He saved my life."

Moses just shook his head and grinned when they broke out into applause. He shifted and moved to sit down, but the slim tracker intercepted him.

"Not jest yet, some folks I need ya t'meet." He smiled when Buck approached, his hand extended. "Ya know Bucklin...hell, everybody knows Bucklin..."

"What wrong's with that?" Buck tossed back. "My mother always said to make yourself well known."

"She'd know," Chris quipped with short grin.

"Funny, Chris, very funny!" Wilmington extended his hand and took the old black man's. "Good to see you again Moses. You've got quite a family."

"Thanks, Buck," he nodded, eyeing the group gathered. "I'd say yuh got a quite a family yuhrself."

"This is..."

"Let me pick 'em out," Moses interrupted Vin and moved to the man who was next to Buck. He was almost as tall as Moses was with graying hair. He eyed the rough-hewn cross on the large man's chest and nodded, taking the hand and shaking it. "Yuh be de preacher Josiah?"

"Sanchez." He shook hard. "And like your namesake, you delivered, Moses. On behalf of all of us, I can't thank you enough for saving Vin's life."

"Yuh could say we saved each other in a way," Moses deflected, taking the next man's hand. He was young, handsome and wearing a bright red coat. When he smiled, a gold tooth gleamed. "Yuhr the gambler Ezra. Vin told me 'bout yuh."

"Don't believe everything you hear," Standish deferred, eyeing the grinning tracker. He couldn't recall the last time he saw Vin so enthused. The man was practically glowing, his eyes shining with pride. "It's a pleasure. May your journey home be a safe one."

"Thank yuh." Moses moved again, taking the hand of a short, slightly built young man with expressive dark eyes. "Yuh'd be the kid..."

"I'm the sheriff, John Dunne...J.D..." he corrected, making a face when his friends began catcalling that he was 'the kid.' "It's sure good to meet you, Moses. Vin talked an awful lot about you."

"And since Vin don't talk much, that's high praise," Chris teased.

"I'm Nathan Jackson..."

"The doctor." Moses took the offered hand.

"I ain't no doctor. I keep tellin' Vin that..." Nathan objected.

"Huh!" Vin snorted, waving his hand and dismissing Nathan's remark. "Some damn paper on a wall from some fancy school don't mean a thing. I seen ya save lives…hold 'em in yer hands, keep 'em warm and safe 'til they's strong enuf t'do on their own. God don't waste his time, right, Moses?"

"Right, boy," Moses agreed, turning to greet a blond woman. "Yuh'd be Miz Travis, the writer lady?"

"I run the paper in town and welcome!" Mary shook his hand and then turned. "Josiah, would you like to say grace?"

"Mary, I'd like tah...if it's okay?" Vin eyed the rest and felt Josiah's warm smile rain down.

"Lead on, Brother Vin, lead on."

Vin waited until they were all seated before he began. He eyed each of his friends, then bowed his head.

"Lord, it's me, Vin Tanner..."

"As if He didn't know..." Ezra noted.

"Shut up, Ezra!" Vin snapped. "...anyhows, I ain't a regular in church'r nuthin', so ya might not see me right off. But I feel yuh every day. When ya smile in the mornin' and the sun comes up, when ya cry and the rain falls, when a child laughs and ya sing..." He paused to collect his shaky breath. "I come awful close t'meetin' ya a couple months back. Not that I wouldn't wanna but mebbe not fer a few years yet."

He scowled and paused when he heard some soft chuckles in the group. He shifted his eyes to Josiah who nodded his encouragement.

"This ain't real fancy an'pretty like the words in J'siah's book, but it's from m'heart. I want t'thank ya fer lettin' me stand here t'day. I want t'thank ya fer puttin' Moses in that cave with me and fer bringin' his kin here safe. Man's got kin, he's richer than most."

He shifted again; this wasn't working. He'd practiced it alone and it came out fine. Now, he was rambling like an idiot. "I'm sorry...I'm runnin' m'mouth like a fool..."

"You're doing fine, Vin," Chris supported.

"Ya put us all here tonight t'share this meal. Breakin' bread t'gether with yer kin, sharin' and carin' and such, it's a real good feelin'. I want t'thank ya fer the grace ya showed by puttin' these good folks in my family."

"Well done, Mister Tanner," Ezra saluted with his glass and a warm smile. "Very well done."

"Good job, Vin," J.D. agreed.

"You done?" Buck eyed the nervous sharpshooter. "‘Cause I'm starvin'. I don't want to get my fingers wrapped around a breast and have you start ramblin' again."

"Stairs is that way," Vin tossed back. "Don't let dinner stop ya…"

"Ha…ha…ha…" Buck winked and the food began to flow.

"So how'd yuh get here, Isaiah?" Moses asked.

"Vin did it," Isaiah replied.

"I didn't do much," Vin mumbled over his chicken. "Everybody helped. Didn't even hafta pay 'em," he teased with a smile.

"Self-preservation!" Ezra elbowed Buck.

"When our tracker ain't happy," the ladies man began, nodding to Nathan who smiled and picked up his glass.

"Ain't nobody happy," Jackson laughed, tapping Buck's mug.

"When ya told me 'bout them animals stealin' yer little ones," Vin hesitated, looking over to Moses, "it gimme a good gut twist. Couldn't stop thinkin' on it...tore me up some."

"I know, boy, I seen dem eyes."

"Well, I got to thinkin'..."

"Lucky you didn't burn the house down," Chris teased, buttering a roll and winking at Vin.

"Anyhow, I figgered mebbe the Judge could track yer boy down," Vin noted.

"Judge?" Moses asked.

"Orrin Travis," Chris replied, taking a dollop of potatoes. "We work for him. Vin asked him to check your story. He managed to find records of the transaction that took Isaiah away. They found the son of the man who bought him."

"Andre Bauchet, a good friend," Isaiah recalled, putting some bread on his son's plate. "Etienne Bauchet was like a father to me. He had a large house in New Orleans. He treated me well, schooled me...I had a good life."

"New Orleans?" Moses marveled.

"The judge tracked him there and Ezra wired his cousin..." Chris nodded.

"Claude, a rather unsavory element," Standish took some green beans, "but he owed me a favor. He knew Mister Bauchet and his son. He was able to ascertain Isaiah's whereabouts."

"Mister Bauchet had a friend up north named Dupont. He owned a large estate in Delaware," Isaiah continued. "When I was eighteen, he sent me to live with the Duponts to train as a silversmith. Honore, my wife, is Creole from New Orleans. We got married before we left..." He paused then, putting his hand over his father's, still shaken by the wonderful reunion. "I have a good life, Daddy, a very good life. I got my own shop. A fine home, a beautiful woman to share it with me...and now...I can give my children the greatest gift of all...a grandfather. A living breathing heritage."

Moses took a few moments to let the information sink in. He thought hard on that night in the cave when he had wanted to flee. He lifted his right hand and studied the top of it. He shivered then, recalling the frail hand that had reached out to him in the dark. He heard that weak voice calling him 'angel.' Who'd have guessed it was he who had acquired an angel and a blue-eyed one at that? His emotions riding high, Moses stood and moved to where Vin Tanner sat. He waited until the young man turned to look up at him.

"In de home of my father," Moses voice was full of gratitude and pride when he took Vin's shoulders in both hands, "yuhr name'd be Nyack...a warrior with a strong heart...one who never gives up." He heard every word pouring silently from the blue eyes glimmering at him. "Dat be a name dey save for de son of de king."

Vin wanted to say thank you, but he was overcome with so many emotions he couldn't speak. He tried to talk; he even opened his mouth but no words would come. He swallowed hard, feeling his face flush with color and kept his pale eyes glued to Moses' dark ones.

"Yuhr welcome, boy," Moses smiled, tapping the side of the emotional young man's face. "I hears yuh...dem eyes don't lie..."

"Don't they have a name for cranky orn'ry pain in the ass?" Chris teased, trying to help Vin get his composure back. The others laughed and he winked at the blushing Texan who was trying to regain control.

Dinner was easy. The kind of meal a man never forgot. Like Christmas or Thanksgiving when there was so much joy in one room that it glowed. The laughter flowed and a few tears as both Moses and Isaiah told of their lives. The little boy's eyes grew heavy and the new grandfather moved and lifted him. He settled in the rocking chair in the corner and held that precious treasure close to his heart. He rocked and sang in a voice cracked with emotion, one hand stroking the silken skin of his firstborn grandson.

Chris saw Vin duck outside and went to follow. Something told him the younger man's ragged emotions had him upset. It had been a long day following weeks of hard work on Vin's part to make this night special for Moses. He found the Texan sitting on the boardwalk a few yards away. Vin turned and rose when he approached.

"I've been a lot of places in my life, Vin. I've seen things...done things...met some men bigger than life. Rode under Grant in the war...saw Lincoln speak at Gettysburg..." He paused and waited for those struggling eyes to rise under the silver moon. When they locked on to his, Chris continued in a voice soft with admiration untold. "That," he nodded to the dining room, "was the finest thing I've ever been privileged to witness. You have any idea how proud I am for this?" He offered his arm and the other locked on to his forearm in a flash.

"Stomach's jumpin' 'round like fat bullfrogs in matin' season," Vin managed, getting a short laugh.

"You do have a way with words, cowboy." He elbowed the shaken tracker. "You done good!"

"Yeah, reckon I did," Vin smiled. "Did ya see the look on his face when he started singin' t'the little one? Chased me clear outside…"

"You're not gonna cry, are you?" Chris teased and got a snorted growl. "Come on, there's an empty spot at the bar and I'm buyin'."

"Ya go ahead. I'll catch up in a minute," Vin decided, needing some time alone to collect his scattered self.

He watched as one by one the others left and made their way to the saloon. The sound of their voices gave his heart a good tug. Josiah and Nathan teasing Ezra about his clothes and Buck tormenting J.D. about his love life. He walked to the window then, watching as Isaiah and Moses got ready to go to their rooms. The look of absolute joy radiating from the old man as that shaky hand held the small boy close was one that brought tears to his eyes. It wasn't often Vin felt so alive and that wonderful sensation inside was something he wished he could bottle up and save forever.

He ducked away, letting the small family get acquainted. There would be more time to share with Moses before he left for Delaware.

Vin made his way to the Saloon, not even bothering to curse at Buck when the mustached man ruffled his hair. He moved to a chair at the end of the bar and sat down, tugging his hat over his eyes. He shut them for a moment, letting the voices of the others blend and mix into an incredible sound. He pondered on this circle, this ring of brotherhood that bound them together. Forged in guts and sealed in blood, it had a few dents and was battered and scarred, but it remained the most solid thing he could hold onto. He sighed, laid his head back on the chair and let that music tickle his ears. He thought on Moses, whose long and painful journey he'd traveled had finally ended in a shining place ruled by hope and faith. A place he knew well, having found it only recently himself in the guise of green eyes.

He felt a shot glass nudge his fingers and pried an eye open. Buck was the one who'd handed him the drink. He was about to sip it when he caught hold of Chris's eyes at the other end of the bar. It came again silently but stronger than ever and he caught it, sending back his undying allegiance.

*Word.*

THE END

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