Magnificent Seven Old West
Proving Ground

by Niteowl

Main Characters - Buck, Vin and the rest of the Seven, OC's

Rating PG - lots of shootin' and hurtin', a little cussin' - lots of h/c

Disclaimer - To the best of my knowledge, the characters we know as The Magnificent Seven belong to MGM/Hallmark/CBS, John Watson and company. Wish I could come up with a more original way to say I wish I owned them but I don't. No money is being made - this is strictly for fun (and feedback!).

For those who watched the TV series How the West was Won might recognize elements and dialogue of the story. This particular story arc was always one of my favorites and I could never stop thinking how good it would fit the Seven – I also brought a couple of characters into the story from an old Disney TV series

This was written YEARS ago for the 7H7C Birthday ficlist, originally a Happy Birthday fic for Jeanne. I made a few minor changes from the original story, with suggestion from Mitzi who was a wonderful Beta, but for the most part this is the story I wrote back in 2005


The stagecoach rumbled along the dry, dusty trail. The passengers inside were lulled into a half-sleeping state by the constant rhythm. The passengers consisted of a young family on their way to her parent's farm outside Tucson, the pretty woman clinging tightly to a tiny infant; two middle aged men, one obviously a salesman of some kind, the other more well-dressed and educated in his speech.

Suddenly the afternoon's quiet was shattered by the sounds of gunfire. From a small stand of trees ahead came half a dozen riders, guns drawn and firing into the air. They rode straight for the stagecoach, their obvious intention to force it to stop. The guard riding next to the driver brought his shotgun to bear and was shot through the chest before he could fire his weapon.

The driver pulled back hard on the reins and brought the coach to a stop. The group of men wearing bandannas on their faces to mask their identities quickly surrounded the coach. One of the outlaws climbed directly from his saddle to the driver's seat. The driver was quickly disarmed and the guard's body tossed unceremoniously to the ground as he searched the seat compartment.

"It's not here," he said to the other outlaws.

"You inside!" shouted the leader of the outlaws. "Come out with your hands up!"

The door opened slowly and first the salesman made his way out with both hands in the air. The young husband was next, and as he turned back to take the baby and help his wife out, a shot rang out and the bullet buried itself in the wooden door next to the young man's head, causing him to cringe involuntarily.

"I said hands up!" snarled the leader.

"It's all right, Michael," she said shakily. Gathering up her skirt with one hand and clutching the baby with the other, she made her way down to the ground and stood next to her husband. He immediately wrapped one arm protectively around her shoulder while the other was raised high.

"Come on, come on," urged one of the gunmen, waving his gun back and forth in the direction of the last passenger. When the older man made his way to the ground and stood before the band of outlaws with his hands raised, the outlaw looked over to the leader and said, "That's him!"

"Shut up," the leader replied angrily. Then he turned to the driver. "Where's the money?"

The driver's eyes narrowed. "Don't know what you're talking about," he replied.

The leader of the outlaws nodded to one of his men, who proceeded to dismount from his horse. Then he climbed up onto the stagecoach and grabbed the driver by the front of his shirt and threw the driver onto the ground next to unmoving guard.

"You got ten seconds to tell me where the money box is or I put a hole in you," the outlaw said menacingly.

Swallowing hard, he finally said, "In the back, under the baggage."

"Look in the back," the leader ordered one of the other robbers.

While one of the outlaws was rifling through the baggage compartment in the rear of the stagecoach, one of the others had climbed down and stood next to the leader, but his attention was centered on the well-dressed man. For his part, the stagecoach passenger couldn't help but notice the way the outlaw was staring at him with undisguised hatred.

The outlaw who had gone to the back of the stagecoach stepped back around with a loud whoop. "Got it!" he exclaimed, holding the cloth bag with bank markings for the leader to see.

"All right," the leader said with a nod. Turning his attention to man at his side, he said, "Let's get this over with." He took the money bag and began securing it to his saddle while the one who had found it climbed back on his horse. Then the leader mounted his horse.

That left only one man on the ground with the stagecoach passengers. "I'm going to enjoy this," he snarled at the well-dressed man. "I'm saving you for last, Judge." Without another word he turned to the driver and pulled the trigger.

The young wife screamed and clutched her baby tightly to her while her husband moved to shield them both with his body. "It'll be all right, Lori," he whispered, kissing the top of her head.

The salesman turned to run and had only taken three steps when the gunman took aim and fired again. The man dropped without a sound. The woman's muffled cries could barely be heard from where her head was buried in her husband's shoulder. He pulled her closer, holding her tight.

The cold-blooded killer turned his attention and his gun on the young family. Just as his finger tightened on the trigger, the loud report of a long rifle came booming across the desert floor. The gunman jerked and his shot went wide, grazing the young father's side. The outlaw cried out in pain and dropped his gun. He grabbed his shoulder where blood was already oozing onto his shirt. All six robbers turned toward the sound of pounding hooves as four riders came into view, guns drawn but holding their fire.

The killer fixed the Judge with hate-filled glare and made a move for his discarded pistol, even as another shot peppered the ground close to it.

"Tyler!" called the outlaw leader as he tried to lead the other's horse to him. "Leave it! Let's get out of here!"

At the sound of the name, the Judge's eyes narrowed in recognition.

"I want him dead!" the other spat back. Then the rest of the outlaws began firing on the group galloping in their direction, forcing the approaching horsemen to return sporadic fire.

"Later!" the leader commanded, holding the other man's reins out to him. Finally, the angry gunman spun around and mounted, blood trickling down from the wound in his arm.

Even as they argued, the cacophony of gunfire was all around them. The older man took advantage of the distraction to herd the small family to the other side of the stagecoach, pulling them down and under the big wheels. Only then did the men charging toward the stage coach open fire in earnest. It was enough to send the outlaws' horses scattering. They had no choice but to return the way they came, toward the stand of trees and the cover it offered, then to the canyon beyond.

As the four riders arrived at the embattled stagecoach, two pulled their horses to a stop and jumped to the ground, coming to a crouch protectively in front of the small group of passengers. The other two newcomers continued at full speed after the outlaws, even as they continued to fire at their pursuers.

As the sounds of gunfire retreated into the distance, the taller of the two protectors turned to the group huddled under the carriage. He smiled at the sound of a healthy baby's cry coming from within the young mother's arms. "It's all right, now," he said, gently placing a big hand on the young father's shoulder. "Y'all can come on out."

As the group began to disentangle themselves, the smaller man dressed in a bright green coat offered his hand to the woman. "Allow me," he said with an obvious Southern drawl.

With one arm securely around her baby and her husband helping from his position next to her, she allowed the stranger to pull her out and up from beneath the stagecoach. Her husband followed, standing stiffly and favoring his injured side. The shorter of their rescuers clasped the Judge's hand and pulled the last of the survivors out.

As the others dusted themselves off and tried to regain their composure, the taller man was checking the fallen driver, guard and passenger. He shook his head at the unspoken question in the shorter man's eyes, even as he began to drag the bodies to the back of the stagecoach and away from the group. He laid them out respectfully, covering them with an oilcloth he found in the baggage compartment. The other man led the group toward the front of the coach, helping the young father to lean against the carriage.

"We owe you our lives, young man," the Judge said, extending his hand to the dark haired man as he returned to the group. "Judge Vaughn Roberts," he said, as the other man returned his grip firmly. "We are certainly in your debt," he continued as he turned to the smaller man and repeated the gesture.

"Just doing our job, Judge," the bigger man replied. "I'm Buck Wilmington, and this here's Ezra Standish."

"Michael Owens," said the young husband, but when he grimaced in pain trying to move toward them to hold out his hand, Ezra waved him to stay where he was. "This is my wife Lori."

"We can't thank all you gentlemen enough," Lori offered, smiling shyly as she looked up from comforting her infant.

"Our pleasure, ma'am," Buck said, giving her one of his best smiles. He clapped Ezra on the back, which earned him a look of disdain, then moved closer to coo at the baby.

"What brings you out this way?" the Judge inquired.

"My compatriots and I are currently in the employ of Judge Orrin Travis," Ezra explained. "We keep the peace, such as it is, in our small corner of the Territory. We were actually looking for your stage, as it was several hours overdue."

The Judge nodded. "They had trouble with one of the wheels this morning. It took several hours to fix. When they tried to send a message up the line, the telegraph wires were down. The driver was hell bent trying to make up time."

"We really should be getting you to town," Ezra said, meeting Michael's eyes and traveling down to his injury. "We have an excellent healer in Four Corners and you should have that looked at."

"What about your friends?" Michael asked. He couldn't help but notice the way Buck kept glancing up in the direction the others had gone, concern shadowing his blue eyes.

"I expect they'll be along directly," Buck said. He met Ezra's gaze and offered a small smile in return for the reassuring nod offered by the Southerner. Then he walked toward the back of the stagecoach.

"In the meantime…" Ezra stated, opening the door. He offered his arm to Lori then assisted Michael into the coach. Once the young family was inside, Ezra joined Buck at the rear of the coach.

Buck already had the body of the driver slung across his saddle and secured. As he took hold of the guard's form, the Judge helped Ezra place the body of the unfortunate passenger across Ezra's saddle. Once balanced and secured, they tied the reins of the horses to the back of the coach. The Judge then joined his fellow passengers inside the coach.

Buck went to the horses and checked their yokes and traces before climbing into the driver's box, where Ezra was waiting for him. Taking one last look in the direction JD and Vin had disappeared, he sighed and gathered the reins. "We'll have y'all in town by dark," he called down. Then he flicked the reins and started the horses moving in a slow walk.

* * * * * *

It was just starting to get dark when Buck pulled the lumbering stage to a halt in front of the livery. He tied the reins off and stood, trying to stretch the stiffness out of his body. He watched Ezra climb down and go to the coach door, opening it and helping Lori and the baby out first, then Michael. When weakness due to the injury to his side caused the young father to falter, Buck hopped off the driver's box and went Michael's other side. They guided him toward the stairs on the side of the building leading to Nathan's clinic.

Buck turned back to the Judge. "Saloon's that way," he said, indicating with a nod of his head. "We'll meet you there as soon as we get things settled."

Judge Roberts nodded then moved toward the back of the stage to retrieve his luggage. He came to a stop at the sight of the horses tied there with their burdens. He frowned and hesitated before he shrugged then walked away in the direction the peacekeeper had pointed out.

Buck was back down in a few minutes, and by that time Yosemite had come out of his living quarters to see the stagecoach and horses waiting for his attention. Buck helped the liveryman lead the horses and the stage to the livery, then when they finished unhitching the team, they turned the horses out into the corral. The coach would have to just stay where it was until the stage line sent a new driver.

Once the team of horses was taken care of, he turned his attention to his and Ezra's mounts. He untied the reins from the coach and led both horses to the undertaker's, tying the reins loosely to the hitching post. He knocked on the door until the man came out then stood by while the undertaker and his helper moved the bodies inside. By the time they had moved the last body in, Ezra was coming down the stairs. He walked over to Buck and took his own horse's reins and walked back to the livery with the tall man.

As they led their horses to their stalls, Yosemite was waiting for them. "Here, I'll get 'em unsaddled and fed and watered," he offered.

"Appreciate it," Buck said with a smile.

"Come along, Mister Wilmington," Ezra said, his hand on Buck's shoulder, "I believe you offered to buy me dinner."

"In your dreams," Buck replied, shaking Ezra's hand off good-naturedly. "I suppose we ought to go check and see that the Judge got settled."

"Excellent idea," Ezra agreed, and the two peacekeepers made their way across the dirt street and into the saloon.

They had no more than stepped inside when the sound of pounding horses caught their attention. Stepping back outside the swinging batwing doors, they immediately recognized the horses that sped past them and stopped next to the stairs leading up to Nathan's clinic.

"Buck!" Vin called, already looking around and seeing the two men standing outside the saloon. "Give me a hand. JD's hurt."

That was all it took to send the big man charging back toward the clinic. It never ceased to amaze the Southerner just how fast someone of Buck's size could move when properly motivated. He also moved quickly toward his friends, and by the time Ezra joined them, Buck already had JD off his horse. He and Vin were carrying the boy up the stairs, Buck taking him under the shoulders and Vin grabbing both legs. Ezra bounded up the stairs and moved around them, opening the door to Nathan's clinic.

Nathan looked up from where he was finishing bandaging Michael Owens' side. "What happened?" he asked, quickly handing the bandage to Lori to finish. Even before Vin could answer Nathan helped Lori move Michael to the smaller cot where the baby was sleeping. The small family sat quietly out of the way while Buck and Vin placed JD gently on the bed.

"We got ambushed," Vin replied, meeting Buck's eyes while answering Nathan's question. "One of them stayed behind and got up in the rocks. Grazed JD's horse and he got thrown. He busted his head pretty good."

Buck nodded his understanding even as Nathan began examining their youngest friend.

"Yeah, he's got a good-sized bump back here," Nathan said aloud. "But it don't look too bad." When he pulled his hand back from behind the dark head, his fingertips were sticky with blood. He took a cloth and dipped it into a water bowl, then set about rolling the younger man on his side and cleaning the injury.

"What about the miscreants you were pursuing?" Ezra asked.

"Had to let 'em go to get JD back here," Vin said regretfully, then his expression tightened. "'Cept the one that bushwhacked us, left him for buzzard bait."

"It's okay, Vin," Buck assured. "We can get after that bunch at first light."

"The important thing is you got JD back here in one piece," Nathan added. "You just never know about head injuries."

"If there's nothing else we can do to assist you?" Ezra asked. At Nathan's shake of the head, the Southerner turned to the small family in the corner of the clinic. "I believe the Owens could probably use a good meal and a soft bed. If you'll follow me…" He held the door open and waited for Lori to gather the baby while Michael stood stiffly and made his way to the doorway. "Gentlemen?" Ezra directed to the other two men in the room.

Buck shook his head. "You go on, Vin," he encouraged. "Think I'll sit here awhile. When he comes to, I got a thing or two to say about staying on a horse."

Vin chuckled. "How about I bring you up some supper in a few minutes?"

"That'd be fine," Buck replied, already reaching for the chair to move it closer to the bed.

"Nathan?" Vin asked.

The dark-skinned healer shook his head. "I ate just before all this started," he said.

"All right then," Vin replied, turning to follow Ezra and the others out the door.

Once inside the hotel dining room, Ezra approached the waitress about bringing them all something to eat. While he was waiting for their food, he spoke with the hotel manager to make arrangements to have the family's luggage brought to the hotel.

Vin ate quickly, then asked for another plate to take to Buck. When it came, he said his goodnight to the Owens family, then stepped out and headed in the direction of the saloon. He stopped in long enough to order three beers from Inez and added them to the tray he was carrying. At the top of the stairs, he knocked on the door with his foot and Nathan opened it a few seconds later. The tall healer smiled and took the beers off the tray before Vin handed it to Buck.

Buck smiled and nodded toward JD's still form. As the aroma of the food permeated the room, his nose began to twitch and his eyelids began to flutter. They watched as his eyes slowly opened and his brows furrowed in confusion as he tried to focus on his surroundings. With a low chuckle, Buck stood up with his plate and moved away, allowing Nathan in close to check on their injured friend.

JD's eyes tracked his mentor's movement. "Buck?" he asked in a whisper.

"Hey kid," Buck replied, licking his fingers after putting a piece of chicken in his mouth.

"What happened? Why am I…" he started, but as he tried to sit up a blinding pain in his head sent him back down onto the pillows.

"Just take it easy, JD," Nathan admonished, laying a hand gently on his shoulder. "You got a nasty bump on your head. You're going to be okay, but you'll be laid up a couple of days."

"Remember them outlaws we was chasing?" Vin asked. When JD turned toward him and nodded just a fraction, he continued. "One of 'em got up in rocks and took a couple of shots at us, nicked your horse and you got thrown."

"Good thing you landed on that hard head of yours," Buck teased.

"My horse okay?" he asked, ignoring Buck with a frown.

"He'll be fine, Yosemite's already taking care of it," Vin answered.

"What about the robbers?" JD asked.

Vin shrugged. "Got away – for now."

"Sorry about that," JD said quietly, knowing Vin had to choose between staying with him and going after the outlaws.

"Nothing to be sorry about, kid," Buck put in. "Happens to the best of us. Hell, even I've been thrown once or twice in my life time."

JD rolled his eyes and turned back to his friend. "Imagine that," he said sarcastically. "You going to share that or eat it all yourself? I'm awful hungry."

As Buck moved in closer and held the plate out to JD, Nathan shooed it away from his patient. "Not yet, JD," he said to the younger man. "Chances are with a head injury your stomach might not be able to tolerate solid food just yet."

Vin wrinkled his nose at the image that conjured up, and he couldn't help but chuckle at the cross look JD shot at the healer just before he sighed and licked his lips.

"I'll go get you some soup and bread," Nathan offered, eyeing the other two. "I need to stretch my legs anyway." With that he stood up straight and went out the door.

As soon as Nathan was out of sight, Buck handed JD the mug of beer Vin had brought him. "Well, he didn't say you couldn't have anything to drink," he said with a grin and a wink.

JD took the mug and drank gratefully. When he had downed half the glass, Buck pulled it away. "That's enough, kid," he said. "Nathan'll have my hide if you get sick anyway."

JD burped loudly then blushed a bright red. "Thanks, Buck," he said as he closed his eyes and relaxed into the pillow again.

"Anytime," he replied softly.

When Nathan came back with JD's supper, he chased Vin and Buck out of the clinic. Assuring them their youngest would be up and around in a couple of days, the other two went to the saloon to find Ezra and fill him in on the good news.

Finding the gambler at his usual table, they were surprised to see him half-heartedly playing a game of solitaire. Sliding into the chairs to either side, Buck smiled at Inez as she brought them each a beer.

"How fares Mister Dunne?" Ezra asked.

"Nathan says he'll be fine in a couple of days," Buck answered.

"Kid woke up a couple of minutes ago, hungry as a bear," Vin added. "Weren't too happy when Nathan brought him a bowl of soup."

"Indeed," Ezra said with a smile.

"Where's the Judge?" Buck asked, looking around the room for the older man from the stagecoach.

"Judge Travis is in town?" Vin asked, taking a sip of his beer.

"Nah - that's right, you youngsters were off chasing outlaws while we were protecting the women and children," Buck said with a smile. "Seems the fellow you saved with that long rifle of yours is some kind of Judge – Judge Roberts, he said his name was."

"Wish we could have gotten there just a mite earlier," Vin said, regret coloring his tone.

"We did the best we could, Mister Tanner," Ezra said. "And that was one hell of a shot. As for the good Judge, he excused himself a few minutes ago. He retrieved his belongings from the stage and secured a room at the hotel. He did extend an invitation to all of us to meet him in the morning; he wants to thank us properly. He completely understood you wanting to remain with Mister Dunne until you were assured his condition wasn't life threatening, but he was also fatigued. I told him we'd be happy to accept."

"What time in the morning?" Vin asked.

"After I explained our normal morning routine and pointed out the lateness of the hour, he agreed ten o'clock would be satisfactory," Ezra answered.

Buck laughed and shook his head. "You just don't like getting' up early, do you, Ez?"

"Anybody heard from Chris and Josiah?" Vin asked.

"As a matter of fact, there was a telegram left at the jail saying they were already on the way home and they should be back tomorrow," Ezra replied.

"They'll be sorry they missed out on all the fun," Buck said.

"Yeah," Vin agreed, "but it's about time the families of those girls Poplar killed learnt the truth."

"I still don't understand why they couldn't have held the inquest in our quaint little town," Ezra said with a hint of sarcasm. "But ours is not to question why."

"Well, it's all over now and those poor ladies can rest in peace," Buck added. Then he stood and nodded at his friends. "Speaking of rest, I'm heading off to bed myself. I suppose I'll see you both in the morning. 'Night Vin, Ezra."

"Later, Buck," Vin replied.

"Ten o'clock sharp," Ezra said.

* * * * * *

The next morning the small town came to life with the rising of the sun. Both Vin and Buck were up early; Vin for an early morning ride in the cool desert air, Buck to visit Nathan's clinic and keep JD company. After all of the teasing and well-intentioned scolding he could tolerate, Nathan finally chased them out of the clinic, making Buck responsible for not letting JD get too tired. Buck promised the kid a hot bath and a good breakfast before they were supposed meet the Judge at the saloon. After that, Buck and Vin were going back out to where Vin had to abandon the outlaws' trail.

Buck and JD were already settled in the saloon when Vin came in. He walked over to the pot-belly stove and poured himself a cup of coffee before joining the other two at the table.

"Ezra up yet?" he asked.

"Should be down shortly," Buck replied with a grin.

"Yeah, well you pounded on his door loud enough to wake the dead," JD added. "It's a wonder he didn't shoot you."

"Trust me, I seriously considered it," the gambler said, stifling a yawn as he meandered his way down the stairs.

"Mornin', Ezra," Vin drawled, raising his cup in a teasing salute.

"Mister Tanner," he acknowledged, eyeing the others at the table. "Please tell me there's still some coffee left."

"Should be," Vin replied.

Ezra made his way over the stove and poured himself a cup, adding a dash of 'flavor' from the silver flask he carried in his coat pocket.

"Rough night?" Buck asked with a chuckle.

Ezra cast a disparaging glance the rogue's way and sat down next to JD without answering. "How are you this fine morning, Mister Dunne?"

"I'm fine," JD answered as he shaded his eyes from the sunlight coming in through the dirty window. "Just got a little headache is all."

"And you, Mister Tanner?" Ezra continued.

"Right as rain, Ezra. How about you?" Vin replied.

"Can't complain," Ezra answered, sitting back and nursing his coffee.

"Hey!" Buck cried in mock protest. "How about me?"

"I'm still considering Mister Dunne's suggestion to shoot you," Ezra replied dryly.

"Well, at least wait until I'm out of the room," came a familiar voice from the doorway. "It wouldn't be a good idea to have the territorial judge as a witness to your crime." Although said with a smile, it brought back a quick memory of not so long ago when Judge Travis had originally hired the Seven after an incident involving the nephew of Stewart James, one of the local ranchers. The judge had witnessed Lucas James gun down Gloria Potter's late husband and put his own life on the line to bring the man to justice.

"Judge Travis," JD called out, starting to stand, but a wave of dizziness sent him back to his seat.

"Oh yeah, you're just fine," Buck mumbled just loud enough for his friends at the table to hear, ignoring the scowl JD sent his way. "Just a little headache."

"I hear we had a little excitement yesterday," Travis said, taking the chair Vin offered. The four peacekeepers nodded in reply.

"The stage was unusually late, and the telegraph lines were coincidentally down," Ezra explained. "As we were going out to meet it, we found it was under siege and the occupants were systematically being executed."

"We were too late for the driver and the guard and one of the passengers," Buck chimed in. "But Vin started taking aim with that long rifle of his and saved the rest."

"Myself included," came another voice from the stairs.

They all turned to see Judge Roberts walking toward them. He came to a stop just short of the group and waited.

"Have a seat, Judge," Buck said in invitation, smiling as the other man took a chair from another table and pulled it up to join the others. "Can I get you a cup of coffee or anything?" the tall ladies man asked as he started to stand.

"No, thank you," Roberts replied. "I had enough with breakfast."

Once Buck settled back into his chair, Ezra cleared his throat to draw everyone's attention. "If I may? Judge Vaughn Roberts, allow me to introduce Judge Orrin Travis."

"How do you do," Travis greeted, offering his hand.

"It's an honor, sir," Roberts took the hand and shook with his contemporary.

"As to the rest of our merry little band that were off chasing the outlaws while we were escorting you back to town," Ezra continued. "The young man next to Mister Wilmington is Sheriff JD Dunne, and this is Mister Vin Tanner. It was his accuracy with a rifle that was your salvation."

Roberts had shaken hands with JD and was turning toward Vin when the name came out. He hesitated, his eyes narrowing in recognition, but took the offered hand and shook it. "I wanted to thank all of you for what you did yesterday. You risked your lives to save mine, as well as that of the Owens family. I am in your debt."

"Just doing our job," JD said with pride.

"No, what you did was above and beyond just your job," Roberts added. "I'm just sorry the others were killed because of me."

"I beg your pardon?" Travis asked. "How was a stage hold-up your fault?"

"I don't believe it was a random act," Roberts replied. "Something the leader said, and I heard him call one of the robbers by name."

"How's that, Judge?" Buck asked.

"Tyler," Roberts answered. "I sentenced an Albert Tyler to hang for murder last year. He had a twin brother, Joseph. The brother was in jail somewhere around Tulsa himself when the sentence was carried out. When he learned his brother was hanged, he made all kinds of threats against me. The Oklahoma prison officials sent me word several months ago stating Tyler had escaped, but no one had heard from him since then."

"And you think he was in that gang yesterday?" Vin asked.

"Positive," Roberts replied, frowning thoughtfully. "I'm almost positive he recognized me, and I'm pretty sure I recognized him. The way he went for his gun, if you hadn't made that second shot, I'm sure he would've gunned me down before they made their getaway."

"Well, gentlemen, I understand the stage line is sending a new driver in the morning," Ezra said. "The Owens family will be going on to Tucson. What are your plans, sir?"

"I've decided to postpone the rest of my trip and head back home to Pecos," Roberts answered. "I suppose I'll have to take the stage as far as the railroad. It'd be quicker to go by train."

"Probably so," Travis agreed. "Do you think there's a chance this Tyler might come after you again?"

"It's not a pleasant thought, but it has occurred to me," Roberts responded with a nod.

Vin pushed his chair back and stood. "Buck, how about you and me head on out and see if we can pick up their trail, make sure they don't double back this way. Ezra, can you keep an eye on things here?"

The gambler offered the tracker an almost imperceptible nod when Vin's eyes slid in the direction of the visiting judge. The rest stood and followed him out the door. Ignoring JD's protests that he was perfectly capable of making his way back to the clinic on his own, Buck walked his young friend up the stairs and in the door of the clinic.

Watching the peacekeepers go off in different directions, Judge Roberts approached Judge Travis as he started off toward the Clarion to see his grandson and daughter-in-law. "May I ask you a question?"

"Certainly," Travis replied.

"Vin Tanner?" Roberts asked. "Is he the same Vin Tanner that's wanted for murder in the state of Texas?"

Travis nodded in reply then watched for the other's reaction.

"Why isn't he in jail?" Roberts demanded, his voice laced with indignation.

"For one, this isn't Texas," Travis answered. "For another, he didn't do what that damnable poster says he did."

"How do know that?" Roberts asked.

"He told us about it," Travis replied. "We've known from the start. And he still works for me."

"And we also know without a shadow of a doubt that Mister Tanner could no more kill a man in cold blood than I could fly," came Ezra's voice from the doorway. When the two jurists turned toward him, he offered them a crooked smile. "Pardon me for eavesdropping."

"Well Mister Standish, it'll be hard to keep any secrets from you, considering you've been designated my bodyguard," Roberts said with just a little sarcasm. Ezra offered him a two-fingered salute in reply.

"Back to the subject of Vin Tanner," Travis directed. "In all the time he's worked for me, I've never had cause to doubt his honesty or his character. He's put his life on the line more than once for this town. You ask the folks around here, they'll tell you. They don't come any finer than Vin Tanner."

Roberts nodded thoughtfully as his eyes wandered toward the livery where Vin had disappeared inside.

Travis turned back the way he'd been heading. Ezra stepped back into the shade of the saloon, holding the door open for Roberts who followed him inside.

* * * * * * *

It was past noon by the time Buck and Vin reached the canyon where he and JD had been shot at. They dismounted and Buck stood far enough behind Vin to give him room to work and close enough to see what the tracker was seeing. As much as Buck knew about tracking, it never hurt to learn more. They left the horses and climbed the rise where the gunman had been lying in wait. In the distance they could see thunderheads building, promising quite a storm when it let loose.

Vin was so engrossed in his work that when Buck wandered around the outcropping, he was the first to notice the pile of rocks marking a new grave. "I thought you said you left him for the buzzards?" Buck called to Vin.

"I did," Vin answered, looking up quickly.

"Well, I guess his friends thought enough of him to come back and take care of him," Buck said. "Could be the Judge is right; they might still be in the area."

"I sure don't like it, but yeah," Vin agreed, pointing to the tracks as they faded into the distance. "They came back here, looks like they camped right here after they buried him. Appears they headed north instead of back the way they came. If they headed into town from the north, we wouldn't have seen them on the way out here."

"Dammit!" Buck exclaimed, swatting his hat on his leg and wiping his brow. "We better get back pronto."

"Let's go," Vin responded, leading the way to the waiting horses. Halfway down the slope, Vin turned to Buck. "You know, Chris and Josiah might be back by now."

"Sure hope so," the lanky gunslinger replied as they continued their descent.

* * * * * *

The storm they had watched approaching chased them all the way back. They could see the bright flashes of lightning, hear the rumble of thunder as it got closer, and the smell of rain on the desert floor was carried by the breeze blowing all around them. Most of the townspeople had gone in, not tempting fate by being caught out in the approaching storm. The sounds of the saloon called to them, and there they stopped the horses and dismounted.

"Think we got time for a quick beer before it gets here?" Buck asked, his attention divided equally between the door to the saloon and the clinic.

"Tell ya what, Buck," Vin offered, "I'll put up your horse while you go check on JD. Tell him I said hi, then you can buy me a beer and we'll call it even."

"You got yourself a deal there, pard," Buck said, gratefully handing over his reins to his long-haired friend. He turned and bounded up the stairs to the clinic.

By the time Vin was done unsaddling and feeding the horses, Buck was coming back down the stairs. "How's he doing?"

Buck chuckled and shook his head. "That boy's got more stubborn in him than a mule. Nathan said he sat at that window with his rifle all morning long, just in case something happened and Ezra needed him. He finally got plumb tuckered out, he's sound asleep."

"Well," Vin said, clapping his friend on the back, "you owe me a beer."

As they walked toward the saloon, the rain finally came. By the time they reached the door, it had already gone from sprinkling to really raining. The wind with it practically pushed them through the door.

"Whoooeee!" Buck called as they stepped inside. Looking around from the doorway, his eyes quickly adjusted to the light. He found Ezra at a table with Judge Roberts. He exchanged a quick glance with Vin, noticing the tracker's frown at the still absent duo.

Vin finally shrugged and walked towards the table. "Hope you're not playing for real money there, Judge," noticing the cards on the table in front of the three men. He wagged his eyebrows at Ezra, who replied with a roll of his green eyes.

"Any luck on your hunting trip?" Ezra asked.

"Yes and no," Vin answered, taking a chair and sitting down. "We found their tracks, but not the gang. They came back and buried the body then the tracks lead north of here."

"How far north?" Ezra asked with a frown.

"Don't know for sure," Vin replied. "We thought it would be best to get back here in case they came into town."

"And we sure didn't want to get caught out in that," Buck added, jerking a thumb toward the door. Just then a bolt of lightning lit the sky for emphasis, followed by a loud rumble of noise and vibration.

"Any sign of trouble?" Vin asked.

"Nah," Nathan answered, having come in the doors of the saloon and walked over to the table. "No strangers coming in either."

"Well all right," Buck said, clapping his hands together. "Now what's for lunch?" Not seeing Inez anywhere, he looked up and waved to get the waitress's attention, ordering for himself and Vin.

"That's right generous of you, Buck," Vin said with a grin.

"Who said I was buying? Last I recall, all I promised was a beer," came the reply.

"Anybody heard from Chris and Josiah?" Vin finally asked.

"Not a word," Ezra answered. "But considering the reason for their journey, the weather and route they were taking, I wouldn't be surprised if they took a short detour."

Judge Roberts watched with amusement as the conversation danced circles around him.

Finally Vin shook his head and said one word that seemed to make sense to the rest of the men at the table. "Purgatorio." Then his and Buck's lunch came and the topic was abandoned.

While they ate, the others continued their poker game and kept up a running account of the goings on in town while the tracker and the ladies man had been gone for the day. They also enlightened Judge Roberts as to some of the more eccentric citizens of the town they were hired to protect. By late afternoon, Buck decided to go with Nathan back to his clinic to check on JD and Vin was going to take a turn around town before checking the telegraph office for any word from Chris or Josiah. Judge Roberts walked Nathan, Buck and Vin to the door while Ezra busied himself behind the bar. It was still pouring down rain and the wind was blowing a mixture of sand and mud around.

"I certainly don't envy y'all having to go out in this," the judge offered in sympathy. "I suppose there was an advantage in taking up Mister Standish's offer of a room here in the saloon."

"Yeah, Ezra's a real prince," Buck sighed, eyeing the boarding house just across the street. "Hey Vin, why don't you sleep in JD's room tonight? He's still up at Nathan's and I don't think Nathan'll chase the kid out in this storm. That wagon of yours ain't going keep this out."

Vin thought about it for a moment, then nodded in agreement. "Sounds good." As he pushed the door open, another bolt of lightning illuminated the sky. But a split-second glint of light on metal caught his attention. "Get back!" he shouted pushing against the knot of bodies at his side, at the same time pulling his mare's leg into a firing position.

Nathan fell into Judge Roberts, taking him to the ground just as the report of a rifle shot could be heard over the rumble of thunder. The healer felt the bullet whiz by and then ducked instinctively as it imbedded itself into the wood of the door right behind him.

Buck recovered his balance in time to draw his gun and go out the door with Vin. As they crouched behind the water trough, they waited for the next flash of lightning to help them find their targets.

Ezra ran to the door and helped Nathan pull the Judge back toward the safety of behind the heavy wooden bar.

Vin and Buck turned toward the sound of horses' hooves pounding toward them, then they ducked back down again as they came under fire from the pistols of the three retreating horsemen. Before they could come out from behind their cover and return fire, they heard the sound of another rifle. Two shots in rapid succession and two bodies fell out of their saddles. The third horseman was quickly out of sight of the mystery shooter, blocked by the buildings he raced past.

Vin and Buck stood and looked around in confusion. Then Vin grabbed Buck's arm and grinned, pointing up to Nathan's clinic. There in the window waving the hand holding his rifle was their youngest grinning down at them.

"JD!" Buck crowed. "I'll be damned."

The tracker and the ladies man approached the bodies carefully. They soon discovered that even injured JD was still a good shot as both would-be assassins were dead. Then the others joined them in the rain to see who had tried to kill their visitor. Even Judge Travis had come out of Mary's house at the sound of the commotion. They could see Mary standing in the doorway with Billy held protectively behind her. In fact, most of the townspeople were looking out windows or peeking through cracked open doors.

"Tyler?" Travis asked, seeing the look of recognition on Roberts' face.

"No," Roberts replied, "but that one was a cousin of theirs. I remember seeing him at the trial every day."

"Great," Vin muttered, looking around at his friends. Nathan was already heading to the undertaker's, Buck motioned that he was going to the clinic and check on JD. Vin waved Ezra back into the saloon with Judge Roberts. After a moment of reflection, Judge Travis walked slowly back to Mary's. Vin turned on his heel and made his way in the mud to the jail. It was going to be a long night…

* * * * * *

By dawn the next morning, the storm had blown its way through the small community, taking with it any trail the surviving gunman might have left. As soon as it was light enough to see, Vin still took a circuitous route around the area, just to make sure he hadn't left some sign of his direction of travel.

Shortly after breakfast, Judge Travis sent a message to each of the peacekeepers that he wanted to meet with them at the jail just before noon. At the appointed time, five of the Seven and Judge Travis crowded into the main room of the jail.

"First, I want to commend you all on a job well done last night," Travis began. "That's the second time in as many days you saved Judge Roberts' life, Vin."

The tracker nodded his acknowledgment of the compliment given.

"I received a wire this morning from the Texas Rangers in Pecos," Travis continued, holding what they all recognized was a telegram slip. "They're asking for our assistance protecting Judge Roberts until they he can get back home. I've already wired back that they can count on us."

"Okay," agreed JD with a nod. "So what's the plan, Judge?"

Buck rolled his eyes heavenward before giving the kid a playful shove. "Give the man a chance to speak, JD."

"Judge Roberts is concerned that further attempts on his life might result in someone else getting hurt," Travis began. "So he's going to take today's stage to Lordsburg, where he can catch the train east. He was arguing that he didn't need protection until I threatened to keep him here under lock and key until the Rangers sent a man to go back with him. Since Chris and Josiah should be back any time now, I told him I could spare two of you to accompany him back to Pecos. He agreed, but insisted on one condition."

"And that is?" Ezra asked, always suspicious of 'conditions'.

Travis took a quick breath and shot a glance in Vin's direction. "That Vin is one of the ones that go with him."

The reaction Travis was obviously expecting was instantaneous. Buck and JD both jumped to their feet, and the rising volume of four voices raised in protest was almost deafening in the small room. Only Vin remained silent, his brows knitted in concern. Travis held his hands up, trying to calm the rowdy bunch.

"Vin ain't going back to Texas to get hung!" Nathan finally got out above the rest.

"You know me better than that," Travis snapped back, causing the room to go quiet. "Vin, it's up to you. Judge Roberts has an idea he wants to talk to you about. Then if you say no, I'll send someone else, and that will be end of it."

Vin eyed Travis, then shrugged. "I guess it couldn't hurt none to talk to the man."

"He's waiting for you at the hotel, in the dining room," Travis said. "Hear him out then make your own decision."

"Mister Tanner," Ezra called as Vin moved toward the door, "do you want one of us to accompany you?"

"Nah," Vin replied. "Appreciate it, though."

Five sets of eyes watched the tracker walk out the door into the sunlight and make his way across the street. As soon as he went inside the hotel, the remaining hired protectors turned to their employer.

"What's the deal?" Buck asked, turning to Judge Travis.

It only took Vin a moment to let his eyes adjust to the dim light inside the hotel's dining room. He found Judge Roberts and ambled over to the table. "Judge Travis says you want to have a word with me," Vin said, coming right to the point.

"I took Judge Travis's advice, and I spoke with several of the citizens here you were hired to protect," Roberts began. "They seem to think very highly of you, especially the young man that was injured yesterday."

"Shouldn't be bothering folks, especially JD," Vin said. "He needs his rest to get better."

"Be that as it may," the other man said, waving for Vin to take a seat. "Our conversation was pretty short, just long enough for him to tell me all about Eli Joe and the phony Marshal's attempt to kidnap and murder you."

Vin just shrugged, but Roberts could see the small smile that played on Vin's lips.

"The fact is, Mister Tanner, I owe you my life," Roberts continued. "That's not a debt I take lightly. I'd like a chance to repay you, if you'll do me the courtesy of trusting me."

"How's that?" Vin asked, eyeing the other man with misgiving.

"There are far too many flyers out there on men with very little real proof against them," Roberts said. "It's been a goal of mine to correct as many of these injustices as possible. What I'd like to do is have you come back to Pecos with me, and I'll convene a hearing. If it's as you say, and there's no real evidence against you, I can dismiss the charges and have the posters on you recalled."

"Can you do that?" Vin asked. The spark of hope in his blue eyes was there for anyone to see. Vin took a deep breath before he spoke. "How long do I got to decide?"

"I'm afraid not very long," Roberts answered. "I believe the stage will be pulling out sometime after lunch."

Vin nodded, but the judge couldn't help but notice the frown that formed.

"Is that a problem?" Roberts asked.

"Not really," Vin answered. "I was just hoping Chris and Josiah would be back before now. Kind of made a promise that Chris could come with me if I ever headed back to Texas."

"I'm sorry your friends haven't made it back yet, but if we don't leave today, it'll be another week before the stage going east comes back again," Roberts explained, "or else we could wait for them to return and hire a buggy to get us as far as the train."

"Nah," Vin said with a shake of his head. Just the idea of spending most of the day traveling in a rented buggy made his backside ache. "That's okay. I just need a little time to think on it."

"Very well," Roberts said standing and offering his hand. "I'll be at the stage office later. I hope you'll be there." He pushed his chair in and walked toward the staircase leading to the rooms then he paused and turned back toward Vin. "I've spoken to Judge Travis and he has agreed to allow you all the time you need to take care of this matter. He also let me know in no uncertain terms that if I was up to - how did he put it? - anything underhanded, he'd have my head on a pike, fellow Judge or not."

Vin couldn't help but grin at Travis's faith in him as he watched until the older man disappeared up the stairs. He turned and went out the door, back toward the jail. Just before he stepped up on the boardwalk, he suddenly turned and walked slowly to the livery. Climbing up the ladder into the hayloft, he made his way over to the upper doorway and sat. He leaned his back against the door frame and looked out over the town, his eyes resting on the distant horizon. As much as he would have liked to have taken a ride out into the desert to think, he knew he didn't have much time.

After almost an hour of silent meditation, Vin stood and took a moment to stretch the kinks out of his muscles, smiling as he watched JD poke his head out of the jail door and glance up in his direction again like he had been doing the last half an hour. He made his way back down from the loft and ambled over to where his friends were waiting.

Vin walked back into the jail, a smile on his face. When he looked around he noticed one of their number was missing. "Where's Buck?"

"I sent him to gather his things," Travis replied. "Whether or not Ezra too goes is up to you."

"Would you trust him, Judge?" Vin asked their employer.

"I think I would, Vin," Travis answered. "Far be it for me to believe all judges are perfect…" Travis ignored the smirks and a snort with a distinctly Southern twang. "…but last night I had Mary send out some inquiries, and every one that came back this morning said Roberts was a fair and honest judge."

Vin ducked his head for a few seconds, as he seemed to be contemplating Travis's words. Finally he raised his head and smiled. "Well Ezra, I guess you got the town to yourself 'til Chris gets back," Vin said. "Try to leave it standing.

"Are you certain, Mister Tanner?" the gambler said, locking a serious gaze with Vin.

"Yeah, I am," Vin answered, his voice tinged with surprise. "I just might have a real chance to clear my name." He turned to Travis. "Thanks, Judge."

Travis smiled and nodded. "You're welcome."

"Wish I was going with you," JD said, trying to hide his disappointment.

"Me too, kid," Vin said. "But you're still not up to snuff yet. You do what Nathan tells you and you'll be fine and dandy by the time I get back."

"You be careful," Nathan cautioned.

"I'll take good care of him," came Buck's booming voice from the door. "Hey Vin, we're burning daylight here. Best go get your stuff."

"Ezra, do me a favor and tell Chris…" Vin began, then he paused, trying to find just the right words to let Chris know how disappointed he was that the man in black wouldn't be taking this trip with him.

"Don't worry, Vin," Ezra supplied. "I'll give Mister Larabee the message. Perhaps if things remain quiet here, he can join you in a few days."

Vin nodded and went out the door past the smiling ladies man, the rest of their group going over to the waiting stagecoach. It took Vin just a few minutes to gather what he needed and pack it into his saddlebags. His mare's leg was in its holster and he carried his long rifle. By the time he walked over to the waiting stagecoach, Inez and Mary had joined Judge Travis and the others under the shade of the boardwalk.

Inez handed Buck a bundle wrapped in a tablecloth. "For your journey, Senors," she said, planting a small peck on Buck's cheek. "Vaya con Dios, and come home safe."

Buck smiled down at the fiery Spanish beauty. "Why darlin', I do believe you're going miss me!"

"Don't kid yourself," she retorted. "It's about time I got some peace and quiet around here." She spun on her heel and made her way back into the saloon, but when she turned back to wave, he could see her eyes dancing playfully.

"Take care of yourselves," Mary said, giving each man a quick hug. "Both of you."

"Will do, ma'am," Vin said, tipping his hat to her.

"All right, folks," called the new driver, "if we're going to make Lordsburg before dark, we got to get going." The new guard was sitting by the driver waiting. With that, Judge Roberts climbed inside.

Buck eyed the door skeptically. "You want to ride inside first?"

"Not really," Vin chuckled. He swung himself onto the top of the coach, settling in at the back of the deck. "We can trade off after a while."

Buck opened the door wide and with a sigh made a move toward the steps. He turned when a hand caught his sleeve.

"Do me a favor?" JD was saying, his hazel eyes dark with worry. "Just… behave yourself."

"Don't I always?" Buck replied, tipping the younger man's bowler hat off the back of his head. As JD blew out an exasperated breath and bent down to pick up his hat, Buck grabbed the back of his neck and pulled him into a quick hug. "Thanks, kid," he said only loud enough for JD to hear, causing the younger man to smile. Then the lanky cowboy joined the other passengers inside the coach.

As soon as he was sitting down, the driver flicked the reins and started the horses moving. The small group of well-wishers watched until the stage disappeared from view before they slowly disbanded and made their way to where they each needed to be.

* * * * * * *

It was getting close to dusk when two horses plodded into town, their riders reining to a stop in front of the saloon. The weary men climbed down and tied the horses to the hitching post. The man in black looked around the street and shrugged at the other, a small smile curving his lips to show he was pleased that the town appeared to be none the worse for their absence. The big ex-preacher clapped the other on the back and led him into the cool interior of the saloon.

As soon as Chris's eyes adjusted to the light inside the saloon, he looked around for the rest of the peacekeepers. "Am I glad to be home," he said to the bigger man as they walked back to their usual table.

"Oh really?" queried the other. "You didn't seem to mind last night with the lovely - what was her name? - sitting on your lap."

"Don't remember," Chris answered sullenly, practically falling into a chair. "I can't believe Maria up and got married." Just then he spotted Ezra behind the bar with Inez.

"Hey Ezra," called Josiah. "How about a bottle and two glasses for a couple of weary travelers?"

Ezra nodded his acknowledgment of their presence and bent down to retrieve a bottle of the 'good stuff', as Buck often called it. As he made his way around the end of the bar, he could see Nathan and JD coming in the door, as well as Judge Travis. The gambler turned around and grabbed several more clean tumblers from the end of the bar before joining his friends. Greetings were exchanged as the group assembled around the table. Moments after they settled into chairs, Inez appeared with a steaming pot of menudo, a stack of fresh tortillas and bowls to go around.

"Inez, you are truly an angel sent from heaven," Josiah declared gratefully as she dished up a heaping bowl and placed it in front of him.

"So Chris, how come you guys are a day and a half late?" JD asked around a mouthful of tortilla.

"Not to mention more than just a dollar short," Josiah added with a wicked grin.

Chris glared in the preacher's direction before answering. "We stopped for the night in Purgatorio, then the weather got bad and we stayed another night. The storm do much damage around here?"

"Not really," Nathan replied. "It was here and gone pretty quick."

Chris finally seemed to look around and notice the missing peacekeepers. "Where's Vin and Buck? They don't usually miss a meal." The rest of the group turned their attention to Judge Travis. All of a sudden Chris wasn't very hungry. "What's going on?"

"We had a bit of excitement while you were gone," Travis started. "A gang attacked the stage just east of town and several men were killed…"

Chris's face lost all color and he felt his blood run cold and he turned his attention to the dark-skinned healer. "Vin… Buck? They all right?"

"No! No," Travis hurried to assure the man. "The stage driver, the guard and one of the passengers. The boys got there just in time to keep anyone else from getting killed, including one of the passengers who happens to be a judge out of Pecos. Buck and Ezra got the stage back to town while Vin and JD went after the gang; that's how JD ended up with a nasty bump on his head. Anyway, it turns out the robbery was a ruse to kill the Judge, and they tried again last night while the he was here in the saloon. And Vin saved his life a second time." Travis took a breath and braced himself before continuing. "The Texas Rangers asked for our help in getting the Judge back to Pecos in one piece, so when he headed out this afternoon, Vin and Buck went with him."

"WHAT??!!" Chris practically exploded. The only thing that kept him in his chair was Josiah's hand on his arm restraining him. "What the hell do you mean you sent Vin to Texas without anyone else to watch his back except Buck?! First pretty girl he sees walking his way and he won't even remember Vin's around!"

"That's not fair!" JD cried in protest, jumping up to loom over the seated Larabee. "Never once in all this time has Buck not been there when we needed him. NOT EVER." But the movement was too quick for his still healing head and he began to tip precariously to one side.

Chris reached out to steady him only to have JD pull his arm away. The man in black watched as Nathan helped the Seven's youngest back into his chair.

"Sorry Kid," Chris said. He shook his head in chagrin as he realized how his outburst must have sounded. He thought to himself that maybe he was getting too old for this kind of a hangover. He let his initial concern for Vin override his faith in his oldest friend, who he knew without a doubt would make sure Vin stayed safe. "You're right. Buck's a good man. But why on earth would Vin go back to Texas, with the reward on his head and all? Doesn't that Judge know who he is?"

"He does," Travis admitted. "That's exactly why Vin went with him. Judge Roberts is going to hold a hearing when they get to Pecos. He's going to weigh the evidence and consider dropping the charges altogether and get those posters recalled."

"No fooling?" Josiah asked.

"No fooling," Travis assured him. "By this time next month, he could be a free man. That's why Vin agreed to go back to Texas. And as far as Buck going with him, it was his choice. He thought his being a lawman in the past might help Vin's case. I needed Ezra here in case Tyler came back looking for the Judge. JD needs a little more time for that knot on his head to heal, and we really couldn't spare Nathan that long."

"They could've waited 'til we got back," Chris argued.

"You were already overdue," Travis countered. "We had a good idea where you'd gone, but we didn't know how long you'd be. Judge Roberts needed to get back to Pecos."

"I still don't like it," Chris said, pushing his chair back as he stood. "How much of a head start do they have?"

"Forget it, Chris," Nathan answered, recognizing the look of determination in the green eyes of the gunslinger. "It's too late to go after them tonight. They'll be in Lordsburg by now then they're taking the train to Texas in the morning. You'd never catch up to them in time."

Everyone relaxed just a fraction at Chris's long sigh.

"Your best bet would be to get some sleep and leave fresh in the morning," Ezra offered.

Chris frowned, but nodded in agreement. He took a step or two before turning back to his friends at the table. "Preacher, you feel up to another long ride?"

Realizing Chris was inviting him to go along, he nodded. "Sure," he replied.

Chris looked over at the judge to see if there were going to be any objections. When there weren't, the dark clothed man looked back at the somber preacher. "Vin may need someone to speak for him in court," Chris offered in explanation.

"And you did a powerfully good job at my father's trial," agreed Nathan.

"And while Mister Wilmington may be one of the best with a gun and in a fight, his diplomacy skills are somewhat lacking," Ezra added, offering JD a lopsided grin.

"You'll get no argument from me on that," JD said, raising both hands in surrender.

"Not that I don't think you're up to the challenge," Chris added, looking back at their resident gambler with a hint of smile. "But I know how much you would love sleeping under the stars every night for a week."

"Heaven forbid!" Ezra agreed. But they all knew that if he was asked, he would go without hesitation.

"That means you're in charge, Ezra - try not to let it go to your head," Chris said. "I hate leaving you shorthanded."

"Have no fear, Mister Larabee," Ezra said smoothly. "Mister Dunne here will be fine in a few days, and the three of us will be able to handle whatever comes along." He ignored the snort coming from Nathan.

"And I'll be in town a few more days," assured Travis.

"All right then," Chris said. "First light," he directed at Josiah, who nodded.


Even before the sun peeked over the horizon, a few of the citizens were already up and about their business. That included the five peacekeepers of the small territorial town. Josiah was leading four horses that were saddled and ready - his and Chris's, along with Buck and Vin's. Chris had decided the night before it would be faster and easier with the extra mounts, and that way the tracker and the rogue would have a way home when they were done. He was meeting Chris at the telegraph office, where Chris had dragged the poor operator out of bed to send a telegram ahead to Pecos. Nathan and JD had come down from the clinic and gone to the jail, where the tall healer was fixing a send-off breakfast. Even Ezra had roused himself at the early hour to see his friends off.

"So when should be expect to hear that you've arrived in Pecos?" Ezra asked, pouring himself a steaming cup of coffee as Nathan passed around the plates of bacon and eggs.

"As long as we don't run into any trouble," Chris answered in between bites, "should take six days, five if we really push it."

"Don't see any point in running your horses into the ground," Nathan said. "By the time they send the court papers from Tascosa, they'll probably just be starting the hearing when you get there."

"Besides, how much trouble can they get in being there less than a week?" JD asked innocently.

"Buck… and Vin…" Chris said slowly, fixing the boy with a glare before he continued. "In a strange town, surrounded by people that are going to know who Vin is and that there's a five hundred dollar bounty on his head if they can just get him to Tascosa to collect it?"

"Well, then let's not dilly-dally," Josiah said, giving JD a reassuring ruffle of his hair the way Buck usually did. "Let's just hope Buck doesn't find the mayor's wife before we get there."

"Dilly-dally?" Ezra said, cocking an eyebrow at the ex-preacher.

"Let's ride," Chris said as he walked out the door.

"Good luck," JD called to the two departing lawmen.

* * * * * * *

Lordsburg, New Mexico

The stage had gotten Buck, Vin and Judge Roberts to Lordsburg just after sundown and they had spent the night in the small hotel close to the station.

The three travelers met for breakfast only to learn the train was delayed in Yuma and wouldn't be in Lordsburg until noon. While they waited, Judge Roberts went to the local telegraph office and sent several messages - one to Tascosa, asking for the court papers from Vin's first trial to be sent by courier to Pecos; another to Pecos to let his co-workers know he was coming back to town; to the Texas Rangers in Pecos, to let them know when he'd be arriving back home; and one more to his daughter to explain the change in plans without going into too many details.

The train ride was long and hot and bumpy, but uneventful. They went for hours without seeing anything out the windows but the desolate expanse of the desert they were travelling through. They spent most of their time listening to Buck regale them with his own series of tall tales; the lulls in conversation were used to stretch their legs or nod off for a quick nap.

Vin especially didn't like the long stretches of being enclosed, so every water stop and pick up station he would take a turn getting down and walking around the train. Buck would amble out to the back platform and keep one eye on his friend. To most people, Vin didn't seem anything but his usual calm self. But Buck knew better and could see the anxiety just under the surface. For Vin's part, he couldn't help but smile at Buck's attempts to appear not to be watching out for him. But he appreciated it more than Buck would ever know. It was good to have friends.

Finally just before dawn, the train rumbled into the station in Pecos. Standing and stretching, the three weary travelers disembarked with a number of other passengers.

When Vin bent down to pick up one of the Judge's bags, he waved him off. "I'll send someone to fetch them later." Then he led the way to a moderately sized hotel.

"Ezra would be impressed," Vin commented, admiring the ornate façade.

They went in and rang the bell. The clerk came out of the back room, obviously having been awakened by the trio.

"Judge," he said around a yawn, recognizing Roberts. "Thought you were going to be gone for at least a month?"

"Change of plans, Harry," Roberts replied. "These gentlemen are my guests. They'll need a room until further notice, along with dining room privileges. And send the bills to my office."

Buck looked down at the Judge and smiled. "That's mighty kind of you, Judge."

The clerk pushed the ledger in their direction. Buck quickly took the offered pen and signed in for both of them. Vin gave the ladies man a quick smile of gratitude. He was still self-conscious about his lack of writing skill. He was learning, but to him it still looked like so much chicken scratch.

"Room Seven," the clerk said, handing them each a key. He looked at Buck quizzically when the man chuckled under his breath. "Top of the stairs and to your left, all the way to the end. Best room in the house."

"Gentlemen, I will bid you goodnight," Roberts offered. "Morning will be here soon enough, and I intend to sleep most of it away. Shall we meet here for lunch?"

"Where are you headed?" Vin asked.

"My house," Roberts replied. "It's around the corner and several blocks down the street."

"Lead the way," Vin said, shoving his saddlebags and long rifle at Buck, who scrambled to keep his hold onto his things and the additional burden being placed in his arms.

"Honestly, Mister Tanner," the Judge protested. "That won't be necessary. There's no way on earth Tyler and his gang could've gotten here before us. I believe I can manage to find my way home safely."

"Judge Travis gave his word," the tracker said solemnly. "Said we'd keep an eye on you 'til the Texas Rangers get here. So unless you got a Ranger in your pocket, I'll see that you get home safe and sound."

"All right," the Judge conceded with a tired sigh. "This way."

"Be back in a bit," Vin called to Buck, who had already climbed half way up the staircase.

The dark-haired man just nodded with a yawn and continued up the stairs.

Vin and the Judge walked out into the cool pre-dawn air and turned the corner beside the hotel. True to his word, just a few blocks away Roberts came to a stop in front of a modest but well-maintained two-story home.

Vin followed the Judge through the gate. "You live here all alone?"

Roberts shook his head then gazed at the front of the house. "I built this house thirty years ago when I was just starting out as a lawyer. Town wasn't much more than a watering hole for passing cattle herds, the railroad hadn't even laid tracks this far yet. My Martha and I were newlyweds. We brought three beautiful daughters into the world here." Roberts' voice dropped and Vin could hear a familiar sadness when he spoke. "Then typhoid fever hit the town and I lost her and two of my girls. Our oldest was living back East with her grandparents; just starting school, wanted to come home and be a teacher. She never came back, grew up there and married a cavalry officer. I have three fine grandsons at Fort Carson. That's where I was headed the day I met you and your friends." Then Roberts shrugged and offered Vin an apologetic smile. "Sorry, I guess I'm more tired than I thought, rambling on like that."

"No need to apologize," Vin assured him. "Sounds like you still miss them."

Roberts sighed and nodded. "Nowadays, it's just me and my housekeeper, Missus Franco, and her grandson. I better get on inside before we wake them up."

As Vin opened his mouth to speak, the Judge raised his hand. "I give you my word I will not set foot outside my house until you or Mister Wilmington comes to fetch me," the judge said, then added with a smile, "Just try not to make it too early."

Vin offered the older man a smile and a tip of his hat. "Later then." He watched until the other man disappeared inside then he turned and went back the way they had come.

By the time Vin made his way back to the hotel, the clerk had disappeared back into the living quarters behind the lobby. He remembered the directions given to their room and walked up the stairs, more than ready to climb into bed. He put the key in the door and opened it slowly, then closed it behind him. He smiled at the sight of his friend already slumbering.

While he was undressing, Vin took stock of his surroundings. He whistled softly in appreciation of the room. It was obviously a corner room, given the windows along two walls. The two beds in the room were set against one outside wall so that one bed had a window behind it and a window alongside. He smiled at Buck's choice to leave Vin the bed by the windows, knowing the tracker's discomfort at being confined. There was a small table under the window between the two large beds, a chest at the foot of each bed for their belongings, a dressing table and washstand with a chamber pot underneath along the wall behind the door. The rest of the room was partially obscured by a dressing screen. When Vin peeked behind it, he grinned in anticipation. There stood a large copper bathtub, allowing them the luxury of bathing in the privacy of their room.

This might not be such a bad idea, Vin thought to himself as he laid his mare's leg on top of the chest by his bed. He climbed onto the bed on top of the covers, laid back and locked his fingers behind his head, gazing out the open window as the light breeze blew the curtains back and forth. Not a bad idea at all, was his last thought as he drifted off to sleep.

* * * * * * *

True to his word, Judge Roberts was waiting for them when Buck and Vin walked to his house just before noon. He invited the two peacekeepers inside, leading them into the dining room where lunch was set out on the table and waiting.

As they sat down to eat, a slender boy of about twelve with shining brown eyes brought a pitcher of water to the table. "Abuela wants to know if you need anything else?" he asked Roberts, shyly stealing glances at the two guests.

"Tell your grandmother everything is fine, Emilio," Roberts replied. "Go on, go eat your lunch," he said, chasing the boy out of the room with a wave of his hand. As they ate, Roberts began explaining his idea. "I suppose the first order of business should be to check with my office and see if they've received any word from Tascosa yet," Roberts offered. "Then we need to introduce you to the Sheriff so he'll know who you are and why you're here. As long as you're in Pecos, you'll have amnesty from the bounty on your head. But I can't protect you anywhere outside of town."

Vin nodded his understanding, sharing a knowing look with Buck.

"Well, we knew going in it could be dangerous," Buck said with a shrug and a wink. "And dangerous is my middle name."

Vin rolled his eyes and shook his head.

After finishing lunch, the three left the house. Judge Roberts led the way, showing them some of the modern improvements Pecos could boast and the more prominent businesses they might be interested in, including the saloon and the livery. They went inside the Courthouse and up the flight of stairs to the door labeled with the Judge's name. Inside was the Judge's clerk, a small bald-headed man with thick spectacles perched on the end of his nose.

"Judge," he called out, stepping out from behind his desk. "I'm so glad you're all right."

"Thank you, Theo," he replied. "I'd like to introduce you to the ones that saved my life – Mister Vin Tanner and Mister Buck Wilmington."

"How do you do?" the small man said pleasantly, offering his hand to each man.

"Have you received any word from Tascosa?" Roberts asked. "I sent a wire before we left Lordsburg yesterday about a case in their jurisdiction."

"As a matter of fact, it came early this morning," the clerk replied. "They're sending the court papers along with a Deputy Marshal and their prosecutor."

Judge Roberts' eyebrows lifted in surprise at the mention that the prosecuting attorney would be coming to Pecos.

"Is that a bad thing?" Buck asked, his voice tinged with concern.

"Not necessarily," Roberts replied. "It might mean he's just interested in the case."

"Weren't no prosecutor there that day that I recall," Vin said, pushing his hat back on his head. "I'm just glad it's a Deputy that's bringing the papers and not that old Marshal."

"Why is that?" Roberts asked. "Is there something else I should know?"

Vin nodded slowly. "We got us a history. After I brought Jess Kincaid's body in and they arrested me for murder, they had themselves a hurry-up trial, didn't even wait for the judge. They were fixing to lynch me right then and there, and I didn't take kindly to the notion. The Marshal was leading me from my cell and I started fighting. Somehow I got a hold of the Marshal's gun and while we were fighting over it, it went off. I winged him in the shoulder and got loose, didn't take me but a couple of seconds to get a horse and get out of there."

Roberts sighed. "Is there anything else I should know?"

"Can't think of anything right now," Vin answered.

"Well, if you do…"

"I give you my word I'll let you know," Vin promised.

"Did they say when they'd be arriving?" Roberts addressed his clerk.

"Sometime tomorrow," Theo answered. "They're coming in on the stage. And here's the telegram from the governor's office, authorizing your offer of amnesty to Mister Tanner for the duration of the hearing."

"Very good," Roberts said, taking the telegram slip and putting it in his pocket before leading his guests to the door. He turned back to his clerk. "Do you know if the Rangers are back in town?"

Theo shook his head. "They're still out chasing the bandits that hit those homesteads to the north. There's talk they should be back tomorrow or the next day."

The Judge nodded and opened the door. "We have a little more business to attend to before dinner," he explained. With a nod to the clerk, Vin and Buck followed him out.

They made their way through the busy streets of the town. Finally they came to a stop in front of the Sheriff's Office and Jail. With his hand on the doorknob, Judge Roberts turned to his companions and sighed before opening the door. "I suppose I should warn you about Sheriff Alexander," he said. "He's not the most pleasant person on the face of this earth."

The Judge opened the door and they went inside. It took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the darker surroundings. At the desk sat an older man wearing a Sheriff's star. He glanced up at the three men coming in the door, but other than a cursory once over, he didn't seem to be paying them any attention. The Judge cleared his throat, but still the sheriff sat behind his desk ignoring them, his attention on the newspaper on his desk.

"Walter," Roberts finally called out.

The other man finally looked up at the others, his eyes narrowing in recognition at Vin. "Sheriff Walter Alexander, I'd like you to meet two friends of mine. They're both lawmen from Four Corners. This is Buck Wilmington and this is…"

"Vin Tanner," the Sheriff interrupted, drawing his gun as he stood.

Buck took a step forward and put himself between Vin and the advancing bear of a man. He was a few years older than Buck, but the years had obviously been hard on him. The balding head and potbelly didn't make him look any younger, but his imposing size, like Josiah, could be intimidating.

"You're under arrest," the sheriff declared.

"Just a minute, Walter," Roberts said, drawing the paper out of his jacket and handing it to the lawman. "This is a wire from the governor giving Tanner here amnesty as long as he's in Pecos."

"What are you talking about, Judge?" the sheriff protested, taking the paper and looking it over. "He's wanted for murder in Tascosa, dead or alive."

"I know that," Roberts replied with a nod. "But I've been assured by several reputable sources that the charges against him were falsified by the real murderer, and I promised him a fair hearing. There's a Deputy Marshal from Tascosa bringing the original court papers on a stage due in tomorrow. We'll hold the hearing a couple of days from now."

"Well, I suppose that explains this here telegram from a Chris Larabee," the Sheriff said, picking up the telegram sheet and waving it in front of the others.

"What's it say?" Vin asked, reaching for the slip of paper.

"Well, being as it's addressed to me, I don't see where it's any of your business," he snapped back, pulling the telegram away from Vin's outstretched hand.

"Walter," the Judge admonished with a frown.

"Fine," the Sheriff reluctantly handed it over to Vin, who held it out to share with Buck.

Buck smiled at the terse words he could almost hear rolling off Chris Larabee's fiery tongue. "We're in trouble now, Vin," Buck said, turning to the frowning tracker. "Says Chris is coming with your lawyer, not to start the hearing without them."

"Lawyer?" Vin questioned.

"I think he means Josiah," Buck replied. "Says they'll be here inside a week."

Roberts looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded. "Well, then that gives me a few days to review the papers," he explained. "We'll convene the hearing as soon as they arrive and your attorney has had time to go over the evidence."

Vin and Buck nodded in agreement.

"What about 'til then?" Alexander said, jerking his head in Vin's direction and moving to block the door. "He ought to be in jail 'til this hearing of yours."

Roberts could see both peacekeepers reacting physically. "That won't be necessary, Sheriff. As I said, as long as he's in Pecos, Vin Tanner has been granted amnesty.

"It ain't right having a convicted murderer walking the streets with decent folk," the Sheriff complained.

Vin put a restraining hand on Buck's arm and shook his head as he noticed his friend bristling at the Sheriff's attitude.

"These men saved my life," Roberts said sharply. "Mister Tanner and Mister Wilmington are my guests, and they will be treated as such. As long as they obey the laws, they will not be harassed or threatened in any way. Do not make me remind you who it was that recommended you for this job in the first place. Do I make myself clear, Sheriff?"

The Sheriff glared down at the Judge but finally nodded his understanding.

Vin had his hand on the doorknob when he heard the Judge speak again.

"One more thing, Sheriff," Roberts said. "I've been informed Joseph Tyler escaped from prison. He came after me and attacked the stage I was on near Four Corners. That's how these gentlemen and their friends came to save my life. He tried again the next night, but a storm washed away his tracks. So, he's still out there and the governor decided it best that I have protection until he's apprehended, so I'll have the Texas Rangers as bodyguards for the time being."

"You think I can't do my job?" the Sheriff asked, obviously insulted.

"It has nothing to do with you," Roberts said, trying to mollify the man. "As soon as the governor learned I was assaulted, he insisted they protect me."

"Fine," Alexander said, stomping back around the desk. "Just make sure they stay out of my way."

Roberts nodded with a sigh then turned to follow Vin out the door, Buck bringing up the rear. As Buck was turning to join his friends, he didn't miss the malevolent look the lawman sent to Vin's back and he stepped back inside the room.

"Just so you know, Sheriff," he said lowly, "we're here 'cause the Judge promised Vin a fair trial. And I aim to see he gets one. That means I ain't letting no one in this town try to collect that bounty on him."

The Sheriff glared back at the tall gunslinger then a cold smile played on his lips. "Just make sure you're not the one starting any trouble," the lawman. "Judge said you were his guest just so long as you obey the law."

* * * * * * *

Later that evening after they had dinner with the Judge in the hotel dining room and walked him back to his house, Vin and Buck wandered across the street to the saloon the Judge had taken them by earlier in the day. They took a table in the back and spent a while just watching the festive atmosphere around them. There wasn't much point in talking, so they sipped their beers, nodding and smiling back at the people passing their table.

After a while a pretty little redhead caught Buck's eye. She smiled at the handsome rogue and whispered to her well-endowed blonde friend at the bar. They made their way through the crowd to the table. The two peacekeepers from Four Corners watched them approach and exchanged a quick smile before the ladies arrived.

"Buy me a drink, cowboy?" the red-haired beauty asked, bringing a chair close to Buck's side and placing her hand on his knee. Across the table, the blonde was standing close to Vin's shoulder, running her hand through the tracker's hair.

"Name's Buck, ma'am," the ladies man replied. "And if you promise not to call me cowboy again, I'll be more than happy to buy you that drink."

"Buck it is, darlin'" the woman replied, motioning to the bartender.

"And what do they call you?" Buck asked, eyeing the woman appreciatively.

"Katy," she replied with a smile. "Short for Katherine. What about your friend?"

"Vin, this here vision of loveliness is Katy," Buck answered. "Katy, this here's Vin. Don't think it's short for anything, is it Vin?"

The shy tracker glared back at his friend. "How about you darlin'?" Buck addressed the other woman. "What's your name?"

"Sandy," the blonde replied. She stood back as the bartender brought a tray of drinks to the table then looked down at Vin expectantly.

"Would you like to join us?" he finally asked.

"Why thank you, Vin," she said, moving her chair across the table from the tracker, giving him an eyeful as she leaned over to settle into the chair comfortably.

The foursome spent half an hour in pleasant conversation and light-hearted flirting. Then a group of cowboys came in, knocking the dust off their clothes as they made their way to the bar. After ordering a beer, a particularly surly-looking cowboy began searching the room. His eyes lit up as his gaze landed on the blonde close to Vin.

"Oh no," Sandy whispered to her friend across the table. "Luke's back."

Katy looked up and frowned.

"Friend of yours?" Buck asked as he followed their gaze to the approaching cowboy.

"Hardly," Katy replied softly, shaking her head. "He's a mean drunk and thinks Sandy's his property."

"I'd better go," Sandy said, starting to stand. She turned to Vin with sad brown eyes. "It was a pleasure meeting you both."

"Where are you going?" Vin asked, taking her hand and gently pulling her back down. "You ain't finished your drink."

"I don't want to cause any trouble for you," Sandy answered quietly, eyeing the man who had stopped at their table.

"Come on, Sandy," Luke said. Without so much as a glance at the men at the table with the pretty blonde, he reached out and tried to take her by the arm.

"Excuse me," Vin said softly, but his voice was edged in steel. He deftly blocked the man's grasp. "The lady's with us here."

"Look mister, I don't know who you think you are," the cowboy snarled, "but this ain't none of your business. Let's go, girl. I ain't got all night." Once again he reached to grab the woman by the arm.

But this time his hand crashed into a wall of angry tracker as Vin stood and placed himself between the cowboy and the nervous blonde. "And I said she's staying unless she wants to go with you," Vin said, never taking his eyes off the man in front of him. "Sandy?"

The blonde stared at him in wonder. She couldn't remember the last time anyone stood up to Luke on her account. "No Luke, not tonight," she said with a shake of her head. "I'm busy."

"Then it's settled," Vin said. "Why don't you make it easy on yourself and go on back to your friends?"

Luke snarled and cocked his right arm back, swinging at Vin wildly.

Vin easily ducked the incoming blow and sent a sharp jab to the other man's jaw, sending him crashing to the floor. "So much for easy," Vin muttered, rubbing his knuckles.

Buck chuckled and shook his head, then stood and reached down. He took the dazed man by the arm and half-led, half-dragged the cowboy back to his friends at the bar. As he gave Luke a push toward his friends, he said to the group in general. "We really don't want any trouble."

One of the cowboys just rolled his eyes as he caught the stumbling man and leaned him up against the bar, while the youngest of the group looked from Luke back to Vin in amazement. It was the first time he had ever seen his friend knocked down. The last one glared back at the tall gunslinger and made a move like he was going to bow up to him. Then he glanced over at the table and seemed to think better of it and moved to Luke's side.

Buck turned his back to the group and walked back to his table, confident that Vin was watching his back.

For the next ten minutes, Buck and Vin kept one eye on the ladies and one on the group of cowboys at the bar. Ever since the confrontation and a quiet conversation with the bartender, the angry cowboy had been whispering to Luke and two of them would cast furtive glances back toward the table. The longer it went on, the redder in the face Luke got. Finally Luke stomped back to the table, his gun drawn. One of the girls at another table screamed and chairs fell over as men scrambled out of the way. Only Buck and Vin seemed unimpressed by the loaded gun aimed their way.

"I hear you're Vin Tanner," Luke said, his words slurring. "And there's a five hundred dollar bounty on your head. I aim to collect it."

Without taking his eyes off the drunken cowboy in front of him, Buck whispered to Katy, who nodded and stood. She gently pulled Sandy away from the table over to the now-silent piano.

Luke stood swaying in front of the table, his eyes darting from Buck to Vin, then back to his friends at the bar. The one who had been egging him on earlier gave him a small nod and Luke turned back to the two at the table. "I said get up, you murdering coward! I'm taking you in."

"Mister, I think you best leave now," Vin said softly but tersely. "You go see your Sheriff. There's fixing to be a hearing and I aim to clear my name."

"'Til then," Buck added, loud enough for the entire room to hear in the hopes they'd only have to do this once, "Judge Roberts says Vin here has amnesty as long as he's in Pecos."

"Don't care what the Judge says," Luke spat. "There's a poster that says you're worth five hundred dollars, dead or alive. I like the idea of dead myself." He half-turned and smiled over his shoulder at his friends. When he looked back, the smile left his face when he found himself staring down the barrel of Buck Wilmington's Colt.

"Put the gun down and walk away," Buck said calmly.

Vin still hadn't moved but his eyes never wavered from the troublemaker in front of them, all the while keeping the cowboy's friends in his peripheral vision. Luke's friends couldn't see under the table, where Vin had his mare's leg out and at the ready.

"I ain't got no quarrel with you, mister," Luke said shakily, his eyes tracking from one peacekeeper to the other. "It's him I want."

Buck shook his head slowly. "Can't let you do that, pard. Made a promise to a friend I'd see to it he keeps his hide in one piece for that hearing."

Vin scowled at his friend good-naturedly before turning his attention back to Luke.

The nervous ranch hand finally took a step back and shrugged, letting his gun fall down to his side. "Fine," he breathed out heavily, "ain't worth dying over no five hundred dollars."

Buck relaxed a fraction and let his own sidearm slide back into the worn leather holster. He turned around toward the ladies and made a motion for them to rejoin them.

But just as Luke made a move back to his friends, the one who acted like he was going to stand up to Buck earlier looked at Luke and laughed. "I knew you couldn't take him."

Luke turned red-faced spun back around. His gun came up and leveled at Buck's unprotected back. "The hell with your promise, Mister!" he growled.

At the same time, Vin shouted, "Buck!"

The taller man spun back around, his hand going for his gun, but Luke already had his weapon out and up. Suddenly there was the deafening roar of a shotgun at the same time Luke pulled the trigger. The cowboy's first shot went whizzing past Buck and imbedded itself in the wall of the saloon. A second shot out of reflex went into the ceiling of the bar as he fell, his body thrown back by the force of Vin's shot.

The saloon's doors swung open and the Sheriff stepped into the room. He immediately drew his gun and covered the men from Four Corners. "You couldn't let one day go past without you killing someone?" the lawman sneered at Vin.

The tracker's attention was on his mustached friend. "You okay there, Bucklin?"

"Yeah," he breathed out his reply. "Thanks." When Vin nodded in reply, Buck turned to the Pecos Sheriff. "We didn't have any choice. That one was bound and determined to take Vin in for the reward. He wouldn't listen when I tried to explain that Vin has amnesty from the Judge."

"That ain't right, Walt," the leering cowboy protested, coming up behind the Sheriff and pointing at Buck and Vin. "It was two against one, and Luke ain't no gunfighter."

"Oh hush up, Charlie," Katy said crossly, moving to stand next to Buck. "Luke started it, and then you went and riled him up so that he wouldn't have backed down even if his own mother asked him to."

"Ain't no two-bit saloon trash going to call me a liar. You ain't going to believe her, are you Sheriff?" Charlie asked.

Katy put her hand on Buck's arm when she felt him tense up and start to move toward the other man. Sandy had come up alongside Vin and smiled when he put an arm around her protectively.

"Sam?" the Sheriff directed to the bartender.

"They're the ones that started it, Sheriff," the bartender replied reluctantly, pointing at the local cowboys. "Luke came in here looking for a fight, especially after Sandy was keeping company with them two. They were just defending themselves. And I ain't saying Charlie put Luke up to it, but he sure didn't help matters none."

"All right," the Sheriff directed to Luke's friends. "Take him to the undertakers then head back out to your place."

Luke's three friends grumbled as they manhandled his body between them and carried him out the door. Charlie spared Buck one more glower before the saloon doors swung closed.

"You two head on back to your hotel," the Sheriff ordered. "I don't want any more trouble tonight." The last was said to the entire saloon.

Buck opened his mouth to protest, but Vin took a step toward him and shook his head. "Ma'am," he said, tipping his hat to Sandy. "It was a pleasure meeting you. Sorry about all the fuss."

"Thank you, Vin," she replied, leaning up and giving him a small kiss on the cheek.

"Well cowboy, you sure know how to show a girl a good time," Katy teased Buck, pushing his hat back off his head, leaving it to dangle by the strap behind him.

The ladies man swept her up into his arms and planted a passionate kiss on her lips. "Sorry darlin', maybe another time," he said with a wink and a wiggle of his eyebrows.

Katy smacked him in the chest in mock protest as he put her back down on the ground. Then he let the tracker guide him as he walked backwards out the door, never taking his eyes off her. Katy sighed as she and Sandy walked to the doorway and watched the two men walk away.

The Sheriff stepped around the saloon girls and stood on the boardwalk, watching until the Four Corners peacekeepers had made it across the street and gone inside the hotel.

* * * * * * *

As they crested the small hill and paused to take in the sight below, Chris and Josiah were once again bone tired, this time from riding for the last two days straight. The horses were in much better condition, considering they only had to carry a rider half the time.

They had ridden late into the darkness the first night, staying on the well-traveled trail and using the moon's light to guide their way. Finally, close to midnight and with exhaustion pulling them down, they had stopped and pitched a cold camp. At the first light of dawn, they allowed themselves the time for a pot of hot coffee and a quick breakfast before saddling the horses and continuing on.

Getting an early start, they rode all day, trading off between the horses. They made good time, stopping only when necessary to water the horses before switching saddles. Lunch was eaten as they traveled. Now that the sun had begun to set behind them, they found themselves on the outskirts of the booming town of El Paso.

"Well, what do you want to do?" Josiah asked. Even though he tried to keep his tone neutral, he was pretty sure Chris could read the hopefulness there. Another night on the cold, hard ground just didn't appeal to the big ex-preacher, not when the entire town of El Paso was in front of them.

Chris took his hat off and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. He eyed his friend then looked toward the glowing light of gas lamps being lit. He turned back to Josiah and nodded. "It's not like it's out of our way," he said with a smile, leading the way onto one of the main streets, navigating by memory.

"I gather this isn't the first time you've been here?" Josiah asked, following Chris. The man in black seemed to know exactly where he was going in the sprawling border town.

"A time or two," Chris replied enigmatically. Smiling at Josiah's raised eyebrow, he paused before continuing. "Buck and I used to be right regulars in these parts, a long time ago." The livery he was looking for was run by an older Mexican man who had always been taken good care of his horses in the past. Close by was a moderately priced hotel, and if memory served him well the dining room offered some of the best cooking he could remember.

"I don't know about you, Brother Chris, but right now a real bed and real food sounds close enough to heaven for me," Josiah said with a sigh.

Chris nodded in agreement as he pulled up to the front door of a well-kept livery. Before he could tie the horses to the hitching post, a gray-haired man with dark skin came out. The aloofness was quickly replaced with a teeth-baring grin.

"Senor Chris!" he exclaimed, his eyes shining brightly in recognition. "It has been far too long."

"Hola yourself, Joaquin," Chris replied. "How have you been?"

"I am all right," the older man replied. "Getting older every day, but then so are we all. This is not Senor Buck?" he asked, looking at the other man for the first time.

"Joaquin Morales, Josiah Sanchez" Chris introduced. "We're on our way to Pecos to meet Buck and another friend."

"He is well?" Joaquin asked, coming around the hitching post to take the reins of all four horses.

"As far as we know," Chris replied with a shrug.

"Go," Joaquin urged with a motion of his head in the direction of the street. "The hotel is still over there and the food there is still muy bueno. We will take care of the horses."

As Josiah relinquished the reins, he offered the older man a respectful bow. "Gracias, mi amigo."

"Da nada," he replied before turning in the direction of the livery. "Miguel!" he called.

As he turned to walk away with Josiah, Chris watched a much younger version of the old man came out of the side door. "Yes, Papa?" The older man handed his grandson two sets of reins, and together they walked the horses inside. The older man laid a hand on the younger one's shoulders and spoke quietly as they walked toward the open stable doors. Just before they went inside, Miguel turned to Chris with a quick look of awe.

They checked into the hotel, then went to the dining room and enjoyed a delicious, hot meal. After they had eaten, Chris looked at Josiah over his coffee cup.

"We need to decide which way we're going in the mornin'," Chris said. "The one through the mountains to Sierra Blanca then to Pecos will take us at least a good three days, but there's plenty of water along the way."

"The other?" Josiah prompted when Chris paused.

"Salt Flat to Orla to Pecos," Chris replied. "It'll take at least half a day or more off the trip, depending on how hard we push the horses. It'll be a lot hotter and drier, but I seem to recall a couple of watering holes we might be able to find on the way."

Josiah sat back in his chair, sated and comfortable. "Considering those two's penchant for getting into trouble, I think the quickest way would be the best." Seeing Chris's nod of relief, he offered a mischievous grin. "Besides, it can't be any hotter than it was in Purgatorio."

"Will you just shut up about that already," Chris growled, but he flashed the other man a quick smile. "All right, we'll head out first thing in the morning."

"Maybe after breakfast?" Josiah asked hopefully.

Chris nodded in reply. "As long as the dining room opens early enough."

"Fair enough," Josiah agreed, then he stood up. "Then we best get some sleep."

In spite of the comfort of the hotel room, Chris found himself tossing and turning, his sleep disturbed by ominous dreams of a gallows.

* * * * * * *

Judge Roberts was waiting with coffee ready on the porch when the two Four Corners peacekeepers came to get him. They walked back to the hotel and had a leisurely breakfast, keeping one eye on the street for the expected stagecoach from Amarillo.

"What are your plans for today?" Roberts asked.

"Well, I hear there's a pretty good fishing spot not too far from the hotel," Buck replied. "Thought if the Rangers get here, me and Vin might take a stroll in that direction. If it's not too far."

"It's just to the south of here, less than a mile," the Judge said. "Real pretty spot right along the Pecos River."

"We've been cooped up in town too long," Vin lamented, then he looked up at Roberts with a chagrined look. "No offense, Judge."

"None taken," he assured. "And I completely understand. Tell you what, stop by the house later and tell Missus Franco I said it was okay for you to use my fishing gear. And anything you catch, I'll have her fix up for supper. How's that sound?"

"Well all right," the ladies man said with a beaming grin, wagging his eyebrows at the tracker. Vin offered Buck his own more reserved but contented smile.

Finally around mid-morning they heard the sounds of the stage rumbling down the street before they actually saw the coach. It came to a stop in front of the Sheriff's Office, where they noticed two saddle horses tied to the back of the coach. Buck, Vin and the Judge stood and walked out onto the boardwalk. They watched as the passengers climbed out of the coach. First was a tall dark-haired cowboy, dressed in the familiar white hat of the Texas Rangers. He was followed by a younger version of himself with slighter lighter hair. They stepped around to the rear of the stage, retrieving their horses. Next off was a gray-haired neatly dressed man carrying a valise. Last out was a man wearing a dark hat and a Deputy's badge, using one hand to lower himself out the coach door, the other arm held protectively close to his body. When he turned, Vin swore under his breath.

"Vin?" asked Buck, looking at his friend curiously.

"I thought the telegram said they were sending a deputy?" he asked Roberts.

"It did," Roberts said with a nod. "Why? Who is that?"

"That," Vin said with a heavy sigh, "is Marshall Quentin Edwards."

"The Marshal from Tascosa?" Buck asked, not taking his eyes off the lawman. "The one you shot back then?"

Vin replied with a nod, pulling his hat a little lower over his face before he stepped off the boardwalk with the other two men. By that time, the Rangers had walked their horses toward the passengers and stopped to wait for the Judge.

Judge Roberts approached the group, going up to the Texas Rangers first. "Glad to see you made it back in one piece," he said, extending his hand to the older of the two Rangers. "How did you come to be on the stage?"

"Howdy Judge," said the older man, taking the offered hand. "We ended up at the way station at the same time, figured it would be easier to ride along since we were going the same way. Besides, I thought you were going to be gone a spell?"

"Change of plans," he replied, "I'll give you all the details later." Turning to the peacekeepers from Four Corners, he continued. "This is Ranger John Slaughter, and his partner Ashley Carstairs." The younger Ranger tipped his hat in acknowledgement, Vin and Buck returned the gesture. "John, Ashley – this is Buck Wilmington and Van Tanner, they're here from Four Corners."

The older Ranger stepped forward and offered his hand, Buck and Vin returning the courtesy. Buck couldn't help but notice the way the older Ranger tipped his head when they exchanged handshakes.

The gray-haired man approached the Judge with the offer of his hand. "George Underwood. I'm currently serving as prosecutor for Tascosa and the surrounding area."

"How do you do?" the Judge returned. Then he turned to the Deputy, noticing the way he cradled his right arm with his left. "You must be the Deputy from Tascosa," the Judge offered in a pleasant tone.

But the other man looked right past Judge Roberts to Vin standing behind him. Without a word, he drew his gun and aimed it at the tracker. "Vin Tanner," he spat out. "This man is wanted for murder! Why the hell isn't he in jail?"

"Quentin," the Tascosa prosecutor cautioned sharply. "We've already discussed this. Judge Roberts, Deputy Quentin Edwards."

The Deputy Marshal gave the Judge the barest of nods, refusing to take his eyes or his gun off Vin. The hate practically radiated off the man. Only when the Sheriff approached the group did he finally put his gun back in its holster. Scowling at the lawman, Edwards repeated his question to Alexander. "Why ain't this man in jail?"

"The Judge gave him amnesty as long as he's in Pecos until the hearing," the Sheriff replied with a shrug.

"You can't do that!" Edwards argued. "He killed Jess Kincaid and he damn near killed me!"

"Only because you were fixing' to lynch me," Vin shot back, unable to hold back. "All I wanted was a chance to tell my side, but you wouldn't let me speak. You wouldn't even wait for the Judge. The whole town was against me."

"Didn't need no Judge to do what was right!" Edwards shouted back.

"Quentin, is that true?" Underwood asked, his eyes narrowing in surprise. "I thought Judge Bailey presided over Tanner's trial?"

"Weren't no Judge," Vin replied quickly, before the Deputy Marshal could come up with a story to satisfy the group of lawmen surrounding him and Buck. "Back in those days I was hunting bounty. I tried to bring them in alive, but it didn't always work out that way. I brought in a body I thought was Eli Joe, turned out to be some farmer named Jess Kincaid that Eli Joe killed and dressed like him so I'd fall for it. Soon as the Marshal seen who it was, him and his deputies got a hold of me and trussed me up good. Went to the saloon and got a dozen or so upstanding citizens, leastways those that were sober enough to stand up, and they had themselves a trial. As soon as the Marshal was done talking, they voted me guilty and sentenced me to hang right then and there. When they were taking me to hang, I got away. I found out later they put the poster out on me, five hundred dollars dead or alive." Vin looked from one official to the other – he had waited years to tell his story and it was finally out.

"It should've been five thousand!" Edwards cried, holding out his withered, useless right hand. "You shot me, nearly killed me. There were days I wished you had."

"Lawman or not, Vin had the right to protect himself," Buck defended, his outrage plain to see as he put himself practically nose-to-nose with the unrepentant ex-Marshal. "You were fixing to lynch him without a real trial." Even as he said the word, an involuntary shudder went through his tall frame.

"This is getting us nowhere!" Roberts finally interrupted, pushing his way in between Buck and Edwards.

Underwood put a hand on the Deputy's arm to restrain him while Vin pulled a reluctant Buck back a step or two. "We are not holding the hearing out in this street today," Roberts said. "Vin, why don't you and Buck just go on with your plans. Ask Missus Franco to pack you a lunch. Be back at my house by sundown."

The tracker nodded and pulled his friend even further away from the group of Texans. Finally Buck spun on his heel and pulled his arm out of Vin's grasp. Together they walked down the street toward the Judge's house.

Before Edwards could open his mouth to protest, Underwood spoke up. "That will be fine, won't it Quentin?" The tone of voice the Tascosa prosecutor was using left no doubt the Deputy had some explaining to do.

"I'll walk you gentlemen over to the hotel so you can get settled," Roberts directed to the two men from Tascosa. Then he turned to the two Texas Rangers. "I need to let you know what's been going on. We can all have lunch in the dining room in say an hour and a half."

Sheriff Alexander watched everything that was going on with a self-satisfied smirk. He still had to put his two cents worth in, but he knew it could wait until lunch.

* * * * * * *

One table was occupied by the two lawmakers and two lawmen; the two Texas Rangers sat at a separate table at the Judge's elbow, just as happy to be out of the center of contention. But now it was their job to keep him out of harm's way.

Before the waitress brought their food, Underwood handed the valise containing the court papers to Roberts.

"Are you familiar with the case?" Roberts asked.

"Somewhat," Underwood replied. "I heard all about it when I first took the job in Tascosa. Tanner's become quite a legend, especially after the story of Eli Joe's attempt to kill him that ended in Eli Joe's own demise. And I studied it a bit on the way down here. I'm afraid I'm a bit embarrassed to admit to just now learning Judge Bailey wasn't present at Tanner's trial."

"Do you mind explaining it to me?" Roberts asked.

"Apparently, Bailey was out of town at the time," Underwood replied, glaring at Edwards. "When he returned to Tascosa, the entire town was in an uproar and sympathy was considerably in favor of the Marshal, especially after the wrongful death of Jess Kincaid. Judge Bailey took his statement from what he thought was going to be the Marshal's deathbed and signed off on the trial as if he had been there himself. He also authorized the wanted poster on Tanner the next day. Unfortunately, he died just a few days later in a riding accident."

Deputy Edwards kept his head down the entire time, refusing to meet his companion's gaze.

Roberts acknowledged his statement with a nod. He reached into the valise and leafed through the pages, not really reading them. Then the waitress brought their food and the conversation turned to more mundane topics.

When lunch was eaten and the dishes cleared away, the men sat around the table drinking a last cup of coffee. Underwood exchanged a glance with Sheriff Alexander and cleared his throat to get everyone's attention at the table.

"There is a matter I would like to discuss, Judge," Underwood began.

"And that is?" Roberts eyed him suspiciously, suddenly aware that everyone else at the table knew where the conversation was heading but him.

"Vin Tanner should be locked up in jail," Edwards said abruptly.

"Quentin," Underwood hissed. Then he turned to Roberts, the Tascosa prosecutor waving his arm to include Alexander and the Texas Rangers. "I don't want you feel like we're pressuring you, but in all honesty, I believe you've overstepped your authority."

Roberts eyes blazed as he glanced at the men around him in almost uncontrolled anger.

"Look Judge," Alexander offered calmly. "I know you think you can trust this Tanner and you're beholding to him for saving your life, but the truth of the matter is he's still a wanted fugitive, at least until after the hearing."

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to agree," Underwood added. "It's unheard of to grant a convicted murderer amnesty prior to a hearing. And while I admire your desire to give the man a fair trial, until that happens he should be in jail, for his own protection as well as public appearances. It's only a matter of time before an incident like the one last night gets some innocent bystander hurt or killed."

"What incident last night?" Roberts demanded.

"You don't know?" Underwood asked. "I'm surprised they didn't tell you themselves. Everyone in town seems to talking about it."

Alexander saw his opportunity and gladly filled the Judge in on what had transpired at the saloon. And while he got all the facts right, he colored it in such a way that it seemed like Luke was only after the bounty on Tanner's head and paid with his life for his greed.

The Judge was definitely not happy. As much as he wanted to keep Vin out of jail, he was beginning to see their point. Even though he thought it was a good idea to grant the man amnesty, too many greedy men were willing to sell their souls for less than the five hundred dollars on Vin Tanner's head. Roberts stood and faced the three at his table. "I'll think about," Roberts finally said reluctantly.

When the Judge turned to leave, Slaughter nodded to the younger Ranger to follow.

* * * * * * *

Late in the afternoon, Buck and Vin made their way back to the Judge's, both in a much better mood than they had left in. Spending the day along the shady Pecos River had renewed their spirits. Buck was carrying both fishing poles while Vin had a line of white bass. They both bounded up the stairs, stopping to knock on the front door. Missus Franco opened the door for the two visitors and invited them inside with a nervous smile.

"Emilio," she called. "Come take these fishing poles from Senor Buck and put them away." Turning to Vin, she held her hand out to take the fish.

"Are you sure you don't want me to clean them?" Vin offered.

"No Senor Vin, but thank you for the offer," she replied. "The Judge wants to see you both in his study, but I think you should both wash up first." She smiled as she wrinkled her nose.

"Come on, Vin," Buck said, opening the door behind him. "I think Senora Franco is trying to say we stink."

"I hate to tell you this, Buck," Vin said, following the taller man outside, "but you do."

As Missus Franco watched them laughing and shoving each other down the steps toward the pump in the front yard, her smile faded and she slowly turned and took the fish into the kitchen.

After they had washed up, the two peacekeepers made their way back into the house through the open door. They found their way down the hall to the Judge's study, stopping outside the door and knocking.

"Come in," Judge Roberts called.

"You were right, Judge," Buck said as they went in. "That was one good fishing hole. We caught us enough for all of us and then some." He smiled and nodded at the younger Texas Ranger in the room.

"I'm glad to hear it," Roberts replied. "We're going to have company for dinner. Mister Underwood will be joining us."

"We got time to go back to the hotel and change?" Vin asked, unconsciously noting a subtle change in Roberts's posture.

"That'll be fine, just don't get too dressed up. Be back in about an hour. That should give Missus Franco time to finish dinner."

Even Buck noticed the tension coming from the Judge and frowned to himself. He and Vin nodded to the Judge then turned and walked down the hallway, back out the front door. Neither said anything until they were away from the house.

"What was that all about?" Buck asked first.

Vin replied with a shrug. "I don't know, but I got a bad feeling it's got something to do with Marshal Edwards."

Buck let out a sigh, then turned to his friend with a forced smile. "Well, no point in borrowing trouble. I expect we'll find out soon enough."

"I expect you're right," Vin agreed. They continued walking in silence, each man lost in his own thoughts.

* * * * * * *

A little over an hour later, two bathed and neatly-dressed peacekeepers made their way back to Judge Roberts' house. The Tascosa prosecutor was already there, the table was set and dinner was ready.

The six men enjoyed the meal, but the conversation seemed forced. Buck and the older Ranger swapped stories of being lawmen in West Texas, while Vin and the younger Ranger kept to themselves for the most part, content to learn what they could about their partners. Underwood and the Judge spoke of different cases they were both familiar with and everybody seemed to be avoiding the topic of why they were all there. Dessert was served, but Judge Roberts seemed to have something on his mind as he pushed the pastry around on his plate.

Buck exchanged a look with Vin, raising his eyebrows in an unspoken question. Vin's only reply was the barest of a shrug. Then the ladies man glanced over at the Rangers and noticed Slaughter watching him intently. Not one to beat around the bush, Buck set his fork down across his plate. "Something wrong, Judge?"

Roberts took a deep breath and seemed to be grateful that someone else started the conversation. "I hear there was trouble in the saloon last night?"

"Not our doing," Vin answered.

"Some knothead was trying to collect the bounty on Vin," Buck added. "We gave him more than one chance to walk away."

"But he's still dead," Roberts continued, finally looking up at the Four Corners peacekeepers.

"His own fault," Vin said, meeting his gaze evenly.

"No," Roberts said with a shake of his head. "It's my fault for not realizing just how tempting it would be to have you walking around free."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Buck demanded, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. "You changing your mind about the hearing?"

"No, no," Roberts replied quickly then his eyes met Vin's with an expression of regret. "I have every intention of holding the hearing just as we planned. It's just…"

When the Judge paused, struggling to find the words, Underwood spoke up. "We've all discussed it, and we think it's best if Mister Tanner agrees to turn himself in and remain in custody until the hearing itself actually begins. It'll only be for a few days, but we feel it's best for the community, not to mention Mister Tanner's own safety."

Buck almost came out of his chair, but Vin put a hand on his arm to hold him down.

At the same time, the younger of the two Rangers reacted to Buck's sudden move by pulling his own gun.

His older partner made a similar move toward him, putting a hand on his arm to restrain him. "Put it away, Ashley," Slaughter said quietly, keeping his gaze on the tall mustached man.

"But…" the younger Ranger protested, his eyes moving between Vin and Buck, then back to his partner.

"Put it away," he repeated. "Nobody's going anywhere for now."

Ashley finally nodded and slipped the pistol back into the holster.

Once the moment passed, Vin turned to Underwood. "Who all is ‘we'?"

"Myself, the Judge and Sheriff Alexander," Underwood replied, meeting Vin's gaze evenly.

"And it don't have anything to do with Deputy Edwards?" Vin asked.

"Absolutely not," Underwood answered, "although he has made his opinion known. You have to understand how highly unusual it is to have a convicted murderer out of jail before the hearing. Once the hearing begins, the Judge will have the authority to release you to your attorney or another Officer of the court. But before the hearing actually begins, it is common practice to keep the accused in jail."

Buck looked over to Roberts, his eyes blazing a midnight blue. "Judge here promised Vin he wouldn't have to go to jail," he argued.

"I understand that," Underwood said with a nod. "But sometimes our obligations outweigh our intentions."

"I'm truly sorry, Vin," Roberts finally rejoined the conversation. "It'll only be for the next few days. As soon as your friends arrive, my first order of business will be to formally release you into your attorney's custody."

"What about me?" Buck interjected. "Doesn't working for Judge Travis make me an officer of the court?"

"You said so yourself, Mister Wilmington, it's an unofficial position," Roberts replied. "You're not a sworn lawman."

"Don't look like we got a lot of choice here, Buck," Vin said, looking over at the four Texans. His tone of voice was disappointed but not surprised. "Just a couple of days, right?" he directed at Roberts, who nodded.

"And what if we just walk on out of here and go home?" Buck demanded, surprised that Vin was still willing to trust the Judge.

"I'm afraid the Rangers here would have to stop you," Underwood said sternly.

Buck swore under his breath and threw his napkin down onto the table, making the younger Ranger tense up and he moved his hand toward his pistol again.

Slaughter pulled his arm away again. "Would you quit with that," he admonished quietly. "Actually, we wouldn't," Ranger Slaughter replied to Underwood. Everyone tuned and looked at him in surprise. "Y'all seemed to have made your minds up, but you forgot to mention it to me."

"I don't recall having to ask your permission to carry out my duties," Underwood declared. "And I do believe my position as prosecutor outranks that of a Texas Ranger."

"No sir, you don't need my permission," Slaughter replied, "and yes sir, you may outrank me, but as I understand it, the governor of Texas outranks us both, and the Judge has permission from the governor himself to allow Tanner his freedom until the hearing." Slaughter looked over to the Judge for confirmation, allowing a small smile when Roberts nodded in agreement. "Now, if you really want Tanner in the custody of an official lawman, you can just release him to me. I'll take responsibility for him."

"Not that I don't appreciate it, but why would you do that?" Vin asked. "You don't even know me."

"I may not know you, but I owe your friend there more than I can ever repay," Slaughter replied, jerking his head toward Buck. "And if he trusts you that's good enough for me."

Buck looked at Slaughter in surprise, then turned to Vin and shrugged his shoulders.

Underwood looked between Roberts and Slaughter then sighed in resignation. "I hope you realize that from here on out, you are responsible for any more trouble that comes from your decision."

"I've asked around, and that business last night wasn't their fault," Slaughter countered.

"I think you're both making a terrible mistake," Underwood said to Roberts and Slaughter. Then he turned to Vin. "No offense, young man, but you'll be walking around with a target on your back."

"No offense taken, Mr. Underwood," Vin replied. "But seeing as how just about everybody in this town knows who I am, I think I'll just head back over to the hotel and lay low."

"That might be for the best," Underwood nodded then stood and turned to Judge Roberts. "I'll be going myself. Do you want me to let Sheriff Alexander know about the change of plans?"

"I think I'd better," Roberts agreed, pushing back from the table. Slaughter motioned to Ashley to follow the Judge, and the three went out the door. Buck, Vin and Slaughter retrieved their hats and walked out the door together toward the hotel.


Buck couldn't help but notice the way the older Ranger kept eyeing him from time to time all through dinner, and up until now, he'd ignored it. But right then he realized he didn't need any more surprises. With Chris and Josiah still two or three days away, the Sheriff and ex-Marshal dead set against them, Buck needed to know where the Rangers stood.

It was obvious the younger of the two was just eager to prove himself, a lot like JD still was from time to time. But the veteran Ranger had backed Vin when he really didn't have a reason to, claiming he owed a debt to Buck. When they reached the boardwalk in front of the hotel, Buck turned to Slaughter, coming to a stop in front of him. "Do I know you?" he asked.

Slaughter looked up at Buck with a smile reminiscent of Buck's own trademark grin. Then he shook his head. "Not really. Only met you once, but once was enough. Didn't think you remembered."

"Where did we meet?" Buck asked, knitting his eyebrows in thought. He looked over at Vin, who shrugged his shoulders.

"Back about five years ago, I took some time off from the Rangers," Slaughter started with a slow drawl. "I had me a hot-tempered partner. We were raising cattle not too far from here. Working hard all week, we'd head in to town on the weekends. One night, we crossed paths with a gunslinger by the name of Chris Larabee." Slaughter paused to give Buck time to think.

Buck lowered his eyes and let his mind drift for a moment. Five years ago would have been right after Sarah and Adam's deaths, when Chris was lost in his own world of drink and despair, picking fist fights and gun fights with anyone and everyone he could. And Buck would follow him from town to town, doing what he could to keep his best friend and those around him alive. When he looked back up, the Ranger continued.

"Don't know how it got so bad, but before I could stop him, that mule-headed partner of mine challenged him to a gun fight, right there in the middle of the saloon. Just before things came to a head, this tall cowboy pushes his way through the crowd and plants himself between my partner and Chris Larabee himself."

Suddenly Buck remembered that night, and from the look in his eyes, Slaughter knew too. "Seems I recall it was over a broken bottle of whiskey," Buck said quietly.

Slaughter nodded. "You stood there, right in front of him. No matter how mad he got, you wouldn't budge. Never saw a man turn that dark a shade of red in all my born days. He kept telling you to get out of his way and you kept telling him that no one deserved killing over a lousy dollar bottle of rotgut. You even offered to pay for it."

Buck swallowed hard, the memories and emotions of that night swirling to the surface. He looked over at Vin, who was quietly paying close attention.

"I ain't never forgot that look on your face when he pulled his gun on you, trying to make you move out of the way," Slaughter said, his voice dropping lower. "You still just stood there then you whispered something only Larabee could hear. Next thing I know, he cold-cocked you but good. He took a step towards you, and for a minute there, we all thought he was going to finish you off. But when he watched you fall, it was like suddenly all the fight was gone out of him, like he finally realized who you were. He put his gun away, then he noticed everybody standing around and staring and he started yelling at them to mind their own business. He tried to pick you up and carry you out, but as drunk as he was he just kept dropping you."

Buck couldn't help but chuckle as he remembered how Chris never would explain the multitude of bruises that had accompanied the headache he had woken up with the next morning. Even Vin let out a quiet snort.

"It was my partner that talked me into helping him carry you out of the saloon and up to y'all's hotel room. Once we got you there, he thanked me and then none too politely showed me the door. I went back to the saloon, got my partner and we lit a shuck for home. So you might not remember me, Buck Wilmington, but I don't think I'll ever forget the man that saved my brother's life." Slaughter held his hand out to the surprised ladies man.

Buck took it and allowed himself a genuine Wilmington grin. "I appreciate you backing Vin back there." Vin gave him a short nod as well.

Slaughter nodded in reply. "So I hear you're still riding with Larabee?"

"Yeah, he ought to be here in a couple of days," Buck answered then he looked serious and sighed. "Come to think about it, I just might have to find someplace else to be when he gets here, else I might be picking myself up off the floor again."

"Y'all are lawmen over in the territory?" Slaughter asked.

Buck nodded. "Chris, Vin and me, and four others, a little town called Four Corners. Judge Travis pays us to keep things peaceable."

"And this Judge Travis, he's known all along that you're a wanted man?" Slaughter asked, directing his question to Vin.

"He knows," Vin replied.

"Yeah, we all do. But we all know Vin, and we know he didn't kill that rancher," Buck said resolutely.

Slaughter paused as if he was deciding to go on or not, then he made up his mind and spoke. "Well, I knew Eli Joe. We spent the better part of a year on his trail. And there wasn't a meaner, more conniving son of a bitch around. We knew he was robbing banks and stagecoaches, but we could never catch him in the act. And no one could ever identify him. Then he disappeared after the business with Tanner."

"That's because he was hunting me," Vin said darkly. "Eli Joe thought if he could have me killed and my body taken back to Tascosa, then everybody would forget about him and he could live like a king the rest of his life in Mexico."

"Sounds about right," Slaughter agreed. "I wouldn't put it past Eli Joe, but it's not up to me to judge."

"That's what this hearing is all about," Buck added. "All Vin wants is a chance to tell his side of the story, without worrying about being drug out back and hanged."

"Well, it looks like he'll get that chance with Judge Roberts," Slaughter said, putting his hat back on his head. "Speaking of which, I ought to be getting back. Ashley's still a little new at this and I wouldn't want him to shoot the Judge's dog on accident."

Buck smiled as an image of JD's earlier experiences as sheriff came to mind.

"I probably don't have to tell you to watch your back around that Sheriff," Slaughter offered. "Him and that ex-Marshal are sure getting chummy. All the way down here, that's all Edwards talked about was how he'd see you hang if it's the last thing he did."

"Yeah," Buck acknowledged. "We've known from the start Alexander didn't like Vin or the Judge's idea of a hearing none. But thanks for the warning."

"Anytime," the Ranger said, stepping off the boardwalk. "Now, since I'm responsible for you, I want your word no trouble tonight."

"You got it," Vin replied with a nod of thanks. He turned and made his way into the hotel.

"No guard posted outside our door?" Buck asked.

"Man gave his word, no reason not believe him."

Buck met Slaughter's eyes and nodded his thanks. "By the way, how is your brother?"

Now it was Slaughter who smiled. "He's still on our place. I go back and visit whenever I can. He and his wife Linda had a baby boy last year." Then Buck could see a familiar sadness in his eyes. "And they're raising my two youngins ever since my Amy was killed in a bank robbery the year before. Cain't be a Ranger with a family, and they needed a real home with two parents."

"You get the bastards that done it?" Buck asked, instantly sympathizing with the man.

"What do you think?" Slaughter asked with a cold gleam in his eyes. He tipped his hat to Buck, then turned and walked down the street towards the Judge's house.

What neither man had noticed was the shadowy figure concealed in the alley, listening to every word exchanged between the two. When Buck sighed and went into the front door of the hotel, the shadow disengaged itself and coalesced into the form of the former Tascosa Marshal. He did not look happy in the least as his eyes followed the Texas Ranger until he disappeared into the night, then he turned and made his way toward the saloon.

* * * * * * *

As Buck and Vin made their way up the stairs, Buck heard their names being called. He turned to see the young son of the hotel's manager coming toward them, waving a telegraph slip.

"Mister Wilmington, Mister Tanner! Papa says this just come for you."

"Thank you kindly, son," Buck replied, taking the paper from the boy. He glanced at it and noticed it was from Ezra, then slipped it in his pocket. As soon as they were back in the room, Buck sat down on his bed and took the telegram out of his pocket.

"What's it say?" Vin asked.

"Ezra says things back in town are going okay, JD's feeling better," Buck said with a smile then he continued with a frown. "No sign of Tyler and his gang, they figure they're on the way here." He folded the slip of paper and put it back in his coat pocket, then took it off and draped it across the back of the chair.

"Well, that's just what the Judge needs," Vin said with a shake of his head.

"Where do you suppose Chris and Josiah are by now?" Buck asked, trying to give the tracker something else to think about.

Vin thought about it for a moment before replying. "Well, as long as the weather's good and they don't have trouble finding water, they should be halfway between El Paso and here. I expect they could be here late the day after tomorrow or early the next day."

"Sounds good," Buck said with a nod. "Then they can get this hearing under way and get the hell out of here."

Vin just nodded his agreement, then smiled as he lay back. "Too back Ezra ain't here, we could pass the time playing cards."

Buck watched Vin reach into his saddle bag and pull out his well-used harmonica. They sat in silence for a few minutes before Buck spoke up. "I'm sure sorry you're stuck here for the night," Buck said with a sigh.

The tracker finally turned to his friend. "I figured you'd be heading back to the saloon to spend some time with that Katy, seeing as how you were interrupted last night."

"I was kind of thinking about it," Buck replied with a shrug.

"Well, then just go," Vin responded. "Ain't no point in both of us being miserable. Go on, get out of here. I think I can manage on my own for awhile."

"You sure?" he finally asked. "How about I bring you a beer before you turn in?" Buck asked, standing to go.

"You don't have to do this, Bucklin," Vin snapped, suddenly angry that the lanky gunslinger could come and go as he pleased. "I can manage on my own. Been doing it most of my life."

"Sure you can," Buck said then he winked at his friend. "But JD made me promise to watch your back. Kid's right for once."

"You just steer clear of that Sheriff and Edwards," Vin said seriously. "I mean it. I need you out there, leastways ‘til Chris gets here."

Buck nodded, his expression suddenly guarded. "Look Vin, I know I'm second choice here, but Chris and Josiah ought to be here in the next couple of days."

"That's not what I meant, Buck," he protested with a sigh.

"I know," the rogue replied with a small smile, standing and stretching. "With any luck, I'll be back first thing in the morning. Then he gave the tracker a wink and turned toward the door.

"Buck," Vin called quietly. "Be careful."

Buck nodded. "You know me…"

"…careful is my middle name," the tracker finished as the other man wagged his eyebrows and flashed his friend a smile before he disappeared out the door. Vin watched him go before he sat back against the wall with a heavy sigh.

* * * * * * *

After leaving the Judge's house, Underwood had gone in search of his travelling companion. He waved Edwards to a corner table and ordered them both a drink.

"I've been looking for you, we need to discuss a few things," Underwood began.

"What things?" Edwards asked.

"I've studied the papers from Tanner's case, and I want you to be prepared," Underwood said. "You may not like what you hear, and you may want to start thinking about some things that might need clarifying concerning Jess Kincaid's death."

"Like what?!" Edwards demanded. "I got no explaining to do!"

"Oh really?" Underwood asked. "What other evidence do you have that Vin Tanner killed Jess Kincaid, other than he brought the body in as Eli Joe and tried to claim the bounty?"

"What more evidence do you need?" Edwards asked tersely. "Tanner thought he was Eli Joe, Eli Joe had a bounty on his head and Tanner was a bounty hunter. He killed the wrong man."

Underwood shook his head. "Did Tanner look like he'd been in a fight?"

"Not that I recall," Edwards answered. "Why?"

"According to the undertaker's statement to Judge Bailey, Kincaid was all beat up and bruised, like he'd been in one hell of a fight. If it wasn't with Tanner, then who did he fight with?" When his only reply was a shrug, Underwood went on. "What kind of guns did Tanner have on him when you took him into custody?"

Edwards frowned in thought before he answered. "He had a long rifle with a scope, and a sawed-off scattergun like the one he was wearing yesterday."

Underwood nodded. "And the undertaker said that the bullet wound in Kincaid's heart was relatively small, like from a pistol, not a high-powered rifle. And you never noticed?"

"I never got much of a look at Kincaid's body before Tanner shot me!" Edwards spat back. "After that, I was fighting for my own life."

"You were trying to lynch the boy!" Underwood declared.

"Look what his bullet did!" he said, holding out his withered hand. "I lost my job as Marshal 'cause of him – but they let me stay on as a Deputy out of pity. And now you're taking his side?"

"I'm not taking anyone's side," Underwood replied calmly, "but I can tell you right now, with this kind of evidence added to his current occupation as a peacekeeper and respected member of his community, along with Buck Wilmington's testimony, Tanner will probably be given a new trial. And I'm not sure I could get a conviction."

"What's Wilmington got to do with it?" the ex-marshal asked, his eyes narrowing in suspicion.

"I sent out some inquiries," the attorney answered. "He was a sworn lawman some years back. And the replies I've gotten speak highly of his bravery and dedication to justice."

Edwards looked at Underwood in bewilderment. "All these years, all I've ever wanted was to see justice done – to see Vin Tanner get what's coming to him."

"You're wrong," Underwood said softly. "You don't want justice, you want revenge."

"What do you know about it?" Edwards shouted, standing up and angrily shoving his chair away. "It weren't your life he ruined. But you mark my words - one way or another, I'll see Vin Tanner in Hell for what he did to me!"

"Quentin!" Underwood said sharply. "As long as you're wearing that badge and representing the citizens of Tascosa, you will not go around threatening anyone."

Edwards looked down at Underwood and smiled coldly. "Fine!" he snarled, snatching the badge from his lapel and throwing it down on the table. Then he turned on his heel and stormed out the door, stomping right past the Pecos Sheriff and down the street towards one of the less reputable saloons.

Unbeknownst to either Edwards or Underwood, the entire conversation was of great interest to several patrons in the dining room. Alexander had heard everything from where he stood just inside the door, and he was not happy.

At another table, a trio of cowboys watched and listened as the men from Tascosa argued. As Edwards stalked out the door, two turned to the third man and his face broke into an evil grin. Joseph Tyler nodded to his two companions and while he quickly paid the bill, the others kept Edwards in their sight. Then Tyler joined them on the boardwalk and they went the same direction as Edwards.

* * * * * * *

As Buck made his way to the saloon, he was passing the alley when the familiar sound of a scuffle caught his attention. His first instinct was to ignore it until he heard the muffled protest of a woman's voice. He quickened his steps as he turned the corner, where he was greeted by the sight of a woman pinned against the side of the building by the sheer weight of a hulking man's body. It sent the Four Corners scoundrel's blood to a quick boil. Not slowing down for a second, the tall gunslinger plowed into the larger man, pulling him away from the woman with his momentum.

As his eyes sought the woman's gaze to offer her a quick reassurance, he reacted suddenly when he recognized the victim was Katy's friend Sandy. His momentary lapse of concentration caused him to mis-step and the other man quickly took advantage of it. A huge fist crashed into Buck's jaw, and he would have easily gone down except for the other man's grasp on the front of his shirt. Holding the rogue upright with one hand, he balled the other hand into a fist again and drove it into Buck's solar plexus. As the force of the blow caused him to double over, this time he let Buck fall to the ground. The brute drew his leg back and delivered a hard kick to Buck's ribs.

Even as he rolled away from the blows, Buck scrambled to his feet and faced the big man unsteadily. As he wiped the blood away from the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand, he shook his head to clear the cobwebs. Looking over at Sandy, he could see her frozen in fear. As he took a step toward his opponent, he managed to put himself between the trembling woman and the wall of flesh. He turned back to her. "GO!" he shouted, and the terrified woman finally turned and ran.

Even as he threw his first punch and connected with the side of the big man's head, he heard the sound of footsteps coming from behind. Before he could react, both his arms were grabbed and pinned tightly against his body and the big man before him grinned viciously. The blows came one after the other until Buck was barely conscious. Somewhere in the distance he heard a shout and then he was released. As he fell bonelessly to the ground, the men that had been holding him ran back the way they came, with someone in swift pursuit.

"Buck?" he heard a woman's voice. "Buck honey, are you okay?" It took a few seconds, but his eyes finally opened to see Katy's lovely face in his line of sight.

"Sandy, go get the Sheriff," Katy called over her shoulder.

"No!" Buck protested, trying to sit up. He groaned as he fell back down. "Just help me up to my room." he said through clenched teeth as he reached a hand towards the pretty saloon hostess.

"Well now," Katy said with a wry smile, taking the injured man's hand. "That's the best offer I've had all day."

Buck tried to chuckle, but it dissolved into a painful cough as he grimaced and grabbed his sides.

"I am so sorry, Buck," Sandy said as she knelt down beside him.

He turned his head and reached up with a gentle hand to wipe away the tear that traced its way down her cheek. "Don't be, darlin'" he said softly. "Not your fault. I'm just glad I got there before he hurt you."

The sound of fast approaching feet had Buck turning and pulling his gun in one motion. His eyes widened in surprise as he recognized the younger Texas Ranger, Ashley Carstairs.

"Whoa," said the nearing Ranger, sliding to a stop with his hands in the air.

"No Buck!" Katy cried, putting her hand on his arm. "He helped us run those fellows off."

"Much obliged," Buck said, his gun suddenly too heavy to hold. As his gun fell from his hand, he lost his fight to stay conscious.

As Katy and Sandy began to struggle with his dead weight, Ashley leaned over and grabbed one of Buck's arms and took his belt at his back, pulling Buck up as he stood. "Where to, ladies?"

Katy looked down the alley where the attackers had disappeared and bit her bottom lip. "Follow me," she said, taking the lead. Sandy got on Buck's other side and took part of his weight. Katy led the way to the back of the saloon and up the stairs to the girls' room. She held the door open for the others. "There," she said, pointing to the bed closest to the door.

Ashley and Sandy barely managed to get Buck to the bed without dropping him. Katy straightened his limbs and brushed a hand over the cut above his right eye, then stood and turned toward the other man. "Thank you, sweetie," Katy said, planting a quick kiss on the surprised Ranger's cheek.

"You're welcome," he replied, blushing furiously. "You want I should fetch the doctor?"

Katy shook her head. "We'll keep him here; he should be okay in a little bit. Don't appear anything's broken."

"All right then," Ashley said, tipping his hat to each of the women before turning to go. "I better go find John and see if we can locate that bunch. The way they disappeared, it was like they know their way around town."

"Thanks again," Sandy called after him as she closed the door behind him. She turned to see Katy already struggling to get the boots off the unconscious man.

While Katy went about getting Buck comfortable, Sandy went to the washstand and picked up the water pitcher. She poured water into the ceramic basin and grabbed a washcloth before carrying it over and setting it on the table next to the bed. She handed the cloth to Katy, who dipped it in the water and wrung it out before wiping Buck's bruised and bloody face.

"What can I do to help?" Sandy whispered.

Katy motioned to the pitcher. "Get me some more water, and a bottle of whiskey. Tell Sam the medicinal stuff."

Sandy nodded and went out the door. As she reached the bottom step, a meaty hand grabbed her arm roughly and another covered her mouth as she was dragged back into the alley.

* * * * * * *

Katy had managed to get Buck's boots off and had unbuttoned his shirt and was pulling it out from underneath him when the door opened and Sandy came in with the pitcher and the bottle of whiskey. "What took you so long?" Katy asked crossly, walking past the other woman to empty the blood-stained water out the door onto the dirt street below.

"Sorry," Sandy replied hesitantly. "Sam was busy."

Katy took the items from Sandy and set them on the bedside table, then turned back to her friend in concern. "Are you sure you're all right?" she asked, reaching up to touch the bruise marring her friend's face. "When did that happen?"

Sandy shrugged and pulled Katy's hand away. "I'm fine – just scared me good is all."

"Who were those men?" Katy asked.

"Never seen them before," Sandy answered, moving away from Katy.

Just then a moan from the bed pulled Katy's attention back to Buck. She sat on the edge of the bed and used the whiskey and a clean cloth to doctor the cuts on his face and forehead. Groaning once or twice, he tried to pull away from Katy's ministrations, finally beginning to show signs of waking up.

"Maybe we should get Doc," Sandy whispered fearfully.

"I didn't feel anything broken," Katy said with a shake of her head.

"No doctor," Buck croaked softly. "I'll be okay, just need a little rest."

"Are you sure, darlin'?" Katy asked. "They whomped on you pretty good."

"Don't I know it," Buck replied, groaning as he tried to sit up. He worked his way up to his elbows before he fell back and raised his arm across his eyes. When the wave of dizziness passed, he opened his eyes again, smiling at Katy. He looked past her and met the other woman's worried gaze. "You all right?"

Sandy's lips trembled and she nodded her head, not trusting her voice to work around the lump in her throat.

"You know those fellows?" Buck asked. While Sandy shook her head no, he struggled halfway into a sitting position before Katy helped him to sit up, arranging the pillows behind him. She reached back and brought a glass of water to his lips. He nodded his thanks and took a sip before he turned his attention back to Sandy.

"Could you do me a big favor, Sandy honey?" Buck asked. "Could you maybe fetch Vin a beer, maybe keep him company for a bit? He could probably stand to see a prettier face than this one."

Katy smiled and nodded. "I see what you mean," she added drily, taking in all the bruises and scrapes.

"How 'bout it, darlin'?" he addressed Sandy.

"I – I couldn't," Sandy stammered, backing away as she moved her hand to cover the darkening bruise. "He-he'll probably ask where y-you were, and I – I don't know if I could lie good enough."

"I'll do it," Katy offered, crossing the room to give her friend a gentle hug. "I'll just tell him we had us quite an evening," Katy said to Buck, giving him a bold wink. "And that you're resting up for when I get off tonight."

Buck gave her a warm smile, sighing as he lay back on the pillows. "Now that he would believe."

"All right then," Katy said. "I better go on to work now and I'll take care of Vin shortly. I'll tell Sam you're not feeling good."

Sandy started to open her mouth in protest, but noticed Buck was nodding off again. "I'll keep an eye on him," she promised the other woman.

Katy checked the handsome ladies man one more time before she went out the door leading to the hallway.

Upstairs, Sandy alternated between the chair at Buck's side to the window overlooking the street. Every so often she would open the door a crack, watching the goings on downstairs until she saw Katy, then quietly closing the door again.

Finally Katy came back upstairs and quietly opened the door. "How's he doing?" she whispered.

"He's been asleep all evening," Sandy said.

"He's fine," came the gravelly reply from behind her.

Katy smiled and crossed the room while Sandy jumped up to pour a glass of water from the pitcher.

Before she got back with it, Buck sat up and threw the covers off and sat up, swinging his legs off the bed. He took the glass with a grateful nod and drained it in one swallow. "Got some business to take care of," he said with a chagrined look, trying to get his feet under him to stand.

"No you don't, cowboy," Katy said, putting her hand on his shoulder, pushing him back down.

"I'm feeling a lot better," he insisted through gritted teeth. "But I got to go!"

"Not just yet," Katy said firmly, handing him the chamber pot.

Buck opened his mouth to protest, but one look at the one hand planted firmly on her hip and her no nonsense expression, he took it and limped behind the dressing screen.

Katy steered Sandy out the back door to the stairway landing, giving Buck a little privacy. "Make sure he stays put 'til I get back," she said softly. "I'm going to take Vin his beer then go talk to the Texas Rangers about those fellows that beat him up. I'll be back in a little bit."

Sandy nodded without a word and Katy left down the stairs. She grabbed a pitcher of beer and a mug, and after covering herself with a shawl, she made her way over to the hotel. Sandy watched her until she went into the hotel. As she turned to go back inside, a movement from below caught her attention. Her eyes widened in fear as a shadow separated itself from the depths of the alley and transformed into the behemoth who had attacked her earlier. He gave Sandy a cold stare, sending her back into the room, slamming the door behind her. Leaning against the closed door, she took a deep breath.

Buck had his back to her and was just finishing the last button on his jeans. Hearing her come in, he turned to face her. "Katy gone to fetch Vin a beer?"

Sandy nodded and stepped into the room. "You need anything? Another drink of water maybe?"

"I could sure use another drink, but water ain't exactly what I got in mind," he replied with grin. "How 'bout something stronger, to take the edge off all these bumps and bruises?"

"How about whiskey, the medicinal kind?" Sandy asked with a wink. "Better than the good stuff we got downstairs."

Buck's eyes lit up and he nodded. "Thanks," he said, then he reached over and took his shirt from where it was hanging on the bedpost and started putting it on.

Sandy picked the glass up from the bedside table then crossed the room to the cupboard where she had put the bottle of whiskey. She turned away from Buck, casting a furtive glance back in his direction. Seeing him putting on his boots and not paying attention to her, she withdrew a packet from her corset and emptied the powdery contents into his glass. Then she poured whiskey from the bottle until the glass was half full. She swished the contents around until she was sure it was dissolved before turning around and holding it out to him. He looked up from pulling his boot on and took it. Then she poured herself a glass.

He took a healthy swallow, reveling in the gentle warming sensation the liquid provided. He watched as she took a sip from her own glass. "Are you sure you're okay?" Buck asked, reaching out to brush his fingers lightly over the bruise. She reached up and interlaced her fingers with his, gently pulling his hand away from her face.

"I'll be all right," Sandy whispered, taking another sip as she watched him down the rest of the glass in one more swallow. "Another one?" she asked.

Buck nodded, handing her the glass as he walked across the room to the door leading outside.

"Katy wants you to stay here 'til she gets back," Sandy said with a frown.

"I'm not going anywhere," Buck replied. "Just want a breath of fresh air."

He opened the door and stepped out onto the landing. Leaning back on the doorframe, he looked out over the lights of the town. He searched the sky for the stars he knew should be there. Orienting himself with the Big Dipper, he turned his face to the West. He stood there a moment, closing his eyes and relishing the gentle breeze that caressed his face. Finally he opened his eyes again and ran his fingers through his hair, then gently touched the cut above his eye. He looked down across the street at the lights of the jail, then sighed and looked to the heavens. "Hurry, Chris," he whispered, before turning back toward Sandy, stepping into the room and closing the door behind him.

Buck had only taken a step or two, when he stopped and swayed unsteadily. He blinked a couple of times then stared at Sandy in confusion. He cocked his head then rubbed his eyes; he shook his head, trying to clear it. Suddenly his eyes rolled back, his knees buckled and he pitched face first onto the floor.

Sandy stood frozen for a moment then slowly approached the prone form. "Buck?" she whispered. She knelt down and shook his shoulder, but there was no response. "I'm so sorry," she whispered in his ear. She stood and looked around the room. Picking up the bottle of whiskey, she splashed a little on herself then poured a good amount over and around the unconscious rogue. Then she grabbed the shoulder of her dress and ripped it down to the waist, exposing her lacy corset. Taking a deep breath, she screamed at the top of her lungs, then picked up the pitcher and smashed it onto the floor just inches from Buck's head. She winced when a shard flew across the back of his neck, drawing blood. She flung the hallway door open and staggered into view of the saloon patrons. "Help me!" she cried, falling back heavily into the wall. "Please, he–he…" she stammered, holding one hand up to the dark bruise and the other clutching at her torn dress as she tried in vain to cover herself.

Half the room was up the stairs before Sandy said any more, Deputy Marshal Edwards suddenly in the lead trying to hide a self-satisfied half smile.

Sheriff Alexander paused at Sandy's side. "Are you all right?" he asked, turning her face to get a look at the dark bruise.

Sandy bit her lip and nodded silently. One of the other girls came to her side, gently leading her away from the mob trying to get into the room she had 'escaped' from.

Alexander stepped inside and surveyed the scene.

Edwards was toeing the bigger pieces of the broken pitcher. "Looks like she had to use this to stop him."

Alexander's expression turned dark as he crossed the room. He rolled Buck over and shook him roughly. "Hey, wake up," he said, then slapped the unconscious man. Looking at the gathering crowd, he fixed his gaze on a scruffy looking cowboy. "You, go get me a bucket of water!"

As the crowd parted to let the man out, the younger Texas Ranger stepped into his place and made his way into the room. Ashley's eyes widened in surprise when he saw the Four Corners man laid out cold on the floor. "What happened?" he asked.

"Son of a bitch tried to have his way with one of the girls," came the angry reply from one of the men pressing at his back.

"She must've said no, and he started beating on her," added another.

Ashley turned back to the unconscious man on the floor, his eyes mirroring the disquiet he was feeling.

While they were waiting, the crowd began whispering and murmuring, speculating on what might have happened. Some expressed their opinions none too quietly on how they felt about a man taking advantage of a girl, even if she was a saloon girl. The crowd parted again for the cowhand bearing the bucket.

Alexander took the bucket and dumped most of it in Buck's face. Choking and sputtering, the tall gunslinger tried to turn over and away from Alexander.

"No you don't," Edwards sneered. The ex-Tascosa lawman used the toe of his boot to turn Buck back toward the Pecos Sheriff.

"Get on your feet," Alexander bellowed, grabbing Buck by the shirtfront and hauling him up.

The barely aware scoundrel blinked slowly as he looked around, seeing only the angry faces of the crowd surrounding him. Shouts of 'Get him, Sheriff!' and 'Show him what we do to his kind!' echoed in his head as he pushed weakly away from Alexander and fell back into Edwards, who in turn shoved Buck hard into the Sheriff. Buck's hands came up instinctively to protect himself, but Alexander balled his own fists up and struck out at the swaying man. A powerful right to his already tender midsection had Buck gasping and doubling over, then Alexander clenched his fists together and slammed Buck between the shoulder blades, sending him crashing to the floor again.

The bloodthirsty crowd pushed into the room, shouldering past an unbelieving Ashley. Some of them kicked out at the unmoving form, but in all the pushing and shoving, none of the blows even came close. The young Texas Ranger couldn't believe what was happening – this was mob justice at its worst. He made up his mind it was up to him to put a stop to it – quickly. When his shouts went unheeded, Ashley finally pulled out his gun and fired two shots into the ceiling above the unruly mob. Silence in the room was almost immediate.

"What do you think you're doing, boy?" Edwards snarled.

"You can't just let this man get beat to death without so much as a trial!" he replied, turning to fix his gaze on Alexander.

"He was trying to have his way with one of the working girls," shouted one of the patrons in the back.

"Was he?" Ashley shot back. "Then he deserves to go to jail, and have a fair trial, just like any other man."

"Don't need no trial to see what's going on here," declared another voice from the fringe of the mob. "We've dealt with his kind before!"

"No one's going to get lynched, not while I'm around," insisted Ashley, moving to stand closer to the unconscious man.

While Ashley turned to face the crowd, Alexander had moved up behind him. Just as he reached toward Ashley's gun arm, the sound of a commotion could be heard coming from outside the room and moving their way.

"What the hell is going on here?" Katy's voice could be heard before the crowd parted and she made her way inside, followed by Ranger Slaughter. "Buck!" she cried, rushing to his side.

"Everything all right?" Slaughter asked his younger partner, but he directed a cold gaze in Alexander's direction, letting the veteran lawman know his movements had not gone unnoticed.

"Just fine," Ashley replied, breathing a sigh of relief but still gripping his pistol.

"What happened?" Katy demanded, looking up from Buck's side. "What have you done do to him?"

"We didn't do nothing he didn't deserve," Edwards said, his voice laced with contempt. "Figures a man that would hang around the likes of Tanner would be capable of forcing himself on a woman."

Katy's eyes blazed. "Not in a million years!" she protested, looking to Slaughter. "He wouldn't do that."

"I ain't trying to tell you your business, Sheriff," Slaughter said carefully, but his tone of voice left no doubt that was exactly what he was doing. "But I'd be thinking about getting him over to the jail before things around here get out of hand."

Alexander took a moment to think it over then nodded to one of his Deputies at the front of the mob. "Get him out of here," he said.

"I'll help," Ashley volunteered, finally holstering his gun. He took the still-oblivious man's shoulders while the Deputy picked up both Buck's legs.

Katy stood to follow, but her arm was gently held. As she started to pull away, she turned and saw it was Slaughter that had a grip on her arm.

He shook his head. "We need to find out what happened," he said softly. "Where's your friend? Ain't she the one he was supposed to have hurt?"

Katy looked around the crowd as it made its way out of the room and back down the stairs, then turned back to Slaughter. "She's not here," Katy said, concern and confusion evident in her voice. "I know Buck, he just wouldn't hurt her! Half those bruises he got this afternoon from the gorilla that WAS trying to abuse her. Why would she say Buck did that to her?"

"From everything I know about Wilmington, it don't sound like him," Slaughter agreed. "Come on, let's go find your friend."

* * * * * * *

It was almost midnight and Vin was lying on his bunk with both hands intertwined behind his head, staring at the ceiling and listening to the sounds drifting in through the window. Suddenly he could hear what sounded like a disturbance coming from the direction of the saloon, followed by the loud roar of gunshots. Sitting up and pulling the curtain aside he watched the street below, focusing on the entrance to the saloon. After a few minutes his eyes widened in concern as he saw his unconscious friend being carried out, surrounded by the still angry mob. Vin quickly pulled his boots back on ran out the door.

The door to the jail slammed open, Alexander leading the way. He was followed by Ashley and his Deputy carrying the unconscious ladies man between them.

"Move! Let me through," Vin called out, pushing his way to the front of the mob waiting outside the jail. As Vin stepped inside, Alexander was unlocking the door to one of the cells. As Vin moved closer to get a look at his friend, Alexander drew his gun and waved him back. "What the hell happened to him?" The Sheriff opened the cell door wide and stepped back while the trio made their way past him. The two carrying Buck got him to the cot, and while Ashley was letting Buck down slowly, the Deputy suddenly let go of his part of the burden. The move unbalanced the young Texas Ranger and his shoulder crashed into the metal bars of the cell, but he managed to keep Buck from falling off the cot. As Ashley straightened up, his eyes met Vin's.

"What's going on?" Vin demanded, glancing down at Buck, who was still out like a light, before drilling Ashley again, his eyes far darker than their usual gentle blue.

As Ashley opened his mouth to speak, Alexander interrupted. "Thanks for your help, Ranger. I think we can take it from here."

Ashley shrugged and sighed before breaking eye contact with Vin. He went out the door, followed by the Deputy.

As soon as they were in the other room, the Sheriff slammed the door to the cell closed, causing Vin to flinch involuntarily. The tracker could feel the Sheriff's gaze on him even as he closed the short distance between Buck and himself. Vin reached through the bars and tried to roll his friend over to get a better look at him in the dim light. "Buck," he called softly. "Come on, Bucklin. Wake up." When he didn't get a response, he looked up at the Sheriff standing outside Buck's cell. "What did y'all do to him?"

"Do? What did we do?" the Sheriff returned. "Nothing he didn't deserve!" He took a step closer so Vin could see the self-satisfied smirk. "Never can tell about a fellow, acting so polite and all. Fact is, soon as you ain't around to keep him on a short leash, he goes and gets so drunk that he abused one of the working girls! All we were doing was trying to arrest him and he tried to take us all on."

Vin looked up at the Sheriff incredulously. "Buck wouldn't hurt no girl!"

But Alexander just ignored him. "Last time something like this happened in these parts, half the territory came to the hanging and they applauded – they applauded." He fixed Vin with a twisted grin as he watched the tracker's face blanch. "Some character witness he's going to be."

"This is on account of me?!" Vin demanded. He couldn't contain the low growl that escaped as he stood and took a quick step toward the Sheriff, only stopping at the cell bars to grab them and shake them in frustration. Alexander backed out of the room, chuckling as he closed the door.

Vin dropped into a squat close to Buck. He reached his hand through the bars again. He managed to turn Buck's face toward him and shook his head at the cuts and bruises he saw. Leaning his head against the cool steel bars, he rested his hand on the bigger man's chest, taking comfort in the steady rise and fall.

He didn't know how long he was lost in thought when he suddenly sat up straight, his eyes narrowing in determination. He wrapped his hands in the front of Buck's shirt, lifting him partially off the bunk. "SHERIFF!" he shouted, his voice tinged with panic. "He ain't breathing! Sheriff!!"

The door swung open and the Deputy stepped inside. "Sheriff ain't here. What are you yammering about?"

"I don't know what you and your friends did to him, but he ain't breathing!" Vin cried, taking his eyes off his friend's still form just long enough to look up at the Deputy desperately.

"What – what d' you mean, he ain't – ain't breathing?" the Deputy stammered, reaching back inside to grab the keys from the peg on the wall. "He was when we brought him in here."

"Well, he ain't now!" Vin declared in accusation. "Y'all must have beat him real bad!"

"We did not!" the Deputy replied defensively, shaking his head. "Get back over there," he said, one hand on his gun while he worked the key in the door with the other.

Vin moved away from the bars, but as soon as the Deputy reached down to touch Buck's face, he was distracted only for a split second, but it was enough. Vin sprang forward and got a hold of the Deputy's wrist, twisting the other man's arm back painfully. "Hand over the gun," he demanded tersely.

When the Deputy hesitated, Vin wrenched his arm back even further, causing the other man to cry out in pain. "Okay, okay," he hollered, pulling his gun out and handing it over through the bars.

Vin let go of the arm and stood, aiming the gun at the Deputy's chest. "Unlock it," Vin said, motioning to his friend's cell door. As soon as the door was unlocked, Vin grabbed the Deputy and slammed him into the second cell and down on the cot face first. "Give me your belt," he growled, yanking it out of the other man's hands when it was held up. He used the belt to tie the man's hands behind him.

"You'll never get away with this," the Deputy said, twisting around to see what Vin was doing.

The tracker had pulled his bandanna off and was balling it up to use as a gag. He paused and looked over at his injured friend, who was finally showing signs of coming around. Then he fixed the Deputy with a cold stare that Chris Larabee would have been proud of. "For what you and your friends did to him, I ought to shoot you right here and now," smiling tightly at the look of fear the other man's eyes. "But I got him to think of now, and I don't need to be drawing any attention over this way." With that Vin put the gag in the Deputy's mouth and pushed his head down roughly into the mattress.

As he made his way into the other cell, he threw the keys into the farthest corner as he reached Buck's side. "Come on, Buck," he said, gently shaking his shoulder. "Wake up," he said more urgently, rolling the dark-haired man over onto his back. As he was trying to sit him up, Vin's face got within inches of Buck's and he pulled backed in surprise. "What the hell?" he said aloud as his subconscious recognized the odor of something more than alcohol emanating from the groggy man. Vin held Buck in a sitting position while he kicked the cell bars, getting the Deputy's attention. "You tell that Sheriff of yours, if he dies I'll be back – and I won't be coming alone. Somebody in this town poisoned him, and they're going to be sorry!"

Vin huffed in exasperation as he managed to work Buck up high enough to sling the bigger man over his shoulder. He struggled under the weight as he made his way out the back door. Once in the dark alley, he slid Buck down against the wall of the building. Taking the ladies man's bandanna, he crept along and darted out to the water trough, soaking the bandanna and then disappearing back into the shadows. Squatting in front of the slumped figure, he tipped the other man's face up and wrung the bandanna over the man's head, slapping him gently at the same time. "Come on, Bucklin. You got to wake up."

Buck's eyes flew open and his arms flailed against the unseen enemy.

"Whoa there, pard," Vin said softly, trying to catch Buck's wayward fist. "You're okay, just calm down."

"V-Vin?" Buck sputtered, water still trickling past his eyes.

"Yeah, it's me," he said with a sigh. "We got to get moving. You awake now?"

Buck looked around, not really recognizing where he was. But hearing the urgency in Vin's voice and seeing it in the sky blue eyes, he nodded and tried to stand. When his knees turned to rubber, Vin got under his arm and helped him get his feet under him. "Thanks," the injured man whispered breathlessly, leaning protectively over his aching midsection.

The two made their way to the corner of the building, Vin supporting Buck with one arm while he held the gun in the other hand. Vin cautiously looked around the corner, then they came out of the alley onto the boardwalk. Suddenly a door opened and an elderly shopkeeper came out. Vin half-pushed, half-dragged Buck back into the alley, leaning back into the shadows. The shopkeeper walked right past them without a second glance. As soon as the elderly man crossed the street to the next boardwalk, Vin helped Buck step up onto the boardwalk as they made their way to the livery.

Suddenly Buck's weight was almost crushing him. He looked over and saw the ladies man drifting in and out of consciousness again. Vin slowed down and gave him a rough shake. "Buck!" he whispered tersely. "You got to wake up. Come on – we got to get our heads together – now come on!" Buck stood a little straighter and moved a little quicker. "The two of us ain't far from hanging if we don't get something working for us here. We got to find a place to hide out, least 'til Chris and Josiah get here."

"I'm trying, Vin," Buck replied, his words slurred. "I'm really trying."

"Yeah, I know," Vin said, the anger already fading out of his voice.

They made their way down the street to the livery. Going to the back of the building, Vin leaned Buck against the wall and tucked the gun into his waistband as he quietly opened the smaller door. Grabbing Buck's arm, he started to lead him inside.

"I got to rest," he said plaintively.

"We're almost there," Vin promised. Once inside, Vin found an empty stall and leaned Buck up against the slats. "Are you feeling any better?"

"It's like I ain't got any legs, Vin," Buck said weakly.

"Do you remember what happened back there?" the tracker asked.

"I was talking – talking to Sandy," he replied, his voice fading as he drifted off standing there.

Vin gave the bigger man a rough shake. "Buck! Can you remember anything else?"

"I can't even stay awake!" he yelled back.

"Shhh," Vin said quickly, covering his mouth with one hand. "It's all right."

Buck knocked his hand away and leaned his head back, closing his eyes and concentrating on fighting the nausea he was feeling.

"I got to get to the Judge," Vin said. "I just hope he don't believe that you and me together just ain't a pack of trouble he don't need."

Buck opened his eyes and frowned, but before he could speak, Vin pulled him down and settled him into a sitting position in the corner of the stall.

"You wait for me here," Vin said, putting the Deputy's pistol in Buck's hand. He stayed in his kneeling position, waiting for Buck to acknowledge that he understood.

Buck was still frowning, but he finally sighed and nodded. Even as Vin stood, Buck's eyes took on a glassy look and he leaned heavily against the corner.


Vin stayed in the shadows as much as he could as he made his way to the Judge's house. Coming to the back of the house, he vaulted the short fence. As the neighbor's dog began barking, he hesitated for just a moment before going up the steps to the back door. He knocked on the door and waited for a reply, noticing the lights were still on in the house. When no one came to the door, he put his hand on the knob and slowly turned it. "Judge?" he called out. "Judge Roberts? Missus Franco?" He frowned as he proceeded into the house. He went through the kitchen to the hall. He noticed the study door was open and the light was on, so he stopped just outside and knocked quietly. "Judge?" Again he got no answer and he slowly pushed the door open.

"Oh no," he exclaimed softly, as he stepped into the room and saw the Judge, the upper part of his body lying across the desk. From where he stood, Vin could see the older man wasn't moving. Vin approached the desk slowly, kneeling beside the gray-haired man. He reached out and gently pressed the side of his neck, hoping to find a pulse, but knowing there wouldn't be one. Up close, he could see the pool of blood underneath the Judge's head. Looking behind the Judge, he saw the broken window and knew where the shot came from. "Take the devil himself to do this, Judge," Vin lamented. "And now I guess somebody's going to find a reason to blame this on me, too."

Vin stood with a heavy sigh and retraced his steps to the back door. Even as he opened the door, he could hear the neighbor's dog still barking in the front yard. He ran down the steps and paused to look around, then froze at the sound of a door slamming and a voice coming from the front of the house.

"Paco, what you barking at, boy?" Emilio asked, bending down to pet the agitated animal. "You woke Abuela and me."

Vin could see the boy in the moonlight, his grandmother a few steps behind him still adjusting her robe over her nightgown. The boy looked up at the sound of Vin stepping off the porch. Their eyes met, Vin's sorrow meeting Emilio's surprise. Without a word Vin turned and hurdled the fence, running back the way he'd come.

"Emilio, what is it?" Missus Franco asked.

"Senor Vin," the boy replied, pointing to the shadows. "He just left."

"It can't be Senor Vin," Missus Franco said. "He wouldn't be here this late."

"But it was!" the boy insisted.

"Well, come back inside the house," the housekeeper urged. "It's late." As the woman turned to follow her grandson, a noise caught her attention. Peering into the shadows, she could just make out the shape of a man on the ground. She recognized the younger Texas Rangers lying on his back. "Emilio! Go find the Sheriff and Mister Slaughter!"

"Abuela, what's wrong?" he asked, moving closer to his grandmother.

"Go now!" she said, shooing the boy away. As soon as the boy ran toward town, the woman looked up toward the house with a worried gaze before moving to Ashley's side. She was relieved to see he was breathing and moving. "Senor Ashley, are you all right?" she asked quietly.

"I'm not sure," he said with a groan. With Missus Franco's help, he sat up, his hand automatically going to the back of his head.

The housekeeper bent close and used her fingers to gingerly probe the area.

"OWW!" Ashley exclaimed as she touched the growing goose egg on his skull.

"I'm so sorry, Senor Ashley," she said, pulling her hand away. "I'll be right back. I need to get something to clean that up."

Ashley grabbed her arm gently. "I don't think that's a good idea," he said with a frown toward the house. "Wait here for the Sheriff." As he started to stand unsteadily, the woman leant her support to get him to his feet. "Did you see anybody around?"

"No, Senor," she replied. "Emilio thought he saw Senor Vin coming out the back door, but I told him it couldn't be him."

Ashley nodded distractedly, closing his eyes as a wave of pain washed over him. The kindly housekeeper saw it and took his elbow, steering him to sit on the porch steps. He looked up at the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps.

"What's going on?" Alexander asked, stopping in front of the two.

"Ashley, you all right?" Slaughter asked, going up to his young friend. "The kid said you were hurt."

"Yeah, it's just a little bump," he replied, wincing as his partner stepped up behind him and took a look at his head. "I was just coming to check on the Judge. Somebody clobbered me from behind. I'm sure sorry, John."

"Don't be, son," the older Ranger admonished. "I'm just glad you're okay."

"Where's the Judge?" Alexander asked, noticing the homeowner wasn't outside with them.

"Haven't seen him," Ashley replied. "I was on my way here when I got knocked out. Missus Franco found me."

"Wait here with him?" Slaughter asked the housekeeper, who replied with a nod.

Alexander bounded up the steps, followed by Slaughter. They found the study door open and the Judge's body still lying across the desk.

"Dammit!" Slaughter exclaimed. The two veteran lawmen took in the scene and came to the same conclusion Vin had earlier - someone had shot the Judge through the window. They made a quick search of the house then joined the other two outside.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," Slaughter said gently, "Judge's dead."

Missus Franco gasped then started to climb the steps before Alexander stopped her.

"Best not to go in there," he said. "I'll be back with the undertaker in a couple of minutes." As he started down the path to the gate, he turned back to her. "Did you see anyone or hear anything?"

"Just the dog barking," she replied with a shake of her head. She sighed as the lawman turned his attention to her grandson.

"What about you, son?" he asked.

* * * * * * *

Vin approached the saloon from the shadows, keeping close to the building. Music and light spilled out onto the boardwalk from inside. There were a couple of cowboys sitting in chairs outside enjoying the evening breeze; one had his arm around one of the saloon girls. They were deep in a jovial conversation and weren't paying attention to anything else. Vin crept up to the closest two horses, making quick work of the reins tied to the hitching post, then led them quietly away in the direction of the livery.

At the back of the livery, Vin looped the reins loosely over the top rail of the corral. He went inside and found Buck still asleep in the sitting position he'd been in when Vin left, his hand still wrapped around the pistol. Gently taking the gun and putting in his waistband, Vin shook Buck's shoulder gently. "Wake up, Buck. We got to go." When the only response was Buck pulling away with a pain-filled groan, Vin took hold of his chin with one hand and tapped the side of his face with the other. "Come on, pard. I need you with me here."

Buck's dark blue eyes finally blinked open, slowly focusing on the sandy-haired man in front of him. "Vin? What happened? Where's Chris?"

"He ain't here," Vin replied, grabbing Buck's arm and hoisting him to his feet. "And we ain't got time to wait. We got to go now!"

"Why?" Buck asked, his disconnected thoughts not yet up to full speed.

"Ain't got time to explain right now," Vin said, leading Buck to the horses.

As Vin helped him into the saddle, a wave of pain and nausea crashed over Buck. Moaning loudly, he tried to climb back down. "I can't, Vin."

Vin pushed him back up on the horse, giving him a rough shake. "Buck, you listen to me. No matter how bad you feel, I figure both of us to be hanging if we don't ride out fast!"

Buck leaned heavily over the saddle horn. "No – no."

Vin grabbed the front of Buck's shirt, bringing him eyeball to eyeball. "Dammit to hell, Buck, you got to. The Judge's dead."

As the words filtered into his muddled brain, Buck sat up a little straighter. "Dead?" he asked.

"Yeah, somebody killed him," Vin replied sadly, finally letting go of Buck's shirt.

Buck looked over the corral towards town, trying to see if anyone was coming after them. Giving Vin a determined nod, he took the horse's reins in his hands. "Let's get the hell out of here," he said.

Vin returned the nod, mounting the other horse and reining it around. Buck brought his horse around to fall in step behind Vin. Within seconds they had disappeared into the shadows.

* * * * * * *

Katy was frustrated beyond words. She'd asked everyone in the saloon where Sandy had disappeared to, but no one seemed to know. Even Sam the bartender was being especially evasive. After Emilio had come to find the Texas Ranger, Slaughter had left her at the stairs leading up to her room. Climbing the steps slowly, she opened the door to her room. "Sandy!" she cried out at the sight of her wayward roommate sitting on her bed. "Where have you been?!" Sandy looked up at her with tear-filled eyes then lowered her face into her hands. Katy stood in front of her with her hands on her hips. "What on earth did you tell them Buck did to you? Do you have any idea how much trouble he's in? Like getting beat half to death once in a day wasn't enough? What them other fellows didn't do to him, the Sheriff and that mob did! What were you thinking?"

Sandy still didn't answer, her shoulders shaking with sobs. Finally she looked up at Katy. "I had to!" she cried. "They said…" she started before her voice broke into a hitching whimper.

"They who?" Katy demanded, her posture softening.

"Those men from earlier," Sandy explained. "When I went to get the whiskey, they were waiting for me. They said they'd come back and finish with me, and then they'd come for you."

"Is that how you got this?" Katy asked, sitting next to the distraught woman and gently touching the bruise on her face.

Sandy nodded. "I didn't want them to hurt me no more, and I didn't want them to hurt you neither."

"Why didn't you just tell me, or the Sheriff?" Katy asked gently.

"I couldn't," Sandy said, her tears slowing and her sobs dwindling to sniffling. "They were in the saloon all night, watching you."

Katy shook her head and sighed. "Okay, well let's go find the Sheriff and get it straightened out."

"No!" Sandy cried, "What if they're still out there?"

"Ain't nobody around that I don't know," Katy answered reassuringly. "Buck don't deserve to be in jail for something he didn't do." She stood and took Sandy by the arm, pulling her up too.

"He's going to hate me," Sandy said softly, letting Katy lead her to the door. "Did they hurt him bad?"

"Bad enough," Katy answered. "They had to carry him out of here like a sack of taters."

Sandy looked at her friend guiltily before following her down the stairs. "It might not be what you think. Sam gave me a powder to put in Buck's drink."

"You did what?" Katy asked, unable to mask her irritation. "What was in it?"

"I don't know," Sandy replied, "but it knocked him out cold before I left the room."

"Come on," Katy growled, taking Sandy's arm more roughly than she intended, guiding her to the jail.

As the women approached the jail, there were angry voices coming from inside. They stepped through the door to find the Sheriff, both Texas Rangers, the ex-lawman from Tascosa, the lawyer who had accompanied him on the journey from Tascosa and Alexander's Deputy.

Katy cleared her throat to get their attention.

"Is there something I can do for you ladies?" Alexander tried to keep his tone of voice polite, but Sandy recoiled behind Katy at the impatience she could hear there.

"Sandy has something she needs to tell you, about what happened with Mister Wilmington," Katy explained, pushing her friend forward.

"He didn't hurt me," Sandy said quietly, unable to meet the Sheriff's eyes. "It was some other fellows earlier today. They threatened to hurt me again if I didn't make you think Buck did it. They wanted him to be in jail so he couldn't help his friend." Finally she looked up. "I'm really sorry, Sheriff."

"He doesn't need to be locked up, and he needs the doctor to look at him," Katy said, stepping up next to the nervous woman. "He didn't do anything wrong."

"Maybe not before," the Sheriff said coolly, "But he's in as much trouble as the other one now."

"Why?" At Katy's look of confusion, Edwards stepped up.

"Tanner broke his friend out of jail," he snarled. "And then they killed the Judge."

"You don't know that!" Ashley protested. "We don't know who it was."

"The boy said he saw Tanner running out of the house," Alexander added.

"But he didn't hear any shots, and neither did his grandma," Slaughter spoke up. "If Tanner had just pulled the trigger, they would've been close enough to hear it."

"Not to mention, the boy said Tanner wasn't carrying a gun," Underwood said.

"He had one when he left here," the Deputy said. "Don't mean he didn't have it hid or got rid of it!"

"Then why did he shoot the window out?" Ashley asked the room in general.

Katy could see the lines were clearly divided, and neither side had a hope in hell of convincing the other they were right. She decided it was a good time to take Sandy and leave the men to the business at hand. "Come on," she said quietly, guiding the other girl out the door.

"We're not getting anywhere arguing among ourselves," the Sheriff finally said. "Come first light, I need a posse to go after them two. I got to stay here and mind the town; Pecos is getting too big for me to chasing folks all over the country. Deputy Edwards, would you be interested in leading it?"

Edwards turned to Alexander with a smug smile. "I'd be honored," he replied.

"Then it's settled," he said, holding up his hand to forestall the protests he knew would be coming from the Rangers. "This is my jurisdiction – feel free to join in, but it's my decision and I want Edwards in charge."

"You bet I'm going!" Ashley responded. "You turn him loose on Tanner and he'll never make it back in one piece."

Edwards just glared at the younger man in annoyance then shrugged.

Ashley turned to Slaughter, and was surprised when his partner shook his head. "You go on," the older partner said, "I got some ideas about who killed the Judge, but I need some time to work on it. Maybe by the time you get back, I'll have it figured out."

* * * * * * *

In the desert, two lone figures slept in the dark. One slept soundly, while the other tossed and turned fitfully. Chris suddenly sat bolt upright, gasping for breath loud enough to wake the other man.

"You okay?" Josiah asked, turning to face the other man. "Chris?"

"Yeah, I'm okay," he replied, laying back down on his bedroll. Even though the night was warm, Chris shivered and pulled his blanket up around him. When he closed his eyes, he could still see the images that woke him so abruptly. There before him was a gallows, and a body gently swinging in the breeze. As Chris watched, all he could see were the man's open eyes. With every pendulum swing, they changed from light blue to dark blue, light to dark. And he knew both pairs of eyes as well as he knew his own.

* * * * * * *

Just after sunrise, Edwards came out of the livery, leading his horse towards the gathering posse. As he passed, a shadowy figure called to him from the alley. Edwards glanced up the street to see if anyone was watching before pausing to talk to the bartender from the saloon.

"You going to lead this posse, Deputy?" Sam asked, taking a step into the light.

Edwards nodded. "Nobody would listen to me, but I had Tanner right. Cowardly, thieving, back shooting…"

"You mean to tell me you didn't arrange for the Judge's demise?" the other man asked, his voice tinged with sarcasm.

"Do you take me for a damn fool?" Edwards retorted angrily. "Vin Tanner shot him – he was seen running from the Judge's house."

"That just doesn't figure," Sam said, shaking his head. "I mean, why would he kill the only friend he has in this town?

"Don't really care," Edwards replied.

"Only answer I can see is that the Judge must've told Tanner he was shipping him back to Tascosa for his hanging," San offered, "and the man's nerves took over."

"Whatever," Edwards said, fixing Sam with a cold gaze. "But I'm starting to think that I'm not getting too much for the money I'm paying you."

"Now Deputy, once I make a deal, I aim to keep it," Sam replied with a placating smile. "Did I not get Wilmington out of the way for you? You didn't want him testifying on Tanner's behalf, and what could be worse than a woman beater as a character witness? And I've arranged for two of the best trackers in these parts; they'll be waiting for you just south of town. They've worked for me before, and they'll follow your orders to the letter."

"To the letter?" Edwards queried sharply.

"Absolutely," Sam replied. With a quick dip of his head, he stepped back away from the man, returning to the shadows.

Edwards watched him turn the corner to the back of the saloon. Then he then led his horse to rest of the group waiting in front of the jail. Just above the alley and unnoticed by the two men, Katy sat on the windowsill of her open window, her eyes blazing in anger.

As Edwards joined the posse and mounted his horse, Sheriff Alexander came out of the jail.

"Now, these warrants authorize you to bring them in dead or alive. You and the others can consider yourselves to be deputized," Alexander said, handing a packet of documents to Edwards. Turning to the frowning Texas Ranger, he continued. "We don't take kindly to someone killing a Judge in our town, and we know how to deal with them." Turning back to Edwards, he smiled. "How's it feel to be back in the traces?"

"I want you to put out a telegraph that I am guaranteeing a reward of five thousand dollars for the apprehension of Vin Tanner," Edwards said, putting the papers in the pocket of his jacket.

"What about his friend?" the Pecos lawman asked in confusion.

"Ain't interested," Edwards replied. "That saloon tramp already told you she lied. Unless you got any other charges on him except the jailbreak?"

"He could've been in on killing the Judge," Alexander said. "Him escaping with Tanner makes him look just as guilty."

"Not the shape he was in when we carried him to the jail," Ashley spoke up. When Alexander threw an angry glare in his direction, he just glared back.

"Let's go," Edwards called, reining his horse's head around the Sheriff, forcing him to break eye contact with the young Ranger. Ashley adjusted his hat and followed, along with eight other suddenly determined men. The prospect of catching Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington had suddenly taken on five thousand new reasons.

By now, Sandy had joined Katy at the window and together they watched the horses gallop down the street toward the south road out of town.

There was a knock at their door and one of the other women from the saloon came in slowly. "Sam says there's a couple of gentlemen downstairs, just in from Chicago," she said. "He wants to know if you're busy."

"Young or old?" Sandy asked with a sigh. She didn't notice Katy bristling before she turned to face the woman in the doorway.

The other girl shrugged. "They're rich."

"Well, that makes all the difference, don't it?" Katy said sarcastically before moving from the window. She knew enough to keep her mouth shut for now, knowing that John Slaughter would be in sooner or later.

* * * * * * *

Chris and Josiah had been up before dawn, riding hard. Josiah didn't have to ask about the nightmares, one look at the man in black and he could tell Chris was being chased by a demon he couldn't see.

By mid-morning, the horses were in need of a rest. Chris reined up as they approached a small cabin set next to a good-sized pool of water in the middle of the desert. He and Josiah rode slowly up to the house. The two old men sitting on the porch were as worn and weather-beaten as their surroundings.

"Howdy," Chris called out.

"Good day to you," Josiah added, as the two stood to greet them.

"Depends on how the day goes," said the shorter of the two.

"Last time I was by this way, there wasn't anybody living here," Chris commented as he looked over the cabin and small corral. "You all consider this private land now?"

"Sure do," declared the taller man. "We got the only water for miles around. We dug down a ways and got us double the flow of when we first got here."

"And it gives us the right to charge for our water, mister," added the shorter man defensively.

"We're not disputing that," Chris said with a nod. "We just need to know how much you charge for your water."

"Twenty-cents a head," the taller man replied.

"Make it two-bits each, including us filling all of our canteens before we go," Josiah offered.

"Deal," said the shorter man, motioning them toward the water. Chris and Josiah dismounted and Josiah reached out for the two sets of reins Chris held. He led the horses to the pool as Chris dug a dollar out of his pocket.

"Where y'all from?" the taller man asked.

"Four Corners," Chris replied, handing over the coin. "We're hoping to make Pecos by nightfall."

"Well, you should," the shorter man said with a nod. "Just be… Wait a minute, did you say Four Corners? You come to help hunt them two outlaws from Four Corners we been hearing about?

"What are you talking about – what outlaws?" Chris asked, his eyes narrowing.

"Well, the freight wagon man stopped by here at first light," the taller of the two answered. "He says there's a big manhunt going on down toward Rio Grande way for couple of escaped killers."

"They be hunting a couple of fellows name Ben and Vick," the shorter man offered. "We hear tell they killed the Judge in Pecos."

"Nah," the taller man said, swiping his hat at his partner impatiently. "He said Vin and Buck. I swear – you ain't got the memory of a last year's bird nest."

"Josiah!" Chris called, striding toward where Josiah was in the process of exchanging the saddles on the horses. "We got to go!" He turned back to the two men. "Look, you said twenty cents a head. That's a day, right?" He watched impatiently as the two old men exchanged a look and nodded. "Okay, we need to leave two of the horses here. We'll back in a couple of days, and I'll pay you a bonus if you take good care of them."

"Sure, Mister," the shorter man said, jerking his head toward the corral. "They'll be right here when you get back."

"You kin to them two?" the taller man called after him.

But the man in black didn't so much as acknowledge the question as he practically ran to Josiah's side. After a quick few words, the two finished with the saddles and mounted the fresh horses. They only stopped long enough to hand the reins of the other two horses to the old partners, then turned and spurred their steeds back onto the road.

* * * * * * *

The afternoon sun was beating down on the desert floor as the dozen horses picked their way along the almost invisible trail. The two trackers were in the lead, intently studying the ground as they went. Edwards brought up the rear, cautiously keeping an eye on the trail ahead, wary of an ambush. The posse had picked up the two trackers Sam had promised Edwards. One introduced himself as Jake, and his friend Marty was a big brute of a man. Ashley thought Jake looked suspiciously like the description of Joseph Tyler, but Edwards was in charge and the young Ranger had no way to prove his suspicions.

Just above the posse, hidden in an outcropping of rocks, the objects of their hunt were watching them. Vin peered around a boulder and watched their progress. "They're still coming," he whispered, turning to Buck. "Hell, must be more than a dozen of them. They just ain't giving up."

The usually gregarious ladies man didn't offer a reply and turned his head away, refusing to meet the tracker's eyes. His face was still an interesting shade of gray and he held his arms protectively around his rib cage.

Vin glanced back down on the posse for a second before turning his attention back to his friend. "Come on, Buck, let it go," he said sternly. "Forget about it!"

Buck finally looked at him. "I can't just forget about it."

"She accused you of abusing her," Vin said softly, knowing how it hurt his friend to be blamed for doing something like that.

"Maybe something did happen," Buck said reluctantly, "and I just don't remember."

"Something happened, all right," Vin replied, taking his hat off and worrying on the brim. "You told me you only one had the one drink. She put something in it, you passed out and little miss innocent went into her act."

"I don't walk to talk about it," Buck said, his face coloring and his voice rising as he pushed himself away from the rock he was leaning against and moved closer to Vin.

"Okay, we won't talk about it," Vin said, holding a hand up. "But just so you know, I could smell it on your breath when we got out of that jail. It's something the Indians use – and you're lucky you're not dead!"

If it were possible, Buck turned a little paler as he leaned back against the boulder.

"Right now, we got another problem," Vin said, watching the posse again. "I don't know where Edwards got those two, but they sure know how to pick up sign." He looked over at Buck. "You ready? We got to get up a little higher in these mountains, put some more distance between us and them."

Buck took a deep breath and nodded. Vin handed him the reins to his ‘borrowed' horse, and they both climbed back on. With one last look behind, Vin led the way as he picked the trail to higher ground.

* * * * * * *

Chris and Josiah rode their lathered horses right to the door of the livery. Leaving Josiah to deal with the proprietor, Chris strode purposefully toward the Sheriff's Office.

As Chris entered the building, the tall man wearing the badge and sitting behind the desk was talking to a small, thin man who had handed the Sheriff a telegraph slip. "I won't need to answer this right away, but thanks for bringing it over."

The smaller man made his way past the black cloud and left.

"You the Sheriff?" Chris asked brusquely.

Alexander nodded, eyeing the stranger warily. "What can I do for you?"

"Name's Chris Larabee," he replied. "I'd like to ask you a few questions, if you got a minute."

"Yeah," Alexander nodded, slowly pushing his chair back to stand and lean against the desk. "I heard of you. You're supposed to be in cahoots with those two on the run."

"I'm not in cahoots with anyone," Chris ground out. "Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington are friends of mine; we all work at keeping the peace over in Four Corners."

"Imagine that," Alexander said with a twisted smile, standing up to his full height. "The great Chris Larabee making out to be one the side of law and order for a change."

"We're not here to cause any trouble," Josiah said, coming in behind Chris. He could see his friend trying hard to swallow the impulse to wipe the smirk right off Alexander's face. "We just want to know what happened and if you know how our friends are."

"I got the latest on them just now," Alexander said, waving the telegram before handing it over to the newcomer.

While Josiah read the telegram, Alexander kept his eyes on Chris. "Those friends of yours sure know how to backtrack a trail. They're leading the posse on quite a chase."

"Says here they're still traveling together," Chris read aloud when Josiah handed him the telegram. "Heading toward the Rio Grande west of Ojinaga."

"The liveryman said Buck was hurt before he left town," Josiah said, seeing Chris's head snap up and pinning the Sheriff with a steely glare. "Any word on how he's doing? Is Vin okay?"

"Well, they're both healthy enough for hard riding," Alexander replied hotly.

"How many in that posse?" Chris demanded.

"Dozen or so, duly deputized," the Sheriff answered. "But I'm surprised the locals ain't back in town already. They're going to have a hard enough time keeping up with Edwards and those two he picked up for tracking, but I suppose five thousand dollars gives a man a lot of incentive." He tried to ignore the deadly glare Larabee was directing at him.

While Chris was talking to the lawman, Josiah let his attention wander around the room. His eyes suddenly narrowed and he nudged Chris, moving his head to point behind Alexander.

Chris took three strides to cross the room to the board behind the Sheriff's desk. He pulled down the recently printed wanted poster offering a $5,000 reward for Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington, wanted for murder and escape, dead or alive, along with a crude sketch of both men. Chris closed his fist around the paper, barely controlling his urge to hit something.

"Who took Judge Roberts place?" Josiah asked, his hand on the arm of the other man, both in restraint and support.

"The Tascosa prosecutor, George Underwood, he's been acting in the Judge's place ‘til the governor appoints someone else," Alexander replied. "He should be in the Judge's Office over in the courthouse."

Neither man said a word as they turned on their heels, going out the door and slamming it behind them. Chris took the wanted poster with him.

They crossed the street to the courthouse and found Underwood right where Alexander said he would be, along with John Slaughter. Chris couldn't help but narrow his eyes in suspicion at the enigmatic smile the Texas Ranger sent his way, but the man in black kept his questions to himself for the moment. While Josiah took a chair across from the Judge's desk, Chris was pacing out his frustration.

They listened intently as Underwood and the Texas Ranger explained the events of the last several days. Chris stopped pacing and glared at them both when they got the part about Underwood wanting Vin in jail for his own good, and Buck's injuries and eventual incarceration.

When Josiah began presenting his argument that Vin would not kill the Judge, Underwood held his hand up. "We agree with you completely there," Underwood said, exchanging a nod with Slaughter. "All my instincts tell me that Tanner got to the house after the Judge was dead."

"I talked to the neighbor next door," Slaughter added. "He didn't hear a thing, but he was in his root cellar most of the evening. The fact that the housekeeper and the boy didn't hear anything tells me the Judge was probably shot long before Vin was there."

"But as lawmen yourselves," Underwood offered, "even you have to admit that Tanner fleeing the scene makes him a legitimate suspect for the murder."

"The only thing I'll admit is that Vin probably figured him and Buck neither one could get a square deal in this town," Chris growled.

"Now hold on," Underwood protested. "Judge Roberts and I were both working on the case, and neither of us were swallowing any half-truths from Edwards. Now the problem is Tanner took the law in his own hands by breaking out of jail – and that took the law out of our hands. I don't care how innocent or how wronged a man is, he's somehow got to have faith that the law is going to give him his day in court. I am sorry, but when he broke jail and took Wilmington with him before we had time to clear up the matter with the girl, I lost interest in extending them any more preferential treatment."

Chris looked down at Underwood and snorted. "This Edwards you're talking about? He's the Marshal from Tascosa, the one Vin shot to keep from getting hung. And he's leading the posse?"

"The fact is Edwards wants to hurt Vin in the worst way," Josiah said quietly. "And anything that's happened to Vin or Buck in this town is Edwards doing."

"It wasn't Edwards that arranged for Tanner to break out of jail," Underwood replied hotly. "He didn't arrange for Tanner to steal horses and flee the territory, taking an injured man with him."

"Who is it that put out these wanted posters?" Chris countered, holding out the wrinkled paper for Underwood to see.

"I did," Underwood answered with a nod. "It's routine. I ordered them circulated."

Chris rolled his eyes in exasperation. "And you claim you're on their side?! Putting out a wanted poster like this means they're fair game for anybody to take a shot at them."

"How far away did this get sent?" Josiah asked.

"Telegraph went out last night, posters went out on the train first thing this morning," Slaughter replied.

"Lord help us all," Josiah whispered.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Underwood asked.

Josiah traded a look with Chris before answering. "If the telegram got to Four Corners last night, they're probably already on their way catch the train. Nothing in this world is going to keep them from coming here now."

"Who?" Underwood asked. "Who are you talking about?'

"The rest of our friends," Chris replied with a smile. "And they're not going to be happy."

"Now look," Underwood said, bristling under the man in black's intense stare. "I understand you being upset about all this, but Tanner had Judge Roberts on his side – he had me on his side. Just studying the papers from before left me wondering why the original charges weren't dropped years ago, especially after the incident that led to the death of Eli Joe."

"I would imagine Edwards wouldn't let it go," Josiah offered. "And with his injury as a constant reminder, he wasn't going to rest until he sees Vin hang."

"What about that girl?" Chris asked. "Did she ever say who put her up to making up that story against Buck, or why she did it?"

"Nah," Slaughter replied. "But with everything else going on, I really didn't have a chance to talk to her last night."

"No time like the present," Chris said, going to the door and waiting for Josiah to stand. With a nod to the other man, the Texas Ranger left the room with the gunmen.

Slaughter led the way to the saloon. As early afternoon as it was, the room was crowded with cowhands and travelers. Chris led the way to a back table, followed by Slaughter. Josiah went to the bar and ordered three beers and carried them back to the table. They sipped their beers and waited.

It didn't take long for Katy to notice the Texas Ranger sitting with the two strangers. Waving one of the other girls over to the cowboy she was talking to, the pretty saloon girl made her way through the crowd to their table. Standing in front of Slaughter, she bit her bottom lip at the sight of the black clad man sitting in front of her. She waited for Slaughter to wave her into the chair between himself and Chris Larabee.

"Katy, these are friends of Buck and Vin," Slaughter introduced them. "This is Josiah Sanchez and Chris Larabee. They need to talk to Sandy about last night."

Katy sighed and nodded. She knew the name Chris Larabee, not only from what Buck had said about him, but also by his reputation. "Before you do, please understand how sorry she is for what happened to Buck. She was just scared out of her mind and didn't know what else to do."

"Why don't we start with what you know," Josiah said gently.

Katy proceeded to explain what had happened, from the time she met Buck and Vin to the conversation she'd overheard that morning between the bartender and Edwards.

"Any reason you didn't tell the Sheriff about what you heard this morning?" Sanchez asked.

"Because the Sheriff wouldn't believe much of anything I said against Sam," she replied, meeting his gaze directly. "They're really good friends, and I'm just a saloon whore."

Chris pushed his chair back, his lips stretched tight across his lips in an effort to control his anger. "We need to talk to your friend," he said lowly. When Katy looked to Slaughter for reassurance, Chris's expression softened. "I promise I'm not going to hurt her. I just want to talk to her, hear it from her who made her do it."

"While you do, I think I'll have a talk with that bartender," Josiah said, his voice low and rumbling. At Chris's nod, he turned to Katy. "Where can I find him?" he asked.

Katy looked around then nodded upstairs. "Looks like he and Claire haven't come down yet," she replied. "Last door at the end of the stairs. I'll go get Sandy. She's still not feeling good." Katy and Josiah walked to the staircase together, separating at the top of the landing.

Josiah paused outside the door, taking a deep breath before he raised his leg and gave the door a forceful kick. The door slammed open, startling the two partially clothed figures lying on the divan. Claire let out a short scream as she jumped up and ran to the bedroom door, pulling her bodice up as she went.

Sam pulled himself up into a sitting position. "Who the hell are you?" he demanded angrily at the figure filling his doorway.

"Get up!" Josiah said tersely.

Sam stood slowly. "Who the hell are you?" he repeated.

"My name is Josiah Sanchez," he replied. "That might not mean anything to you, but I have a couple of friends you might have heard of – Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington."

"What do you want with me?" Sam asked, his eyes darting around the room.

"You and me are going down to the jail," Josiah said. "And you're going to tell the Sheriff all about your little deal with Edwards. "Now, you can come peaceable like or tied in a knot – that's up to you."

"Those are mighty big words," Sam said, backing away into the room, his hand reaching behind for the glass lamp on the table. "Especially if you're backing them up by that very big gun."

"I ain't planning to use nothing on you but my bare hands, mister," Josiah said, taking another step into the room, his barely contained rage showing in his eyes. "You hurt a friend of mine, for money!"

Sam suddenly twisted around and grabbed the lamp, hurling it at Josiah as he tried to duck around the big man and get out of the room. Josiah ducked away from the flying object, hearing it crash into the wall behind him. He grabbed hold of the charging man, holding him at arm's length. Sam swung a fist at Josiah's head, and the big ex-preacher sent him flying into the furniture with a powerful backhand. As the bartender lay dazed on the floor, Josiah picked him up by the waistband of his pants and tossed him out the window. He watched with satisfaction as the man rolled down the incline of the roof and landed on the ground with a dull thud.

He turned to Claire, who had screamed when her friend went crashing through the glass. "Better go ahead and get dressed, lady. Your friend won't be coming back."

By the time Josiah made his way back down the stairs and out the front door of the saloon, Sam was just starting to come around. He grabbed the bartender by the shirtfront and hauled him up to his feet, pushing him in the direction of the jail. The other man had no choice but to go along.

Alexander looked up in surprise when the door to the jail burst open and Josiah pushed the bedraggled Sam into the room.

"Lock him up!" Josiah said, as the lawman stood, "Then go get your new Judge. We need to have us a talk."

Alexander exchanged a frown with Sam, but took the keys from the peg and motioned him into the back. After the cell door closed, he came back out and hung the keys back up. "You better have a dammed good reason for all this," Alexander warned before going out the door.

The Sheriff had only been gone a minute or two before the door opened again and Chris came in, followed by Slaughter and the two ladies. The one Josiah assumed was Sandy was pale, her eyes darting nervously around the room. Katy noticed her friend's distress and put an arm around her shoulders.

"It'll be okay," Katy whispered. "Just tell the Judge the truth." Sandy took a deep breath and nodded with a small smile.

A little while later, the door opened again and the room was suddenly crowded with people as the Sheriff and the Judge entered, along with one of the Pecos Deputies.

"What's this all about?" Underwood demanded.

"It's time to get some things straightened out," Chris said, leaning on the edge of the Sheriff's desk. He nodded to Sandy, who swallowed hard before speaking.

"I'm sorry I lied about Buck hurting me last night," Sandy said softly. "But they said if I didn't, then they'd maybe kill him. Or they'd hurt me bad and Katy, too."

"Who did?" Underwood asked. "Tell me everything, and start from the beginning."

Sandy quietly repeated the events of the day before, occasionally looking to Katy for support.

"And you didn't go to anyone for help?" Underwood asked.

"I couldn't," Sandy cried. "They were waiting in the saloon all night, watching Katy. The one called Tyler, I think he was the boss. Tyler said he had an old grudge to pay off, and nobody was going to get in his way. And when I tried to talk to Sam, he just told me to do what I was told. He said Tyler was a friend of his, and he'd hurt me if I said anything as a lesson to the other girls. He'd hurt me bad." Her voice finally wavered and broke into a sob. "I'm so sorry," she said, tearfully meeting Chris Larabee's silent stare.

Underwood turned to Alexander. "And you weren't working with Sam?"

"I swear," the Sheriff replied, shaking his head violently. "I didn't know anybody was threatening this girl to frame Wilmington, not ‘til after him and Tanner had already escaped and killed the Judge."

Chris bristled at the accusation, but he kept quiet and allowed Underwood to continue.

"Totally ignorant about what was going on?" Underwood asked.

"What about Sam's little deal with Edwards?" Slaughter asked, tipping his head toward Katy.

"If he did something for Edwards, it was all on his own! You should have heard him last night at the saloon," Alexander answered, backing toward the wall under the scrutiny coming from all sides. "He thought is wasn't fair, didn't want to see a killer like Vin Tanner go free."

"That's not true," Kay snapped. "I heard Sam talking to Edwards this morning, about how Edwards was paying him to get Buck out of the way so he couldn't testify on Vin's behalf."

Chris had finally reached the end of his rope. He stepped up to Alexander and belted him with a quick right before Josiah could pull him back. "That man was helping Edwards every step of the way," Chris said angrily, pointing to the back room.

Slaughter nodded in agreement. "And Tyler was here, right under your nose the whole time."

Underwood stood toe to toe with Alexander, who had stumbled back against the wall. "You're relieved of all law enforcement functions," he said, his voice laced with contempt. "Official reason – stupidity!" He reached out and ripped the badge off Alexander's shirt. "And if you'd like to challenge my findings, I'll order a full hearing about all your past activities. Now get out of here!" He turned to the Texas Ranger as the other man walked stiffly out of the room. "Ranger Slaughter, I was wondering if you would be so kind as to accept a temporary appointment as Sheriff until a permanent replacement can be found."

Slaughter frowned, but took the badge being held out to him. "As long as it's only temporary," he replied.

"All right then, back to the business at hand," Underwood said with a heavy sigh. "It's already been proven that the accusation against Wilmington was merely an attempt to make him appear an unreliable witness. It appears that Joseph Tyler was the one who actually killed Judge Roberts, and it's probably only coincidence that Tanner was at the house a few minutes later. The problem is, any man who flees this town as fast as his horse can carry him has got a lot of explaining to do."

"It's a little too late to do anything about that, Judge," Josiah offered wryly.

"What about that posse of Edwards out there chasing our friends?" Chris demanded.

"As soon as we hear from Edwards, we'll order him to cease and desist the pursuit," Underwood replied. 

"You'll tell him in Mexico?" Chris asked shortly. "Good place to bury the bodies and no questions asked."

Sandy leaned heavily on Katy and buried her head in her friend's shoulder.

Chris nodded at Josiah and they headed for the door.

"You headed out after them?" Slaughter asked. Chris nodded curtly.

"Considering how late it's getting, might be best to wait for morning," Slaughter suggested. "Why don't you head over to the hotel, use their room." When Chris opened his mouth to protest, the Ranger shrugged. "Come daylight, the trail's going to be a whole lot easier to follow."

"He's right, Chris," Josiah said softly. "The horses are just plumb wore out, and we are, too. If we go out there in the dark and lose their trail, we'd lose a lot of time."

"All right," Chris growled reluctantly, opening the door. He held it as the two ladies went first, followed by Underwood.

"I'll be right with you," Josiah said with a mysterious smile, stepping back toward the door to the cells. Slaughter met his eyes with tacit permission before following Larabee out.

Sam was laying down, one arm across his eyes. At the sound of the door opening, he looked up and sat part way up. One eye was already black and blue and a trickle of blood had dried along his hairline.

Josiah stopped in front of the prisoner and leaned against the bars. "I have some words of advice for you, Mister," he said calmly. "They might come to have some meaning for you one of these days. That girl out there, she's more afraid of you than the devil himself."

"I wonder why?" Sam countered.

"You know she's going to be testifying against you," Josiah said, "then you're going to be going away for a long time. She's hoping to never see you again."

"I'll try to remember to thank her for everything she's done," Sam remarked with an irritating smirk.

"Well, I hope you remember this too, Sam," Josiah said, leaning in close. "When you get out, don't come back here and don't ever try to see her again."

"Now why would I do that?" Sam asked.

"I'm going to be keeping an eye on Sandy," Josiah replied. "Anything ever happens to her, I'm going to come looking for you."

"Do you always take this long to make a point?" Sam asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Only when the man I'm talking to has his life depending on it," Sanchez answered. "Now the point being this, anything ever happens to Sandy – anywhere, anytime – I'm going to come after you. I'll make you a promise – I'm going to turn your sorry hide over to the Apaches, then I'm going to pay them for every day they keep you alive over a slow fire. And I have never in my life broken a promise, Sam. You just remember that." Josiah stood back and nodded to the other man, keeping his expression neutral as he watched the blood drain from Sam's face and noticed the other man had difficulty swallowing as his posture slumped. Then he turned on his heel and went back out the door.

Josiah made his way over to the hotel just as the sun was setting. Chris was waiting for him in the dining room. After a quick dinner eaten mostly in silence, they made their way toward the room that had been occupied by their friends. As they reached the staircase, Sandy stepped into the foyer.

"Mister Larabee, when you see Buck again…" she stopped and swallowed at the cold stare Chris sent her way. "You think low of me, well I feel low. It wasn't just that Tyler said he'd do terrible things to me if I didn't do what I was told, but he'd see to it that maybe Buck got hurt worse too. There was just no which way to turn. What I'd like you to tell him is – is that I'd like his forgiveness."

"We'll tell him," Josiah promised with a gentle nod.

"Maybe you could tell Vin that I enjoyed knowing him," she said, a small smile returning to her face.

"I'll tell him," Chris spoke up. "If it's not too late."

Sandy nodded slowly and backed out the door.

When they got to the room, there were reminders of Vin and Buck everywhere: Vin's Mare's leg was leaning against the wall beside the bed he'd slept in, his worn harmonica lying on the bedside table. Buck's tan jacket had been tossed across his bed, one of his colorful bandannas left by the washstand.

As Josiah took Buck's jacket off the bed and hung it up, he met Chris's gaze. Josiah knew it wasn't often that Larabee felt despair, but it was there in the hazel eyes. "We'll find them, Chris," he vowed.

Chris just nodded in reply before turning his back to the big man, undoing the buttons on his shirt and climbing onto the bed, not bothering to get under the covers. The physical and emotional tension of the day drained away, and knowing they would be getting up before first light, both men quickly fell asleep.

* * * * * * *

As the sun was setting in the mountains, the weary posse was still on the move. The two trackers had dismounted and were studying the ground intently.

"I thought you two knew your business," Edwards remarked, taking a swallow from his canteen. Several others in the posse followed his example.

‘Jake' looked up at the ex-Marshal then exchanged a silent shrug with his large partner.

"Well, what is it?" Edwards demanded impatiently, glancing at the trail ahead that led higher into the rugged mountains. "They couldn't have got this far ahead of us!"

Tyler stood from his squatting position, eyeing the posse before tossing the pebble he had picked up aside. "Deputy, these fellows are about as expert at back tracking and covering their sign as any we've run across," he replied trying to keep the irritation out of his voice.

"You mean to tell me we've lost the trail – again?" Edwards asked, shifting in his saddle.

"Nah," answered Marty. "They passed his way not more than a couple of hours ago. "Those horses they're on, they're tired. But they still managed to ride them on up them slopes."

Edwards followed his line of sight to the rocky incline ahead of them. "We won't make it up there before dark," he said with a sigh.

"Well, the only other choice is skirting the mountain," Tyler offered. "But that'll be a thirty mile ride ahead of us."

"Yeah, and from up there, they'd spot us coming and take off in the opposite direction," one of the tired Pecos cowhands complained.

"Or start picking us off one by one," groused another. Both earned a cold glare from Edwards.

"Well, I suggest that we set up camp right here," Ashley said.

"We do and they'll beat us for sure," Edwards said testily.

"No, I don't think they will," the young Ranger said, stretching to work some of the kinks out of his tired muscles. The rest of the posse eyed him, waiting for an explanation. He gave them a tight smile in return.

High above, hidden in a small stand of trees, Vin had pulled up to rest their tired horses. Using his hat as a bowl, he was watering the horses from his canteen while Buck kept a look out on their back trail. Buck was on his stomach, leaning out over the outcropping of rocks sheltering them from the sight of the posse.

"I'd give just about anything for one of Inez's home-cooked meals," he sighed, pulling back and sitting up to face Vin. "A roof over my head and more than an hour's sleep."

"Ain't likely ‘til we lose that bunch," Vin said with a shake of his head.

"Yeah, I know," Buck replied morosely, turning back to the posse below.

"You feeling any better?" Vin asked the mustached man, turning his attention from one horse to the other.

Buck nodded, then his eyes narrowed in concern. "Vin!" he hissed.

Vin set his hat down on the ground and went to Buck's side, peering out over the edge toward the trail below. "Something's sure going on," he whispered, peering intently at the posse as they all dismounted and began leading their horses toward a sheltered area, tying the reins to low branches of the trees.

"Are they quitting for the night?" Buck asked hopefully.

"Sure looks like it," Vin replied. "But the way they been dogging us, it don't make sense they'd waste any daylight. There's got to be at least an hour or two of light left."

"Maybe they're wearing down," Buck suggested.

"Could be," Vin replied with a thoughtful nod.

They continued to watch in silence as the posse unsaddled their horses and set about making camp. By the time it was fully dark, there were a good-sized fire going and the posse had begun cooking dinner and settling in for the night.

"Let's go," Vin finally whispered as he backed away from the edge and stood. He handed Buck the reins to his horse and the two tightened their saddles before they mounted up. "They'll have to wait ‘til morning to risk coming up that slope."

"How far ahead is that town you were talking about?" Buck asked as he settled himself back in the saddle.

"Just the other side of this mountain," Vin replied, nodding his head in the pale moonlight toward the only thing visible above them on the horizon.

"Think we can make it in the dark?" Buck called out lowly as he urged his horse forward to follow the long-haired tracker.

"Considering we're risking one of the horses breaking a leg, so you might do some praying along the way," Vin answered over his shoulder.

Buck took one last look at the campfire burning below before he raised his eyes to the mountain ahead of them, then allowed his sight to drift to the stars above. The two lonely figures were soon swallowed in the dark.

Far below them, the quiet night air was once again broken by the sounds of men and horses on the move. While most of the posse remained behind at the campfire, four determined men rode on.

"Where'd you pick up this trick?" Edwards directed at Ashley as they followed Tyler and Marty.

"John and me pulled it on a rustler once," he replied. "He figured we had to be as tired as he was."

"What happened?" the ex-lawman asked.

"We gave him a decent burial," was the terse reply.


It was close to midnight when Buck and Vin finally rode into the small village of Valentine. The livery door was open and light flickered from a lamp hanging from a hook outside. Just beyond the livery they could see light coming from the windows and hear the familiar sounds of a cantina.

"I think I could sleep for a week," Buck said, stifling a yawn as they pulled their horses up and stiffly dismounted.

"Well, you're going to have to settle for about six hours," Vin said. "I want to be on the move come first light."

Buck nodded in reply as he finished his yawn. Vin reached up and removed the rifle from the scabbard of the ‘borrowed' horse, watching Buck follow suit.

Just then, a black man came from the barn, followed by a teenage version of himself, obviously father and son. "Howdy gents," he called out, offering his hand to Vin. "Name's Isaac – this here's my son, Peter."

"How much to take care of the horses for the night?" Vin asked.

"Dollar a horse," he replied.

"For one night?!" Buck exclaimed.

Isaac nodded. "For folks being followed, dollar's a fair price."

"Who says we're being followed?" Vin asked with a small frown.

Isaac cocked his head, looking them both up and down before he replied with a knowing smile. "Couple of dusty, worn out cowboys, cutting a trail for the border, come riding in the middle of the night – most don't quarrel about the price."

Vin turned to Buck with a small grin of his own and a shake of his head. "Pay the man," he said, only to have the other man roll his eyes in exasperation as he reached into his pocket and handed over two coins to the older man.

Isaac nodded to the boy, who offered a shy smile as he took both sets of reins and led the horses inside.

"Any chance we could get some food over in that cantina?" Vin asked.

"And maybe a couple of beds for the night?" Buck added.

Isaac nodded. "Rosita's one of the best cooks around," he replied. "Y'all head on over and get something to eat, I'll talk to you later about a place to sleep."

"Later?" Buck asked.

"Folks being followed, there's safe places to sleep, and places not so safe," he answered. "I'll meet you at the cantina in a little bit."

Vin nodded to the man, then slinging his rifle over his shoulder, he gave Buck a gentle shove in the direction of the cantina. He could hear Buck shuffling his feet tiredly as he followed behind. They went inside, where there were only a few customers along with the short bartender and an ample-sized woman bringing drinks to one of the tables. Another man sat at a table close to the bar, quietly playing his guitar.

The woman came to their table and Vin ordered them both supper and a beer. She brought the beers right away and the food a few minutes later.

Buck was staring off into space as she set a bowl of stew and a plate of tortillas in front of him, startling him. "Oh – gracias, senora," he said, looking up at her with a tired smile.

Vin had already picked up his spoon and was digging into the spicy smelling dish. He looked up to see Buck leaning heavily on his elbow, his eyes closed. He bumped the other man's arm, Buck's chin head dipping to his chest before he sat up straight. "Come on, eat – don't be sleeping yet," the tracker said.

Buck slowly picked up his fork in one hand and a warm tortilla in the other, pushing a chunk of meat around his plate before dropping the fork. "I'm too tired to eat," he said.

"You eat anyway," Vin said insistently, pointing his own spoon at the tired man. "We're going to be riding hard all day tomorrow, and we ain't stopping except to rest the horses."

Buck sighed, but stabbed the elusive piece of meat and put it in his mouth, followed by tearing a piece of the tortilla off with his teeth.

Vin paused in his own meal to look over at his friend with a sigh of his own. "I think we're going have to split up and go our separate ways."

Buck's head snapped up and he pinned Vin with a look that was part confusion and part hurt, trying to chew the mouthful of food quickly so he could speak.

Before he could, Vin continued. "It'd be the smartest thing to do. It's me Edwards is after, not you. You already got hurt once on my account. Believe me, it'd be a load off my mind if I know you're safe and on your way home."

Buck managed to swallow the food and took a quick swig of his beer to clear this throat. "Leave you to ride alone?" he asked, shaking his head violently. "If that posse keeps coming, I'm riding with you."

Now it was Vin's turn to dip his head and stare into his plate, pushing his food around. "I can travel faster by myself, and…" he started.

"Dammit Vin, you're just saying that!" Buck said, clenching his jaw tight in anger and throwing his fork down on the table. "If it was Chris, would you ask him to leave you to face that posse alone?"

Vin looked up guiltily at the man across from him. "That's not what I meant. Hell, it's my fault you're even in the middle of this mess to begin with. Look, you're still hurting and not feeling all that good after that stuff they gave you, right?" At Buck's tightlipped silent reply, he went on. "We need help here, Bucklin. I need you to head back to Fort Davis, get to the telegraph there and get word back home where we are. Chris and Josiah got to be close by now and when they send word back, Ezra can tell him where we are."

"But where will you be going?" Buck asked thoughtfully, choosing to not argue anymore for the moment.

"I'll make a wide swing into Lajitas, leave plenty of sign so they follow me," Vin replied, picking up his spoon and finishing his plate. "I'll lose them again before I go across the border into Ojinaga. I got some friends just south of there. They'll let me hide out there ‘til all this blows over."

Buck nodded and toyed with his food before following Vin's example and finishing the entire bowl. By the time they finished their second beer, Isaac walked up beside their table.

"How'd y'all like the food?" he asked.

"Good," Vin replied, "Real good."

"Hey, you mentioned something about a safe place to sleep" Buck queried.

"You two rustlers? Bank robbers?" Isaac asked.

"No – nothing like that," Vin replied.

"Then what're y'all being chased for?" the older man asked.

"He had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," Buck spoke, nodding at Vin.

"And him – he was trying to be a knight in shining armor… again. Man never learns." Vin met Buck's eyes with a warm grin that the dark-haired man returned.

Isaac seemed to be watching them before thinking about something for a moment. Finally he stepped back and waved his arm toward the door. "Tell y'all what, because I like y'all, the safe place to sleep will be real cheap."

"I'm afraid to ask how cheap," Buck muttered under his breath. Vin nodded and smiled in reply as they followed the man out into the night.

They had walked a fair distance in the dark from the cantina when they came to a somewhat dilapidated building set almost into the hillside and surrounded by several large trees. It had a sloping red tiled roof with stone columns holding up the roof of the overhang covering the long porch in front. There was a barrel for catching rainwater to the left of the door and a wooden bench to the right. 

"Barred windows?" Buck asked in surprise. "Looks more like a jail than a house."

"The windows are barred so that people can't get in," Isaac replied, opening the door and going in. "Don't y'all trust me?"

"I guess we'll have to," Vin answered reluctantly, following him inside. He could hear Buck shuffling wearily in behind him.

Isaac walked over to a small table just inside the door, reaching out to the lift the glass chimney on the lamp sitting there. He pulled a match out of his pocket and struck it on the table, lighting the wick.

Once his eyes adjusted to the sudden glare of light, Vin walked past him to take in the entire room. Buck made his way past the older man to the closest bed set against the wall behind the door, leaning his rifle against the wall. He turned back to Isaac to ask, "How much?"

"How long y'all going to be in town?" Isaac countered.

"Just the one night," Vin replied.

"Seeing as how this is the safest place in town to stay, I don't think five dollars is asking too much," he stated.

Buck huffed but once again reached into his pockets and brought out another coin, handing them to Isaac. "Good thing we're not settling in for the summer," he grumbled.

Isaac nodded his thanks and backed out the door. Vin walked with him and put the latch in place. No sooner had the door closed, Buck was sitting on the bunk and taking his boots off.

Vin wandered over to the other bunk and stood at the window, gazing out at the stars and running his fingers through his hair. Finally he slipped off his shirt and worked his suspenders off his shoulders as he turned to face the other man. "First thing in the morning we'll head up into the arroyos – " He stopped in mid-sentence as he looked down at Buck, eyes closed and snoring lightly, sprawled across the bunk fully clothed with the rifle held across his chest. "Yeah," he said, sitting on his own bunk. "You're right about the first thing tonight." He eased himself down onto the bunk, laying his head down with a bone-tired groan. It wasn't but a matter of minutes before he was snoring in tandem with his friend.

* * * * * * *

Chris and Josiah had risen before daylight and were already on the trail before the first rays of sunlight touched the ground before them. They had the advantage of the posse having done all the hard work of finding Vin and Buck's trail. All they had to do now was follow the dozen sets of hoof prints pounded into the desert floor.

* * * * * * *

The first rays of dawn had just begun to creep over the mountains when four tired horses plodded into Valentine. Nothing was stirring that early in the morning. The cantina was closed tight; even the livery doors had been shut.

The four riders slowly made their way to the front of the livery before dismounting. Tyler and Marty tied their reins loosely to the hitching post before going inside the stables.

Peter came out of the side door sleepily, pulling a shirt on over his torso. "Can I help you fellows?"

"We're on the hunt for two murderers from Pecos," Edwards said brusquely. "Any strangers ride up here during the night?"

Peter seemed to think about it before replying. "No sir – leastways not that I know of."

Ashley moved past the boy to the door to the livery, the boy watching him nervously.

"You sure?" Edwards asked, taking hold of the front of Peter's shirt, pulling the boy up on his toes and shaking him roughly. "I want some answers now, boy. Start talking."

"Leave him alone," came Ashley's voice from inside. "Their horses are back here."

Just then, Isaac came out of the same door Peter had, shotgun in hand. "Let him be," he growled menacingly. As soon as Edwards released the boy, he moved to stand behind his father. "You like pushing kids around?" he asked, raising the shotgun to point at Edwards' chest. The two trackers tensed at the confrontation, looking to Edwards to make the first move.

Ashley came out of the livery, hat in hand and both hands in plain sight. "You know what, Edwards? You'd get a lot further if you had some decent manners." He then turned to Isaac and his son. "I'm sure sorry, Mister. But we're hunting a couple of fugitives from up Pecos way. Their trail leads this way and the two horses they stole are in your stalls."

"No fooling?" Isaac asked. "You mean them two flea-bit nags that wandered in here last night without riders was stole? You're welcome to take them with you when y'all leave."

Ashley bit his bottom lip trying not to smile.

"Them two y'all are hunting, are they really outlaws?" Peter asked quietly from his father's side.

"Yes," the young Ranger nodded. "And there's a reward out for them. We'll see you get a share if you tell us where they're at now."

Peter turned to his father, then back to the posse with a shrug. "Ain't seen no strangers," he finally said.

Tyler took a step forward to get Edwards' attention. "I've passed this way before, and there ain't no hotel hereabouts. But there is a small house a couple of hundred yards in back of the cantina, used to be reserved for travelers."

"Is that where they're at?" Edwards demanded angrily.

Isaac just returned the ex-lawman's icy stare. "Don't know what he's talking about."

"Come on," Edwards called to the others, already striding in the direction Tyler indicated.

The sun was just shining in through the barred windows of the small house, bathing Vin's face in warmth. His peaceful sleep was suddenly disturbed by a noise. He woke with a start, blinking a couple of times while he tried to orient himself to his surroundings. He sat up quickly, his attention drawn to the window where he could hear the sounds of scurrying feet.

He slowly raised himself up to the level of the window, looking out carefully. He could see four of the posse running across the open ground in front of the house, stopping to hide behind the outbuilding to the left of the front door.

He ducked under the window and came to stand next to it just in time to see Edwards pointing out the positions he wanted the two trackers to take on opposite sides of the house. While Edwards took a step forward and concealed himself behind a tree, he noticed Ashley was hanging back behind the building.

"Buck," he whispered, bending down to pick up the rifle leaning at the end of the bed. "Buck!" he hissed a little louder.

The mustached man's eyes slowly opened and focused on his friend.

"They're here," Vin whispered.

Buck's eyes widened and he quickly rolled off the bunk, staying low and making his way to the window on his side of the house. He peeked out just in time to see Tyler crouching down to shelter behind a pile of rocks on the hillside.

"Vin Tanner!" Edwards shouted, seeing his men in place on both sides of the house. "You and Wilmington got ten seconds to open that door!"

Buck looked at Vin in dismay. "How did they ride from the side of that mountain to here since sun up?"

Vin shook his head with a frown. "They couldn't. They would have had to ride all night, and that's just what they did. Dammit, they outfoxed us with that campfire!"

"Tanner!" came Edwards voice. "We know you're in there!"

Vin peeked out again before he grimaced and closed his eyes. "There's not but four of them now – the others must have stayed behind to make us think they were all down for the night."

"You got five seconds!" the man from Tascosa yelled as he cocked his pistol and shifted his grip.

"Vin?" Buck asked, hoping his friend would have a plan.

"If we give up, it's going be a hanging party," Vin replied shortly, his mind working furiously to come up with an idea.

Before he could say anything else, a single shot from Edwards' direction rang out. Vin and Buck both hit the floor, while a plate on the small shelf that had been behind Buck's head fell off the wall and landed on the floor and shattered behind him. Vin and Buck exchanged a quick look. Vin shook his head and stayed where he was, Buck following suit.

"They've had enough time," Edwards grumbled. At his signal, the volley of shots tore through the house. A plate on the table went flying up in the air and bullet holes began puncturing the stucco walls. Vin flinched away as a shot tore open a bag of beans on a shelf above him, the contents spilling onto the back of his legs. Windows broke and glass rained down onto the floor, dishes were shot off the shelves. Buck finally covered his ears with his hands in a futile attempt to block out the cacophony all around him.

In a matter of seconds, the shooting stopped. Vin leaned up on his elbows, Buck doing the same to give him a quick nod and tight smile.

"I'm sorry, Buck. We don't got a chance," Vin whispered to his friend.

The posse stood outside the house, waiting for the two inside to surrender. "All right," Edwards said loudly, "Let's smoke them out!"

In the front of the house, Marty began throwing brush toward the house, while Tyler reached beside him and began gathering brush into a pile.

"Now hold up," Vin called out, raising himself higher. "Let's talk!"

"We got nothing to talk about," Edwards yelled back.

In silent accord, the two men from Four Corners slowly stood. Each backed toward a sheltered corner of the house.

"I want to make a deal," Vin shouted back, a look of desperation in his eyes at the idea of burning to death. "You let Buck ride out of here and I'll surrender!"

"You come out of that door now," Edwards demanded.

"No Vin! I ain't letting you do that!" Buck protested, cocking his rifle. "I'd rather go out shooting!"

"The most we can do is take one of two of them with us," Vin said. "But we still ain't got a chance."

"None of us is going to live forever," Buck said quietly, his jaw set in determination. "And I'm not riding out of here and leave you to hang."

Vin looked over at his friend with a mixed expression of exasperation and gratitude.

Suddenly his attention was drawn to the rug a few feet away from where he stood. It was moving! He aimed his rifle as the rug fell away to reveal a trap door being raised. Vin lowered his rifle at the sight of Isaac's son.

"Come on," Peter said, "My pa says a safe house is one that comes with a tunnel. He's waiting with the horses."

They didn't have to be asked twice. Vin held Buck's rifle while the taller man climbed down past the boy holding the trap door open. Then Buck reached out to hold the opening up while Vin climbed in, letting it drop closed as soon as the tracker was inside.

Outside the house, the others were waiting for Edwards to give the signal to light the brush. The ex-lawman was staring at the house in consternation, his instincts telling him something wasn't right.

Buck and Vin followed the boy through the narrow tunnel, coming out of a cave into the sunlight on the other side of the hill behind the house. Buck brushed dirt out of his hair and off his shoulder while Vin stopped to look behind them, worried that someone might be following. Finally satisfied, he turned to follow Peter and Buck down the hill where Isaac was waiting with the two borrowed horses.

"How much do we owe you, Isaac?" Vin asked.

"How much you got left?" he countered.

"Not much," Buck answered. "But name it and we'll see what we can do."

"Too bad y'all didn't rob banks," Isaac said with an exaggerated sigh. "Tell you what, y'all come back someday and pay double."

"Thanks Isaac," Vin said, leaning down to shake the man's hand.

"Be careful," Buck added, tousling the boy's hair before they reined their horses around and headed up the trail at a gallop.

By the time the four dusty posse members came stomping out of the house, Isaac was waiting with his shotgun held across his chest. "That house belongs to a friend of mine," he said simply. "Who's paying for the damages?"

Edwards took a step toward the man. "We ended up crawling halfway down that tunnel. I ought to…"

Tyler gave Edwards a quick push to propel him past Isaac, Marty grinning from ear to ear behind him. Ashley shook his head at Edwards then stopped in front of the black man. "I'd sure like to save some time picking up their trail. I'm guessing twenty dollars might buy the direction they took."

Isaac fixed him with an enigmatic smile. "Money's nice, son. But there's some things in this world you shouldn't do for money."

Ashley sighed and nodded before turning to join the posse mounting their horses. He turned back at the sound of Isaac's voice.

"Ranger, those two fellows, they did something real bad?" he asked.

"They say one of them did," Ashley replied. "Not so sure about the other one."

"Could be it was a mistake and he's sorry," Isaac offered. "There's a big difference between being bad and making a mistake."

Ashley looked at him in surprise then offered a smile of his own. "I've been thinking the same thing."

* * * * * * *

Chris and Josiah had passed the rest of the posse members heading back to Pecos. They had shared a cold lunch with the group, not revealing their reason for being out there. Chris let Josiah do most of the talking, taking mental notes as the big ex-preacher steered the conversation around the posse's quarry. He bristled at a couple of the cowboy's eagerness to bring his friends in dead for the reward, but kept his temper in check. He and Josiah exchanged a quick look of concern at one of the posse member's comment that Buck was either hurt or sick, and that was slowing Vin down.

Finally the two groups headed back in their separate directions.

* * * * * * *

The miles flew by as Vin and Buck galloped their horses across the desert. Even though they both knew it would take the posse time to discover the trail leading from their escape route, they wanted to put as much distance between themselves and Edwards as they could. Finally they made it to the foothills, the mountains looming to the on either side of them. With the horses panting and sweat flying off of their flanks, Vin pulled up to a stop and dismounted. He led his horse over to a stand of trees, where there was a small pool of water in the rocks. Looking up at the sun in the sky, he waited for Buck to bring his horse into the shade with him.

"Horses need a break," Vin said, loosening his horse's cinch strap. He covertly looked over at his friend and frowned at the stiff movements that told Vin that Buck's injuries were still bothering him. He ran his fingers through his hair, regretting that he'd lost his hat somewhere on the trail the day before.

Buck followed suit with his own horse, then led the tired animal to the water and allowed it to drink. He took the canteen off the saddle horn and satisfied his own thirst. After the horses had enough to drink, both men refilled their canteens then sat on the ground in the shade of the trees.

"This is as good a place as any to split up," Vin finally said, looking out over the desert to avoid meeting the other man's unhappy gaze. "You head east over to Fort Davis, you take it easy and you ought to be there by midday tomorrow. I'll head on down to Lajitas."

"I don't like it," Buck said sharply. "Don't like it one bit, leaving you to ride alone."

"It ain't like we got a lot of choice here," Vin said, finally meeting his friend's blue eyes. "I'll be fine, Buck. You just head up along those rocks and stay in the arroyo a ways. They got no reason to follow you. Besides, maybe we'll get lucky and them last four'll give up and go home like the rest."

"Edwards? And a Texas Ranger?" Buck asked, cocking an eyebrow at the other man. "You don't really believe that, do you?"

"No, not really," Vin replied with a sigh.

"What happens if word's already reached the Fort and they decide to throw me in the hoosegow the minute I set foot inside?" Buck asked.

"You just tell them to send a telegram home," Vin answered. "Nobody that knows you is going to believe that story of hers." He ignored Buck's snort.

"How do we find you after Chris gets there?" Buck asked.

"I'll be around Ojinaga a couple of days," Vin replied with a sly smile. "There's a little cantina at the far end of town, I'll be keeping an eye out for y'all." The tracker stood and walked over to his horse, tightening the cinch and checking the horse's limbs. He could feel Buck's concerned eyes on him while he worked. Finally he straightened and closed the distance between them, offering Buck his hand. "Say hello to JD and the others for me, all right?"

"I'll do that, Vin," the mustached man replied, taking the offered hand. Before Vin could step away, Buck grabbed him in a bear hug. "You be careful, you hear me?"

Vin nodded in reply, not trusting his voice. He mounted his horse and looked down at his friend with a smile. "Be seeing you," he said.

"See you," Buck replied with a nod, taking his horse's reins in his hands and climbing into the saddle. He watched Vin recede into the distance before urging his horse away in a gentle canter.

* * * * * * *

Even as their two friends were separating, Chris and Josiah made their way past the posse's campsite to Vin and Buck's lookout spot from the night before. Just as they were about to leave, something caught the man in black's attention. Chris climbed down from his saddle and made his way over to the rocky overhang.

He picked up Vin's hat and stood staring out across the desert. "Where are they?" he whispered before climbing back into the saddle.

* * * * * * *

Edwards and Ashley remained in the saddle and watched Tyler and Marty on the ground, inspecting the tracks in the harder ground.

"Bigger one's heading up into the rocks," Tyler said, glancing up at the posse leader with a frown. "I figure he'll swing north once he runs out of the dry riverbed."

"That's Wilmington," Ashley offered. "He'll be heading home."

"I don't give a damn about him," Edwards said shortly. "What about Tanner?"

"Well, he's headed south," Marty said, pointing in the direction the other set of tracks led.

"I'll lay odds he's going to try and cross the Rio Grande and head into Chihuahua. We need to shortcut him," Edwards said almost as a challenge to Ashley.

"I'm not going to try and outguess him again," Ashley replied with a shake of his head. "We stay on his trail."

The two trackers waited for Edwards to shrug and nod before they climbed back on their horses and followed the young Ranger.

An hour later, they were still on Vin's trail as it led into the rugged mountainous terrain. Ashley had taken point, since Vin was leaving an easy trail to follow. Edwards had taken up the rear again, becoming more and more agitated.

"Whoa," he finally called to his horse. "Hold up!" The rest of the posse reined their horses up and turned around to face the ex-lawman. "He's laying his trail out for us, ain't he? Laying a straight track to make sure we don't bother following his friend. By tonight or tomorrow, he'll be back playing games with us. His sign will be disappearing with every piece of high ground or water he hits."

"If he gets to the Rio before us, it'll take us the better part of a whole day to pick up a true sign," Tyler agreed.

"I'm thinking we got a way to eliminate the guesswork here," Edwards said, leaning forward in his saddle. "Them two act closer than most brothers I know, and I'm willing to bet Wilmington will know where Tanner's headed. I don't think it'll be too hard to back track him and catch up to him."

"You expect Wilmington to tell you?" Ashley asked, shaking his head with a frown.

"He'll lie to us at first," Edwards agreed before trading a cold look with the two trackers. "But after awhile, he'll be begging us to believe him."

"Looks like this is where we part company, Mister Edwards," Ashley said.

"You figure on straight tracking?" Edwards asked.

"I figure on it," Ashley replied, adjusting his hat.

"We've been doing that for two days now, and they're still ahead of us!" Edwards argued. "We find Wilmington and he'll tell us where Tanner's headed. We can find a shortcut and be waiting for him."

"That kind of shortcut's not to my liking," Ashley said, measuring the ex-lawman coldly.

"We'll have Tanner's bones picked clean by the time you catch up," Edwards spat back.

"Maybe," Ashley said as he gathered his horse's reins. "One more thing – We both know Wilmington isn't guilty of any hanging offense. He didn't hurt the girl, and he wasn't in any shape to be anywhere near the Judge's house when they broke jail. Warrant or not, he better be alive when you're done ‘talking' with him, or I'll damn sure see to it that you'll be answering a murder charge of your own."

While he was talking to Edwards, he didn't notice Marty had moved his horse a step or two closer behind him. At Edwards nod, the big man drew his pistol and used the butt to knock Ashley out. As the unconscious man tumbled off his horse, the animal bolted away from the group.

Edwards watched as the Texas Ranger fell to the ground and lay unmoving. "Leave it!" he called as Tyler made a move to go after the runaway horse. "Let's go," he said. The three turned their horses back the way they came, leaving the other man behind.

* * * * * * *

Chris and Josiah rode into Valentine. There were a few townspeople still out and about in the heat of the day and the sight of two strangers didn't seem to surprise or impress anyone. Not seeing any sign of a hotel or Sheriff's office, they rode straight to the front of the cantina. They both dismounted and tied their horses to the hitching post. They made their way inside, hoping to find answers along with a hot meal.

A little while later, they came out into the bright sunshine. Their hunger had been satisfied, but no one seemed willing to talk to them about strangers coming to town. As they approached their waiting horses, a black teenager came toward them.

"Afternoon, Mister. Can I take the horses to the livery for y'all?" he said helpfully. "Won't cost much to keep them overnight." He stopped short, taking in Josiah's size and Chris's penetrating glare.

"What's your name, son?" Josiah asked kindly, trying to put the boy at ease.

"Peter, sir," he replied, taking another step closer to the newcomers.

"Tell you what," Josiah said. "Our horses are in pretty good shape, and I'm not sure we're going to be spending the night. But maybe you could help us out with something. We're looking for a couple of our friends, and we think they might have ridden through here in the last day or two. One's as tall as me, with dark hair and a mustache; the other one's not as tall, lighter hair and wears a buffalo coat. Have you seen anyone like that?"

Chris's eyes narrowed at the instant of recognition in the boy's eyes even as he shrugged in reply. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin, holding it out to the boy. "Will this help you remember?" he asked as he dropped it into Peter's hand.

Peter looked down and closed his hand around the small coin. "You want answers for a dollar?" he asked as he put it in his pocket. "Y'all must be lawmen," he said.

Josiah's rumbling laughter spilled out. "Well I'll be… No son, we're not lawmen. But we are friends of the two I was telling you about."

"Have you seen them or not?" Chris asked impatiently.

"They really friends of yours?" he questioned, looking at Chris skeptically.

"Yeah, good friends," Josiah replied sincerely, nodding at the waiting man in black. "We haven't heard from them in awhile, and we're real worried about them."

"They were here last night," Peter said, looking back up into Josiah's eyes. "But they left his morning when the posse following them caught up."

"That's more like it," Chris said, stepping up and putting a gentle hand on the boy's shoulder. "Which way were they headed."

"West," Peter answered. "But they know the posse will pick up their trail sooner or later. They're smart enough to change directions, right?"

"Right," Josiah replied with a nod, exchanging a smile with Chris. Just the suggestion that Vin wouldn't know what to do to cover his trail was almost enough to make them laugh.

"Tell you what I'm going to do," Chris added. "When we catch up to those two friends of ours and we bring them back here safe and sound, I'll see to it that you get a reward."

Peter shook his head. "Thanks, Mister. But you want them to be safe don't bring them back this way. I like your friends, but that posse following them – they're smart. And that one leading them, he's just plain mean."

Chris and Josiah moved toward their horses. "I sure hope you're wrong, son," Josiah said as he settled himself in his saddle. The two men from Four Corners guided their horses out of town.

* * * * * * *

Ashley didn't know how long he'd been unconscious before the nuzzling of his horse woke him. He sat up and rubbed the back of his head gingerly. "I'm getting real tired of people thumping me on the head," he muttered aloud. Standing, he swayed unsteadily and studied the ground, then the horizon in all directions. He finally gathered the horse's reins and mounted, turning the horse in the direction of Vin's trail.

* * * * * * *

Buck had ridden as far as he could before the sun started going down. He hadn't worried about the posse following him, trusting Vin's assumption that Edwards would keep them going after the tracker. By dusk he was stiff and sore, but his camp was finally set up to his liking. He had a small fire going with a rabbit roasting on a makeshift spit. The horse's saddle was leaning against a small group of rocks, the bedroll laid out in front of it. He had smiled when he found the bread wrapped in a cloth, along with a tin of canned peaches, which had to have been placed in the saddlebags by Isaac. While waiting for the meat to cook, he had opened the fruit with his knife and eaten the contents greedily.

Suddenly the horse whinnied, bringing Buck to his feet. He looked around as he walked slowly toward the animal. Just as he reached out to stroke the horse's muzzle, he froze at the sound of a gun's hammer being cocked. Edwards stepped out from the shadows, followed by Tyler and Marty, guns drawn and aimed at the tall gunslinger. Buck immediately recognized Marty from the alley, making it almost impossible to keep himself from going after the man. The behemoth leered back and raised an eyebrow in challenge.

Edwards took a step forward and raised a foot to rest on the rocks behind the saddle, leaning toward Buck. "You know, when two friends split up and go different trails they usually tell each other where they're headed."

Buck remained silent and glared at the ex-Marshal.

"Now we can go about this two ways," Edwards drawled. "You can just tell us straight out what we want to know, or you can start lying and give us all a real bad night." The two outlaws exchanged a malicious grin behind him.

"I'm not telling you nothing," Buck said, raising his chin defiantly.

"These men here were paid good money to get good results," Edwards said as he dropped his foot and stood straight. "Now being a deputized lawman and all, it wouldn't be proper for me to allow them to do anything – illegal. So I'm going to take a walk and see if the horses are all right, make sure they're watered and all. And I'm not coming back ‘til you're ready to talk." He moved to turn and walk past the other two.

"You wouldn't believe anything I said anyways," Buck called back.

Edwards half-turned back to him. "I would," Edwards replied with a twisted grin. "If it was the truth, and I see it as the truth."

Buck looked down at the ground, his mind racing while he tried not to look as panicked as he was feeling. He finally looked back up at Edwards and met his gaze evenly. "Vin's taking a shortcut through the mountains into Van Horn, he'll catch the train and be back home before you can get near him."

Edwards expression hardened and he nodded at his companions. "Whatever has to be done," he snarled before digging a boot heel into the ground, turning his back and walking away.

Buck eyed the two trackers then caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye. His heart beat quickened when he saw his borrowed rifle leaning on the rocks on the other side of the saddle just out of reach. As Tyler took a step closer, Buck made a desperate lunge for the gun. But Marty's speed belied his size and he wrapped a meaty hand around Buck's throat, dragging him gasping and choking away from the gun to throw him down across the pile of rocks, bending his spine back painfully.

Tyler bent down to Buck's ear while Marty released the choking hold, but not before the shorter outlaw drew a knife and held it precariously close to Buck's exposed throat. "You'll talk to us, Mister. Make no mistake about that," he said low and menacingly. "Of course, you'll get to the point where you won't remember much of what's going on, but you'll talk."

"Go to hell," Buck snapped back, his eyes blazing in defiance.   

"Got a feeling you'll be there sooner than we will," Marty replied with a low laugh.

* * * * * * *

It was past dark and Chris was using the pale moonlight to follow the trail left by the posse as they followed their quarry. Chris finally held his hand up and called to Josiah to stop. Without realizing it, they were at the same stand of trees Vin and Buck had been at earlier in the day.

"What is it?" the big ex-preacher asked.

"The tracks split up here, posse's still on their trail," Chris replied thoughtfully. "But it's too dark to make out much more than that."

"Well, how about we make camp here tonight?" Josiah suggested, rolling his aching shoulders. "Come daylight, we should be able to see better."

Chris frowned as he looked up at the night sky. He knew it would be harder to follow the separated trails. He nodded reluctantly, sighing as he dismounted. The two men set about the business of making a quick camp.

* * * * * * *

Edwards could hear the muffled sounds of a struggle as he walked back to the campsite. He frowned at the idea that not once had he heard the big man cry out. When he made his way into the circle of light provided by the small fire, Marty was just releasing Buck with a shove. The mustached man fell to the ground in a boneless heap.

"Well, where's Tanner going?" Edwards asked.

Tyler scowled up at him from where he was leaning on the rock mound. "He ain't saying," Tyler admitted crossly, tossing a pebble away.

"What the hell's that supposed to mean?" Edwards demanded angrily. "You said you could make anyone talk!"

"Just that," Tyler replied, bristling at the other man's tone. "Man's as stubborn as a mule."

"Got me an idea," Marty said with an evil smirk, leaning in close to whisper a few words to his partner.

Tyler's face split into a similar grin and he nodded. "That ought to work," he agreed. He stood and moved to Buck's borrowed saddle, taking the rope off from where it was tied. Then he stepped over to the tree where the horse was tied, working the rope into a noose.

Marty reached down and pulled Buck to his feet, slapping his face to bring him around. "Time to go, Mister," he said.

Buck looked into the man's face then groggily shook his head. He barely held on to consciousness as they manhandled him onto his horse bareback. Marty roughly pulled both his arms behind his back and loosely tied his hands together. As Buck began to lose his balance, Tyler pushed him back upright on the horse.

"Last chance, cowboy," Tyler said menacingly.

Buck came around long enough to open one puffy eye and glare down at the man. "Ain't no cowboy," he hissed through swollen and bloody lips.

"Have it your way," Tyler said with a shrug. Stepping back away from Buck, he threw the rope over the tree's highest limb, looping it over and pulling it tight as he tied the loose end to the trunk.

Buck's eye widened at the sight of the noose dangling in the breeze. His breathing became short and rapid, and the instinct to survive took over. As soon as Tyler untied the horse to move him under the noose, Buck frantically dug his heels into the horse's sides and yelled as loud as he could. Without his hands or the reins, he had no control over where the horse went – but he didn't care, just as long as the horse moved! And move the frightened horse did, knocking Tyler down as it bolted away. He could hear the three men shouting at each other as they scrambled after him, but the horse carried him away at a maddening speed. As he pulled on the ropes binding his hands, he breathed a sigh of relief as one of his hands slid out of the knots easily, the rope dangling from his other wrist.

It was taking all of Buck's concentration to just stay on the horse without a saddle, but he knew he had to regain control over the horse. With one hand securely entwined in the horse's mane, he leaned over its neck and tried to snag one of the trailing reins before the horse stepped on it and sent them both crashing to the ground. He just got his hand on one and sat up straight when he heard the volley of bullets aimed in his direction. One shot whizzed by within inches of his right ear just before he felt another slam into the back of his left shoulder. The impact almost sent him off the horse sideways, but he managed to hold on to his grip in the coarse mane. With one rein in hand, he gently pulled, sending the horse in a wide circle. As he slowly increased his pull, the horse responded by turning an ever-tighter but slower circle, finally coming to a stop when Buck had its head pulled over to one side. With the horse at a standstill, he reached out and claimed the second rein.

With both reins in hand, Buck started the horse moving away at a slower lope. It was dark and he didn't have a clue where he was or where he was going, he just knew he had to keep moving. He tried to ignore the burning pain in his shoulder and the multitude of aches and pains all screaming for his attention. But his abused body had finally had enough, and less than an hour later he began to lose the fight to stay conscious. He leaned heavily over the horse's thick neck, his hand slipping from the tangle of the horse's mane and his slack fingers letting go of the reins. This time the horse did trip on its own rein and stumbled as its head was pulled down. The jarring motion was enough to send Buck slipping over its withers to land on the ground with a thud. Free from the weight on its back, the confused animal kept running, leaving the motionless man behind.

* * * * * * *

Chris and Josiah were up before first light, leading the horses to the small pool of water Vin and Buck had been at just the morning before. Daylight came, and with it the breeze picked up. Any concern Chris had about being able to read the signs left by the others were erased as he and Josiah studied the tracks.

"Here's where they split up," Chris said aloud as he studied the signs on the ground. "Buck's going north and Vin south, and here's where all four horses of the posse went after him." Chris stopped to think before he went on. "Three sets of hoof prints from the posse came right back here and went in off Buck's direction." He scratched his head in confusion and concern. "Why would they turn around and go after Buck?" Chris mused. "Vin's been leaving a trail even Ezra could follow."

"And where's the fourth horse from the posse?" Josiah asked.

"I don't like it," Chris answered, trying to keep the worry out of his voice. "Maybe they caught up to Vin and one of them are taking him back to Pecos, while the rest of the posse's going after Buck for the extra reward…"

"Or they're worried Vin will go back to losing them at every turn, and they went after Buck to tell them where Vin's going, thinking he'll be easier to track," Josiah thought aloud.

"From what Vin's told me about Edwards, that sounds like something he'd do," Chris replied. "And one of them is staying on Vin's trail, just in case."

"So, where do we go from here?" Josiah asked. He couldn't help but notice Chris worrying on his bottom lip.

"Three to one ain't real good odds," Chris finally answered, trying a tight smile. "I say we head after Buck, keep him from hurting those three too much. Vin ought to be able to hold his own for a little while longer."

"He's expecting them to be after him," Josiah reminded Chris hopefully. "So he'll be extra careful."

"Yeah, I know," Chris said, climbing back into the saddle. He looked toward the horizon southward waiting for Josiah to get up on his own horse.  

"Buck won't tell them anything," Josiah offered once he was ready.

"Yeah, he'd die first," Chris agreed softly, urging his horse into a trot. "That's what I'm afraid of."

* * * * * * *

Peter was up with the sound of the roosters crowing. His father was depending on him to take care of the livery this morning. After all the excitement yesterday, the older man had gone to help one of the ranchers with a lame horse and wouldn't be back until mid-morning today. Peter left their living quarters next to the stable and entered through the side door. He fed and watered the horses, then made his way back outside to fix his own breakfast. He stopped short when he saw the familiar horse standing outside the corral.

"What're you doing here?" he said gently as he slowly approached the skittish animal. He reached out and took hold of the reins, pulling them in tight as the horse tried to shy away. "Where'd you come from? You didn't make them fellows ride double, did you?" He kept talking in a low tone, trying to soothe the spooked animal as he ran his free hand over its limbs. When he couldn't find any apparent injuries, he moved to get in front of the animal to lead it inside. That's when he saw the dark stain in the horse's thick mane. He reached up and touched the dried blood, knitting his eyebrows in concern. After getting the horse secured in a stall, he reached up on the wall and took down a bridle. He picked up a saddle and moved to the rear of the livery and saddled his own strong, reliable mule.

As he came out of the livery, he walked the mule over to the cantina's hitching post. "Manuel!" he called out. The door opened and a young Mexican lad poked his head out. "I need you to mind things ‘til I get back. Shouldn't be too long." The boy's head bobbed up and down in a nod. After Peter was astride the animal, he looked back down at the boy. "If my pa gets back before me, tell him I went hunting."

It took him more than an hour to retrace the horse's trail before he reached the prone form lying face down on the ground, one arm at his side, the other above his head. The frayed remains of rope were still wrapped around the outstretched arm. He barely recognized the dark hair, as covered in dirt as it was. High on the left side of Buck's back was a dark stain of dried blood on the fabric of his shirt. Peter gently rolled Buck over, causing the other man to moan involuntarily. The boy swallowed the nausea that rose in his throat at the sight of the friendly man's bruised and battered face. Both eyes were blackened and swollen, blood had trickled from the corner of his mouth and dried on his chin.

"Ain't dead, but ain't far from it," he whispered, looking around. As Peter moved his hands under the other man's torso, Buck recoiled from his touch. But in his weakened condition, the boy was easily able to keep a hold on the injured man and get him into a semi-sitting position. Not for the first time, he thanked his father for his size and the strength that came from working hard every day. He let go with one hand long enough to gently tap the lesser-injured side of Buck's face. "Mister, I need to you to wake up and help me here for just a minute," he said gently but firmly. "I got to get you up on that mule of mine so I can take you home. My pa will know what to do to help you."

One of Buck's eyes cracked open enough to see the dark arms wrapped around his midsection. He planted his feet firmly and gave a weak push with his legs, but it was enough for Peter to get him to his feet. They half-stumbled to the mule who stood patiently while Peter leaned Buck against the animal's side to adjust his hold on the tall man. Buck bit back a cry as the boy half-lifted and half-shoved him into the saddle.

"Sorry Mister," he said.

"'S okay," Buck hissed out, grabbing onto the saddle horn to keep from falling off the other side.

Peter climbed up behind him and took the reins in one hand, guiding the mule back the way he came. The other arm he wrapped securely around Buck's midsection, worrying if they fell off, he might not have the strength to get him back on the mule. The closer they got to home, the heavier the big man leaned over the mule's neck.

* * * * * * *

Chris and Josiah followed the hoof prints in the dry ground. While Chris was concentrating on the tracks, Josiah was scanning the horizon before them.

"Chris," Josiah said softly.

He looked over to meet Josiah's worried gaze, following the other man's line of sight to the horizon. He could see dark spots slowly circling in the bright blue sky. "Shit!" Chris exclaimed, spurring his horse toward the harbingers of death. It was all Josiah could do to keep up.

As they approached the campsite, the vultures scattered, revealing the half-eaten carcass of the long-forgotten rabbit. Chris was off of his horse first, taking in the area in a glance. The abundance of scuffed marks in the ground indicated a prolonged struggle; the saddle was still leaning against the rocks and gear was scattered across the ground. But the most chilling of all was the rope left hanging from the tree, still tied in the hangman's noose.

"What the hell was that for?" Josiah asked, coming to stand next to his mute friend.

Chris shook his head slowly as he stepped closer to the offending object. Beneath it, Chris found the signs of where Buck's horse had dug in its hooves and ran away. "This way," Chris called, following the one set of hoof prints leading away from camp. He didn't miss the fact that there were several spent shell casings littering the ground, or that the other three horses had gone off in the opposite direction of their missing friend.

Following the trail, they found where Buck had lost his fight to stay on his horse. Chris did a quick look around in all directions then exchanged a hopeful look with Josiah when they found the mule tracks that came from the direction of Valentine merging with the horse's tracks. But the wind was starting to blow in earnest, so Chris and Josiah picked up their speed. Whoever had taken Buck hadn't bothered to stop anywhere along the way. All the while they rode Josiah prayed that Buck had been found by some Good Samaritan and not someone else who meant him more harm.

They followed the trail straight back to the small village they had been in yesterday. Once there, the mule's hoof prints were lost as they blended in with numerous others in the dirt-packed street. Chris huffed in exasperation as the two men stayed on their horses, riding up and down the street in search of the mule and its rider.

"Chris!" Josiah called as he spotted the animal in front of a small house set in the hills behind the cantina.

They rode up to the house together. Before they could dismount, a stocky black man opened the door and stepped out, coming off the porch toward them.

"Afternoon," Josiah offered in greeting.

"Howdy," the man replied, standing with his feet apart, both hands on his hips.

"We've been following sign," Josiah explained. "We found some tracks leading up here."

"We get a lot of folks up this way heading toward the river," the dark-skinned man said.

"I'm Josiah Sanchez, this here's Chris Larabee." The two exchanged a nod. "We could sure use some information," the ex-preacher added, the man in black remaining silent.

The other man hadn't changed his stance. "Around here we tend to mind our own business," he said.

"Fair enough," Josiah said, exchanging a look with Chris. "We've been tracking a couple of friends of ours. We found the sign of one of them up in the hills not far from here, leading down this way."

"Sorry," Isaac said, shaking his head with a frown.

"Look Mister," Chris said impatiently as he finally dismounted, watching the other man turn to block his move toward the house. "The wind's been covering most of the tracks, but it looks like that mule brought him right into town!" He finished by pointing at the black mule standing at the hitching post. "I aim to have a look inside your house." With that he sidestepped Isaac and headed through the door.

Josiah climbed down and hurried to join his friend, giving the black man an apologetic shrug as he passed.

As Chris entered the house, he noticed the curtains over the windows had the room almost dark. He frowned as he made his way over to the cot along the far wall, pushing his hat back off his head as he knelt at the unmoving man's side. "Buck?" he whispered, extending his hand, then pulling it back, as if he was afraid to touch the body of his oldest friend. Finally he reached out and placed a hand gently on Buck's head, bowing his own until his chin almost rested on his chest. "Oh God, Buck," he said, his voice trailing off as he tried to swallow his grief.

Josiah approached the two friends tentatively. Looking down, he shook his head sadly at what injuries he could see in the dim light. He could only imagine what lay beneath the light bedspread covering him to just above the waist. As he stood back, not wanting to intrude, he heard a noise that sounded very much like a moan. Then the bottom of the blanket moved when the foot underneath it did. "Chris," Josiah whispered urgently. "He's not dead!"

Chris's head shot up to Josiah then turned back to the pale man beside him. He started to lean in and move his hand to the other man's chest.

Suddenly Isaac appeared behind them with a shotgun and jabbed Chris in the back. "You get your hands off of him!" he said determinedly, leaving no room for doubt that he would use the gun.

Chris froze then slowly turned to face the man behind him. "Ain't no need to hold a gun on me, Mister."

"Is he the one you been hunting down?" Isaac demanded. "You ain't going to finish him off here."

"I think there's been some kind of misunderstanding," Josiah offered calmly. "This man's a friend of ours, Buck Wilmington. He and another friend got into some trouble over in Pecos. We've been trying to catch up to them and help get them home."

Isaac looked over at Josiah skeptically. Then the door swung open and Peter ran in. "PA! No, these are the fellows I told you about, came looking for the two of them after the posse left. Said they was friends."

Chris stood and placed himself between his injured friend and the angry stranger with a gun, then made a grab for the shotgun as Isaac turned to face his son. In one quick move, he wrenched it away from the other man.

"Sorry, Pa," the boy said, eyeing the men with his father and the gun in the other man's hand. "I knew it was wrong to bring a white man back here, but I couldn't just leave him out there to die."

"Nah son," Isaac said with pride in his voice, keeping his gaze on the man in black. "You did what was right."

"And we appreciate it, more than you know," Chris said, stepping away from the bed to offer the boy his hand. Then he handed the gun back to the boy's father. Isaac took it with a nod and moved to put it down on the table.

Josiah took the opportunity to move closer and get a better look at his injured friend. He flinched involuntarily at the sight of Buck's mottled face; there didn't seem to be an inch of skin that wasn't bruised or bleeding. As he watched his friend take several ragged breaths, Josiah could only imagine how many bruised or broken ribs he must have. The sheet was pulled up low on his chest, leaving the ugly shoulder wound loosely covered. He cast his eyes heavenward as he ran his fingers through his hair, grateful his friend was still alive.

"Sorry for the misunderstanding, Mister," Isaac said sincerely. "Sometimes we got some mighty bad folks through here." He took a step closer to the bed. "He ain't said a word since my son brung him in."

"I found him this morning," Peter added. "Lying in the desert… getting buried by the wind."

"It's just me and my son here, since my missus passed," Isaac explained, looking from the bed to the man in black. "But we been doing all we can for him."

"Is there a doctor anywhere around these parts?" Chris asked as he watched Josiah run his hand hands through his hair with a sigh.

"You ain't going to get no doctor to come clear up here!" Isaac declared.

"Nearest one's in Marfa," Peter replied, "more than forty miles."

"And you can't get him that distance and expect him to be alive when you get there," Isaac added. "When my son brung him here, we knew it was up to the Almighty if he lived."

"C-Chris…" came a weak cry from the bed.

Josiah moved out of the way quickly, allowing Chris room to kneel at the bedside. "Hey Buck," Chris said softly. "You with us, stud?"

Buck slowly opened pain-filled eyes, searching through the darkness until he found Chris, and Chris waited patiently while his dazed friend organized his thoughts. He blinked a few times, focusing on the face of his oldest friend before he finally spoke. "I didn't tell them where Vin was," he whispered hoarsely.

"Shhh, I know," Chris said, laying a hand gently on the other man's chest. "Don't try to talk now."

Buck swallowed hard and licked his lips and tried to speak again. "They… they couldn't make me tell. I didn't tell…" His voice trailed off as he fell into unconsciousness again.

"I know, Big Dog. I know," he answered, even though he knew the other man was beyond hearing. Chris's eyes turned hard and his lips pulled tight in anger. Turning away from his friends, he drilled a look at Isaac. "Mister…"

"Name's Isaac," the other man said quietly.

"Isaac," Chris said then he pulled on the leather strap holding his hat behind his back. "I appreciate all you've been doing for him. Would it be okay if they stay a few more days?" He nodded his head between Buck and Josiah as the big ex-preacher stood.

"You go on," Isaac replied. "We'll do what we can for him."

"I hate to ask…" Chris started, standing eye to eye with Josiah, letting his gaze drift over to the wounded man then to the open door. "Somebody's got to find Vin and bring him back here."

"He'll be fine," Josiah vowed, squeezing Chris's shoulder firmly. "We'll be here when you get back."

Peter looked from one to the other, his gaze lingering on the man in the bed. "The way they left him, they didn't care if he lived or died."

Chris adjusted his hat on his head. "They'll be caring," he growled, his eyes flat and deadly. Without another word, he stormed out the door and mounted his horse. Isaac and Peter followed him out and watched as he urged his horse back in the direction he came from.


Josiah cared too much for the men he called friends to let them down now. He'd made Chris a promise that he would take of Buck until the man in black returned. As he laid his hand on the unconscious man's head, he could see and feel several deep cuts along the hairline. There were a number of small nicks under his chin, like a knife had been used to prick the skin. As Josiah ran his hands over the other man's torso, the only reaction from Buck was another low moan and one foot moved ever so slightly. He checked for broken limbs, praying he didn't find one. He sighed in grim satisfaction that his friend had been spared at least one thing.

Finally turning his attention to the shoulder wound, he pulled the stiff fabric away from the skin. Josiah swore under his breath at the sight of fresh blood staining the cloth covering the nasty wound where the bullet had exited. He knew he needed to get the bleeding stopped and soon. He looked up as he felt Isaac move next to him.

"The bleeding still ain't stopped?" Isaac asked with a frown. "I don't know what else to do for it."

"I do," Josiah said reluctantly. "I've watched a friend of mine cauterize a wound before. And right now, I really wish Nathan was here." He closed his eyes in concentration for a moment before meeting Isaac's gaze. "I need you to empty both those shells you got in your shotgun – pour the gunpowder into a small bowl. And I'll need a bottle of whiskey and a match."

Peter's eyes widened in alarm as he realized what Josiah was talking about. "Gunpowder?" he exclaimed.

Josiah nodded. "It's the only way to seal off all the bleeding at the same time."

"I – I'll go get the shells," Peter said, as he moved to the table. His father nodded in approval.

"I need your help here, Isaac," Josiah said as he stood.

Isaac followed Josiah's nod and sat on the bed in front of Buck, while Josiah moved in behind. They gently lifted the tall rogue forward so Josiah could get a good look at his back. He ran his hand along Buck's injured shoulder, relieved to find his fingers came back without finding any new bleeding from the entry wound. As they laid him back down, Buck released his breath in a hiss, the only outward sign that he was aware of things going on around him.

"Buck, can you hear me?" Josiah said softly.

Buck's face screwed up in pain as he tried to hold in a groan. He opened his eyes, but they didn't seem to be focusing on the gray-haired man beside him. Josiah recognized the signs as his jaw tightened stubbornly and he shook his head from side to side on the pillow. "Ain't telling you nothing," he whispered before he closed his eyes tightly.

"It's okay," Josiah said, laying a gentle hand on the side of Buck's face. "You're safe now, Brother Buck."

Buck's eyes shot open again, this time the blue eyes drilled into other man's gray gaze. "Josiah?" he asked breathlessly.

"Yeah, it's me," Josiah answered in a soothing voice.

Buck's eyes darted around before he looked back at his friend in confusion. "Where are we?"

"A little town called Valentine," Josiah responded. "Do you remember what happened?"

Buck's eyebrows knitted in concentration for a moment, and he started to shake his head. Then his expression changed to distress as the memories returned in a rush. "Vin!" he called as he tried to sit up. Almost in the same breath, his voice dissolved into a strangled cry as the pain caused by his movement washed over him. As Josiah moved to hold him down, Buck's anguished eyes turned to the other man. "Vin?" he repeated the single word, unable to get anything else out before the pain took his breath away again.

"He'll be just fine, Buck," Josiah promised. "Chris went after him, and don't you worry anymore."

"Chris?" he asked faintly, his weakened body falling onto the mattress again. "Chris… here?"

"Yeah," Josiah replied with a nod. "He left a little while ago. He's gone to find Vin and they'll be back here in no time." Buck stared at him silently for a long moment before he stopped exerting himself against the ex-preacher's gentle restraint. "Now listen to me, Buck. You remember being shot?" He watched as Buck started to shake his head again then nodded in reply. "The bullet went straight through, but it's still bleeding. I'm going to have to cauterize it. Do you understand?"

Buck looked up into Josiah's face and swallowed hard, then nodded shortly. "How bad?"

"I'm not going to lie to you," Josiah answered earnestly. "It's going to hurt bad, but I have to do it or chances are you're going to bleed to death." He couldn't help the small smile that escaped as Buck gazed up at him in absolute faith and nodded his understanding. He turned away from his friend and watched as Isaac and Peter cut the tops off the shotgun shells and emptied the black powder into a shallow ceramic bowl. Peter reached into the cabinet next to the black stove and handed his father a half-full bottle of amber liquid, then stood back silently staring at the injured man.

Isaac walked back over to the bedside, bringing a small table with him. He set the bottle and the bowl down on the table, holding the matches out to Josiah.

Josiah took a deep breath, stilling his trembling hand as he took the matches from Isaac. He met the father's eyes before he looked over at Peter with a gentle smile.

Isaac immediately understood and turned to his son. "Why don't you go on now and see about getting us all some supper?" he suggested.

Peter startled at the sudden attention. "No – no," he protested. "I want to stay. You might need my help."

"Are you sure, son?" Isaac asked gently.

"I'm sure, Pa," he replied resolutely.

Josiah turned back to the ladies man, holding the bottle out to him. "You want some first?"

Buck's eyes narrowed before he nodded. Josiah held the bottle to his lips and let him get a couple of good swallows. Then the mustached man closed his eyes and laid back down deep into the pillow under his head. "Do it," he hissed.

Josiah nodded, then waited as Isaac and Peter moved closer. Isaac went to the head of the bed, while Peter took up a position next to the big man. Josiah lifted the bandage away from the injured shoulder and tipped the bottle up, allowing the brown liquid to pour over and into the ragged flesh.

Buck's back arched up reflexively as he bit back an agonized cry, balling up the sheet under his hands as he writhed in pain.

Before the liquor had a chance to dry, Josiah held the bottle out to Peter, who took it quickly. The older man picked up the bowl and sprinkled the dark powder over the wound. He held out his hand to Peter, who traded the bottle for the bowl. Josiah nodded at Isaac, who took hold of Buck's good shoulder firmly and laid his other hand across Buck's chest. The injured man thrashed against his grip weakly, his legs kicking out wildly. Without needing to be asked, Peter dropped the bowl and took a leg in each hand and held them down. Josiah took a quick breath before dribbling a little of the liquid over the injury again, then he struck a match and waved it over the dissipating alcohol fumes. Almost instantaneously the mixture flared for a split second then a puff of smoke appeared and disappeared, leaving behind the acrid odor of burning powder and singed flesh.

This time Buck couldn't hold back the roar of pain, and then his face slackened as he fell back into the dark void of unconsciousness, completely and utterly still.

Josiah started to set the bottle down, but paused to search his friend's face anxiously. Only when he saw Buck take a ragged breath did he drop the bottle onto the surface of the table. With a deep sigh, he nodded to Peter who let go of the tall man's legs.

Isaac then stood up as well, looking down at the unconscious rogue. He looked over at Josiah. "You did what you could," he said softly. "He's in God's hands now."

Josiah nodded in silent agreement before he sent his eyes heavenward.

"Come on son," Isaac said as he gently pulled on his son's arm, leading him outside. "We best get Mister Josiah here something to eat. I'm thinking it's going to be a long night for all of us."

Father and son turned back to the solitary figure inside the house as he moved a straight back chair next to the bed to begin his vigil.

* * * * * * *

The sun was unmercifully hot as it beat down on the three riders making their way across the rugged and uneven desert terrain. They brought their horses to a stop at the top of a steep rise, getting down and stretching their legs before climbing up a small hill to take a seat in the shade of a lone tree growing next to a cluster of boulders. After taking a small drink, Tyler passed his canteen to his partner who also took only a mouthful before handing the canteen up to Edwards.

Tyler picked up a dry branch and used it to draw a rough map in the dirt at his feet. "No doubt about it," he said, looking up at Edwards. "After he crosses the Rio, he'll be headed to the Conchos River. There's a village right here…"

"I told you to go easy with that!" Marty suddenly growled, snatching the canteen away from Edwards who had tried to take more than just a swallow of the precious liquid.

Edwards shot Marty a withering glare before wiping his mouth on his sleeve. Then he turned his attention back to the waiting Tyler. "Now right here there's a village he's got to stop at," he went on, tapping the ground with the branch. "He's got to stop there ‘cause if he don't get his horse fresh shod he's going to be in sorry trouble trying to cross the Sonora waste."

"You sure he's headed for Sonora?" Edwards demanded.

Tyler nodded in reply, licking his dry and cracked lips.

"I'd say Tanner ain't got too many ways open to him now," Marty said, squinting into the distance.

"You were positive about Wilmington talking back there, too," Edwards said, not trying to hide his contempt.

"Well, you're bound to run into a tough one every once in a while," Tyler admitted reluctantly, avoiding Edwards penetrating stare. He tossed the stick away, blinking the sweat out of his eyes. He shifted his weight to more of a sitting position as his eyes narrowed in concentration. "What the hell… Now he has got to be following our trail." The others flattened themselves on the rocks and moved closer, casting their eyes in the direction he nodded, finally making out the horse and rider Tyler spotted. "If that's who I think I it is, we got us another friend of Tanner's on our hands."

"Chris Larabee," Marty whispered, recognizing the telltale black garb and flat brimmed black hat.

"I've heard of him," Edwards conceded, "never met him though."

"He's not a man to tangle with, I can tell you that," Tyler said with a frown. "There was a story going around couple of years ago said the bullet ain't been made yet that'll kill him."

"That ain't nothing but a bunch of nonsense," Edwards said with a derisive snort. "You afraid of him?"

"No," Tyler replied carefully, ignoring Edwards' tone and trading a look with his partner. "Just letting you know that he's a friend of them two, and we're going to have to deal with him."

"I don't see him as a problem," Edwards said impatiently. "He'd be interfering with the law if he takes the side of them two."

"Well now, I don't think the fact that you're deputized is going to carry any weight with him," Marty drawled. "Especially if he already found Wilmington lying dead back there in the desert. From what I remember, they've been riding together a long while. You'd best ride on, Marshall."

"What's wrong with the three of us dealing with him?" Edwards demanded.

"What Marty means," Tyler said deliberately, "is you being a deputized lawman, maybe there's a couple of things you shouldn't be seeing."

Edwards looked from one man to the other, weighing Tyler's words. Deciding the tracker was right, he slid back down the rock to stand behind them. "I'll wait for you aways up the trail," he said, hurrying to gather the canteen as he went to his horse. Marty followed Edwards down, going to the other two horses and pulling their rifles out of the scabbards.

Tyler kept his eyes trained on the approaching horseman as Marty made his way back up to him. He stood and turned to see Edwards ride away. "Let's go," he said quietly, slapping Marty on the shoulder as he moved to climb higher up the hill and into better cover. The big man followed behind silently.

Chris Larabee had his head down, intently studying the tracks on the ground. He kept his horse moving at a slow and steady pace, not taking a chance on losing the trail he was following.

The two outlaws scrambled up to the highest point on the rise, staying hidden in the brush. They kept their rifles in front of them as they went belly down and crawled to the edge of the rocky incline. They waited as Chris disappeared into the brush below them, the sound of hoof beats bouncing off the rocks.

"Here he comes," Tyler whispered as he saw the black horse's head bobbing out of the brush. He cocked his rifle and grinned in anticipation, his expression instantly turning to a mixture of surprise and concern as the riderless horse came fully into view. He barely had time to turn to Marty before they heard a noise behind them. They swung around to see Chris Larabee, the pistol in his hand held unwavering in their direction.

"So you two like ganging up on an unarmed man, do you?" Chris ground out. He watched the two outlaws roll over onto their backs, staring up at him in defiance. "Let's see how you make out against a man on equal terms."

"Edwards was deputized to track down a killer," Tyler finally said, licking his dry lips again. "Posse's got the right to get the job done any way it can!"

"Mister, you're not worth wasting too many words on," Chris said scornfully, his aim and his glare held firm.   

The two would-be snipers moved as one, desperately bringing their rifles up at the same time.

Out on the desert floor, Edwards heard the echo of two quick shots reverberating through the rocks behind him. He smiled and turned his horse around, reining it in to a stop. Not taking his eyes off the trail, he held the reins in his crippled hand while he picked the canteen up by the strap. He unscrewed the cork and took a long drink. He shook the almost empty canteen before looking down to secure the strap back onto the saddle horn. He glanced up when he heard the echoing sound of slow moving hoof beats striking the rocky trail. His smile faded and his blood ran cold at the sight of the lone rider in the distance coming down the trail, the dark clothes set against the dark horse, making them appear to be one creature.

With an audible curse, Edwards spun his horse around and set off at a gallop, the sound of hoof beats ringing in his ears.

* * * * * * *

The sun had dropped low in the sky as Josiah sat by Buck's side. He nodded his thanks to Peter as the boy brought another basin of clean, cool water and set it down on the table next to the bed. He picked up the other basin before going back out the door. The worried man dipped a clean cloth in the water and wrung it out before placing it on the hot forehead of his friend. Almost from the moment they'd done what they had to stop the bleeding in the shoulder wound, Buck's fever had been steadily climbing. Both Josiah and Isaac had expected it, considering the injury had already been red and warm to the touch and the fact that Buck had spent the better part of the night lying on the ground.

Josiah frowned as he used another cloth to bathe the man's chest, careful not to disturb the healing poultice Isaac had prepared and placed on the wound. Buck still hadn't regained consciousness again and Josiah had barely been able to dribble a little water from the corner of a cloth into his friend's mouth, grateful that Buck swallowed it reflexively. Josiah paused in his ministrations to watch Buck's shallow breathing, sighing in relief that he still didn't hear the ominous rattle of fluid building in his lungs.

After sponging Buck's chest and leaving it to air dry, Josiah dropped the cloth into the basin. He pushed himself up into a standing position, stretching his aching muscles. He turned toward the door when he heard Peter come back in. He was carrying a covered tray, and the aroma of the food under the cloth wafted in Josiah's direction. His stomach rumbled instinctively, reminding the big man it had been a long time since breakfast.

"Pa says you need to eat," Peter said, setting the tray on the kitchen table across the room. He walked over to the bed and motioned for Josiah to move. "I'll sit with him for awhile if you want."

"Thank you, son," Josiah said, stifling a yawn. He didn't need to be asked twice, and went over to the table, sitting heavily in the other wooden chair. After a quick prayer, Josiah picked up the fork and began eating the hot meal. He looked over and smiled as he watched Peter using the cloth to bathe Buck's chest just the way he had been doing earlier. Then he turned his attention back to his meal.

* * * * * * *

Twilight settled itself over the sprawling desert landscape. All afternoon Edwards had managed to stay just ahead of the specter that was Chris Larabee; even when he couldn't see Larabee, the sound of his horse's hooves striking rocks along the trail behind him echoed around him. The ex-lawman came to a small stand of trees and pulled his horse to a stop, picking up the canteen again. He turned it up and drained the small amount of water into his parched mouth, grunting in disgust when it wasn't enough to quench his thirst. Hearing a rustling noise beyond the brush, he dropped the canteen and drew his gun. His eyes narrowed as he listened intently, but didn't hear the noise again. Grinding his teeth in frustration, he fired several wild shots into the dwindling light. Then came the familiar echo of hoof beats again, causing Edwards to thrust the gun back in the holster and turn his horse in the direction away from the accursed sound, the canteen left forgotten on the ground.

* * * * * * *

"Josiah – Mister Josiah!" came Isaac's urgent voice, intruding into Josiah's dreamless slumber. The kind man had sent Peter home and finally convinced Josiah to lie down on the other cot and get some sleep. Now he was shaking Josiah's shoulder roughly. "He ain't breathing! I think he's passed."

Josiah bolted off the bed and crossed the darkened room, his heart frozen in dread. As he knelt by the bedside and laid a hand on the still-warm chest, he could feel for himself that Buck wasn't moving and no shallow breaths were coming from the mustached man. "Don't you do this to me, Buck!" he cried, grasping both upper arms carefully and shaking his friend firmly. Hearing just the barest wheeze of air escaping between Buck's lips, Josiah let go with one hand and slapped his face lightly, first one side then the other, just hard enough to get his attention. Suddenly Buck sputtered and coughed, then took a deep inhale of air, releasing it in a slow hiss. Josiah watched for several minutes, almost overwhelmed with relief as his friend's breathing resumed its shallow but regular rhythm. He bowed his head in gratitude and finally released his grip on Buck's good arm. He looked up when he felt Isaac's hand on his shoulder, nodding in thanks at the gentle squeeze of support from the other man.

Isaac handed Josiah a hot cup of coffee. "There's a fresh pot on the stove," he said quietly. Without another word, he gave the two men another long look before he slipped out the door, knowing there would be no more rest for Josiah that night.

* * * * * * *

It was still a few hours before daybreak when the door to the hotel opened quietly and three tired men walked up to the desk. One man set his bag down and rang the small metal bell on the counter.

The clerk came out of his quarters in response. "Can I help you gents?" he asked sleepily.

"We need a room," the light-haired man said "Preferably one big enough to accommodate the three of us."

The clerk nodded and pushed the register toward him. As he stepped up and took the offered pen in hand, the clerk looked over the trio in interest. The man signing the register was of medium height and build and impeccably dressed, the younger man behind him was of slighter height but stockier build and impatience was rolling off him in an almost physical wave. The third man was very tall and dark-skinned, carrying what might have been a medical bag. Harry couldn't help but stare at the unusual traveling companions.

"Where might we find the local constabulary in the morning?" the well-dressed man spoke up, his voice soft with a gentle Southern accent.

"The Sheriff?" he countered, not sure he knew what the man had said. At the younger man's nod, he continued. "Office is across the street and down the block a bit, but he should be here for breakfast at first light."

The black man pulled a watch out of his pocket. "Ought to give us an hour or two to rest up," he said, looking pointedly at the youngest of the three.

"I'm fine, Nathan," he said in protest. "Quit fretting over me. I slept on the train all the way here."

"We're looking for some friends of ours," Ezra said, pulling the clerk's attention back. "Both tall, one dressed in black, the other one was a little older with gray hair."

"You fellows from Four Corners, too?" the clerk asked, eyes widening in surprise. At the slight nod from the Southerner, the clerk turned to the keys hanging on the pegs and pulled one down. "You might as well stay in their room," Harry said, holding the key out for Ezra to take. "New Sheriff says it's being paid for by the Judge ‘til further notice, said to expect you. Corner room, top of the stairs."

"What about our friends?" JD asked brusquely.

"They only stayed the night," Harry replied. "Left out first thing yesterday morning to try and find the two that broke out of jail before that posse of Edwards catches up to them."

"Any news about them?" Nathan asked, stepping up closer.

"Not much," Harry answered with a shrug. "Last we heard, they're both still alive and they're all down around the Mexican border – ain't too many telegraph stations down that way."

JD sighed and moved to pick up Ezra's bag. The handsome man nodded his thanks and turned to Nathan with a smile before moving toward the stairs. The clerk watched as the trio slowly made their way up the steps.

* * * * * * *

All night long, Edwards kept moving, staying ahead of the man in black following him. He never saw him, just heard the constant sound of those damnable hoof beats. As the sun broke over the horizon, he was barely able to keep his eyes open as he rocked back and forth in the saddle. He was more tired than he had ever been in his life, his mouth bone-dry. As his horse plodded to the top of a rise, he pulled to a stop and looked around, listening for the sound that had been haunting him all night. His eyes lit up at the sight below. At the bottom of the small hill there was a small scrub oak tree growing next to a shallow pool of water. Edwards smiled in relief and reined his horse down the hill toward his salvation. As his horse carefully picked its way down the hill, shots suddenly rang out, kicking up dirt at the horse's feet.

The startled animal reared up and stumbled, Edwards tumbling off his back and rolling halfway down the slope. The horse bolted back up the hill and disappeared over the rise while its displaced rider made a half-hearted attempt to chase after it. He lost his balance in the loose dirt and fell, remaining face down as he tried to catch his breath. As another shot exploded near him, Edwards's face was peppered with sand. He made a dash for a small outcropping of rocks, not stopping to retrieve his hat as it flew off his head and drifted down the hill toward the water. The exhausted man threw himself into a shallow crack between the boulders.

He remained motionless for what seemed like a long time before finally raising his head to look around him. Not seeing the dark apparition trailing him or hearing the sound that had kept him running all night, he stood and brushed the dirt off the top of his balding head. But as he took a step toward the enticing pool of liquid, once again gunfire reverberated around him, kicking up the ground between him and the water. Squinting up at the rising sun, he took one last longing look at the glittering surface of the water before moving back up the hill and away from the precious treasure just out of his reach.

* * * * * * *

With the morning sun came hope for Josiah. Buck had spent the last several hours resting comfortably and his fever hadn't gotten any worse. Isaac had already been in to change the poultice on his shoulder and left Josiah a mug of something that smelled remarkably like something Nathan had poured down him a time or two. Josiah had been able to get a few spoonfuls into Buck. And while he was unnaturally still for the usually gregarious ladies man, his breathing had stayed regular and had even gotten stronger.

* * * * * * *

Texas Ranger John Slaughter, now interim Sheriff for the growing town of Pecos, sat in the hotel dining room sipping on a cup of coffee while he read his newspaper. He pretended not to notice the three strangers coming down the stairs, not even looking up when they stopped at his table. Only when the dark-haired youngest of the trio cleared his throat did the lawman fold his paper and set it down. "Something I can do for you, son?"

"Name's JD Dunne," came the bristly reply. "We were wondering if you've heard anything about our friends?"

"And just who would your friends be?" Slaughter asked in badly feigned ignorance.

"Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington," JD shot back impatiently.

"Along with Chris Larabee and Josiah Sanchez," Nathan added.

"Well, taking into account the three of you, is there anybody left back home?" Slaughter asked with a wry grin.

"I beg your pardon, but we find nothing amusing about this entire situation," Ezra declared in protest.

"You're right about that, son," Slaughter replied, his expression changing serious as he sat up straight and motioned for the three men to take a seat at the table. He motioned to the waitress to bring three more cups of coffee. "Now what can I do for y'all?"

"We want to know what happened," JD replied, not able to keep the concern out of his voice.

"Everything," Nathan added.

"To the last detail," Ezra said emphatically.

"Well, make yourselves comfortable," Slaughter said with an amicable sigh. "And I'll start from the beginning…"

* * * * * * *

Edwards trudged on across the desert wasteland, halting his steps as he gazed up into the azure sky. Anyone else might have appreciated the beautiful contrast between the bright blue sky and puffy white clouds drifting slowly by. But as soon as he was still for more than a moment the sound of hoof beats urged him on.

He stumbled forward, checking his back trail. He was looking back when he lost his footing and slid down a steep slope. As he crashed to the bottom with a loud grunt, he cried out in relief when he stood and looked around his new surroundings. In one of the desert's most precious mysteries, there before him was a natural spring. Water was bubbling out of a standing rock at about Edwards' height and running down the small formation, only to quickly disappear into another crack in the rock. Searching the area for his stalker, he took a stuttering step toward the life-saving fissure, only to be driven back by a volley of gunfire. Ducking behind a tree until the echoes faded, he drew his gun and fired blindly in all directions. When he finally came out from behind the tree and took a step in the direction of the spring, another shot whizzed by his head and dug into the ground at his feet. With a curse followed by a shudder, he turned and trudged away without looking back.

By the time the sun was at its zenith, Edwards could barely walk upright, stumbling and falling and rising time and time again. As he limped to the top of yet another hill and looked out across the desolate distance before him, he shuffled to a stop. Hearing the dreaded sound of hoof beats somewhere behind him, Edwards clumsily reached around his waist and loaded the last of his bullets into his pistol.

"Chris Larabee!" he called out. "Afraid to show your face? Afraid to face a one-armed man?" One by one, he fired off all six shots in every direction without even trying to find any kind of real target. He kept on firing even after the bullets were spent, the hammer clicking loudly onto the empty chamber.

"You're a real brave man, ain't you, Larabee!" he shouted spitefully, tossing the useless weapon away. "Does that make you feel braver?" Edwards stood swaying and panting. "You want to show yourself now and face a man without a gun?" As he tried to take a stumbling step forward, he lost his balance and rolled to the bottom of the hill. As he lay with his eyes closed, he heard the sound of human footsteps approaching. When they stopped a short distance from him, he peeled his eyes open and squinted up into the shadowy silhouette of Chris Larabee.

He slowly blinked his eyes several times before the man's face came into focus. If there was ever an expression of pure, cold rage, he was looking into it now. "You expect me to beg for my life?" Edwards asked defiantly, but the man in black stood back from him in silence. "Maybe you'd like me to crawl on my hands and knees to beg you for some water."

"Wouldn't do you any good, Mister," Chris finally rasped out coldly. "I don't waste water on a dead man."

Edwards watched as Chris eyed him before he took another step closer, towering over him.

"Why, Edwards?" he asked. "All these years you've spent hating Vin – why?"

"You're not blind!" Edwards spat back, his good hand lifting his withered hand up for Larabee to see.

"He wasn't trying to kill you," Chris argued. "He was just trying to get away. You were out to lynch him!"

"You hang a cold-blooded murderer," Edwards replied. "You don't put no coddling jury together!"

"He never shot Kincaid," Chris said. "The man was already dead when Vin got to him, dressed in Eli Joe's clothes. All he was doing was bringing the body in."

"Damn bounty hunters!" Edwards ranted. "Make more in one day than I could in a year. Lawman puts his life on the line every single day, and these upstarts come along and get paid a king's ransom for doing the same job I got paid a dollar a day for."

"So that's it?" Chris asked incredulously. "You wanted to make an example of a bounty hunter, so you picked Vin?"

Edwards gave a cold laugh before it dissolved to a dry cough. "He'll still hang, for killing Judge Roberts – if that Texas Ranger don't kill him first." He cackled deliriously at the pained expression on Chris' face.

"You know what, Edwards?" Chris said, stepping toward the fallen man. "I was going stay here and watch you shrivel up and blow away, but I don't think I will. It wouldn't be any more than watching a sick rat die!"

"You ain't got the guts to kill me with your own hand," Edwards taunted, staring up at Chris from the ground.

Chris gave the man an icy scowl before he backed up a step. "Every man needs a little time to think when he's going to die – on the good things he did, and the bad. I'm going to let you think on it a while." He turned his back to the man on the ground and began to climb the hill.

"I guess you killed them two after what they did to your friend Wilmington," Edwards called after Chris's retreating back. "That man sure did a lot of screaming." He snickered in triumph when Chris froze in mid-step, turning back toward him with narrowed eyes. "Did you find him alive, Larabee?" Edwards went on in a mocking tone. "I just took me a walk out in the night air, listening to him scream." The raving man listed to one side, falling forward until his head touched the ground. "Got to hand it to him, though," Edwards went on, talking more to himself than the man looming over him. "Not saying where his friend was headed."

With an enraged expression, Chris took a step toward the demented figure, pulling his pistol out of its holster and aiming at Edwards's head, pulling the hammer back slowly.

Edwards pushed himself up at the sound of Chris's gun being cocked. "See, I was right!" he crowed. "If you hate a man enough, you'll kill him. Reason don't make that much difference. It's not the hating that counts, it's the killing. Go ahead, Larabee, pull the trigger." Edwards looked deep into Chris's blazing green eyes. "You know that good feeling just like I do. First the hate and then the killing. Just nothing like it." He fell forward again, waiting for Chris to put him out of his misery.

Chris looked down at the pitiful excuse for a human being before closing his eyes for a moment. A pair of brilliant blue eyes came to mind, along with a beaming smile under a bushy mustache. His heart ached as he opened his eyes and remembered the way he'd left Buck, not knowing if his friend was going to be alive when he got back or not. His jaw tightened in determination then he shook his head and lowered his pistol, easing the hammer down. He turned and stalked away, not paying attention to Edwards incoherently mumbling.

Edwards finally looked up at the sound of retreating hoof beats. "Damn," he cried softly. As the reverberation faded into the distance, he sank back down to the ground, curling into a fetal position in the dirt.

* * * * * * *

Ashley had been in the Southwest long enough that he was used to the sudden and violent thunderstorms that were common in the region, so he had the necessary gear in his saddlebags to weather the storm that passed through the mountains during the night. By the time he rode into the small Mexican village, he was just about all dried out. He reined his horse to a stop in front of what looked like the livery, ignoring the stares and whispers of the townspeople. Tying the reins to the hitching post, he looked up and down the short street, his eyes squinting in the bright sunlight. With a sigh, he walked to the nearest cantina, ready to look in each and every building in the small Mexican village.

Vin was sitting at a window table, where he had almost finished his lunch. He looked up in time to see the young Ranger coming up the street. He quickly swallowed the mouthful of food he had been chewing and slid out of his chair.

Ashley had enough experience as a Ranger to know how dangerous a cornered animal could be. He walked in the door cautiously. His first impression was that the room was empty, except for the bartender nervously pretending to read the newspaper. He tapped the bar and made a quiet request in Spanish. As his eyes adjusted to dim light, they narrowed at the remains of uneaten food left on the unoccupied table. "Looks like I interrupted your dinner, Vin."

"I was about through anyway," came the quiet reply from the dark corner, where Vin was sitting with an unnaturally stiff posture.

Ashley walked around the bar slowly, leaving his gun unhindered. He leaned back and tipped his hat up before wiping his brow. "You sure are a man that knows how to travel without leaving too many signs. I got a little lucky at the Rio, took a wild guess you'd use the downstream crossing. And after that storm last night, it's a good thing this here's the only place around to find a meal and a bed."

"Just so there's no misunderstandings," Vin said quietly, "I got a gun under this table pointed straight at your guts. Now where's the rest of that posse?"

"As far as I know, they're still in Texas," Ashley replied. "As far as I care, they can be in Hell. I'm here alone."

"What happened?" Vin asked suspiciously.

"One of those trackers of Edwards, the big one I think," Ashley replied with a grim smile, "knocked me upside the head and left me on foot."

"What'd they do that for?" Vin asked.

"I didn't agree with the shortcut Edwards decided take," Ashley answered.

"What shortcut?" Vin asked, eyebrows knitted in question.

"Edwards decided it'd be easier if they went after your friend to find out where you were going to be," Ashley replied deliberately.

Vin started to stand before he caught himself and sat back down. His face remained composed, but his eyes couldn't hide the overwhelming urge to bolt. "You sure that's where they're headed?"

"Yeah," Ashley replied. "Edwards was pretty set on making him talk, no matter what they had to do."

"He won't," Vin replied softly. "I know Buck, and he ain't going to talk."

"Then he's going to die," Ashley said flatly.

"I want to go and help Buck more than anything else in this world," Vin said slowly, "but I ain't going back as your prisoner."

Ashley turned to the shaking bartender. "You can go."

"Thank you, senor," he breathed as he made a hasty retreat out the door Ashley had just come in.

"I ain't letting you take me back," Vin vowed. "You try, and we're both fixing to die here."

"If you're as accurate as John says you are," Ashley agreed, pausing to pick his drink up without turning to look and taking a slow sip, holding it in the hand away from his gun. "And just so there's no misunderstandings, the second I even smell you're ready to pull that trigger, you're a dead man."

Vin drilled his sky blue eyes into the Texas Ranger and seemed to be looking right into Ashley's soul before he nodded. He slowly brought the gun out from under the table, let the hammer down and held his other hand up while he set the gun down. "There's no sense in both of us dying today."

"Okay," Ashley said, relaxing his posture a bit. "Now, do you think you can learn to trust a Texas Ranger?"

"In case you ain't noticed, we ain't in Texas anymore," Vin replied, cocking one eyebrow.

The seconds ticked by as the wanted man and the lawman stared at each other across the room.

A bone-weary Chris Larabee pulled his horse to a stop next to Ashley's horse tied to the hitching post. He looked around as he dismounted, tying his own horse to the post. His eyes lit up at the sight of a small crowd of peasants gathered in front of what appeared to be a cantina. One man in the middle was talking to the crowd, his arms waving wildly as he kept turning and pointing at the building. Chris made his way down the street and shouldered his way through the crowd. Just as he was about to step up to the door, it swung open and Ashley stepped through. As soon as the young Ranger caught sight of the glaring man in black, he drew up short.

Chris braced himself in a gunfighter's stance. "Hold it right there. My name's Chris Larabee and I'm looking for a friend of mine, Vin Tanner. Is he in there?"

Before Ashley could reply, Vin stepped out from behind him. "Chris?" he asked, his voice a mixture of relief and surprise.

As Vin made his way to him, Chris held out his arm. "You all right?" he asked as Vin clasped the offered arm.

"Yeah, I'm fine," Vin replied as Chris gave him a once over. "Just fine." He turned and offered a nod to Ashley, who tipped his hat and moved away from the door, walking over to retrieve his and Chris's horses.

"How'd you know where to find me?" Vin asked.

"I remembered you telling me about your friends down this way," Chris replied. "Figured once you were headed this way, it was a pretty good bet you'd be here."

Vin suddenly stopped in his tracks. "You find Buck?"

Chris's eyes flashed hard for a moment then he nodded and pulled his friend along. "He was still alive when I left," Chris answered tightly. "I'll tell you all about it on the way." As they talked in quiet tones, Vin walked into the livery to claim the horse he'd been riding.

* * * * * * *

Buck woke with a start, bathed in sweat and aching everywhere. His tongue worked its way out and over his dry lips as he slowly scanned the strange room, his gaze coming to rest on the black teenager sitting at the table reading a book. He stared at the boy as he tried to place the vaguely familiar face. As he raised his arm in an instinctive move to rub his hazy eyes, a groan escaped between his clenched teeth when the movement pulled on the injured shoulder. He squeezed his eyes tight in an effort to control the intense pain.

The sound and the movement caught Peter's attention and he looked up quickly, then he glanced over at the other man sleeping across the room. Scooting his chair back, he stepped toward the injured man's bed to see if he had been imagining the man's motion. Seeing Buck's strained facial expression, he turned and moved toward the other cot. "Mister Josiah," he said softly, shaking the big man's shoulder. He waited for the gray eyes to focus on him, then he said, "He's awake."

Josiah's eyes opened and he quickly recognized his surroundings. Leaning up on one elbow, he looked across the room. He watched Buck's tight posture relax and the breath hiss out between his teeth as the wave of pain passed. "Thanks, son," the ex-preacher said as he sat up and swung his feet onto the floor. Rubbing a hand over his face, he stood with a yawn and crossed the room. As he stood at the side of his friend's bed, he felt Peter come up next to him and touched his arm. When Josiah turned to the boy, he held out a steaming cup of coffee. Josiah took it with a nod of thanks, lowering himself back onto the wooden chair. As he took a cautious sip, his lips turned up in a grin as the blue eyes below him opened in response to the aroma of the brew in the cup.

"Got any more of that?" Buck asked hoarsely.

"No coffee just yet," Josiah replied, chuckling at the frown his answer produced. "Peter, bring me that broth your pa left?"

The teen nodded and went to the stove, bringing back the small, blackened pot, a spoon and a couple of biscuits off the plate wrapped in a napkin. He waited while Josiah cleared off the small bedside table then handed everything to him. He then looked down at the injured gunslinger with a smile. "My Pa's chicken broth'll cure just about anything," he boasted.

Buck looked up at the young man and returned a wan smile.

"Why don't you get me the pillows off my bed and help me sit him up a bit," Josiah suggested then he noticed the lengthening shadows as evening had come. "Then you best head on home. Your Pa'll be wanting you to eat, too."

Peter retrieved the pillows and moved to Buck's good side. Together they gently lifted him into a semi-sitting position and Josiah put the extra pillows behind the injured man to prop him up securely. As Peter moved toward the door, he turned back in response to Josiah deep voice.

"Thank you, son," he said sincerely. "You tell your father we appreciate all you've done today. And it looks like we should be okay tonight."

"Yes sir, Mister Josiah," Peter replied with a nod. "I'll be back first thing in the morning then."

As soon as the boy went out the door, Josiah turned back to the mustached man and stirred the contents of the pot. As he brought the spoon up to Buck's mouth, the other man frowned and shook his head.

"I can feed myself," he insisted, with a look that Josiah could only think of was a pout.

Josiah raised his eyebrow in response. "Think so?" he asked as he held the spoon out toward Buck's good hand.

Even as he grasped it, Buck soon realized he didn't have the strength to hold it, much less move it where he needed it to go. "Fine," he said crossly, passing it back to Josiah with a shaking hand.

"Here," Josiah said gently, putting one of the biscuits in his friend's outstretched hand. "This should be a little easier to manage."

Buck took the bread with a nod of thanks, and opened his mouth with a sigh as Josiah dipped the spoon into the broth and held it up to Buck's lips. He would get a few spoonfuls of broth before taking a bite of biscuit. Before long, the pot of broth was almost empty and both biscuits were gone.

Josiah set the pot down with a satisfied sigh. Then he held a mug up to Buck's lips and waited for him to drink.

"What the hell's in there?" Buck asked, sniffing suspiciously and weakly pushing it away with his good hand.

A rumbling chuckle escaped the big man. "Something Isaac left to help you sleep," Josiah replied, putting the cup in front of Buck again.

"I'd rather some more of that whiskey," Buck grumbled, casting a hopeful look at his friend.

"Nope," Josiah said with a firm shake of his head. "You drink this and I'll get you some water to chase it down, but that's all for now."

Buck grunted unhappily, but parted his lips and let Josiah tip the contents into his mouth. He was barely able to keep from coughing it back up, but finally managed to swallow the unpleasant tasting concoction. And true to his word, Josiah helped him drink a mug of water.

After Buck had his fill, Josiah set the mug down and reached over to check Buck's forehead for his temperature. As Buck closed his eyes and leaned back into his pillows, Josiah smiled in satisfaction. "Looks like the fever's going down." He checked under the bandage on his shoulder, relieved it hadn't started bleeding again. Finally he stood and stretched his tight muscles, then walked over to the stove and looked into the other pot. "Looks like Isaac left me a pot of chili," he commented out loud.

"Oh that's just great," Buck shot back.

Josiah ignored the barb as he dished out a bowl of the hearty contents, picked up the rest of the biscuits and made his way back to the bedside. By the time he sat down by his friend to eat his dinner, he could see something was bothering him. Ever since Buck had woken up, his eyes would drift toward the door every so often then he'd frown and worry on his bottom lip. "Something on your mind, Buck?"

"I didn't imagine Chris being here, did I?" he finally asked.

Josiah shook his head as he tried to swallow the mouthful of biscuit he had just bitten into. "No, we found you here yesterday morning. Peter brought you here after your horse came back to town without you."

"How long's he been gone?" Buck asked, twisting the fingers on his good hand in the sheet.

"Little over a day," Josiah replied, taking a quick gulp of water. "He went to bring Vin back, then we'll all be headed home."

"I bet Chris thought Vin was crazy to go back to Texas with just me to watch his back," Buck said, trying to sound like he was joking.

"He did mention something like that," Josiah replied with a grin.

"Guess he was right," Buck said almost too soft to be heard.

But the perceptive man next to him recognized the hesitant tone in his friend's voice. "Are you feeling okay, Brother Buck?"

"I'm fine," he breathed out, turning his face to the wall.

"No you're not," Josiah said gently but firmly. He reached over and turned Buck's face carefully back to him. "Now you listen to me, Buck Wilmington. You did what you thought was best to help a friend, and you damn near died doing it. So don't give me that ‘I'm fine' nonsense, when we both know you're not. There's no shame in being hurt and needing help. It happens to all of us at one time or another." Josiah stopped to take a breath. "Now I made Chris a promise that you'd be here alive and kicking when he brings Vin back, and if you think I want him or Vin gunning for me you got another think coming," he finished with a mysterious smile, thinking back to his earlier vow.

"I made a promise, too," Buck said defensively. "Didn't do my job good enough, and now Vin's on the run again ‘cause of me."

Suddenly Josiah's hand clamped down on Buck's good hand, making sure he had Buck's attention. "Did you kill Jess Kincaid?" Josiah demanded. "Did you kill Judge Roberts?" He sat and waited for the answer, which finally came in a small shake of the dark head. "Then you are not responsible for Vin's problems. Eli Joe and that Tyler fellow are."

Buck met the other's sincere gaze. "You suppose Chris sees it that way?" Buck asked.

"Oh hell yes!" Josiah replied with a hearty laugh. "I wouldn't want to be in Edwards's shoes when Chris catches up to that bunch."

"What are you talking about?" Buck asked, his brows knit in puzzlement. "I thought you said Chris went to find Vin."

"Oh, he did," Josiah replied. "But first he has some unfinished business with Edwards on the way. Something about them leaving a friend of his to die sure pissed him off good."

Buck looked up at Josiah in surprise and gratitude. Finally he relaxed and Josiah let go of his grip on the other man's hand and went back to eating his dinner. As Isaac's brew began to take effect, Buck's eyelids grew heavy and he fell back into a healing sleep. Josiah reached behind him and removed the extra pillows, allowing him to lie back down and rest.


Shortly before dawn, Josiah woke up to the sound of raised voices coming from the street. There was something very familiar about the loudest. It took him a moment to fully wake up and try to hear what was going on.

"BUCK!" he heard someone shouting, that someone being none other than JD Dunne. "VIN! Where are you?"

Then there was a soft knock on the door and Peter's head peeked inside. "Mister Josiah, there's some fellows here say they're friend of yours."

Josiah stood and moved toward the teenager, nodding and grinning as he joined him at the door. Glancing back to make sure Buck was still sleeping, he followed the teen outside. By the time they made their way through the brush and around the side of the cantina, he saw his friends as they stood by the wagon they had obviously traveled in. Ezra had finally gotten JD calmed down while Nathan was deep in conversation with Isaac.

"Josiah!" JD called out as soon as the big man made his way toward them from the shadows.

"Boy, you're making enough noise to raise the dead," he declared. "What's all the ruckus for?"

"He won't tell us where Buck is!" JD defended, sending an imitation Larabee glare at the older black man.

"You haven't given him much opportunity to speak," Ezra admonished, shaking his head before exchanging a knowing smile with Josiah.

"He's all right, JD," Nathan spoke up, nodding to Isaac. "These folks have been helping Josiah take care of him. Now hush before you wake the whole town."

"How'd you know where to find us?" Josiah asked, directing the question to the gambler, who was dusting his coat off.

"Shortly after we arrived in Pecos, someone sent a telegram from Fort Davis directing us to this quaint little village," Ezra replied. "The missive also made mention that our band's rogue had been injured and was in dire need of medical attention."

"Knowing where we were going sure saved us the time and trouble of following the trail Vin left trying to lose the posse," Nathan added.

"No telling how long it would've took us to get here if we went that way," JD said.

Josiah looked across at Isaac with a questioning look.

"I sent one of them no account cowhands hanging around the cantina to the Fort to send the message for me," Isaac replied with a shrug. "Just about every one of them owes me at least a favor or two."

"How bad off is he?" JD asked impatiently. "And where's Vin?"

"Why don't we get in off the street and I'll tell you everything," Josiah said, putting an arm around the younger man's shoulders and gently guiding him up the path toward the small house, Ezra and Nathan fell in behind after a nod of thanks to Isaac and Peter.

The first streaks of light were just peeking over the horizon as the group made its way inside. Letting Josiah in first, they waited inside the doorway as the ex-preacher found the matches and lit the lamp, turning the wick up to gently bathe the room in soft light.

JD paused as his eyes adjusted to the intrusion of the light, then bolted across the room as he found his fallen friend. He reached the end of the bed and stood shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "Is he going to be okay?" he whispered, turning back toward the rest of his friends.

"He will be if he can get some sleep," Buck grumbled without opening his eyes.

"Buck!" JD called then clamped a hand over his mouth when he saw Buck grimace in pain at his outburst. "Sorry," he said quieter. "Geez, Buck, you look…"

"Don't!" Buck cut him off quickly, opening his eyes to frown sternly at his young friend. "Don't even say it."

JD turned back to his friends then faced Buck uncertainly. He stood waiting nervously, then finally the blue eyes sparkled and Buck's face crinkled into a smile.

"Hey, kid," Buck said quietly. "How's your head?"

"It's okay," JD said, sighing in relief. "How's your shoulder?" he added, eyeing the bandage decorating the bedridden gunslinger.

"Have a seat," Buck said, indicating the chair next to the bed. "And I'll tell you all about it."

As JD was settling into the chair, Nathan looked at Josiah with the unspoken question in his eyes.

"Give him a couple of minutes," Josiah said, meeting the healer's brown eyes. "It was pretty rough, and there for awhile I really thought I was going lose him. I think he's over the worst of it, but I'm still glad you're here, Nathan. I don't ever want to have to do that again."

"How bad?" Nathan asked.

Josiah exchanged a troubled look with Nathan and Ezra before replying in a low voice. "First he got worked over pretty good by the Sheriff in Pecos, then Edwards and that posse caught up to him," he began. "They wanted to know where Vin was going after they split up, thought they could beat it out of Brother Buck."

"Not very likely," Ezra said angrily.

"From what we can figure out, either they were trying to scare Buck good or they gave up and were going to hang him out of pure spite. They left the rope hanging on the tree – it was still there when Chris and I found the camp." Josiah paused and exchanged a dark look with Nathan. "We found where Buck's horse was led under the noose, and then signs that it dug in its hooves and bolted. He got away and they shot him in the back then just left him there to die." He took a calming breath. "He was out there on the ground all night before the boy found him and brought him here. His pa was tending to him when we followed the tracks here."

Nathan had stood it as long as he could, finally crossing the room where the two dark heads were bobbing up and down in quiet conversation. "As much as I hate to break up your little party," he said lightly, but the look in his eyes left no room for arguing, "I need to get a look at how much trouble you're going to be the next couple of days."

Buck rolled his eyes dramatically. "Aw Nathan, you know how good a patient I can be."

"Yeah, I know," Nathan grumbled good-naturedly. "I know exactly what kind of patient you can be. I've had more than my share of practice lately."

JD stood and Buck sighed deeply. Nathan took the empty seat, jerking his head toward Ezra. "Can you bring that light over here?"

Ezra sat the lamp down on the bedside table. "I am glad to see you alive and well, Mister Wilmington," the gambler said with a smile.

"Well, I'm alive," Buck agreed. "Guess I'll have to let Nathan decide how well I am."

Nathan huffed as he turned the wick up on the lamp, bringing enough light into the room to cause the others to squint in response. He started by checking Buck's forehead for his temperature, finding it a little warm but not too much so. Then he went to the head wounds, nodding in satisfaction that they appeared to be minor and healing okay. The healer ran his hands over and under Buck's torso, pausing when the injured man suddenly jerked and sucked in a breath. "Little tender there?" Nathan asked, giving Buck a moment to let go of the breath he was holding. "A couple of ribs here on the left are broke. I'll have to wrap them up tight in a little bit. Try not to move around too much."

Buck just shot a glare up at the healer in response.

Finally Nathan braced himself for the worst. He gently peeled back the bandage, exposing the damage. He kept his best poker face on, not wanting to upset Buck if he could help it. The wound was still ugly and red, but had not started bleeding again since Josiah's ministrations. From what Nathan could see Josiah had done the right thing to seal up the lacerated blood vessels. He looked up at the big man and smiled in encouragement. "You did good, Josiah. Probably saved his life."

JD looked over at the man in gratitude. "Thanks, preacher," he said quietly, offering his hand.

Nathan looked back down at his patient. "I need to get a look at the other side." He waited for Buck to nod his understanding before motioning JD to the other side of the bed. Together they slowly brought Buck up and forward. Nathan leaned Buck's tall frame on JD while he moved to look at the entry wound. Lifting the bandage and gingerly probing the edges, he put the bandage back in place and helped JD move Buck back down to the bed. "Didn't hit any bone that I can find, and the bullet went straight through. Fever's about run its course, so now all we got to do is keep you still long enough to let it heal properly. I'm not kidding here, Buck. You go and try to do too much too soon you could lose the use of the arm. You understand me?"

Buck's eyes widened in concern. "You ain't just saying that, are you Nathan?"

"Nope," replied the healer. "That's a powerful lot of damage there, and it's going to take time and rest to heal. You do what you're told, and in time it should be right as rain."

"Don't worry about it, Nathan," said JD, standing up and stretching, a mischievous light in his eye. "I'll see to it personally if I have to."

"Oh, now that sounds like fun," Buck mumbled.

"Okay, I think we all better get some sleep, including my patient here," Josiah said, exchanging a smile with Nathan.

"Now wait just one damn minute," Buck protested weakly. "It's bad enough I have JD on my back..."

"Quit while you're ahead, Mister Wilmington," Ezra added, holding up one hand and smiling down at the bedridden man. "I think this is one battle you are destined to lose."

Just as he was about to glare up at the Southerner, a yawn escaped and Buck could barely keep his eyes open. "Fine," he growled, blinking his eyes tiredly. "We'll talk about it later." As his friends watched over him, he gave into the urge to sleep.

Josiah reached over to the lamp and lowered the wick. Before long, the other men who had traveled through the night to find their friends joined him in slumber. Josiah pulled the curtains closed to help keep out the bright morning light so his friends could sleep.

Josiah walked down to the livery. He spent the morning with Isaac and Peter, helping them with work that had been put off while the father and son had been helping Josiah and his friend. He helped Isaac prepare lunch then he and Peter put everything on trays and carried it up to the small house. Josiah was chuckling before they reached the front porch, listening to the argument coming from inside.

"Come on, Nathan. I ain't been out of this bed in three days," Buck was saying.

"And if I had my way, you wouldn't be for at least another three," Nathan countered. "You lost a lot of blood – you got to give yourself time to heal. It's going to be a while before you can use that arm."

"I promise I'll take it easy," Buck was trying to charm the irritated healer as Josiah opened the door and stepped inside. "I just got to get my legs under me for a little bit."

"Good – lunch is here," Nathan said, going to help Peter set things on the table. The dark-skinned healer gave the boy a nod of thanks as he went out the door. Nathan turned to his injured friend. "Tell you what, get a good lunch in you, and I'll think about letting JD take you as far as that bench on the front porch."

"I do not need no nursemaid," Buck replied, scowling at the young Easterner looming over him with his arms folded across his chest triumphantly.

"Take it or leave it," Nathan said. "I got better things to do with my time than sit on you to keep you down."

"All right, all right," Buck reluctantly conceded. "So what's for lunch?" he asked, sitting up a little higher and trying to peer around JD.

Three of the men gathered around the table, making room for JD to fill two plates. JD brought them over and took his seat next to the bed. He set the food down on the small table and helped Buck into a more comfortable sitting position, then set Buck's plate on his lap.

"Thanks, Kid," he said quietly.

JD just gave him a quick grin and a nod before picking up his fork and digging in. "You better eat," JD said around the mouthful of food. "I ain't got all day."

Buck picked up the fork and sighed in gratitude that this time he could actually hold the utensil. He looked down at his plate of scrambled eggs and potatoes, then over at JD's roast pork sandwich and beans.

"Don't even think about, Buck," Nathan cautioned, seeing the ladies man look back down at his plate and wrinkle his nose. "You need to start out easy."

"Great," he grumbled, but he scooped up a forkful and put it in his mouth.

Nathan elbowed Josiah, who in turn got Ezra's attention and they watched Buck's expression change from one of disdain to sheer bliss as he ate real food for the first time in days.

He didn't stop until the plate was clean, only then looking up to notice he had an audience. "What?!" he demanded. The others just shook their heads and chuckled, turning their attention to their own meals. "Got any more?" Buck whispered to JD, who set his plate down and went over to the table and got his friend another helping, adding some canned peaches to the plate.

When everyone had finished eating, Nathan helped Buck maneuver his pants back on, along with his boots. With JD's help, they slowly and carefully brought Buck up to a standing position. Nathan watched in concern as even that little effort took Buck's breath away. "Maybe we ought to wait..." he began.

"No!" Buck hissed out. "I'm tired of being on my backside. I'll be fine."

Nathan bit his lip and looked at his friend skeptically. But knowing the man's pride was at stake, he gave Buck time to recover before releasing his hold and turning him over to JD. "Not one step past that bench, do you hear me?"

"Yeah, Nathan," JD answered with a nod. "We hear you."

The three older men shadowed the other two to the door, Ezra's eyes rolling in relief as JD helped Buck into the sunlight and over to the wooden bench under the barred window.

"Is there anywhere in this dreary locale that might pass for a saloon?" Ezra drawled. "I don't know about you gentlemen, but I could certainly use a libation."

"Why don't we go on down to the cantina?" Josiah suggested.

"You'll be all right there, Buck?" Nathan said, watching his patient breathing through a wave of pain.

"Go on," JD answered. "We'll be fine."

Buck finally opened his eyes and nodded back at Nathan, who smiled and turned to join the other two as they walked down the path. "You can go too if you want, JD," Buck said.

"Nah," the younger man answered, sitting down on the bench next to the taller man. "I'm not really in the mood." He leaned back against the wall and adjusted his hat to cover his eyes.

Buck just smiled and settled into a more comfortable position, basking in the warmth of the sunlight.

As the afternoon sun began to make its way down in the sky, three dusty figures rode into town. They pulled up in front of the livery and dismounted. Peter smiled as he gathered the reins and pointed in the direction of the cantina. Isaac came out to join them and they walked over together.

Just as they reached the door, it opened and three other men came out. They were talking among themselves and didn't notice the newcomers right away until Chris Larabee cleared his throat.

"Mister Larabee, Mister Tanner, what a pleasant surprise," Ezra said with a tip of his flat brimmed hat, eyeing the young Texas Ranger cautiously.

"Where's Buck?" Vin blurted out. "How is he?"

"Come on, you can see for yourself," Josiah said as he offered Vin his hand. "Good to have you back, Vin." With a wave of his other hand, he led the others to the path leading out back.

Ashley stood back as the others moved to follow the big man. Catching Chris's eye, he nodded back towards the cantina. "I'm going to see about getting some dinner and a room for the night. I'll catch up with you in the morning."

Chris nodded in reply then strode to catch up with the others. As the group came into view of the house, Chris saw Nathan suddenly stop and swear.

"I'll kill him myself," the healer muttered. "JD!" he called out.

Vin turned to Josiah with a question in his eyes.

"Brother Buck was not supposed to move from that bench, and it was JD's job to keep him there," Josiah replied with a soft chuckle and a shake of his head.

"I am afraid Mister Jackson is just a tad upset," Ezra added, watching Nathan stride ahead of the group.

"I'm right here, Nathan," JD's voice came from the side of the house. "What're you yelling about?"

"Where the hell is Buck and why isn't he on that bench where he's supposed to be?" Nathan demanded, hands on his hips as he waited for JD to appear. The others came to a stop beside him.

"Good lord, Nathan," called Buck's deeper voice. "A man can't go to the privvy without you announcing it to the whole world? JD was just helping me back to my bed."

The two slowly made their way around the corner and into the line of sight of the group of men. Vin watched in concern as he noticed the way Buck was leaning heavily on JD and the sheen of perspiration on the rogue's face. He took a step toward his friends and was at their side in a few strides.

"Hey, Bucklin," he said quietly, going to Buck's other side. He reached out to take his friend's arm then pulled back at the sight of the heavy bandage holding the arm tight to the other man's chest.

"Hey Vin," Buck grinned broadly and came to a shaky stop. He pulled his right arm away from JD and offered his hand to the tracker. "Good to see you back in one piece." He looked over Vin's shoulder and caught Chris's quizzical gaze, offering him a reassuring nod.

"You too," Vin said, eyeing the bruises on his abdomen with a frown.

"I'm fine, Vin," Buck said, seeing the anger and guilt in his friend's expression. "Weren't your fault."

JD looked at the tracker and offered a quick nod, giving up his place and letting Vin take Buck's arm to help him back inside.

Chris watched with the others as Vin helped his oldest friend inside. He swallowed hard before he turned and stepped toward the two black men standing apart. "I owe you more than I can ever pay," he said thickly.

"You don't owe me nothing," Isaac said with a firm shake of his head. "It's the Almighty's doing."

"Never deny His help," Josiah said softly, watching JD disappear into the doorway behind Vin and Buck.

"Truth be told, Chris," Nathan said with a pat on the ex-preacher's back. "Josiah here did as much to save him as anyone."

"I appreciate it, Preacher," Chris said, grasping Josiah's hand firmly. Then he led the group into the small house.

After dinner and a late night of quiet conversation, where everyone had a turn telling his story of the last few harrowing days, Chris declared if they didn't all get some sleep, he was leaving for Four Corners with or without them.

* * * * * * *

The sun had barely risen before the small house was buzzing with activity. Vin had already harnessed horses to the wagon and brought it up from the livery, then took JD back with him to saddle the rest of the horses they'd be riding. Somewhere along the way, the young Texas Ranger joined them and helped them with the last horses, leading his own mount to join the small army at the adobe house.

Isaac and Peter brought a light breakfast for everyone. They handed Josiah a box of supplies, enough food to last the two or three days it would take to get Buck back to Pecos at a much slower pace than the ones they had all taken to get where they were. When all was said and done, it was decided that Pecos should be their first stop. There was still the matter of Judge Roberts' death to be dealt with, and Nathan wanted the doctor in Pecos to take a look at the injured man's shoulder.

With Isaac's permission, they took the mattress off the cot and made Buck a pallet on the floor of the wagon. Using their bedrolls, they settled him into a partially sitting position. Nathan kept one bedroll in reserve, in case the day got too hot and they needed to make a tent over the injured man. Buck was getting more and more short-tempered as his friends made plans and talked around him like he wasn't even there.

Finally they were ready to go. Josiah was driving the wagon team, Nathan beside him to keep an eye on Buck. Chris and Vin rode out front, with Ezra and JD bringing up the rear. Ashley rode off to the side, not sure he was welcome in the tight group. After a heartfelt goodbye to Isaac and his son, Josiah flicked the reins and sent the wagon lumbering down the trail.

* * * * * * *

Two long days of slow going finally brought them to the outskirts of the Texas town just as the sun was setting. They rode straight up to the door of the hotel, those on horseback dismounting and tying their reins to the hitching post. They ignored the group of bystanders that had come out of the saloon as they all helped lift the injured man out of the wagon and into the cool hotel lobby. Two days in the blistering Texas sun had taken its toll and his fever had started to climb again. By the time they pulled to a stop, Buck was barely aware of being carried up the stairs and into the room they had all shared at one time or another.

Settling Buck into the bed by the windows, Nathan threw them open in an attempt to take advantage of the mild breeze blowing in from the north. "I need water," he said, pointing the out pitcher to the hovering JD. While the younger man ran from the room, Nathan laid out a few supplies and poured a powdery substance into a glass, waiting for JD to return with the water to dissolve it and get the fevered man to drink it.

While JD was helping Nathan, Chris and Vin, along with Ashley, went in search of the new Sheriff. That left Josiah and Ezra with the wagon and horses. Two of the cowboys from the saloon suddenly detached themselves from the group of curious onlookers and approached the two peacekeepers from Four Corners.

"What the hell are you doing with my horse?" one bellowed at Ezra, who was standing next to the horse JD had been riding, the one Buck had been riding, the one Vin had ‘borrowed' what seemed like a lifetime ago.

"I beg your pardon?" Ezra asked, taking a defensive stance in response to the obvious hostile attitude of the man coming at him.

"That's my horse," the cowboy declared, not stopping until he was almost eye to eye with the gambler. "One of them killers stole it when they escaped from jail."

Ezra couldn't resist the urge to wave his hand in front of his nose to fan the offensive odor of cheap whiskey emanating from the man in front of him. "I assure you, my good…" Ezra began, his sentence cut off as he ducked the man's swinging fist.

Before he could swing again, the obnoxious cowhand found himself enveloped in a crushing bear hug, courtesy of the big ex-priest. Before the second cowboy could react, Ezra had his derringer out and pointed right between the man's eyes. The other cowboy stopped in his tracks and slowly raised his hands.

"Ezra!" he heard Larabee calling his name, as well as the sounds of several pairs of boot falls running toward them.

"Josiah, put him down," Vin called out, reaching out to carefully take hold of Josiah's arm.

The enraged man recognized his friend and unceremoniously dropped the choking man onto the ground. Ezra snapped his little gun back into its holster and allowed the second cowboy to go to his gasping friend.

"What's going on here?" Ashley asked, taking in all four men in a glance.

"Them two stole our horses," the second cowboy replied, not quite as drunk as his friend. He pointed out the two borrowed horses in between the ones belonging to Chris and Josiah.

"Did you see who stole your horses?" Ashley asked. Both men shook their heads. "You see who rode them back to town?" They shook their heads again. "Then maybe you ought to thank these gents for bringing them back from where they found them wandering out in the desert."

The two confused cowhands exchanged a glance and slowly stood. They skirted past Josiah and walked up to where Vin was untying the reins. He stroked each horse's neck as he whispered in an Indian dialect that no one else understood before turning the horses over to the two cowboys.

As they walked away, the second cowboy turned to the other. "Hey look," he said, "my rifle's even still here."

"Oh shut up," groused his drunken partner as they mounted the horses and rode past the hotel on their way out of town.

"Vin?" Chris asked.

"I was thanking them for taking good care of us," Vin replied with a proud grin.

"That they did, brother," Josiah said, grasping Vin's shoulder firmly. "That they did."

"Sheriff Slaughter and Judge Underwood want to talk to us all," Chris said as soon as he had everyone's attention, "in the saloon."

"Can it not wait until we've refreshed ourselves first?" Ezra complained, taking his handkerchief out and dipping into the cool water of the water trough before wiping the back of his neck and his brow.

"They want to get everybody's story at the same time, the sooner the better," Ashley replied. "That way maybe there won't be quite so many rumors getting started."

"Well, somebody's got to stay with Buck," Vin pointed out.

"Josiah, go get JD," Chris ordered. "Leave Nathan with Buck for now. Tell the Kid he can give Nathan a break as soon as we talk to the Sheriff."

The big man nodded and bounded up the steps into the hotel; the rest followed Chris across the street and inside the swinging doors of the saloon.

* * * * * * *

Sandy couldn't help but smile as she came out of the hotel, carrying the empty tray. Vin Tanner was back and still in one piece, but the best news of all was that Buck Wilmington was still alive – a little worse for wear, but the young Sheriff assured her he'd be okay. It was Katy's idea that Sandy should take the dinner tray up to the injured man and the healer that was tending to him. Sandy had just left the room, leaving the food with Nathan Jackson and stepping up to Buck's bedside, gently running her fingers through his thick curls. She bent close and placed a tender kiss on his cheek. Buck had tossed his head back and forth but hadn't woken up. Nathan had explained that he'd given Buck a sleeping potion that was going to help bring his fever down, but he'd probably be asleep most of the night.

As she stepped off the boardwalk at the opening to the alley, a sound in the dark drew her attention and she peered into the alley to see what it was. The cool breeze picked up and she clutched her shawl around her tighter as she was almost to the other side of the opening. A sudden movement had her flattening herself against the building, her eyes adjusting to the black night. A door opened somewhere, momentarily flooding the back of the hotel with light. Sandy pressed her hand to her mouth to keep herself from screaming out loud, as a familiar figure was sneaking up the back stairs of the hotel. As quickly as it had come, the light was gone and the furtive shape continued towards the second story landing. Sandy released the breath she had been holding and ran screaming across the street. "Sheriff! Mister Larabee! He's here! Vin, you have to help him! He's here!"

Ex-Marshall Quentin Edwards swore out loud then bounded up the stairs, running across the landing. He ran to the door leading to the corner room and slammed the door open with a powerful kick. Before the dark-skinned man had time to react, Edwards clubbed him with the stock of the rifle he had taken from Tyler's dead hands. Nathan fell to the floor in a boneless heap. Edwards slammed the door closed behind him, panting as he looked around the room, the barrel of the rifle following his line of sight. His eyes widened in astonishment at the man sleeping on the bed. "You're supposed to be dead!" Edwards hissed then he cackled insanely. "But so am I."

"Sandy! What's wrong?" Katy asked, catching her terrified friend as she tripped up the steps into the saloon.

"He's here!" she whispered, the terror in her voice evident. Her head swiveled around the crowd, not seeing the ones she was looking for.

"Who's here?" came a voice Sandy recognized.

"Vin!" She reached out, grabbing his coat sleeve. "Edwards – He's here! – he was sneaking into the hotel… up the back stairs," she managed to get out between gasps. She looked into the disbelieving blue eyes, knowing that Chris Larabee himself had said Edwards had died in the desert. "I know what I saw! It was him. He was going up the back stairs!"

By that time, the other four men had gathered around. Vin looked up at Chris, who shook his head.

"It can't be Edwards," Chris said resolutely. "He was already half-dead, no water…"

"We didn't think Buck was going to survive either," Josiah said quietly.

"I ain't waiting around here," JD declared. "You guys can argue all you want." With that, he charged out the door, drawing his pistol as he went.

"JD! Wait!" called Chris after his retreating form, but the young Easterner just kept going.

Vin and Chris exchanged another look. "He couldn't have survived another day without water," Chris insisted.

"What about that storm?" Ashley suddenly interjected. "The one that chased us into Ojinaga?"

"Damn!" Chris suddenly stood and turned to follow JD's path, then a shot rang out from the direction of the hotel. Chris didn't have to look to see if the rest were following him. Slaughter and Ashley joined the rush out of the saloon.

Underwood suddenly blocked the doorway, keeping the rest of the patrons inside. "Let the Sheriff handle this," he urged quietly. He caught the eye of one of the still-employed deputies and motioned for the younger man to join him. They were barely able to keep Katy and Sandy inside. The two women finally took up position at the closest window facing the hotel.

"I'm going high," Vin called out, breaking away from the rest and using the canopy across the front of the hotel to pull himself up onto the roof.

Chris motioned Josiah and Ezra to the back, Slaughter sent Ashley with them. It stood to reason that if Edwards had picked up partners before, he might have found others. Chris and Slaughter approached the stairs carefully.

"JD! Are you all right?" Chris called softly as he spotted the younger man lying on his stomach at the top of the stairs.

"Yeah, I'm fine!" JD whispered back. "There's somebody in there with Buck and Nathan. He took a shot at me."

"You hit?" Chris asked.

"No, he missed," JD answered.

"What'd he look like?" Chris asked.

"Like death warmed over," JD said, shuddering at the vacant look he saw in the other man's eyes. "Kind of skinny, bald, had a bum arm," JD continued.

"That's Edwards," Chris seethed. "I should have finished him myself."

"Larabee!" came Edwards' voice from inside the room. "Chris Larabee! I know you're out there! Answer me!"

"What do you want, Edwards?" Chris responded.

"You know what I want, Larabee," Edwards replied shrilly. "I want Vin Tanner – now!"

Chris frowned and worried on his bottom lip for a second. "He ain't here – him and that Ranger you cold cocked got into a shoot out down in Ojinaga – Tanner's dead."

"You're lying," Edwards screeched. "Ain't no way Tanner let that greenhorn take him! I saw him riding with you back into town. You get him in here or you're going to be missing more than one friend! I got Wilmington in here, and some darkie doctor. Tell Tanner he's got one minute or I start shooting."

Edwards was so caught up in his tirade, he didn't see Buck throw his covers off and sit up slowly, shaking his head groggily.

"You ain't got any way out of there," Slaughter called out. "Come out with your hands up now, and you won't get hurt. You got my word."

"You get that murdering bounty hunter in here now," Edwards bellowed. "Or I'm going to put a bullet in Wilmington's right eye right now." They all heard the ominous click of a hammer locking into place.

"No!" JD cried, making a run for the door.

"JD!" Chris hissed, but he was too far away to grab him. He couldn't stop the boy.

Hearing the cry and the approaching footfalls, Edwards raised the rifle. Just as JD crashed into the room, Buck threw himself at the crazed ex-lawman, knocking him off his feet as he fired at the young Sheriff. The shot went wild, catching JD in the leg and sending him stumbling into the wash basin. His gun went flying out of his hand as his skull connected hard with the porcelain fixture. He lay unmoving on the floor. Buck's eyes went wide and he started crawling toward his friend. He was holding his breath until he saw JD roll over with a low moan.

Edwards turned back to the feverish rogue, using a boot to halt his progress and roll him over onto his back. He pointed the gun directly at Buck's heart. "I am sick and tired of you getting in my way!" he yelled, pulling back the hammer.

The big man closed his eyes and waited for the shot to come. When it did, it surprised Buck that he didn't feel the pain he was expecting. Then he heard a crash and opened his eyes. He was just in time to see Edwards staggering to his feet on the balcony outside having been knocked out of the window by Vin's shot.

Then the obsessed lunatic lost his balance, screaming as he went over the rail to the ground below.

Vin came into the room from the doorway leading to the adjoining room, where he'd made his way in from the roof. He looked around not knowing which of his friends needed his help first.

"Buck!" came Chris's anxious voice from the other side of the closed door. "Nathan! Are you all right?"

"Yeah, they're fine, Cowboy," Vin replied, kneeling next to the gentle rogue. "Right, Bucklin?"

"Thanks, Vin," Buck replied hoarsely.

"Nah," Vin replied with a shake of his head. "I figure we're even now." He stood to open the door for Chris, knowing the man in black was about to have an apoplectic fit.

"He dead this time?" Buck asked, craning his head toward the window.

"Most assuredly," came Ezra's Southern drawl, startling the tracker. He lowered his mare's leg as Ezra stepped over the broken glass and reached in to open the outside door.

As soon as the interior door was open, Vin moved to join Ezra on the balcony. He looked down where Josiah and Ashley were kneeling beside the body of Edwards. He heard Chris and Slaughter enter the room behind him, checking on the injured men.

Slaughter ordered one of the hotel employees to fetch the doctor for the unconscious Nathan, while Chris was trying to keep Buck from getting up and going to JD. Finally JD came around and made his way over to his mentor, helping Chris get Buck off the floor and back into bed. When Chris saw JD limping, he spotted the blood on his pants leg and ordered him to sit on the other bed.

It was late into the night by the time everything settled down and everything was sorted out. Ashley found Marty's horse tied behind the livery, leading everyone to the conclusion that Edwards must have been revived by the rain that came with the storm the night Chris left him in the desert. He made his way by backtracking to his dead partners, taking their horses and rifles, finally coming back to Pecos to wait for the Four Corners peacekeepers.

After determining Nathan was suffering from a mild concussion, the Pecos doctor had the Four Corners healer moved into the adjoining room, where Josiah and Ezra took turns keeping a watch over him. The bullet that hit JD went through the back of his calf without hitting bone or major artery. After stitching the exit and entry wounds, the doctor gave the young Sheriff a stiff dose of laudanum and soon he was softly snoring in the bed next to Buck. Buck had watched as the doctor worked on his young friend, relaxing only when he was assured JD would be fine. Chris finally had to force Buck to take the medication the doctor left for him to help with his fever. Buck sniffed at the concoction, swearing it smelled just like the potion Nathan had given him earlier. The leader of the Seven fell asleep in the chair with his feet propped up on the bed as he sat next to his oldest friend. Vin smiled as he wandered between the two rooms filled with the sounds of snoring. When he was sure everybody was accounted for, he picked up his bedroll and laid it out on the floor in front of the door, making sure his mare's leg was close at hand. The hotel had been kind enough to offer a third room for the rest of the Seven to use, but Vin wasn't ready to leave his friends – his family – just yet. ‘Maybe tomorrow', he thought to himself as he rolled his coat into a pillow. He was asleep almost as soon as his head touched his pillow.

Chris was up at sunrise, smoking a cheroot as he watched the sky lighten from the balcony of the hotel.

Slaughter was waiting for Chris as he made his way into the hotel's dining room. Chris took the chair he offered and the waitress brought him a cup of coffee. He declined breakfast, choosing to eat with his friends when they woke up.

"So what now?" Slaughter asked.

"Soon as they're ready to ride, we're heading home," Chris replied.

"How long do you think that'll be?" Slaughter asked.

"Couple of days, just as soon as Buck's fever's down again," Chris answered.

"What do you think we should do about Tanner?" the Ranger asked as he took a sip of his coffee.

"Meaning?" Chris asked, his eyes narrowing.

"Seems to me he's still a wanted man in Texas, outside of Pecos at least," Slaughter replied. "Might not be in his best interest to wait around. I can't just let him go, so just to be on the safe side I could deputize you and release him into your custody, seeing as you're working for Judge Travis ain't official."

"Yeah, you could," Chris agreed, a relieved smile on his lips. "And seeing as I have to pick up a couple of our horses on the way back, we could get an early start."

"Might be best," Slaughter nodded as he rose. "Nice seeing you again, Chris Larabee."

"Again?" Chris asked as the man walked away.

Slaughter turned back with a broad grin that reminded Chris of his mustached friend upstairs. "Ask Wilmington, he'll tell you all about it."

Chris shook his head as he stood and walked back upstairs.

* * * * * * *

"We'll be fine, Buck," Vin sighed. "Quit worrying. Besides, what could happen with Chris along for the ride?"

Before the recovering scoundrel could open his mouth, Chris held a hand up. "Shut up, Buck."

As soon as everyone had finished breakfast, Chris broke the news that he and Vin were leaving that morning. They would go on horseback and pick up Peso and Buck's gray on the way home. The rest of the Seven were to take the train that would be headed west in two days. That would put them all getting home about the same time.

Nathan was satisfied, as it would give his head, JD's leg and Buck's shoulder time to heal, and going by train would be much easier on all of them. Ezra was happy to have the chance to try his skill or his luck on a whole new town of potential victims. Josiah was looking forward to visiting the old Spanish mission outside of town. Only Buck and JD weren't happy to be staying behind, at least until Katy and Sandy came to see Buck and promised to help him feel better. All of a sudden staying behind didn't seem like such a bad idea to the ladies man.

So it was that Buck stood on the balcony and waved goodbye as Chris and Vin led their horses out of town, heading West.

Vin turned once before they were out of sight and waved back. He turned to Chris with a smile. "He's a good man."

Chris nodded in agreement.

"You were wrong," Vin said seriously, waiting for Chris to look at him. "About Buck coming with me to Texas being a mistake. Man proves he's a friend more by his actions than his words. What he did proved he's a good friend."

"Never doubted that for a minute," Chris agreed. Then his face broke out in a silly grin. "Did I ever tell you about the time Buck and me…"

The End

Feedback welcome: