Early the next morning, Chris sat outside the jail, cradling a cup of coffee in his hands and frowning thoughtfully as he stared down the street. JD was standing out in front of the livery stable, engaged in what looked to be a lively conversation with Tiny, the stable hand. Both men were gesturing wildly, and, as Chris watched, JD whipped his bowler off his head and ran his fingers through his long, thick hair in the familiar gesture of frustration. Then he said something to Tiny, jabbing the man in the chest with a forefinger, and Tiny bowed his head, his thick shoulders slumping. His interest piqued, Chris drained the remains of his coffee in one swallow, then set the cup aside and rose to his feet, heading down the boardwalk for the livery.

From the corner of his eye, JD saw the glimmer of black and turned his head to see Larabee approaching. "Oh, shit," he groaned as his stomach clenched in dread. Then, turning back to Tiny, he glared at the man and said harshly, "You gotta tell him. If you don't, I will!"

Tiny stared past the young sheriff to the approaching gunfighter and swallowed rapidly, repeatedly, his Adam's apple working furiously. Larabee. Jesus, it would have to be Larabee! At least Tanner wasn't with him.

He might just have time ta leave town...

"Mornin', JD, Tiny," Chris greeted in a low, calm voice, easily picking up on the tension between the two. "There a problem here?"

Tiny looked up at the gunman and swallowed again, his stomach churning sickly. He'd never considered himself a coward, wasn't a man who feared much at all, but Chris Larabee could strike terror into the heart of a stone, especially when he was pissed.

And what Tiny had to tell him now would likely carry Larabee straight past pissed and right into murder.

Chris leveled a piercing green stare at the short, broad man, his face betraying not a hint of emotion. "You and JD seemed to be havin' a heated talk." A blond brow flicked upward. "There somethin' I should know?"

JD watched Larabee with fascination, wondering if he had been born with that stare, or if it were something he'd developed over time. There were times the young sheriff fully expected to see the man burn a hole in whoever he was staring at.

Tiny licked his lips, then swallowed again, then cleared his throat. He was shifting his weight from one foot to the other, and couldn't quite decide what to do with his hands. They clenched at his sides, then went to his hips, behind his back, into his pockets, and back down to his sides. He was a stout man, but those unholy green eyes made him feel smaller than Billy Travis.

And still Chris stared. "There somethin' you need ta tell me?" he asked softly, but without a trace of gentleness.

Tiny shuddered at that tone. Filled with ice, it was, and shot through with menace. He'd heard it a number of times, and usually just before somebody got shot.

"I swear I locked up last night!" he finally blurted out. "But they got in... damn horse thieves... Hell, who'da thought they'd be that bold? But they got in... an' they took him... Please, sweet Jesus, please!" he almost sobbed, clutching frantically at Chris's arm. "Please, don't let him kill me!"

Chris stared down at the hand, then lifted his gaze back to Tiny's face. "I don't know who `he' is," he said quietly, "but I don't think right now `he's' your biggest problem."

Tiny immediately let go and stepped back. But his eyes remained frantic, his long-haired head shaking, his bearded face a mask of outright terror. "I know how he feels about that goddamn horse!" he gasped, his normally even voice quavering and cracking. "And I know... I know what he can do... Seen him do it... Jesus, Mr. Larabee," he groaned, almost sick with anguish, "I'd never let anything happen to Peso! You know I wouldn't!"

The words hit Chris like a shot, snapped his head up and whipped him around to face JD. "What?" he spat through clenched teeth, green eyes glittering in his savage face.

JD stepped back instinctively, swallowing hard before that murderous stare. "It... It's Peso," he stammered. "He's gone. Stolen."

"Shit!" Chris hissed, pushing past the boy and running into the stable. Once inside he stopped, his eyes widening as he saw the destruction left in the wake of a clearly hellatious fight. Then his gaze flew to the empty stall where Peso should have stood, took in the shattered door, and a hard, hot wave of fury erupted through him. "Goddamn it!" he snarled, stalking forward and hoping against hope there had been some enormous, incredible mistake. Peso was a born troublemaker; maybe he'd just kicked through and wandered off. If any horse could do it, it would be that big, hammer-headed black.

And God knew it was like Peso to smash whatever got in his way...

JD raced inside, his eyes wide, his heart hammering wildly in his chest. "I've already looked, Chris," he gasped. "He ain't anywhere. Ain't in the corral outside, ain't in none'a the other stables, ain't hitched anywhere in town, ain't even wanderin' around loose."

Chris narrowed his eyes, scowling murderously. "You check the Drover's Palace?" he asked of the fancy restaurant favored by the wealthy ranchers of the area. "Last time that goddamn mule got loose he wandered in there. Seems ta like the flowers they keep on the tables. He sure ate enough of 'em."

"I checked, but I'll check again." JD suddenly chuckled. "Now you're doin' it."

Chris turned and leveled his glare at JD. "What?"

The boy cleared his throat and sobered at once. "Uh, you called Peso a `mule.' Now Vin's got you doin' it."

Chris clenched his teeth. "Go... check... the goddamn... restaurant!"

"Sure thing." JD whirled around and sped away.

When the sheriff was gone, Chris fell against a nearby post and hung his head, closing his eyes. Shit. SHIT! Shitshitshitshitshit...

"Somethin' wrong, pard?" Buck asked as he entered the livery, returning from his night on the range and leading his grey. "Tiny's outside, lookin' like he can't decide whether ta puke or cry, JD's runnin' down the street like his feet are on fire, and here you are, lookin' like you got a gut full'a nails... Shee-it," he drawled in amazement, suddenly noticing the destruction about him. "You boys tie one on after I left last night?"

Chris never raised his head, never opened his eyes. "Take a look behind me, Buck," he ordered quietly, "and tell me whatcha see."

Wilmington lifted his brows at the strange request, but knew better than to ask any questions when Larabee used that tone. Frowning in concentration, he stepped up to Chris and swept his gaze over the appointed area, utterly bewildered. "Well, let's see," he said slowly. "I see stalls-"

"Any of 'em not look right ta you?" Chris prompted softly.

Buck tilted his head to one side, then to the other, then turned to one side to use his peripheral vision. "Uh... door's been bashed in real good?" he ventured.

"Goddamn it, Buck!" Chris snarled, whipping around and pointing at the stall. "It's empty!"

Buck licked his lips slowly and nodded. "Yup, she is that, pard." He frowned at Chris. "I take it there's s'posed ta be somethin' in it?"

"Yes!" Chris hissed. "Big black gelding with a white blaze, stands about so high," he raised a hand accordingly, "and is the meanest sonuvabitchin' horse this side'a hell! Sound familiar?"

"Oh, shit, yeah!" Buck breathed as realization dawned. "This is Peso's stall. Aw, hell," he groaned, "don't tell me! Damn horse kicked down the door and wandered off. Hell, ain't that just like 'im? I swear, if that animal found himself shoulders high in clover, he'd go lookin' for a desert just ta be contrary! That damn horse has more wanderlust than Vin." His blue eyes lit up as an idea hit. "Say, anybody checked the Drover's Palace? He sure seemed to like Miss Beatrice's pecan pie the last time he was there." He laughed aloud at the memory of the last time Peso had gotten loose. "Thought he was gonna give that sonuvabitch James a heart attack, just moseyin' up ta his table an' eatin' the pie right off that bastard's plate!" He slapped his thigh, still crowing with delight. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear ol' Vin put him up ta that one!"

Chris merely stared up at Buck in helpless, frustrated silence, unable even to manage a decent threat.

"Or how 'bout Miz Doyle's laundry?" Buck continued helpfully, ignoring the storm warning in Chris's eyes. "I seem ta recall Peso gettin' loose once and just runnin' plumb through all her wash tubs." He laughed again and shook his head. "Hell, that time I thought Vin was gonna have heart failure! Ain't ever seen that boy turn quite that shade'a red before. It was two months before he could bring himself ta take his clothes ta Miz Doyle for washin'. And even then, it was all he could do ta speak to her. Thought he was gonna choke on his own tongue..." He looked again at the shattered door and whistled under his breath. "Still, even for Peso, this is impressive. Guess he just got tired'a pickin' all them locks Tiny has ta devise for 'im."

"He's not there!" JD reported breathlessly, running back into the livery. "I checked the Drover's Palace, the hotel, the saloon... By the way, Inez said if Peso comes in there, he's supper for the drunks." He stopped at the two older men and stared up at them. "So... what're we gonna tell Vin?"

Buck looked from Chris to JD and back to Larabee, frowning in confusion. "And just exactly what are we tellin' Vin?"

"Jeez, Chris, didn't you tell him?" JD asked incredulously. "Peso's been stolen, Buck! The rustlers we been after? They got in last night, took off with Peso. And Tiny's about ready ta cut his own throat just ta keep Vin from doin' it."

"Whoa, hold hard there, son," Buck said with a laugh, raising big hands. "Whatta ya mean Peso's been stolen? Who the hell would steal him? Shit, who the hell could steal him? Without losin' a few body parts, that is."

"Take a look around, Buck," Chris said quietly. "He's gone."

"Well, yeah, but..." Buck stared at Chris in utter disbelief. "Who the hell would steal Peso?"

"Peso's a fine horse!" JD said hotly, one of approximately two men in the world to have a fondness for the gelding. "Hell, he can go nearly forever without water-"

"So can a cactus, son," Buck put in. "Don't mean I wanta ride one."

"He knows what Vin wants without Vin havin' ta say a word-"

"Knows it, yeah. And ignores it," Buck countered.

"You just don't appreciate him," JD sulked.

Buck sighed heavily. "Son, I appreciate the hell outta Peso. I just don't like him."

"You don't have ta like him," Chris said tersely. "He's Vin's, and that's what's important. And now we gotta tell Vin he's gone."

"Shit," Buck groaned, letting his head fall forward as dread coursed through him. He knew how the prickly tracker felt about his even pricklier horse, and truly didn't want to see Tanner's face when he heard that horse had been stolen. Vin wasn't a man for possessions, didn't have more than he could stash in that beat-up old wagon. But what he did have, he prized. And there was nothing dearer to his heart than that hell-spawned, rattlesnake-tempered horse.

"Maybe I should tell him," JD volunteered softly. "I mean, I'm the sheriff. Deliverin' bad news is sorta my job." He nodded decisively, bracing himself for the unpleasant task. "I'll go on up to his room-"

"Wait, JD," Chris said, reaching out to grab the young man's arm before he could leave. "Don't wake him. Let him sleep. Meanwhile, you check around, see if anybody heard or saw anything." He glanced around him again. "It's clear he put up a helluva fight in here. I can't imagine him leavin' town without a ruckus."

Buck chuckled quietly. "Hell, maybe we oughtta start lookin' for body parts."

Chris shot him a murderous glare. Peso had been stolen right out from under their noses, and Buck was making jokes. Clearly, the big man didn't quite grasp the whole picture here.

Peso was gone.

And Tanner was gonna take scalps.

+ + + + + + +

Vin made his way slowly down the boardwalk toward the saloon, wincing deeply as pain accompanied each reluctant step. Every bruised, pulled, wrenched and otherwise abused muscle in his body had stiffened overnight and now vehemently protested being made to function, while his cracked ribs ached fiercely and a deep hurt throbbed mercilessly in his lower back and left hip.

Goddamn sonuvabitchin' horse would die, if only it wouldn't hurt so much ta pull his gun!

At long last, he reached the saloon and went within, intensely relieved to find it empty. He supposed it was still too early for most folks to be about, and was grateful for that small mercy. Otherwise, some damn fool would surely ask him how he was doin' this fine mornin', and he'd have ta shoot 'em.

And he really didn't wanta pull his gun.

He limped toward the table the seven customarily occupied, absently pressing a hand to his lower back as the pain there grew steadily worse. By the time he reached the table and eased himself into his usual chair, he was white- faced and breathing fast and shallow through tightly clenched teeth. Unable to do any more, he simply folded his arms upon the table and laid his throbbing head down upon them, praying Nathan would appear soon and force one of his potions or even some laudanum down him.

Not that it'd take much forcin' jist now...

Inez emerged from the kitchen, coffee pot in hand, and stopped short at the sight of the figure slumped over the table. Immediately, sympathy flooded her lovely face and soul, for she remembered how he'd looked yesterday, and could well imagine how he felt now.

"Pobrecito," she murmured tenderly, never thinking it strange that she should refer to the tough, quiet, deadly Texan as "poor little one." Every man, she knew, had a little boy inside him, and this little boy was in pain.

Taking a cup from the end of the bar, she carried it and the pot of freshly brewed coffee to his table, careful to scuff her sandals against the floor to alert him to her approach. She had no real fear that he'd shoot her, was far more concerned that he not make any sudden, violent moves that might cause him more pain.

"Hola, Vin," she greeted quietly, not wasting a buenos dias on a man for whom el dia clearly was not bueno. "Coffee?"

He forced himself to lift his head from his arms and sat slowly upright, groaning softly as the movement jarred his back, his ribs... hell, his everything. Lord God, his head hurt. "You say somethin', Inez?"

She sighed and frowned at the whiteness around his eyes, the tightness around his mouth. "Yes, I did. I said `hello' and asked if you want coffee. Why are you not in bed?" she asked with a touch of sharpness.

He cradled his aching head in one hand. "Couldn't sleep no more," he said tiredly, his drawl thicker and his voice raspier than usual. "Bed's too soft. Room's too small. Had ta git up 'n out."

She sighed again and shook her head, wondering why these men weren't dead by now. Not one of them had the sense to give in to pain and simply let himself be hurt.

Vin squinted up at her and the pot she held. "That coffee?"

She arched a dark brow at him. "Would I have asked if you wanted coffee if I didn't have any?" she asked sternly. A soft blush crept into his cheeks, and her irritation vanished. "Yes," she said more gently, "this is coffee. And I have some of the pan dulce you like so much in the back." She laughed softly as a small, shy grin curved slowly about his mouth at her mention of the sweetbread. "I know I don't have to ask if you want any." She winked. "I'll be right back."

His blush deepened at her wink, and he ducked his head as she tossed her dark head and walked away with full hips swaying lightly as she sashayed across the barroom. He knew her flirting was innocent, meant only that she considered him friend enough to tease, yet still it always left him tongue-tied. He had none of Ezra's silky manners, none of Buck's smooth charm, and was far more accustomed to being shot at by bad hombres than flirted with by beautiful women. A bullet he could take, but he couldn't for the life of him think what to do with a wink or a soft smile.

'Specially not with his head poundin' fit ta bust.

By the time Inez returned to the table, he'd finished one cup of her strong, hot coffee and was pouring another. She set the plate of sweetbreads down before him and frowned at the lines of pain etched so deeply into his bruised face, but knew better than to say anything. If she fussed, he'd only get angry and leave. And, as long as he was here, he wouldn't be doing anything to aggravate his injuries.

Or his friends...

So, without a word, with nothing more than a resigned sigh and a knowing shake of her head, she turned away and left him to his breakfast.


"I tell ya, Chris, it just don't make sense!" JD insisted as he pushed through the batwing doors, followed closely by Larabee and Wilmington. "It ain't like 'em! They ain't ever hit in town before, and they always take more than just one horse. It just don't make sense!"

"Oh, I'll grant you that," Buck laughed. "But what don't make no sense is why they'd take that horse! Who the hell'd want him? 'Cept maybe the hide and tallow men-"

"Shit," Chris said softly, coming to an abrupt stop. His gaze went at once to the lone figure seated at their usual table, and his stomach knotted in dread.

Buck stopped and followed his old friend's gaze with his own, staring at Vin in surprise. "Now just what the hell is he doin' here?"

Chris's green eyes narrowed and hardened, and his mouth tightened into a thin line. By all rights, Tanner should still be in bed. Hell, by all rights, he should be in Nathan's clinic!

"I knew it," Buck breathed, shaking his head. "I knew we shoulda had Nathan dose him with laudanum. Hell, we shoulda just tied him down!"

"He'd only chew through the ropes," Chris said in a low voice. "Come on," he directed, starting forward, "let's get this over with."

Buck reached out and grabbed his arm. "Now?" he asked in sharp alarm.

Chris stopped, turned, stared down at the hand that held him, then up into Wilmington's eyes. "You know a better time?"

Buck gave a weak grin. "Well, uh, now maybe if we wait a bit he'll turn up. You know, after he's stomped on and eaten whatever fool took him. Or maybe they'll just bring him back and throw themselves on our mercy."

The green eyes narrowed a fraction further.

Buck's smile wavered, and he released Larabee's arm. "All right, maybe not. But, uh," he cast a desperate glance around the saloon, "you boys go on. I gotta go out back-"

"Don't make me shoot ya, Buck," Chris warned. "I ain't in the mood for a funeral."

Wilmington grimaced deeply. "Then you better get in the mood, ol' pard, 'cause when Vin hears what happened, somebody's gonna die!"

"Man's got a right ta know about his horse, Buck," JD said firmly, staring up at the big man. "This is Peso we're talkin' about. I know you don't like him, but that don't matter. He's Vin's horse, and he's gone. And Vin's got a right ta know."

"And I suppose you're just gonna mosey on up to him and tell him, that right?"

JD drew himself up to his full height and inclined his head, sticking his thumbs into his gunbelt. As his gaze bored steadily into Buck's, he said firmly, "Yeah, I am. Vin ain't ever shirked his responsibility to any of us, I don't figure we should shirk ours ta him. Not and call ourselves his friends."

Chris smiled tightly as he saw the boy's words strike home. Buck's body stiffened and his head lifted, his eyes widening in surprise. But no appeal to Wilmington's strong notion of friendship ever went in vain, and Larabee had to admire JD for his shrewdness.

The boy was learning fast.

"That was a low blow, son," Buck groused, starting toward the table.

JD grinned as he fell into step beside his friend. "Like Chris said, low's the best place ta aim with you," he retorted. Buck scowled deeply, and JD's grin widened.

Shaking his head at the familiar banter erupting between the two, Chris stepped around them and lengthened his stride, making his way to the table. Vin's head lifted at the sound of his spurs, and Larabee winced at the dark bruises surrounding the bullet crease in the tracker's temple and discoloring the left side of his face from cheekbone to jaw and back almost to his ear.

Damn, that's gotta hurt! he thought with a flash of sympathy.

Vin nodded slightly in his customary greeting and invitation, and watched as Larabee settled himself into the chair at his right. Immediately, his every instinct was on sharp alert, his hackles rising. Something in the gunman's expression, in his posture, some infinitesimal shadow in the green eyes, warned him of trouble. He sat up slowly, ignoring the pull at sore, stiff muscles, and slid his hands from the table to his lap, within easy reach of his gun. JD and Buck sat down across from him, but he barely gave them a glance. His whole attention was riveted to Larabee.

Chris saw that wariness, the intense watchfulness of both hunter and hunted, come over his friend, and knew better than to skirt around or soften the truth. Vin would see through it in a minute and scorn the effort. The tracker liked unpleasantness served hard and direct; it was the only way he knew.

"Peso's gone," he said in low, clipped tones, holding Vin's gaze with his own. "Stolen from the livery. Horse thieves musta got him in the night."

The words hit Tanner like a blow, driving the air from his lungs in a hard, painful rush. Stunned eyes grew wide, and all the color drained from his bruised face. He stared at Chris in shocked disbelief, his mind refusing to accept what his ears had just heard.

Naw, it... it couldn't be true.

Chris felt a sharp stab of pain, and a hard twist of fury, at the younger man's expression. Tanner had already had far too much taken from him in a life filled to the brim with loss - his family, his youth, his innocence, his good name. And just when it seemed maybe the world was through stompin' on his soul, some low-down, thievin' sonuvabitch had stolen what he loved most in this world.

And now Chris had to sit here while his best friend looked at him like he'd been gut-shot.

JD stared from Tanner to Larabee and back, wanting desperately to say something, but unable to manage a single word. He'd expected any number of reactions from Vin - disbelief, denial, even murderous rage - but was not at all prepared for the raw, searing anguish he saw in the wide blue eyes. He almost expected Vin to cry out from the pain, until he remembered that the more Tanner hurt, the quieter he got. And from the way he looked now, white- faced and bowed-over from the hurt, JD figured the tracker couldn't say a word if he tried.

Chris sighed heavily and reached out to lay a hand on his friend's arm. "Vin-"

But Tanner eluded that grasp and rose so abruptly to his feet that his chair fell over behind him. He stood there for long moments, staring strickenly at Chris, lean body taut and trembling, eyes filled with a pain beyond description. Then, without a word, he fled the table, limping away from his friends with a speed that defied his injuries, burying all awareness of physical hurt in his need to see the truth for himself.

Buck watched him go, then sighed and bowed his head, shaking it slowly. He didn't like Peso, couldn't understand why, in a town full of horses, someone would choose to steal that one. But, like JD had said, none of that mattered now. What did matter was that Vin was his friend, and his friend was hurting. And Buck Wilmington hated few things in life more than seeing a friend in pain.

"Jesus," he breathed, "this ain't no way ta start the day."

"Whatta ya think he's gonna do?" JD asked quietly, his hazel eyes filled with worry.

Chris reached for a piece of the sweetbread and began tearing it to bits. He never ate a bite, just ruthlessly shredded it with long fingers. "He's gonna go down to the livery, look around, see if he can pick up their tracks." He could see it as clearly as if it were unfolding before him. "And he will, 'cause he won't stop until he does."

"And then?" JD prompted, fairly certain he knew the answer, but needing to hear it from Larabee's lips.

"And then," having destroyed one piece of sweetbread, Chris reached for and started on another, "he's gonna get a horse, drag his hurt, sorry ass into the saddle and take off after the bastards who stole Peso. And when he catches 'em - and he will catch 'em," he scowled and threw down the remains of the bread, "'cause he won't stop until he does - they'll be lucky if he leaves enough for the buzzards ta eat."

JD blanched and swallowed hard, then nodded. He'd figured as much.

"He ain't in no shape for that, Chris," Buck pointed out quietly, "and you know it. You gotta stop him before he ends up really hurt."

Chris leveled a cold green stare at the big man, sharing his concern but knowing how futile it was. "Stop him how, Buck? Rope and hog-tie him? Drug him? Shoot him? 'Cause it'd take one or all of those to do it, and you know it."

Buck sighed heavily and ran a hand over his face, smoothing his thick dark mustache. "Yeah, I know it," he muttered. "But I sure as hell don't like it. And where the hell are you goin'?" he asked sharply as JD rose to his feet.

"I'm goin' to help Vin, where d'you think?" He stared at the two older men in expectation. "Well, you're not just gonna sit here all day, are ya? Peso's missin', and Vin's hurt. He needs our help."

"Just sit down, son," Buck ordered. "Ain't nobody goin' nowhere. Not 'til we figure out just what the hell's goin' on here."

JD set his hands on his hips and stared down at the man impatiently. "And you're gonna do that by sittin' here?" he asked sharply. "In case you ain't noticed, Buck, Peso ain't in this saloon, and we're not gonna find him by stayin' here! And Vin ain't gonna be able ta do anything without our help-"

"I don't know, JD," Chris put in softly, green eyes narrowed in thought. "Maybe we need to let Vin see for himself that he can't do this. It's the only way-"

"He won't see that, and you know it!" JD interrupted. "You said it yourself - he won't give up until he gets Peso back. He'll do whatever it takes, whatever he has to, no matter how much it hurts, just like he always does." When they still made no move to join him, he kicked angrily at his chair. "I cannot believe you guys!" he snapped, staring accusingly at the two. "Vin needs your help, and you're sittin' here and hopin' he fails! Hell, I know neither one'a you gives a damn about Peso, but Vin's your friend, and that oughtta mean somethin'." His eyes burned with outrage and his mouth curled into a bitter sneer. "Well, hell," he spat. "I guess this won't be the first time Vin's been let down!"

"That's enough, JD," Buck warned in a low voice, seeing the familiar tightening of Chris's mouth, the familiar hardening of his eyes. "You just sit down now-"

"Damn it, Buck, I won't!" he shouted, turning a blazing gaze on the big man. "Maybe you are worried about Vin, or maybe you just don't care that Peso's gone. I don't know, and I don't care. What I do know is that Vin's gonna do this, with or without you." He straightened and shook his head, scowling in disgust and disappointment. "Fine, you two sit here all damn day and feel as sorry for Vin as you want. But I'm gonna go help him, 'cause I figure that's what a friend should do. At least," he cast a scathing glare at Larabee, "I know that's what Vin would do for any one of us."

He turned and stalked furiously away from the table, leaving an almost visible trail of anger and a thick, taut silence in his wake.

When JD had gone, Buck frowned and held out his arms, studying them intently. When he had surveyed every inch of them, he sat back and looked over still more of his body.

"What the hell are you doin'?" Chris rapped out harshly.

Buck turned his head and tried to stare over his shoulders and down his back. "Just tryin' ta see if I'm bleedin' anywhere from the strips the kid tore outta my hide."

Chris sighed heavily, his anger fading. "He did give it to us, didn't he?"

"Both barrels, pard."

"Think he's right?"

Buck arched two dark brows. "About what? Us hopin' Vin realizes he can't do this? Or about it bein' our place ta help him regardless of what we think?" He sighed heavily. "Yeah, he's right, damn it. I don't want Vin on a horse right now any more'n you do, but we both know won't nothin' short of a bullet keep him off one. Hell, if he could drag himself back ta town yesterday, hurtin' like he was-"

"He was afraid we wouldn't come lookin' for him."

The words were so softly spoken that Buck almost missed them, then wasn't sure he'd heard them right. "What?"

Chris grimaced and bowed his head, then raised it and looked sadly at Buck. "He was afraid we wouldn't come lookin' for him," he said again, his voice and eyes filled with pain. "That's why he dragged himself back to town in that shape." He winced and ran a hand over his forehead, then through his hair. It hurt just to say the words. "He hasn't had anybody who's cared enough ta come lookin' for him since he was a kid. He's gotten used ta doin' all these things for himself, no matter how much it hurts, because there's never been anybody else." He shrugged and stared down at the sweetbread he'd shredded. "Yesterday, he was just doin' what he's always done. 'Cause he's still afraid nobody will care enough to help."

"Jesus," Buck whispered strickenly, staring at Larabee in shock and sorrow. "He tell you that?"

Chris stared at the table. I's takin' care'a myself long 'fore I ever met up with you, 'n I'll be takin' care'a myself long after yer gone.... You hear me, Larabee? I don't fuckin' need you! The angry words came to him again, along with all the pain - and fear - that had lain behind them.

"Yeah," he breathed at last, "I guess you could say he told me that."

"And all we're doin' by sittin' here is provin' him right," Buck muttered. "Goddamn it, why can't that boy just ask for help like any normal person?"

Chris shrugged. "When you're told `no' often enough, after a while you just quit askin'. A smart man only sets himself up ta be let down so many times, and I figure Vin's smarter'n most when it comes to that. Learned his lesson real young, and he learned it real good." He rose to his feet and stared down at Buck. "Came real close ta learnin' it again from us."

Buck got to his feet and followed his friend away from the table. As they reached the doors and pushed through them, a sudden chuckle escaped him.

"What's so damn funny?" Chris growled.

Buck laughed again and clapped a big hand to Larabee's back. "Us, pard. Us old dogs got showed up by that young pup." At Larabee's confused look, he said, "We woulda sat there all damn day and never figured it out. You, who knows Vin better'n anybody, and me, who knows him well enough. And we didn't get it. But JD got it without tryin', and he usually understands Vin about as well as Josiah speaks Chinese. You wanta explain that ta me, pard?"

"Yeah," Chris said softly, glaring at his grinning friend, "it means I'm probably gonna have ta shoot somebody before this damn day is over."


Comments to: s_necessary@yahoo.com