Jake Hill turned in his saddle and fired another shot behind him, cursing foully as he missed. Goddamn cowboys! What the hell'd they been doin' so close ta them horses, anyway? Damn fool kid had said weren't but three men standin' watch over this bunch. What the hell kinda scout was he?

An' where'n the hell'd all these fuckin' cowboys come from?

"Jake, riders ahead!" Charlie Bates yelled to his boss. "Comin' fast!"

"Aw, shit, there's more?" Jake turned around, looked ahead, and swore again. "Shit! Where'n the hell'd they come from?" Stunned, furious, and more worried than he'd been in a long time, Jake raised his gun and fired at the oncoming riders. "Let's git, boys!"

"Gittin'" sounded good to all of them, so they wheeled the herd of fifteen stolen horses and tried to cut a path away from the newest bunch of riders. But that bunch, not hampered by any animals save their own mounts, anticipated the move and raced to counter it. And as the seven riders effectively placed themselves between his men and the range of hills in the distance, Jake Hill suddenly felt his worry give way to outright fear.

"Shit!" he yelled, firing again at the riders racing toward him.

Vin heard the shots, but knew there was still too much distance between him and the horse thieves - he assumed men driving a herd that hard and shooting at him had to be up to no good - for pistols to be a real threat. He, however, had never been one to rely on pistols. Never slowing Goliath from his run, allowing the instincts and skills he'd mastered with the People on the High Plains of Texas to command him, he reached back and pulled his rifle from its boot behind his saddle, took the reins in his teeth, then aimed and fired at one of the bastards firing at him.

"Hell, I'm glad that boy's on our side!" Buck shouted to no one in particular as Vin's victim was knocked out of his saddle by the Winchester slug. "That's damn purty shootin', though!"

And the fight was on. With guns drawn and blazing, the seven raced toward the horse thieves, cutting off any forward escape, while the cowboys behind prevented any escape to the rear. When he drew close enough, Vin shoved the rifle back in its boot and pulled out his mare's leg, blowing two more thieves out of their saddles.

The stolen horses panicked and raced away, and some of the cowboys streaked after them. But a good number remained behind, assisting the seven in whittling down the thieves' numbers. Within minutes only two remained, the rest having chosen death by lead over death by rope. And when one of those two wheeled his horse and aimed his gun at Tanner, Chris pumped three shots into him.

That left only Jake Hill, and he looked up in terror to see a huge chestnut horse racing straight for him, topped by a wild-eyed, long-haired madman. "Aw, SHIT!"

With a harsh Comanche cry, Vin launched himself out of the saddle and into the man, carrying them both to the ground. They landed hard, but Vin immediately leapt atop his prey, snatching his knife from its sheath and laying its edge against the man's throat.

"Where's m' horse?" he spat, blue eyes burning in his savage face as he pressed the blade into the man's flesh.

"Wh... what... horse?" Jake stammered harshly, wincing as that blade bit into his throat. "Hey, you... you're h... hurtin'... me!"

Vin grabbed a fistful of the man's lank, unwashed hair and jerked his head back, exposing the arch of his throat. "Gonna do more'n hurt ya," he growled through gritted teeth. "Gonna peel the hide from yer bones a strip at a time 'til ya tell me where m' horse is!"

Jake heard the sound of spurs and turned his eyes to see a pair of black-clad legs standing by his head. He let his frightened gaze travel slowly up that long, lean figure, and finally saw a hard-set face shadowed by a black flat- brimmed hat.

"You c... you cain't... let him do this!" he begged, his voice shaking as violently as his body. "You... you gotta... stop him!"

Chris stared down at the man and arched two brows. "I don't `gotta' do nothin'," he contradicted calmly. "Vin's real pissed." He gave a thin, unpleasant smile. "And I ain't reachin' for his knife when he's pissed."

"He'll kill me!" Jake screamed hoarsely as that blade moved against his throat just enough to draw a fine line of blood.

"Probably." Chris reached into his pocket and drew out a cheroot. "But not right away." He put the cheroot to his mouth, struck a lucifer, and lit it, then drew deeply on it. "If it were me," he said, exhaling a cloud of smoke, "I'd tell him where his horse is." He nodded once at Jake, then turned and walked to join Nathan and Josiah several feet away.

"Damn fool's gonna hurt hisself," Nathan sighed with a rueful shake of his head, showing no concern for the man writhing and screaming beneath Tanner's knife. "You watch. That blade'll slip 'n he'll cut his damn arm off."

"Oh, I don't know, Nate," Josiah mused, watching the scene with a scholarly interest. "Brother Vin seems ta be concentratin' real hard on what he's doin' there. I'd say he's done this before."

"Goddamn you," Vin snarled, leaning closer still and glaring into the outlaw's wide, panicked eyes, "where's m' horse?"

"I don't... AHHHH!" Jake screamed as the madman atop him suddenly shifted his seat and jammed a hard knee into his groin.

"Oh, shit, that hurts!" Buck gasped, crossing his own legs and doubling over as he watched Vin. "That boy's serious!" He reached out and spun JD away as Tanner abruptly sliced through the man's shirt and laid his chest bare. "Don't look, son," he warned in a voice loud enough for Tanner's victim to hear. "Vin learned more than trackin' from Comanches, and there's nothin' here you need ta see."

The words only heightened Jake's terror. The hard, bony knee was still digging into his groin, and the edge of that blade was now resting against his nipple. Comanches... "Oh, shit!" he wheezed.

Vin smiled tightly, though it never reached his eyes. "Reckon ya will 'fore it's over," he said softly. "Now," he pressed the tip of the knife into the nipple, "where's m' horse?"

"I don't know anythin' about yer goddamn horse!" Jake sobbed. "I swear ta God, mister, I don't know! The horses we had was all took from the James spread... Must be somebody else that got him!"

"Apparently they have split up," Ezra announced, coming over and arching a brow when he saw where Tanner's blade was poised. "Neither of the geniuses from last night are among the departed. Are you planning to cut that off?" he asked of the endangered nipple.

Vin narrowed his eyes. "Might." He pressed the edge of his blade into the outlaw's flesh, drawing a bead of blood. "Could do it quick, jist slice it off, 'r do it slow 'n saw it off. Ya got any prefer'nces?"

"Yes." Ezra grimaced in deep distaste. "I prefer not to watch."

Vin permitted himself a small, wolfish smile. "Knew a feller once, did this t' all his enemies. Marked 'em so's he'd know 'em in the hereafter. Kep' what he cut off, too. Showed me how ta do it 'n keep the sonuvabitch I cut from dyin'."

"Amazing," Ezra marveled, watching through coolly amused eyes the effect of Vin's words on the helpless outlaw. The man's flesh had taken on a sickly, pasty hue, and was bathed in sweat, and his eyes were wide and wild with panic. "Really, Mr. Tanner, some time you must share with us all your vast store of native knowledge. No doubt even Mr. Jackson could learn a thing or two from you."

"Nah," Vin rasped. "I know more 'bout killin' 'n maimin' than healin'." He dug the blade in deeper, tearing another cry from his victim. "I ain't askin' ya agin," he said coldly.

"Perhaps you should enlighten us as to the whereabouts of two cretins named Lem and Hank," Ezra suggested, idly brushing the dust from one red coat sleeve and showing neither interest in nor concern for the man beneath Vin's knife. "Mr. Tanner is normally a patient man, but I fear that patience has been sorely strained by the abduction of his horse. As you have no doubt surmised by his treatment of you, he is quite fond of said equine. And if you cannot provide us with at least a modicum of assistance, then I have every confidence that you, sir, will provide the definitive, if unsettling and certainly messy, answer to a question that has perplexed us all for some time - exactly how many ways does Vin Tanner know to kill a man?"

"Cutter's Pass!" Jake yelped desperately. "They're camped up in Cutter's Pass! Got the horses stashed in one'a them damn canyons, restin' and grazin' 'fore headin' down inta Mexico." He stared up at the man above him, eyes pleading for the bastard to believe him. "I swear, mister, if we got yer horse, that's where he is."

Vin studied the thief intently for long, tense moments, then nodded once and pulled away his knife, wiping the blood from it on the man's shirt, then sheathing it at his belt. He rose slowly to his feet, stared down at the man a few moments more, then turned and limped to Chris.

"Jist like I figgered," he said softly.

Chris smiled slightly. "Usually is." He looked past Vin to where Stuart James's men were standing. "You boys finish collectin' your horses, then get on back to the ranch. We'll take it from here."

One of the men sneered. "Go ta hell, Larabee! They stole James stock, we got a right ta go after 'em. An' we sure's hell don't need yer permission ta do it."

"Yeah, ya do," Chris countered softly, his green gaze boring into the man. "If you go, you'll get in the way. If you get in the way, I'll have ta shoot ya. If I shoot ya, I'll have ta explain it to your boss. And I don't like your boss enough ta explain anything to him. So get your horses and go home."

"What about him?" the cowboy asked, jerking a thumb toward Jake. "You just gonna leave him here?"

"Nope," Chris answered. "He's comin' with us. Gonna show us where the horses are."

"The hell I am!" Jake spat, lurching to his feet. "You don't know Roy Tarber! He'll kill me on sight-"

"Then don't let 'im see ya," Vin suggested evenly. "But yer comin'."

"Like hell!" Jake snarled, stabbing a hand toward his gun.

Before he could do more than barely lift it from its holster, though, Larabee's gun was out and booming. The slug plowed into Jake's chest and knocked him back into the dirt, his gun still in the holster.

Vin looked down at the dead outlaw, then lifted his gaze to Chris and scowled. "Well, hell," he drawled, "if I'da knowed you was jist gonna kill him, I'da had m'self a little more fun with him first."

Chris merely smiled slightly and shook his head, then started toward his horse. "Let's ride, boys," he ordered. "We're burnin' daylight."

+ + + + + + +

Milt Jacobs looked up from his coffee cup as two men rode into the camp. "Howdy, boys," he greeted, letting his gaze travel to the horse Hank was leading. An appreciative gleam flared in his pale blue eyes. "Fine lookin' animal ya got there," he complimented, rising to his feet and ambling over. "You two branchin' off on yer own?"

Lem slid from his saddle, exhausted, sore and mad. "Hell, no!" he growled. "Hank's jist bin without a woman fer so long he done fell in love with a horse instead." He led his own animal toward the picket line where the rest of the gang's horses grazed, carefully avoiding the blaze-faced gelding he'd come to hate. "Devil oughtta be shot," he muttered, still limping from last night's battle with the beast.

"Now, that'd be a true waste," Milt said. Hank had released the lead rope and was leading his own horse away, leaving the gelding behind. The animal stood quietly, head down, breathing hard and coated in sweat and dust, the gash across his blazed nose crusted with dried blood and dirt. Even so, Milt could see his quality. "Run him down a bit, didn't ya, boys?" he called over his shoulder. "He bin fed 'n watered yet?"

Lem pulled the saddle from his horse, scowling. "Had 'im some water. But since he'd rather wander off than eat, we ain't bin able ta let him graze." A thin smile pulled at his mouth. "Figgered if he went without food long enough, he'd learn ta mind his manners."

Milt sighed and shook his head slowly, then reached out to run a hand over one powerful black shoulder. "Them fools don't know shit about horses," he murmured to the gelding. "Reckon you jist need a firm, knowin' hand, that's all." He suddenly noticed the grimy bandage around the animal's foreleg. "He's hurt!" he said sharply. "Why'n the hell ya steal a lame horse?"

"Weren't my idea," Lem spat. "Hell, I was jist gonna shoot him 'n be done with it. But Hank here thought he was too purty ta shoot, 'n now we're stuck with him."

Milt shook his head in disgust. "Well, hell, couldn't ya at least've tended it?"

Lem laughed aloud. "'N git near them hooves? Yer outta yer mind, Milt! Let it fester. A little gangrene might do 'im good!"

Hank's head came up at that, but he bit his lip and kept silent, having had enough of Lem's abuse for one day. The black was a tryin' creature, sure, with all the charm of a stepped- on rattler, but, hell, he'd been stolen right outta his stall and drugged. Reckon that'd make any horse nasty.

"'Sides," Lem went on, rubbing down his horse, "we ain't got time fer that now. Roy's pissed, wants the herd gathered 'n ready ta move as soon as possible."

"Shit," Milt groaned. "I thought we was gonna stay here fer a few more days, let the horses rest 'n feed good. What the hell happened?"

Lem sighed tiredly, wishing the man would stop pestering him with questions. "Well," he said with another sharp glare at Hank, "lemme tell ya who we took that goddamn devil-horse from..."

+ + + + + + +

Tarber paced furiously about his camp, chewing his cigar to shreds and uttering a long, vile stream of ugly curses. Larabee. Goddamn it all ta hell, how had this happened? He'd been so careful to avoid that bastard's long reach, had done all he knew ta keep the man from findin' him. He'd laid out a number of routes for his men, drummin' it inta their thick heads that they were never ta use the same one twice. He'd sent his men out in smaller bunches than usual, sent scouts along with each band, told 'em how ta hide their sign from that goddamn tracker. And what had happened?

Lem and Hank. He'd known all along they didn't have the sense God gave a slug, so he'd sent 'em inta town ta watch. Not ta do anything, not ta steal anything, but just ta watch. All they had ta do, all they were supposed ta do, was keep him informed on what Larabee and his men were doin', and how close they were ta findin' anything. All the stupid sonsabitches had ta do was watch.

But, no. They'd shot the tracker, then pissed him off by stealin' his horse. They'd pissed off one'a Larabee's men. Which meant they'd pissed off Larabee. And a pissed-off Larabee was nobody's idea of a good thing.

Dawes watched his boss for some time, gauging the man's mood by the damage he inflicted on that cigar and the filthiness of the curses he uttered. Nope, this wasn't good. And it wasn't gettin' any better.

At last, he exhaled slowly, deeply, and rose to his feet, walking slowly to the pacing, stewing Tarber. "Boss," he called quietly, "it's been more'n three hours. If Jake 'n the boys was comin', they'da been here by now."

Tarber spun on his heel and backhanded Dawes savagely, spinning the man into the dirt. "Idjit!" he spat, his face flushed with rage. "Don't you think I know that? You think I'm stupid 'r somethin'?"

Dawes wiped at his bleeding lip and stared up at his boss, surprised Tarber hadn't shot him. "No, sir," he murmured. "I jist thought-"

"Don't think!" Tarber snarled. "That's my job! Hell, we're in this goddamn fix now 'cause Lem 'n Hank figgered they could think!" He snatched the shredded remains of the cigar from his mouth and flung it into the dirt. "Shit! They jest had ta go 'n steal Tanner's horse! I swear, Dawes," he spat, eyes and voice filled with venom, "if them two've ruined this fer us, I'll kill 'em!"

Dawes swallowed hard and nodded. He knew his boss would do it, had seen Roy kill too many of his own men to doubt it. The man had a real low tolerance for mistakes.

"And if it has all gone ta hell because'a what they done," Tarber growled, "then I'll kill that fuckin' horse, too!"

+ + + + + + +

Vin wanted to ignore the pain drummed through his body by every beat of Goliath's pounding hooves, tried reminding himself that he'd ridden harder in far worse shape than this. Hell, once when he was bounty huntin', he'd gone fer two days with a bullet in his shoulder, 'n never once fell outta the saddle.

'Course, that was prob'ly 'cause he'd tied himself in the saddle...

But that was beside the point. Point was, he'd had a bullet in him then, 'n was bleedin' like a stuck pig, where now all's he had were bruises - sure, deep bruises, but still jist bruises - 'n a couple'a cracked ribs. And, yeah, a back with streaks'a pain shootin' through it, 'n a hip that prob'ly wasn't ever gonna stop hurtin' agin, but, still, he'd ridden with bullets in him, fer God's sake!

But, Lord, nothin' in the world hurt like cracked ribs...

Chris rode silently near his friend, saying nothing, certain Vin would know when he'd had enough. After all, Tanner hadn't survived the life he had for so long by being stupid. Stubborn as hell, yeah; but not stupid. So he was content - well, maybe not exactly content - to wait and take his cues from Vin, confident the tracker would give some sign when he'd reached the limit of even his considerable endurance.

And when he saw Vin shift yet again in his saddle, as if trying to find some more comfortable position, and heard the softly groaned "aw, shit" escape him, Larabee knew the sign had been given. With his own sigh of relief, he urged his horse closer to the tracker's, and winced at the lines of pain etched so deeply into Tanner's face.

"Reckon the horses are about ready for a rest," he suggested quietly. "What's say we stop for a while and give it to 'em?"

Vin cast a quick side glance at Larabee, saw the knowing and the unspoken concern in his eyes, and gave a small, tight smile of gratitude. "Reckon they could at that," he rasped, knowing every bit of his hurt carried in his voice, and, for once, not caring.

This time, it was Chris who gave the familiar signal to halt. As five men drew up rein behind him, he slid easily off his black and walked around to Vin, fully prepared to fight to help him down. And feeling more than a twinge of concern when no fight was required.

In fact, Tanner not only accepted his help, but seemed actually to welcome it. "That bad, huh?" he asked softly as he eased the tracker from his saddle.

Vin would've fallen to the ground if Chris had not held him on his feet. "Yeah," he whispered, bowing his head as shame at his own weakness flared in him.

"Bad enough ta let Nathan take a look?" Chris asked carefully, expecting a sharp refusal.

And Vin thought about refusing, wanted to refuse, was certain he should refuse. Nathan had been quiet, too quiet, and far more patient than was his custom when one of his friends was hurt. That usually meant the healer was just waiting to pounce with his poking and prodding, his foul brews and a pointed lecture on the sheer stupidity of certain mule-headed men.

But, Lord God, from his head to his knee he was a solid mass of pain, inside and out, felt as if he might scream from the pain, if only it didn't hurt so damn much just to draw a deep breath...

"Yeah," he said again, so softly that Chris could barely hear it.

But he did hear, and heaved a sigh of relief. "JD!" he called over his shoulder. "You and Buck see to the horses. Ezra, get a fire goin' and some coffee on. Josiah, see what you can do in the way of food. Nathan, Vin could use some lookin' at."

"Thank God!" the healer breathed, grabbing his saddlebags and hurrying forward as Buck took the reins of his horse. For hours now, he'd watched Tanner in deepening concern, wondering how much longer the man could hold out. He knew the encounter with Tarber's men earlier couldn't have done him any good, and had been praying Tanner would realize that as well. Though he hadn't really held out much hope of that happening, familiar as he was with the tracker's stubbornness, he was now greatly relieved to find the man had some common sense after all.

'Cause he'da hated like hell ta have ta shoot Vin outta the saddle on top of ever'thing else that'd been done to him...

Chris grabbed Tanner's rifle, saddlebags and bedroll and carried them with his own to the site where Ezra and Josiah were setting up camp. The gambler chose a likely spot for a fire and laid out the fixings for coffee, then, with a tip of his hat to Larabee, went scavenging for firewood. Josiah sat down and began rummaging through various sacks, pulling out some hard rolls, dried bacon and a bag of beans, and looked up at Chris.

"Got the makin's for a fine meal," he said, "dependin' on how long we're stayin'."

Chris turned to the healer, putting the decision in his hands. "Nathan?"

Jackson fixed appraising eyes on Tanner, who bowed his head and shifted uncomfortably under that intense scrutiny. He knew Nathan was reviewing every hurt he bore on his body, was counting the hours he'd spent in the saddle and remembering how he'd come out of that saddle when they'd met up with Tarber's bunch. And he knew with a dead certainty what answer the man was going to give.

"We ain't goin' nowhere," Nathan said firmly, staring at Vin and daring him to argue. "We ain't got but a couple'a hours's daylight left anyway, 'n you need ta rest. God alone knows what ya done ta ya'self divin' off that horse like ya done, 'n I know racin' all over hell's back yard sho' ain't done ya no good." Determined dark eyes bored into Tanner, as sharp as the knives he wore at his back. "You gon' rest, you gon' let me look ya over, 'n if you gimme the slightest trouble, I'll dose ya up with so much laudanum you'll sleep fo' a week!"

All eyes turned to Tanner as his friends awaited the explosion of his feisty temper. And all eyes widened in stunned disbelief when he nodded meekly and surrendered without so much as a growl.

"Won't come ta that," he said softly, slowly raising pain- filled eyes to Nathan. "I won't give ya no trouble."

And that in itself troubled Nathan. He knew these men, knew admitting to pain, to weakness of any sort, went against their every instinct. Pain made a man vulnerable, and vulnerability could get a man killed. It was a lesson they'd all learned, one Vin had mastered, and it bothered Nathan more than he could say to hear a man like Vin Tanner admitting he was vulnerable.

Even as it touched him to realize how much faith in them Vin was showing by that same admission. The man who trusted no one trusted these six men to watch over him when he was all but incapable of it himself.

"Chris, spread out his bedroll," Nathan ordered quietly. "The rest'a y'all... go away fo' a while." He spoke to the others, but his dark eyes, now gentle and reassuring, stayed on Vin. "I'm gon' need ta look at that hip again, put some liniment on it, 'n he don't need y'all around while I'm doin' that."

Vin gave a small nod of gratitude for that courtesy, and Chris clapped a hand to the healer's shoulder, thanking him wordlessly. The other four were quick to find reasons to leave.

"C'mon, son," Buck said, draping an arm about JD's shoulders and nudging him forward. "You been dyin' ta tell me all about this horse Vin's ridin', I reckon now's as good a time as any."

JD's eyes immediately lit up, and a wide, bright grin spread across his face. "He's somethin' else, Buck, lemme tell ya!" he said in a rush, eager to introduce his friend to the marvel that was Goliath.

Ezra, meanwhile, turned disgusted eyes upon Josiah, and the dried bacon he still held in his large hands. "Mr. Sanchez, while I hold your intellectual prowess in the highest esteem, I must say that I am heartily offended by your idea of a suitable repast. My epicurean sensibilities simply will not tolerate that desiccated outrage you dare call `bacon.'" He arched a chestnut brow and tugged lightly at one dirt-covered sleeve. "Shall we venture out into the wilds in an effort to procure some fresh game for our meal?"

"Just try not to shoot Buck," Josiah warned with a smile as he rose to his feet.

Ezra's green eyes took on a mischievous gleam. "He should be safe. Unless he insists upon recounting his amorous escapades with the fair Maggie. Or was it Molly?"

"It was Minnie," JD piped up loudly over his shoulder.

"No," said Josiah thoughtfully, "I believe it was Maisie-"

"It was Mamie!" Buck snapped defensively, turning back toward his friends. "And every word'a that story's true! I rescued that poor girl from drownin'-"

"Yes, but just how is it that she found herself in the river in the first place?" Ezra asked pointedly. "And why were you both au natural when Vin and JD happened upon the scene?"

"Don't bother, Buck," JD interrupted as Wilmington opened his mouth to answer. "We all know the current in that river just ain't strong enough ta rip off anybody's clothes. Unless," he winked, "it had a little help."

"Hmph!" Buck snorted, drawing himself to his full height and sweeping a scathing gaze over his smirking friends. "Fine bunch y'all are! I risk my life ta save that girl from certain death, and this is the thanks I get! I gotta tell ya, JD, it hurts. It really hurts." He eyed the boy sadly, shaking his head slowly. "Ya raise 'em, ya teach 'em, ya turn 'em inta men, and they turn on ya." He snorted again and stalked off toward the horses, still shaking his head. "No loyalty. No loyalty left in the world."

"Aw, c'mon, Buck, I was only teasin'!" JD yelled, hurrying after his friend. "Okay, look, if it'll make ya feel better, you can tell me the story again, and I promise not ta laugh."

"Come on, brother," Josiah urged Ezra, still grinning, "let's go catch supper before Buck and JD scare it all away."

Chris threw a slight nod of thanks at them, winning a two- fingered salute and gold-toothed grin from Standish. He then went to his knees and untied and spread Tanner's bedroll.

"All right, Vin," Nathan said, "take off ya hat and ya shirt. I wanta see ta that graze again as well as ya back." He watched the tracker's slow, stiff movements, saw him trying to keep all weight off his left hip, and sighed. "Lord, you are in bad shape! Chris, heat me some water. Gonna fix up a dose'a willow bark." He arched a warning brow at Tanner's sudden scowl. "You'd rather have laudanum?"

"Ain't fair," Vin muttered, dropping his hat onto his discarded coat and pulling down his suspenders. "Takin' advantage of a man jist 'cause he's in pain 'n cain't fight back..."

Nathan and Chris exchanged slightly relieved smiles. Vin wasn't fighting, but at least he wasn't giving in without any argument at all. As long as he could complain, he'd be all right.

That complaining intensified as Nathan cleaned the bullet crease at his temple. "Shit!" he hissed, trying to pull away from the healer and feeling a strong hand clamp firmly about the back of his neck. "It ain't ever gonna git no better if ya keep messin' with it!"

"Be quiet," Nathan ordered. "Ya done got sweat 'n dirt all in it, 'n if I don't mess with it, it's gonna git infected." He glared at the tracker, who glared back. "I should put a bandage on it, but I know you'd only take it off."

"Don't need one. Got m' hat... SHIT!" he howled as Jackson pressed a pad soaked in carbolic to the wound. Instinctively, he tried to snatch Nathan's hand away, but his own wrists were immediately taken in an iron grip.

"Behave," Chris warned in a low voice, securing Tanner's hands behind his back. "Let the man work."

"I'll remember that when it's you he's workin' on," Vin threatened sullenly.

Nathan ignored the two and finished cleaning the graze, then carefully removed the bandages binding Tanner's chest. He probed gently along the tracker's ribcage, making certain Vin's actions earlier had not aggravated any of the injuries there, and winced at each smothered sound of pain. By the time he was finished, Vin was pale, sweating and breathing through tightly clenched teeth, and ready to drink the willow bark tea without complaint.

"Wish I could say the rest is gon' be easier," he said softly, watching as Vin cradled the cup in shaking hands and drank the brew. "I'll go as easy as I can, but I gotta loosen up them muscles, or you won't rest at all."

"'S'all right, Nathan," Vin rasped as he set the empty cup aside and braced himself for whatever came next. "Do what ya gotta. Likely I've had worse done ta me."

Nathan knew that to be true, and was saddened by it. After all he'd seen - first as a slave, then during the brutal and bloody years of the war, and now out West - it still grieved him deeply to see what hurt, what cruelty, folks could inflict on one another, still pierced him to his soul to witness suffering that had no good cause. He carried scars on his own body that testified to the horrible abuse he'd known in his own life, yet sometimes it seemed to him that the scars inflicted on his soul by others' pain went far deeper, and hurt far worse.

His earlier sternness now given way to concern, Chris helped Vin lie down on his stomach, his chest cushioned on the folded blankets Larabee had put down, his head pillowed on his folded arms. Nathan stared down at the dark purple-black bruises mottling the tracker's back and marveled that the man was able to move, much less ride, at all.

Lord, it was a true miracle these fools hadn't died long before they'd come inta his care!

He began rubbing the liniment into Vin's back, working as carefully as he could. Yet, despite his irritation at the extent of the damage these men could do to themselves, each gasp of pain from the one beneath his hands went right through him.

"Lord, Vin, I'm sorry!" he breathed.

"'S'all right," Vin hissed again through gritted teeth. "I know ya... jist mean ta help..." He turned his face down, resting his forehead on his folded arms, so his friends could not see how badly he was hurting.

But Chris didn't need to see it; he could feel it. Without thinking, he reached out and laid a hand to the back of Vin's head in an instinctive gesture of comfort. Meanwhile, his eyes strayed over his friend's narrow back, taking in the array of scars there, and he wondered again how Vin, so much younger than himself, could in that short a life not only have known but survived so much violence.

Was this the kind of life Adam would have known had it been father instead of son who'd died in that fire? And what about JD? If he hadn't leapt off that stage when he had and fallen in with them, would he - young, green, vulnerable - have been fated for such a life, as well?

And if they had spared JD from this, then why hadn't there been anyone around to spare Vin?

"Yer awful quiet, Larabee," Vin rasped softly. Though the deep bruises hurt terribly each time Nathan pressed into one, still the healer's big but miraculously gentle hands were beginning to unlock his tight, tortured muscles, kneading skillfully until each knot of pain released, wringing deep and wholly involuntary gasps of relief from him. But it was the hand on the back of his head, the touch that conveyed what mere words never could, that he found most comforting by far. The touch that promised that, whatever he suffered from now on, at least he would not suffer alone. "Y'ain't goin' ta sleep on me, are ya?"

Chris chuckled quietly. "If you wanted conversation, you shoulda asked Ezra ta stay."

Vin snorted softly. "Cain't afford his conversation. Reckon he'd already've found a hunnerd things ta bet on, 'n I'da lost ever' one."

"Oh, I don't know," Chris mused, his voice low and soothing. "After that bit with the sleeve, Ezra may not be in such a hurry ta bet with you again. That was pretty good, Tanner. Ain't many men who can beat him at his own game."

"Don't encourage him," Nathan said sternly, though his dark eyes shone with humor. "Bad enough we got us one grifter ta look out for. Don't need two of 'em." He winked at Chris. "Don't none of us make that much money." He worked his way slowly down Vin's spine, massaging in the liniment, kneading each tight band of muscle he encountered. "How's that feelin'?"

"Mm?" the tracker moaned drowsily, giving Jackson his answer.

"Now look who's goin' ta sleep," Chris quipped, though he was grateful to see his friend resting.

"Fuck you," Vin breathed.

"Nice mouth," Chris chided with a grin. "I shoulda brought Nettie's lye soap."

Vin's response was equally foul, though barely intelligible.

"All right, Vin," Nathan said, lifting his hands from Tanner's back, "b'fo' ya drift off completely, let's git ya chest wrapped agin, then git ya pants off 'n you on ya side so I can look at that hip."

Chris helped Vin sit up, then kept a hand on his shoulder as Nathan again wound bandages about his chest to support his injured ribs. When that was done, out of deference to his modesty, they helped him back into his shirt before getting him out of his pants and onto his right side, with his darkly bruised flank exposed.

Nathan grimaced and shook his head at the sight. Vin was built spare and lean, not an ounce of excess flesh on him, and certainly not enough to cushion the kind of fall he'd taken. Nathan was certain that bruise went clear to the bone.

"I'll say one thing fo' you an' that damn horse," he sighed. "When y'all go at it, ya don't mess around."

"Weren't Peso," Vin defended his horse. "It's them rocks."

"Yeah, I know." Nathan again reached for the liniment. "I'm sorry, Vin, but this is likely gon' hurt worse'n ya back."

"Don't matter none," he breathed tiredly.

Nathan's anger flared at the tracker's resignation to his suffering. "Damn it, Vin, it does matter!" he snapped. "It matters a lot when folks hurt, and it matters a helluva lot when I have ta hurt 'em worse ta help 'em! Sufferin' matters, Vin. May not mean nothin' ta others, but it sho' as hell matters ta me!"

And Vin, who so rarely touched anyone, reached out and took Nathan's wrist, holding firmly to it and gazing steadily up into the healer's burning gaze. "I know it does, Doc," he said softly, his eyes filled with the feeling he seldom showed. "I reckon that's what sets you apart from most others. I bin hurt a lot, 'n mostly by fellers who set out ta do it. But yer only doin' it 'cause yer tryin' ta help me. There's a powerful differ'nce 'tween the two, 'n, b'lieve me, I know it." He shrugged one shoulder, still staring up at Nathan. "I ain't ever had many folks wantin' ta help me, 'n I reckon that's why I ain't always good at acceptin' it. But it means the world ta me that I got it now, even if it hurts a mite. Means more'n I got the words ta say."

"Damn, Vin," Nathan breathed, touched, and humbled, by the quiet tracker's words. "Fo' a man who don't talk much, you got a helluva way with words."

Tanner gave a crooked grin, his eyes twinkling. "Reckon I bin learnin' from Ezra."

"Aw, shit," Chris groaned. "There's a thought ta keep a man awake at night!"

"Well, hell," Vin drawled, smirking at his friend, "I thought about learnin' from Buck, but I jist ain't got the strength fer his lessons."


Comments to: s_necessary@yahoo.com