It was past midnight in Chris' shack as he sat near the bed where his friend lay. Earlier in the evening Buck had taken Nettie back to town and Nathan had retired to the barn in order to get some rest. A low burning lamp gave off a little light.

Delirium and the laudanum had unlocked the secrets in Vin's mind and although some of what he mumbled was in an Indian dialect, much was painfully clear. Bits and pieces of what he had suffered at Royal's hand came tumbling from his mouth.

Vin, usually so silent, was very talkative in his delirium and Chris found it hard to listen to his friend's excruciating ordeal. His long hair was matted down with sweat from the fever, wet ringlets clinging around his ears. He was tossing and turning on the narrow bed, lost in his nightmare when he suddenly ripped away the bandages that covered his wounded side.

With a curse, Larabee came to his friend, sitting on the bed next to him. "Hush, Vin. Lay still," he murmured. Grabbing his friend's slender fingers, he tried to pull them away from the wound, but the Texan twisted from his grasp.

"Lemme be . . . it burns! It hurts, hurts!" Arching his back, he came up off the bed several inches, then fell back, whimpering, half moaning. Vin’s breath was loud, irregular, the breathing of a dreamer.

"It's over, Vin, you are safe now. You hear me? Safe," Chris soothed.

The tracker shook his head and cried out again, fighting to sit up but a coughing fit racked him. He had kicked off the blanket and his half naked body looked ghastly pale in the dim light. His arms slipped away from his body, falling limply at his sides and only then did Larabee see the nasty, red and swollen mark of the brand on his narrow hip. "Damn!" he whispered.

He’d never seen anything like that before.

He didn’t want to see now.

He didn’t want to know the details of his friend’s suffering.

Leaning down, Chris gathered Vin into his arms, oblivious of everything but his friend's frail frame clinging, convulsive and quivering, against him. He pulled him to his chest holding on tight for a few minutes. Then he laid him gently back on the bed, head on the pillow. The fevered man's voice came and went and, at last his struggling subsided. He fell into an exhausted sleep.

Chris took a wet cloth and washed the sweat-soaked body and then covered him with a light quilt. He rose to his feet, wincing at the pain in his healing leg, and headed for the table. He needed some whiskey.

Chris reached for the bottle with shaking hands. He took a long swig, but it didn't rid the picture in his mind of the branding on Vin's pale skin. He felt his anger rise, and he brought the bottle down hard on the table. Once. Twice. Three times he slammed it until it finally broke and shattered, pieces flying here and there. He stepped back to the chair, sat and slumped forward in it, totally spent, shoulders hunched in despair. He stayed that way it seemed for a very long time. Finally, sighing, he looked up at his friend and saw deep blue, pain-filled eyes staring back at him.

Getting up, Chris moved to the bed, and touched the younger man's forehead. Heaving a huge sigh, he said, "Fever's goin' down. How you feelin'?”

"Weak as a newborn colt and lousy," came the raspy answer.

"Damn. Thought we were gonna lose you last night, pard. Had to sponge you down a couple of times."

The Texan stiffened; his eyes grew wide in alarm. He paled, pulling the blanket up to his chin.

Reaching out, Chris rubbed a hand gently against Vin’s arm.

“I saw the brand,” the gunslinger said, “and I swear Royal will find the payback he's due for what he did to you, pard, ”he added, gritting his teeth.

With a faint groan, Vin pulled away, closing his eyes. And then slowly turned his head and looked up at his friend.

“I’m sorry, Chris, I asked Nate not to tell ya ‘bout it, ” he broke off, trying to gain command of himself.

Their eyes locked, and Chris shuddered. For in the Texan's clear pools he could read sadness, pain, humiliation and anger, but also a hint of something else he had never seen before: It was fear and not for himself either. Lowering his voice to a soft whisper, Vin spoke again. "It's okay, Chris, it's only a mark. Even though it was painful when it happened, it's over. Jist another scar to add to the ones I already got. I don't want you ta get killed 'cause of me," he murmured quietly.

Before Chris could think of a reply, Nathan hurried into the house. "Chris! We got company comin'."

"Let's see who it is," Chris said, getting up and heading out of the room.

"Hell, Larabee, git back here and help me up," Vin called, but got no response. Sitting up, he put his legs over the edge of the bed and slowly got to his feet. Carefully wrapping a blanket around himself, he hobbled after them.

Nathan saw Vin and moved quickly to him, placing one arm around his shoulders. "Dammit, Tanner, you'd better lie down 'fore you fall down, or you'll be too sick to do anyone any good."

"Reckon I'm a bit of a mess, but I can handle it. 'Sides, can't have Royal findin' me in bed, so, with or without yer help, I'm goin' ta face him standing on my feet,” Vin stubbornly stated. Shaking off Nathan's support, he took a couple more steps, swayed slightly and grabbed hold of the table to steady himself.

A second later, rifle fire shattered the windows in the shack, sending the three men diving to the floor.

Larabee raised his head to get a look out the window and a bullet stung his cheek. Crouching back down, he looked at the other two and swore softly.

“Ya know, Chris, there’s a better place ta get a look outside,” Vin drawled, nodding at the roof.

It was true; there was a little crawl space under the roof. Vin had suggested leaving a small area where, if need be, Chris could watch the trail to his house without being seen.

"Gimme a rifle and help me up there, Chris," Vin urged, getting to his knees, fighting his own battle of pain and weakness.

"Vin, don't be a fool, you can hardly stand," Nathan protested, but knew something had to be done.

"Hell, Nate, I ain't plannin' on standin', jist gonna be lyin' flat on ma' belly."

A detached voice called out from outside.

"Come on out and surrender, Larabee! We'll give you a chance! You come out or we're comin' in!"

The word surrender was not in Larabee's vocabulary. With an angry grunt, he eased himself up along the window, raised his gun and without aiming, fired a quick shot where he'd heard the mocking voice come from.

"Damn!" came a yell. "He hit Top Hat Bob!"

Silence reigned once again.

Chris sat, collecting his thoughts. Vin was needed up high, there really was no choice; his sharp shooting skills were the only thing that could get them out of this situation.

Looking up at his friends, he frowned and gave his head a shake. "Okay, Tanner, you win. Better get some pants on, I'll get a rifle ready."

"Figured you'd see it my way," Vin drawled with a full smile.

"We'd better watch him, Chris," Nathan whispered. "He ain't feelin' too strong yet."

Vin was ready in no time and together with his friends helping, he hauled himself into the narrow opening and squeezed into the space under the roof. He had a perfect view of the outlaws.

The sky was gray now; the darkness receding and Vin could see anything that moved.

Suddenly the sound of horses’ hooves filled the air. Nine riders galloped towards the cabin carrying flaming torches. The wind-whipped flames made the faces of the men look like burnished masks.

"Chris! Nathan! Get ready! Here they come!" Tanner shouted the warning.

"How many?" Chris asked, crawling over to the nearest window.

"Looks like about nine on horseback, but there are still others hidin’ back in the brush. Don't see Royal or Top Hat." Taking aim, Vin fired and knocked off two riders before they reached the house.

The outlaws had the house surrounded, when the sharpshooter yelled out, “ I’ll be damned!”

"What is it?" Larabee yelled, shooting out the window, his colt clicking on empty.

"Rider’s comin'. From the west. Looks like soldiers."

"A patrol?" asked Nathan, hoping there'd be more than a couple of men. They needed a lot of help right now.

"Looks like a whole damn troop, and they're headed right here," Vin nearly whooped out.

The unmistakable sound of cavalry rifle fire filled the air.

"Serves 'em right! Royal's men are runnin' like hell . . ." Vin laughed and then gasped as a stabbing pain in his side took his breath away. A sheen of sweat formed on his forehead. He crawled out backwards, and fell down through the hole into the waiting arms of his friends.

"Vin? You alright?" the worried gunslinger asked.

“I’m fi.. ne,“ the sharpshooter managed in a half grunt then the world went black and he passed out with a low moan.

"Damn! I knew this would happen. We shouldn't have let him up there but he's such a stubborn mule," Nathan mumbled, shaking his head.

“What’s wrong with him, Nathan?” Chris asked, worriedly.

The tracker’s skin was so pale that it seemed almost transparent and he was sweating profusely.

"Exhaustion and pain caused him to pass out, is all, Chris. Burns tend to hurt more than, say, a bullet wound. Let's get him back ta bed.”

Chris and Nathan lifted Vin's lean body and carried him back into the bedroom, laying him carefully on the bed. Larabee looked down at his friend, staring with growing concern at the worn lines of his face. It was the face that he had feared he'd never see again after the attack at Nettie’s

Once again, Chris felt an overwhelming rage at the man who was responsible. "One of these days I'll skin that Royal alive," he growled in a voice Nathan could hardly hear. "That's a promise."

The distinct sound of horses’ hooves startled him along with a harsh voice shouting, "Company! Dismount!"

Both men headed to the door, Nathan opening it and a tall man wearing the uniform of a Captain stood just outside.

"Mr. Larabee?" the young officer inquired politely, looking at the two men.

"That would be me," Chris answered. "Who are you?"

Tipping the brim of his hat in a quick salute, the young man said swiftly, "Captain Walker, sir." We were on orders to come here, to appraise the situation."

"Orders? Whose orders?" Chris wanted to know.

“Colonel Bliss‘s orders, sir. Judge Travis wired the fort asking for the Army’s support.”

"Go on," Nathan urged him.

"Well, we rode straight here and along the way, ran into a group of riders. There were about forty of them up in the hills, well armed and carrying torches. My men opened fire on them, but they managed to get away. Since our orders were to come here, we let them go." Then stepping to the side, the Captain waved a hand out to his men, "I need your help also, as I have a wounded man with us."

"You're in luck, Captain Walker. Nathan here," and Chris nodded to Jackson, "is the healer in these parts."

"The injured man is a civilian, Mr. Larabee. Before he lost consciousness, he said his name was Buck Wilmington. Apparently he was ambushed. He's in the back of the buckboard there," the Captain pointed but Nathan and Chris were already on their way to the wagon after hearing their friend's name spoken.

Buck was lying unconscious on a blanket, his left arm in a sling, a makeshift thick bandage wrapped around his right knee.

Larabee felt a lump in his throat at the sight of his friend and his face turned slightly pale, but he pulled himself together.

"Have your men bring him into the house," Nathan told the Captain, then headed back inside to get things ready.

The Captain motioned for two soldiers to help and they carried Buck into the house and to the bedroom. Nathan had set up a narrow cot next to Chris' bed and the soldiers carefully laid Wilmington on it.

After a quick examination, Nathan left the room and returned a minute later, his bag of medical supplies with him. Opening Buck's shirt, the healer began to clean up the area where the big man had been shot.

"Need ya ta hold him, Chris while I get the bullet out."

Larabee did as he was told. Working with his usual ability, Nathan pulled out the slug embedded in Buck's collarbone. After threading a needle, carbolic was poured over the open wound to keep out infection and it was sewed up carefully. Then the healer moved to the bandaged leg and did what he could there. During the whole process, Buck didn't make a move and that put a worried frown on Chris' face.

“How is he Nathan?"

"He's lost a lot of blood, but he'll live. Might be a time 'fore he's up and around though."

Chris sighed in relief and shifted his gaze from Buck's cot to the bed where Vin lay quietly under a light quilt.

"Vin should be fine, he's sleeping now," Jackson explained seeing the concern on the gunslinger's face.

"So they are both settled for now?" Chris asked.

"Yeah, at least for a few hours," Nathan informed him while checking on the sleeping tracker.

"Alright. Let's get something to eat and talk to the Captain," Larabee said, casting a nod to the healer.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was not aware of coming fully awake, just the fact he was lying down, sun drifting through the window with golden fingers.

He really didn’t want to move.

'It's goin' ta hurt,' he thought but knew he wanted to try. Painfully he pulled himself up into a sitting position. Blinking twice to clear his vision, he saw Buck lying on a cot near him and he could hear voices in the next room; Chris' and another one he'd never heard before.

"Where did you find my friend?" Chris asked of the Captain.

"Not far from Ridge Fork," the uniformed man told him. "The wagon had its front wheel split and the axle was broken. Your friend was sprawled in the dirt nearby. He was pretty disorientated."

"He say anything about the men that did this?" Nathan wanted to know.

"No, but he did ask about a Miz Nettie before passing out."

Everything came back to Vin when he heard Nettie's name spoken. In his feverish mind he saw once more the flames engulfing her ranch, Royal's face peering at him with a mocking smile and the hot branding iron descending on his helpless body. Anger swept over him like a mounting tide. That damned Royal had kidnapped Nettie, the spirited old woman who'd given him a home, a family. She filled that empty room in the most secret part of his lonely heart. And he loved her fiercely like the mother he had lost when he was just a little kid.

I have ta git up he ordered himself. Sitting on the bed, he put his legs over the edge until his toes hit the floor. His legs felt weak but he managed to stand up. His gaze scoped out the room, looking for some type of a weapon and then he saw on the table, Nathan's knife; a five-inch blade in a beaded sheath. Vin's eye's lit up as his fingers closed around the knife's handle. The scabbard had some straps so he could fasten it to his leg.

Tanner took a long, steady breath and shifted his eyes from the bed to the window. It was open. His feet moved along easier than he could have hoped for. Reaching the window, he eased out of it, but lost his balance and hit the ground hard. He accidentally hit the healing wound on his side as he landed. Pain flared in his chest. He bit it off quickly when he felt himself drifting away from consciousness.

"Git movin', dammit!" he hissed to himself, struggling to his feet.

It took a big effort but the stubborn young man managed to reach the corral fence and using it’s edge to steady himself he stepped to the stable and opened the back door, allowing the sun to stream inside, as he moved slowly toward Peso. The horse whinnied softly as if he had been expecting his master. Vin didn’t saddle him he only picked up a rope, pulled it around the animal's head and neck and led him out of the stall. The tracker stopped in the door and cautiously peered around. The soldiers had camped in front of Chris' shack. Some of them were having their coffee, sitting by a little fire and the rest were taking care of the horses lined up by the trees at the opposite side of the yard. The way to the woods was free. With some difficulty the Texan swung up into his horse's back, clicked his tongue and guided Peso out of the stable. He wheeled the horse away from the barn entrance and cantered toward the sparse woods.

Vin covered a good mile before reining in and halting beside a clump of trees. His broken ribs were making it hard to breathe. Even though his body was starting to betray him, his mind was clear

A horse whinnied from somewhere nearby and Vin hastily turned into the trees and dismounted, hiding himself under a thick bush.

The horse and rider swerved into the trees and Vin sighed in relief, recognizing Josiah's powerful frame. He took a step forward, letting Sanchez see him.

"Howdy, Josiah. What the hell you doin' out here?"

"Came back from Yuma yesterday," Josiah said, giving Vin a nod of welcome and getting off his mount. "Judge Travis told me what happened. Then while I was heading to the church, a shadow crossed the road. I looked up - it was a crow. Landed on the church roof and I just knew I needed to get to Chris' place."

“Kinda strange, ain’t it? “ Vin mocked, a little grin playing on his haggard features.

"No, brother. I took it as a warning and by the looks of you, it was right. You're in pain, Vin, not only physically but also in your very soul. Let me help," he told his friend, reaching out for the tracker's bare arm.

"Git off me, Josiah," Vin said in a dangerously low voice, avoiding the preacher's outstretched arm. "Royal's kidnapped Nettie and I aim ta get her back."

In one swift movement Vin vaulted onto Peso's back before Josiah could protest. The ex-preacher grabbed for the reins, stopping his friend from riding out.

"No, Vin wait!" Josiah called out to the determined man. "That's just what Royal wants. He took her because he knew you'd come for her. It's a trap!"

"Then he'll get what he wants," Vin growled.

In spite of the shocking pallor, the bruises and the bandages on his body the tracker sat the big black as if born there. There was a look of lean, rippled power in Vin’s slight frame. He seemed utterly dangerous. Surprisingly when you saw that the only weapon he had was a knife.

Still holding the reins, Josiah stared at his friend. The big man said nothing as his eyes met Vin's blazing blue ones. He knew the Texan had already suffered enough and deserved his vengeance, so he let go of the reins.

With a chilling war cry, Vin wheeled Peso around and galloped away.

Sanchez stood unmoving for a few minutes, his gaze on the sky, lost in thought. He sighed, lowered his eyes and was caught off guard when a strong hand grabbed him from behind, turning him around. He looked into Chris Larabee's unmistakable deadly glare.

"Dammit, Josiah. You should have stopped him," the gunslinger snarled.

"I know, Chris, but I couldn't. He needs to do this. But I'm going with him. For the Lord has chosen us to fight for justice and the protection of the innocents, from the day we met. 'Think not that I've come to send peace on earth: I come not to send peace, but a sword.' John eight, verse ten. 'For these be the days of vengeance, that all things that are written may be filled.' Luke twenty-four." Sanchez quoted with a glint in his eyes.

"Well, if you're finished with that sermon of yours, preacher, we'd best hurry. I'm not sure how long Vin can hold on," Chris muttered as he stepped back to his horse and swung into the saddle.

+ + + + + + +

Vin rode heading south, deeper into the prairie. The day was perfect and the blue sky dipped away to the horizon, but the Texan’s face was grave and sober. He passed two ranches with no fences to mark their territory. Reining in his mount, he stopped. The houses had belonged to someone and now they were burned all the way to the ground. A sharp, unforgiving pain fell upon Tanner’ heart at the thought of those people that had been killed or compelled to leave the valleys, the woods, the soil to which they were rooted as Nettie was. They were decent people; they didn’t deserve to live in fear, jumping every time a rider rode up to their houses. Vin’s eyes lowered to the mark on his skin and he shook his head wildly, clenching his jaw. He had one purpose, which owned him now: payment for the atrocities against him and Nettie would be made in full.

"Yer gonna pay fer all this, Royal, in blood!" Vin growled under his breath. He let his imagination roam and watched himself creeping up behind the man and digging his knife into the man's throat. Not slicing it, that would be too easy, too fast, no, he wanted to stick the tip of the blade into Royal's flesh and see his eyes bulge as he watched his own blood spill out upon the ground.