Size: Approx. 300K

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

Main Characters: Vin, Chris, Nathan.

Disclaimers: I do not own m7 or anything related to the program and do not profit from this uh, product.

Warnings: Cursing. Violence, including violence towards a child. Suggestion of abuse, but nothing graphic. Excessive amounts of angst, moaning, and groaning and general over-the-top hurt/comfort stuff.

Comments: A sequel to a fic I wrote a long time ago called 'Need', because the call of a limpy, gimpy, sick Vin was just too much for me to ignore any longer. You don't need to read that fic to follow this one, though it might help to be familiar with it. Thanks to my daughter, Lindsey, for the second epilogue ... it's obvious, but I didn't think of it! And thanks to Laramee for the lovely pic.

Part One: Traitors

"Shit! Goddamn it!" Vin cursed, before stalking off and aiming his boot at the trunk of a massive oak. He staggered clumsily, his bad leg protesting the movement, and just barely escaped an awkward fall by grabbing hold of a drooping tree limb.

It would have been comical if it weren't so damn disturbing, Chris thought. He refrained from rushing over to lend a hand. Vin needed to work out some of his frustration, hopefully he wouldn't do too much damage to himself in the process. He winced as he watched the tracker shuffle off towards the nearby stream. He'd never get used to it; the uneven, halting gait, all the more obvious after days in the saddle. Damp, cold weather hadn't helped, either, always giving Vin added grief, though he never complained.

Chris complained for him, to himself mostly, but sometimes to Buck or to Nathan when he couldn't hold it in. No, he'd never get used to it. He'd never accept it either, or believe that Vin had.

"Chris? We gonna make camp here?" Nathan asked, his gaze flitting from Chris to Vin and back again.

Chris picked up a stick and poked at the dying embers near his feet before rising to his full height and casting another glance at Vin. Tanner would want to keep moving. The fact that the fire was still smoldering was proof that they were only hours away from their prey. In fact, this time they thought for sure they'd caught up, but the man they sought remained one step ahead.

They had no idea who the man was or what he looked like, but it was imperative that they find him; a boy's life depended on it. Michael Spencer, a twelve year-old shy, lanky blond had disappeared from his home two days before, and his distraught father had raced into town seeking help. Within hours, Vin had determined the child had been taken by one rider, heading north.

That had initiated forty-eight hours of hard riding with little food and not nearly enough sleep. And if that wasn't enough, a constant, cold drizzle blanketed the men, leaving Chris miserable, Nathan worried, and Vin on edge.

Glancing up at the already darkening sky, Chris sighed. They needed the rest, and heaven only knew what lay ahead, so he nodded at Nathan before stiffening his shoulders and heading off towards Vin. Tanner had his back to him; his head bent forward, his hat slung back. He ran a hand through his damp curls, and Chris could feel his tension without seeing his face. Vin was just barely holding it together, and he'd never get used to that, either. Although maybe that was unfair, maybe Vin would be reacting exactly the same under the current circumstances, regardless of the past and the changes it had wrought.

Chris held up a few feet from his friend, waiting for the moment to pass, for Vin to shore up and turn to face him. When he did, Chris plastered a don't-argue-with-me expression on his face and spoke up, "We're holding up here for the night."

Vin's eyes widened for a brief moment before fire lit the dark blue depths. The fickle sun was setting just over the tracker's shoulder, a slice of red melding with a hint of blue, mimicking Tanner's eyes perfectly. More rain clouds were closing in, though; dark gray smudges moving across the horizon that matched the bruised shadows under Vin's eyes.

"Y'all can stop if y' want. I'm movin' on," Vin said, challenging the gunman's glare.

As if to help Chris make his case, the first in a long line of black clouds moved overhead and opened up. Icy rain dripped from the rim of his hat, and Chris shook his head as he simply said, "No."

He could see the internal battle his friend was waging. Vin knew he'd likely lose the trail in the dark and the rain, but he wasn't ready to give in. And with a child's life at stake, Chris couldn't blame him. On the other hand, that was an even more compelling reason for them to use common sense and extra caution. They couldn't afford a mistake.

He said so to Vin. "You're too exhausted to think straight. And now more than ever, we have to think clearly, Pard. He's kept Michael with him this long; a few more hours ain't likely to change that. In this weather at this time of day, we could miss something."

Betrayed; that was the word that filtered through Chris's admittedly muddled brain as he watched his friend narrow his eyes suspiciously. Vin was taking it personally, that bit about thinking clearly, and rightfully so.

The rain picked up, sliding down Tanner's high cheek bones and dripping off the ends of his hair, only proving Larabee's point that his friend's mind wasn't where it needed to be. Apparently Vin was so exhausted that it didn't even occur to him pull his hat up over his head. Chris did it for him, and it said more than he wanted to acknowledge that Vin let him. He'd gotten used to watching out for Vin since the terrible accident, and apparently it was a matter of course for both of them now.

Still, Vin wasn't ready to give up the chase just yet. "We're close, Chris. You saw the fire. He's hours ahead of us. We've got t' keep goin'."

Now it was just plain desperation in his voice and his eyes; in the way he shifted his weight to stand a little straighter. Hurt him to do it, too, Chris knew that, but at least Vin was able to stand and able to make this hunt. There was a time when Chris doubted his friend would walk again, let alone ride and track.

Vin turned away from him and headed for his horse, but Chris put a hand to his arm. "No, Vin," he repeated softly. "We can't take the chance."

With bowed head and stooped shoulders, Vin paused and finally nodded.

An hour later, they were huddled under a canvas tarp stretched between two trees as the rain poured down around them. Nathan, noting Vin's chattering teeth, had struggled valiantly to make a fire, but it was hopeless.

Chris eased his weary back up against his blanket covered saddle, determined to ignore his discomfort. He tried to avoid looking at Vin, knowing the agony his friend was enduring would just add to his misery. If his back ached, Vin's had to be killing him, and that didn't even take into account his friend's other problems. Vin knew how to live with pain, likely had lived with it even before the accident, but that didn't make Chris feel any better.

He knew better than to dwell on the past, but he couldn't stop himself. It wasn't fair, and no matter how many times he reminded himself of the futility of that sentiment, he couldn't quit thinking it. Tanner had been run over by a stagecoach in an attempt to save a little girl, breaking both legs and injuring his already weak back in the process. Morphine addiction had added to his problems, but he'd fought like the devil and he'd come back . . . mostly anyway.

The girl had died, and even though Vin seemed to have made his peace with that, finding Michael would give him a second chance. Chris was reasonably certain that motive added fuel to Vin's already overwhelming sense of compassion and justice. He had to find this boy in time.

There was something else driving him, too, although Chris hadn't quite gotten a handle on what it was. Maybe it was him or maybe it was Vin, but there were times when he didn't have a clue what was going on in Tanner's head. It was a crazy contradiction, because in spite of a lack of communication on occasion, they'd never been closer. Things were just different; complicated in part by Chris's underlying anger about the situation. Maybe a little pity, too, though he'd never say it - Vin would put a bullet in him.

So even though he couldn't put words to the how and why of it, the truth was things had changed. Chris felt the need to watch over his friend more closely; to monitor not just his physical state and stamina, but also his emotional well-being and, if he were honest about it, his judgment.

And he'd never get used to it.

+ + + + + + +

Vin couldn't get comfortable. His bad leg throbbed and his 'good' one ached almost as much as his back. He'd gotten used to it, but the hard riding and the weather made it harder than usual to ignore. He would ignore it, though, and he'd never let on. Nathan would feel bad that he couldn't give him anything and Chris would just feel bad, period. He could hardly make a move anymore without both men hovering, and it was getting old. If he'd had his wits about him, he'd have insisted on taking Buck and JD with him when this all came about.

Of course, they treated him differently, too, just not as noticeably. Vin wasn't sure exactly when it all changed, but it tied back to when it happened: the "accident", as his friends commonly called it. Chris, especially, couldn't seem to get past it. Treated him like an invalid sometimes and he hated it; hated the look in Larabee's eyes when he watched him walk. Hell, it was a damn miracle he was walking at all and it seemed like Chris ought to remember that.

But it wasn't just the physical challenge that plagued Vin; in fact, that wasn't even the worst of it. Time was when no one could have changed his mind or talked him out of doing what he knew needed to be done - when he never would have doubted his judgment.

What was that Chris had said? He wasn't thinking clearly? Was it true?

He'd gotten so screwed up with that damn drug that he didn't trust himself half the time . . . or maybe most of the time. What business did he have holding another life in his hands?

It wasn't about what Chris thought it was, or what he thought Chris thought it was - it wasn't about guilt. He really had made his peace with Betsy's death. He knew he'd done his best to save her, and finding Michael wouldn't change anything; it wouldn't bring her back. One situation had nothing to do with the other. Equally tragic, but Betsy's death was an accident while Michael's kidnapping was deliberately diabolical. And if there was one thing Vin's scattered brain was certain of, it was that there could be no good reason for a man to take a boy.

Besides, Michael was a good kid; he didn't deserve it. Quiet and reserved, he stuck by his father most of the time. They'd move through town side by side, the man's hand on his son's shoulder. Vin always felt a little wistful about that; he'd never had a father that he knew of. He'd often thought how lucky Michael was, having a pa like that.

In fact, Jim Spencer, Michael's father, had come to Vin a few months back and asked him to teach his son to shoot. He wanted him to be able to protect himself, so Vin had reluctantly agreed to spend a few hours a week with the boy. Michael was shy, hardly speaking two words to him at first, but that suited Vin just fine. They gradually formed a friendship, and Vin's initial hesitation about putting a gun in the hands of a twelve year old didn't bear out. Michael had a good head and he understood the seriousness of a loaded weapon. Lot of good it did; the kid never had the chance to save himself.

Vin shifted a little against the stump he was propped against and choked back a groan. A bit of whisky would help about now but they didn't have any, and he couldn't be tempted anyway. Liquor was more addicting than morphine, and he couldn't go down that road. Once he started drinking, it was too damn hard to stop. That was different, too, and just more evidence that he still wasn't quite back to being himself.

"Vin? You need t' eat," Nathan spoke up, his eyes warm and sympathetic in the shadows of the single lantern.

He held out soggy biscuits and stale jerky, and Vin turned away. It was a ridiculous request, asking him to eat when all he could think about was Michael's shy, sweet smile and the way he looked at Vin like he was almost as smart as his father. A good kid--unlike other boys who got themselves in trouble--and he was out there waiting for Vin to find him.

What the hell was he thinking? Why did he let Chris convince him to stop? Chris had said a few hours weren't likely to make a difference, but Vin knew what could happen in a few hours. He knew what men did with young boys . . .

"I can't stay here," Vin rasped as he made a move to stand. It was crazy, sitting here in the rain while Michael suffered in the hands of a madman.

Chris's hand gripped his shoulder firmly and pressed him back down. "No, Vin. You have to rest. First light, we'll go. Not before."

Nathan remained quiet, his gaze lowered to the damp ground. Staying out of it, like they all did now. Let Chris handle it - let Chris handle him.

Vin shifted back to the ground and tried to wrap his brain around Chris's words; tried to sift between emotion and reason to find the right course. It scared him that he was having more and more trouble keeping focused. Maybe he wasn't thinking straight. Maybe he should let Chris take the lead . . . for Michael's sake.

So with little more than a sigh, he tipped his head back and closed his eyes. He heard Nathan's urgent plea for him to eat, and Chris's equally insistent response that he needed to sleep, but he ignored them both as he tried to remember who he used to be and how he used to think.

Because the truth was, everything--and everyone--had changed.

+ + + + + + +

They all tried to act like nothing had changed. None of them opened their mouths when Vin struggled to mount up on Peso, or to crouch low to the ground for a sign, or to even walk across the floor of the saloon on his bad days. They all knew when he drank too much and ate too little that he was hurting, but it really wasn't their business and there was nothing anyone could do anyway. Better to leave Vin alone, give him his dignity . . . act like nothing had changed.

But of course, everything had changed. Nathan thought he'd be used to it, four months having passed since the accident, but he wasn't. Every time he watched Vin climb awkwardly into the saddle, he winced. He decided, like Chris, he'd never really accept it; he'd always wonder if he couldn't have done something different, something more.

Although Chris would probably say he should have done something less. They'd argued about the morphine - damn near come to blows over it. Nathan just couldn't sit back and watch Vin suffer, even when he knew his friend was becoming more and more addicted to the drug. But it was Chris who sat with Vin when he went through the painful withdrawal, and Chris who guided him through every excruciating step afterwards. Even though Nathan had settled his differences with Chris, he couldn't help feeling like he'd let Vin down. And every inadvertent grimace or poorly concealed groan from the tracker reminded him of that fact.

A few times he'd offered Vin some alternatives for pain relief; things he'd read about or heard about. But Tanner always thanked him and turned him down. 'It's nothin'', Vin would say, 'don't worry so much'. Most of the time Nathan listened, because Vin really was handling it, and that was no surprise. Tanner was strong in character and spirit, if no longer in body.

His weakness, his only weakness as far as Nathan could see, was getting involved in the plight of innocents with no regard for his own safety. Jackson was glad of that at the beginning of their friendship--he'd have been hung if Vin hadn't stepped in--but that trait was likely to get his friend killed one of these times. And it was likely to torture him for months on end if this quest didn't have the happy ending Vin so desperately needed.

Speaking of torture, it had been a purely miserable night. Rainy and cold, camped out on hard, rocky soil, with nothing good to eat--or drink for that matter--and tension so thick it squeezed the breath right out of a man. Vin wanted to go; Chris knew they needed to stay. At odds with each other, with Chris questioning Vin's judgment and Vin knowing it. Even that had changed, though they were still closer than any two men Nathan had ever known.

Nathan followed behind both men now, not liking the way Tanner was hunched down in the saddle. Last thing he needed was to get sick, but the chances were good that he would. He still hadn't gained back all the weight he'd lost and his reserves were low, at best.

Chris didn't look much better, his face white and stony beneath the brim of his black hat. He kept shooting covert glances in Vin's direction, and Nathan almost smiled at that. He remembered when Vin had been rammed into a fence by a horse in town, breaking a few ribs, and Chris had hardly batted an eyelash. But ever since the accident, Chris had become highly protective of his friend. Not all the changes were bad.

Vin would balk at that, Chris thinking he needed protection - any of them thinking he needed protection. Of course, they all looked out for each other, so maybe looking after Vin was no different . . . except that it was. No matter how they all tried their damnedest to look the other way and pretend things were the same, they all tended to pave the way for Vin and watch out for him a little closer.

But if the last few months had proven anything at all, it was that it wasn't always possible to make life easier for your friends. Sometimes things just happened that no one could foresee or control. When it came right down to it, there was only so much a man could do; no one could protect anyone else from life.

That point was brought home with excruciating vengeance as the men topped a ridge a few hours after they'd started out. Vin got there first and stopped so suddenly that Chris's horse nearly rammed into him. Nathan was close behind, but he didn't see what Vin did, at least not at first.

Vin's face blanched nearly as white as the knuckles that gripped his saddle horn. "Oh, no . . . no," he whispered, but it was loud enough for both Nathan and Chris to hear and to quickly follow Vin's gaze down the rocky hillside to the river bank below.

Even from a hundred yards away, Nathan knew their search had ended. He absently brushed away a tear as he followed Chris and Vin down the slope.

There was no protection from life.

+ + + + + + +

"How long, Nathan?" Chris asked, his voice carefully guarded from the emotions that raged inside.

Jackson shook his head. "Can't say for sure, but not more than hour."

"Oh, God . . . no," Vin mumbled softly, his eyes entrenched on the body at his feet.

Chris closed his eyes and shook his head . . . and was caught completely off guard when Vin slammed into him. "I told you!" Vin screamed as he rammed against Chris's chest again. "I told you we needed t' keep goin'!"

Chris gripped Vin's forearms, more to steady him than stop him, and looked him calmly in the eye. Tanner's eyes filled with tears and he abruptly pulled away, turning his back to the gunman. Chris could see that he was breathing heavily and trembling as he fought to regain control of his emotions. Chris wanted to strike out himself; throw a boot at the nearest tree like Vin had done the evening before. Or better yet, put a dozen bullets in the bastard who'd done this.

Vin took off then, hobbling down along the river's edge a ways, and leaving Chris to deal with the dead child. Twelve years old . . . he should be out fishing or exploring or arguing with his parents about doing his chores, for God's sakes, not lying dead on a muddy bank.

Was it his fault? Had he been wrong to make them stop?

"Not your fault any more than Vin's," Nathan said, reading his mind. "Ain't none of us can see the future, Chris, and it probably wouldn't have made a difference, anyway. He killed him when he knew we were close . . . would've happened no matter when we found him."

Nathan was probably right, but it did little to ease the burning pain in his stomach or the stinging in his eyes.

"Go on," Nathan instructed with a nod towards the Texan, "go see t' Vin." Gently wrapping a blanket around the still form near his feet, he added softly, "Nothin' you can do for this one."

"God damn it," Chris muttered as he turned away to trace Vin's footsteps.

He found the tracker several yards away and instinctively knew he'd been sick. Tanner's newly acquired weak stomach was just another change they'd had to adjust to. Nathan said it might get better, but for now, it didn't take much to set Vin to puking. And Lord knew, this was more than enough to make anyone sick; it was all Chris could do not to empty his stomach right next to him.

Vin was sitting on the ground, his bad leg extended out in front of him. He had his hat in his hands, his head bowed; exhaustion and despair written in every line and curve of his body. Stooping behind him, Chris laid a strong hand on the rigid shoulder beneath him and squeezed gently, but Vin shrugged away.

Moments later, Tanner stumbled to his feet clumsily, forgetting to hide the groan this time. Chris instinctively reached out to help him, and once more Vin shook off his hand as he regained his balance. He met the gunman's eyes defiantly, heedless of the tears that streamed down his face.

"Why didn't you listen to me? Why didn't you trust me?" he lamented.

Before Chris could respond, Vin lowered his head and whispered brokenly, "Why didn't I trust myself?"

There wasn't an answer, and even if there was, Vin wouldn't hear it or believe it right then. So Chris offered the only solace he could, "I'm sorry, Vin. I'm so sorry. I did . . . we did what we thought was best for Michael. We tried our best. It just . . . happened this way."

Vin swiped a hand across his nose, and it alarmed Chris that although his friend appeared to be looking at him, his eyes were unfocused. "I wasn't quick enough," Vin mumbled almost incoherently. "Not thinkin' right . . . messed up in my head . . . n' I . . . I slowed us down."

Chris gripped his friend's shoulders and said sternly, "That's not true, Vin. Don't think like that."

"You said it yourself, Larabee," he responded, the words far too clear this time.

Had he? No. No. Implied it maybe, but never had he said that Vin wasn't at his best.

"I didn't, but it doesn't matter now. We can argue over whose fault this is or we can go after the bastard. Your choice."

So maybe they'd had some problems reading each other lately, but he still knew how Tanner worked. Vin wiped his sleeve across his face and took a deep breath. "Yeah," he said, not really answering the question but it wasn't necessary.

Vin mounted up and took off without another word or a single glance in Nathan's direction. It was Chris who made sure Jackson could make it home alright with his burden.

"I'll make it," Nathan promised, tears rimming his eyes. "I'll get Michael home. You take care of the murderer who did this." He added with a sigh, "Take care of Vin, too."

+ + + + + + +

"We're going back, Vin," Larabee said softly; almost a whisper, but Vin could it hear plain it enough with Chris at his shoulder, close to his ear. In fact, his friend's warm breath felt like fire on his neck; one bright, hot spot penetrating his otherwise frozen body. He hadn't been warm in so long, he'd forgotten what it felt like.

"No," he answered, or thought he did. He wasn't entirely sure the word had sound, but it didn't matter anyhow. He and Larabee had been having this same argument for days and it really wasn't worth the effort.

He could hear Larabee in his head . . . 'Lost the trail days ago, Vin' . . . 'You're not thinking clear, Pard' . . . 'Horses need a break'. It seemed so clear in his mind that he was startled when Chris actually did speak.

"I'm not gonna let you run yourself to the ground, Vin. Trail's cold. Horses are done in. I'm done in. We're going home. I'll cold cock you if I have to."

Well, that was different; this was the first time Chris had resorted to threats of violence. It didn't change anything, though.

"Can't," Vin responded simply.

The glare in Chris's eyes made it pretty clear that he could and he would. Come morning, there would be more words. But for tonight, they'd both let it go.

Vin sighed as he sank to the ground and set to work building a fire. He could park himself on top of the flames and still be too damn cold. It was dark again, too, the days growing shorter by the hour, and hell, it was no wonder he couldn't find the bastard. Two hours of daylight, constant rain, rocky ground that gave nothing away . . . what the hell did Larabee expect anyway?

Maybe Chris expected him to do his job. And maybe he just couldn't anymore. Maybe the God-almighty-accident had made him an entirely different man after all. Maybe there was absolutely no point to him walking around like a broken, stoic, martyr . . . he should just take the damn morphine and keep his head in a damn fog because it didn't make any difference anyway and then at least, he wouldn't be hurting all the damn time.

Because God, he did hurt; his leg, his back, his head . . . his heart. He couldn't close his eyes without seeing dead children. In fact, all he could see from that horrible day was Michael's lifeless body on muddy ground. He didn't remember if the sun was shining or if it was black as night. He couldn't recollect the feel of the breeze in the air or the rain on his face. He knew there was a river near by, but he couldn't picture it for the life of him. He couldn't recall a single sound or a single word spoken, except for three . . . "less than hour." Nathan said the boy had been dead less than hour.

So one hour would have made the difference. If they hadn't stopped at dusk . . . if they'd gotten up before dawn . . . if he'd insisted they push through meals that he didn't have the stomach for anyway.

If he'd tried harder or thought quicker or moved faster, he could have gained that hour.

He didn't blame Chris, really. He knew better; knew they needed to keep going, but he didn't trust his instincts any longer. He should've pressed the issue and he didn't.

And Michael Spencer was dead.

He was going to be sick. He could feel his stomach churning and he knew if he'd had anything to eat recently, it would be on its way up by now. Taking a deep breath, he swallowed and held the nausea at bay. But the cold would not be ignored, and a hard shiver coursed through him. Vin wrapped his arms tighter around his waist as he hunched closer to the fire.

Suddenly, a thick, wool blanket floated around his shoulders and he latched on to it gratefully. Larabee had managed to drop the quilt on him without Vin even realizing the gunman was near. That probably should have disturbed him more than it did, but he was too appreciative of the extra warmth to give it much thought.

Chris dropped to the ground on the opposite side of the fire and set up the kettle to brew some coffee. That was good thinking, and in spite of what a pain in the ass Larabee could be, Vin had to admit that he was glad Chris had a bit more foresight than he apparently possessed at the moment.

Chris was staring at him across the flames, so Vin closed his eyes; shut out the hint of anger and ever present worry that had resided in his friend's eyes for so long now. He didn't think he nodded off sitting up but he must have, because only seconds later, Chris was handing him a cup of steaming, black coffee.

"He's long gone, Vin," Chris spoke up, bravely--or stupidly--broaching the subject once again.

Vin winced as the hot liquid scalded his throat, but he took several more swallows before answering.

"Maybe. But I'm not givin' up."

"Why not? He's not the first murderer you've lost."

Vin looked up sharply at that, and Chris held his gaze; not giving in or backing down.

"I did everythin' I could t' find Ella, Chris. You know that," he answered softly.

Chris nodded. "I do. And I appreciate it. But once you lost the trail, you came back. Why is this so different? Why can't you let it go?"

How could he answer that and not give himself away? He'd come back for one reason and one reason only: he didn't even know if Chris was still alive. The entire time he'd hunted Ella, all he could think about was getting back to Chris. Pulling the blanket tighter around him, Vin dropped his gaze to the fire and said nothing.

"You came back for me, Vin," Chris said slowly, as if Vin might need time to absorb the words. "You were concerned about me, just like I'm concerned about you now. We've already lost an innocent life to this man; I don't want him to take you, too."

So Chris had him all figured out. He could be damn persuasive, too. But he just didn't understand. Keeping his eyes glued to the flames, Vin told him succinctly, "He'll do it again. They always do."

Chris sighed and Vin heard him shift a bit; maybe to get more comfortable or maybe just to buy time before he said what he felt he needed to. "He won't come back to Four Corners . . . it won't be anybody we know."

What? Vin raised his eyes and spouted, "Well hell, that makes it alright then, don't it? Maybe he'll get real lucky and grab a kid that no one knows . . . a kid without a father who cares about him . . . a kid nobody cares about. That'd be just fine then, right Larabee?"

"Where the hell did that come from?" Chris asked, jutting his chin up a notch and challenging Vin to finally, once and for all, get down to the root of it all.

But he couldn't have answered Chris's question if he wanted to, which he didn't. Too tired and too sore . . . too strung out to even begin to put it into words. And besides, what had happened to him when he was a boy didn't matter. He'd been told as a child that he was more trouble than he was worth, and he reckoned it was true. No one even noticed when he was taken because no one cared; no one came looking for him, no one grieved for him, no one rejoiced when he got away. It wasn't the same as with Michael . . . he wasn't the same kind of kid as Michael. But it didn't matter then, and it sure didn't matter now.

He didn't remember lying down, but somehow he was curled on his side on the packed earth. And somehow a folded blanket cushioned his head and another covered his body. Maybe he could close his eyes for just a few minutes without seeing dead children and grieving families . . . and lost boys.

+ + + + + + +

Something had happened to Vin when he was a kid. Chris was sure of it, though he doubted he'd ever find out the details. That was okay because he was pretty sure he didn't want to know the details anyway.

Besides, it really didn't matter. It didn't change the fact that they were running low on reserves and they had no idea where to look next. Vin was so worn out that he didn't seem to know half the time if he was awake or asleep. Pale and thin, too--like he'd been only a few months before when they'd almost lost him--and hurting enough that he either couldn't hide it, or no longer had the energy to try.

Chris wanted the guy, too; wanted him so bad he could taste it. And Tanner was right that he'd probably do it again. But there was only so much they could do and they'd done it. Sometimes a man had to admit defeat.

Vin likely never would, but he soon wouldn't have a choice. It had taken him ten minutes to get up on his horse that morning, and Chris could read in his eyes that he really wasn't sure where to go once he got up there.

It had been another long, restless night for both of them, and when morning came, the argument started up again. Vin ended up asking for one more day, and Chris reluctantly agreed. But now, as he watched Vin list more and more to the side, he regretted his decision. Nathan would have his head when he got a look at the shape Vin was in.

Moving his steed closer to his friend's, he asked, "Where you hurtin', Vin?"

Vin shrugged and kept his eyes focused straight ahead. "Does it matter?"

"Thought it might save me some time figuring out where to start, once you slide off that damn mule."

"Ain't nothin' you can do," Vin responded shortly.

"I can drag your sorry ass home," Chris answered back, not the least bit apologetic for the sting in his words.

But Vin just looked at him sadly and mumbled, "Yep. I reckon you can."

It didn't feel like a victory. It felt like Chris had won the battle, but lost the war. As they turned back towards home, Vin said nothing. And although silence between them wasn't normally uncomfortable, it felt wrong. It felt like Vin was screaming inside . . . and Chris just couldn't figure out how to listen.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah kept watch throughout the long days. Sooner or later, Chris and Vin would head back into town, and he wanted to catch them before they got too far. They needed to know right off what they were riding in to.

It was so damn unfair, it made Josiah want to throw his fist through a wall. It probably wouldn't have been so bad if Nathan hadn't let slip that they'd found the boy just a short time after his death. After three days of searching, being an hour too late was impossible to accept. It appeared that if Vin and Chris had been just a little quicker--or a little smarter--they could have made up the difference and brought Michael home alive.

Emotions already ran high, and a child's death brought out the worst in people. Josiah couldn't really blame Jim Spencer for his anger and grief. The man wasn't thinking clearly, and unless and until Vin found the man truly responsible for his son's death, Spencer would aim his anger at the next available source - the man who had failed to find his son in time.

No, Sanchez couldn't fault Jim Spencer at the moment. But Conklin and his friends were another story. The men were quiet about what they said and who they said it to, but it was common knowledge that Vin was considered a fallen hero; not the same man he'd been before. Of course, they'd barely tolerated him then. Vin had only earned a begrudging respect by the men after the accident; it was pretty damn hard to criticize a man who'd been broken in pieces trying to save a little girl, after all. And with Vin still carrying the limp and the scars, no one dared speak a word against him.

Until now.

Josiah sighed as he sat down heavily on the steps of his church, his eyes scanning the horizon for the familiar figures of his friends. Chris would be furious when he found out about the talk in town. Mostly it revolved around Vin's state of mind and how his injuries likely slowed up the search process. Leave it to that idiot Conklin to remind everyone that Tanner had taken massive doses of morphine only months before, and did anyone really know what that did to a man's mind?

About the only thing that could make the situation better would be if Chris and Vin came back with the murderer in tow. But as soon as Josiah spotted the familiar figures of his two friends in the distance, he knew they had not been granted even that favor. They'd come back empty handed.

Head them off at the pass, that was his initial thought, but he changed his mind when he got a better view of Vin. Tanner had always sat in the saddle differently, slouching a bit to ease his bad back, but it was clear the man was struggling just to keep himself mounted. Josiah saw Chris nudge him as they grew closer to town, and Vin straightened up some, or as close as he could come to it. Exhausted and half sick--Josiah could spot it from yards away--and Vin didn't need any more bad news.

Better to let Chris handle it, and there was no doubt that Larabee would handle it. Josiah met the gunman's eye as he rode past, nodding slightly as he headed off to meet the men at the livery. He took long strides to get there, ignoring the curious looks of the townspeople who had started to gather on the boardwalk. It wouldn't take long for the whole town to know that Chris and Vin were back, and that they had nothing, or rather no one, to show for their efforts.

Chris had already dismounted by the time Josiah reached the livery. Vin awkwardly climbed down with an audible groan, and Josiah raised a brow in Chris's direction as he went to assist the tracker. He wrapped a thick arm around Vin's narrow waist to steady him, which was fortunate since Tanner's legs buckled the second his feet hit the ground.

"Whoa. Hold on there, Vin," Josiah said smoothly, like it happened all the time that Vin couldn't manage to climb off his horse and stay standing.

Vin closed his eyes and grabbed onto his saddle. He remained that way for long moments, leaning against his horse with Josiah supporting him, before mumbling, "Michael's dead, Josiah."

Josiah tightened his grip. "I know, Vin," he answered somberly.

"Need a drink," Vin whispered.

"You need food and rest, in that order," Chris stated firmly, looking to Josiah for support.

But Vin ignored him and Josiah said nothing as the tracker pulled himself upright and painfully limped out of the livery. Chris made a move to go after him, but Josiah caught his arm.

"Chris, we have to talk."

Larabee kept his eyes on his friend's retreating back before turning stiffly back to Sanchez. "What about?" he asked impatiently.

Josiah took a deep breath and went on. "I take it you didn't find the killer?"

Chris shook his head and narrowed his eyes as he waited for Sanchez to gather his words.

"Damn," Josiah muttered, his eyes cast downward. "Might've helped."

"Helped what?" Only Larabee could make the two words sound more like a threat than a question.

As he suspected, this wasn't going to be easy, and Josiah found himself uncharacteristically tripping over his words. "Some folks think . . . they feel like Vin wasn't quite up to . . . wasn't quite himself. And maybe he missed something. You know, the boy only being dead an hour . . . it's a hard thing, Chris."

The infamous Larabee glare preceded his words. "Damn right it is. And Vin damn near killed himself looking for the boy and the murdering bastard who took him. Exactly who do I need to make this perfectly clear to?"

Definitely a threat this time, and Josiah wanted to say that he'd be in line with Chris to do the head-knocking, but Yosemite's panic-stricken call interrupted their conversation.

"Mr. Larabee! Come quick!"

It didn't surprise Josiah to find Vin lying flat on his back in the dusty street. He probably would have been more surprised if the young man had actually made it to the saloon on his own. But like the others, he was hesitant to ask too many questions, to offer too much assistance, to hover too closely. The fact that Vin had allowed Josiah to help him off his horse said far too much about Vin's physical and mental wellbeing at that moment.

No, the surprise wasn't that Vin was down - it was that Jim Spencer was on top of him, beating the shit out of him. Although that wasn't entirely unexpected either, and that was what he had been trying to tell Chris. He just wasn't quick enough, he thought guiltily as he rushed in Larabee's footsteps to break up the scuffle.

It was apparent that it was a one-sided fight. Jim had Vin pinned to the ground and was swinging his fists wildly. He had gotten in several good blows to Vin's chest and face before the tracker seemed to snap out of his shock and at least put up his arms to minimize the damage. Vin never hit back, though, and Josiah wondered if his friend would have let the man beat him to death if he hadn't been there to stop it.

Of course, Larabee wouldn't have let that happen, either, and by the look on his face, it was now a question of just who might murder who. Before Chris could do something they'd all regret, Josiah gripped Spencer by the back of his shirt and plucked him from the stunned sharpshooter.

"Let me go!" Spencer hollered, his arms spiraling widely in an attempt to reach Tanner.

But Josiah kept a firm hold on his shirt and responded coolly, "Not until you calm down, Jim."

When all was said and done, it would have been better had the angry tirade continued. It would have been far easier to witness the uncontrolled, uncalled for fury the father unleashed at his victim, than to deal with the emotions that followed.

Jim Spencer slumped within Josiah's grasp and turned bitter, red-rimmed eyes towards Vin. "You were supposed t' help him . . . teach him how to . . . to protect himself," he uttered brokenly. "You had three days . . . three days t' find him . . . and you were an hour too late? One goddamn hour?" That said, the distraught man collapsed to the ground and wept.

Josiah immediately knelt to the street and wrapped an arm around the man's shoulders. Only then did he notice the crowds that had gathered to watch the tragic event. Heads shook and some of the women wiped tears from their eyes, but no one made a move to comfort either man.

Chris stood oddly still, his gaze lingering for a moment on Josiah and Jim, before he reached down to give Vin a hand up off the ground. Vin grunted softly, but it was impossible to see if any real damage had been done. He staggered like a drunken man until Chris steadied him, but he shook off the supporting hand and stumbled to the alley behind the livery. Larabee shot a look at the spectators lining the boardwalk, daring any one of them to comment, before following Tanner to the alley.

Josiah remained there in the dirt with Spencer for several minutes, until the man finally stopped shuddering and stood shakily, then headed off towards the saloon. The crowd slowly dispersed as Josiah turned to join his friends behind the livery.

He heard the distinctly disturbing sound of retching as he rounded the corner of the building. Sure enough, Vin was kneeling in the dirt with Chris beside him. The tough gunman was gently rubbing his friend's back and murmuring soft words in his ear. And suddenly, Josiah was there in Chris's cabin again, watching and waiting as Vin went through the painful process of ridding his body of morphine. He shuddered at the memory and reminded himself that that was in the past; this was an entirely different situation.

But the feeling of helplessness was exactly the same.

+ + + + + + +

Something happened when Jim hit the dirt, his distressing sobs breaking the sudden stillness; something changed. Chris had been all set to throw the man against the nearest wall until he recognized the excruciating grief and overwhelming sorrow . . . and the total inability to see above and beyond anything but that. He understood it, he'd lived it. Hell, he was living it still.

He'd ignored his feelings until then; a dead boy and a grieving father hit way too close to home. Besides, there were too many other worries to deal with, Vin being first and foremost on that list. Although for one brief second, he forgot. For one moment out there on the street, he'd identified more strongly with the angry father than with his best friend.

His gaze was focused on Jim, when he caught Vin struggling to get to his feet. Hit him like a solid punch to his gut then that he had doubted Vin all along. How could he blame Jim or anyone else, when he was guilty of the same irrational mistrust? God, he didn't deserve to be called Vin Tanner's friend.

He helped Vin up and followed him to the alley, wondering if Tanner knew how badly he'd betrayed him, albeit unintentionally. But Vin had bigger problems at that moment - he hardly made it behind the old livery when he doubled over and threw up. Blood poured from his nose and his split lip, mixing with the vomit and making a gruesome puddle in the dirt. By the time Chris reached him, he'd fallen to his knees, the spasms continuing long after there was anything left to come up.

Chris knelt next to him, and when Vin was finally able to catch a breath, he handed him his handkerchief. Vin swiped it across his mouth with trembling hands, accomplishing nothing more than to smear blood across his face. He either didn't notice or didn't care as he handed the soiled cloth back to his friend.

"Here, let me do it," Chris insisted more gruffly than he intended, but again, Vin was all but oblivious. The younger man hardly flinched when Chris wiped the blood from his nose and put pressure on the still oozing lip.

"We'd better have Nathan take a look at you," Chris said, more gently this time.

Vin didn't respond at all, just wrapped his arms around his chest and tried to stand. He almost made it, too, but then his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed into Chris's arms.

"Oh Lord," a voice muttered softly behind the gunman, and before he knew it, Josiah's strong arms were wrapped around Vin's legs. "Let's get him to Nathan," Sanchez suggested.

No. It was the logical thing to do--carrying Vin to Nathan's clinic--but just the thought of Vin laying in that bed again was more than Chris could stomach. For weeks after the accident, he'd sat at Vin's side while he suffered, and there was no way either one of them was ready to face those four walls again.

"We'll take him to my room," Chris suggested, and Josiah agreed without question. The preacher had spent more than his fair share of time in that room, as well.

Nathan didn't question it either, but he couldn't keep silent once he got a look at the new bruises on Tanner's face and the overall sorry state of his health. He let Larabee know exactly what he thought about it.

"Too damn soon . . . too damn much . . . shoulda never let him go," Nathan mumbled to himself, before looking up sharply at Chris and Josiah and demanding, "And what the hell happened in that street? Where were you two when Spencer lost his damn mind?"

Chris and Josiah looked at each other sheepishly, until Sanchez cleared his throat and said, "Well, I was trying to warn Chris that something like this might happen. I just didn't expect it to happen that quickly, Nathan."

"Is he gonna be alright or not?" Chris cut right to the chase.

"Don't know. He's ain't had enough t' eat in days . . . no rest, either. Gettin' his face smashed in don't help." Nathan paused and added, "It was too soon. He wasn't healed up enough to make that kind of hunt."

"Yeah, but . . . all that ain't likely to kill him, is it?" He felt like JD, Chris did. Like a scared kid who might have done something wrong with consequences he'd never imagined.

"Probably not," Nathan hesitated. "But after all he's been through . . . he just didn't need this. What were you thinkin', stayin' out there so long? Vin was in bad enough shape when I left t' come back t' town, he sure didn't need to be out there lookin' for another five days. Why didn't you bring him back, Chris?"

"Now, Nathan," Josiah stepped in to Chris's defense, "You know how Vin is. Once he sets his mind to something . . ."

"Well he ain't been in his right mind for some time now and we all know it. We're all so busy tryin' not t' step on his feelings, that we'd just let him go off and get himself killed."

"Don't say that," Chris snapped. "Don't ever say anything like that again, Nathan."

Chris could see that Nathan was confused for a minute about which part of his statement he was referring to. But then the black man lowered his eyes in shame, and Chris knew he wasn't the only who'd doubted Vin.

"Josiah? You mind leaving me and Nathan alone for a few minutes?" Chris asked, his gaze riveted to Jackson's downcast face.

"Of course not," Josiah answered as he exited the room.

Nathan self-consciously returned to Vin's bedside, straightening the covers over the still body. "I reckon he's mostly just exhausted, Chris. I don't think Jim did any real harm."

Chris nodded and moved across the room to stand on the opposite side of the bed. He met Nathan's eyes and said, "You were there, Nathan. Do you really think . . . could Vin have . . . should we have done something differently?"

It was obvious that it had crossed Nathan's mind, too, that there might have been something wrong out there when they were looking for Michael.

They were both damn traitors.

"Gotta be honest with you, Chris. I thought about it . . . thought about it a lot. But I really don't think so. I think we just got used t' Vin being so good at everything he does, at things comin' so natural and easy for him. Seeing him out there struggling, it made it seem like he wasn't up to his usual standards. Doesn't mean he missed anything . . . doesn't mean he could have changed what happened. I don't believe any of us could have changed what happened."

"Guess not," Chris responded doubtfully. It would be best to believe that anyway, for Vin's sake - for everyone's sake. "You gonna fix him up?" he asked, with a nod towards Tanner.

Nathan shook his head regretfully. "Nothin' I can fix."

As much as he hated to admit it, Chris knew it was the truth. He and Nathan had both watched helplessly over the past eight days as Vin slowly lost the hard fought ground he'd gained after the accident. The sharp angles in Tanner's face, the shadows under his eyes, the more pronounced limp and exaggerated lean . . . results of too many days of hard riding and long hours for bones not nearly strong enough or totally healed . . . maybe never to be so. Too much, too soon and nothing to be done about it.

"One of us should stay with him, try t' keep him down," Nathan suggested.

"Yeah," Chris answered, because it was expected. But he didn't want to do it. He didn't want to be there and have to look Vin in the eye. He didn't want to offer false assurances and half truths.

He'd done enough of that.

+ + + + + + +

It turned out that it wasn't so hard. Vin stayed down without being watched or even asked. He slept so hard and so deep for fifteen hours that Nathan started to wonder if he hadn't been wrong about Jim's fists and the damage they'd caused. Maybe Vin had a concussion, or worse. But when the morning sun slid through the curtains of Chris's room, Vin began to stir.

Nathan was with him, having sent Chris off to the clinic to sleep. Larabee was dead tired and he needed rest--away from Vin--although the clinic was the gunman's last choice. Nathan understood why the men hadn't brought Vin there, and he understood why Chris still had trouble entering the small room. The memories were too fresh, the wounds too raw.

But the shadows in Larabee's eyes now were from recent events; guilt, maybe - doubt, definitely. Chris was troubled, and maybe he had good reason to be. Maybe they hadn't done enough to find Michael, or maybe Vin was right and they shouldn't have stopped that rainy night. Maybe Vin was on top of the situation; behaving exactly the same as he would have before he'd been broken up and addicted to a drug they knew too little about.

Or maybe not.

And maybe he and Chris were traitors for even considering that possibility.

A soft moan made him turn towards the bed. Vin was pushing himself up on his elbows, squinting as a particularly bright ray of light assaulted his eyes.

"Mornin'," Nathan offered with a deceptively cheerful smile.

Vin grunted his reply, and fell back to the bed with a weak groan.

"Just stay down," Nathan instructed. "Ain't nothin' you need to be doin' right now."

Nathan could see the initial blank look of confusion in Tanner's eyes gradually change to awareness. There was nothing he needed to be doing right then because it was too late. Michael was dead and they'd come back empty handed. Vin lowered his head back onto the pillows and closed his eyes, but not quickly enough to stop the lone tear that escaped from the corner of his eye and slid down his bruised cheek.

Made Nathan want to cry himself, and he stood abruptly to pull the curtains closed; shut out the light . . . turn off his feelings.

Vin shifted a bit in the bed and moaned again, and this was what Nathan was good at. He could deal with the physical pain.

"Let me get you something to eat and drink, Vin. You'll feel better," he offered.

But Vin pulled open his lids and rasped, "I'm hurtin', Nathan. Can I have . . . somethin'?"

Escape . . . clearly written all over Tanner's face. No doubt the man was in misery; stiff and sore and sick. But he'd dealt with the physical discomfort all along. This was a request for oblivion, plain and simple. Vin just didn't want to think about it any longer, and Nathan couldn't blame him.

He hesitated briefly before bending down close to Vin's face and answering, "I got some pretty strong tea that should help."

But Vin shook his head and grabbed Jackson's wrist. "No. Please, Nathan."

He felt hot under the scrutiny of those desperate blue eyes, pleading for relief, and he reached up to run a hand through his hair. God, it was too hard. Vin's face was every shade of black and blue, and Nathan could picture the twisted leg that he couldn't put back together, and the crooked back that no one could fix, and why should this man have to deal with more? Why had he been put in the position to find a lost child, and why should he have to shoulder the blame because that child was dead?

And why shouldn't Nathan do everything in his power to make it easier for him?

He nodded his reply and set off to get Vin what he wanted--what he needed--because he'd doubted Tanner and he'd not done enough to help him all the way around . . . and because he wasn't strong enough to say 'no'.

But just as he opened the door to leave, Chris walked in.

Larabee must have seen something in his eyes, because he asked suspiciously, "Where you off to, Nathan?"

He couldn't answer him. He couldn't even look at the man, let alone get a word out. Instead, Nathan turned back and looked at Vin, and he knew. He knew he couldn't do it, no matter how Vin looked at him or what he said he wanted. Tanner may have done all he could for that boy, but he wasn't thinking clearly now, so it was up to his friends to do that for him.

Vin met his eyes; hopeful in a way that sent daggers through Nathan's heart. But Jackson just shook his head and said softly, "I'm sorry, Vin."

Vin sighed and closed his eyes resignedly.

"I have t' . . . have t' get out for a spell, Chris. Can you . . . can you take over?" Nathan stammered.

Chris was still peering at him through narrowed lids, but he merely nodded and moved inside.

Nathan left the room with a last glance at Tanner. He'd be grateful later, Vin would. But at that moment, Nathan could only think that he'd let him down again.

+ + + + + + +

He could live with it. Vin had had a weak back since he was born, and the extra grief it gave him since he'd been hurt wasn't so bad that he couldn't handle it. He could live with the ache in his leg, too, because it was what it was; uncomfortable and annoying and always, always there, but it didn't keep him from doing what he needed to do. And he could live with it.

But he couldn't live with a young boy's blood on his hands.

Michael was a good kid and he deserved better. If he died because Vin was too slow or too weak or too messed up in his head . . . he couldn't live with that.

He wanted the morphine; wanted it so badly he could feel the heat as the drug pumped through his veins. He remembered that sweet release of being just outside his body; there, but not. He knew where Nathan kept it, and he pictured himself sneaking into the clinic and taking it--all of it--emptying every last drop into his useless shell and just floating away forever.

Boy, would Chris be pissed.

He was pissed now. Vin just wasn't sure if Larabee was more mad at him, at Nathan, at the world in general . . . or at himself. More than likely it was a combination of all of the above, if the deep frown he turned in Vin's direction was any indication.

Vin looked away. He wasn't sorry that he'd almost coerced Nathan into giving him what he wanted. Hell, it was so damn easy. Nathan was so deeply buried in guilt that he could get the man to do just about anything he asked.

So maybe Chris was disappointed in him because he was weak. He could live with that.

He could live with anything if he could just for one minute forget seeing Michael's lifeless body lying in the mud. If he could just get through a single hour without imagining the torture the boy had endured before his death; if he could just close his eyes and not remember that some men were purely evil and that they always, always, always did it again.

That's what he'd told him, the man who had taken Vin when he was a kid. Might have been fifteen years ago, but Vin could still see every scar on his grizzled face; could still smell his rotten teeth and the stench of sweat and blood; could still feel his hot breath on his neck as the man beat him and touched him and did things to him that no man had any right doing to a boy. And worst of all, he could still hear him as he'd rambled on about the other boys that had come before Vin and the ones that would come after.

Vin had gotten away, though he never could remember exactly how. And even though Vin was a man who didn't waste time on regrets, he knew he'd spend the rest of his life wishing he'd killed the bastard when he had the chance. Because if he was sure of anything in this life, it was that the man had done it again. His kind always did it again.

There would be another Michael, and no, Chris, he could not live with that, so be mad and be disappointed. He didn't care. He wanted a bottle of laudanum, a vial of morphine, a whole damn case of whiskey.

He felt Chris staring at him for long minutes before the gunman finally closed the door behind him and came to sit near Vin's side. Vin still didn't look at him, but apparently Chris didn't care because he began speaking anyway.

"I'm sorry," Larabee said gently, and Vin took a breath. He didn't want sympathy - couldn't take sympathy.

"I'm sorry if I doubted you out there, Vin . . . and I'm even more sorry if I made you doubt yourself."

He hadn't expected this. Anger was better; anger he could live with. Get angry, Chris. But no, that wasn't going to happen; he could tell by the look of goddamn pity in his friend's eyes. And hell, Chris didn't even know the half of it.

Never mind. Vin could get angry on his own. "No if about it, Chris. You did doubt me . . . questioned me at every turn. And you were right, so let's just stop there."

"Vin . . ."

"Please, Chris. I don't want t' talk about it anymore."

But Chris went on like he hadn't spoken at all. "I don't believe anything you could have done would have changed the outcome. But I know you need--we need--to find the man responsible if any of us are to have any peace with this. Give yourself a week to regain your strength, Pard, and we'll go back out. And we'll keep looking until we find him."

They likely never would. Chris had to know that. They had nothing at all to go on, with the only witness being dead. But it was enough that Larabee was willing to try. It was enough to know that there was a shred of hope they could put an end to this madness, one evil bastard at a time.

He could live with that.

+ + + + + + +

They'd never find him. Chris was absolutely certain of it. The killer had to be long gone, but if the promise of another chance got Vin back on his feet--gave him a purpose--it would be worth a few weeks of fruitless searching. Of course, it was unlikely Vin would give up in a matter of weeks, so maybe he should resign himself to months--hell, years--of searching.

That was what it all came down to now: finding the killer and keeping him from doing it again. That was Tanner's entire focus. He couldn't bring Michael back, but maybe he could keep it from happening again, save another good kid.

That didn't sit well with Chris, either - the good kid distinction. Vin kept saying Michael didn't deserve what had happened to him, as if another kid, another not quite so good kid, might have. No kid deserved to be taken from his family and murdered. Surely Vin knew that.

But Chris got the impression that maybe Vin wasn't so sure. Maybe something had happened to him when he was young and maybe in Tanner's mind, he'd deserved it. Or maybe Chris was reading something that just wasn't there. Vin's feelings and state of mind were pretty much open to interpretation at the moment.

And Chris could live with that. Let Vin come to terms with what had happened in his own time and in his own way . . . as long as it didn't include running away, drowning himself in alcohol, or God forbid, morphine. They were not traveling that path again.

Which was why he came up with the plan to go out looking with Vin, once his friend had rested up. A week wouldn't be enough; Nathan would be loud and strong on that point. But Chris doubted he could hold Tanner any longer than that. Vin was already pushing himself off the bed and preparing to return to his wagon. They'd be lucky if they held the tracker down for a few days.

It didn't come to that, though . . . not even close. Chris wasn't even out the door when he heard a chilling cry coming from the street outside. The hoarse shout floated through the crack in his window and seeped through the walls, and though there were only four words, they stole his breath and sent a hard chill through his bones . . . "My boy is gone!"

He couldn't place the voice, and he immediately rushed to the window and pulled open the curtain to see who it belonged to. It was Matt Sims, a big bully of a man who pushed people around just because he could. Chris didn't like him much, and Vin liked him even less since his overall attitude conflicted with pretty much everything Tanner believed in.

Sims was climbing off his mount and hollering for Larabee, and Chris didn't want to go. He found himself inexplicably rooted to the floor, at least until he heard the soft voice behind him murmur, "Oh God."

He turned in time to see what little color remained in Vin's face drain clean out. It was almost ghoulish, the way the purple bruises lining Tanner's left eye and jaw splattered against his pale, white skin underneath. Gripping Vin's arm, he offered hopefully, "We don't know anything yet, Vin. Let's just go check it out."

False assurances . . . half truths . . . he knew in his gut that it was going to be bad, yet he was already trying to think of a way to make it bear

ble for his friend, or maybe for himself. They shouldn't have stopped that night . . .

Matt was still shouting his name when he made it out to the street. A crowd was already gathering, morbidly curious. Chris hadn't gotten around to that yet, addressing the issue of perception and blame and the goddamn gossip that some people drew breath on. But it was too late now, if what Matt said was really true. And he could see by the look of pure panic in the man's eyes that it was.

He approached Sims calmly, hoping the big man wouldn't recognize his assurance for the lie that it was. "What's going on, Matt?" he asked, keeping his gaze pinned to the distraught man in front of him.

"He's gone! Jacob's gone! Just like Spencer's boy!"

Not just like Michael, because Jacob was nothing like Michael, and there he was falling into Vin's trap . . . thinking that Jacob was a trouble maker like his father and probably deserved whatever mess he'd gotten himself into. Chris put a heavy lid on that thought and asked, "How? When?"

"This morning. I went to get him out of bed and he was gone!"

"Maybe he's just out doing something. You know how boys are, Matt. It doesn't mean he was taken."

"He was taken out the goddamn window, Larabee! I found the tracks!" Sims was looking at Chris like he was stupid, but his eyes quickly lit with fire as Vin moved up behind his friend.

"This wouldn't have happened if you'd found the murderin' bastard the first time!" Matt yelled at Vin. But then his voice broke as he lowered his gaze to the dirt and mumbled, "Oh dear God."

Oh dear God. Vin's worst nightmare come true right here in town, and how could Chris have been so wrong? Instinctively, he reached back and gripped Vin's arm, anchoring him in place because he was sure the man would just melt where he stood.

"We'll take a look. We'll find him," Josiah's strong voice suddenly joined in, and Chris was grateful for his solid presence.

Matt looked up with a nod at Vin and spat, "Not him. I don't want him looking for my boy. He don't know what the hell he's doing."

Easy to pin it on Vin - hadn't Chris nearly done the same? But that was different somehow and Sims wasn't going to get away with it. "This ain't Vin's fault and if you want our help, you'll keep your damn mouth shut!"

"I don't want his help!" Sims replied hotly.

"Then you get none of us," Chris responded with equal venom.

"Chris . . ." Vin choked, waiting for Larabee to meet his eyes. "Don't . . . you can't do this . . . you have t' help him."

Vin eyes showed it all: fear, anger, and desperation all tied up in one big knot of pain. And even after all they'd been through together, even knowing Vin better than he knew himself, Chris couldn't think of a single worthy response to wipe it away. He only knew that he was not riding out without Vin. That would give credence to Sims' accusations, to the entire town's doubts, and that kind of damage would be irreparable. They were going together or not at all.

"Matt," the soft voice of reason--Josiah's voice--interrupted, "Vin's the best chance you have of finding your boy and you know it. He found Michael. If it weren't for Vin, we'd be looking still."

"Too late! He found him too damn late!" Matt reminded all in a thundering voice, as if anyone could have forgotten.

Chris didn't want to look at Vin, but like everyone else in town, he couldn't seem to look anywhere else. Tanner wilted under the scrutiny; his face paling further and his breathing becoming so rapid and shallow, that the gunman couldn't figure out how his friend was still standing. Chris found Vin's arm again; latched onto it and squeezed hard enough to hold him up, probably adding another bruise to his growing collection.

He needn't have, though, and he shouldn't have been surprised when Vin's jaw suddenly tensed and he pulled himself up straighter. Tanner never went down easy, especially with lives at stake. "We're wastin' time, Matt," he rasped, and then he turned and limped off towards the livery.

Leave it to Tanner to get to the heart of the matter; maybe Vin was the only one thinking clearly.

+ + + + + + +

He couldn't think straight. His heart was pounding and his vision was blurred and he didn't have a clue what the hell he'd just said. All Vin knew was that he had to get to his horse and get to Matt's house, in that order. One step at a time, one foot in front of the other, and he wouldn't even think about what might have happened to Jacob Sims.

He was an ornery one, Jacob was. He followed the seven around constantly--at least the ones that would let him--and the boy seemed to have picked up their worst traits. Ezra's cockiness, Buck's mouth, Chris's black temper . . . he even told a joke worse than JD, if that was possible.

Jacob was bigger than Michael. At thirteen, he was already as tall as JD and twice as husky. And he was dark; black hair and flashing eyes - the polar opposite of Michael. Darkness and light, loud and quiet, hard and soft . . . they were different kids in every way.

But he didn't deserve this, either. If Jacob had been taken, he'd fight harder and longer, but he'd still lose in the end.


The voice was gentle, in stark contrast to the violent thoughts that pummeled his brain. Vin turned from where he'd been saddling Peso to face Nathan's dark, concerned eyes.

"Yeah?" he asked, as though he didn't have any idea why Nathan was standing there, looking at him that way.

"Please don't go. You're not . . . well. I'm worried about you."

He meant it. And Vin suddenly felt bad about trying to play off the healer's guilt earlier. It wasn't right. Nathan would do anything for anyone, but especially for him.

And Vin would return the favor - within reason. Asking him to quit now just didn't fall within that particular guideline. There was nothing reasonable about any of this, and in spite of the fact that he felt like shit and had mud for brains, he couldn't walk away from another lost boy.

Nathan knew it, too, without Vin saying a single word in response. Jackson just sighed and shook his head and went over to saddle his own horse.

"You don't have to go this time," Vin said, offering an out to Nathan.

"Yes, he does," Chris countered as he walked into the livery and grabbed his saddle.

Although, stalked might be a better word for it. Larabee was mad, shaking out his fist like he'd used it on someone, and he probably had. Now that Vin thought on it, Sims was no where in sight, and he was too damn quiet. Chris must have laid him out, and Vin decided he'd be better off not knowing why.

They made it to the homestead that Sims shared with his son in record time. The place was simple, barren almost and decidedly lacking a woman's touch, but reasonably clean and kept up. Jacob's room consisted of a bed and a chest of drawers and little else. There were two carvings perched on top of the chest, a horse and a dog, and Vin threw a look at Chris.

Larabee shrugged and said simply, "He wanted to carve. I taught him."

Vin couldn't picture the rough, crude boy doing something so delicate and fine. There was more to the kid than he had thought. More to Chris, too, but that had ceased to surprise him.

The window was open, and tracks led out and off the property, just as Matt had said. There was evidence of a struggle, too, and it made Vin so sick to his stomach that he had to find a boulder to hide behind. It was pointless; Chris and Nathan undoubtedly figured out that he was losing his breakfast behind a rock, but at least they kept silent about it.

Vin almost felt bad that the two men had to put up with him again, but there wasn't much choice. Buck and JD were making continuous rounds, as if they could somehow keep an eye on every kid within a hundred miles of the place. Ezra was doing his best to keep things cool in town. Josiah had the hardest job; the preacher was delegated to the daunting task of keeping tabs on Sims, as well as Spencer, who was still a loose canon.

So it would be him and Chris and Nathan on another hunt for another lost boy. But they weren't coming home empty handed this time.

Vin would die before he let that happen again.

Part Two