Summary: Male bonding to the max. Vin and Ezra receive bad treatment from some bad guys. Vin receives TLC from Chris.

Warning: Coarse language and some violence. Nothing excessive.

Author's Notes: A huge thank you goes to Judy and Aramis for their indispensable and superb assistance. Feedback is most welcome.

Maude and Ezra Standish stood on the wooden sidewalk outside of the Gem Hotel in Four Corners, waiting for the stagecoach to arrive. As always, Maude made an arresting sight, fashionably dressed in mauve silk with a bonnet to match. "Ezra," she drawled, tucking in an errant blonde curl, "you know that I'm only lookin' out for the best interests of my baby boy."

"The answer is still no." Ezra flicked a speck of dust from his navy blue coat. "I am not coming with you to St. Louis to participate in another of your nefarious schemes."

Irritably, Maude flicked open a lace fan and began fanning herself with it. "For no good reason that you can explain, you insist upon buryin' yourself in this dreary backwater surrounded by uncouth ruffians. With the charm, intelligence and attractiveness which you inherited from me, you could be anything. You could even go into politics."

"Politics? Mother, there are some depths into which even a Standish refuses to sink."

"Very well. Don't listen to me," Maude snapped. "Apparently, you feel that you owe me nothing for all that I've done for you. I saw to it that you were provided for, cared for and educated despite the fact that I was a helpless widow."

"You were never helpless and you certainly were not a widow, in spite of the various fabrications you concocted concerning Father's heroic death."

"You know how stuffy all our relatives are. I could hardly tell them that my husband had been incarcerated for attempting to con a banker. I had no idea how long your father would be in jail, so I may as well have been a widow."

"But you were not a widow and you have committed bigamy four times."

"How can it be bigamy if no one can prove that I knew my husband was still alive?" Maude argued.

Their bickering was interrupted as Nathan Jackson and Josiah Sanchez staggered out of the hotel loaded down with Maude's luggage.

"That's the last of it, Maude," Josiah panted, setting the bags down.

Maude gave the two men a gracious smile. "Thank you, Josiah, and thank you, Nathan."

Nathan dropped his load of heavy bags with a thud and wiped his sweaty brow on his sleeve. "If I didn't know better, Ma'am, I'd swear these bags was loaded with rocks."

A guilty expression flitted briefly across Maude's face.

"Still keeping up appearances, I see," Ezra murmured, as Buck Wilmington and JD Dunne hurried from across the street to join them. They acknowledged Maude's presence with a respectful touch to their hat brims.

JD was curious. "Why're you so anxious to meet the stage, Buck?"

Buck gleefully rubbed his hands together. "Son, I got a feelin' there is somethin' special comin' in on that stage. They're gettin' a new girl over at Digger Dan's Saloon. I heard the bartender talkin' about it just this mornin'. I wanta be the first one ta meet her." As he spoke, the stage came into view. Buck craned his neck, trying to get a better view of the approaching stage. Excitedly, he clutched the youth's sleeve. "JD, I think I caught a glimpse of her!" Buck broke into a happy grin. "She's blonde. Must be kinda small. I can just see the top of her head. She's probably a tiny little thing, delicate and sweet smellin' like a rosebud. I can't wait to have that dainty little morsel sittin' on my knee."

The stage rolled to a stop and the door opened. An older male passenger started to step out and nearly lost his balance. A towheaded little boy, with a half eaten stick of hard candy clutched in one chubby fist, barrelled past the man and jumped down on the ground.

"Josiah!" the boy exclaimed. He ran over to Josiah and hugged him around the waist.

"Eugene!" Josiah responded, gently disengaging the boy and discovering that stickiness from the candy had been transferred to his pants.

The stage's remaining passenger, a dark haired young woman, started to step down. "Eugene," she admonished. "You must be more careful. You could've hurt yourself, Precious."

The male passenger, straightening his hat, gave mother and son a hostile look.

JD turned to a crestfallen Buck. "Hey, Buck, there's your dainty little blonde morsel. You wanta tell him to have a seat?"

"That ain't funny, JD," Buck growled.

"Alice," Josiah said, stepping forward to help her down, "I didn't expect to see you again."

"Eugene and I missed you so much, Josiah, that we decided to come back to Four Corners and settle down here." She gave him a coy smile. "Your Pumpkin is back for good. I imagine that you never thought your prayers would be answered, now did you?"

Josiah face was expressionless. "Not like this."

The stagecoach driver handed Alice's bags down to Josiah. Still smiling, Alice grasped his arm. "As soon as Eugene and I check into the hotel, we can all go somewhere for a bite to eat and catch up on everything." She turned around. "Come along, Eugene."

Eugene trudged along behind them. He finished off the stick of candy and pulled a slingshot and a rock from his pocket. He aimed the slingshot at a store window next to the hotel.

Alice turned around again. "Eugene! Put that slingshot away. If you break a window, you could get cut by the glass, Sweetie." She looked up at Josiah. "Eugene is planning on spending a lot of time with you. There's nothing like a high-spirited little boy, is there?"

Josiah glanced back at Eugene, who was now aiming for a window across the street. "Nothing like it," he agreed, "unless it's a high-spirited outlaw."

Maude's luggage was on board, but she delayed climbing into the stagecoach. "Ezra, I've made a decision. I intend to conclude my business in St. Louis as quickly as possible, and then I'm paying you another visit."

"What!" Ezra was flustered. "But you gave me your word that you wouldn't be returning anytime soon."

"I've changed my mind. I need to keep a closer eye on you. You are showin' disturbin' signs of integrity and I won't have it. Integrity is the shortest route to penury." She gave him a perfunctory kiss on the cheek and, in a daze, he assisted her into the coach. She leaned out the window and blew him a kiss. "You won't even have time to miss me."

"Good Lord!" Ezra moaned as the coach rolled away. "I barely survived this visit and now she's threatening me with another."

Nathan clapped Ezra on the back. "Come on, Ezra. I'll let you buy us both a drink."

The gambler's dismay was obvious. "She's coming back soon," he mumbled.

"Let's get that drink, Ezra," Nathan soothed. With a hand on Ezra's back, he guided him across the street.

Meanwhile, Buck wasn't bothering to conceal his indignation. "Dammit, JD, not only did the new girl not show up, but Miz Alice never even paid me no mind. How could she prefer Josiah to me? After all, I'm young, handsome and virile, ain't I?"

"If you say so, Buck."

"Not only is Josiah gettin' long in the tooth, but I've seen horses with better lookin' faces. I can't figure it out."

JD shrugged. "Could be she heard the rumor that got started about you while we were on the wagon train."

Buck frowned. "What rumor?"

"The rumor that you had a social disease."

"A social disease! I ain't got a social disease. Who woulda started a rumor like that?"

"I dunno, Buck. Could've been anybody." Mischief sparkled in his hazel eyes and he gave Buck a sly grin. "Could've been me." JD started backing away.

"JD!" Buck bellowed. "I'm gonna kick your butt."

JD nimbly sidestepped the kick aimed at him. "You're gonna have to catch me first, Buck."

"That won't be a problem, son, with them short little legs of yours." Threateningly, Buck started toward him. Clutching his bowler hat to his head, JD made a dash for the safety of the jail.

Three Weeks Later

Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner settled back in their chairs outside the saloon. It was a hot summer day and both were hatless. An occasional breeze ruffled Vin's long, brown curls and Chris's short, blond locks. Chris got out his knife and began idly whittling on a small chunk of wood. Vin watched him.

"What's it gonna be?" he asked in his soft, gravelly voice.


"When I'se little, my grandpa used ta carve all kinds o' things fer me--horses, cows, sheep, dogs, wildcats, birds. He was real good with his hands."

"I'm not that good, but it's a way to pass the time."

Vin watched him for a minute longer and then removed the harmonica from the pocket of his buckskin jacket. With slender, graceful fingers he put the instrument to his mouth and began blowing tunelessly upon it.

Chris endured the noise for several minutes and then gave Vin a malevolent stare. "Is there some reason, Tanner, why you're so bent on torturin' me with that racket?"

The large, blue eyes were deceptively innocent. "I thought ya was beginnin' ta like it. I been practicin' and they say practice makes perfect."

"Not in your case, it don't. You sound like a cat tryin' to mate."

Vin glanced up at Ezra. The gambler was standing just inside the saloon, his hands resting on the top of the swinging doors as he listened to the exchange. The corners of Vin's mouth turned up in a smile. He gave Ezra a conspiratorial wink and then put the harmonica back in his pocket.

Ezra came out of the saloon and paced restlessly back and forth down the wooden sidewalk. Finally, he came back and sank into a chair beside his colleagues.

Chris pursed his lips at the gambler. "What's the matter with you, Ezra? You've been awful fidgety lately."

"Believe it or not, Mr. Larabee, there are times when liquor fumes and cigar smoke lose their charm and even a winning hand gladdens the heart less than usual."

Vin spoke up. "Sounds like ya might need ta git away from the saloon fer awhile."

"Possibly so, Mr. Tanner, especially with the prospect of my mother returning at any time with new schemes to make my life miserable."

Chris raised his eyes from his whittling to see Mary Travis bearing down upon them, a determined expression upon her lovely face.

Uh-oh! It looks like Miss Bossy Britches is out to stir things up again.

"Good morning, gentlemen." The three men stood politely to acknowledge her presence.

"Chris," she began and then faltered as she gazed directly into his green eyes.

He has no idea how he affects me with that thick, straight blond hair of his, those chiseled features and that wonderful smile, that soft voice and those long legs and muscular thighs, that intriguing bulge...

Mary felt the heat rise in her face.

Get hold of yourself.

"Mary?" Chris was looking at her quizzically.

She began again. "Chris, I've decided to call a town meeting for this Friday. We seem to be getting an influx of new people lately and many of them aren't the type of people we need here. We need respectable people, like a new school teacher and a real doctor. Instead, we're being besieged by rowdy cowboys, prospectors and fancy women. I expect you to address the decent citizens of this town, and tell us what you intend to do about the situation."

Chris tried not to sound exasperated. "Mary, I ain't one for makin' speeches. We'll do all we can to keep order, but we can't prevent folks from wantin' to come here. You can't expect they wouldn't come, after some fool started shootin' off his mouth about findin' gold nearby. Maybe the kind of people comin' in ain't what you'd prefer, but there's others that want saloons and fancy women."

Mary was annoyed by Chris's response. "I expected better from you than this. You sound like almost every other man I've spoken with. I think all of you want saloons and houses of ill repute. Just you wait until we women get the vote. We can do anything you men can do and we'll do it better. I may prove it one day by running for mayor. I'm still expecting you to make that speech and I won't take no for an answer Chris Larabee." With a lift of her chin, Mary marched off to her newspaper office.

Chris pursed his lips again. "Don't see how a woman that pretty can be so bossy. Think I'll go out to my shack for awhile. Vin, you keep an eye on things."

"The solitude of your shack should be perfect for composing that speech for Mrs. Travis," Ezra put in.

Chris gave him the benefit of a glare.

"You comin' back tonight?" Vin asked.

"Plannin' on it."

"Thought I'd take off in the mornin' at first light. I'd like ta take a few days ta go fishin' at that stream 'tween here and Eagle Bend where me 'n' you went." Vin looked at Ezra. "Thought I might talk Ezra into comin' along this time."

Ezra looked caught off guard by the unexpected invitation.

Chris considered the matter before answering. "Reckon you deserve some time off, Vin." He looked directly at Ezra. "If you go along, see that you're back here in four days. You don't show up by then, you'll have me to deal with."

"Well, that makes it abundantly clear which of us is the teacher's pet," Ezra observed wryly after Chris had walked away.

"Aw, Ezra, ya like ta rub Chris the wrong way. Ya piss 'im off all the time on purpose." They settled back into their chairs. "If he does have a soft spot fer me, it's not 'cause of nothin' I did. He told me once that I put him in mind of his brother Caleb. He told me Caleb was fifteen when he died. Chris was eighteen. Reckon he still misses his brother sometimes." There was a long pause. "So do ya wanta go fishin' with me, Ez?"

Ezra smiled. "Actually, the idea has a certain amount of appeal."

"Thought it might since yer ma could be back soon. I ain't sure yer ready fer another visit yet. Besides, Chris ain't goin' ta be his usual sunshiny self, what with Mary tryin' ta light a fire under his tail."

"Um, you have a point, Vin"

"Ya up ta roughin' it, Ez? I know this ain't yer usual style."

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Are you doubting my ability to live without the comforts of civilization? I can function quite well outside of a saloon. During my adolescence, I attended the most spartan of military schools. The experience left me with a profound appreciation of soft beds, good food and fine tailoring, but I assure you that I can cope with the absence of luxuries. I will even rise at the crack of dawn, if you insist, although that is an ungodly and uncivilized practice."

Vin laughed. "Okay, Ez, ya convinced me."

"Then I will meet you at the livery stable at sunrise." Ezra arose and went back inside the saloon.


The sun was just coming up the next morning as Vin and Ezra saddled their horses and led them out of the livery. They mounted their horses and Peso stretched his neck in an attempt to take a bite out of the gambler's horse.

"Cut that out," Vin scolded, using the reins to turn Peso's head away from the other horse. In response, Peso snorted and shook his mane.

Ezra cast an amused look at the unruly horse and then squinted at Vin through the dim morning light. "What's this?" he asked, reaching across to put a tentative finger to Vin's chin. "No stubble?"

Vin flushed under the scrutiny. "Nettie's been after me ta start shavin' regular like. Decided I'd give it a try 'n' see how I like it. Well...fact is, Nettie threatened ta stop invitin' me ta Sunday dinner if I didn't shave."

"In contrast to you, Mr. Tanner, and to show that I am fully prepared to rough it, I left my razor behind, along with a change of clothes. I've even omitted underwear. My only concession to civilization is this." He withdrew a silver flask from inside his coat.

"That's a mighty fancy coat ya got on ta go fishin' in," Vin commented, eyeing Ezra's perfectly tailored, burgandy coat, as they ambled on out of town.

Ezra grinned, his gold tooth flashing in the early morning sun. "Unlike you, Mr. Tanner, I'm afraid that I don't have a wardrobe of ragamuffin attire."

"Well, I hope ya don't scare the fish off with yer fancy clothes, and I hope we catch lotsa fish. When I saw Nettie in town yesterday, I told her that we'd bring her some on the way back. Told her we'd take care of any chores that needed doin' too."

"We? You volunteered my services as well?"

"Yep. I told her you was real good at muckin' out barns." Vin kicked his horse into a gallop, and Ezra galloped to catch up with him.

It was mid afternoon and hot when the two regulators topped a small ridge that looked down upon the stream that Vin had designated. They rode down close to the stream and dismounted in a grove of cottonwood trees and then unsaddled the horses.

Ezra took out a handkerchief and wiped his brow. "It's hot enough to rival Hades today." He eyed the clear, slow running stream with its sandy bottom. "The water looks most inviting."

"Yeah, it does. Feel like takin' a dip before we start catchin' the fish?"

"That sounds like an excellent idea."

The stream was edged by a strip of sand, interspersed with boulders. Vin dropped his hat and gunbelt on one of the rocks, then sat down on the ground to tug off his boots and socks, with Ezra following suit. He turned to Ezra and flashed a boyish grin. "Last one in's gotta buy the other's beer fer the next two weeks."

"You're on, Vin," Ezra responded with a grin of his own.

Vin tossed his buckskin jacket beside his gunbelt and hat.

Ezra, despite trying to be first, couldn't resist taking the time to fold his jacket before placing it beside Vin's and was careful not to pop the buttons on his shirt. Like Ezra, Vin had also omitted his longjohns. He was soon stripped down to only a summer tan, while Ezra was still dealing with the buttons on his pants.

"Two weeks, Ez," Vin taunted, as he headed for the water. Ezra joined him shortly, and the two of them swam and floated, reveling in the refreshing coolness of the water. Vin ducked his head under several times, and drops of water flew from his long hair as he shook it out of his eyes.

"This place reminds me of a creek that my cousins and I swam in when we were children," Ezra commented. "I lived with them for over a year, after my mother dumped me to pursue her own interests. I enjoyed my stay there more than with any of the other relatives who took me in."

Vin spoke hesitantly. "It ain't my way ta ask pryin' questions, but since ya brought it up, how come ya didn't live with yer ma?"

"I lived with both of my parents until the age of seven. I traveled with them and learned to play cards almost as soon as I learned to count. I learned all about cons as well. My parents didn't get along very well together. They were too competitive and too much alike. After my father got into some fairly serious difficulties, my mother decided to cut her losses and leave him to sink or swim. She couldn't give up the life he had introduced her to, so she left me with this relative or that one and went on her merry way. Actually, I was well treated and reasonably happy, but it was hardly the same as having a real home and being with my parents."

"I reckon there ain't nothin' like havin' yer own folks ta raise ya. I can't hardly remember my pa and can't remember too much about my ma." He squinted up at the sky. "Sun's gettin' lower. We best get dried off and start catchin' some o' them fish."

After coming out of the water, they stretched out on large, flat boulders to allow the sun's rays to dry them and then got dressed. The day was so warm that they chose to put their hats back on but not their coats. Automatically, Vin started to strap his gun on, but the isolated and peaceful setting made the gun seem unnecessary and he dropped the gunbelt back on the rock. The two of them collected their fishing poles and bait and walked around a bend in the river to where Vin and Chris had previously found the fishing good. After baiting the hooks, they dropped their lines in the water and sat down on the sandy bank to wait for a nibble. Always watchful, Vin looked around. Behind them were more cottonwood trees and thick bushes and brambles. Nothing looked or sounded out of place, so Vin allowed himself to relax.

"Vin," Ezra asked, "have you ever been to New Orleans?"


"They have chefs there who can prepare fish that's incredibly flaky and tender and served with sauces like nothing you have ever tasted."

"Well, I reckon we'll have ta settle fer fish in a fryin' pan. Damn!" he suddenly exclaimed.


Vin looked disgusted. "When I got the fryin' pan outa my wagon, I meant ta git my chew. I fergot it an' I didn't bring no more with me."

"I could say that a gentleman doesn't chew tobacco, but I'm afraid the point would be lost on you, Mr. Tanner."

"Might as well git used ta doin' without it," he grumbled, "the way Nettie keeps scoldin' me ta give it up. If she ain't scoldin' me about one thing, then she's scoldin' me about somethin' else."

"Yet you seem inordinately fond of her and she of you."

Vin smiled. "Reckon that's true. Been a long time since I was special ta anybody before Nettie come along. She treats me like I belonged ta her, same as she treats Casey. 'Course I ain't no blood kin, but she's the closest thing I've had to a ma since I'se five. Seems like she just took ta me and me ta her."

A twig snapped behind them. Vin and Ezra turned around and were instantly on their feet. Three men, with guns drawn, stood facing them. Instinctively, Vin reached for the mare's leg that he had left behind. Vin glanced at Ezra, seeing his own apprehension reflected in the gambler's green eyes.

Shit! I shoulda known better than ta be this careless, and Ezra ain't got his gun neither.

The oldest man appeared to be about fifty--a graying, ordinary looking man who could easily have been taken for a rancher. The youngest of the three appeared to be in his late twenties. He was tall and bony, with a long, homely face and pale blue eyes. Thinning blonde hair hung lankly to his shoulders. It was the third man who made the strongest impression. He was a heavy set man of about forty, with a massive torso and huge arms bulging with muscles. His black hair was long, thick and bushy, as was his beard. A deep scar cut across one side of his face.

The oldest man stepped forward. "You look just like your wanted poster, Vin Tanner." His glance traveled to Ezra. "And you're Standish, the cardsharp."

Ezra's eyes narrowed. "How do you know who I am?"

He shrugged. "People talk. I listen."

"Who the hell are you, Mister?" Vin demanded.

The man's smile was mocking. "Oh, excuse me. I ain't being very polite. We're bounty hunters. My name's Luther Bolton. The big one here is Floyd Watts, and the other one is Toby Skinner." He looked at Watts. "Search 'em and don't leave anything to chance."

Watts holstered his gun and stepped forward. "I know all about tricky bastards. I'll check 'em from head to toe and every place in between." As he knelt in front of Vin to check his boots, Vin's foot lashed out and caught Watts in the lower abdomen. Despite the force of the kick, Watts staggered back only slightly. Ezra dove at Skinner, knocking him to the ground and jarring the gun loose from his hand. Before he could make a grab for the gun, Ezra felt Bolton's gun barrel in the back of his neck.

"Get up slow," Bolton ordered. "I wasn't planning on killing you, but that don't mean I won't." Ezra had no choice but to comply.

Watts grabbed Vin with such ferocity that Vin's hat fell to the ground. He seized a handful of the tracker's hair and yanked his head back. "I knew you was a couple o' tricky sonsabitches. You try ta kick me in the balls again, Sonny, and you'll be plenty sorry."

Vin's eyes blazed with defiance. "Who says ya got any balls?"

"Boy, I'm gonna enjoy beatin' the shit outa you," Watts warned. "Just gimme a reason." He punctuated his words by spitting a mouthful of tobacco juice, which splattered on Ezra's expensive boots.

Skinner spoke up in a nasal twang. "How come we don't just go ahead and kill 'im?"

"No," Bolton said firmly. "I don't want to be transporting a body all the way to Tascosa in this heat."

"We don't know if the other one's wanted. We could kill 'im and leave 'im here," Skinner suggested.

Ezra and Vin tensed.

"Since he's with Tanner, could be he's wanted for something too," Bolton responded. "We'll take him along with us in case there's a reward out for him. If there ain't, we'll say that we picked up the wrong man by mistake." He nodded to Watts. "Search 'em, Floyd." He looked at the two captives. "Try anything again and you'll pay for it."

Watts resumed searching Vin and found the knife in his boot. Vin stood stoically while Watts conducted a rough and thorough search, even groping between his legs.

"Ain't nothin' else on 'im," Watts declared. He moved over to Ezra and pulled out the knife concealed in the gambler's boot.

Ezra grunted as the bounty hunter ran his hands up the inside of his thighs and into his crotch. "I was planning on reserving such intimacies for the future Mrs. Standish," he commented icily.

Watts wasn't amused. "You ain't likely ta be nobody's bridegroom if you don't learn ta keep yer mouth shut."

"I'll try to keep that in mind," Ezra muttered.

"Git yer asses movin'," Watts ordered, giving both captives a hard shove in the back to start them in the direction from which they had come.

As they were led past the boulder upon which their coats lay, Skinner stopped to examine the garments, finding Ezra's derringer and liquor flask. He unstopped the flask and took a long swallow, smacking his lips appreciatively. After restopping the flask, he reached for Vin's jacket. He held it up admiringly and then tried it on. "Hey, I found me a new jacket," he chortled.

Vin's jaw clenched and anger flashed in his eyes. "That's mine," he protested. He started toward Skinner, only to be shoved back by Watts.

"It's his now, if he wants it," Watts gloated.

"He ain't got no right." Heedless of danger, Vin tried to push past Watts, only to be punched in the stomach by a meaty fist. Vin fell to the ground, the breath knocked out of him.

Watts stood over him. "Git up, Pretty Boy, before I put my boot up yer ass." He spat another mouthful of tobacco juice.

Vin had no doubt but that Watts would make good his threat. Still trying to catch his breath, he struggled to his feet after Ezra reached down to help him.

Skinner sauntered past them, obviously pleased with the fine figure he felt he cut in Vin's jacket. "I'm gonna check their saddlebags and see what else I can find," he announced.

"What about my coat?" Ezra demanded. "I would like to have it back."

"Don't matter none ta me. I don't want no sissy coat like yours." He stroked the buckskin. "I like this'n."

"You have wretched taste, you imbecile," Ezra muttered.

"You're not going to need a fancy coat where we're going," Bolton said. He waved his gun toward a tree. "Get over there and sit down." He turned to Watts. "Bring me some rope so I can tie 'em up."

Watts brought the rope and kept his gun trained on the two captives as they were tied up.

"How'd you find us?" Vin demanded of Bolton.

"Heard you was in Four Corners. I found out from a talkative old geezer that it was true. Me 'n' the boys slipped into town and hung out some. Yesterday I heard talk that y'all was headed toward Eagle Bend to do some fishing. We waited outside o' town and saw y'all ride out this morning. We had to stay quite a ways behind y'all so we wouldn't be spotted, but the soft ground made it easy to follow the tracks."

Skinner returned, carrying Vin's spy glass. "Lookie at what I found." He focused the spy glass on Watts at close range. "Hey, Floyd, you look funny!"

"Stop playing with that and find something useful to do," Bolton snapped. "See if you can scare us up some squirrels or rabbits. We're going to camp here for the night."

Watts looked up at the sky. "Clouds movin' in. We could git a rain tonight." He glanced toward Vin and Ezra. "If it rains, I reckon you boys'll just hafta git wet, but it ain't likely you'll melt."

"Son of a bitch," Ezra muttered, watching the bounty hunters walk away. Thunder was beginning to rumble when Skinner returned carrying several fat squirrels which he proceeded to skin and then roast over the campfire. "We gonna feed them two?" he asked with a look in the captives' direction.

Bolton poured himself some coffee in a tin cup. "No. We'll give 'em a biscuit now and then. If they're weak and hungry, they'll be easier to manage."

By the time that the bounty hunters had finished eating, rain was starting to fall. The three men slipped their ponchos on and sought the dryest spots they could find.

Ezra and Vin curled their legs beneath them, trying to keep the rain out of their boots, but their clothes were soon soaked. Ezra's hat afforded him a small amount of protection; but Vin was hatless, and his long hair hung in dripping strands around his equally wet face.

"What do you think our chances are?" Ezra asked, trying unsuccessfully to ignore the trickle of water down his collar.

"They're mean bastards, Ez. All three of 'em." Vin paused. "I'm the one they want, so if ya have a chance ta escape, take it."

Ezra spoke slowly. "Do you think I'd run out on you?"

Vin sounded resigned. "I'm not thinkin' anythin', except there's no need for ya ta maybe git yerself killed along with me."

Ezra was silent.

Out of all the other regulators, Vin is the closest one to being a true friend. Running out on him would be despicable, selfish and cowardly. On the other hand, I would be a fool not to save my own life. Good Lord! What's wrong with me? I never used to have these moral dilemmas.

Vin interrupted his thoughts. "You wanted fer any reason, Ezra?"

"I may have committed an indiscretion or two that ran afoul of the law."

"So it's possible they could lock ya up if we git ta Tascosa?"

"It's possible."

"Then we better make sure we keep tryin' ta escape."


The bounty hunters were up at daybreak the next day, pausing only long enough to make coffee for themselves. After a miserable, sleepless night, Vin and Ezra were allowed to answer the call of nature and then offered only a drink of water before being placed on their horses. Their hands were tied in front of them so that they could hold onto the pommels of their saddles, while the bounty hunters held onto their reins. This limited the speed with which they could travel, but from the talk heard in town their captors knew that it would be several days before they were missed.

The heavy rain stopped shortly after their departure, and the sun came out in full force. Without his hat, the sun beat down relentlessly on Vin's unprotected head, but his clothes and Ezra's dried quickly from the intense heat. They rode until sunset, almost without stopping, until they halted beside a narrow stream.

Watts dismounted and then hauled the two regulators out of the saddle and dropped them hard onto the ground, before leading their horses off to be watered.

After slaking their own thirst and that of their horses, Watts and Bolton remounted. "We're going to look for some game and some firewood," Bolton informed Skinner. "It could be scarce this close to the foothills. You keep a close eye on them two, and give 'em some water. You let 'em get away and I'll find a tree and hang you from it."

"They ain't goin' nowhere," Skinner assured him. He refilled a canteen and brought it over to the captives. They had been given no water since their departure that morning, and their throats felt parched. Their stomachs growled from hunger, and Vin's head pounded from the heat. Instead of offering the canteen to the captives, Toby squatted down in front of them and started drinking himself. Almost mesmerized, the two regulators watched the longed for water run down the bounty hunter's chin and trickle down his neck. "Sure is good water, boys," he taunted. "Almost as tasty as a beer in a saloon. Cold, too."

He drank again and Ezra shut his eyes. It was torture to watch the bounty hunter drink when his own throat was so dry.

Vin watched his captor impassively. He had learned endurance during his time with the Kiowa and the Commanche. He wasn't going to give Skinner the satisfaction of knowing how thirsty he was.

Finally, Skinner placed the canteen up to Ezra's mouth. He allowed him to have several swallows before snatching it away. "That's enough," he said, allowing the canteen to fall to the ground, its contents leaking out into the earth. "Now ain't that clumsy o' me," he said, with a malicious grin. He turned his attention to Vin. "Ya don't look very thirsty ta me. Don't reckon ya want a drink."

Vin looked him in the eye. His voice was raspy with dryness. "I git the chance, I'm goin' ta make ya pay fer this."

Skinner's face showed exaggerated surprise. "Well, ain't you in a bad mood! 'Course I can understand that. You probably been ponderin' on how they're goin' ta hang you once we git ta Tascosa."

"We ain't there yet," Vin snapped defiantly. "A lot can happen before we git ta Tascosa."

"Ain't nothin' gonna happen. Yer ass is gonna hang." He looked at Ezra. "Could be you'll be able ta watch him swing from yer jail cell if they lock you up." He continued conversationally. "I been thinkin' o' how I'm gonna spend my share of the bounty. Think I'll start off with a steak dinner. I'm gonna order one o' them steaks that's as thick as they come and tender enough ta cut with a fork, smothered with a passel o' onions and maybe some of them fancy mushrooms. Think I'll add a baked tater with lotsa butter and some corn on the cob and some o' them yeast rolls that smell so good. Then I'll top it off with a big slab o' apple pie and some coffee. After that settles a bit, I'll mosey over ta the saloon and order a bottle o' their best whiskey--the kind like you had in that flask o' yours. What's it called?"

"A man of your discriminating palate should be able to recognize the taste."

"Think yer smart, don'cha?" Skinner snapped. "I hope they find a reason ta hang you right alongside him." Skinner got up and went to tend to the horses.

Ezra moved closer to Vin and spoke in a low voice. "Do you think we should try to get away before the other two return?"

"This ain't the time," Vin said softly. "The land around here is too flat and there's hardly any cover. We'd be too easy ta spot if they came after us. We could be in the foothills by tomorra night. There'll be more places ta hide there, and that'll give us a better chance. I'll give ya the signal when I think it's time."

The other two bounty hunters returned shortly before dark, bringing with them four rabbits which they skinned, cooked and ate. Afterwards, Bolton came over to check their bonds.

Vin spoke up. "Don't s'pose it would make any difference if I told ya I didn't kill the man that I'm wanted fer killin'."

Bolton was unmoved. "Son, I don't care if you killed one man or a hundred men or none. The thing is, I got you in my custody, and you're worth five hundred dollars to me. I'm not about to give up that bounty money. If you didn't do what you're accused of, that's your bad luck." After tightening the ropes that bound them, he went back to the campfire.

Four Corners

Chris, Buck and Nathan were in the saloon having a late afternoon drink.

"You think Vin and Ezra are gonna be back in time to hear your speech?" Buck asked Chris. "They supposed to be back by then?"

"Yep," Chris replied, "but there's not gonna be any speech, at least not by me. Judge Travis is supposed to be here before Friday. Mary can talk him into makin' a speech."

Buck refilled his glass. "So you're countin' on the judge to save your ass. Hope he gets here on schedule, but you better be thinkin' up a speech in the meantime in case he don't. Maybe Josiah can help out. Where is he anyway?"

"Last I saw of him," Nathan answered, "Miz Alice had ahold of him and was tryin' ta drag him to the ladies' dress shop. I heard her say somethin' about weddin' dresses. Josiah looked like an animal caught in a trap." Nathan drained his glass, then took out his pocket watch and looked at it. "I'd best be gettin' out ta the Grayson place. I treated one o' the Grayson kids for the mumps last week, and now I hear all of 'em's got it. Mr. Grayson too. Good thing the Graysons got so many kids if Mr. Grayson's caught it. Mumps can cause a man ta be sterile."

Buck looked alarmed and shoved back his chair. "Nathan, you stay away from me! I don't remember ever havin' the mumps, and I'd like ta have a coupla little Bucklins one day."

Chris lit a cigar. "Buck, considerin' how many skirts you've lifted, you've probably got little Bucklins and Bucklettes scattered from here to hell and back."

"That ain't true. At least, there's not any that I know about."

"I seem to remember us havin' to leave a coupla towns in a hurry, tryin' to stay ahead of some mad papas with shotguns."

"Now, Chris, I wasn't the first man to get in them girls' drawers. For all I know, they just picked my name out of a hat."

"CHRIS!" JD burst into the saloon and headed for his friends' table. "Chris, I was over at the general store," JD began breathlessly, "when old man Donnelly came in. He doesn't come into town very often, you know, 'cause his place is way out beyond Miz Nettie's place. I rode out there one time with Casey to see his apple orchard. Anyway, Mr. Donnelly said that a man had stopped by his place about a week ago. He told Mr. Donnelly that he was looking for Vin and claimed to be Vin's uncle. Mr. Donnelly said the man was real polite, and he told him about Vin being here in town. I didn't think that Vin had any family, and I remembered seeing something come in recently from the sheriff in San Angelo about some bounty hunters working out of Texas. I sent the sheriff a telegram asking him for whatever information he could furnish, and I got an answer back right away." He pulled the telegram from his pocket and handed it to Chris.

Chis quickly scanned it. "It says there are three men working together, names of Luther Bolton, Floyd Watts and Toby Skinner. No description available, and current whereabouts unknown." He stood up from the table. "I got a bad feelin' about this. We need to find Vin and Ezra, that is if these bounty hunters haven't already found 'em."

"You wanta get started this evenin'?" Buck asked. "It'll be dark in a few hours."

"Yeah, I know, but there's no time to waste. We'll go as far as we can before we have to stop for the night. Buck, I want you to come with me. Nathan, you best stay here. You have to look after the Graysons, and there could be more people who get sick. JD, you did the smart thing in findin' out about the bounty hunters. I want you to stay here and look after things. I'll need you to head over to the ladies' dress shop, and rescue Josiah from Miz Alice. Tell him that he's ridin' with me'n Buck, and we'll leave as soon as we can get ready. If you run into any trouble, JD, Nathan'll be here to help out. One more thing--if there is any trouble, tell Mrs. Travis that I said she's not to interfere." With that, Chris strode from the saloon, his black duster fanning out behind him.

JD watched him go, his expression showing his undisguised admiration for the gunslinger. He turned to Buck. "I wanta be just like him one day, Buck."

Buck rested his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Son, your chances of ever bein' like Chris are about as good as the chances of findin' a virgin in a whorehouse."

JD colored slightly at the reference. "Maybe so, but he's the kind of man I'd like to be. He always knows how to take charge and he ain't afraid of anything." JD looked thoughtful. "Except for Mrs. Travis."

The Following Day

As soon as Chris, Buck and Josiah reached the area where Chris and Vin had previously gone fishing, they spotted the abandoned fishing poles and Vin's hat lying on the ground. They dismounted, and Buck picked up the brown hat. Rain had collected in the hat's interior, and Buck poured the water out on the ground.

"Vin won't be able to wear this again," Buck observed, wrinkling his nose at the musty smell and dropping it back onto the ground.

"He never would've left it behind," Chris said. "Vin and me camped around this curve when we came here before. Let's take a look."

Leading their horses, the men rounded the curve and found Ezra's coat, now a sodden ruin, still lying on the boulder where it had been left.

"Ezra never would've left that coat of his either," Buck said.

"Buck, Chris, come over here," Josiah said, examining the muddy, trampled ground. "More horses have been here than just Ezra's and Vin's. I'd say the bounty hunters found 'em."

"They have to be headed for Tascosa," Chris said. He paused. "They could be following the stagecoach route. That would be the easiest route, but it would take considerably longer than goin' through the mountains. My guess is that they're goin' through the mountains." He looked at the other men. "Anybody think different?"

"That would be my guess," Buck replied.

"Mine too," Josiah agreed. "None of us can track like Vin, but we oughta be able to pick up some sign to show that we're on the right trail."

Buck looked somber. "We don't know what kinda men we're dealin' with, Chris. We need to catch up with 'em quick as we can."

Chris nodded. "We have to get to them in time, Buck." He bowed his head, remembering Sarah and Adam. "Let's go."

The three of them remounted and started toward the mountains.

+ + + + + + +

"We'll stop here for the night," Luther Bolton announced. This marked the second night that the bounty hunters and their captives had spent since reaching the foothills. Vin had been watchful for a chance to escape, but none had presented itself. The selected site was a barren plateau backed up by a rocky hillside, but the site did contain a spring which trickled from a crack in the rocks. A twisting path led from the plateau down into the valley below. On one side of the plateau was a deep ravine.

Vin sized up the possibility for escape. Skinner had been the last one to tie up the two captives and his knots weren't as tight as those of Bolton or Watts. Vin had managed to loosen his bonds to the point that they were ready to slip off.

The bounty hunters dismounted. Watts came over to Ezra, yanked him from the saddle and flung him down on the rock strewn surface. Sharp stones ripped tears in the gambler's clothes and cut painfully into his flesh. Ezra grimaced and looked up at Watts. "You are one miserable son of a bitch, Watts."

The large man merely smiled. He jerked Ezra to his feet and, holding him upright, twice punched him savagely in the stomach, before allowing him to fall back to the ground.

Fury exploded in Vin at Watts's brutality. He yanked the loosened ropes from his wrists and dived from his horse onto Watts. They rolled over on the ground as Vin, energized by anger, punched the startled bounty hunter. Vin's wiry strength, even had he not been weakened by hunger and thirst, was no match for the other man's superior size and strength. Almost instantly, Watts regained the advantage and began pounding Vin's head against a rock.

With his hands still bound, Ezra was helpless to intervene and struggled to suck air back into his lungs. "STOP, YOU BASTARD! YOU'LL KILL HIM!" he managed to yell. He looked desperately at Bolton to see if he was going to intervene to stop the beating.

"WATTS!" Bolton yelled and hurried over. He tried to pull Watts off Vin. "That's enough! Let him go! I told you I wanted him delivered alive, not dead!" Bolton knelt and made certain that Vin was still breathing. "He's unconscious." Bolton looked around. "Pick him up and put him over there by that big rock." Bolton stood up and pulled Ezra to his feet. "You get over there with him."

Watts pulled Vin up and tossed him over his shoulder. He carried him over to the place that Bolton had indicated and dumped him on the ground. Vin groaned faintly, and Watts gave him a parting kick to the ribs before walking off. Ezra dropped down beside him and briefly closed his eyes, thinking of how much he would like to kill Watts. Ezra slid over closer to the tracker.

"Vin, can you hear me?" he asked.

Vin mumbled inaudibly, but didn't open his eyes and continued to lie unmoving on the ground. Ezra sighed when he saw that blood was seeping from the back of the tracker's head. With his hands tied, there was nothing he could do about it.

The bounty hunters ignored their captives as they took care of the horses and set up camp. Skinner was dispatched to gather sticks for a fire and returned with some dried brush furnished by the arid landscape. As the smell of beans and dried bacon cooking filled the air, Ezra's empty stomach growled in response, and he was tormented by the smell of the food.

Skinner detached himself from his companions and came over.

"Luther said I was ta untie you, so's y'all could take a piss." Skinner untied Ezra's hands, and the gambler gratefully flexed his fingers, ignoring the pain of his chafed wrists. No one had bothered to retie Vin's wrists after he had been knocked unconscious. "Appears like you'll hafta git him on his feet," Skinner told Ezra.

"C'mon, Vin," Ezra encouraged. Vin's eyes opened, and Ezra helped the unsteady tracker to his feet.

"Over there," Skinner indicated, with a jerk of his thumb. "And don't try nothin'. I'm smarter'n I look."

"That's doubtful," Ezra said under his breath, while keeping hold of Vin.

After relieving himself, Ezra saw that the tracker was still fumbling slowly with his buttons.

"Hurry up," Skinner said impatiently.

"This is not the kind of task that I ever expected to perform for another male," Ezra commented to Vin, as he helped him get his pants unbuttoned. Vin made no response, and Ezra wondered if he even realized what was going on, he seemed so disoriented. Ezra rebuttoned the tracker's pants, and led him back to where they had been sitting, while Skinner went off to help himself to some food.

"Let me take a look at your head, Vin," Ezra said, turning his companion's head so that he could see the back. "It looks as if it's stopped bleeding. How does it feel?"

There was a long pause before Vin spoke. "Hurts. Can't see too good either. Everythin's all blurry."

"You could have a concussion." Ezra held up two fingers. "How many fingers do you see?"

Vin blinked several times before answering. "Looks like four." Vin glanced around in confusion. "Ez, ain't we goin' fishin'?"

Ezra hesitated, not certain how to explain their situation to his disoriented companion. "Not for awhile."

Vin seemed even more confused. "Where are we? I don't know this place."

"Where we are, my friend, is up shit creek."

Vin looked at him without comprehension.

"I was making a small joke."

Vin's brow furrowed, as he tried to understand.

"Apparently, the joke was even smaller than I realized." Ezra looked up and saw Watts approaching, carrying a tin plate filled with beans and several strips of bacon. Ezra was wary and braced himself, but his mouth watered uncontrollably. The food smelled more delicious than any that he could remember.

"Thought you boys might enjoy a hot meal for a change," Watts started to extend the plate to Ezra, then withdrew it. "Then again, I might prefer just ta see ya starve." He dumped the contents on the ground and kicked dirt into it. "A little dirt might improve the flavor. Why don't ya try it and see?"

Ezra's voice was low with barely suppressed rage. "One of life's greatest pleasures would be to see a son of a bitch like you die."

Watts looked down at Vin. "He's the one you're goin' ta see die. From the looks of him, it might be before we git ta Tascosa." He spat on the ground and swaggered away.


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