by Lyn

A Four Corners Adventure Tours story

Disclaimer: No money is being made by this. The story is all based on inspiration given by a wonderful show and the actors, writers and creators involved in it.

AU: Four Corners Adventure Tours AU (FCAT). This started as a RPG. The first small section is the post that I used to get the RPG established and started. I always wanted it to be a full fic tho…and now it is.

Characters: Vin-centric, but all the guys are involved to some degree.

Thanks: Go out to the FFF, for their support, encouragement, and beta work and to wild woman Molly for the medical input.

Note: This story was originally written and published in the 2001 Global Gathering zine. Since then it has been altered to make the history of the men more parallel to that of the series.

Chris Larabee pulled the Jeep Cherokee into the parking area of the bunkhouse. Exiting the vehicle he took a few moments to survey his property. He and his partners had developed a very lucrative business here, high in the Sierra Mountains. The Lodge itself was a three-story affair with 15 guest rooms on the upper level, a dining room, kitchen, lounge area, and four rooms for Nettie and her people on the lower level. The attic was used as a conference room for when they booked executive retreats, with a few extra rooms used as an exercise room or playroom. To the north of the lodge were the newest additions to their business, four guest cabins, for those that wanted a bit more privacy. Behind the lodge and up on a hill so they still had a view of the mountains were the crew quarters and Chris’ house.

The bunkhouse, as they called it, actually consisted of seven large bedrooms and a recreational area complete with big screen TV and pool table. This is where Chris’ six business partners slept when not working. He had hired these men at various points in time during the establishment of the business, and when Four Corners Adventure Tours was fully launched he had made each one a partner. He still owned the title to the land, but the business was owned equally by all of them.

Chris had hired Vin Tanner when he was starting to raise and train horses. The out of place young mountain man worked well with both the horses and Chris, often anticipating exactly what Chris himself would do in any given situation. When they started leading small groups on tours of the mountains, Vin had shown an affinity for the land that Chris had not known possible. The younger man could read the land as though he were a part of it, and was a natural at rock climbing and guide work.

As the Tour business began they had engaged the help of Nathan Jackson, a trained paramedic, and his services had come in handy in dealing with the sometimes accident-prone partners. Nathan had become a member of the local volunteer fire department working as a paramedic as well as his regular medical duties at the Lodge.

Next on board was Chris’ oldest friend Buck Wilmington. The two had known each other for years. Buck had joined them while still trying to start up the horse-training end of the business and quickly showed that he had a flare for handling groups of green horns, as well as any lady that should come within sight. While a certified ladies man, it seemed that no one could take offense at the affable man’s sometimes misdirected affections.

Nathan brought along Josiah Sanchez, a spiritual man who worked as a chopper pilot. Josiah transported guests at times and took aerial tours as well as taking ski groups to the top of the mountain and taking the crew on air scouting tours. His services had also been called upon to perform a wedding or two, and he would conduct Sunday services should the guests request.

Ezra Standish was hired on for his managerial talents. Ezra booked the rooms, organized conferences, and provided the guests with whatever entertainment that the great outdoors did not afford them. Ezra would also go along on some of the longer trail rides upon occasion as an extra hand.

Last on board was JD Dunne, a young man from Boston who just knew he was destined for life in the wild. The young man had come out west after the death of their mother and had eagerly pushed his way into the business. The young man had taken to the horses and outdoor life quickly, and seemed to enjoy the more dangerous activities, but still had a lot to learn.

Chris had completed the group with the arrival of Nettie Wells and her niece Casey. Nettie would run the lodge, making sure the rooms were clean and meals were prepared. Casey helped out and was occasionally asked along on the trail rides. Inez Recillos joined them, often acting as hostess as well as helping with the cooking.

Chris was very satisfied with how the business was coming along. The men were all busy preparing for the upcoming summer season, with Chris jumping in when he wasn’t required in town where he was acting Sheriff.

They had just finished up a profitable winter season and had taken a month long break where the men could take a short vacation if they wanted before starting to work on checking equipment, repairing and updating the lodge and airing out the rooms.

The first guests of the summer season were due to arrive in just four days. Chris moved up to his cabin, quickly changing clothes, before joining Vin and Buck in the barn, where they were checking over the kayaks and climbing equipment.

After all, they only had a few days left and lots of work to do.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Vin hung from his fingertips, his toe seeking a hold in the rocky face of the cliff. Finding one, he secured himself then pushed upward, his right hand finding the edge of the cliff he sought. Within seconds he was pulling himself up and over the edge.

Settling himself on the edge, his legs dangling, Vin looked out over the vista toward the East and the rising sun. Slipping the pack from his back, he removed the thermos of strong black coffee Nettie had made for him and the foil wrapped breakfast burritos Inez had supplied. Digging in to the well-earned breakfast, he watched as the sky brightened, changing from a rich, dark blue to a brighter version, passing through shades of pink and lavender on its way.

Thirty minutes later, Vin was on his way back down the cliff to the horse that waited patiently below for him. There was still a lot of work to do. Today was the first day of the summer season at Four Corners Adventure Tours and their first guests would be arriving this morning.

Vin let the horse run on the way back to the lodge. The animal knew the way and Vin knew where every possible bump and hole in the open field was so the animal could run safely. Vin loved the feeling of the wind against his face, blowing through his hair. This was the feeling of freedom.

That’s why Vin loved his job. He felt free. He could ride when he wanted and often spent the early mornings doing exactly what he had just done, watching the sunrise from some perfect spot, before starting his workday. Even the manner of the job appealed to him. He rode, climbed, hiked, paraglided, canoed and kayaked for a living. What more could a misplaced drifter ask for?

For that is what Vin felt he was most of his life. Misplaced. He knew he truly belonged in a different time era and had known that since he was very young. His youth had been tumultuous at best. He had never known his father. His mother had died from illness when he was five years old. From that point on he had been in a series of foster homes all over Texas until he was thirteen, at which time he had run away and found his way to the Sierra Mountains. It was here, for the first time since the death of his mother, that he had felt at home.

A loner that lived in the high mountains had taken him in. The man had fought to gain legal custody of Vin and had seen to it that he had been home schooled. Schooling was a struggle for Vin and he had never managed to learn to read well. He could, but it took time for him to make his way through the words, so he found it unfulfilling. The mountains, though, were another thing. He felt comfortable there. His new guardian taught him everything there was to know about them, how to survive and how to enjoy them to the fullest. This was where he belonged.

Vin’s guardian died when he was barely eighteen. Since then Vin had spent some time wandering the mountains, bouncing from job to job before finding a position with Chris Larabee, tending to the horses on the man's ranch. It wasn’t long afterwards that Chris had begun to develop the idea for the Adventure Tour business. Vin was in his element.

Vin pulled the reluctant horse up to a stop near the corral, forcing the animal to walk the balance of the way into the barn. Brushing the animal down, Vin gave him a measure of grain before turning it loose in the corral with the other horses. He moved quickly to his room in the bunkhouse, showered, and changed into jeans, T-shirt and boots then headed up to the lodge.

The other employees of Four Corners Adventures were eating breakfast in the dining room. Vin helped himself to a cup of coffee, by passing Nettie who would undoubtedly have poured him one as well as try to make him eat more. Then he took a seat, silently watching his companions as they ate. Even Ezra Standish had managed to crawl out from under the covers early today in anticipation of their guests. Inez was going over the guest list with him as they lingered over coffee. Nettie was talking with Chris about the menu for the week as Casey sat nearby casting eyes at JD Dunne. Nathan sat checking off the list of medical supplies that he would have Josiah pick up that morning when the man drove in to pick up two of their visitors. Buck sat back in his chair, legs stretched out, looking none the worse for wear after his night in town with one of his many lady friends.

As if an unspoken word passed amongst the group, they all stood at the same time and headed off to their respective tasks.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

"Don’t you take another step into my kitchen Vin Tanner!"

"But Nettie…"

"Don’t ‘But Nettie’ me!"

"But Chris said ta come immediately ‘n this was the fastest way." Vin winced as he heard a loud crash followed by the sounds of running feet and children’s laughter coming from the floor above. Even Nettie cringed and looked at the ceiling.

"Well I imagine that’s what he’s calling a meeting about. Those kids haven’t stopped tearing through the place since they got here two hours ago." She looked once more at Vin, who had been summoned from his work in the barn. "Take them boots off and brush off your jeans a bit. Then get going. While the building is still standing."

Vin did as requested, stopping long enough to give Nettie a quick peck on the cheek and steal a sliver of apple Nettie was in the process of cutting for that night’s dessert. Then he moved down the hall along the back of the building, past the laundry room and living areas inhabited by Nettie, Casey and Inez, entering the lobby area and taking a sharp right into the Lodge’s office.

Ezra sat at his desk, his hands over his ears as yet another crash could be heard, followed by Inez’s unmistakable voice shouting out a string of threats and curses in Spanish. Chris sat at another desk and looked up as Vin took a seat next to Josiah.

"Do I want to know what she just said?" Chris asked, already knowing the answer. Vin just shook his head to the negative. JD entered the room, followed by Nathan.

"How could two such seemingly civilized adults raise such cretins?" Ezra asked as pounding foot steps were heard coming down the staircase closely followed by the lighter sound of Inez and the slightly louder sound of Casey. Moments later the front door banged shut twice as the herd ran outside and the Adventure Tour employees followed.

"That is exactly why I’ve called you all in here," Chris began, stepping over to the window to watch as two children ran by with Casey in pursuit. He had to assume that Inez was following the third child.

"Where’s Buck?" JD asked while shifting in his chair.

"He was taking two of our guests into town for some forgotten items and Mr. and Mrs. Jennings decided to ride along and check out the shops. We had already offered Casey’s services as a babysitter when they made reservations." Chris answered.

"And it was just a microsecond after they drove off that their darling children ‘morphed’ into monsters," Ezra added. Ezra finally noticed Vin’s stockinged feet and cocked an eyebrow in question. Vin ignored him.

"So what do you reckon we oughta do with em?" he asked instead of answering Ezra’s silent question. "Don’t think their folks would take ta the idea of tying em up."

"Well I ‘reckon’ you," Chris looked pointedly at Vin, enjoying how the young man squirmed a bit under the one on one scrutiny. "And the others need to find something to keep them busy. I know we had some activities already planned, but from the looks of things it might be smart to fill their days and keep them busy. How many more guests are due in yet today?" he asked, turning to Ezra.

"The Bartletts have already arrived. No children. We are still expecting the Jamesons with two children and the Townsends with a teenaged son. Then tomorrow we are expecting two additional couples without children who requested an overnight trail ride as well as some white water rafting."

"You suppose the others will be anything like these three?" JD asked as Inez ran by the window.

"I certainly hope not. I’m not certain the Lodge would be standing at the end of the week if they are," Ezra replied, wincing at the Spanish curse words that filtered through wood and glass.

"Well, we got that overnight ride planned for tomorra’. Should keep em busy and wear em out but good." Vin suggested.

"We could give them some riding lessons this afternoon then," JD added. "And maybe swimming when we get back from the overnight?"

"Good start," Chris said. "Fill up the rest of their time for the week. I’m afraid I need to be in town tomorrow, so the rest of you will have to handle the overnight. There’s some hot shot from Sacramento coming in. Wants to meet the local law. So you boys see if you can help Inez and Casey keep those kids occupied and under control."

The men all stood and dispersed. Vin stopped JD outside the office door. "Whatta ya say? You take the front and I’ll get my boots back on and take the back. See if we can rustle us a few kids?" JD nodded and the two men headed off to help Inez and Casey.

Vin moved swiftly through the back hall and Nettie’s kitchen, snagging a carrot from a platter of vegetables and narrowly missing the slap Nettie aimed at his hand. He pulled his boots on quickly then headed outside. He could hear the sounds of running feet and slipped around the corner, waiting just out of sight.

Timing things just right, Vin stepped away from the wall, scooping up a 6 year old boy in one arm, grabbing hold of another older one by the arm and turning slightly as the child’s momentum kept him moving. Casey rounded the corner just a few steps behind them.

"Thanks Vin," Casey said, bending over and resting her hands on her knees while she caught her breath.

"No problem," he answered as he struggled with the two squirming boys. "Hey! Guys! If you’ll stop running fer two seconds I’ve got somethin’ ta ask ya both."

"What?" the older one demanded as Vin placed the younger one on his feet. JD rounded the corner with yet another boy held in a vice grip on his collar so all three boys were present.

"JD and I thought we’d give ya some ridin’ lessons. Are ya interested?"

Vin was met by a chorus of ‘yes’ and ‘you bet’ and the boys turned to run to the corral.

"Wait!" All three stopped in their tracks. "After lunch." Vin hurried to finish his comment before the groans turned in to something more. "And only if ya kin stay out a trouble till then. That means no running around in the Lodge, no screamin’, no breakin’ stuff."

"Then what are we suppose to do until then? If we can’t play?"

"Well, lunch is only an hour away," Casey jumped in. "I’ve got some computer games."

"Cool!" three voices chimed in and Casey led the boys off, with JD following to make sure the three boys stayed with Casey.

"Madre de Dios!" Inez said as she watched the group walk off, her arms crossing over her chest. "They are little monsters!"

"Well Chris sent in the cavalry. Looks like we’re gonna keep em busy ever’ second they’re awake." Vin said as he turned to head back to the barn.

"Good luck," she called after him. "You will need it!"

As it turned out the two men had to recruit Josiah to help out with the lessons. The boys had turned back into little hellions, ‘accidently’ kicking Vin in the chin, spooking several of the horses by running at them screaming, and tripping JD, causing him to fall into the watering trough. Finally Buck returned from town with their guests. As soon as the boys’ parents arrived, the three became perfect angels. Vin and JD watched as the boys returned to the house, the youngest two each holding a parents’ hand while the oldest excitedly told them about the lessons and the trail ride to take place the next day.

"How do they turn it off and on that fast?" JD asked, noting the sudden change in the kid’s behaviors.

"Don’t know but I’d sure like it better if their folks stayed with ‘em all the time." Vin replied before turning back to the task of unsaddling the horses.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

First night supper at the Lodge was always dressier than the rest of the meals. Vin tried to get out of them each and every week, finding various excuses to keep him busy elsewhere. But Chris always located him and herded him back to the bunkhouse to shower and change into a dress shirt, Dockers and his good shoes. Vin felt like he was suffocating in the fancy clothes, even though Ezra said the clothing was considered ‘Office Casual’, whatever that meant.

Ezra was the host of the first night meal, making Chris do formal introductions of each staff member, which made Vin even more uncomfortable. Why he had to stand up in front of their guests and have them all stare at him was beyond comprehension. To make matters worse he was convinced that the other staff members enjoyed his discomfort. It never failed that when the meal was finally served he didn’t enjoy it, even though Nettie and Inez did some of their best cooking for the first, as well as the final, night.

The overnight trail ride was scheduled to leave at 9am the next morning, as soon as their final guests arrived. That meant Vin was hard at work by 6am checking packs and saddling horses. Buck and JD joined him about 7 while Josiah drove into town to pick up the last of the guests and bring them back to the lodge to change into riding clothes. It was a tight morning schedule with the late arriving guests, but necessary to make it to Fitzsimmon’s Meadow by late afternoon with time to set up camp. They would actually be staying in camp two nights, spending the next day climbing or trail riding.

By 9 am 16 extra horses were saddled and ready to go, three packhorses were loaded, and the men were helping the guests mount. Only the Bartletts would not be going along, the couple preferring to spend their time walking the trails nearby and relaxing. Lastly, the men mounted and Vin took the lead with the trail horses obediently falling into line and the others spreading themselves out amongst the guests.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Chris looked up as the man entered the Sheriff’s office. He could tell the man was a city law officer by the cheap suit and swagger that the man wore equally. Standing, Chris moved around the desk, extending his hand.

"Chris Larabee. You must be Fred Brookes."

"That would be me," the man replied as he accepted Chris’ outstretched hand.

"So what brings you to the high country?" Chris motioned to a chair and took his once more. The man produced a photograph from a notebook he carried.

"Right to the point, eh? Well, that’s okay because there is no time to waste." Brookes dropped the picture on Chris’ desk. "His name is Leonard Cochran. Incarcerated for the murders of 6 people down in Sacramento."

"You said he was in jail. So why are you here?"

"I believe ‘was’ is the operative word. He escaped last Wednesday. Sources tell us he was heading in this direction, hoping to hide up in the high country near here until we got tired of looking for him. We’ve learned that he used to fish up north of a place called Fitzsimmon’s Meadow as a child. We think he’s heading near that area."

Chris frowned, the change in his demeanor evident by the strain in the air.

"We were hoping you could give us a hand in finding him. Word has it that you’ve got a man that knows these mountains inside and out and can track just about anything. We’d like to get his help as well as your manpower."

"Just one little problem." Chris was up and unlocking the gun cabinet, pulling out two high-powered rifles with scopes. "That tracker you want to use is on his way to Fitzsimmon’s Meadow right now, along with 5 other of my men and 16 guests of the Lodge we run." Chris was stuffing boxes of shells into a backpack he kept handy. "I hope you know how to ride a horse," he said as he lead the way out the door to his Cherokee, Brooke’s right behind him.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Vin stopped the group regularly so the inexperienced riders could rest and so the Penningtons, who were avid photographers, could take advantage of the scenery. But the group still made good time and arrived at Fitzsimmon’s Meadow around 4 that afternoon. The men instructed their guests as to where and how to set up their tents, then set to work setting up the rest of the camp. JD and Buck took the younger children off to gather firewood while Josiah and Nathan set up a cooking area. Vin took a small tent and a shovel and moved off to provide a private privy. Ezra, the reluctant member, supervised the guests while they set up their tents.

Within the hour a suitable camp had been established, a fire started, and a rich stew was set to simmer. Buck and JD took Jamie, the Townsend’s 14-year old son, Mike Fisher, Jason Bartlett and Jim Jennings off to fish for their breakfast the next morning while Vin took several others off to look for berries and other edible plants that would supplement their meals. Emily Jameson roamed nearby gathering wildflowers under Vin’s watchful eye. There wasn’t much dangerous in the meadow itself, but there was always the possibility of a snake that hadn’t been scared off by the human invasion, or some other animal wandering in to see what was going on. The Jennings boys, thanks to the presence of their parents, were playing relatively quietly near the tents.

As the sun began to set the group ate supper gathered around the fire. Dishes were done quickly while there was still light, and not surprising to the men, as soon as the sun went down their guests settled into their tents for the night. It wasn’t much longer before Ezra did the same and the others spread out their bedrolls to sleep beneath the stars.

Half way between the lodge and Fitzsimmon’s Meadow Chris and Brookes, along with three deputies, made a cold camp and waited for the first sign of daylight.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

"Hey Vin! What’s this called?"

"Hey, look at that! I’m gonna go see what that is!"

"Wait! I’m coming with you!"

Vin moved quickly, grabbing collars on the two Jennings boys before they could go running off. The other three kids with them- 12-year old Jacob and 10-year old Emily Jameson and 14-year old Jamie Townsend- waited patiently. Thankfully, the youngest Jennings boy had stayed behind with his parents. Jamie even rolled his eyes at the behavior change in the two boys the second they were out of eye and ear distance from the other adults.

Vin still wasn’t sure how he had ended up taking five of the six kids on a trail hike by himself, but he was sure Buck had something to do with it. Instead Buck and JD had managed to be the ones to take some of the adults on a trail ride, while Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah stayed at the camp with the rest of the adults.

As he struggled to get the two overly exuberant boys back to the deer trail they were using, he considered his options in how to deal with the boys, and Buck too for that matter. None of the solutions he came up with were legal, but he was beginning to think that maybe it was worth jail time just to have a few moments peace.

"Now that’s it. I’ve had it with the both a ya," Vin grumbled as he forced both boys onto the path. He began to kneel down closer to their level while still holding on to an arm of each when a loud pop, followed by a shower of tiny splinters erupted from the tree right above him. Vin automatically pitched himself forward, covering the two boys while yelling for the other three kids to get down. Each obeyed without a seconds thought.

Vin waited there, listening for a second shot to come. When none did he cautiously eased his head upward, his eyes scanning the woods uphill. He saw some slight movement and caught a glimpse of blue running away.

"Okay, ya’all got ta be real quiet. I need ya ta stand up and as quick as ya can move back along the path we just come up. Let’s go." Vin kept the kids in front of him as much as he could, moving them along until they had put a good half-mile between themselves and where the shooting had occurred. Then he called the small group to a stop.

"Jamie, yer the oldest. Do ya think ya kin find yer way back down ta camp? We marked the trail as we come up."


"Okay, I need ya all ta do what Jamie here says. When ya get back to camp, make sure ya tell Josiah what happened."

"What are you going to do?" Emily asked. The girl was obviously scared and didn’t like the idea that Vin might not stay with them.

"I’m gonna go find who shot at us. Prob’ly a hunter with bad aim, but I’m gonna go tell em that there ain’t no huntin’ around here this time a year. It’ll be fine," he added when Emily looked upset at the idea and Jacob frowned. "Now get on down there. Go on!"

Vin watched them hurry off, Jamie taking hold of one Jennings boy while Jacob took hold of the other. Then he turned and began to move up hill, his faded jeans and light colored shirt allowing him to blend into the scenery. Within moments he was standing where the gunman had been. The gun had not been a rifle as he had alluded to with the kids, but a silencer equipped pistol. The man was no hunter with bad aim, but someone intending to kill. Silently, he began to track the man.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Josiah looked up as four horses came charging into the meadow. He stood, as did Nathan and Ezra and waited, recognizing Chris almost instantly even from a distance by the man’s dark clothes. They all knew it was reason for immediate concern.

"Mr. Larabee, what is the matter?" Ezra asked as the riders pulled up.

"Where are the others?"

"Buck and JD are leading a trail ride and Vin took the kids on a nature hike." Josiah provided.

Chris cursed and looked out across the meadow. "How long have they been gone?"

"We expect Buck and JD back soon. They left early this morning. But Vin has only been gone about an hour. He spent the morning teaching the kids the basics around here then they left after lunch. What’s wrong?" Nathan was now gathered next to Chris’ horse, along with the other two.

"This is agent Brookes from Sacramento. A prisoner being held for trial broke free. He thinks he may be up here."

"Why would he come here?" Josiah asked.

"He knows the area and it’s a good place to hide out," Brookes supplied. "He killed 6 people plus two more after he escaped. I don’t think he would think twice about hurting some of these people if the mood hit him."

"Gather up your personal items. Leave everything else. We’ll get that out of here later. I’m sorry to call an end to the camp out, but it’s just not safe to stay here until we find this man," Chris said addressing the guests.

"What about the kids? They’re out there somewhere!" Kathy Jennings asked, letting the fear show in her voice, even as she hugged her youngest close to her.

"And they’re also with Vin. There’s no one they’ll be safer with. But I’m going to go find them so we can get you all down this mountain safely."

"You may not have to," Ezra said, motioning toward the tree line where three children emerged from the woods running as fast as they could.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Vin moved as stealthily as a cougar. He had easily tracked the man and slipped behind him as the man studied the deer trail below him. He apparently was watching for sign of anyone coming after him after he had missed with his first shot. Vin knew that he had intentionally aimed at him, and had Vin not knelt down when he did, the man’s aim might not have missed.

For the moment Vin was quiet, preferring to study the man before he moved. Even as he watched though, the man raised the gun and took aim. Looking past the man, to where the gun lead, Vin saw what was in the man’s sight. Travis Jennings scampered into sight, with Jamie Townsend behind him, trying to catch him. Vin could even hear Travis yelling that he wanted to see what was going on.

In a split second Vin was airborne, knocking the gunman down and causing his shot to go wild. Travis stopped in his tracks, allowing Jamie to catch him. But the boy wrenched free, Jamie slipping in some forest detritus trying to lunge and catch the child once more. Before he could make another attempt, Travis was off and running again towards where he had seen Vin.

Vin and the gunman rolled down hill before each was able to stop. The man scrambled back up the hill, trying to grab at the gun as Vin launched himself once more on him and a fight ensued.

Vin was definitely the better fighter, but just as he was getting the upper hand Travis Jennings ran up and stopped six feet from the fighting men. Jamie ran up behind him, grabbing him and turned to run back down the path. The boys’ appearance was just enough of a distraction for the gunman to reach the pistol. But Vin was on him before he could turn the gun enough to get off a shot. They struggled with the gun held between them until Vin’s foot twisted, throwing Vin off balance just enough that the man was able to use the butt of the gun to smash against Vin’s chin, setting him falling backwards and rolling down the mountainside.

The blow to his jaw was enough to stun Vin, and he tumbled out of control down the steep mountain face, rolling over rocks and downed branches, cracking his head against a small rock, his left leg twisting under him as he went, before finally coming to a stop wedged against a tree. The gunman gained his own footing once more, looking around for sign of the two boys, but they were well out of sight. He watched the man below, finally moving off when he saw no sign of movement.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

"You two stay here," Chris ordered his deputies. The three children had told them about the gunshot, about Vin going after the man to talk to him, and about Travis Jennings breaking free and running after him, determined not to miss out on anything exciting. Jamie had run after the fleet footed boy but had yet to appear with him. "Get the horses saddled. As soon as the others get back from the trail ride, head down the mountain. I’m going after Vin."

"Not alone," Josiah said calmly, looking Chris square in the eyes. Nathan and Ezra lined up next to him.

"Fine. Let’s go." Chris pulled his rifle from the scabbard on his saddle, as Josiah and Ezra pulled similar rifles from a footlocker next to Ezra’s tent. Brooke’s retrieved his rifle and the five men started running toward the opening in the trees the children had emerged from moments ago.

Once in the woods, the men traveled more cautiously. There was no telling where the gunman, and Vin, might be. The children had told them that Vin was showing them how to mark a trail and each man could easily follow the markings the group had left. Where the markings ended were the signs of the first gunshot. Chris was surprised that they had traveled so far into the deep woods, but was still puzzled that no one had heard the gunshot. However, he also knew that if conditions were just right the sound of the shot might not travel as far as it would normally.

From that point on, the men would have to track the others. Vin’s trail was impossible to pick up, but logic told them that the two boys had followed the deer trail as much as possible and before many feet had been traveled, sign of the two youths could be seen. Reluctantly they all knew that they needed to find the boys first and get them off the mountain. Then hopefully they could find Vin.

They didn’t have far to go before the two boys literally found them. Jamie had a lethal hold on Travis and had practically dragged the boy with him. He was so intent on getting his charge away safely that at first he didn’t recognize their guides. When he finally did, he sagged to the ground, dragging Travis with him.

"Vin! He’s fighting with some man," the boy told them breathlessly. "The guy had a gun!"

"Where?" Chris demanded.

"That way," the boy pointed over his shoulder. "Go past the downed tree then take the path to the right. It slopes up a bit and comes to a real rocky area. That’s where we saw them last."

"Good job, son," Chris took the time to compliment the boy on the information. "Ezra, get them back to camp, then stand by there. Let’s go."

Ezra took hold of Travis’ arm as the boy turned as if to follow Chris and the others. "Now is not the time to indulge in such dangerous curiosity," he said as he started down the mountain, Jamie in the lead.

The four men moved much slower than before, alert and scanning the trees, watching for any sign of the escaped prisoner or Vin. Their slow pace was irritating, but necessary, so as not to endanger any of them and so they did not miss any signs that might lead them to Vin or the gunman. It was a good hour before they found the location that Jamie had directed them to. The signs of a struggle were obvious, as were the tells of a downward slide over some very rough ground. As Chris, Josiah and Nathan scanned down the mountain, Brookes kept an eye up the mountain in case the gunman was still out there. By now it was late afternoon, and the late day shadows made visibility difficult.

"There!" Chris’ word was more of a hiss as he started an intentional slide downward, making his way to the prone figure as quickly as possible. Nathan and Josiah were on his heels.

Vin was lying on his stomach, unmoving. A tree had stopped his downward flight. The hair on the back of his head was matted in blood, and more had run down his neck and disappeared beneath him.

"Don’t move him," Nathan cautioned as Chris reached for his friend. "Let me check him over first." Nathan dropped down next to Vin, a large First Aid kit placed next to his knees. Nathan was a paramedic with the Four Corners Volunteer Fire department as well as the Lodge’s medical staff member. Chris anxiously waited as he started a cursory exam. "Seems ta be breathing fine. Heart rate is steady. BP is good. He’s got a laceration on the back of his head, but other than a lot of blood and some dirt in it, it doesn’t look all that bad. I’m gonna put this neck brace on him, then we’re gonna carefully turn him so I can see what else is goin’ on."

Under Nathan’s careful guidance the three men turned Vin onto his back without shifting his spine or neck. They almost had him turned when Vin let out a loud groan that was close to a scream. His eyes shot open, then squeezed closed in pain.

"Vin? Tell me what’s hurtin’!" Nathan was already checking bones, starting at the shoulders and arms, palpating his abdomen for internal bleeding as he went.

"Knee," Vin hissed, trying to roll away from the pain. Immediately Nathan was at Vin’s left foot, scissors in hand, splitting the seam of Vin’s jeans to expose the painful area. A quick glance showed what the problem was. Vin’s knee looked as though it had shifted, and the area was already beginning to bruise and swell. Nathan removed his boot, eliciting a hiss from the downed man, and checked the pedal pulse. He slowly tried to move the knee, stopping with Vin’s reaction, then checked the pedal pulse once more.

"It’s dislocated," Nathan said looking up at the others and shaking his head. There was no way they could get Vin down off the mountain without popping the joint back in place. He would be in way too much pain to move him otherwise. "Could be some ligaments tore too. Won’t know that right now though. Are you hurtin’ anywhere else, Vin?"

"I ache all over, like I just fell down a mountain," came the reply through clenched teeth. "But the knee’s the worst of it, Nathan."

"We’ll get it put back in place in just a second Vin." Nathan did a quick exam to finish up, determining that other than a few bumps and bruises and the laceration on the back of the head, the only major injury Vin had sustained was to his knee. He removed the cervical collar after checking Vin’s neck for tenderness. By now Brookes had moved down the hill to join them.

"Josiah, help him sit up a bit. Move behind him and give him a big old bear hug to hold him in place. Brookes, I need you to hold his good leg down. Don’t need him kicking me when I give this a pull. Chris, I need you to take hold of his leg at the thigh, right about here." Nathan indicated a spot about six inches above Vin’s knee. Everyone took his place.

"Okay Vin, I’m gonna do this on three. I need ya all to hold on tight starting now. Ready? One…" Nathan gave a good hard pull, shifting the knee as he did so. Vin’s scream died as the young man passed out.

"I thought you said on three?’ Brookes asked.

"I lied," Nathan replied, as he pulled out an elastic bandage and began to wrap the injured joint.

Vin roused quickly, mumbling curses as he did.

"Easy Vin," Nathan said as he closed the lid on his First Aid kit.

"Easy fer you mebbe," Vin muttered as he opened his eyes. Instantly they began to scan the area, a slight frown creasing his face as he did so. One eyebrow raised in question when his gaze fell on Brookes.

"Agent Brookes. Sacramento PD. He’s up here after the guy that took a pot shot at you," Chris answered the unasked question.

"Well, he’s gonna have ta stand in line. Fool not only took at shot at me, but he was aiming at the kids, too," Vin winced as Nathan checked the wrappings once more then realized what he had just said. "The boys? Did they get away okay?"

"Yes. In fact Jamie was able to give us exact instructions on where you were last seen," Josiah’s deep voice was reassuring.

"He’s a smart kid. But them Jennings boys could change a saint into a sinner."

"You’re not saying you’re a saint now are ya Vin?" Nathan said with a smile.

"Hardly." Vin struggled to push himself upright, his thumping head telling him what a mistake that action was. He tried to ignore it. "Help me up would ya?" he asked as he made to push himself to his feet.

"Whoa Pard, you’re not about to be walking out of here." Chris put a restraining hand on his shoulder.

"Then how do ya expect fer me ta get back ta camp? Planning on carryin’ me?" Vin grumbled.

"As a matter of fact, yes." Josiah said as both he and Nathan knelt down next to the younger man. "Put your arms over our shoulders."

"Yer kiddin’?"

"No. You shouldn’t be putting any weight on that knee just yet," Nathan added.

"But, I…" Vin’s protest was cut off as Nathan and Josiah formed a human chair underneath him and lifted him upward. "Damn…"

Chris took the lead, with Brookes at the rear, both men constantly scanning the trees. Vin’s eyes roved with theirs, knowing how to move deep into the shadows to look for what didn’t belong.

It was slow moving but the men finally broke through the trees bordering the meadow. Instantly two men started running toward them. A third grabbed up the reins to one of the horses and lead it toward them.

"Well, Junior, what’d ya go and do to yourself now?" Buck asked as he stepped in and took Nathan’s spot. JD reached for the First Aid kit, taking it from Chris.

"Reckon I decided ta come down the mountain the fast way," Vin replied, flinching as he was jostled. The pain had decreased quite a bit, it seemed. Or maybe he was just getting used to it.

"It would appear to me that a better mode of transportation just might come in handy," Ezra said as he walked up with the horse.

"Good idea Ezra," Chris said, his back to the group as he studied the tree line. Buck and Josiah carefully helped Vin into the saddle, with Nathan checking the position of Vin’s knee before the group moved off to the encampment.

The guests had managed to pack up belongings and get the horses saddled while the others were off looking for Vin, but JD ran ahead and pulled Vin’s bedroll from his horse, spreading it out. Then he quickly unsaddled the animal so the saddle could be used as a backrest. As gently as possible, the men got Vin down off the horse Ezra led and settled against the saddle, Nathan using his own bedroll to prop Vin’s knee up, while he checked it out in better light.

The guests gathered around and watched, children at hand, making Vin very uncomfortable. His eyes skimmed over the faces of the children, smiling his appreciation to Jamie.

"Dang it Nathan!" Vin’s attention was drawn back to the medic. "Kin ya be a bit more careful there?"

"I barely touched it Vin," Nathan replied, pulling out an Ice Pack. He promptly smacked the package then shook it up, mixing the chemicals inside, and wrapped it against Vin’s bandaged knee. "Here, get some water then lay back a bit. Need to keep this knee elevated till we figure out how ta get you down from here."

"Down? You’re goin after this guy ain’t ya?" Vin looked at Chris, who was talking to Brookes and Buck.

Chris exchanged glances with Buck then looked down at Vin. "Of course we are. I want this bastard."

"Then I’m going with ya."

"Vin you can’t even walk…" Buck tried to reason.

"Don’t need ta walk. I kin ride. You’ll need me ta track him or you’ll be wanderin around this mountain till I have ta come back up here anyway ta find yer sorry asses." Vin took a swallow from the canteen Nathan had handed him. "Besides, I think I know where he might be goin’."

That even got Brookes’ attention. "Where?"

"They’s some caves back in the hills that way. Kin be tricky ta find unless ya know they’re there or stumble on em."

"What makes you think he knows they’re there then?"

"I don’t. But he was headin’ in the right direction. So it’s possible. He probably found em by accident."

Chris swore under his breath, looking down at his worn boots before looking at Nathan. "Can you patch him up enough that he can ride?"

"You ain’t thinking of listening to this fool?"

"Yes. Get him ready. We leave in 30 minutes."