A Matter of Trust

by SoDak7

“Hey Chris?” Buck said, giving Larabee’s arm a nudge with his elbow, causing the man in black’s coffee to spill just a bit. “Is that who I think it is?” he said, squinting at a man who had just rode into town.

Shooting Buck a frown and wiping at the spilled coffee, Chris glanced up in time to see a man dismount and tie his horse’s reins to the hitching post directly across from them.

“Well, is it?”

“Don’t know. Can’t tell much from lookin’ at his backside,” Chris grumbled as he watched the man in question step up on the boardwalk and look around.

“Well, I’ll be damned, it is him!” Buck exclaimed, raising up from his chair and putting an arm around the jailhouse post then pushing the brim of his hat up with his free hand.

“Captain Sam Donavan,” Chris said quietly, almost in awe, coming to stand next to his friend as they looked over at their old Army buddy across the way.

“Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go give him a welcome,” Buck said, letting his hand fly backwards into Chris’ chest, unknowingly knocking the coffee cup askew, again causing a few more spills and some muttered cursing.

Tossing aside what little coffee was left in his cup, Chris set it on a chair and walked after Buck to greet their long-lost friend.

“Sam? Sam Donavan? Captain Sam Donavan?” Buck called as he came up to the man and a huge grin spread over his face seeing the man turn to face him.

“Buck? Buck Wilmington? Why you ol’ war dog you!” The man named Captain Donavan clasped the ladies' man’s hand and Buck, being Buck, pulled him into a tight hug.

Then looking over the rogue’s shoulder, Donavan caught sight of Larabee walking up. Pushing away from Buck, but still clasping his hand, the ex-Army captain let out a whoop and brought Chris into a three way hug, which Chris allowed, because after all, there was a lot of history between the men.

“Well hell, I feel like I hit the mother lode here!” crowed the Captain, slapping the two men on their backs. “You got a decent saloon in this town? The drinks are on me boys.”

“Right this way,” Buck said, gesturing towards the local saloon and the three men headed off to collect their drinks and reminisce.

+ + + + + + +

After doing some quick catching up, Donavan proceeded to tell them he’d just been wandering south of the border and in coming back this direction, he’d stopped in Eagle Bend where while being in a poker game had heard about seven men who kept the peace in a town called Four Corners. Further inquiry had told him that the peacekeepers were headed up by a man named Chris Larabee and so he said he just had to come and find out for himself if it had been “the” Chris Larabee.

“Just can’t believe I’ve found you boys after all these years. And it don’t surprise me in the least that you are headin’ up a group of men Chris. You always were a leader. Hell, a few more years of that war and you’d a surpassed me more than likely, the Captain said, with a decisive nod of his head. “But what always kept you back, is being friends with this here big lug,” he said, as he motioned with his head over at Buck and gave him a wide grin.

Buck just laughed and told his old friend exactly what he thought of that comment.

“Seven men though. Sure seems like a lot to take care of one town.”

“We have a territory that we mark out and patrol the outlying areas,” Chris informed him. “Keeps us busy.”

“Well, when do I get to meet the other five?” Donavan asked. “Hope they know just what caliber of men they are working with,” he said with admiration in his voice.

“Oh, I try to remind them of just that at least once or twice a week,” Buck said jokingly. “There’s one up on that platform dealing out a hand of cards. That’s Ezra Standish.”

“A dandy?” the Captain asked, as he narrowed his eyes looking at the man dressed in a red coat and ruffled shirt. “Kind of a pretty boy ain’t he?”

‘”Pretty deadly,” Buck told him. “Ezra carries more artillery than you’d ever guess, plus he’s one smooth talker,” the lady’s man said, drawing out the word ‘smooth’.

“And see that young man over there at the bar talking to that lovely, luscious senorita? That’s JD Dunne; a Bat Masterson wanna-be,” Buck said, with an affectionate smile, turning in his seat to nod and wave at the pretty barmaid.

Donavan noted the smile and cocked an eyebrow at Larabee before asking him if that big smile was for the young man or for the lady.

“Buck is a mother hen,” was all Chris would supply to which the Captain gave a knowing head nod, “and he’s tryin’ to win over Inez,” he added.

“Still takin’ the young ones under your wing then and still trying to charm the ones you can’t have too, I see,” said Donavan laughing. “You’ll never change Buck, all heart and a lot of air between the ears!”

“Hey, I take offense to that!” Buck exclaimed, but the bluster was lost in a big grin. “You’ll see. She’s gettin’ weaker by the day. Yes sir,” he said, rubbing his hands together and turning back to the table.

Chris and Sam exchanged a knowing look and took another sip of whiskey.

“Okay,” Buck continued, “Josiah Sanchez is over at the church . . .”

“A preacher?” came the interrupted question.

“Ex,” Chris supplied, to which he received a questioning arch of an eyebrow. “A good man in a fight,” Chris answered and shrugged.

“Then there’s Nathan Jackson,” Buck continued. "He was a stretcher bearer in the Army and is the man responsible for keeping us from getting infections from foreign objects, mainly metal, in our bodies, if you know what I mean,” he added, with a wink. "He’s the healer in town. Feeds us all kinds of herbs and teas and dirt, but keeps us alive and I reckon that’s pretty important.”

“Sure is,” the Captain acknowledged. “Sounds like you have quite a melting pot of characters . . .”

“And the last man . . .”

“Is on patrol,” Chris interjected not really knowing why he did, but knew he didn’t want Buck putting Vin’s name out there. “He’ll be here later,” he said, giving a quick glance to Buck as the Captain downed another drink.

“Well boys, reckon I’ll get my horse taken care of and then get a room. Need a bath and a shave too,” he said, rubbing at the rough whiskers lining the handsome face. “Got a good restaurant in town?”

“Sure do,” confirmed Buck. “Just down the street from the hotel. Course Inez serves good food here too,” he said, waggling his brows.

“How do you get any work out of him Chris? Sounds to me like he never leaves this place.”

“Oh, he has his moments,” Chris said with a grin. “But you have to catch him in those few moments.”

“Very funny Chris,” Buck said with a smirk. “Just wait till you need me to save your as . . .”

“Some things never change,” said Donavan, shaking his head and laughing as he pushed himself away from the table. I’ll catch up to you two later, no doubt in here,” he said, with a wink and then moved away from the table and headed to the doors.

“What the hell was that all about?” Buck asked quietly, pulling himself closer to the table and looking at Larabee in the eyes. “You don’t think we can trust him with Vin’s name or what?”

“Just bein’ careful.”

“Hell, if you can’t trust that man, you can’t trust anybody. You ain’t forgot . . .”

“I ain’t forgot nothin’ Buck,” Chris said, his voice low and menacing, a clue for the lady’s man to back off, which he did.

“Alright Chris,” Buck said, putting his hands up. “Calm down. I understand the need for protection, just don’t think it’s a problem with ol’ Sam that‘s all,” he said, watching as Larabee pushed himself back from the table and stood up. “See ya at supper?”

Giving a nod to Buck, the black clad man downed his final drink and walked off.

“Geez, and he calls me a mother hen,” Buck groused out loud to himself.

“Whose a mother hen and who was that guy?” JD asked, coming to sit down at the table across from Buck, his mug of milk in hand.

“Nobody and Captain Sam Donavan,” the big man answered, smoothing down his moustache, turning to look at his young friend. “You want to be like someone, that there is the man to emulate.”

“Em-u-late? You been hangin’ around Ezra too much Buck. Beginnin' to sound like him. So tell me, what’s so great about this Donavan guy?” JD asked, taking a swig from his mug.

“That’s Captain Donavan to you kid, and if it weren’t for him, neither Chris or I would be here giving you pointers on how to stay alive. Saved our lives on more than one occasion. Was the leader of our platoon in the Army, good man, never backed down, and his men always came first,” Buck said, nodding his head. “He looked out for us, made sure we always had supplies and food to eat even when other companies were in dire need. He’d do anything he could to keep us going and staying somewhat healthy and alive. A true leader, yes sir.”

“So he saved Chris’ life once?” JD asked, listening and watching as Buck seemed to be reliving the past.

“He sure did, likely more than once. But one time for damn sure. It was cold and wet and we were pinned down, snipers all around and Chris took a hit, a bad one. I couldn’t get to him but ol’ Sam did. He broke cover and charged out there, hell be damned and pulled Chris out of a bad situation. Then kept him alive by usin’ his own clothes for bandages and usin’ his body to keep Chris warm and dry. We were in that situation for two days, before reinforcements came and picked off those snipers. The Captain was nearly dehydrated cuz he’d been givin’ his water to Chris to keep him alive and to keep the fever at bay. Chris owes him his life, as well as a lot of men do.

He would buck the higher officers to give us time to recoup or get some rest, or whatever. I took a hit one of the first days I was there and he never left my side. Weren’t nothing serious, but I was young and it scared me. He made sure I got treated right and got healed up properly. Told me he wanted me with him because I was bigger and made a better target . . . he was kiddin’ JD,” Buck said with a smile, noticing the young man almost choked on his drink when he heard that last statement. “He was always sayin’ stuff like that just to keep the moral up. Any young man that joined up wanted to be in his company, because we won when we fought and we fought hard to win just for him.

After the war, we just kind of scattered. He stayed in uniform and kept movin’ up in the ranks. Last Chris and I had heard he was near on bein’ a colonel. Told us he’d finally decided to call it quits and head west and do some explorin’ before there weren’t nothin’ left to explore. And he found his way here--more or less.”

“Sure hope I get to meet him,” JD said, wanting to meet the man face to face, who had saved both Chris and Buck’s lives.

“Oh, you will kid, you will. He wants to make sure you know just what a privilege it is to work with somebody like Chris and me,” Buck said, with a sniff and a look of confidence.

“Oh Buck, you are so full of it!” JD replied with a laugh, knowing in his heart that he really did feel privileged to work with all these men, but he’d never admit that to Buck.

Suppertime found the three ex-Army buddies sharing the same table and eating a specialty of Inez’s, something she had cooked especially for the guest of honor. She found the older man charming and courteous, his only fault being that he was a friend of Buck’s, but she thought, just for tonight, she could overlook that imperfection.

The Captain had been introduced to the available peacekeepers sharing a little bit of information on his two old friends to help break the ice and get the other men to relax around him somewhat. He found they were quite taken with him once they’d found out that he’d saved Wilmington and Larabee’s lives a time or two. Easy men to be with he thought, and not only once did the idea occur to him that he could be happy being a part of this group of men, but it occurred to him quite a few times during the night.

Before long, it was just back to the three old friends and then Buck left deciding to spend some quality time with Miss Effie before heading out to do his patrol, leaving Chris and Sam to talk and drink the night away.

The whiskey went down easy as the two men laughed and talked quietly, each sharing the good times and bad times of their lives over the past few years. Finally deciding it was time to call it a night, Chris suddenly came alert as Donavan sat up straight in his chair and squinted his eyes at something near the bar. Turning his head slightly Larabee saw what, or rather who, was holding the Captain’s attention.

“See that fella at the bar there Chris?” Sam said, motioning in that direction with a nod of his head. “You know who that is?” he asked, questioning Larabee without taking his eyes off the man at the bar.

“I do and he’s off limits,” the gunslinger said quietly, watching Donavan’s expression as that thought sank in.

“He’s a man wanted for murder and he just walks . . . what did you say?” the Captain asked as his eyes cut to Larabee’s face.

“He’s off limits. He‘s one of us.”

“Really,” came the reply, coming out more as a statement than a question. “You know who he is then?”

A slight head nod gave the affirmation.

“He’s got a price on his head.”

“Says he didn’t do it.”

“And you believe him?”

Another slow head nod.

“He’s worth five hundred dollars. That’s a lot of money.”

“You lookin’ to collect?”

“Not if I have to go through you first. Would I?”

“You would. And five others too.”

“You trust him then?”

“I do.”

“Well then, guess I’ll just have to make my money the old fashioned way and earn it. You wouldn’t by chance need more help around here would you?” the Captain asked of Larabee watching as the man known on the wanted poster as Vin Tanner made his way over to their table.

“Can always use another gun,” Chris said, as Vin approached their table and nodded to him, then looked at the man seated with Larabee.

Introductions were quickly made, Vin shaking the hand of the man who had saved his best friend’s life many years ago.

“Sit and have a drink with us, Mr. Tanner. It’s on me.”

“It’s Vin and I would, but I’m headed out on patrol . . . again."

Meeting Chris’ questioning look, he shrugged and said, “Ran into Buck and Miss Effie.”

With a slight frown and a shake of his head, Chris stood, said goodnight to Donavan with a promise to see him in the morning and then he and Vin headed out.

Sitting back in his chair, Captain Donavan gave a sigh and steepled his fingers. Could be tougher than I thought he mused to himself.

+ + + + + + +

One week spread into two as Captain Donavan began to assimilate himself into the group of men known as the “magnificent seven“. And he came to understand just how that moniker was earned. Two times since he’d been there he’d seen these men in action. Like a fine tuned piano they were, working in perfect timing. They were where they needed to be when they needed to be. Each covering the other’s backs making sure no man was left open to attack. As he worked along side of these men he could feel their trust in him growing---well, all but one man. Vin Tanner remained a bit aloof to him, being cordial enough, but there was something there, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on, but knowing the man wasn’t truly relaxing around him. Maybe Chris had said something to the sharpshooter about him knowing there was a bounty out on him, he wasn’t for sure, he just knew the tracker kept his distance from him whenever possible. And Chris? Well, he’d never say it to the man nor even suggest it to any of the others, but it sure seemed to him that his old friend ran a lot of interference for Mr. Tanner. The trust was there, but it wasn’t---if you could understand that, and he himself being a leader of men, could. He didn’t know if he’d ever get to that spot with the ex-bounty hunter or with Chris in respect to Vin. Chris shielded the man, whether he was conscious of it or not.

He did know, however, that he was in dire need of some money if he was to succeed in his plans. Working with the peacekeepers allotted him some money, but not much, and he was a fair hand at the poker table as long as he didn’t play at Standish’s table. There, it seemed, he lost more than he won. The man was slick, that was for sure and a good reader of human nature, which is why he never drank and played at the con man’s table at the same time. Never know if he’d tip the man off to anything and he didn’t want that to happen. If only he had these men at his disposal, if he could lead them in his cause, they could all be rich beyond their wildest dreams. But aside from the gambler, the others really didn’t seem to be interested in acquiring riches, or else Vin Tanner’s head would have been delivered on a plate long ago.

He needed to divide and conquer, but with this group of men, he wasn’t sure it would work. They were a tight bunch, but they just needed one crack in that thick veneer they had. He had an idea, it wasn’t a real good one, but his one ace in the hole was the deep friendships he had with Wilmington and especially with Larabee. These men owed him---at least that’s what he figured and with that in mind, he put his little plan in action.

+ + + + + + +

Four days passed before he got his chance at trying to upset the apple cart, so to speak. He knew Tanner was heading out for his patrol and so he just happened to be in the livery at the same time getting his own horse ready for basically nothing, since it was all just for show. But trying to carry on a conversation with the sharpshooter was like talking to a hay pile, the quiet man never revealing anything. He tried to push Vin into some sort of a standoff by telling him he knew all about him being wanted, and that maybe he should think about riding away since having a bounty on his head put everyone in danger, and he wouldn't have to worry about his friends because he could just step right into his spot--if he left. Hell, he even went so far as to accuse the tracker of hiding behind Chris' gun for protection, and in fact he told him he was putting his friend in more danger because of the reward money. He knew he'd struck a cord then, but still the man never even tossed a glare in his direction.

So when Tanner's back was turned, he'd attacked. Driving a fist into the tracker's kidney that brought him to his knees he then slammed Vin's head into the side of the stall wall knocking him slightly unconscious as well splitting his head open over his eye. Then he pulled his gun out and for a moment pointed it at the dazed and bleeding man, and then turned it on himself.

+ + + + + + +

One hour later Chris came riding into town and was met by Buck near the jail. He could tell by the look on his friend's face that something had gone down and instinctively knew it had to do with Vin because the tracker was suppose to meet him at Fred Simon's place where they would change patrols, but he never showed up. Unusual for Vin, unless something was wrong.

Reining in at the hitching post and dismounting he listened as Buck told him that they had a "situation" on their hands.

"This have anything to do with Vin?"

"It does. And Sam."

Buck watched as Larabee's body tightened and he heard a whispered "damn" come out of his mouth.

"They're both alright, just had some sort of a 'misunderstanding' to put it in Sam's words. He's sittin' here in the jail and Vin's up at Nathan's."

Bushing past Buck, Chris entered the building noticing his ex-Captain sitting on a cot in an open jail cell, white bandage around his upper left thigh.

“What happened?” he asked, the question coming out more as a demand.

“It’s okay Chris, was just a little misunderstanding, that’s all. Nothin’ bad.”

“Nothin’ bad? Buck says Vin is up at the clinic and here you are bandaged up? Tell me what happened.”

Meeting the fiery hazel eyes of his good friend, Sam told him the whole story.

“He shot you?” Chris asked incredulously, finding that fact hard to swallow.

“It wasn’t intentional I don’t believe Chris, we just got into an argument and one thing led to another and we ended up fighting and I pulled my gun out---as a warning and during the scuffle, he got hold of it and it went off.”

Shaking his head, Chris said, “I just don’t understand why Vin would attack you. It’s not like him.”

“Well, I told him that I knew he had a bounty out on . . . I know, I know Chris,” he said, putting his hands up as Larabee’s head snapped up at that statement and he found himself looking again into a pair of very angry eyes. “But, I told him it didn’t matter none to me and I told him that we needed to trust one another if I was going to become part of this group. See, I think that’s the whole problem Chris . . .”

Seeing the questioning look in Larabee’s eyes, he continued;

“Now I know you and Vin are good friends Chris, and I also know that he is kinda in second command to you and so I think my being here and wanting to join up is makin’ him . . . well, kind of jealous. I know, he’s a grown man but we've seen this kind of behavior before Chris, in the army. Hell, it happens a lot when a man is movin’ up in the ranks. Some men don’t mind but others can’t handle it because they are being replaced or shoved aside. Now, I don’t want to shove Vin aside, no sir, and I know he’s got a rightful place along side you, I just think he feels a little threatened by me is all. That’s all I’m sayin’ Chris and I ain’t sayin’ I’m right, but it’s just the way it looks to me. Hell, why else would he come after me?” he asked as he looked at the man in black and shrugged his shoulders.

Chris didn’t say a word but got up and started heading out the door. He turned around as Donavan called to him.

“Chris? Look Chris, I know he’s going to give you his own version of the story and chances are he’ll dispute all that I told you, but it’s the truth Chris. Trust me. He just sees me as a threat to your friendship and to his position as a peacekeeper here. Hell, he’ll probably tell you he’ll just move on rather than cause any more trouble. I don’t have a reason to lie to you Chris and well, maybe it should be me movin’ on. I sure didn’t foresee this comin’. And I don’t want to cause you men any trouble. You . . . you just let me know Chris, but think on this before you take his side; you and me, we’ve known each other a long time, longer than you've known Tanner and we've been through a lot and I put my life on the line more’n once for you. I ain’t sayin’ ya owe me anything Chris, just sayin’ you can at least give me the benefit of the doubt. That’s all I ask. Just think of how well you really know that man.”

Chris took a deep breath, nodded to the Captain and then walked out the door.

Shooting out of his chair when Larabee exited the building, Buck stepped in front of his oldest friend.

"What did he say?"

"Said Vin shot him."

"You think that's true?" Buck asked with a frown, trying to get a read on his friend's attitude.

"Gonna find out. He tell you what was said in the livery?"

"No, not really, just said they had a misunderstandin' and that it was an accident. You don't think it was?"

"You ever know Vin to have an accident with a gun?"

"No, can't say that I have, but then...can't remember the Captain ever havin' one either. Somethin' just ain't on the level here Chris, and I just don't know why Vin would shoot him...don't make no sense."

"You talk to Vin at all?"

"No, JD took him up to Nathan's. He was bleedin' pretty bad from that head wound and he was in a daze, didn't really look like he knew what had happened."

"Alright. I'll go talk to Vin. Meet you back here or in the saloon."

Nodding that he understood, Buck headed back into the jail house while Chris made his way over to the clinic. Seeing fresh blood spots here and there on the steps leading up to Nathan's, the man in black winced. What the hell happened Vin?

+ + + + + + +

JD and Nathan were standing outside the clinic quietly talking when Chris rounded the corner. Nodding to them both, he asked the healer about his friend.

"How's Vin?"

"Had to put a couple of stitches in over his eye, other than that, he's bruised up some, gonna be sore for a few days, but he’ll be fine, just restin’ some now.”

"He say anything?"

A shake of his head told Chris that Vin was keeping to himself.

"You JD? Did he say anything about what happened?"

Another head shake. "No, not much, just that he couldn't really remember anything. That Captain says Vin shot him. Do you think Vin would do that?"

Answering that question with a frown, Chris saw Nathan turn to lean on the railing and look out over the street.

"What are you thinkin' Nathan?" he asked, coming to stand next to the man.

"I don't know Chris, just that . . . well, I guess . . ." he gave his head a shake. "I just don't know if what Donavan says is true, I mean it could be, but, hell I don't know. Just some things ain't right."

"You got anything to shed on this Nathan, I'd like to hear it. I trust your instincts."

Turning to look Larabee in the eyes, he said, "Well, first off, Vin hands are unmarked, no skin off the knuckles, no bruises, don't look like he fought at all, least not with his fists. The bruising on his lower back, over his right kidney, blow like that could bring a man down real quick, make it easy to get an advantage over him, then the firing of the gun, I don't know Chris," he said, putting his hands out palms up. “Usually when a man fires off a gun he has some sort of gunpowder residue on his hands. And I didn't see any on Vin's--not that it couldn't have been wiped off, but . . ." he said again, giving his head another shake. "It just don't add up."

"You fix up Sam?"

"Nope, haven't seen him. Guess Buck took him to the jail and fixed him up there. JD said it was just a graze, nothin' bad at all, hardly bled."

Giving his head a decisive nod, the gunslinger murmured "alright" and then turned to JD.

"JD? Want you to go and saddle my horse and Donavan's. Just leave 'em at the livery, I'll be there to pick 'em up in a little bit."

The young man was going to open his mouth to ask a question, but seeing a warning look in the healer's eyes, he just said, "Sure thing Chris, I'll do it."

Giving him a nod, Chris then headed into the clinic, closing the door behind him.

"You think Chris is gonna leave?" JD asked as soon as Chris had left them.

"Ain't sure JD. Hope not, but knowin' how close Buck and Chris and the Captain are, it's hard to tell. Ain't easy to turn away from a man who's saved your life countless times."

"Yeah, well, I figure Vin has saved all our lives more'n once already too. That ought ta count for somethin'."

Nodding his head in agreement with the young man's statement, Nathan then shook his head and said, "Guess we'll find out in short order what's gonna happen. You best get to what Chris asked you to do, I'll go and check on the Captain." With that said, the two men went to do their duties.

+ + + + + + +

Entering the clinic, Chris looked at Vin lying on the bed. It bothered him enough to see Tanner there, but what bothered him more was that he noticed the tracker shift his look at the door and at the same time tighten his grip on his weapon, as if he expected someone else to walk in.

“It’s just me Vin,” he said softly, pulling the door closed and then grabbed a chair to bring up next to the bed.

Sitting down heavily and removing his hat, he locked eyes with Tanner. “You alright?”

A head nod for an answer and then the blue eyes looked down.

Chris could tell his friend was struggling with his emotions as he himself was, but wasn’t prepared for the apology that he heard.

“I’m sorry Chris.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong Vin, nothin’ to be sorry about.”

“He knew about the bounty, came after me in the livery, but I didn’t shoot him Chris. JD told me that he says I shot him, that it was an accident, but I didn’t do it, I never had his gun in my hand,” Vin said as he looked into Larabee’s eyes making sure the man could see that he was telling the truth.

Meeting Vin’s look and giving a slight nod, Chris looked down, closed his eyes and gave a soft sigh.

Vin watched knowing this was hard on his good friend, knowing he was contradicting everything he was sure Donavan had told Larabee. Chris had a great deal of respect for his ex-Captain and he understood that. He reckoned it just came down to his word against a high ranking official and he knew what kind of a chance he stood with that.

“Chris?” Vin called to him and swallowed hard. “Reckon maybe it’s time I moved on.” Seeing Chris’ head snap up at that, he continued, “Donavan wants to ride with you and Buck again, hell, can’t fault the man for that . . .”

“No Vin,” Chris said ever so soft. “No. We need you here. I need you here. I need to have men beside me that I can depend on, that I can trust.”

That got a questioning look and a raised eyebrow from the tracker.

"What's goin' on Chris? Don't sound like somethin' a man would say about another that saved his life long time ago."

Larabee nodded his head and let out another deep sigh. "That's just it, Vin. That happened a long time ago. We're both different men now. And although I owe him a debt, I won't pay for that with your life. That wasn't part of the plan."

Grunting in pain, Vin tried to sit up higher against the bed frame and mumbled out a curse when the ache in his back flared up.

Moving to help his friend get more comfortable, Chris arranged the pillows at Vin's back and then sat back down and prepared for the next question he knew was coming.

"Plan? What plan?" He hated to push Larabee, but there was something his best friend wasn't telling him. If he wanted to tell him fine, if he didn't . . .

"Got a letter from Travis a few weeks ago," Chris began, sitting back in his chair focusing on Vin. “Told me some things about Sam I didn't really want to hear. Said he'd taken an early retirement from the Army because of questions about some missing money. He was under suspicion for embezzling the money, but they couldn’t prove it. They figure he must have got wind of it somehow and decided to retire early. Damn it Vin, they said he’s been selling guns across the border and whiskey to the Indians.” Chris leaned forward, elbows on his knees and scrubbed his hands down his face. “They’ve had someone trailin’ him, watchin’ him but they can never catch him in the act of actually doing the selling. And they can’t do anything to him across the border.

Then when he finally came back into the states and up into this area, they planted a man in Eagle Bend who told him about Buck and I being here, figuring he just might take the bait and come this way. And he did. The Judge thought if we got in tight with him again, he might let something slip, or ask us to join him or hell, I don’t know--somethin’. Wasn’t countin’ on him knowin’ who you were and from the moment he set eyes on you Vin, I knew he could see nothin’ but the money.”

A quiet "damn" came from the listening man.

“I should have sent him away then, but he gave me his word, told me to trust him and I did. I just never expected him to pull something like this. I know what he’s trying to do . . .”

“It’s his word against mine but I could press charges, that would maybe force his hand." Vin said, looking at his friend.

“And put you up against a judge and jury? No Vin, that’s not going to happen.”

“Judge Travis . . .”

“Wouldn’t be able to oversee it," Chris interjected. "Would be a conflict of interest and you’d be thrown to the wolves. Can’t let that happen.”

“Aw hell, I really messed things up for ya. Now ya can’t prove anything and there’s no way he’s going to trust you with anythin’ now, especially if he knows you don‘t believe in him. I’m sorry Chris.”

The man in black gave his shoulders a defeated shrug. “The main thing is Vin,” he said, looking once again into his friend's face, “is that you are alive. Hell, he coulda killed you back there. He’s dangerous. Any man who’ll go to the lengths he did to prove a point is like a loaded gun. I need to get him out of here before anyone else gets hurt. I shoulda never let the Judge talk me inta this. I went along hopin’ that maybe they were all wrong about him, but I guess they weren’t.” He ended with a softly spoken “Damn.”

“I take it Buck doesn’t know about any of this?”

“No and I don’t plan on tellin’ him either. It would break his heart.”

“What about you?”

Keeping his eyes downcast, Larabee told him, “Can’t break somethin’ that’s already been busted.”

Hearing the defeat in Chris’ voice and judging by the language his body was giving off, Vin already knew this whole ordeal was taking it’s toll on the man. Larabee would never concede to his feeling being flayed, but Vin knew. Knew a man like Chris never gave his trust out to just anyone, a person had to earn it and to keep it, one had to tow a fine line. Larabee was a hard man, he saw things in black and white, it was either right or wrong, no sittin’ the middle of the fence with him. Once you were in with him, he’d give you everything he had, he’d back you with his life, but if you wronged him, went back on your word, disappointed him, or ran out on him, you had one hell of a time gettin’ back into his graces, if he’d ever let you. And this Captain Donavan had let him down. Larabee was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, hell, to even try and prove the man wasn’t who the Army thought he was, but it had blown up in his face. All because of him, of that stinkin’ bounty. Always that bounty. It was like a noose already.

Instinctively knowing the ex-bounty hunter was shouldering all the blame for this, Chris called to him.

“Vin?” he said softly and with conviction, “This ain’t your fault. One day he’ll go too far and he’ll get caught. It’s just a matter of time.”

“Don’t make it any easier,” Vin said, talking about Chris' feelings and knowing that in all probability, the Captain would meet a violent death somewhere along the line.

“No, it don’t,” Chris agreed with a shake of his head. “But at least he won’t be takin’ any of us down with him and right now, that’s my main concern.” Then standing up, putting his hat back on and nodding to the tracker, he said, “Rest and get yourself better, alright? I’ll be back later to check on you.”

“What are ya gonna do Chris?” Vin asked, concern in his voice.

“Gonna take a ride.”

“With Donavan?”

Chris didn’t say anything but the look he gave his friend meant yes.

“Watch yer back.”

Giving Vin a consenting nod, Chris went to the door, opened it and left, pulling it closed behind him.

Swinging his legs off the bed, and wincing, Vin prepared to get up, only to be taken by surprise when the clinic door opened again and he frowned when he saw Larabee looking at him, an eyebrow raised in question.

“Goin’ somewhere?”

Knowing full well, he’d been caught, Vin heaved a big sigh and laid back out on the bed, his head tilted back against the headboard. “No,” he said with a hiss as his back tightened up on him and his head began to feel like someone had smacked it with post.

“Didn’t think so.”


“It’ll be fine Vin, he ain’t gonna hurt me.”

Opening one eye and squinting at his partner, he retorted, “Who said I was worried about you gettin’ hurt?”

“Later Vin,” Chris said, shaking his head and giving his friend a quick smile and then he was gone once more.

+ + + + + + +

Running a couple of errands, Chris ended up at the jail cell, only to find Buck and Sam gone. Figuring they’d be at the saloon, that’s where he he headed next.

Entering the establishment and seeing the two men at a table, Chris walked over and nodded to them.

“Can you set a horse?” he asked of the Captain.

“Think so. What . . .?”

“Then let’s ride,” the man in black said tersely and then turned around and headed right back out the way he’d come, duster flying out behind him.

Looking at Buck and getting a non-commital shrug, Donavan got up and limped out after Chris, Buck not far behind and four other peacekeepers curiously watching what was going on.

Larabee was already mounted when Sam got outside and to the man’s credit he didn’t say a word, just climbed on his horse.

“Chris?” Buck asked, his face showing his confusion.

Larabee pulled on the brim of his hat as in giving his oldest friend a farewell salute, turned his horse and the two men rode off heading west.

"Chris isn't leavin' is he?” JD asked, coming up beside Wilmington.

“I’m not sure really what he’s doin’,” the ladies’ man said perplexed, giving his moustache a stroke.

“Perhaps Mr. Larabee knows exactly what he is doing." As the men turned to look at the con man, he said, “I think he wants to get the man out of Mr. Tanner’s proximity. Get him away from Vin,” he clarified, seeing the questioning look on JD’s face.

“Chances are he just wants to talk to the man, away from all of us, find out what’s been going on. He’ll be alright,” Josiah added, looking down the now empty street.

“Course he’ll be alright, why wouldn’t he be alright? Cap wouldn’t do nothin’ to Chris,” Buck said, trying to convince his comrades as well as himself.

“Yeah, but did you think he’d hurt Vin?” Nathan asked.

Stepping down off the boardwalk and heading toward the livery, the men heard something about “Wouldn’t hurt to follow along . . .” the rest being lost as Buck walked further away from them.

“This whole thing smells of some kind of a con or scam or some such thing,” the gambler said to no one in particular.

“Well, you’d be the one to know,” Nathan told him, “but I’d have to agree with you. Something ain’t right here.”

“Maybe we should go out after them,” JD said, as they watched Buck ride out of the livery and head west.

“And who would explain to Mr. Larabee as to why we were tailing him like some lost sheep looking for their shepard? Not I, Mr. Dunne. I appreciate living far too much to put my life in jeopardy like that.”

“Josiah? Nathan?” the young man asked of the other two men standing with him.

“Not me, I have my hands full lookin’ after Vin. Don’t want nothin’ more to happen to him on my watch. Ain’t gonna explain that to Chris, no sir,” he said as he waved his hand in the air and began walking back to the clinic to check on the tracker.

Putting his hand on JD’s shoulder and giving it a squeeze, the ex-preacher told the young man to have faith in their friend's decisions and to just be around in case Buck needed to talk when he got back.

JD slapped the hitching post with his hand and retreated into the saloon with his two friends. He hated waiting, but it looked like that was what he was going to have to do and he would be there for Buck if he was needed. He could always do that.

+ + + + + + +

Riding straight for nearly half an hour, Donavan finally yelled at Larabee to stop. His leg was paining him and he needed to find out just what was going on.

"Chris, wait a minute. My leg's killin' me. Need to stop and rest for a few minutes. Where the hell we goin' anyway, the Captain said as he massaged his sore leg.

Chris looked at him and then stared off in the distance.

"You head to them mountains," Larabee said, pointing out ahead of him, "and there's a trail between the two biggest ones. It'll take you out of our territory," he added, giving Donavan a pointed look.

Sighing heavily, the ex-Army Captain leaned on the saddle horn. "Guess you're runnin' me outta town huh? Look Chris, if this is about what happened to Tanner . . ."

"If you were any other man, you'd be dead. Either by Vin's hand or by mine. I owe you for saving my life and for that, I'm giving you yours now."


"Just ride away, Sam. Leave these parts and don't come back."

"You can take the word of a man wanted for murder, but you can't take mine?"

"It's a matter of trust. And I trust Vin."

Nodding his head and knowing by the firm voice and look on Larabee's face, he knew it wouldn't do any good to plead his case, Chris was on to him. So looking to the distant mountains, Sam Donavan gathered up his reins and then looked over at Larabee. "Anything else you want to say?"

"Should there be?" came the answer as the two men eyed each other.

A pregant silence followed as the two men weighed their thoughts.

"No I guess not," the Captain finally answered. "Just hate to leave like this, is all."

"You leave as a friend, but if you come back, it'll be as an enemy," Chris said and then added softly, "It's the way it has to be."

"I understand," Sam said with a nod of his head. "You'd a made one hell of an officer Chris," Donavan told him with admiration in his voice. "Maybe if you would have still been there things would have turned out differently . . ."

"We make our own beds, Captain."

Looking into the gunslinger's eyes, there was no doubt in his mind that Larabee had heard about his sordid past. And realizing now that Chris could have turned him in to stand trial, he knew the man was giving him his chance at freedom. He was giving him his life.

"We leave as friends then," Sam said, holding out his hand.

Taking the offered hand, they bid their farewell to each other. Chris watched a part of his life disappear in the puffs of dust left by the retreating horse. Breathing in a deep sigh, he turned his mount and headed back to town. He didn't have to go far before running into Buck.

"Figured you'd be around."

"He's leavin' then."


"Wanna tell me what's goin' on."

"He just decided it was time to go."

"Un huh, and this comes on the heels of Vin getting hurt. Do I look that dumb? I know something was goin' on."

"Buck," the name coming out almost as a plea.

Taking a hold of Larabee's reins and pulling them both to a stop, the big man said softly, "Chris, he's my friend too. If you know somethin', it ain't right to keep it from me. I'd tell you," he added, seeing that the man was beginning to cave.

Giving Buck a small tight nod and murmuring "alright", Chris pulled the letter Travis had written him out of his duster pocket and handed it to the ladies' man. The ride back to town was a quiet one.

+ + + + + + +

Hearing the sound of spurs, Vin looked up as Chris rounded the corner of the clinic.

"How ya feelin'?" Chris asked, coming to lean against the second floor railing across from his seated friend.

Squinting at the man in black, Vin gave a grin and said, "Better. Least now there are only two of ya."

Seeing the lips quirk into a half grin, Vin then asked, "How 'bout you?"

"His choice, he has to live with it," Chris said with a frown and a shoulder shrug.

Realizing Larabee has skirted his question, he didn't press. Chris would talk about it when he felt like it, if he felt like it. He'd seen him ride out of town with the Captain and truth be told, he wasn't for sure what his friend was thinking or doing. Nathan had assured him, though, that Buck was hot on the trail, so at least Larabee wasn't out there alone. The man had a tough decision to make and obviously he'd made one.

"You let him go?"

"I let him live," Chris said quietly and then added, "It came with a warning though."

Giving a slight nod, Vin could almost imagine his friend's warning. If Donavan was smart, he'd heed it too.

"You'd better get some more rest . . .can't use a sharpshooter who's seein' double." He turned to leave, but stopped when he heard Vin's quiet voice calling to him.


He tuned around and faced the tracker.

"You ever feel like we are jest all hidin' behind one another, usin' each other's guns as a reason to stay here?"

Pursing his lips, Chris pondered that question for a moment. Damn, but the man came up with some tough ones, no doubt this seed planted by something Donavan had said to him in the livery.

"What I think Vin, is that we are here because we feel safe with each other, that it's a matter of trusting one another. We know our backs are being watched, know we have backup and whether or not that's just using each another, I ain't sure. I can tell you though, if that's what you call being used, I can live with it."

Watching as his friend digested what he just said, Chris waited for the nod of acknowlegement or for another question. Meeting the blue eyes, he got the nod and then he laughed. "Vin," he said, "I'm the one standing over here."

"Hell," the tracker said, giving Larabee a squint. "One cowboy's bad enough, havin' two of ya around is downright intolerable."

That got a raised eyebrow and a big grin from the man in black and it was something Vin was glad to see. It was a good sign and he knew they would all be okay. They had each other.