by Cmurph

This is for Krista who keeps bugging me to submit my stories for others again. I don´t think I´ve taken anything from anyone on this other than the general seven characters we´re all borrowing and adding a few of my own. If I tread on any toes, I apologize – it was not done knowingly.

I know nothing about medicine, nothing about explosives, nothing about guns. Any errors made in those arenas are due to insufficient knowledge and an abundance of laziness on my part to do research for something that´s supposed to be fun. (Although when writing fiction for the Sharpe series Krista gave me a map of France so I could get distances and names right…but that´s another story. Anyone interested in Sharpe fiction – and you know who you are – should drop me a line and I´ll e-mail them to you. I doubt there´s as much of a fan base out there for that as there is for this.)

Everyone is free to explore this idea or any of the characters. The more the merrier. Hope you enjoy.

“Mr. Jackson?”

“I´m out.”

“That´s five dollars to you, Mr. Dunne.”

“I know, I know.”

“Hell, he ain´t got anythin´. He´s just tryin´ to figure out if he can bluff his way through.”

“Shut up, Buck. Let me think.”

“The game is poker, my young friend, not chess. Extended delay in playing a hand is ill-advised.”

“I´m out.”

“Big surprise. Count me in. You wanna bluff, kid, you gotta act more confident than that.”

“Mr. Larabee?”

“I was waitin´ for more pearls of wisdom from the card shark here. Yeah, I´m in.”

“Mr. Tanner?”

“Mr. Tanner?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah, I´ll take two.”

“I´ve already given you three Mr. Tanner. The store is closed. I presume that your lack of interest in the game is rivaled only by your lack of sufficient cards of substance to remain in play. I would further recommend against bluffing at this point.”

Vin flashed a quick smile and threw his cards in, his gaze returning lazily towards the saloon doors.

“Here is your five dollars, Mr. Sanchez, and I´ll raise you five more.”

“When it comes to poker, Ezra, you´re the devil himself. I´m out.”

“Mr. Wilmington? Care to dance with the devil?”

“Ain´t scared´a him, ain´t scared´a you, Ez.”

“I´ll take that as an affirmative. Mr. Larabee?”

“I ain´t scared of the devil, Ez, but when it comes to cards I have a healthy respect for you. Think I´ll go stretch my legs.”

Larabee rose slowly, throwing his cards onto the table and shooting a glance towards his friend.

“Mind some company?” Vin asked.

Chris tipped his hat in a casual reply, making his way towards the saloon doors as the tracker rose to follow.

Buck watched the two men walk through the doors, then looked around the table at the remaining Regulators with a grin.

“Ezra, I´ll bet you ten dollars here and now that we will never in our lives hear Vin say, ‘Hey, Chris, I need to get some air. How about us takin´ a walk.´”

“I accept. Never say never, Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra drawled lazily.

Josiah´s deep laugh rumbled across the table as he nodded in agreement.

“Ain´t a one of us hasn´t noticed Vin gazing out that door for the past two hours. But he´s gotta wait until Chris makes the first move to go.”

“It ain´t like we´re gonna be offended,” J.D. chimed in, shaking his head.

“As to the task at hand, Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra urged, “shall we say an even $20?”

“Call. Full house. Queens over Jacks.”

“And me without a single figure of royalty…”


“But oh, what an amazing collection of diamonds, untarnished by even the hint of a different suit.”

“Damn it, Ez!” “According to Mr. Sanchez that´s well within my powers.”

+ + + + + + +

“So you lookin´ to head out?” asked Chris as the two friends walked slowly through the quiet town.

“Thinkin´ on it,” Vin answered.

“You don´t have to ask permission you know. You wanna go, just let us know when to expect you back. We all respect your need to be alone.”

Vin stopped and turned to Chris, facing him as they stood in the middle of Main Street. He shook his head and continued walking, his head bowed.

“It ain´t bein´ alone, Chris. I´ve had enough bein´ alone to last me a lifetime. I know that´s what y´all think. Why I leave. But I´ve done “bein´ alone” in spades and I can´t say I´m missin´ it.”

“Then what is it?” Chris asked patiently, trying hard to understand the man beside him.

“It´s more like, like feelin´ so full up. Like I ate too much and I can´t eat no more ‘fore I work some of it off.”

Chris shook his head, not understanding. He motioned to the bench outside the livery they had approached at the end of town and sat down. Vin followed him, but stopped short, preferring to pace the length of the bench as he struggled to find the words.

“I´ve seen so much, Chris,” he said in a low voice choked with emotion. “So much shit. I´ve known men…Josiah jokin´ in there about Ez bein´ the devil at poker… hell, Chris, I´ve known men´d do things make the devil blush. Seen things, been a part of things that left me feelin´ empty inside. Bein´ here with you, the others, it´s like givin´ a starvin´ man a big meal – he eats it all and gets sick. As much as he needs that food, much as he´d die without it, he can´t take it in all at once.”

“Still seems to me like you´re talkin´ about people crowdin´ you,” Chris reasoned.

“I know I ain´t makin´ sense,” Vin said in frustration.

“Hell, Vin, you ‘n´ me ain´t exactly known for talkin´.”

Vin paced in silence, his face a mask of frustrated concentration.

“It ain´t that I don´t want the company. It´s more like I don´t feel…it don´t seem right…it ain´t meant for me to feel that good. It´s wrong somehow. Like Ezra chewin´ tobacco or Buck leadin´ a prayer meetin´. Me and feelin´ so full up, so safe – it don´t fit.”

“That´s the most ridicu…” Chris began, but saw Vin´s face taut with emotion and instead asked quietly, “You think maybe you don´t trust feelin´ good? Like you´re afraid to think the hard life you had before isn´t just around the corner again?”

Vin shook his head, staring hard at the ground as if the answer was there.

“That thought don´t scare me, Chris. It´s as natural as breathin´.”

Chris´ jaw tightened at the painful resignation in his friend´s voice, at the thought of one so young being that sure of life´s injustices. He thought, tried again.

“You tryin´ to say you feel wrong about feelin´ good?”

Vin´s head shot up.

“Is this all about Kincaid? About feelin´ guilty your name still has his blood on it?” asked Chris. “´Cause you know me and the boys believe you´re innocent. Yates proved that – and Eli Joe would´ve if I hadn´t shot ‘im. You´re intent on blamin´ someone, blame me for that.”

“Hardly blame a man for savin´ my life,” Vin answered.

“But you blame yourself for the death of a man you never even knew?”

“Damn it, Chris, you don´t understand!” Vin exploded with an uncharacteristic savagery that surprised the gunslinger. “It ain´t Kincaid, it ain´t Eli Joe, it ain´t Tascosa or the law – it´s knowin´ there´s a family out there – a wife, kids maybe, who think their daddy was killed by a man named Vin Tanner. They´re out there somewheres livin´ and believin´ that I caused their grief. I ain´t got much, Chris. Hell, all´s I got is my name. And the idea that my name is akin to misery in some household is more´n I can stomach sometimes.”

Chris watched his friend drop beside him in resignation. Vin lowered his head into his hands, his shoulders slumped forward, defeated. Larabee had witnessed the greatest burst of emotion he had ever seen in Tanner, felt for the first time a hint of the weight the young man carried on his shoulders. It was an eternal cause of wonderment to him that one who had suffered so much, seen so much and who was so resigned to the ill-fortunes of fate, could still feel such a heavy weight upon his soul for an action in which he was so completely blameless.

Yet blameless or not, he had watched how the injustice of the accusation ate away at the tracker from the day Vin had told him the story – almost two years ago now. It affected the way he worked, the way he interacted with the others, with women. The others insisted on attributing Vin´s characteristic slouch to his bad back, but Chris had seen the man face serious injury without betraying the affliction even to Nathan. It was the weight of Jess Kincaid that bore down on him, not any physical ailment.

How long had he known Vin? How much had they been through together? And how long had it taken the man to finally feel confident enough in their friendship to expose the raw wound that bled his soul?

The idea that the thoughts of people miles away, whom Vin had never met and by all likelihood would never meet, could torment him so…

Chris stood and faced the darkness beyond the town, his back to his friend.

“I´ll go with you,” he said finally.

Vin´s head rose slowly. He turned to look back at the saloon, light from its gas lamps flickering ghostly shadows on the empty streets, the familiar voices carrying in the still night.

“They won´t understand,” Vin answered, nodding towards town.

Chris turned to face him, enveloped in the dark of a moonless night.

“They don´t have to.”

+ + + + + + +

“What the hell are you talkin´ about, Chris?” Buck, hands on hips, demanded of his friend as Larabee and Tanner packed their saddlebags.

Behind Wilmington stood the rest of the Regulators in similar stances of disbelief.

“I´m done talkin´. I´ll wire you when we get there,” Larabee answered curtly, cinching the saddle.

“That´s it,” Buck said, exasperated, “Just ‘We´re off to Tascosa, wire you when we get there.´ No details, no explanation.”

“Vin – you can´t be doin´ this, not really,” J.D. pleaded.

“What do you possibly perceive to be gained by turning yourself in to the authorities in Tascosa?” asked Ezra. “I believe we have each, at some point during our brief association, assured you we hold no credence in the accusations leveled against you in that town.”

“It ain´t about you, Ezra,” Vin answered tiredly.

“The hell it ain´t,” Buck argued. “You think goin´ there to get your neck stretched only affects you? You ain´t alone anymore, kid, you ain´t got the luxury of makin´ those decisions without talkin´ to us.”

“He talked to me,” Chris said, drilling Buck with deadly eyes that invited no discussion.

“No way, Chris,” Buck fumed, ignoring him. “You ain´t pullin´ that shit with me. This ain´t for you to decide either…”

“This isn´t for any of us to decide except Vin,” Josiah said quietly.

Buck, Ezra and J.D. turned to face the preacher as he stood solemnly next to Nathan. The healer glanced at Josiah, then down at the ground before him.

“What´re you sayin´, preacher?” Buck snapped, “You sidin´ with them on this? You anxious to see Vin hang?”

Josiah pulled himself to his full height, his eyes boring down on Buck as he worked to control his anger.

“You´re upset with all this, Buck, so I´m gonna pretend for both our sakes you didn´t say that.”

Buck looked away, his face burning in anger and shame. Josiah looked at the men standing about him, then at Vin.

“I reckon every man has a right to face his own demons in his own time. Brother Vin has reached a point in his life where the past has threatened to overwhelm him. The fear of Tascosa and all its dangers has become easier to face than a future lived with a wounded soul.”


“Buck…” J.D. called after Wilmington as the man stalked off in anger.


“I know, J.D.,” Vin assured him, and nodded at him to follow after Buck.

Chris sat on his horse, pointed out of town, waiting for Vin to join him. Larabee had said his piece. Vin had confided in him, had made his decision, it was time to go. For the man in black, it was that simple. And yet, he knew if Tanner had made the decision without him, had not accepted his offer to go along, Buck´s tirade would´ve paled in comparison to his own.

Ezra watched Buck storm into the saloon, then turned to face Vin. He extended his hand to Vin, shook it.

“Vin,” he said, his eyes squinting up at Tanner, into the sun, his throat stinging from the emotion he struggled to suppress. “I don´t pretend to… I can only imagine…I want it to be clear…” Ezra released Vin´s hand, cleared his throat, then worked to replace the face of anguish with the smiling façade of the professional gambler.

“You owe me $10, Mr. Tanner,” he said finally. “I aim to collect that debt upon your return.”

Vin smiled gratefully, then reached down to clasp the gambler´s hand once more. “Wish you was as bad at poker as you are at sayin´ goodbye, Ezra,” he said.

“I´ve never had so much to lose,” Ezra answered, then turned towards the saloon.

“I suppose I ain´t gonna be able to talk you into takin´ me along,” said Nathan. “Can´t imagine why you´d need me – just ‘cause you´re walkin´ into a town fulla people ready to shoot you on sight.”

“Town here needs ya more, Nathan, you know that,” Vin answered. “´Sides, mindin´ after me only frustrates ya.”

“It´s been a small price to pay for bein´ alive,” Nathan answered as he, too, shook the tracker´s hand and turned to leave.

“Josiah, I´m obliged,” Vin said, as he guided his horse passed the preacher.

Sanchez nodded.

“Go with God, Brother,” he answered, standing alone in the street. The preacher repeated the words in a whispered prayer, then held his hand to his eyes and watched the riders until they were out of sight.

+ + + + + + +

They had ridden hard that day, both anxious to put the unpleasantness of leaving Four Corners, and their friends, behind them. Now they sat beside the fire watching the flames devour the remnants of their supper.

“They´re all gonna be pretty upset with you I reckon,” Vin drawled.

“Me? What makes you think there´ll be anything left to say to me once they get through with you?” asked Chris.

“Hell, Chris, you know what I mean… If things don´t work out.”

Chris set down his cup of coffee and looked across the fire at Vin.

“I backed your play on this because you let me come along,” Chris said evenly. “But don´t you think for a minute I´m plannin´ on us just ridin´ into Tascosa so you can set things straight with Kincaid´s family. If he even has family left in Tascosa. We´re doin´ this, but we´re doin´ it my way or I swear I´ll put a bullet in you myself and drag your carcass back to Four Corners and take my chances with Nathan.”

“If you can´t do this, Chris…”

“I can do it, Vin, and I will do it, but on my terms.”

“When did it stop bein´ my life?” Vin asked defensively.

“Buck was right. You ain´t got that luxury anymore.”

“But back in town you said…”

“I said nothin´ ‘cause that´s what you wanted. Out here I´m sayin´ we´re doin´ this my way.”

“You could´a told me that back in town and saved me the trouble of totin´ you this far!” Vin shouted.

“Damn it, Vin, you and I both know how it is. But you want to hear it? You have to hear it? ‘Cause so help me Vin I´ll give you chapter and verse right here of how it stands between us if that´s what it´s gonna take.”

Vin stared hard at his friend, but Larabee´s steely gaze was unwavering. He knew what Larabee was talking about, what it meant to Chris to have found this friendship. What it meant to him. He would not embarrass Larabee by making the man put it into words.

“So what´s your idea?” Vin asked finally.

“I´m ridin´ into Tascosa alone, askin´ around about Kincaid while you wait outside town. I find out where his family is, and we go there together after I get the lay of the land. That don´t suit you we head back to Four Corners. Together. And this thing dies right here and now.”

Vin looked into the fire, thought about the friendships he had formed with Chris, with the others, then thought about the nights he spent haunted by the memory of Jesse Kincaid. He nodded to the man in black, pulled his hat down over his eyes, and leaned back onto his bedroll. He let several minutes pass, then slit open one eye, looking towards Larabee. Chris hadn´t moved, but sat there holding his coffee, watching Vin.

“What?” Tanner asked.

“You gonna stay put or do I have to keep a watch on you all night to be sure you don´t sneak out on me in the mornin´?”

“Damn, you´re a suspicious cuss,” Vin swore.

“Be a lot easier on both of us you give me your word right now,” Chris offered.

“See ya in the mornin´ Cowboy,” Vin said, closing his eyes again.

“G´night, Vin.”

+ + + + + + +

Jefferson Tate watched his rider come in at a steady gallop. His teeth ground at a willow twig, his arms crossed before him, while the toe of a dusty boot pried at a rock in the hard ground. The voices of his brother Whitcomb and the two hired men he had picked up in Stoverville drifted to him on a morning breeze together with the smell of coffee. He smiled at Whit, watching the boy rub the handles of his ivory-handled, two-gun rig. The kid fancied himself a gunfighter.

They had done the bank job in Tassett four days ago and Tate anticipated good news from his rider that the posse had finally turned back.

Not much of a law force in Tassett. Not much of a bank, either for that matter, but it was enough to keep this group of men together with a promise of more to come. They worked well together – in and out, quick – not even a shot fired. Dynamite was the way to go, that´s for sure. Look the bank over in the daytime, come back at night to blow the safe. He had done his time at Rock Island learning the hard way that a day job was too risky nowadays. Too many ex-gunfighters taking jobs as lawmen.

Time was, you had these do-gooders from out East trying to “keep the peace.” Didn´t know their gun from a buggy whip and lived by their high ideals of what the West should be. Now you got all these gunfighters feeling displaced. The wild West was dying and living by a gun was getting harder to do. The men who had only that one rare talent in life – the ability to shoot to kill – were all turning to the law now. Men who knew how to shoot, and weren´t afraid to. Men who didn´t follow a law book so close. And the towns were happy to have them. Long as they kept the peace, kept out the bad element, folks would look the other way if a few bullets found their way into the wrong piece of dirt drifter coming through their town.

“Clean as a whistle, Jeff,” Riley said as he dropped down from his horse. Whit and the others came over with a cup of coffee for him.

“What´s next?” asked his explosives man, Cole.

“We skip the next town. Might´a gotten a wire on us from Tassett. I don´t want no federal marshall figurin´ out which direction we´re headin´ this quick,” Tate answered.

“I don´t care what town we hit, long as it´s a bigger take. We proved the system works. No more´a this penny ante shit,” said Cole.

“We keep our direction varied, they can´t find a pattern, we´re bound to do well no matter where we head,” said Tate. “I want one more trial run in a place that won´t give us any trouble. Next town after, about two day´s ride. It´s ours. Then we look for the big score.”

+ + + + + + +

“Damn it, J.D. you got all these posters mixed up,” Buck complained, spreading Wanted posters across the sheriff´s desk.

“They ain´t IN any order – they´re just faces, Buck,” J.D. argued.

“And we´re outta coffee again. Where´s Josiah?”

“On patrol, you know that. And Inez said she´d have Maggie send some coffee over in a bit.”

“I thought Ezra was on patrol? Or is he still sleepin´ off last night? Chris may´ve put up with that shit but you can bet I´m not gonna…”

“You? Who´s the sheriff here, anyway?”

“Don´t start pullin´ that ‘official sheriff´ crap with me. You know as well as I do that…”

“Good morning, gentlemen,” Ezra greeted as he came through the door.

“Mornin´? It´s 11 a.m., Ezra. Where you been?” Buck questioned.

“I was engaged in patrolling our fair hamlet until the early hours of the morning, Mr. Wilmington. As per our arrangements yesterday,” Ezra answered curtly. “Where, pray tell, were you? Or should I be asking Miss Maggie?”

“Ain´t none of your business, Ezra,” Buck shot back.

“Oh, I see. My life is to be a posted itinerary, but your clandestine trysts are off the record?”

“Take it easy, Ezra,” J.D. said, resting his hand on the gambler´s arm.

“Unhand me, Mr. Dunne.”

“Don´t take your beef out on the kid. You wanna spar with me, we can start right now!”

“Buck…” J.D. said, turning towards the lady´s man, finding himself standing uncomfortably between the two Regulators who were now staring each other down with equally icy glares.

“Brother Ezra, Brother Buck,” Josiah said calmly as he walked into the room to find the threatening tableau before him. “You can call each other out and swap lead in the middle of the street, but Vin will still be on the trail to Tascosa.”

Both men turned to look at Josiah, disarmed by the truth of the preacher´s words, acknowledging the origin of their displaced anger.

“Sorry, Ezra,” Buck apologized reluctantly.

“Mr. Sanchez is correct,” Ezra admitted. “I believe we are all preoccupied by the contemplation of Mr. Tanner´s quest. I apologize also.”

“Vin´d be right disappointed in us tearin´ into each other like this,” J.D. said humbly.

“I don´t give a shit what Vin thinks about us,” Buck said, perching on the edge of the desk.

“Aw, Buck, you don´t mean that,” said J.D.

“Hell I don´t!” Buck answered. “We can see how much thought he gave to all of us by leavin´.”

“He´s been thinking about us every day since we joined in protecting this town,” said Josiah. “Thinking on how he´s putting us in danger by staying.”

“So he´s got a bounty on his head,” Buck sneered. “There ain´t a one of us here – ‘cept maybe J.D. – that don´t have enemies around somewhere´d be happy to put a bullet in us.”

“What´a ya mean, ‘cept J.D.?” Dunne asked defensively.

“It was more my understanding,” Ezra interrupted, ignoring the boy, “as much as I was allowed to garner from what little information we were provided upon their departure, that Mr. Tanner felt this journey was integral in finding a peace within himself. I would therefore tend to agree with Mr. Wilmington that we played a minor role in his decision.”

“We can stand here and argue Vin´s decision all we want, but it won´t change the fact that none of us here knows how it feels to live with a price on our heads – especially for a death we´re innocent of – and that no matter how boldly we talk,” Josiah said, turning to Buck, “we´d each feel a lot better if we had gone along to protect him.”

“Yeah, well,” said Buck, hitching a thumb in his gunbelt. “All I´m thinkin´ is it was just damn selfish‘a them to leave all this work to us ‘cause Vin´s got a sudden attack‘a conscience.”

“You keep tellin´ ‘em son,” Josiah smiled, looking at the others.

+ + + + + + +

“What´s the next town?” Chris asked as Vin made coffee for the noon meal. At each town Chris would drift in ahead, check out the local law, testing the waters. Sometimes he would return to usher Vin in for a good meal and a bath, other times they´d skirt the town limits to avoid contact with its citizenry.

“Little place – Poteet,” Vin answered. “´Bout half again from there to Tascosa.”

“That close?”

Vin nodded, unwrapping jerky and hardtack.

“I figure we´ll be in Poteet late. I´ll just come in with ya.”

“You figure wrong,” Chris argued. “You wait outside as always.”

“Ain´t gonna be no one around at night – leastways it´d be too dark to see me clear. I´ll be alright.”

“This close to Tascosa you figure I´m just gonna start gettin´ careless?”

Vin sighed.

“I don´t even think they got law in Poteet, Chris.”

“Don´t take law, does it? Just a man with a gun who knows how much you´re worth to folks a stone´s throw away.”

“I should´a taken Buck,” Vin mumbled. “At least I´da had some fun along the way.”

“Uh huh. Wake up with a bullet between your eyes while Buck beds some filly two doors away. Laugh your head off six feet under.”

“He ain´t that bad, Chris,” Vin smiled despite himself.

“Look,” said Chris, rubbing the back of his neck, “we´ll see what time it is when we reach Poteet. If it looks like you say, we can water the horses, take a look around.”

“Yee hah,” Vin droned sarcastically.

“Don´t get smart with me, Tanner. Offer still stands to shoot ya.”

“I ain´t goin´ back, Chris.”

“Didn´t say anythin´ about takin´ ya back.”

+ + + + + + +

“When´d Chris say we should be hearin´ from him?” Buck asked as he sat with Ezra downing the lion´s share of a midnight bottle in the saloon.

“I was under the impression you were no longer concerned after Mr. Tanner´s welfare,” Ezra replied.

“I ain´t. Just wanna know when to expect some more help around here again. These double shifts are hell on a man´s love life.”

“I see,” Ezra smiled. “Well, I have found myself ciphering upon the itinerary of Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner from time to time, and by my closest calculations, I would anticipate word of their arrival in Tascosa the day after tomorrow.”

“Yeah, yeah, that´s about what I figured.”

“Why then, did you ask me?”

Buck ignored the question, staring absently at the empty shot glass he turned slowly in his hand. The whiskey had begun to work on him.

Ezra picked up the bottle, his eyes questioning. Wilmington nodded, held the shot glass up to be filled, then downed the liquor in a swallow.

“Ez?” he asked blearily.

“Why do you and your compatriots insist on addressing me by that moniker?” Standish asked in exasperation. Wilmington looked back at him with a vacant stare. The gambler sighed, shaking his head.

“Yes, Mr. Wilmington?”

“´sposin´ it were you had that bounty on your head? Would you go back to Tascosa?”

“I have no idea what my actions would be were I to find myself in Mr. Tanner´s situation.”

“Naw, I, I know, but just ‘sposin?”

Ezra set down the deck of cards he had been shuffling, poured himself a drink and looked at Buck.

“Well, if I were to ´spose,” he drawled sarcastically, “I would have to say, given my predilection towards self-preservation, that I would not.”

“Right, right,” Buck nodded in agreement. “That´s what I´m thinkin´. Why would I ride myself into a noose?”


“Right, right,” Buck said again, pouring himself another whiskey. “So why´s he doin´ it? Vin, I mean?”

“I gathered we were still speaking of Mr. Tanner,” Ezra smirked, slowly pulling the bottle of whiskey beyond Buck´s reach.

“If you wouldn´t, and I wouldn´t, but he is, does that make us wrong, or him?”

“I don´t believe it is a question of right or wrong. The cause and effect of each man´s life experiences combine to produce an individual psyche which reacts…”

“Damn, Ezra!” Buck exclaimed. “What´re you made of anyway? Sittin´ here playin´ at words when I´m askin´ you how we´re gonna clear it in our minds that we ain´t never gonna see Vin again.”

“I refuse to accept that possibility.”

“Just how you figure we´re gonna avoid it?”

“Mr. Larabee is quite resourceful. And determined. I have no doubt he will not allow himself to be deterred in returning Mr. Tanner unharmed.”

“Maybe Chris don´t know everything this time,” Buck argued. “Maybe he´s bitten off more´n he can chew. Maybe this time it ain´t up to just the two of ‘em when it´s somethin´ that´s gonna affect us all.”

“Maybe, despite their insistence to the contrary, they could use some assistance?” Ezra offered.

“Chris´d kill anyone who butted in,” Buck mused. “And Vin – it´d kill him if anyone got hurt takin´ on his trouble.”

“The idea would be to prevent injury to any party,” Ezra reasoned. “Of course, anyone endeavoring to ‘butt in´ as you say, would require the blessing of the others involved.”

Not if they don´t know about it, Buck thought to himself.

+ + + + + + +

“Safe´s ready,” Cole whispered to Jefferson Tate. “We clear outside?”

Tate looked out the bank window to see the dark shadow of his brother standing guard across the street. The night was perfect – the moon, just beginning its new phase, had shed little light when he had worked the lock to the bank´s back door. Now his men awaited the explosion. Cole prepared the fuse while Tate crossed quickly to the window to motion to the others to prepare to take cover.

“Ain´t much of a bank,” Cole complained as he inserted the fuse into the dynamite.

“I told you. Next time,” Tate assured him.

“Next town we can…wait.” Tate stopped short as he saw Whit nod to the hired men, then motion towards two figures approaching the end of the street cautiously.

Damn! What´s this? he thought as he saw guns drawn by Riley and Whit.

“We got trouble,” Tate hissed to Cole.

“Hell, I´m blowin´ it,” Cole whispered back.

“No – wait,” Tate insisted.

“Tell ‘em it´s goin´!” Cole shouted, ignoring the man as he lit the fuse and ran for the door, leaving the extra dynamite he had brought forgotten next to the safe.

“Damn you Cole!” Tate shouted following after him as the night erupted in gun fire. Bullets flew as Tate worked through the confusion surrounding him, trying to figure who had discovered them, where they were shooting from. He saw his brother running after him, then watched in horror as Whit turned back, ducking into the bank with a man in close pursuit.

“Whit! No!” he shouted after him. “The fuse is lit. No!”

His last words were lost as the safe exploded, igniting the dynamite beside it in a thunder of powder and fire just as his brother´s pursuer reached the door of the bank. He saw the man thrown back as glass and wood flew through the air about him.

Tate froze as he watched his brother stumble back through the door of the bank, his face and arms bloody, his clothes burning.

“Whit! Help Whit!” he shouted to his men, but Cole was already on his horse speeding out of town with Riley on the saddle behind him. The two hired men lay face down in the middle of the street, dead from the stranger´s bullets.

Tate ran to his brother, using his own body to snuff out the flames that enveloped him, his screams mingled with the cries of agony coming from Whit.

The town was alive now, people running for water, running with guns drawn. He felt rough hands upon him, saw hands reaching for his brother and he shouted with fury at them.

“Leave ‘im be! Leave ‘im be! God, no, he´s dyin´!”

He saw one of the strangers who had walked into town – the ones who had started all this – kneeling beside his partner, shouting for a doctor. Tate looked down and felt the life drain from Whit´s body. Sanity and reason left him as his mind gave itself over to a blind rage. He pulled the second gun from Whit´s holster and began to fire. He saw his horse straining against its tether in the hands of one of the townspeople. A shot, and the man was down. Tate took the reins of his horse firmly in his own grasp as he swung into the saddle.

Jefferson Tate turned once to find the men who had caused his brother´s death, but the two strangers were surrounded now. There was no clear shot, no time to wait, no chance to mourn. He raced from town, his mind already filled with thoughts of revenge against those men, this town, the citizens of Poteet.

Larabee held Vin in his arms as the townspeople crowded about him. He shouted for help, for a doctor, but the citizens of Poteet were busy putting out the fire, sorting through the bodies that lay sprawled before the bank.

“There´s two of ‘em here!” someone shouted.

“They weren´t part of it – just put their horses up with me,” said the man from the livery that Chris and Vin had talked to moments before.

“Three of ‘em got away,” came a voice from the end of the street.

“Three of ‘em didn´t,” said another close to Chris.

“A doctor,” Chris pleaded again to the man beside him. “Where´s the doctor?”

“Ain´t got one, mister,” the man said shaking his head sadly, looking down at Vin. “He don´t look good.”

Chris looked down at Vin. Despite the flash burns on his face and neck, Vin looked pale as blood seeped from a wound in his side where a jagged piece of glass had embedded itself. Chris wanted to pull the offending shard out of his friend´s shuddering body but heard Nathan´s voice in the far reaches of his mind – just like a knife wound, a sucking wound he called it - don´t take it out.

“Better move him outta the street,” someone said and hands reached down to take Vin.

“Don´t touch him,” Chris growled, using his body as a shield, his hands slick with Vin´s blood.

“Ya can´t leave him out here, mister,” an old man said.

“Bring him in by me,” a woman offered. She rested a hand on Chris´ arm, leaning in close to draw his attention away from Vin. “He´ll be alright. Bring him in by me,” she repeated calmly.

Chris´ eyes were wild with fear and desperation until he caught the calm, concerned eyes of the woman before him. He nodded slowly, reason and understanding returning to him as the woman ushered others in around her to help lift the wounded man and carefully carry him across the street.

+ + + + + + +

“Tate!” came a voice in the darkness, pulling the man up short. He looked wildly about him, his eyes coming to rest on two figures alongside an outcropping of rocks. Riley and Cole.

“God damn you cowards!” he shouted at them in fury. He pulled his pistol and cocked to fire. Both men dove for cover behind the rocks.

“Nothin´ we could´a done, Tate!” Riley shouted. “Gettin´ ourselves killed wouldn´t´a brought Whit back!”

“You want revenge for what happened, you go gunnin´ for those two that come in while we were pullin´ the job,” said Cole. “Would´a gone fine ‘cept for them.”

Tate froze, his gun still cocked, his eyes bright with rage.

“We´ll help ya, Tate,” Riley offered uneasily. “Looked like one of ‘em was down anyway. Probably dead by now. Three of us could take the other out easy.”

Riley peered nervously around the rock he was hiding behind.

“That fella ain´t gonna move too soon. Gonna have to see after his friend, or bury him at least.”

Riley saw Tate slowly holster his brother´s ivory-handled pistol into his own gun belt. He came carefully into the open.

“You with us Cole?” Tate asked quietly. The explosives man joined Riley.

“Yeah, sure,” he answered. “I´ll stick with ya to finish him off.”

Tate nodded.

“Good,” he said quietly.

The pistol flashed like lightening, the bullet sparking from the barrel. Cole slumped to the ground, lifeless beside a quivering Riley.

“Shouldn´ta lit that fuse, Cole,” Tate said calmly, returning the pistol to his holster.

+ + + + + + +

Vin had not stirred since they had brought him into the boarding house. The bleeding had slowed, but the glass remained embedded in his side. The woman who had guided them inside carefully bathed Vin with towels and a basin of soap and water. The burns did not appear too bad, and Chris was grateful for that. But he seemed unable to think clearly in the face of his friend´s injuries and Poteet´s lack of a doctor.

“Brothers?” the woman asked quietly.

“No, no,” Chris murmured, shaking his head. He was afraid to take his eyes off Vin, as if his will alone was keeping the tracker alive.

“From around here?”

Chris shook his head again.

“I´m sorry, I shouldn´t disturb you…” she said rising and crossing to the window.

Chris stirred from his reverie as she passed in front of him.

“What?” he said, confused. “No,” he said quickly as he realized what she had said to him. “It´s just…”

She smiled sadly at him.

“I know. I lost my husband not long after we came to Poteet. Two years, four months, twenty-seven days,” the smile left her face as she looked at the Regulator clock ticking in the corner, “nine hours. But who´s counting, right?”

“Now I´m sorry,” he answered. He held tight to Vin´s hand, but turned to show her his expression of sympathy was sincere.

“He´s my friend,” Chris answered simply, turning back to Vin.

“Some friends are closer than brothers,” she answered, then glanced back out the window. “Especially out here, I´ve found.” She smiled again, the corners of her mouth trembling slightly. “Why do you suppose that is?”

“I don´t know, Ma´am,” said Chris. “Maybe ‘cause out here things can get taken away so quick.”

She nodded as the smile slipped away again, her gaze turning once more out the window. The clock ticked in the silence.

“Andie,” she said suddenly.

“Pardon?” Chris asked.

“Andie is coming,” she said excitedly, rushing out the door as Chris looked after her. He eased Vin´s hand down onto the bed and looked out into the street to see a young woman dressed in buckskin jumping from a wagon. The woman from the boarding house – hell, Chris thought, I ain´t even asked her name – spoke hurriedly to her, gesturing towards the house. The young woman looked at Chris, grabbed a bag from under the wagon seat and walked toward him.

“Mr…” the woman said, suddenly aware she, too, did not have his name.

“Larabee. Chris Larabee,” he answered quickly.

“Laura Holt,” she said quickly. “This is Andie Maddock. She´s got some doctoring. Takes care of folks around here. You want her to look at your friend?”

“I´m not a proper doctor, so if…” Andie started.

“We got a healer back home ain´t proper either but I´d trust him with my life. Can you help?” asked Chris, ushering her inside.

Her small hands worked deftly as they flitted across Vin´s body, lightly probing about the wound, peering into his eyes, brushing the burns on his face.

“Burns on his face aren´t too bad, neck´s a little raw. I have some ointment that may help. You were smart not to pull the glass,” she said as she began to draw instruments and supplies from an old carpetbag.

Chris nodded.

“That´s what Nathan – our healer – what he would´a said. Calls ‘em sucking wounds.”

“Where did he get his doctoring?” she asked as she worked.

“War, mostly,” Chris answered, watching her carefully. “Can you help him?” he asked again impatiently.

“I can get the glass out, sew him up,” she answered confidently. “The burns should heal, but they´ll be painful for a while. But he´s still out from the explosion. I don´t know what I can do about that. Might have something wrong in his head. My pa was a doctor, taught me a lot, but when it comes to head wounds even he said there wasn´t much a body could do but wait.”

“I´m obliged whatever you can do, Miss.”

“It´s Mrs.,” Laura said.

“Now Laura, it hasn´t been Mrs. in over a year,” the healer said. “Besides, it´s just Andie to folks around here.”

“Whatever you can do, Andie,” Chris repeated.

+ + + + + + +

“Right nice service, Josiah,” J.D. said as he and Nathan filed from the church. “Real thoughtful and all.”

“Thank you, J.D.,” Josiah said as the three stood outside. “I must admit to finding myself steeped in nostalgia the last few days.”

“Just seems to be in every other thought lately, don´t he?” asked Nathan.

“Figure we´ll hear from Chris soon?” J.D. asked.

Nathan and Josiah glanced at each other.


“I´m sure we will, J.D.” Josiah answered, trying a smile. “He might just want to wait, though, until he can give us good news. Tell us they´re comin´ home.”

Nathan looked away nervously, squinting into the sun.

“You don´t think he´s comin´ back, do you?” J.D. asked Nathan.

“I don´t like the odds, J.D., no,” Nathan admitted.

“Chris won´t let anything happen to Vin,” J.D. argued. “Whatever it is Vin feels he has to do in Tascosa, Chris wouldn´ta gone along if it was gonna end with Vin gettin´ hung. I don´t believe that.”

Josiah smiled at J.D.´s stubborn confidence.

“Perhaps our young brother is right, Nathan,” Josiah said, stretching an arm across the shoulders of his two friends. “Perhaps we need to have a little more faith.”

+ + + + + + +

The wagon ride had been long and hard. Laura had provided blankets and pillows, but Chris still felt every ditch and rock the wagon wheels rolled over as he tried to support Vin. Andie had removed the glass and stitched the wound closed at the boardinghouse. Vin had stirred several times, stifled moans that escaped lips clenched in pain, but his eyes never opened.

Now Chris sat again at Vin´s bedside as Andie changed the bandage on the tracker´s side. Some blood had seeped through the gash, but the stitches had held. Andie took out Nathan´s favorite carbolic and cleaned the wound again, applying fresh bandages. She had applied more ointment and gauze, covering the burns on his face and neck. She pried Vin´s eyes open carefully and looked into them again.

“Pupils aren´t blown,” she said softly. “That´s good. Maybe he´s just got a bad concussion.”

Chris smiled despite himself.

“Had a few of those in his time,” he told her.

“Hard on the nerves is he?” she asked, sensing the care and concern that flooded from the man in black who hovered over her patient.

“You´ve no idea,” Chris answered, shaking his head. “Runs Nathan ragged lookin´ after him.”

“You, too?” she said as she pulled the blankets up, tucking them around Vin´s shoulders.

Chris nodded briefly, then watched as Andie crossed to the sink to pour out the blood-tinged water from the basin and rinse it clean with alcohol.

“Where´s Mr. Maddock?” he asked, suddenly aware of the stillness that surrounded them.

“Gone,” she answered, wiping her instruments clean.

“I´m sorry.”

“Don´t be. I married him for Pa´s sake – he had this nice little spread, made Pa happy to think I´d be taken care of. Then one day he left – went after some gold rush nonsense he heard up north. Left me the place to take care of. Never did hear from him again, so after a year I got a divorce paper in Tascosa.”

Chris stiffened at the mention of the town. In all his anxiety he had forgotten how close they were. How many people had seen them in Poteet? Did any of them recognize Vin?

“Damn,” he whispered under his breath – he had been so careless.

“Something wrong?” Andie asked moving quickly to his side.

“No, I´m sorry, I was…thinking of something else,” he answered lamely. “And your pa?” he asked, changing the subject.

She hesitated, a hitch in her voice when she replied.

“Now you can offer me that sympathy.”

“How long?” he asked gently.

“About three years now. He was killed…it was…” she turned to the stove in the middle of her kitchen, fumbled with a match.

“Hard,” Chris finished for her, sensing her struggle to maintain her composure, and her desire to avoid going over the circumstances of her father´s death.

She nodded, gratefully.

“Chris, you said?” she asked as she put a pot of water on the stove. “Coffee?”

“Thank you, yes. Chris Larabee.”

“And…” she said, nodding towards Vin.

“Buck. Buck Wilmington,” Chris answered quickly.

Andie took two mugs down from a shelf and set them on the table. She crossed back over to where Chris sat and looked down at Vin.

She felt the gauze on his face and neck to be sure it was still moist, turned to go, hesitated, then looked back at Vin again. Chris held his breath as she gazed down at his injured friend.

“The name doesn´t suit him,” she said, a hesitancy lingering in her voice as she continued to look at him. “What I can see of him anyway.”

Chris shrugged. His mind raced for a way to turn her attention away from the close scrutiny of Vin´s face.

“Handsome, though,” she said finally. “Bet he´s as much trouble with the women as he is with you.”

“Buck? No, he´s not much for women. They embarrass him, mostly. He´s as shy as a school boy around ‘em.” Chris smiled, thinking of the irony between his comment and the true owner of the alias he had adopted for Vin.

“What´re you two doing in Poteet, anyway?” she asked casually as she stirred the coffee into the pot.

“Just passin´ through,” he answered carefully. “We…”

He was stopped short as Vin began to stir. This time the eyes worked to open, the breathing became more rapid. Chris clutched Vin´s hand as he turned to the gunslinger in confusion.

“Vi…Buck,” he said, cursing the subterfuge he had had to employ under Andie´s scrutiny. Vin was confused enough as it was without Chris having to call him by another name.

Vin looked at him, eyes searching for understanding.

“He´s awake,” Chris called to Andie over his shoulder. She was approaching with their coffee, but set the mugs back down quickly to join him.

“Buck? It´s alright. Can you understand me?” she asked as she gently held his face in her hands.

Vin´s brow knit in confusion at her words. He looked back at Chris for help.

“Chris?” he whispered, then stopped. His throat was raw and burned when he spoke. He licked his lips, put his hand to the side of his face, feeling the bandages there. “Chris?” he whispered painfully again.

“It´s alright, Buck,” Chris said, emphasizing the name, staring hard into the tracker´s eyes, clasping his hand in his own. “You got caught in an explosion, Buck,” he said slowly. “In Poteet. Remember?”

Vin´s hand broke from Chris´ grasp and flew again to the side of his face. His eyes becoming wide with fright.

“Chris?” he said again, his voice breaking.

“What is it, Buck?” Andie asked, sensing his distress.

“Chris, I…I can´t hear you.

+ + + + + + +

His horse was saddled, his gear was packed. He had checked the telegraph office three times that day, and still no word from Chris. He had debated whether to leave in the dead of night or at dawn, and finally decided he would not have been able to sleep anyway. He had left word with Mary. She was angry with him, tried to talk him into telling the others, but in the end she had agreed. Nathan was needed here. And the town did need protecting. He would wire them from the first town he passed through and leave her to explain. That much she would do for him. For them.

He placed a foot in the stirrup and gripped the saddle horn.

“Taking an evening constitutional, Mr. Wilmington?”

Buck jumped, his foot slipping from the stirrup. He turned to see the faint glow of a cheroot coming from the corner stall. Ezra emerged from the darkness blowing a fine trail of smoke.

“Damn, Ez, what´re you sneakin´ around here for?” Buck spat in frustration.

“I could inquire the same of you,” Ezra answered, nodding towards Buck´s horse and saddlebags.

“You know damn well what I´m doin´,” Buck said hotly. “And you also know I´m right in doin´ it. Never should´a let those two ride outta here to begin with. All of us pawin´ around, respectin´ Vin´s decision, givin´ in to Chris and all that ‘he talked to me´ bullshit. Waitin´ around here for some damn telegram gonna tell us whether Vin´s alive or dead. Chris ain´t got no corner on Vin´s friendship. You figure him to just stay here if it was me and Vin ridin´ off? Hell, no! He´d put a bullet in Vin himself afore he´d let him ride outta here without him.”

Buck continued shouting, stalking Ezra around the stable as the gambler moved silently about, gathering his own things.

“Chris and Vin. Alright. So they got tight in these past few years. Chris lookin´ after him like I took to lookin´ after J.D. But you think Chris´d let me and J.D. ride out into a mess a trouble like that? Damn right he wouldn´t! Sayin´ stuff like ‘put the town first – don´t get personal – stick together´ – that´s what he´d be doin´. Callin´ me a hothead and J.D. a crazy kid if we did somethin´…where you goin´?” Buck asked as he saw Ezra finish saddling his horse, begin to lead him out of the livery.

“I am on my way to Tascosa,” Ezra replied calmly. “When you have finished your little tirade here, you may join me.”

“Well, what…wait!” Buck said, exasperated, as he quickly grabbed his horse, following Ezra out of the livery.

“Boys,” Josiah said as he stood shoulder to shoulder with Nathan and J.D. in front of the livery.

“Aw, shit,” Buck moaned. “We ain´t all goin´ to Tascosa. Ez ‘n´ me´ll handle it.”

“Now who bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Larabee?” Ezra chided.

“Shut up, Ez,” Buck growled. “You´re one fancy word away from stayin´ behind yourself.”

“You makin´ decisions for all of us now, Buck?” Nathan asked, hands on his hips.

“I ain´t doin´ nothin´ every one of us didn´t want to do three days ago,” said Buck.

Ezra looked at Buck with a puzzled expression, then turned to the others. He opened his mouth to speak, then looked back at Buck again.

“Although Mr. Wilmington´s comment may include the first triple negative I have ever encountered in one sentence, I do agree with the sentiment it represents.”

“Then we all go,” J.D. said, heading towards the livery.

“No, J.D., Buck is right this time,” Josiah said, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. “The town needs protecting…” he put another firm hand on Nathan´s shoulder, “…and doctoring. We made that promise to Judge Travis. Although our hearts are firmly behind the actions of our hotheaded brothers here, we have an obligation to fulfill as well.”

“Thanks, Josiah,” Buck said, mounting his horse. “We´ll be back with Chris and Vin,” he promised.

Ezra was up and in his saddle as well when the preacher grabbed the reins of his horse, pulling him in.

“Brother Ezra?” he asked, his eyes fixed on the gambler´s. “That´s twice I´ve taken a stand for reason against what burns within my heart. If you don´t succeed, not only will we lose Vin, but I´ll have forfeited the inner peace of my very soul for the rest of my days on earth.”

Josiah walked away with the others as Ezra turned to face Buck.

“He couldn´t have just said ‘good luck?

+ + + + + + +

“He´s deaf?” Chris asked incredulously as Andie sat on the bed beside Vin. She rested one small hand on Chris´ shoulder, the other on Vin´s arm.

“Now, take it easy,” she said as she saw the wild look of fear in both their eyes. “It´s probably just temporary. I don´t know a lot about the ear, but I know you can even break the eardrum and it can heal back up. It doesn´t pay for me to try to even look at him because I don´t know what I´m looking for. When he´s healed up, you could take him to a real doctor – they´ve got one in Tascosa. Until then, we just wait and see if it heals on its own.”

Chris swallowed hard, looking intently at her as she spoke, trying to gauge the conviction she felt in her own words.

“His throat is raw from the burns. It´d probably be best if he didn´t talk too much. Gave it time to heal. Can you tell him that?” she asked Chris, trying to take his focus away from his own fear and onto the need to keep Vin calm.

Chris nodded, taking a deep breath to calm himself. He looked at Vin and winced at the naked fear in his eyes. He had to pull himself together for Vin´s sake. Convince him, even though Chris battled the rising fear within himself, that everything would be all right.

“Buck,” Chris said slowly, taking Vin´s head in his hands, cursing the need to continue the charade. “Your ears are hurt. But Andie,” he said, nodding towards the young woman, “thinks they can heal.”

Vin shook his head in frustration. His heart was pounding, sweat soaked the sheet that covered him. His side was on fire and the deafening silence that surrounded him was terrifying. Chris held his eyes with his own, and Vin knew he was trying to keep the tracker calm, but the silent movement of his lips did nothing more than frustrate him further. He pulled at Chris´ hands, struggled to get up, then gasped as the pain in his side flared.

“Buck, please, easy,” Chris said, forcing him back down. He was unable to disguise his anguish, unable to keep his voice calm. He struggled with the wounded man until Andie pulled him away. She rested her own hands on Vin and eased him back gently.

“It´s all right, Buck,” she said soothingly. She took a wet rag and wiped the sweat off his chest with slow, gentle strokes. “It´s all right,” she repeated in a calm litany until she felt him relax beneath her touch, heard his breathing become more regular.

“Can he read?” she asked Chris. “I don´t mean to insult you, or him, but there are many men out here who never had the chance…”

“It´s all right. As a matter of fact, he´s just learning,” Chris answered, grateful for that small favor at least. “If you keep the words simple…”

Andie pulled a pad of paper and a pencil from the drawer of the bedstand.

You were in an explos… She stopped writing, crossed out the word ‘explosion´ and wrote again. You were hurt. Your side. Your head.

She showed the paper to Vin who read it carefully, glancing up at her when he finished.

She took the pad again and wrote. I think your ears will be ok, but we will have to wait. I am not a doctor.

Vin read the lines again, pausing when he came to the word doctor. Andie watched as he sounded the word out silently with his lips, then nodded.

“Like Nate?” he asked. It was such an odd sensation to feel his mouth moving, his throat vibrating, but hearing no sound – not even his own voice.

Chris leaned over Andie´s shoulder when he heard the flat voice of his friend. He read what she had written, looked back to Vin and nodded, then took the pencil himself.

Throat hurt – don´t talk now he wrote.

Vin nodded and laid back against the pillows trying to stay calm. He watched Chris begin to pace again behind the woman, saw his frustration and anguish. Damn it, Chris thought, this is hard enough without my having to worry about you, too. Vin smiled at her, then nodded towards Chris.

“He wants to tell you something,” Andie said, guiding him back to Vin´s side.

“I´m sorry – I didn´t help much,” Chris said. “It´s just…”

“I know,” she smiled reassuringly. “He´s hard on the nerves.”

Chris smiled and shook his head.

“You really think his hearing might come back?” he asked.

“It´s what I´m prepared to believe right now,” she said, then took his arm, “And it´s what he needs to see you believe, too, right?”

Larabee nodded and took another deep breath before settling himself next to Vin´s bed again.

“I´ve got some things to tend to. I´ll leave you two alone for a bit,” Andie said. She handed him the pad and pencil, then headed out the door.

Chris watched her leave, looking through the window to see her enter the barn. He turned back to Vin who was waiting patiently.

Vin reached for the paper and wrote one word, handing it back to Chris.


Chris smiled and shrugged. He took the pad from Vin and wrote carefully.

Too close to Tascosa.

Vin read the response and nodded. He looked past Chris, out the window and raised his eyebrows questioningly.

Chris wrote again.


Vin looked at the paper, puzzled. He wrote - boy name?

Chris read and laughed, relieved to have found a way to communicate, a time-consuming way that would take his mind off the fears that plagued him.

+ + + + + + +

Tate had watched from a safe distance as the buckboard carrying the two strangers left town, their horses tied behind. He and a jittery Riley had followed them to the small place near the base of the mountains.

“We goin´ in?” Riley asked nervously – afraid to tangle with the two strangers, afraid to try to leave Tate.

“Not yet,” Tate answered. He wanted to savor this revenge. He wanted to do it right. He hadn´t even had the chance to bury his brother. He´d take his time burying these two.

+ + + + + + +

Andie worked on the fencing behind the barn, happy to have the physical work to do, to feel the sun on her back, to have some time alone to consider the two strangers she had welcomed into her home.

Her father would be angry with her for trusting them. What was she thinking? Bringing two men home with her, miles from town, alone. But they had needed her help, and that, she thought, would´ve been all the argument she would´ve needed for her father. He could hardly have stood a close inspection of many of the situations he had placed himself and his family in by feeling the need to help when he could.

She was surprised at the tears that threatened to spill and wiped them with the back of her gloved hand. Where had they come from? It had been a long time since she had shed tears over him, but the wound was still fresh – especially when she was doing the work he had taught her. Some day she would finish – would go to school like he had done and become a real doctor. But until then she´d do what she could for the people of Poteet and her neighbors and for the men inside her home now.

“Water?” Vin croaked as he woke again from dozing. Chris had been watching Andie out the kitchen window while he slept.

“No talking,” Chris admonished him, putting his finger to his lips, then pumped a cup of water at the sink. He helped Vin to sit, gave him the water, and took up the pencil and paper again.

Save your voice he wrote, showing it to Vin.

Vin nodded, dismissing Chris with a wave of his hand as he drank the water, sipping painfully. Chris eased him back down, arranging the sheet around his shoulders again. Vin swatted at his hands and frowned.

“I ain´t no…” Vin started, then stopped as Chris hooked an eyebrow at him. He sighed and reached for the paper and pencil to write.

Stop fussn he wrote.

Chris took the paper from him, crossed out fussn and wrote fussing, then handed it back.

Vin read the correction and scowled.

He took a breath to speak but stopped as Chris put a finger to his lips again, shook his head, and pointed to the paper.

When we going? Vin wrote, glaring at Chris as he turned the paper to him.

Chris sighed in frustration and shook his head. He pointed to Vin´s side, brushed his finger along the side of his face.

Fine Vin wrote again, matching Chris´ frustration with his own, his eyes bright with determination.

Chris nodded with a sarcastic smile. He threw his hands up and shrugged, talking to Vin as he motioned to the tracker.

“Fine! Great! Come on, let´s go,” he said, gesturing to Vin to get up.

Vin threw the covers off defiantly and swung his legs to the side of the bed. A wave of nausea washed over him as his side erupted in a burning flash of pain. His head was swimming as he grasped the edge of the bed to steady himself. Chris continued talking.

“I´m glad you´re fine because we´ve got a bit of a ride ahead of us. But as long as you´re feeling so well we can make good time. I thought we´d be held up here a lot longer than this,” Chris continued talking, turning to Vin from time to time long enough for Tanner to see that he was speaking, but not long enough for him to grasp what was being said. “Guess I underestimated you, Vin. Thought having your gut ripped open and nearly getting your face burned off would take a lot longer to heal but hell, you´re ready to go, huh?”

With a burst of anger and frustration Vin propelled himself off the bed, taking one stumbling step before falling hard against the edge of the table. The room spun crazily before him, his head pounded painfully. He felt a slow, warm trickle wind its way down his side to his hip. He put his hand against the stitches and pulled it slowly away, his fingers wet with blood.

“What on earth!” Andie shouted as she came into the room and rushed to take Vin´s arm. “What the hell are you doing?” she asked Chris as she guided her patient back to bed.

“Stubborn fool says he´s fine. Ready to go. Well fine. Let´s go then,” Chris spouted, gesturing angrily at Vin. “Let him bleed out on the trail. I don´t give a damn. I´m sick and tired of arguin´ with him every time he gets himself hurt. Like it´s my fault he keeps runnin´ himself into trouble! Like I´m the sorriest friend on earth ‘cause I make him take it easy when he´s healin´.”

“Look,” she shouted at him as she got her bag and began to clean the wound again to repair the stitches. “I´ve known my share of stubborn men and I have no doubt your friend here can try a soul´s patience to the bitter end. How you deal with the frustration is your business. But acting like an idiot by getting him all riled up, busting open those stitches, risking infection – that´s my business. I don´t go saving lives just to have them get busted up again.”

Vin smiled at Chris´ discomfort. He didn´t understand what Andie was saying, but he saw Larabee turn red under her verbal barrage, the same as he did when Nathan was laying into him.

“Wipe that smile off your face Buck,” Andie said as she turned to Vin to catch the lopsided grin. She ignored Vin´s yelp of surprise as she took up the two torn stitches with needle and cat gut.

It was Chris´ turn to smile now as he saw the look of startled pain in Vin´s eyes as Andie pierced the tender flesh again with the needle, not bothering to dose the patient with whiskey or laudanum while she worked.

“Make you two guests in my home, bring you all the way from Poteet, stitch you up, feed you, and this is the thanks I get,” she muttered as she worked. She tied off her stitching and cut the thread, then picked up the pencil and pad.

Stay put! she wrote angrily, showing Vin the paper. He took it from her hesitantly and wrote.


She read the paper and nodded curtly, then turned towards Chris.

“I´m sorry, Andie,” he said, holding his hands up before him in defense of her anger. “You´re right. He exasperates me beyond reason sometimes, but it ain´t no excuse.”

Andie nodded at them both.

“I´ll start dinner. You might want to cool off a bit and see if you can get us some game. I don´t keep much stocked for just myself,” she said, ushering Chris out the door.

Vin watched the exchange between Chris and Andie, uncertain of everything that had been said, but sure Andie had the upper hand. He had seen Chris back down before her anger, which delighted him, but knew he, too, had been cowed by her.

The tracker lay back in bed and watched her as she set about cleaning vegetables for dinner. She wasn´t the kind of pretty that Buck would like – all done up in fancy dress and perfume like the girls in the saloon. Her hair was cut short and her hands were strong and callused. She wore buckskin like he did, only better, he thought to himself, and smiled. She was strong and sure of herself and he found himself attracted to her ease in dealing with two strangers like him and Chris.

“Hope you two aren´t partial to biscuits,” she said as she worked. “I never did learn baking too well.” She turned to Vin who was watching her intently. She blushed, and crossed over to him. “I´m sorry,” she mouthed slowly.

He looked at her questioningly, shrugging his shoulders. Why?

She pointed at herself, then opened and closed her hand near her mouth to show she had been talking, then pointed to his ears and shook her head. He smiled and mouthed o.k.

Andie sat beside him on the cot and took up the pencil and paper.

Can´t bake she explained again, pointing to the stove and shaking her head.

Ma died when I was a girl.

Vin smiled sadly, pointed at himself and nodded.

“You too?” she asked him slowly. “Pa?” she asked.

Vin shook his head no, shrugged his shoulders.

Andie nodded her understanding. There were a lot of fatherless boys out West.

Vin took the paper and wrote.

Your Pa?

He cringed as he saw her eyes mist over and realized it had been the wrong question. A fresh wound, or an old, angry one, either way he had tread on painful ground. He quickly put his hands up in apology, shook his head to let her know she didn´t have to answer.

She smiled then, assuring him she was all right.

Dead. 3 years. Killed.

Vin reached out, placing his hand on hers as she held the pencil. Their eyes locked for a moment, each reading the other´s past through pain-filled eyes. Andie felt her face flush, her heart quicken at this stranger´s touch. She swallowed, then looked away quickly towards the door. The healer shook herself slightly as if to break from the hold Vin´s gaze had placed on her. She pointed out the door towards Chris, then at Vin and wrote.

Friends - how long?

Vin held up two fingers.

“Years?” she asked, and Vin nodded.

He worries about you. Andie wrote.

Vin feigned shocked surprise. He pointed towards Chris, then to himself, then rocked his arms as if cradling a baby.

Andie shook her head admonishing him.

Don´t make fun. He´s frightened.

Vin read the words. She watched him sound out the words to himself, realized how new he must be to reading. He stopped at the word ‘frightened´ and shook his head, then looked away, embarrassed.

She looked down at what she had written and realized it was a difficult word, that he probably had not understood it. But she didn´t want to embarrass him further by trying to find an easier definition for him. Instead she placed a gentle hand on the side of his face, touching his ear, then looked back towards Chris with a look of deep concern.

He nodded his understanding and sighed. Vin pointed to himself, then to the word he had stumbled on which apparently meant something like worry.

Andie smiled.

“I know,” she agreed. Hard to wait, she wrote.

Andie watched as Vin looked about the room, his eyes resting on her again. His gentle blue eyes belied the painful past he must have endured and she found herself smiling shyly at him.

Alone here? he wrote, handing her the paper as he looked about the room again.

Laura comes – other friends she wrote back shrugging.

Hard life Vin wrote, his expression kind and caring.

You too Andie wrote back, gently touching his face where the gauze covered the burns.

Vin smiled self-consciously, dismissing the injuries with a quick turn of his head. A thought occurred to him suddenly.

Andie? he wrote, remembering his curiosity at the young woman´s name when Chris first told him.

She read her name and shrugged, unsure of what he was asking.

He pointed to the name again, then tentatively reached toward her and placed a gentle hand on her hair brushing it to the side, then running a rough hand along the curve of her chin and shaking his head.

No boy he wrote.

She laughed when she understood what he was saying and took the paper and pencil from him.


Vin nodded, smiling. He pointed to the name, looked at her questioningly and shook his head - no good?

“My father,” she mouthed to him carefully. “Nickname.”

Again Vin nodded. She must have been close to him, he thought, to continue using a name of endearment her father had had for her after he was no longer alive.

He watched her as she wrote on the paper, turned it to him and shook her head, scrunching her face up as she did so.


He looked away from her face, embarrassed that they had had to lie to her about his name. In an instant, all the shame came flooding back to him. Why he was here, who he really was, what she would think of him if she knew.

Andie saw Vin´s face cloud over and instantly regretted her action. She had hurt him by laughing at his name, by saying it did not fit him. She tried to think of what to say to apologize, then stiffened as she heard a shot.

Vin saw her reaction and sat up quickly in bed. Andie placed a hand on his shoulder, listening intently. It was probably just Chris getting a squirrel or rabbit for dinner. She tried to allay his fears, pointing towards the stove, indicating her belief that supper was on its way. She rose, then stiffened again when she heard two more shots, then a third.

Andie ran to the side of the door and grabbed a rifle. Vin struggled again to get out of bed. She turned, furious, and gestured to him.

“Stay there!”

Vin shook his head stubbornly, continuing to get up. He looked about for his gun, saw it on the table near the bed. He made his way slowly to his feet, grabbed his gun and leaned on the kitchen chair as he loaded.

Andie backed away suddenly as the door flew open and Larabee made his way inside, slamming the door behind him. She looked him over quickly and saw he wasn´t hurt, but knew from his face that there was trouble.

“Down!” he hissed, forcing her to the ground as he blew out the lanterns in the kitchen.

“Damn it, Vin, down!” he shouted as he saw the tracker moving towards them slowly, gripping pieces of furniture on his way to the door.

“You inside!” the voice came from outside. “That was just a warnin´. I got plenty´a time – nowhere to go. I can wait.”

“What do you want?” Chris yelled.

“Eye for an eye,” Tate answered.

“What are you talking about?” Andie shouted back, rising from the floor until a heavy hand from Chris pushed her back down again.

“Whit´d still be alive weren´t for you two,” came the response.

“The bank,” Chris whispered to Andie. He remembered hearing a voice shouting for help for the man who had been injured with Vin in the explosion.

“Your man set the charge,” Chris answered back.

There was no reply. The three of them sat on the floor of the kitchen as the minutes passed. Slowly Chris rose, opened the door, and slipped out into the night.

“Chris!” Vin gasped, struggling to his feet, then falling back down to his knees. He tried to crawl out the door only to fall back against Andie who crouched beside him.

“No!” Andie cried, grabbing his arm as she eased him down next to her. The two sat huddled in the doorway, Andie straining to listen for the slightest movement outside, Vin watching her eyes intently for any sign of danger.

The young woman jumped when she heard movement at the corner of the house. She peered carefully out the door.

“It´s clear. They´re gone,” Chris said as he opened the door. “There were two of them – caught me off guard while I was hunting. Either he´s a lousy shot or it was just as he said – a warning.”

Chris holstered his gun, then reached down and together with Andie, helped Vin to his feet.

“What the hell were you gonna do? Bleed on ‘em?” Chris asked Vin as they shuffled slowly back to the cot.

“He was just trying to help,” Andie answered in his defense.

“Thought you were the one didn´t want your work gettin´ busted up again?”

“I think you two deserve each other,” she muttered as she eased Vin back down onto the cot. “What´re we going to do about them?”

“Not much I can do now. In the morning I´ll take a look outside, see what I can find.”

“The moment you stick your head out the door they´ll kill you.”

Vin tapped Chris´ leg, questioning, but Chris brushed his hand away.

“I think he wants to wait us out. Take pot shots to scare us. When he decides to end it, he´ll want us to see it coming.”

“You really think you can read him that well? You don´t even know who he is!”

Vin grabbed the pencil and pad and shoved it at Chris. Larabee scowled at him and turned back to Andie.

“I know his type.”

“Just who the hell are you two anyway? You tried to stop that bank robbery. Laura said you killed two of them. Now you´re some kind of expert on murderers?”

“We´re part of the law in Four Corners. But we´ve both had experience with his like in the past.”

“How? Why?”

Vin grabbed up the paper and pencil and flung them across the room. He grabbed Chris´ shirt with one hand, his chin with the other.

“Tell me!” he whispered painfully.

“I´m sorry, Vin, easy,” Chris said, disengaging himself from battle with Andie, placing his hands on Vin´s arms.

“From town. From the bank,” he mouthed, but Vin could not understand him. Andie crossed the room to pick up the paper and pencil and return them to Chris.

The bank he wrote, and pointed in the direction of Poteet. Vin looked at the paper, then back at Chris. Why? his eyes asked.

Man who died Chris wrote in explanation.

Vin nodded finally in understanding, then looked to Chris. He reached for his gun, gesturing towards the door. Chris shook his head, put his hand on Vin´s shoulder, pushing him gently back down into bed.

“Wait for now,” he mouthed carefully.

Vin grunted in frustration, brushing Chris´ hand brusquely from his arm, turning away from him to stare across the room, the muscles in his jaw pulled taught.

“He doesn´t like to wait,” Chris explained to Andie with a shrug. She shook her head with a slight smile.

“No kidding.”

+ + + + + + +

The real Buck Wilmington had finally given up trying to track Chris and Vin. Ezra had reasoned with him that trying to follow their exact trail was taking too much time. They knew the pair were headed for Tascosa and it was more important for them to get there as soon after Chris and Vin arrived as possible, than to get there in exactly the same way.

“´Course, they could be late gettin´ back to us ‘cause they ran into trouble on the way there,” Buck reasoned.

“True,” Ezra agreed as they rode. “But since you failed to discern their trail, it would behoove us to move with the greatest possible speed towards their ultimate destination. Should fortune favor us, we will encounter them along the way if they experienced any difficulty, assuming they would take the most direct route to Tascosa.”

“What´dya mean ‘since I failed to discern their trail´?” asked Buck defensively. “You sure weren´t findin´ any signs.”

“I have never professed knowledge in that area of expertise to which Mr. Tanner justifiably lays claim,” Ezra answered. “I was merely stating the fact that you had attempted such, and had failed to succeed.”

“There you go again – you just love to say I failed at somethin´ don´t ya?”

“I assure you, I take no specific delight in enumerating your failures. It is simply a routine part of my day.”

“Damn it, Ezra, I´m sick ‘n´ tired of you always thinkin´ you´re better´n the rest of us. Beats the hell outta me why you even come along with me on this. You bein´ so much better´n Vin. Can´t see why you´d care what happened to him – him bein´ just a dumb, illiterate…”

Ezra pulled up short, his eyes blazing as he cut Buck off with an icy glare to rival Larabee´s best.

“I have never, and you will recall I do not use the term lightly – never referred to Mr. Tanner as being devoid of intelligence. Though his vast store of knowledge may not be accredited to any scholarly institution, it has on many occasions been integral to protecting the lives of myself and others. What I value most in Mr. Tanner´s friendship, however, transcends both schools of experience – that being his selfless devotion to those fortunate enough to call themselves his friends.”

“Easy, Ezra,” said Buck urging Ezra to continue on their way. “You sure got a whole shitload of them fancy words for Vin. When it comes to me all you got is failure.”

“You are rarely at a loss for words in your own defense.” Ezra explained as he spurred his horse forward. “Mr. Tanner, however, does not speak for himself. He requires a champion.

+ + + + + + +

The three passed an uneasy evening in the home of Andie Maddock. Chris was startled awake at every noise, his hand resting on the gun beside him. He knew Vin was having trouble sleeping also and wondered for the first time since the explosion at how the tracker was able to deal with his silent world when he depended so highly on the use of all his usually keen senses.

Then there was Andie. The poor woman had been forced into a siege with two strangers inside her own house, and two more strangers outside looking to kill them – while she sat in the middle.

Nevertheless, as the sun began to climb its way into the eastern sky, Larabee was the only one stirring. Vin and Andie had finally succumbed in the early hours of the morning and still lay asleep beneath their blankets.

Chris walked quietly about the house, familiarizing himself with the layout of the rooms in which he had found himself a prisoner. The cot in the living room seemed to be set up for patients. Perhaps that was why Andie seemed so at ease with having them in her home. Her location outside of town indicated she had no desire to be a town doctor, but was willing to care for anyone who needed her.

Chris had had plenty of time to watch her with Vin, too, and was surprised to see how the two interacted. There seemed to be more than just a doctor/patient relationship developing between them. Vin would never be bold enough to approach the young woman on a personal level now – feeling vulnerable due to his injuries as well as feeling protective of her in the dangerous situation in which they found themselves. It hurt him to read the tender emotions that played across his friend´s face when he knew she was not looking. How many times had he wished Vin could find a young woman to be comfortable with? And now that he had, the circumstances did not yield themselves towards an opportunity for the relationship to blossom.

There was an open closet that revealed her obviously functional taste in clothing. Another pair of buckskin pants, a coat, two cotton shirts, and one simple, black wool dress. Her bedroom held only a chest at the foot of the bed, a wash stand, bed, and bed table. His eyes glanced over the pictures at the side of the bed. A man and a woman, her parents probably. A certificate hung above the bed. He had seen them before in doctor´s offices. This one was probably for her father – something of his she obviously kept and treasured. He read the fine print and froze, blood pounding in his ears, his heart beating out of his chest as his eyes focused on the name centered in flowing script: Dr. Jesse Kincaid.

Andie watched the young man sleeping as the sun crawled across the window ledge in her kitchen. She had seen many men like him in her life. Men of secret pasts and few words. But so often they had been crude, hardened by lives of sorrow and misfortune. She could understand the devotion Larabee had for him. She could see how he would have a way of bringing out the protector in a person. Gently she lifted the gauze from his face. Again she looked closely at him and felt a shiver run along her spine. Why did his face – and his name – affect her so? What was it that gnawed at the back of her mind when she saw him without the bandages? The gauze had dried during the night and she went to get fresh bandages and more ointment to replace it.

“Where´s Chris?”

His voice made her jump. She had had her back to him looking for her supplies and did not realize he had awakened. The voice was course, but stronger than it had been yesterday.

“I´m sorry,” he said quickly, realizing he had startled her.

“It´s all right. I thought you were still sleeping. I think he´s out back,” she answered returning to him with her medical bag.

Andie looked up and saw him staring quizzically at her, then kicked herself mentally for having forgotten again. She picked up the paper and pencil and wrote her response.

Vin sat up quickly and reached for his gun. Andie put her hand on his arm, shaking her head, but the tracker ignored her reprimand and stood cautiously, looking about the room.

“Please,” she said, trying to pull him back to the cot. “You shouldn´t be up yet,” she continued, knowing he could not hear her but knowing also he would not wait for her to write the words down.

“I need to cover Chris,” Vin rasped pushing her gently aside as he pulled a shirt gingerly over his head, easing the arm on his injured side through the shirtsleeve.

“No!” she shouted this time, grabbing onto his arm and pulling back against him as he moved towards the front door.

Vin felt a strong hand grab his shoulder suddenly from behind. He spun violently, the rifle before him and cocked as Andie screamed.

Larabee shoved the barrel up towards the ceiling with his free hand, then tried to wrench it from Vin´s grasp.

“What the hell are you doin´?” he asked angrily, looking from Vin to Andie. “Ya scared Andie half to death and liked to put a bullet in me! You couldn´t hear a canon going off behind you but you´re gonna go outside where some lunatic is sneakin´ around waiting to put a bullet in us! ”

Vin´s eyes blazed at Chris as he held tight to his rifle. Unable to understand the gunfighter´s words, he looked over to Andie to see her taking a deep breath, trying to overcome her fright. The anger left him instantly as he realized how much he had scared her by his violent response to Chris´ action.

Chris saw the rage drain from Vin´s face, replaced by a look of crushing guilt. He was furious with the tracker, ready to lay into him for heading outside on his own, but after seeing his friend´s face, he no longer had the heart to reprimand him further.

“I´m ok,” she assured him, trying to smile.

Vin could not meet her eyes. Instead he released the rifle into Chris´ hands, his head bowed, and sat gingerly in one of the kitchen chairs.

Again, Andie touched his shoulder, reassuring him that she was all right, that she had just been startled, but Vin´s sense of guilt was unassuaged.

Damn, what a mess, Chris thought. Vin´s hurt, a crazy man out there ready to shoot on sight, and our lives are in the hands of the daughter of the man Vin is accused of killing.

“Maybe we should get ourselves out of here,” Chris said finally. “We´re much obliged to you, Andie, but we shouldn´t be putting you in danger.”

“How are you going to get him out of here?” she asked. “He can´t ride – not with that deep of a wound. And how are you going to take care of him if he can´t hear you, can´t respond if you shout a warning?”

“I´ll figure something out. I´m not putting you in any more danger,” Chris replied.

“Damn it, Chris, how do you think I´ve survived here on my own? I can take care of myself. And I can take care of him.” Andie found herself suddenly angry, inexplicably protective of Vin. He needed her – and she had been raised not to run out on those who needed her.

She brushed past Chris to her bedroom, leaving Vin awash in guilt, his eyes following her questioningly as she left the room. Chris followed and watched as she opened the chest at the foot of the bed, pulled out a comforter, then a wooden box. She opened the lid and removed two pistols.

“They were my father´s,” she said. “I´ve got these and a rifle by the door and I know enough how to shoot to keep myself in venison. I say what goes on in my home and I say he stays. And since I can´t keep him from following you out that door it means you stay too.”

Andie turned back to the chest to replace the comforter and stopped, frozen, holding it to her breast. Chris saw it at the same time, realized it was too late. At the bottom of the chest was a yellowed piece of paper. Larabee saw the word WANTED emblazoned across the top of the page and did not need to read further.

Staring up at her from the bottom of the chest was the face of the man she had grown to care about. In a blinding flash it came to her – why the face looked familiar, why the name didn´t fit. This was the man she had tried for years to erase from her mind lest the grief, the injustice, the desire for revenge overwhelm her.

Slowly she pulled the paper out, mouthed the name Vin Tanner. Her fingers traced the crude sketch of his face.

“He didn´t do it,” Chris said, voicing the words that were racing through his mind again and again. “He was set up. A man named Eli Joe. Your father was already dead when Vin…” he swallowed the words, realizing no matter how hard he tried to exonerate Vin of the guilt of murder, he was still the man who had taken the body of her father in for money. Even if she would believe his innocence, there was no denying his past – that he had once made his living off the death of others.

“You were lying to me. Both of you,” she accused him, unable to take her eyes from the poster.

“He was coming here, coming to Tascosa, to find your father´s family. He wanted to clear his name with you – try to convince you of his innocence. He was willing to risk his life with the law to tell you that he never killed your father.”

“He knew all along?” she asked, confused.

“No. I found out yesterday when I saw your father´s certificate on the wall. I only knew your married name. He doesn´t know who you are.”

“But you said he came here to talk to me?”

“He came to find Kincaid´s family,” Chris explained. “He didn´t know who he´d find. But it was tearing him up inside thinking that there was a wife, children, who believed he was responsible for Jesse Kincaid´s death. He had to make that right.”

Andie´s mind raced through a maze of denial, disbelief, and confusion. The shock was so great. For years she could think of nothing but Vin Tanner – the man who had taken her father away from her. Now she found herself struggling to accept his innocence – desperate to think the man she had begun to care for wasn´t the monster she had believed him to be.

Chris moved in closer to her, took the poster from her trembling hands and placed it on the bed. He held her shoulders and looked into her eyes, brimming with tears.

“That man in there is the best friend I´ve got,” Chris said quietly. “He´s saved my life more times than I can count in the past few years. He´s no saint, I´ll grant you that. But he´s no murderer, either. In the time I´ve known him, not a day´s gone by that I haven´t seen the weight of that false charge bearin´ down on him. If any one´s at fault for him bein´ a wanted man still it´s me – and the men we ride with to protect our town. We´ve kept him from comin´ back here, tried to protect him from himself, his own sense of honor. Maybe we were wrong for that,” Chris said, as he looked away from Andie, thinking to himself. He heard her take a trembling breath and looked back into her eyes.

“When he told me he needed to make things right with whatever family Kincaid left behind, I wanted to stop him again, but I knew if I did, it´d be the same as pulling the trigger on him myself. That if he didn´t try this now, it´d eat him up, kill him slowly from inside. The best I could do was come with him, protect him if I could, explain if the family would let me, ask them to understand.”

Andie could hardly breathe. Larabee held her eyes with his own so intensely she could not look away. Her shoulders ached from where he held them in a vise-like grip.

“Can you understand that, Andie? Do you really believe the man in there could kill your father in cold blood?”

“I…I don´t…” she stammered. She looked away from Chris, desperate to break the trance he held her in. She looked down at the poster on the bed and slowly realized the stranger´s face on the poster bore no resemblance to the face, the eyes, of the man she had come to care for. She needed to see Vin again, to hear him tell his story. If she could hear the words from him, she felt she could believe them.

Andie looked past Chris into the kitchen, suddenly confused. Her eyes opened wide as she realized what was wrong. The chair where Vin had been sitting was empty, and the front door stood open.

+ + + + + + +

“Well if this ain´t a dog squat in the middle of a map I don´t know what is,” said Buck as they rode into Poteet.

Ezra ignored Buck´s comment on the town as they rode to the livery. They left their horses with a young boy and walked slowly onto the street.

“What´ya ‘spose passes for a saloon in a place like this?” Buck asked Ezra.

“I shudder to think,” the gambler replied, peering up and down the sole street of commerce in Poteet.

Ezra saw a sign across from what appeared to be the remains of the town bank. A boarding house that boasted clean rooms, hot baths and homemade meals.

“Perhaps we´d be better to try our luck there, first,” Ezra said, heading towards the boarding house.

“A hot meal might be nice at that,” Buck agreed, following.

Within minutes the two Regulators were seated at a checkered-cloth table, waiting their turn for the attention of the handsome woman who appeared to be taking orders from the customers.

“So how do we ask about…you know…without mentionin´ his name?” asked Buck.

“I would imagine our most prudent course of action would be to inquire after Mr. Larabee,” Ezra answered.

“You think he´d use his name?”

“He´d have no reason to conceal it.”

“We could just ask around about an old ornery cuss that dresses in black instead.”

“At the risk, albeit far-reaching, of such inquiry returning to Mr. Larabee´s attention, I would refrain…”

“Chris Larabee?” a voice asked, startling both men.

The woman they had been waiting on was suddenly at their table.

“Were you talking about Chris Larabee?” she asked again.

“You know ‘im?” Buck asked.

“He was here a few days ago. With his friend – I…I didn´t catch his name. He was injured.”

“Mr. Larabee was?” Ezra asked.

“No, his friend,” Laura answered, seeing a look of concern pass between the two men. “I´m sorry, my name is Laura Holt,” she said, introducing herself. She pulled a chair up to their table and told them the story.

“And you say our friends are now in the company of Mrs. Maddock?” Ezra asked. “Could you assist us in locating them?”

“Of course,” Laura answered. “I could ride out there with you right now if you´d like.” She wouldn´t mind another look at Mr. Larabee herself.

+ + + + + + +

“Where would he go?” Andie asked as Chris loaded his guns, returned them to his holster.

“Hell, the fool kid could be anywhere,” Chris answered, angry with himself for not noticing that Vin had seen what they were discussing.

“But he can´t hear…and those men out there…he´s alone…” Andie stammered.

“Not for long,” Chris said as he headed towards the door.

“Wait, I´m coming too,” Andie said, grabbing her rifle.

“No. You´re staying here,” Chris said, continuing on in spite of the protest he could see her beginning to wage, “In case he comes back. Or in case we need you,” he added reluctantly.

Andie nodded, swallowing the fear that had formed a lump in her throat. He was right. She needed to stay behind – even though the waiting would kill her.

Chris reached the door, but turned, seeing the fear that enveloped her.

“I´ll find him. He´ll be all right,” he promised, trying to convince himself as well.

Vin stumbled from the house in shock. He had seen them arguing, seen the look of horror on her face, then seen the poster on the bed.

His daughter! The thought seared his heart as if a bullet had passed through it. Andie Maddock – Andrea Kincaid – the daughter of the man he was accused of killing. He found himself almost driven to a mad laughter at the thought – the irony of it. The first woman he had felt comfortable with in years turns out to be the one woman on earth who would want to see him dead.

He realized not far from the homestead that he had not taken a gun. What did it matter anyway? There were men out here ready to kill him – but he was ready to die. He had once thought there was nothing worse than living with the guilt of not knowing who had been hurt by Kincaid´s death. But he was so very wrong. Knowing Andie now, who she was, what her father had meant to her, what she would now think of him, was more painful than he could have ever imagined.

He crashed through the woods, stumbling through a silent world of guilt and despair. This is what it came down to then? All the trials he had endured, the suffering he had overcome – all to end here with a stranger´s bullet, taking revenge on him for the death of a man he´d never known?

Maybe it all made sense after all. He had come here to assuage his guilt over a murder in which he was innocent, and would end up being killed in revenge for the death of yet another man in which he was innocent. In between were many men whose lives he had taken, deaths he was guilty of. Now it came full circle.

He was oblivious to the pain in his side, the silence that enveloped him. He walked on unaware of the shouts of angry voices about him. Unaware of the sounds of warning – the clicking of the chamber – the firing of the gun. Unaware until the pain of the bullet forced him back and left him in darkness.

“No Vin!” Chris shouted as he watched Tanner fall back, his hand to his head. He ran forward, both guns blazing a cover of bullets before him as he dropped at Vin´s side.

Larabee had finally found Vin stumbling through the woods, seen him minutes before he heard Tate´s angry shout of revenge. He had shouted himself, knowing it was useless to shout a warning to a deaf man, yet unable to stop the anguished cry that erupted from within.

He pulled Vin to his chest, cradled him in his left arm while he continued to lay fire with the gun in his right hand. Slowly Chris scrambled backwards, dragging Vin with him to the shelter of a deadfall.

“One of you bastards down – one to go!” Tate shouted. “We´ll make sure to stick around ‘til he bleeds to death. Then we´re comin´ for you!”

Shit! Chris spat as he quickly reloaded his guns. He placed them both on the ground on his right, ready to fire, then pulled Vin close to inspect the wound.

He almost laughed with relief when he saw the bullet had only creased the side of Vin´s forehead. Larabee knew he was still in a bad situation, but knowing Vin was still alive gave him all the hope he needed. After the horror of seeing Vin fall, he now felt himself almost giddy with confidence knowing Vin had not been killed.

Let ‘em come, he thought as he tore away part of his shirt to bind Vin´s head wound.

Andie had heard the barrage of gunfire, her stomach churning with fear, her mind a mass of confused thoughts. The man who had killed her father was not Vin Tanner. She believed that, didn´t she? And now, that she had gotten to know him, to know Chris Larabee, did it matter? Wasn´t the fact that she was sitting here on the floor of her kitchen, her rifle cradled in her lap, terrified not for herself but for the lives of those men proof that the only truth that was real to her now was how she felt about them? About Vin?

The sound of approaching horses startled Andie and she held her breath. Were the men coming after her now? Had they killed Chris and Vin? She was afraid to move, afraid not to. Gathering up her courage she ran to the door and threw it open, her gun pointing ahead of her.

“Andie!” Laura shouted, staring at her friend on the other side of the rifle.

“Oh my God, Laura,” Andie gasped, dropping the rifle and pulling her friend into the safety of the house.

“I´m sorry, Laura…you´ve got to help me…he´s out there…they´re out there…they´ll be killed…we have to do something!”

“Andie, please, you´re not making any sense. Who´s out there?” Laura asked glancing out the kitchen window. “And where is Mr. Larabee?”

“Chris is looking for Vin…he saw the poster and thought…he´s deaf, Laura, he can´t hear them coming…I heard shots…they´ll kill him!”

“Where´d the shots come from?”

For the first time Andie noticed the two men who had come in with Laura. She looked to them with wild, fear-filled eyes.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“We are compatriots of Messieurs Larabee and Tanner, I am Ezra Standish. This is…”

“The hell with that, Ezra, we gotta find Chris and Vin. Which way?” Buck asked Andie again.

She took them to the door and pointed south of the homestead along the tree line of the wooded area adjoining her property. She was still confused by the men who had come with Laura, but knew that they could help, and that was enough for now.

“Please, God,” Andie breathed. Her prayer was answered as Buck and Ezra heard the report of a rifle, pinpointing the location of their friends. They mounted and rode, guns drawn, in the direction of the gunfire.

“Back inside,” Laura said, pushing Andie ahead of her, “and tell me what´s going on.”

“Chris?” Vin whispered hoarsely, putting his hand to his head as he struggled to open his eyes.

“Easy, Vin,” he said, his eyes scanning the woods for movement.

“Chris?” Vin said again, louder, struggling to sit up.

“Shit!” Chris swore, pushing the tracker back down, remembering that he couldn´t hear. He eased Tanner back onto the ground and leaned in close, mouthing his words as clearly as he could.

“Stay down,” he said simply, then motioned about them with his gun. “Out there.”

Vin nodded his understanding and lay flat, trying to make as little trouble for Chris as he could. He cursed his stupidity at having run off, the presence of his friend rekindling his desire to survive.

“I blew it,” Vin said softly, shaking his head in apology.

That´s an understatement, Chris thought, but instead looked at Vin with confidence.

“We´ll make it,” he assured Tanner.

The crack of a rifle caught them both by surprise. Larabee ducked down for cover, then realized suddenly that the bullet had gone far wide, they hadn´t seen it strike ground, and yet Vin had reacted. He had reacted to the sound!

Tanner turned to Chris with wide eyes as he realized himself what he had done. Silence still enveloped him, but the rifle fire had been a muffled interruption in the void.

He smiled at Larabee, a crooked grin, the grin Chris had seen more times than he cared to remember – whenever Vin realized he had dodged the bullet again.

“You son of a…” Chris said then ducked once more when the rifle cracked again, this time the bullet sending a shower of dead wood down upon them.

“Found us,” he said to Vin. He looked down at the guns by his side, picked one up, handed the other to Vin, questioning – Can you handle this? – his eyes asked.

“Any day, any time, cowboy,” Vin answered quietly.

“Now would be nice,” Chris answered, not caring whether Vin understood him. He left Tanner behind the deadfall and began to edge around it, looking for a shot. He froze as he felt the cold steel of the gun barrel at the back of his neck.

Tate had left Riley in the woods, had him fire off shots from different locations as he made his way behind the deadfall. As soon as Chris turned his back, Tate made his move. He had one gun on Chris, the other pointed at Vin.

“Now this is almost too pretty,” Tate smiled coldly. “Get you both at the same time. Or do I take one of you out, let the other watch?”

“Take your best shot,” Chris challenged him.

“I know your friend here left without taking a gun with him. He was easy pickings for Riley – course if Riley could shoot worth a damn it would help. But at least it slowed him down some. Now you drop that gun or I finish him off first,” Tate threatened, cocking the gun that pointed at Vin.

“Your own man blew that bank job in Poteet,” Chris said, easing his gun down on the ground. “What´d he do? Use too much dynamite? Never should´ve been that big of an explosion. You got your man killed, not us.”

“Shut up!” Tate shouted, shaking with fury. “Don´t you talk about my brother!”

“Brother?” Chris asked. “Hell of a job you did takin´ care of him.”

“I said shut up!” Tate shouted again, turning to face Chris, his left arm swinging out and away from Vin.

“You might as well´ve lit that fuse yourself,” Chris goaded the man one more time. It was all Vin needed. Tate´s arm swung even further away as he faced Chris down, enough for the tracker to pull up the gun Chris had given him and fire.

Tate jerked back as Larabee hit his arm away, harmlessly discharging the pistol that had been aimed at him. At the same time both men turned to hear another rifle shot, then two more pistol shots. Chris and Vin looked at the lifeless body of Jefferson Tate, then at each other as they puzzled over the three shots.


Larabee smiled at Vin, shook his head, and shouted out.


Vin looked up at him, puzzled. Chris helped him gently to his feet. Buck he mouthed carefully.

Tanner looked at Chris in disbelief, then scanned the woods, smiling himself as he saw Wilmington and Standish walking towards them, guns drawn.

“You two ok? Damn! It´s good to see ya!” Buck shouted, running to cover the ground that separated them. “What happened to you, boy?” he asked as he approached his friends with Ezra at his side. “Figure you´d save ‘em the trouble of hangin´ you by gettin´ shot?”

Vin shook his head, unable to follow the string of words the lady´s man had thrown at him in his excitement at seeing them alive.

“Can´t hear ya,” Chris explained. “Got caught in the middle of a bank robbery in Poteet. Explosives. Andie says she thinks he´ll heal and we got reason now to believe she´s right.”

“Auditory factors aside, it would appear Mr. Tanner again requires some medical attention. Perhaps we should return to Miss Andie´s?” Ezra suggested.

Chris nodded, taking Vin´s arm to guide him back to the homestead, was brought up short when Tanner didn´t move.

“We´re gonna go get help, Vin,” Chris explained, then realized Vin understood what was happening, but was afraid to return. Afraid to face Andie.

“I can´t,” Vin said, head bowed.

Chris put a fist under Vin´s chin and raised it.

“Ain´t this what you came here to do?” Chris asked slowly.

“What´s goin´ on?” Buck asked, concerned with treating Vin´s injuries and frustrated by the delay.

“I´ll tell you on the way back,” Chris said. He motioned Vin forward, pointing towards the homestead. “Back? Right?” he asked Vin.

Vin looked at Chris, then at the confused faces of Ezra and Buck. Chris was right. This was what he had come to do. It was time to finish it. He nodded slowly and turned away from them to walk to the house. A firm grip on his shoulder from behind caused him to stop and look back.

“Together? Right?” Chris said. Vin took a deep breath and allowed himself the faintest of smiles. He looked at his three friends, saw in Buck and Ezra´s eyes that they may not understand what was happening, but that they were here for him. Yes, he could even face Andie now. These friends would stand beside him.

+ + + + + + +

“My God, Andie, Vin Tanner?” Laura asked incredulously. “But why? Why would he come back here? There´s $500 on his head!”

“I know. That´s what Chris said. That he came here in spite of that to try to explain. He said Vin couldn´t live with the idea anymore that my father´s family still believed he was the one who pulled the trigger.”

“So what will you do when he comes back?” Laura asked.

Andie looked at her, at the faded poster she held in her hands.

“If he comes back…” Andie said quietly.

The women were startled by a shout, a wild cry that cut through the silence in the house. They ran to the door and opened it carefully, peering out to see the four Regulators walking towards them. Buck raised his rifle in the air, waving at them and shouting out a triumphant cry once more.

Andie found herself unable to move, standing frozen on the threshold of her home, breathless with relief.

Chris smiled at Andie as they arrived. He shot a glance at Vin, nodding encouragement, then ushered Ezra and Buck inside with Laura.

“He´s right,” Andie said, looking with concern at the crude bandage Chris had wrapped around Vin´s head wound. “You are hard on the nerves.”

Vin looked at her confused, unable to read what she had said. He dismissed it, concerned only with what he wanted, needed to say to her now.

“It wasn´t me,” he said simply, his eyes filled with a desperate anguish.

She smiled at him suddenly, shyly, and said what she realized at that moment to be true.

“I know.”

“She´s Kincaid´s daughter?” Buck asked Chris as he read the wanted poster Laura held in her hands.

“Maddock´s her married name – was her married name. She´s divorced now,” Chris explained.

“And Mr. Tanner is suffering from a concussion and damage to his hearing due to your unfortunate timing in Poteet?” Ezra wanted to know.

“Bank job. I don´t know what happened – too much explosive, that´s for sure. Blew Vin and the guy´s brother clear out the door. Caught a piece of glass in his chest. Burned his face – voice is still pretty raw. Got skimmed by a bullet out there when I was lookin´ for him,” said Chris.

“What the hell was he doin´ then – knowin´ that idiot was out there gunnin´ for ya?” Buck demanded.

“Vin found out who Andie was. Bothered him so much he just took off.”

“But the entire purpose of Mr. Tanner´s quest was to confront the family of Mr. Kincaid. Why would he…” Ezra began, looking back out the window to where they had left Vin and Andie. “Ah, yes, it all becomes abundantly clear.”

Chris and Buck joined him at the window in time to see Andie, one hand gently touching Vin´s forehead, the other on his shoulder, as she leaned forward into his embrace.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Buck borrowed Andie´s wagon to take the bodies of Tate and Riley on to Tascosa where they would turn them over to the law and then send a telegram back to Four Corners. Before she headed back to town, Laura made Chris promise to stop off in Poteet on the way home, a fact that failed to go unnoticed by Buck and Ezra.

Vin spent the rest of the day in Andie´s care as she checked his stitches, bandaged his head and worked to determine how much of his hearing was returning. The tracker soon found he could no longer keep his eyes open from the stress and excitement of the past few days and fell into an exhausted sleep.

Andie had bid Ezra a goodnight, but found an hour later that sleep still eluded her. She grabbed a blanket and went out to sit on the porch, only to find the gambler relaxing in one of her rocking chairs, the cheroot in his hand glowing brightly in the dark night.

“Can´t sleep?” she asked him as she settled herself in a chair beside him.

“I am not accustomed to retiring this early,” Ezra explained.

“Ah, yes, the gambler,” she said, smiling. “The four of you make an odd alliance.”

“You should meet us at full strength,” Ezra said, referring to their friends in Four Corners. “Imagine adding to this lot an itinerant preacher, a mothering healer and a boy sheriff. I admit I myself am at a loss to explain the impetus behind our association.”

Andie laughed, a light, clear, pleasant sound that left Standish jealous of the tracker.

“Mrs. Maddock…” Ezra began.

“Andie, please,” she interrupted. “I´ve noticed your tendency to refer to your friends by their formal names, but really, I hold no devotion to the name of Maddock and under the circumstances, I´d prefer to leave my father´s name at peace…for the time being.”

Ezra nodded his understanding.

“Andie then,” he said, and continued. “Mr. Larabee is not known for employing proper social graces on a regular basis. I wanted to be sure we had formally extended our appreciation to you for your assistance with Mr. Tanner. I doubt I need explain to you the depth of our concern regarding his welfare.”

Andie smiled and rested her hand briefly on the gambler´s. She looked back through the kitchen window to where Vin slept, shaking her head.

“I can´t imagine him doing what he did,” she said softly. “Coming back here, knowing what he faced – the law…me – he could´ve lived out his days in Four Corners and never given us a second thought.”

“Ah, but Mr. Tanner is, above all else, a thoughtful man, Mrs…Andie,” Ezra corrected. “A young life plagued by sorrow and solitude has created in him the soul of a martyr. And a martyr must have a cause – be it his own or someone else´s. An innocent black man in the hands of a lynch mob, a wayward preacher in search of his soul, a gunfighter who laughs at death but is afraid of life, an orphaned boy in a hurry to become a man...”

“And what part does Vin play in your life Mr. Standish? What is your cause?”

Ezra leaned back in his chair, drew slowly on the cigar, let out a fine curl of smoke with a sigh.

“I am the lost cause, dear lady,” the gambler said quietly into the night, then turned to face her with a smile, “Yet Mr. Tanner has found worth even in my friendship. And that is a wealth beyond any I have obtained at the poker table.”

+ + + + + + +

“Vin hurt. OK now. Job done. Ez and Buck here. Home soon,” read J.D., panting the news after a mad dash from the telegraph office to the jailhouse where Josiah and Nathan listened intently.

“Music to our ears, J.D.,” Josiah said. “Thank the Lord.”

“Vin hurt. Ain´t that a surprise,” Nathan mumbled.

“Damn, Nathan,” J.D. swore in disappointment. “Can´t ya just be happy he´s comin´ home?”

“Well of course I´m happy he´s comin´ home,” Nathan argued. “All I´m sayin´ is I wish for once he´d come ridin´ back here without another hole for me to patch up.”

“Always thinkin´ of yourself Nate,” J.D. teased, dodging a good-natured swat from the healer.

“Job done,” Josiah repeated, reading over the telegram. “I´ll be interested to hear the story behind that.”

“You´d better hope Ez and Buck know it ‘cause all you´re likely to get outta Chris and Vin is what you´re readin´ right there,” said Nathan.

“Aw, ya don´t think they´d keep all that from us, do ya?” J.D. whined.

“Remember when Chris and Vin went huntin´ that cougar out by Nettie´s? Gone four days, Vin comes back all scratched up, Chris´ got a busted ankle, totin´ two cougar skins – and what did we get outta them?” asked Nathan.

“I believe Brother Vin´s exact words were ‘damn cats,´” Josiah quoted.

“Yeah, well, I guess it don´t matter what the story is, long as he comes home,” J.D. said reluctantly.

“Amen, Brother, Amen.

+ + + + + + +

“There a bunch a lazy old women in this house or what?” Buck boomed as he and Chris returned to Andie´s home. Both men broke into boyish grins when they saw Vin startle awake.

“You hear that Vin?” Buck asked excitedly, pulling a chair up beside the bed.

“How the hell could I not hear it?” Vin asked grumpily. “Shoutin´ loud enough to raise the dead.”

“Yee hah!” Buck shouted again, causing both Chris and Vin to wince.

Larabee shoved Buck in a reprimand, then made a place for himself beside the tracker.

“You really hearin´ ok now?” Chris asked with concern.

Vin turned his head to Chris, concentrating on the words.

“Still pretty foggy when you´re just talkin´,” Vin answered, then smiled, “But I hear all right at Buck- volume.”

“Well then you´re ok son,” Buck said laughing. “´Cause I´m the only one around here worth listenin´ to.”

“I beg to differ,” Ezra said as he stumbled sleepily from the front porch where he had finally dozed off during the evening. He stretched a stiff neck and looked blearily with disapproval at Buck.

“May I remind you we are guests in this young lady´s home,” he reprimanded. “She may perhaps be accustomed to waking without the aid of your boisterous reveille.”

“Where is Andie?” Chris asked, looking about. “Still in bed?”

“Up with the chickens, Mr. Larabee,” Andie said, coming through the door with a basket in her hand. “Who´s for breakfast?”

The four friends bid Andie good morning and set about helping her prepare the meal. It wasn´t long before they were enjoying a hearty breakfast with appetites none of them had had for days. They regaled Andie with stories of their exploits together and before they had become the guardians of Four Corners, filling her in on the personalities of Nathan, Josiah and J.D. as they talked.

Chris listened while Buck spun another of his tall tales of valor, yet his eyes were on Vin and Andie. He saw the stolen glances and shy smiles between them. Watched as the young woman prodded Vin to eat more, joking lightly with him that he was too skinny.

As much as it warmed his heart to see his friend so obviously taken with Andie, he found a hard knot tightening in his stomach. They were ready to leave for Four Corners. J.D., Josiah and Nathan had held the fort long enough. It was time they got back. He was looking forward to going home, but now he wondered if Vin felt the same way. Chris couldn´t help feeling the tracker may have turned his eyes towards a new home, here with Andie.

After the meal, Buck shooed Andie out of the kitchen, gallantly claiming clean-up duty – after enlisting the help of Chris and Ezra as well. Chris watched as Andie and Vin slipped out the front door, hand in hand.

“Shit,” he whispered quietly.

“Mr. Larabee?” Ezra questioned, following his gaze. He saw Vin and Andie head towards the tree line and nodded his understanding.

“Is it your assumption that Mr. Tanner may not wish to return with us to Four Corners?” the gambler asked.

“What´re you talkin´ about?” Buck asked, indignant. “Of course he´s comin´ home with us. He did what he come to do, didn´t he? He ain´t goin´ on to Tascosa?”

“My dear Mr. Wilmington, had you as great a talent at perception as you do for stretching the truth, you would have noticed Mr. Tanner´s growing devotion towards our attractive hostess.”

Buck looked confused, trading stares between Chris and Ezra. His eyes brightened then with realization.

“You mean them two is courtin´?” he asked with a wide smile. “Why that´s great! He can bring her back with ‘im to Four Corners, can´t he?”

“She´s got a home here, Buck,” Chris answered carefully. “People who need her. Seems to me she´s got her own plan for the future. It may not include goin´ off with Vin – bein´ the wife of a lawman. It ain´t for everybody.”

“She can still do her doctorin´…” Buck argued.

“Where? In Four Corners? You gonna bring her back and have her set up practice next to Nathan?” Chris answered.

“They could help each other out…they could…” Buck sputtered, but realized it was a weak argument. Chris was right. It would be an insult to Nathan to bring another healer to Four Corners. And Andie did not appear to be the type of woman ready to give up those talents in exchange for keeping a home, worrying when, and if, Vin would return at the end of the day.

“You really think Vin´d stay?” Buck asked, worried now himself.

“Don´t you think he deserves it?” Chris asked reluctantly. “If she asks…”

“Would it be prudent for him to take up residence so close to Tascosa?” Ezra asked.

That was a thought that hadn´t occurred to Chris. Ezra was right. Vin could hardly make a home this close to the town that had a price on his head. Yet he had seen the way he looked at Andie, the way she looked at him.

“Maybe that´s a risk he´d figure to be worth takin´.

+ + + + + + +

“They´ll be wantin´ to get back,” Vin said after they had walked a ways from the house, heading towards the woods.

Andie turned to face him, speaking clearly and slowly so he could understand.

“And you?” she asked with a sad smile.

Vin looked at her, brushed her hair back from her face, then looked out beyond her to the open landscape.

“I can´t stay here, Andie,” he said, his voice catching in his throat. “I´m a wanted man in Tascosa. I can´t put you in danger with men comin´ after me for the reward.”

“But I´ll go with you to Tascosa. I´ll explain…drop the charges,” she said.

“Murder´s a federal offense,” Vin said quietly. “And I ain´t got proof I didn´t do it. I´m afraid the sheriff there won´t be as willing to take my word for it as you are.”

“So you just keep running?”

“I ain´t runnin´ in Four Corners. I got a home there, men to watch my back in case some bounty hunter comes lookin´ for me. It´s hard enough livin´ with the thought that they´re puttin´ their lives on the line for me every day without worryin´ about you too.”

“And I don´t have any say in this?” she asked in frustration.

“I´d like to think we could see each other again. Ride out together for a time.”

“Why don´t we both leave? Ride away together, make a new home someplace else?”

Vin swallowed hard. The thought had crossed his mind. Just leave. Start over. But as much as his heart quickened at the idea of life with Andie, his soul was still bound to the work he had begun, the place he held in the lives of the men he had come to trust with his life.

“I´ve been figurin´ it six ways from Sunday, Andie, and every time I do I end up in the same place.”

“And that place isn´t here.” It wasn´t a question. Deep inside she had known what his answer would be. Truth be told, she wasn´t sure she could leave her home either if he had asked. The duty she felt towards the people in Poteet, people who came to her for help, people who had trusted her father, and now her, was just as strong as Vin´s duty to the citizens of Four Corners and to his friends.

“It´s great to be needed, huh?” she said with a bittersweet smile.

“Lonely, though,” Vin said, holding her face in his hands.

The corners of her mouth trembled as a tear spilled. He wiped it away, and covered her lips with his own.

Chris watched from the window as the two young people made their way back to the house. Andie stopped at the door, turned and walked over to her rocking chair and sat, curling her legs beneath her. She wrapped her arms about herself and rested her head back, staring sightlessly off into the distance.

Vin walked to the barn and Larabee watched with an odd combination of relief and sadness as his friend led his horse, saddled and packed, back to the house.

“We´re goin´ home boys,” Chris called to Ezra and Buck behind him.

“All of us?” Buck asked hesitantly as he joined Chris at the window.

Larabee nodded silently as the three friends watched the tracker pull himself slowly up into the saddle.

“Our gain is Miss Kincaid´s loss,” Ezra said quietly.

Chris picked his hat up from the table, settled it on his head and drew the brim down low.

“And Vin´s.”

+ + + + + + +

Chris tried to keep from worrying as they began the long ride home, watching Vin settle into a sad silence. They were used to the tracker´s stoic presence on the trail – silent, watching, always alert – but the spark of adventure, the anticipation of confronting the unknown that usually lit the bright blue eyes was missing. Chris feared his friend would return from this quest more melancholy than when he had left. And this time he had no answers for him.

Larabee had argued against stopping off in Poteet on the way home, but even he had to admit they owed Laura Holt a debt of thanks for her help after Vin had been injured.

Buck and Ezra turned their horses in towards the livery as Chris and Vin followed behind.

“Now wait,” Chris called to them. “There´s no need to put up the horses. We´re just stoppin´ here to say thanks and then get on our way.”

“What´s the hurry, Chris?” Buck asked with a grin. “Don´t you want to thank the widow Holt proper?”

Vin looked at Chris and Buck, straining to hear their conversation. He could understand words now if he was looking at the person and they spoke slowly and clearly, but he still had trouble if he was at a distance, or the person speaking had their back to him. Buck saw Vin´s questioning look at the delay.

“Chris is afraid of the widow Holt!” Buck shouted over to Vin, cupping his hand to his mouth.

“Damn it Buck!” Chris swore as Buck laughed.

“Now Mr. Larabee has employed the use of an expletive to express his displeasure towards Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra shouted as a slow smile began to creep across Vin´s face.

“Ezra! So help me…” Chris growled.

“Why, and here comes the dear lady now,” the gambler interrupted, taking his hat in hand as Laura Holt swept down the boardwalk towards them.

“I thought I heard strangers´ voices,” Laura said smiling as she approached.

“Mrs. Holt,” Ezra said, bowing slightly. “We have returned, as promised.”

“I´m so glad to see you all,” she answered. Buck and Ezra noted her eyes rested only on Chris. “You are staying to lunch I hope?” she smiled.

“Ez? We never did get a chance to check out Poteet´s local waterin´ hole. What say we do´er now?” Buck said, slapping the gambler on the back and leading him towards the center of the street.

“Mr. Tanner?” Ezra said, inviting Vin to join them.

“Vin? You want to join me and Mrs. Holt here for lunch?” Chris asked with a hint of desperation.

Vin looked at Buck and Ezra, both smiling mischievously. He allowed a grin himself and started off with them to the saloon.

“Vin?” Chris said, louder this time, his eyes pleading.

Tanner looked at Chris curiously, then shook his head, pointing to his ears.

“Still havin´ trouble hearin´ a bit Vin?” Buck asked with feigned concern, ignoring Chris´ glare.

Vin gave him a pained expression of exaggerated woe.

“Ya´ll come with me and Ez – we´ll fix that right up, won´t we?” said Buck.

“With pleasure,” Standish answered, then unable to resist a parting blow, he turned back briefly to Chris.

“Please, Mrs. Holt, take your time with Mr. Larabee. Mr. Tanner could use the rest before we continue on our way home.”

Laura Holt slid her arm under the gunslinger´s and guided him towards her boarding house.

“How wonderful, Mr. Larabee!” she said, smiling, “that will give us plenty of time to get to know one another better.”

Chris smiled at her, then turned a parting glare towards the three Regulators as they made their way, laughing, to the saloon.

+ + + + + + +

“Chris is gonna be pissed with us,” Vin said an hour into a bottle they had ordered to split between them while seated at a corner table.

“Why should today be any different?” Buck chided him.

“Everythin´ he done for me the past few days…” Vin left the sentence unfinished, guilt beginning to gnaw at his conscience for playing Chris into Laura Holt´s obviously anxious hands. Then he looked at Buck and Ezra, a new thought occurring to him.

“By the way, what the hell are you two doin´ out here anyway?”

“That´s gratitude for ya,” Buck complained, pouring himself another drink.

“We thought perhaps Mr. Larabee could use some assistance in protecting you…” Ezra began.

“Protectin´ me? I ain´t some kid, wet behind the ears, needin´ nurse maidin´,” Vin argued. “Been takin´ care of myself…”

“Hell yeah!” Buck said sarcastically. “We seen how well you do that! Ain´t it right about here you got yourself blowed up?”

“That weren´t my fault, I…”

“Chris get himself blowed up?” Buck asked Ezra, ignoring Vin.

“No, I don´t believe he suffered so much as a scratch,” Ezra answered truthfully.

“No, I don´t recall he did. ‘Course he got shot up there at Andie´s and…wait, no, why that was you, too, wasn´t it Vin?” Buck asked, wide eyed.

Vin clenched his jaw, downed a whiskey and got up to leave.

Buck shot a hand out and grabbed his wrist, pulling him back to the table, his eyes drilling the tracker´s as he spoke.

“Bullshittin´ aside, Vin, we come after you ‘cause all that business in Four Corners about it bein´ your decision, Chris sayin´ you talked it over, that didn´t sit well with us. Goin´ off to face trouble on your own ain´t gonna cut it no more. We´re not sayin´ your business isn´t your own. But what we are sayin´ is when your business involves trouble for you, it´s our trouble too.”

“I don´t want anyone gettin´ hurt over me,” Vin said firmly.

“You don´t think sittin´ back there, thinkin´ on what you were ridin´ into, not bein´ around to help – you don´t think that hurt?” Buck asked pointedly.

“What Mr. Wilmington is saying is that we have passed the point of no return, Mr. Tanner. All of us. Our fate no longer rests in our hands alone.” Ezra took a swallow of whiskey. “I admit I myself have found the concept difficult to comprehend at times.”

Buck leaned across the table, putting his hand on Vin´s neck, drawing him close as he spoke slowly and clearly.

“What we´re sayin is, it ain´t just about you no more.”

Vin nodded slowly, turning to look at them both. He took a deep breath, surprised at the sudden tightness in his throat.

“Thanks,” he said simply.

“Wilmington, Tanner, Standish – we´re goin´,” came the voice of the gunslinger at the doors of the saloon, his eyes glaring at them from beneath the rim of his hat.

“Shit,” Buck whispered as he downed the rest of his drink and got up to leave. “Gonna be a long ride home.”

Vin and Ezra each took another shot of whiskey themselves before rising to join Buck.

“Perhaps it was unwise of us to have irritated Mr. Larabee this far from the safety of Four Corners?” Ezra wondered aloud.

Vin looked innocently at Ezra, then at Buck, shaking his head in confusion with a slight smile.

“Oh no you don´t, Tanner,” Buck said forcing him ahead of the trio. “It goes both ways. Our trouble is your trouble, too.”

+ + + + + + +

The four rode into Four Corners amidst the hoops and hollers of its citizens, many who had come to count on the Seven as more than peacekeepers. J.D. jumped the hitching post outside the jail and came running as soon as he saw the four riders approach. Josiah walked slowly behind him, calling up to Nathan´s clinic as he passed.

“Vin! Chris! You´re back! You´re all back!” J.D. shouted as the men dismounted, turning their horses over to Yosemite who welcomed them back as well before he tended to their mounts.

“How bad you hurt?” Nathan called to Vin as he ran across the street with Josiah.

“Leave ‘im be, Nate,” Chris said, putting a hand up to stop the healer from fussing over the tracker.

“What happened? Did you go to Tascosa? How´d you get hurt? How´d Ezra and Buck find ya?” J.D. asked breathlessly.

“J.D., buy me a drink,” said Buck, catching a grateful nod from Chris as he steered the exuberant youth towards the saloon.

“But I want to ask Chris…”

“And I want to see you live to celebrate your next birthday which ain´t likely if you keep on. Let´s go.”

“Chris, I just want to be sure…” Nathan tried once more, but Larabee held up a hand and shook his head.

“Later, Nate,” he said again, steering Vin away from both Josiah and the healer. “Please,” he added, appreciating their concern and curiosity, but needing to give Vin some breathing room.

“I believe I´ll put in an appearance at the saloon,” Ezra said, tipping his hat to Chris and Vin as he left the two friends alone.

“You wanna talk about it?” Chris asked, finally having Tanner alone as they walked towards the tracker´s wagon at the edge of town.

“I got a choice?” Vin asked with a slight smile.

“Sure,” Chris said nodding. “Now, or later.”

Vin laughed and Chris realized how long it had been since he had heard the welcome sound.

“Aw shit, Chris, I don´t know,” Vin said as his eyes searched the horizon. “It wouldn´ta worked. For a moment there I let myself think that maybe…well, I ain´t givin´ up on it total. I´ll see her again,” he promised himself.

“Not what you expected, though,” Chris said with a smile. “Went lookin´ for absolution and wound up findin´ a sweet temptation.”

“Somethin´ to think on, anyway,” Vin agreed.

“Gotta feel a little less of a load ridin´ on ya,” Chris offered in consolation. “The name of Vin Tanner is gonna hold a different place in the hearts of Jesse Kincaid´s family from now on.”

He clapped a friendly hand on Vin´s shoulder, goading Tanner into another smile.

“Thanks, Chris,” Vin said, “for everything.”

“Hell, Vin, watchin´ out for you, the others, bein´ a part of somethin´ right for a change,” Chris said as he turned to head back into town. “That´s what I´m here for.”

Vin watched his friend leave, looked at the town about him – Josiah´s church, Nathan´s clinic, Ezra and Buck´s saloon, J.D.´s jail.

Me too, he thought.

+ + + + + + +

Several weeks later Vin, Chris and Ezra sat in the saloon sharing a bottle and waiting for the rest to show up for a round of midnight poker.

“You are healed, then, Mr. Tanner?” Ezra asked as he shuffled the deck. “In both mind and body?”

“Nathan comes at me one more time with a bottle of carbolic he´s gonna have himself for a patient,” Vin sighed in frustration.

“And the wounded spirit? Has it found its solace as well?”

“Ain´t never gonna be right ‘til my name is clear with the law I reckon, but knowin´ it´s clear with Andie…yeah, that feels pretty good.”

“She is an extraordinary creature, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra observed. “I wouldn´t mind taking a ride myself sometime…”

“You figurin´ on learnin´ how to shuffle that deck with one hand, Ez?” Vin asked, slowly pulling a knife out of his boot. Chris looked at the tracker and smiled.

“…of course, venturing beyond the limits of Four Corners has proven to be hazardous to my health on more than one occasion.”

“I´ll give ya a hazard right here, Ez,” Vin promised, drawing the blade across the back of his hand.

“This a private party or can anyone lose their money?” asked Buck as he strode in with J.D. close behind. “Whoa, boy – what´re you doin´ with that pig sticker?” he asked, eyeing Vin´s knife.

“Vin´s just staking his claim on a little piece of land outside Poteet,” Chris explained with a smile. “I think he´s made his point.”

“Perfectly,” Ezra agreed as Vin slid the knife slowly back into his boot.

“Where´re Josiah and Nate? They comin´?” asked J.D. as he dropped into a chair beside Buck.

“Right behind you, Brother,” Josiah said, entering the saloon with Nathan.

Ezra dealt – cards flashed, coins chattered against each other on the felt and the whiskey flowed warmly between the Seven as they settled into their familiar pattern.

“How you gonna play that hand Chris?” Buck asked after several hands had come and gone, the pot tending to fall randomly between Ezra, Josiah and Chris.

“Take it easy, Buck, don´t want to push an old ornery cuss like me around,” Chris answered, eyeing the lady´s man with an icy stare.

“Hey – how´d you? Ezra!” Buck accused the gambler, realizing the insult could only have gotten back to Larabee one way.

“As you recall, I did recommend prudence in referring to our esteemed colleague in such derogatory terms,” the gambler replied.

“Yeah, well, it sure took the short way ‘round to his attention,” Buck grumbled as they continued to play the hand out, this time the slim pot landing in J.D.´s corner.

Vin waited for another hand to be dealt, saw he was going nowhere once more and threw his cards in. He leaned back in his chair and swallowed the last of his whiskey.

“Hey Chris?” he drawled lazily as he grabbed his hat from the table behind him. “I need to get some air. How about us takin´ a walk?”

Larabee allowed the faintest of grins as he glanced at Vin, then over at Ezra. Buck´s jaw dropped as J.D. hid a smile behind his hand. Josiah and Nathan smiled at the lady´s man as he turned scarlet with indignation.

“Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra said casually, “I believe that´s $10 to me.”

“Damn it, Vin you set me up!” Buck shouted at the tracker, pushing away from the table to stand menacingly above him.

“Hell, Buck, you callin´ me out?” Vin asked innocently, unable to hide a smile.

“I damn well oughta! Here I come after you and all – worryin´ on ya – riskin´ my life to save your sorry hide and you sell me out to Ezra like a cheap whore!”

“Aw, Buck, I ain´t never thought´a you as cheap,” Vin said ducking a wild blow from Buck and turning his chair over as he scrambled from the table.

Buck flew at him, driving him to the ground, catching him in a headlock as he put a knee in Tanner´s back.

“You´re payin´ that $10 you dirty son of a…” Buck yelled as Vin struggled to free himself.

“That´s enough, Buck,” Chris said, intervening. He pulled Wilmington off Vin´s back and helped the tracker to his feet. “You ok?” he asked as Vin fingered his side lightly. J.D. saw Vin grimace as he stretched his arm out and sent a worried glance to Nathan.

“I ain´t sayin´ nothin´,” Nate said, catching J.D.´s glance and Vin´s pained movement but keeping his attention on the game. “Ya´ll want to tear each other up you go ahead. I´m done nursemaiden the lot´a ya.”

“Hear that? It´s open season Tanner. You best be makin´ tracks of your own before I take that $10 outta your hide!” Buck shouted as he ran after Vin with J.D. following them close behind.

“I ‘spose I better go break that up,” Chris said to the others as he made his way slowly out the door.

“Buck won´t really hurt him, Chris,” Josiah said.

“Ain´t worried about Buck,” Larabee said laughing. He left the dim light of the saloon and stood on the boardwalk as his eyes adjusted to the dark. Buck and Vin had stopped wrestling with each other and had turned on an unsuspecting J.D., threatening to drop the kid into the nearest water trough.

Chris watched them race each other down the main street, laughing like boys, trading barbs and punches. He thought about Vin – how much he had changed in just these few short weeks, the burden of Jesse Kincaid finally lifted from his young shoulders. He noticed now that the tracker went riding out a little less often, smiled a little more, and if it wasn´t his imagination, stood just a little taller.

The End