It was noon when Ezra pulled the last stick of dynamite back as far as the slingshot would allow. He launched the stick of TNT into the air. As it completed its arc in the air above the rocky ground and started its descent, Vin followed it until it was at least eight feet from the ground. He gently squeezed the trigger and felt the recoil of the rifle. Both he and Ezra smiled in satisfaction as the bullet triggered the dynamite’s explosion exactly six feet above the ground.

"Excellent shot."

The tracker smiled in pleasure. Both men were tired and covered in dirt and sweat, but they were both elated their plan had worked so well. It would be a definite advantage in reducing the odds against them should the need ever arise.

"It really is a good idea, ain’t it?" Vin looked over at Ezra. "It just might save our lives one day." They walked toward their horses. Ezra untied the reins and let them drop to the ground. The horses had actually been rather calm throughout the entire time, so Ezra wasn’t worried they would try to bolt now. Vin slid his rifle in place and followed Ezra as he walked back to pick up the bag in which they had carried the dynamite. The horses followed a few steps and stopped to gnaw on the few patches of dried grass sticking up from the ground.

"I agree, my friend. Surely big brother won’t yell half as much when he sees how effective this is and just how excellent a marksman you are." Ezra had taken to occasionally referring to Chris as ‘big brother’ ever since the Terrell incident. He didn’t use the appellation often and only in front of Vin when the two of them were doing something they knew would worry the older man. It was a private little joke that not only bonded them but also showed the respect and affection they both felt for Chris Larabee.

"Well, at least he might not shoot us." Vin turned to see if Ezra appreciated his joke. He was rewarded with a grin as big as his own was. Vin was really getting a feel for this strange family he’d stumbled upon ten months ago. He actually liked the idea of having brothers, even if they were brothers brought together initially through pure chance. He noticed Ezra’s grin fade just a bit. The gambler was thinking about something.

"What?" Vin knew Ezra had had another idea just by the look in his eyes, but he never got to ask what it was when they heard a yell followed by a tremendous explosion to their right.

"Ezra, run!"

They both reacted as quickly as they could, but they couldn’t outrun the wall of rocks and debris that came crashing down upon them from the overhang of rock. They got as far as behind several large boulders when they were knocked down and covered with rubble and rocks. The horses had managed to outrun the wall of rubble and ran for all they were worth back to the safety of the town.

* * * * * * *

Tom Darcy, Jr. was just fourteen years old. He was an only child, but unspoiled by parents who knew how to combine love with discipline. He was a decent kid as kids go; he reminded the seven of a very young JD. Full of exuberance and curiosity, he really was well liked by everyone. Right now, he looked at horror at the seen below him. He hadn’t liked Gregson when he had first come by their spread asking for a job, but his father was a fair man who had given the drifter a chance. TJ, he had started using TJ after he had heard JD’s use of his initials, had seen the man deliberately try to start trouble with Vin Tanner the day before. Vin and the other six men had helped his dad out when Lucas James had tried to take over the Darcy spread, so in TJ’s eyes all seven men were heroes. Vin and JD did little to dispel that hero worship when they had tamed the mare not even his dad could.

Gregson had called Vin an Indian lover, but Vin was a good man. He never laughed at TJ or acted like he was too busy to answer the kid’s questions whenever the kid had been near enough to his heroes and brave enough to talk to them. When TJ had seen Gregson take the blood bay mare his dad had given to JD and Vin, he had looked for someone to help, but no one was around. The kid had saddled his own horse and had ridden after the thief with only his righteous indignation and an old shotgun as backup.

It hadn’t taken long for him to catch up and have his weapon taken away from him by the bigger man who was nothing more than a bully. Knowing he couldn’t leave the kid as a witness, Gregson planned to take him a safe distance and then kill him. Besides, Gregson liked young boys, and TJ was handsome if somewhat small for his age. It was pure luck that took Gregson past the place where the men for whom he had formed an unfounded hatred were so involved with their task that they didn’t notice they had company. The noisy explosions and the fact that Gregson and his captive had come up from the opposite side of the slope gave him the advantage.

Gregson had been unreasonably angered when Tanner had just returned Gregson’s insult with a stare. In the time it took for Vin Tanner to size Gregson up with those penetrating blue eyes, Gregson’s hatred for the Four Corners’ peacekeeper had erupted. Then the fancy man who'd taken his money started questioning Darcy about him. Gregson didn’t like too many questions asked. Someone might find out that the real Jim Gregson had been killed for his identity and his horse. Those two peacekeepers might discover that. Tanner might already know, his eyes having revealed to Gregson that he didn’t like the man at all. Now was his chance to take care of those two once and for all. Too bad he couldn’t spend some quality time those two pretty boys first. But, Gregson had the boy. He would make do with him.

Not thinking the frightened boy was any threat Gregson had just left him standing next to his horse, his hands tied in front of him. He’d seen what the two men were up to and had formed an immediate plan. A thief, Gregson had even stolen dynamite from the railroad before he had been discovered and fired. He pulled several sticks out of his saddlebags and proceeded to tie them together. He gleefully told TJ what he had planned. He would kill the two men in a rockslide and then, when he was through with the kid, Gregson would kill him and throw his body down into the rocky debris. Everyone would think that all three had been killed in the accident. No one would even think about Gregson until he was long gone and safe. It was a good plan and might have worked if TJ hadn’t decided he would rather die than allow Gregson do what he'd threatened. While Gregson was busy planting the dynamite, TJ quietly took in the situation looking for anything to help him just like his pa and then Vin had told him if he ever found himself in a dangerous situation. TJ could see only one way to save himself and alert the men below him. When Gregson leaned over close to the edge to light the fuse, TJ had rushed him and shoved the man with all of his strength, yelling all the time. Gregson had slipped over the side as the dynamite exploded throwing TJ about four feet back in the air away from the falling rock. Gregson and the two men below appeared to be buried under all the rubble.

A very bruised and shaken boy now stood looking over the ledge. He just wanted his ma and pa. He certainly didn’t want to remember that he had just killed a man, and that two good men might have been killed as well. He stumbled to his horse that hadn’t bolted like the others and crawled into the saddle. Barely hanging on, he turned his horse towards his home and let it have its head. The horse high-tailed it for home, the boy barely staying in the saddle. He needed to get to his pa. TJ’s pa would know exactly what to do. TJ never noticed the other two horses heading for town or the movement below him. He was too scared to even think someone might have survived the rockslide.

First a hand, then an arm emerged from under the debris. It flopped around aimlessly until it connected to a larger rock. The hand pushed at the rock but was unable to move it. The hand shoved feebly once more at the rock and then fell back to the rubble lifeless. There was no more movement until a few minutes later when a foot emerged from under the rock. It, too, moved shoving at some of the debris and rocks until more of the stuff shifted. The foot was buried again. Only the sound of a muffled cough interrupted the deadly silence. That stopped, and then there was no more sound or movement from the pile of rubble.


Just as TJ Darcy was riding hell bent for leather and yelling at the top of his lungs into the corral where he saw his father standing with a group of men, two horses were making their way back to the town livery. JD happened to be walking out of the jail when he saw the two riderless horses. They were soaked in sweat and covered with dirt and little pieces of rock. JD yelled for Buck and ran up to stop the spent and still frightened horses. Buck took one look at them and grabbed the reins of Vin’s horse. Then, he took the reins of Ezra’s horse.

"JD, Chris is over at the telegraph office. Go and get him now!" JD was off like a shot as Josiah and Nathan shoved their way through the gathering crowd. Everyone knew whose horses they were, and the people began to speculate in whispers, then louder until Buck turned around with a glare. He was about to yell at the crowd to shut up when Chris Larabee appeared. Without so much as a word and barely a glance from him, the crowd grew quiet and began to disperse. Only Mary Travis, Mrs. Potter, and Inez remained behind.

"Oh my God! What’s happened to Vin and Ezra?" Mary knew that neither man would use his horse in such a fashion. She also knew that if they returned alone, two of her friends were somewhere else injured possibly dead. Mrs. Potter and Inez both moved closer to Mary as they waited to hear what anyone knew. Chris still hadn’t said a word. He just stood there staring at the horses. Buck looked at his friend and saw the bleakness in the eyes he hadn’t seen in almost a year. He was just as worried as the others, but he knew Chris needed him strong right now. The possibilities of what had happened were only too clear to the five men, but the women were at a loss to know what had befallen Vin and Ezra. Mary directed her gaze to Chris.

"Chris, do you have any idea, . . ." Buck cut her off before she could finish her sentence.

"They went out early this mornin’. They had some. . . ."

"We need to go find them!" Chris interrupted. He was fully in control as he started issuing orders. "JD, you and Buck take their horses to the livery. Saddle our horses and get a wagon hitched up. They may not be able to ride." He refused to think beyond injuries. The debris littered throughout the sweat on the horses and their fright reminded him of the horrors during the war when explosions from cannon fire left this same type of dirt and grime mingled with the smell of gunpowder, sweat, and fear. He shook his head to forget the memories of blood, missing heads, arms, and legs, and bodies ripped apart by the force of the explosions. "Nathan, get your supplies and some blankets. Inez, can you help Josiah look through Ezra’s stuff for the map they were usin’? They might have marked where they were goin’. Mary?"

"I’ll help you look through Vin’s things. You think they might have run into some bounty hunters?"

Mrs. Potter looked distressed. Vin was always so nice to her and the children, especially since her husband’s murder. "Oh dear, you don’t think they’ve taken Mr. Tanner and Mr. Standish?" She was very worried. "I know a lot of the town folk would be willing to help out if that’s so. They’re all real fond of Mr. Tanner and Mr. Standish."

Chris smiled at her. He didn’t know if the town folk were all that fond of his two friends or scared of them, but he did know that both men had a way of making people feel at ease when they wanted to. Vin’s shy politeness and Ezra’s southern charm went a long way to make most of the women in town adore the two men while their lack of pursuit of the married ladies and younger daughters left the men thinking they were much safer to have around than Buck. Regardless, Chris thought it would be much safer and friendlier if the town’s residents didn’t know that they had two men who were missing because they were out playing with dynamite. That didn’t bode well for future harmony. Chris refused to think that his friends might be dead. He couldn’t handle losing any more family, and that is exactly what they were.

Vin was the younger brother he’d always wanted, and Ezra? Hell, even Ezra was growing on Chris. The more he knew him, the more he realized that Ezra and Vin were really a lot alike. Vin covered his need to belong to a family with his shyness and loner attitude. Ezra covered his with his aristocratic demeanor. Both men, however, covered up the fear that they would eventually end up as lonely as they had always been by acting like they didn’t need or want others around. Chris knew it was a defense mechanism much like he had developed to keep the pain away.

If you didn’t let a person close to you, then the pain wouldn’t be so bad when they left you. But Chris was learning that no matter how hard you tried to keep your heart free from the pain of losing someone, the heart didn’t always pay attention to what the mind said. He had learned the hard way that he had to decide was his life better off with him not knowing these people, or were they worth taking the risk and caring about them. Mary and Billy, Vin, Ezra, and the other four men were worth the risk. So, Vin and Ezra had better be okay because Chris was planning to kill them both slowly for causing this pain that was threatening to engulf his heart. He jerked back to reality and looked at the concerned woman.

"Let's find them first Miz Potter. If we need help, we’ll certainly ask the town for it." Some brave people who had ventured closer heard these words and nodded to Chris. It made him feel a little better knowing that the town truly did appreciate the seven men and would be willing to help out if necessary. He acknowledged their concern with a touch of his forefinger to his hat. It reminded him of the two missing men. Just wait until he got hold of them. They’d better have every one of their fingers and toes still attached to their bodies, or else!

He took Mary by the arm, and they went in search of a map that might give them more information where the two men were instead of just the general direction in which they went. Chris knew Vin like the back of his hand, and he wouldn’t put it past the wily tracker, or the clever gambler for that matter, to have changed directions once they got out of sight from the town. ‘Big Brother’, Chris had heard Ezra refer to him as that when Ezra and Vin had thought it was safe. Surprised that they were calling him that and not one of the others, Chris found he actually liked the reference. At least he had come to like it when he discovered that the two actually thought of him that way. After all, it was a big brother’s responsibility to take care of the younger ones.

Well, big brother needed a starting place from which to track the two. He had to think where they would have gone to hide the sound of the explosions, yet stay close enough to the town in case there was trouble. If they were going to call him big brother, then they were just going to have to live the privileges a big brother naturally had over the younger ones. Big brothers had the right to make the younger brothers’ lives miserable if they did something stupid. Chris liked the idea of torturing Vin and Ezra; he really thought this big brother stuff was a very good idea. As he and Mary started looking through Vin’s possessions, he refused to feel guilty invading the quiet tracker’s privacy. Privacy was another thing younger brothers who were prone to trouble forfeited.

Vin didn’t have a lot, and after about ten minutes, Mary found the map. It was sitting under the book and tablet with which she had been teaching Vin to read and write. She tried to hide it, but Chris took one look at it and grinned a perfectly evil grin. Mary blushed a bit and lowered her eyes to the map she spread open on the bed. Chris knew immediately why he had been seeing Vin and Mary together almost every day now. Here was another piece of the enigmatic tracker’s life to which Chris Larabee now had claim. How had Vin kept his inability to read and write from everyone? And why would he bother? Chris didn’t think any less of him, but that was Vin’s way. He was probably embarrassed by it, and Chris was determined to milk it for all it was worth when he found Vin and Ezra. Vin deserved to suffer and so did Ezra. Chris planned to send a telegram to Maude as soon as he found the pair. Between what he knew Maude would do to Ezra and the ammunition this bit of knowledge provided him with, neither man was ever going to live this dynamite episode down for a very long time. Just that thought alone made Chris feel better as he leaned over to look at the map. He still held the tablet in his hand. It was as if the large, carefully printed letters made him feel closer to the tracker. Chris felt no guilt at all. Maybe Vin had written something down that would let him know where Vin and Ezra had gone.

"It might help, if I knew what I was looking for, Chris." Mary was desperately trying to avoid any embarrassing questions about the reading and writing lessons. She knew Chris had noticed that she and Vin had been meeting every day for the last few months, but she felt it wasn’t her business to tell Chris about Vin’s ‘Achilles’ heel’. She peeked up at the man she was seriously considering as a father for her son Billy. He was worried and angry at the same time. That could only mean that either Vin was up to something he knew Chris wouldn’t like, or that Chris felt guilty about what had happened. She was praying for the first choice. She didn’t like the way Chris took so much blame onto his shoulders. It wasn’t good for him or for the relationship they were building.

She put a hand on his and looked at him. "They will be all right. No matter what has happened, you will find them and they will be alive and safe." Chris looked at her. She made him feel there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. Sarah used to have the same effect on him. Mary deserved to know what was going on. Vin and Ezra were her friends, too.

"We know they were headed out this morning to do something with the dynamite they took from the powder man’s case."

"Dynamite? What on earth do they need dynamite for? Are you telling me those two have probably blown themselves up? I’ll kill them. If they aren’t already dead, I’ll kill them for scaring the life out of us!" God, he really did care more than he wanted to admit about this woman. She thought just like he did.

"We don’t know what happened, but from the looks of this map, I think I know where they are." Chris pointed to spot on the map. "This is the only place where they could blow something up without being heard or destroying the land too much."

"Do you think?" Mary just couldn’t go on. The possibilities were just too many and too horrible to even consider.

"I am hoping that they spooked the horses and are walking back hot, tired, and thinkin’ up some really good excuses to give us." Chris didn’t want to think of all the other things that could have happened if they were doing what he thought they were. Only those two would think it was a good idea.

Chris had no idea that while he was in town trying to find a place from which to start the search that Tom Darcy was trying to get a coherent explanation out of his terrified and exhausted son. It would be another half-hour until both search parties would set out, one hoping against hope that they would find them alive. Chris didn’t know that Darcy had dispatched a man to explain to him what had happened. He also had no clue that the two men in question were buried under a pile of rock and debris through no fault of their own.