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"A Face To The Reason" Prologue (Slash - Chris/Vin, Buck/Ezra)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 1-2 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 3-4 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 5-6 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 7-8 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 9-11 (Slash C/V and B/E)
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"A Face To The Reason" Parts 14-16 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 17-19 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 20-22 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Epilogue (Slash C/V and B/E)

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“A Face To The Reason”

By Myristica (Formerly Heart Quest)



Book One:
"Shelter from the Storm"

"And if I fight your battles,
Can I rest upon your shoulder?"
-Collective Soul: 'Reach'-


Part 1

Vin lied back on the boulder Josiah had affectionately christened 'Shepherd's Rock'. It lay in a huge clearing where green grass waved in the breeze and a stream flowed nearby. Trees, willows and oaks dotted the surrounding area and along the stream bank. Wild flowers added color. Vin had come here on many occasions just to escape his worries and cares. He had brought Marcus here that fateful day, to share with a poet what Josiah called 'God's special art stroke'. The two had talked of their futures.

It was clear acting would no longer have been an option for the scarred man, but Vin had asked Marcus to stay in town. He had been good at carpentry, and people would have come to accept him and his disfigurement if given the chance. As Marcus had done for Dan that night in the saloon, he would have been able to grace the town with small performances here and there, as the desire struck.

Vin had seen a bright future for Marcus if he chose to stay. Hathaway however, had not wanted Marcus to shine. The tracker supposed he understood Hathaway's grief, but the man had refused to acknowledge the true reasons behind his son's death. Hathaway had intended to kill Marcus the night of the
Kansas City Fire. He had no idea that Robert was in the theater hall as well. Hathaway had set Marcus on fire and Robert had died trying to help his friend. Hathaway had not tried to save either of them. Panic had stepped in, and the older man had run from the scene. In spite of his pain, Marcus had tried desperately to save Hathaway's son, but to no avail. Robert had fallen from the stage, his body engulfed in flames. Marcus had been burned over the left side of his body. Not much of his face on that side remained recognizable as human. His chest had burned along with his left arm. He had lost an eye in the fire. It had been a miracle he had survived at all.

Though no malicious intent could be laid at Marcus' feet, Hathaway had covered up his act by making Marcus believe the fire had been his fault. And Marcus, his soul broken over the entire tragedy, had allowed Hathaway to control him. After all, he had said to Vin, if he had not befriended Robert, Hathaway would not have had a reason to hate Marcus so much. Though the fire had been officially labeled an accident, Hathaway's mind could never come to terms with the fact that his son died by his own hand.

When Marcus began to make friends in town, when Hathaway had seen life coming back into the actor's soul, he took justice into his own hands and shot Marcus in the middle of the street, demanding penance. Vin had held Marcus in his arms as the scarred actor's life's blood flowed over his hands, and he had seen the insidious crazed look in Hathaway's eyes. Chris had winged Hathaway before Vin could be the next target, but the damage was already done. Marcus had died, and he took with him a piece of Vin's soul.

But Vin was far from alone. Chris and the others were there. Though, for the first few days Vin didn't want anyone near, even his most trusted friend. But Chris had refused to stay away. He kept silent vigil from a shouts distance away, or while Vin tried to sleep through the night. Chris probably thought Vin didn't know of the nights he stationed himself outside the door to Marcus' room, but there had been dreams and nightmares and Chris had been there to pull him out of them. It wasn't hard to figure out. Vin smiled fondly at the thought of his friend. What in the world did I do to deserve your friendship, Larabee? he thought. Who am I fer ya' to care 'bout me at all?

The questions pelted his mind. He sat up to pull out the journal from his coat pocket that Chris had given to him after Marcus' funeral. Buck, Josiah, JD, Nathan, even Ezra and Mary had all chipped in to purchase the book, but it had been Chris' idea.

Vin ran his fingers over the soft leather binding. Sure is pretty, he thought, then couldn't help a small chuckle. Probably get all scruffy and dirty by the time I'm done with it. It had been a long time since the tracker had even been thought of for a gift, let alone been given one. And, in spite of the sentimentality involved, the gift had been received with a sense of appropriateness.

Vin's conversation with Chris echoed in his mind as he ran his fingers over the shiny, smooth cover.

"It's full of blank paper, Chris."

"Blank paper for you to fill of these days I'll find that book I want to read, Vin. It'll be yours."

Then Marcus' words came to him during one of their brief but meaningful meetings. "Speak the words, Vin. Let your heart be heard."

Vin shut his eyes at the memory of a man scarred by violence yet was as caring as an angel. "So little time, my friend," he whispered as he felt once again the loss choking his throat. "And how much ya' show'd me in so little time."

The words that prompted Vin to bring out the journal did not seem appropriate now. He would hide them in his heart for when they were.
Instead he opened the book and read over his entries so far. Brief, short, with misspelled words, but they were his thoughts. Mostly about Marcus and Chris and the others, helping him through the ordeal of the last week. One entry caught his eye...

3 days ago Marcus was kild. Why do I keep kowntin' the days? I ased Josiah why. He sed that deth som times holds onto a persen left bhind. He sed when I stop kowntin', then deth will let go. Don no if I under stand it, but Josiah is wise. Rekon deth will hold me fer a while, yet. Shuld talk to Chris. He wuld no.

Vin heard the sound of a horse coming near. He closed the book and reached for his Mare's Leg in his holster. He turned to see Chris riding in.

Vin stuck the journal back in his pocket. "Hounds of Hell comin'?" he asked, but his voice was dull, empty, no hint of joking in the tone.

Chris dismounted his horse and tied him to a nearby tree branch. He shook his head. "Thought you might want to know. Hathaway died before he could be hung. Died in his cell. The gallows are being taken down as we speak."

Vin scooted himself to the edge of the boulder and jumped to the ground. He stood there, looking around. "See you brought fishin' gear," he gestured to the two poles sticking out of Chris' saddle.

Chris shrugged. "Just tell me to leave and I'll go."

Vin sighed, shaking his head. "Naw. I could stand fer some fishin'."

Chris smiled, but it was not a jubilant smile. It was not overly enthused. It was a calm smile, one of knowing. He reached for the poles and pulled them out. "Know of a good place?"

Vin gestured to his right. "Down yonder a ways."

Vin waited for Chris to walk up to him, and took one of the poles offered. "Sometimes, Cowboy, ya' get some bright ideas," this time there was a hint of joking in the voice.

Chris only grinned, and the two started walking.

It wasn't until the two were seated side by side on the stream bank their lines baited and cast, that the silence Chris had almost forgot existed between him and Vin came to them like an old friend. Chris realized in that moment just how much he had missed Vin.

Vin rested his pole by a rock, holding it in place; then he lied back on the grass, with his arms crossed under his head. His hat rested on the ground beside him. "Thanks, Chris," he said.

Chris looked down at him. He reached out and slapped the tracker's leg in response. "Quite, you'll scare the fish away."

Vin put his hat over his face, but Chris could see the grin forming before his friend could hide it. The rest of that time was spent in companionable silence.


When Vin awoke, he realized he had fallen asleep and sat up. The blond man was not sitting by him. "Chris?"

"Here," Chris' voice answered, and he turned to see his friend standing a few feet off by the stream throwing rocks into it.

Vin rubbed his eyes, and he noticed the fishing poles were lying on the bank, the lines wrapped around the shafts. He ran a hand through his hair and stood up. "Ya' tryin' to scare the fish away?" he asked with a half grin on his face.

Chris shook his head. "Don't seem to be a problem here." Then Chris turned to Vin shaking his head. "You coulda' told me there were no fish in this stream."

Vin lowered his head, smiling. "Didn't see the point. 'Sides, it wasn't fishin' that brought ya' out here."

Chris shrugged. "Reckon you're right." He sat down and drew his knees up to rest his arms over them.

Vin walked over and took a seat beside him. "How long did I sleep?"

"About four hours."

"Four?" Vin looked at him appalled. "You stayed here that whole time?"

Chris shrugged. "Thought it would be rude to ride off without sayin' anything, and you looked like you could use the sleep."

Vin sighed. He imitated Chris by drawing his knees up and clasping his arms around them. He saw a book lying beside the gunslinger and read the title. "The I-lye-ad?"

Chris grinned. "It's pronounced Ill-ee-ad. By Homer."

"The Greek Poet. I heard o' him."

"Josiah let me borrow his copy. You slept, I read. Day wasn't wasted."

"Sorry I fell asleep on ya', Chris. Been so tired lately."

"Grief will do that to a body, Vin. Ezra says it's emotional exhaustion or somethin' like that."

Vin nodded, thoughtfully. "How's Mary doin'?"

Chris lowered his gaze. "She's takin' it hard, of course. But then she would have taken it a lot harder had he hung."

Vin's gaze took on a faraway look.

Chris waited a few moments then said; "Hathaway killed himself."

Vin shot him a furrowed glance. "He what?"

"Found some poisonous berries under his cot. Nathan found some in his mouth. He took his own life."

Vin lowered his head. "How in the hell did he get poison berries?"

"Must have planned this whole thing all along. Probably knew he wouldn't get away with killin' Marcus. Had the berries stashed on him in a pocket or somethin'."

Vin turned thoughtful again. "Might be a trick to use fer myself someday."

Chris shook his head. "Won't have to. Ain't gonna let ya' hang."

"May not have any say in the matter, Chris."

"I'll have a say. Don't you go thinkin' I'll let you down."

Vin allowed the words to drape over him like a blanket, but he knew reality and wishful thinking were two different things. Marcus had taught him that lesson. "Well if God has another idea, I'll be considering Hathaway's end to chart my own."

Chris sighed. There were always contingencies to plan for, as much as he despised the thought of Vin facing a day at the gallows. "Well, only God and death will keep me from your side should that happen. If they do...I ain't gonna look down on you if you decide to take that course of action."

"Then it's settled," Vin said and it was almost a question.

Chris nodded solemnly. "It's settled."

"That's all I ask, Cowboy."

Chris looked up at the sky. It was going on late afternoon. "You gonna ride back with me or stay here a while longer?"

Vin gazed around him at the scenery. "Was thinkin'...of plantin' some flowers on Marcus' grave."

Chris thought about this and nodded. "He'd like that."

Vin stood and walked off a few feet. "I brought him out here that day. He loved this place."

Chris stood and gazed at Vin, knowing what was going through his friend's mind. "We could move him out here, Vin. It wouldn't be any trouble."

Vin reached down and pulled a blade of grass. He began to fool with it, studying it, more for something to do than anything else. "I should'a thought about it then, but..."

"Vin, it's no trouble."

"Ya' think Josiah would mind?"

"You could ask him, but I don't think he'd mind."

Vin nodded once.

Chris walked over to his side and looked around the clearing. "Got a spot picked out?" he asked.

Vin glanced around him. "Need to think on it some more, but I got somethin' in mind."

Chris looked up at the sky. "It's gonna be dark soon." He gestured to the horses. "Let's head back. You ready?"

"Yeah, reckon so. Need to talk to Josiah."

"We can move Marcus tomorrow if you'd like."

"Ya' sure?"

"Barring any disasters, we'll plan on it."

Vin took in a deep breath and let it out. "Tomorrow'd be good."

Chris nodded, and the two picked up their gear and headed back to their horses.

They rode back to town at a slow pace. There was no hurry. It was as if God had slowed evil down, at least long enough for two friends to connect again.


JD stood at the entrance of the saloon, gazing up and down the street for any sign that Chris and Vin would soon be riding into town.

Buck , Ezra and Josiah and Nathan were at a poker table doing what they normally did when the town was quiet. Sharing in a friendly game of chance. The rest of the saloon held four more patrons. Two cowboys were standing at the bar drinking beer and talking amongst themselves. Two others were seated at a back table, having a meal.

Dan was behind the bar counter washing it down. A solemn atmosphere filled the place. Buck leaned back in his chair and glanced over at JD. The kid was worried about Vin as they all were, but JD had yet to learn to let the worry go and let those he worried about try to take care of themselves.
"Kid, you take my place. I'm losing bad here."

JD shook his head. "Buck, you always lose when you play against Ezra."

The Southern gambler shook his head with a grin. "That he does, Mister Dunne, but he must enjoy the challenge of trying to extinguish his loosing streak against me. If he did not, he would not be continually facing the front lines with each battle."

Buck snarled his lip and growled under his breath. "Ain't that, Ez. Just trying to study your game, figure out how you hornswaggle me all the time."

Ezra furrowed a brow at him. "I have never understood the meanin' of that term, Mister Wilmington. What in the world does 'hornswaggle' mean?"

Buck exchanged a humorous grin with Josiah and Nathan. "Now, Ez, if I told you that, I wouldn't know something you don't know."

Nathan chuckled. "You gotta admit, Ezra, you do come across as a bit of a know-it-all in this town."

Ezra looked slighted. "I am an educated man, Mister Jackson. Can I help it if the facts lodged in my brain are more numerous than others who grace this dusty residence?"

"Having facts in the mind does not mean one is more intelligent, Ezra," Josiah said as he studied the cards in his hands. "It is what one does with ones knowledge."

Ezra inclined his head. "I agree, Mister Sanchez. My knowledge is of cards. I use it to my advantage."

"Yeah, you hornswaggle us," Buck chuckled.

Ezra mock laughed, raising the corner of his mouth up in a half snarl. "Laugh if you will, Mister Wilmington. I start the bid at four dollars."

Buck looked at his hand and cursed. He threw his cards down. "I fold." He looked over at JD who was still looking up and down the street. "Any sign yet, Kid?"

"Nope. And it's going on dusk. They been out there all day."

"Fishing tends to make one lose track of time, JD," Josiah said as he put some money in the ante pile.

"Yeah, I know, Josiah, but you yourself said there were no fish in that stream. What could they be doin' if there's no fish to fish for?"

"What ever they need to be doin', JD." Buck said. "Chris has been where Vin is right now. Vin may have only known Marcus for a few days, but it was like losing kin."

"Hell, we've all lost kin, Buck."

"To violence?" Josiah asked the younger man.

JD thought again and shook his head. "No, not to violence. Nathan has, though."

"My loss was the result of violence, JD. My mother killed herself because of an act done against her. But I was a grown man when I found out about that. Chris and Vin's pain is recent and they done saw the result of the violence against their own. We all want to help Vin right now, but Chris is really the one who can do the most good."

"And the best way we can help is to just watch their backs while the healin' happens," Josiah said.

"I concur, Gentlemen. Right now Mister Tanner is extremely vulnerable to outside forces that would seek to exploit his vulnerability. I for one, am content to allow Mister Larabee to lead our stray lamb back into the fold, while we mend the fences." Ezra put more money in the ante pile. "I call," he told Nathan. Then he spoke over his shoulder. "Mister Dunne, rest assured whatever they are discussing or doing, whether it's fishing where there are no fish, or riding the perimeter, or simply abiding in the companionship that makes them the friends they are, it is what needs to be done."

"Oh, I know that, fellas. I just wish there was something more I could do."

"Then ask Vin to help you," Josiah suggested. "If a man who is grieving is able to focus his attention on something else, the hurt begins to die a bit more with each day."

"Ask Vin to help me?" JD looked thoughtful. "How?"

Buck walked over to his young friend and leaned down to whisper in his ear. JD's face brightened. "Oh, yeah! Buck, that's a great idea!"

Buck sighed with satisfaction. "I do have my moments, Kid." He then looked over the doors to see Mary striding over to the saloon, carrying an envelope in her hand.

Buck opened the batwing doors to let her in. "Mary? Something wrong?"

"No, Mister Wilmington, I was just wondering if Mister Larabee or Vin have returned yet?"

"Not yet. Why? Is there something the rest of us can help you with?"

"Well, I just received this wire from Judge Travis. There's a trial going on in Eagle Bend, and he wants some extra hands to help keep the peace."

Josiah stood. "I could stand with some change of scenery, Mrs. Travis."

"I'd like to go, too," JD said.

"I'd like the company, JD." Josiah turned to Ezra, laying his cards down. "I fold." He put his hat on. "When would he like us to arrive?" he asked Mary.

"The wire said as soon as possible. He doesn't think any real trouble will occur, but the extra show of force might deter any ideas the townspeople might have."

Josiah nodded to the others. "Then we shall see you all in a few days. Give Chris and Vin our regards."

Buck slapped JD on the back. "You keep your eyes open, Kid, ya' hear?"

"I hear ya'. I'll talk to Vin once I get back. I don't want to ask him too soon anyway. It's only been a few days. So don't you mention it to him."

Buck raised his hands and lowered his head in assurance. "I swear, he won't know a thing until you ask him."

JD nodded in acknowledgment and held out his hand. Buck shook it. "Take care, Kid."

"I will. Coming, Josiah?"

“After you, JD," the preacher said, and gestured to the youth to take the lead.

When they left the saloon, Mary turned to the others. "I appreciate it, Gentlemen. I know Judge Travis will, too." She nodded to them, and they inclined their heads in response.

Buck let her leave then a thought struck him. He followed her. "Mary?"

She turned to face him and Buck removed his hat, his face covered with concern. "What is it, Mister Wilmington?"

"I was just wonderin' are you doin' with all that’s happened?"

Mary lowered her gaze. "It's been hard. I saw a man I once respected turn into a murderer before my eyes. I suppose I understand why he hated Mister Marcus so much, believing he was responsible for his son's death, but..." she shook her head. "They'll be burying James in the morning."

"I'm sorry," Buck said with true sincerity. "To be honest, I once thought Chris would find the same course Hathaway followed. He had just as much hatred in his heart."

"But he didn't," Mary observed.

Buck smiled. "No. I think he tried to honor his wife and child's memory, even though he sought death at every turn. The gunfights he got involved in were his way of trying to let death take him. He walked a fine line for a long time. Then he came to this town and it all changed for him. Suddenly he had a reason to not look for death anymore. I think you and your son have a lot to do with that."

Mary sighed. "Maybe, Mister Wilmington. Maybe we were a part of it, but you and I both know the real person responsible."

Buck chuckled softly. "Reckon we do at that. I hate to admit it, but when I saw the way he connected with Vin it felt like I'd been betrayed. I went through all that darkness with Chris, but it took a stranger to bring him out of it."

Mary looked at Buck, compassion in her gaze. "Vin may have brought him out of it, Mister Wilmington. But, you have to believe your friendship kept him from drowning so far he couldn't be reached."

Buck nodded with understanding. "Never thought of it that way, Mary. I guess maybe you're right. Whatever the reasons for it all, Vin gave Chris something I obviously couldn't give. I think that's why Chris stood up for Marcus with so much determination. He saw in Marcus the ability to give Vin what he couldn't give. I guess what I'm tryin' to say to ya' is...don't give up on Chris. The bridge may be shaky right now because of all that's happened, but you gotta believe he doesn't want to burn it."

Mary smiled with warm knowing and placed a gentle hand on Bucks' arm. "Thank you, Mister Wilmington. I appreciate that."

Buck smiled at her.

"Good night," she said and turned to head back to her home.

"Good night, Mary."

Buck watched as she entered the Clarion office and closed the door behind her. Just as she did so, he saw Chris and Vin ride into town, heading for the saloon. When they reached the hitching post, they stopped their horses and dismounted.

"Buck," Chris said as he tied his horse to the post.

"Chris, Vin. How was the fishing?" Buck couldn't resist the opportunity to tease.

"Lousy," Chris replied, casting Vin a grin.

Buck could almost see a spark of a grin behind Vin's eyes. Yup, whatever these two decided to do, it had been in need of doing.

"Seen Josiah around?" Vin asked.

"Yeah, but you just missed him. He and JD were called to Eagle Bend by Judge Travis. Seems a trial may cause some unrest over there, and the Judge wanted some extra guns to keep the peace."

Vin lowered his head. "Reckon I could ask him when he gets back," he said.

"I still don't think he'd mind, Vin," Chris offered.

Vin shook his head. "His spot. Don't want to assume anythin'."

Buck looked from Chris to Vin questioningly. "Something goin' on, boys?"

Vin shrugged to Chris and walked passed them into the saloon.

Chris took the shrug as a signal that it was okay to let Buck in on the plan. Buck stepped closer to Chris. "What's up, Pard?"

"Vin wants to move Marcus to Shepherd's Rock. Wanted to ask Josiah if it would be all right, since the place was discovered by him."

Buck sighed deeply. "It would be a nice resting place for the man, seeing as how he was a lover of beautiful things."

"Vin's thoughts, too."

"Well, I could head out and intercept Josiah before he gets too far away. Ask him for Vin."

"Naw, this is Vin's thing. Josiah won't be gone that long. Best to wait."

"All right." Buck noticed that Chris' gaze had turned in the direction Vin had taken. A sorrow filled the gunslinger, and Buck understood the depth of it. "He'll be all right, Chris."

Chris sighed heavily. "I wish I could believe that. The pain runs deep inside him."

Buck nodded at Chris, an understanding smile slightly lifting the corners of his mouth. "I understand where you're coming from. Been there myself with a good friend of mine once. The only difference is Vin's not shutting you out."

Chris cast Buck a curious look, and saw in his friend's eyes the truth of it all. "Will that difference be enough, though?"

Buck lowered his gaze and nodded. "I'd like to think so. A man can only go so far before he realizes he can't walk through pain alone."

Chris allowed a small smile. "Reckon you're right at that. Listen, Buck...I knew you were there if I needed you. I just didn't know I needed anyone."

Buck nodded. "And Vin does. Let that give you hope he'll pull through with less scars than you carry."

Chris walked over to the saloon porch rail and leaned against it. "Never thought I'd allow myself to give a damn again, Buck."

"I know. I for one am grateful to Vin."

"Grateful? How's that?"

"He did for you what I couldn't. Gave you a reason to go on. Maybe I was just too close to the situation. Sarah and Adam were like kin to me, Chris, because they were part of you. When they died I did my own grieving. I guess it's that way with friends. When tragedy strikes close to home we push away those that remind us of it. Vin was outside looking in, never really involved with your pain. To you, he's a safe harbor. Able to shelter you, not broken in the same places you are. You give him your strength in his weakness, and he gives you his strength in yours."

Chris chuckled. "You've been hanging around Josiah too long, Buck."

Buck grinned. "Maybe so, but you gotta admit, what I just said makes a lot of sense."

"Maybe. So how come Vin isn't pushing me away? I was the one who pushed him into striking up a friendship with Marcus."

Buck turned thoughtful. He shook his head. "After knowing you for one day Vin trusted you enough to tell you about the bounty on his head. What does that tell you?"

Chris turned solemn. "Are you sayin' I didn't trust you enough to see me through my family's loss?"

Buck sighed. "Whether you want to admit it or not, Pard, you blamed me as much as yourself for staying in
that one extra night. Sure, you agreed to stay, but I talked you into it. You may have forgiven me, but for a long time you blamed me. And I let you because I blamed myself as well. You had nothing to do with Marcus' death. Vin sees no blame to lay at your feet."

Chris lowered his gaze. He thought about those words, but could say nothing in return. It was the first real conversation he and Buck had had between them in a long time. And Buck was right, what he just said made sense. At least enough to see him through another day.

Buck gestured with his head to inside the saloon. "Care for some beer and a game of poker? Ezra and Nathan are inside."

"Poker and beer sounds fine," Chris replied with a grin.

The two cowboys at the bar were walking out just as Buck and Chris headed for the doors. "Evenin'," they said as they headed for their horses.

Chris and Buck inclined their heads. "Evenin'," they replied and headed into the saloon.


Vin was already at the bar drinking a shot of whiskey. Dan was talking to him. "You doin' okay there, Vin?"

Vin nodded. "Just keep the whiskey comin', Dan."

Chris and Buck took their spots at the table. Ezra and Nathan greeted their leader. "Will Mister Tanner be joining us for a round?" the gambler asked as he collected the cards and began to stack them for another shuffle.

Vin turned and shook his head. "Not tonight, Ez. Thanks anyway."

Suddenly the two cowboys in the back stood up. "Tanner?" the taller one said. "Vin Tanner?"

Vin froze, catching Chris' gaze. The gunslinger stood and glared at the two strangers in the back. "Who's askin'?" he spoke out with a hard edge to his tone.

The taller of the two pulled out a folded piece of paper and walked over to Chris. He unfolded it, and Chris immediately saw the wanted poster for Vin Tanner. Chris grabbed the poster and crumpled it up. He tossed it onto the table. "Ezra? Burn it."

Ezra took a match to the crumpled poster, setting it on fire. He dropped it to the floor and stomped the fire out. "We don't appreciate that poster," he told the cowboy. "It doesn't do our friend justice."

"We're bounty hunters," the taller cowboy said. "That man there," he pointed to Vin who kept his gaze turned away, quietly drinking his whiskey. "Well, he has a hefty price on his head. My partner and I aim to get that money."

Chris pulled out his gun and aimed it at the man's throat. "Like hell you will."

Nathan, Ezra and Buck pulled their guns as well.

The man's partner started for his gun, but Buck trained his pistol on him. "You've already given us a reason to pull our guns. Don't go givin' us a reason to pull the triggers."

The shorter of the two men pulled his hand away from his gun.

"You can't protect him, you know," the taller man said with a grin. "Not twenty-four hours a day."

Chris jabbed the barrel of his gun under the man's chin. He pulled back the hammer.

"Chris," Vin warned. "Don't. I sure as hell don't want you strung up beside me."

Chris heard the warning, but did not respond. He widened his eyes at the man. "You are about ten seconds away from a pine box. I suggest you and your friend, or I will kill you."

"And if we leave, gunslinger, what the hell makes you think we won't come back?"

Vin finally pulled his Mare's Leg out of the holster and cocked it, leveling it at the man's head. "I'm already wanted for a murder I didn't commit. I sure as hell don't want to make the charge real."

" sayin' you was framed?" the shorter one asked.

Vin just glared at him.

Chris pushed the muzzle of his gun deeper into the taller man's chin. "If I even hear of you coming around this way again, I will assume you want to commit suicide and I'll gladly help you on your way."

The cowboy looked at Vin's raised weapon. "We could shoot him right now and we'd be within our rights. He's wanted dead or alive."

Chris didn't turn to Vin when he said, "Holster the gun, Vin."

Vin did as he was told. He knew what Chris was doing.

Chris seethed into the man's face. "Seems his weapon is holstered. You shoot him now and it's murder. We would then have the right to shoot you in self-defense."

Buck stepped closer and grinned. "Four guns trained on you and your partner, three of those guns have six bullets a piece. The one our southern friend is holding carries two. It's a small gun, to be sure, but the man who uses it is a crack shot. One bullet for each of you. You think that's about right, Ez?"

"I believe the arithmetic is accurate, Mister Wilmington."

The cowboy feigned fear. He swallowed. "Cole? I believe we've made a mistake. This Southern fella is right. The picture on that poster don't look nothin' like this man. We best leave town."

Vin turned to him, his brow furrowed in confusion. Did he recognize that voice? It sounded very familiar to him.

The cowboys began to back up, Chris and the others still holding their guns on them. "Remember, you come within a bullet's distance of this town and we'll hunt you down," Chris seethed as he pushed the cowboy out onto the street.

Buck pushed the shorter one down as well. He landed on top of his taller friend and the two struggled to get to their feet. They said nothing as they ran for their horses and mounted. In seconds they were riding off.

Chris turned to see Vin walk up to him. The tracker gazed after the two bounty hunters with a thoughtful expression. "What is it, Vin?"

Vin shook his head. He looked at Chris and the message was clear. (Something...ain't sure yet.)

Chris nodded and turned to the others. "We each take a shift. I'll take first watch."

"I'll take second," Ezra offered.

"I'll take third," Buck said.

"And I'll take the last watch," Nathan said.

"What about me?" Vin asked.

"You can keep one of us company, but you're not taking watch alone. Those bastards could return, and I am in no mood to track them all the way back to Tascosa," Chris said.

As much as Vin wanted to argue the fact that he didn't need a mother hen, he was simply too tired to give a damn. He sighed, giving in with only a nod. "Gonna put up my horse." He turned and headed over to Peso. Chris went to his horse. "I'll join ya'."

At first Vin thought Chris was just going to follow him around like a shadow now, but then he saw Chris untying his horse and realized they would just be going to the livery for the same reason. He said nothing, and the two made their way to the livery in silence. Chris, however, kept his eyes and ears opened. He knew the threat would one day come if Vin stayed in this town too long. It had finally arrived. He cursed the timing. Vin was in no condition mentally to ward off being grabbed by bounty hunters. First Marcus' death, and now the threat of Tascosa, that always loomed in the distance, had just reached their doorstep, knocked and said 'howdy do'. All within a week's time. Could things get any worse? He cringed. Hell, Larabee, he chastised himself. You should know better than to ask that stupid question.


As was suspected by the others, Vin chose to keep Chris company during his watch. The two barely spoke as the hours ticked by, but not because Vin was upset over Chris' caution. It was just that they didn't need to speak to each other. Silence was just as comfortable to them as voicing their thoughts. At one point, Chris saw Vin yawn as they walked the streets. "Get some sleep," he suggested.

Vin shook his head. "Dreams," he said.

Chris understood. Vin needed to tire himself out so that the nightmares wouldn't plague his sleep. There was no sign that the bounty hunters had stayed in town. Chris had gotten a good look at their horses before they rode off, and those horses weren't anywhere in town. Of course that didn't mean anything. The two men could have tied their horses outside of town and walked in, took to hiding, waiting for the right time to move.

But all was quiet.

"Travis picked a fine time to ask for additional help. I'd feel better with a few extra eyes watching this place," Chris said with frustration.

Vin shook his head. He knew Chris was worried, but there was really nothing anyone could do about it, except what they were already doing. "The world can't stop just 'cause my life's been threatened," he reasoned.

Chris sighed. "You'll forgive me if I don't cotton to that line of thinkin'."

Vin heard the unspoken message in Chris' words, and the meaning of that message struck home. He lowered his head unsure what to say, except, "Thanks, Chris."

Chris just grinned at him as he leaned against a porch post and lit a cheroot. It was a rare moment between them, when the walls came down and honesty was revealed. It wasn't easy to be open with his feelings, but in the darkness, in the silence of their companionship, Chris felt like he could tell Vin anything, allowing the roots of their friendship to sink deeper into the earth, forging a strength that not even earthquakes could rip apart. It was a good feeling, one he hadn't allowed himself for a long time.

Ezra came walking down the street his six-shooter strapped to his waist. "Evening, Gentlemen. How fares the watch?"

"Peaceful," Vin replied with another yawn.

"Your wagon in the same place?" Chris asked.

Vin only nodded.

"We best move it to the hotel alley. Park it under my window."

Vin shook his head. "Marcus' room," he said.

Chris nodded. Vin had taken to sleeping in Marcus' room in the back of the town meeting hall. The room still had the actor's books and personal effects there. Chris wouldn't be surprised if Vin took up sleeping there on a permanent basis. "I'll camp outside the door, then."

Vin only shrugged. "Suite yourself, Cowboy." He started walking down the street toward the hall.

Ezra gazed after him perplexed. "He is definitely not himself. He's acting as if he doesn't care whether you guard over him or not."

Chris shook his head. "He's too tired to care, Ezra," the gunslinger sighed. He then tipped his hat to the gambler. "Watch your back."

"That I will, sir. Good evening."

Chris nodded once to him and headed after Vin.

Ezra began to entertain himself while he patrolled by taking out a deck of cards and doing card tricks. He focused his patrol around the meeting hall, just in case those loathsome cretins had been watching Vin's every move.



Part 2

The next morning Vin awoke with a start. The dreams still ravaged his sleep, and he wondered if he would ever get rid of them. Maybe with time, but right now they were his constant sleep companions.

"You all right?"

Vin jerked his head to where the voice came from. Chris was sitting in a chair in the corner of the room, an open book in his lap. The tracker noticed it was The Iliad. He rubbed his eyes. "How long ya' been there?" he asked, rather grumpily.

Chris shrugged, undaunted by Vin's tone. "Heard you call out in the night. Adam used to suffer nightmares. Sometimes all I'd have to do is speak his name and he'd quit the dream without waking up."

Vin flung his legs over the bed and rubbed his face wearily. "Did it work last night?"

Chris nodded.

Vin yawned. Normally he would have been riled that Chris was taking up the role of 'mother hen'. One thing Vin Tanner didn't need was a best friend who wanted to nursemaid him. What he did need, though, was what Chris was offering. Shelter in a storm. The last week had been a figurative flood and Vin was wise enough to realize when he needed shelter. And if truth were told, the tracker believed Chris needed to be offering as much as Vin needed to receive. Vin knew Chris felt responsible to some degree over what Vin was going through. If it hadn't been for him encouraging Vin to reach out to Marcus, the grief over the actor's death wouldn't be hitting him so hard.

Vin would let the gunslinger offer the shelter for a time. If it got to be a habit, though, he would say something. Didn't want Chris forming no more bad habits. He already had too many ingrained in his nature.

Vin reached for the shirt that rested at the foot of his bed. "It wasn't Marcus I was dreamin' about this time. It was you."

Chris looked at him curiously. "Wanna talk about it?"

Vin shook his head with a slight shrug as he put his shirt on and buttoned it. "Don't cotton to no dreams, least ways ones I know are full of shit."

"Tell me anyway. Might make you feel better."

Vin grabbed his boots and put them on. "You got shot."

"Hathaway shoot me?"

Vin shook his head. "Naw. The guy from last night."

Chris closed his book and stood, taking his hat from the bureau. "Things in the back of our minds come out and haunt us in our sleep, Vin. It's been a hell of a week for you. Try to let it go."

Vin stood and tucked his shirt into his pants, pulling the suspenders over his shoulders. "I'd like to, Chris. Got any ideas as to how?"

Chris lowered his head. "It's easy to say, isn't it?" he said with understanding. "I guess with time it just happens."

Vin put on his jacket and hat; then he picked up his gun belt and strapped it around his waist. He pulled out the Mare's Leg and checked its load; then he holstered it. He said nothing more and led the way out of the room.

Chris followed, closing the door behind him. "Buy you some breakfast?" he asked as they headed to the back of the hall to leave by the back door. Vin nodded, and the two headed for the saloon.

Nathan was out walking the street when he saw them. He crossed the street and gave his report. "No sign of those men, Chris. I think they were smarter than they looked."

'Looked'. The word hit Vin's mind, and he cast his eyes up and down the
street, once again losing himself in the wisps of a memory. That bounty hunter's voice still haunted him, and there was something familiar about the man's stance as well...the way he 'looked'. Why couldn't Vin figure it out?

"Nathan, wanna join us for some breakfast?" Chris asked.

"Naw, just had a bite a while ago, Joe fixed me up one of those burritos.
Think I'll grab a few hours sleep."

"All right." Chris turned to Vin and noticed the lost expression.

"Something wrong, Vin?"

Vin shook his head. "Somethin' about that bounty hunter last night. Can't put my finger on it, but I get the feelin' I know him from somewhere's."

Nathan gently clapped Vin's shoulder. "Try not to think about it too hard. It'll come to ya’ when you're not trying to search for it."

Vin nodded. "Maybe so." Puzzled, he followed Chris into the saloon as Nathan headed off toward his clinic.


As the two ate breakfast, they were soon joined by Buck and Ezra.
"Mornin', boys," Buck said with a smile as he went to the bar and poured himself some coffee. Ezra followed suit. "It is a grand day to be certain, Mister Wilmington."

Buck walked over to the table and looked at Vin's plate. "Still eating like a bird, Vin?"

Vin ignored him as he stuffed another forkful of egg into his mouth. "Was thinkin' of goin' to the store and askin' Mrs. Potter for some flowers for Marcus' grave. If Josiah gives the okay, I'd like to have them ready when we do it."

Chris looked out the window. "I'll go with ya'."

"Chris, it's broad daylight. Nathan said he didn't see anythin' suspicious.
I'll be fine. I'm just goin' to the store."

"Give the boy some breathing room, Pard," Buck encouraged. "You know how ornery he gets when we cramp his style."

"I agree, Mister Larabee," Ezra spoke out as he carried his plate of food to the table and took his seat. "Every man needs his space. Our tracker is quite capable of observing the people around him without our assistance.
And I, for one, do not want to be subjected to a severe change in attitude should Mister Tanner feel he's being caged in."

Chris sighed. "All right, but the first sign of trouble you give a holler."

Vin pushed his plate away and stood. "Will do. Thanks, boys," he tipped his hat to Ezra and Buck as he headed out of the saloon.


The two cowboys stayed at the end of town. They had crept in, leading their horses, after the town began to take on life for the day. People walked the streets, going about their daily business. No one bothered to notice them.

"When do we make our move?" Cole asked as they hid inside an alley, watching the saloon and jailhouse from their position.

"When I say we do, Cole, and not a minute before. The noose ready?"

Cole removed the coiled rope from around his shoulder and held up the end. A noose had been fashioned and dangled ominously from his hand.

"All right. I saw Tanner walk into the saloon. He's bound to come out sooner or later. We wait for him to get alone, and then we make our move."

"That could take hours," Cole complained. "After last night, they won't let him out of their sight."

"As far as they're concerned we're half way to
by now."

"I wouldn't underestimate that Larabee fella. You know what the boss said about him."

"I know and I don't care. He said to deliver the message...that's exactly what we're going to do. If not today, then tomorrow. If not tomorrow then the next day. With the money we'll be making from this job we could take all year if we wanted. The boss is in no hurry."

"Maybe not, but I am. I want to see the look on Larabee's face when we do this."

"Patience, Cole. You'll have that thrill...I promise."

Cole looked over Calder's shoulder and pointed. "Maybe sooner than we thought. Look. There's Tanner now, and he's heading this way."

Calder stayed in the shadows and watched as the ex-bounty hunter made his way down the street and into the general store. He smiled. "This will be almost too easy, Cole. Come on, looks like he's alone. Let's do this. We might not have another opportunity for a while."

He led Cole around the building they were hiding behind, and made their way to the back of the general store. A stack of boxes and crates were lined up outside. Calder pushed them over. The crashing sound would bring out the owner and, hopefully, Tanner. He hurried back to hide behind the fallen crates with Cole and waited. "If I know Tanner, he'll come out to investigate."

A few seconds later, the woman who owned the general store, Mrs. Potter, came out and gasped at the mess she found. "My word! What happened here?" She shook her head in dismay and went back into the store. "I'm sorry, Vin, but the crates and boxes in the back all fell over. Would you mind helping me stack them back up? I keep them for a friend to use. He should have been by yesterday to pick them up, but...”

Her voice trailed off.

Cole nudged Calder in the arm. "If that old woman sees us?"

"We take care of it. No shooting, though. Use the butt of your gun, knock her out. Boss don't want no killin'. And I want my ten thousand. Don't mess this up fer me, or I’ll kill you, Cole. Got that?”

Cole responded by pulling out his gun and turning it around, butt first.

Calder did the same.

Vin and Mrs. Potter came out to look over the mess, and the tracker shook his head. "Somethin' did a number on these fer sure, Mrs. Potter. I can have them stacked in no time. You just go on back inside and take care of the front. I'll take care of this."

"Are you sure, Vin? I could help you."

"No, Ma'am. Won't take me long at all. I'd be happy to do it fer ya'."

Mrs. Potter smiled and put a hand to Vin's cheek. "Thank you, Vin. And I'll have those flowers ready for you as well. I think it's a wonderful idea what you want to do."

"Thank ya', Ma'am."

Mrs. Potter walked back into the store, leaving Vin alone to stack the crates.

Calder gripped his gun firmly and hushed Cole with a finger to his lips. He pointed to himself indicating he would perform the deed. Cole nodded and stayed hidden as Calder left his hiding place. He cautiously walked up behind Vin.

Vin sensed the man and started to turn, but his reflexes were slower than normal, and he had no time to see who it was. He felt the butt of the gun smash into his head, and he crumpled to the ground, unconscious.

Calder holstered his gun, cinched the coil of rope more securely on his shoulder then lifted Vin over his other shoulder. He motioned for Cole to follow him; then he carried Vin's limp form away from the general store and back to where he and Cole had taken up their hiding place.

Cole picked up Vin’s hat and followed after Calder, snickering as he went.

Calder laid Vin on the ground and proceeded to strip off the tracker’s jacket. He threw it to the side, disgusted. “Damn hunter can’t find anything new to wear. Hated that damn buckskin. Always double check any who wears ‘em,” he muttered.

Cole snickered, uncertain and uncaring if Calder was talking to him, or just spouting off. He threw Vin’s hat off to the side as well.

Calder quickly stripped the suspenders off of Vin’s shoulders. He ripped open Vin's shirt and began to tie some rope around his waist. He took a moment to admire his handy work on Vin's back. He whistled lowly. "I do good work, Tanner. Know that? Those scars will be with you for the rest of your life, you bastard." He chuckled and pulled a strand of rope up towards Vin's neck from the one around his waist. This rope was not part of the rope that held the noose, but it was the most significant part of the plan. He then put the suspenders back on to hold the shirt in place, hiding the rope. He then uncoiled the rope with the noose and began to work, cutting lengths of it from the other end with his bowie knife.

Cole approached him at a low crouch. "Made sure no one saw us. We're in the clear."

"Good. Help me with this. We have to tie the noose part just right."

Cole chuckled with delight. "Can't believe this was so easy."

"Tanner is as slow now as he was then. He didn't sense me until it was too late. Same mistake he made when I took that whip to him in

"Either that or you're just too quiet, Calder."

Vin began to moan as they continued to tie him up. Calder tied Vin's hands securely behind him while Cole took another length of rope and tied Vin's legs at the ankles. "That should hold him good. He's waking up."

Vin moaned again and tried to open his eyes.

"Calder, he'll call out if he realizes what we're doin'."

Vin heard the name. Calder? Dear God! His eyes shot open and stared into the face of one of his many nightmares. He opened his mouth to call out, but Calder clamped a hand over it. "Easy, Tanner. I see you remember me. But no matter." Calder pulled Vin's neckerchief up and tied it tightly over his mouth. Vin struggled against the ropes binding him, but only succeeded in breaking the skin around his wrists. Too tight, too tight. Then he saw the noose as Calder placed it over his head. Vin strained against the ropes. No! Chris! Dear God! Chris!

The noose was tightened and Calder turned to Cole. "Bring the horses.
Now that he's awake we don't have much time."

Cole jumped to his feet and hurried off to get the horses that were tied at the other end of the building.

Vin struggled some more, screaming against the cloth over his mouth.

Calder grinned down at him and grabbed a handful of Vin's hair. He pulled the hair taught. Vin cringed. "It ain't over yet, Tanner, least ways not quite. Larabee's got to see this. We want him to see this. We want that very much."

Vin shut his eyes. He pulled against the ropes binding his wrists, and he didn't care that the course braids drew blood. He had to get free. If he had a choice between hanging alone or having Chris watch...there was no choice. He couldn't let Chris see this. He couldn't!

Calder seemed to know what he was thinking and laughed. He swung his fist and hit Vin across the face, knocking him out again. Cole led the horses over to them. Calder stood and handed the rope to his partner.

"Wait for my signal, and then start dragging him. I'll clear the way for you."

Cole sat his horse, draping the rope around his saddle horn. "This is gonna be good, huh, Calder?"

Calder grinned as he mounted his own horse. "Just make sure Larabee gets a good look."

"He will, Calder. He will."

Calder rode off down the street toward the saloon.


Mrs. Potter went to the back of the store to check on Vin's progress when she saw that he was gone, and the crates were still lying on the ground.
"Vin?" she called out. "Vin?" No answer. Where had that boy gone?
Curious, she walked around the building to the front, hoping to see some sign of him; then decided to head over to the saloon, thinking one of the other boys had called him over.


Ezra looked out the window. "Is that Mrs. Potter?"

They all glanced up to see the woman who owned the general store walk into the saloon. "I'm sorry, Gentlemen. I was looking for Vin."

"He's not over at the store?" Buck asked.

"He was. That's just the point. He was helping me stack some crates when I needed to attend to some customers. He assured me he could take care of the task himself, but when I went to check on his progress, he was no where in sight."

Chris tensed. "The crates. Where are they?"

"Outside the store, in the back."

Chris turned to the others. "Damn bastards!"

There was no other explanation. Vin would never leave a job undone without a word to the person who had assigned it.

The four men jumped from their chairs, and when Chris reached the swinging doors he heard his name called out, and time suddenly seemed to slow.


Chris pushed through the doors and saw the man from the night before, across the street, sitting his horse. He was smiling arrogantly at him, while biting down on a cigar.

Buck, Ezra and Nathan filed out. Buck gestured for Mrs. Potter to stay inside and to stay down.

The tall cowboy took off his hat and waved it in the direction of Chris' right. It was a signal to someone. They all turned to see a horseman riding down the street at a full gallop, but the horse was straining. Something was hindering its speed.

The tall cowboy laughed. "LOSE SOMETHING, LARABEE?" he shouted.

The taller man quickly spurred his horse into a lope. "
SAYS HELLO, LARABEE! ENJOY THE SHOW!" He shouted over his shoulder as he rode out of town.

Screams from the people could be heard as the other horseman barreled down the street. That's when Chris saw what the horse was dragging...or rather, whom.

"Dear God!" Ezra paled as they all realized who was being dragged behind the horse. Vin.

The eyes saw, but the brain didn't register. Shock, horror. It was Vin! The horseman rode by, and Chris could see clearly the rope around Vin's neck. Why couldn't Chris get his legs moving? He forced his mind to confess it. Vin was being dragged by his neck! His neck! Damn it all to hell! He pulled his gun and aimed it at the horseman's back. With a scream he never knew he could force from his lungs, Chris fired the gun and the horseman jerked with each slug that entered into his body. His hand released the hold on the rope. It slid from the saddle horn as the man’s body slid from the saddle like a rag doll. Chris watched Vin's body roll limply until it came to rest near the side of the street.

The horseman fell from the horse as the animal galloped off. The man hit a hitching post and crashed through it. He didn't move.

Chris holstered his gun and ran towards where Vin lied, a crumpled, seemingly lifeless form in the dust. "Ezra, get Nathan," he ordered.

"Like the wind," the gambler replied and ran off down the other direction toward the clinic.

People began to gather around where the unmoving tracker lay. "Step aside!" Buck Wilmington ordered as he pushed the observers out of the way, barely able to maintain his manners with the female persuasion of that group. "I said step aside! Give the man some air!"

Chris was helping him push the others out of the way, not merely to keep Vin safe from prying eyes but to get to his side. He had to know. Dear God, he had to know if Vin was still alive.

Seeing Vin up close as he broke through the final wall of people, Chris stopped, frozen at the sight before him. The ropes that bound Vin's wrists had ripped into his flesh, drawing blood, which meant only one thing: Vin had struggled and was possibly conscious when the dragging first started. His shirt had been ripped and bloodied during the dragging. His hat and buckskin coat were not on him, and his face was bruised and bleeding. Whether from the dragging or from being beaten into submission, Chris couldn't tell. It stood to reason that Vin would have been beaten before being dragged. How else would those bastards have been able to truss him up unless he had been unable to fight back?

In those few moments of fear, Chris' heart almost stopped. This was the man who had given him his life back, now he was before him, possibly dead or dying. The bile rose and burned Chris' throat. He forced it back.

Kneeling behind Vin, he gently reached out and put a hand to the younger man's shoulder. He reached out his other hand to Vin's neck, but it was shaking so bad he couldn't control the act he needed to perform. Or maybe it was that he didn't want to face what his sense of touch would tell, or rather not tell, him. Would there be a pulse? He pressed his fingers to Vin's neck, searching, searching...

"Damn it! I can't find a pulse!" He looked up at Buck pleadingly. The larger man knelt down at Vin's head and felt for a pulse as Chris looked angrily up at the people. "Get the hell away from him, you vultures! If you ain't gonna help then get out of here!"

"I found a pulse, Pard. He's still with us," Buck looked up at Chris with a relieved smile.

Chris shut his eyes, his body sagging under the realization that Vin was still with him. He let out a breath and looked down at Vin's bloodied face. He quickly, but gently, removed the gag from Vin's mouth. "Come on, Pard. Give me a sign here," he whispered as he brushed away the dust-covered, disheveled hair from Vin's forehead.

Suddenly the need to touch Vin drove him to every movement, he had to be sure Vin was still there. Buck’s words had eased him up some, but the fear of what he had witnessed leaked out of him, replaced only with a new keep the tracker alive.

Nathan hurriedly broke through the dispersing crowd with Ezra behind him. Buck stood and made room for the healer, knowing Chris would not move from his friend's side until he knew Vin would be all right.

Nathan took Buck's place and began to examine Vin. "Give me one of your knives, Nathan. I have to get these damn ropes off 'im," Chris spoke out with a controlled but desperate voice.

Nathan procured a knife from his side and handed it to Chris hilt first.

Ezra and Buck exchanged worried glances. Buck's eyes told the gambler all that needed to be said. Vin was alive, but how bad off was still the question.

Ezra turned to the other man who had done the dragging. He walked over and squatted down looking for a pulse. "Whoever that other bastard was who got away, this man will not be telling us."

"Look through his clothes, Ezra," Buck suggested. "There might be something on him to tell us who he is."

Ezra searched the man's shirt and pants pockets, uncharacteristically plunging into the clothing like a raven picking at dead animal flesh. His short and controlled movements were indicative of his anger pouring out of his body.

He pulled out a few dollars in change. He shook his head. "Nothing, Mister Wilmington." He looked over at Chris. "Mister Larabee, shall we ride out after the beast that escaped your wrath?"

Chris nodded. "Yeah. Bring the bastard back alive if you can. I want to question him...personally." The look Chris gave was enough to put his infamous 'Larabee glare' to shame.

Buck nodded once to his friend, and gestured for Ezra to follow him to the where their horses were tied up outside the saloon. By this time Mrs. Potter forced her way through the wall of people gathered around the scene.
"Mister Larabee?" she asked fearfully.

"He's alive, Mrs. Potter. Please help us by keeping everyone back."

The woman turned and coerced the bystanders away. "Please, give them room to work!"

Chris carefully, but with force, cut the ropes tying Vin's wrists. Nathan took a knife to the rope around Vin's legs. Chris began to work on the noose.
"What the hell?" he said.

Nathan looked up at him curiously. "What is it?"

The healer watched as Chris probed Vin's back from the neck down to his waist. "There's something here. What the hell is this?"

Nathan took over the probing, and then he raised Vin's long hair from off his neck. "The noose is hooked around another rope, but it's not connected."

Vin's shirt was already damaged beyond repair, so Chris didn't think twice about cutting the back of the shirt open, only to reveal a rope going down Vin's back to encircle his waist.

"So that explains why he's still alive. They didn't want to kill him," Nathan explained. "The rope around his waist was meant to keep tension off the neck."

Chris wasted no time in cutting the rope from Vin's waist and neck. He tossed it aside, releasing a growl of furious anger.

Nathan pulled Vin's shirt away and began to clean the rope burns around Vin's waist. He saw the lash scars on Vin's back, but knew about them already. They were ignored. Instead, he focused on the scrapes and quickly forming bruises along his back and sides.

Suddenly Vin stirred, his arms thrashing out in disorientation. "Hold him down, Chris! He don't know where he is!"

Chris wrapped his arms around Vin, pulling the tracker back against him.
Vin's body shook in the gunslinger's arms, and Chris knew then how much the fear had taken hold "Easy, there, Pard! You're safe now. They're gone. We got 'em." Damn them all, Vin. Whoever did this...”

Chris let his lips rest against Vin's ear, whispering the soothing words with heart-felt need. "You're with me, now, Tracker. I've got you."

At the sound of Chris’ voice, Vin eased down. He slowly opened his eyes and looked up at his friend. "C-Chris?"

"Yeah, Vin. It's me. Ya’ with me now?"

"C-Chris," Vin swallowed as he fought to maintain consciousness. "I knew him."

Chris and Nathan glanced at each other. "What do you mean, Vin?" Chris asked looking back down at his friend. A snaking dread crept up into Chris' spine. He forced himself to remain still. Vin was able to pinpoint everything Chris felt even from a distance. The blond man didn't want to chance Vin sensing his fear with this much contact between them.

"That man...I remember...Calder." With that, Vin's eyes closed, and he lost consciousness once more.

Chris froze. Roy Calder...the bastard who had taken the whip to Vin a few years before. He lifted his eyes to Nathan and fought the urge to spit nails.

"Who's Calder?" Nathan asked.

"Not here," Chris seethed, his voice tightening with fury.

Mary came through the crowd and stopped with a gasp at the sight before her. "My God! Mister Larabee what happened?"

"Someone tried to kill Vin. Wire Eagle Bend, tell Josiah and JD to see if they can't break away and get back here. Tell the undertaker to take care of that other guy," he gestured with his head to the man lying face down a few yards from them.

Mary nodded with determination. "Right away." She broke through the crowd heading toward the telegraph office.

Chris positioned himself behind Vin and lifted as Nathan grabbed his legs. "Everyone! Back off!" the healer ordered as they moved through the crowd down the street toward the clinic.


Chris sat in the chair next to the bed where Vin lied, still unconscious.
He was staring at Vin's face, his body and jaw full of tension.

Everything came to a head within the gunslinger. Too much fear in one single moment. Too much terrifying altercations with mortality. His body could not stop shaking. He had frozen in time when Vin needed him the most. He had stared at Vin being dragged, and his body had gone numb.
He could not absolve himself of those few moments that would be forever etched in his soul with images of searing fire.

If Vin had died...

"His eyes are clear, Chris.” Nathan was still examining Vin for any other injuries. “Don't look like he has a concussion."

Chris didn't seem to hear. He reached out and rested a hand on Vin's chest, needing to feel the heartbeat beneath.

"No broken ribs, just some nasty bruises and cuts from being dragged and the rope cuts to deal with," Nathan went on with his diagnosis. "He'll be all right. He might have a headache when he wakes, but that's about all, next to the sore muscles." Nathan looked at Chris, studying him with concern.

"I froze, Nathan," Chris whispered out hoarsely. "I saw Vin being dragged by the neck...and I froze!"

Nathan walked around the bed to where Chris sat and knelt beside him, taking his friends' shoulder. "We all know what Vin means to you, Chris.
It's no secret. Seeing something like that..." he shook his head. "You ain't above feeling, Chris. Even someone with your nature, well, there's got to be a breaking point somewhere. You thought Vin was dead, didn't you?"

Chris nodded, never taking his eyes from Vin's face. "I couldn't think. I couldn't move! Damn it, Nathan, he needed me and I couldn't..."

"Stop it!" Nathan almost yelled, shaking Chris abruptly. "You froze! All right! It happens. None of us, no matter how many fights we fight, we all freeze at some time! The point is when you could move, you did what you had to do. Chris, no man is above the laws of the heart. We have to think what this is going to do to Vin. They had a gag on him to keep him from calling out. That means he must've known what they were going to do. Can you imagine the fear going through him? He probably had no idea the rope around his waist would keep his neck from breaking. If you let this drag you down, then you won't do Vin any good and you may as well leave now!"

Chris looked up at Nathan and realized he was right. He rested his elbows on the side of the bed and rubbed his face. He said nothing, but let the wisdom of those words seep into his numbed body as best they could.

Nathan sighed with some relief and walked over to his desk. He pulled out the bottle of whiskey he kept there. He poured Chris a shot, which the blond man accepted with some resignation.

Nathan chuckled. "Never thought I'd give Chris Larabee a shot of whiskey for medicinal purposes."

Chris had to smile at the remark. All amongst the Seven knew of his past love affair with the bottle.

"I think we all could use a belt after what we just went through."

Nathan poured himself a glass and gulped it down in one swallow. "You wanna help me get the bandage around his waist?"

"Yeah." Chris swallowed his whiskey and set the empty glass on the nightstand by the bed. He locked eyes with Nathan. "Thanks."

And Nathan knew the 'Thanks' went deeper than a mere word.


Buck and Ezra pulled their horses to a stop. They looked around them in every direction.

"It's like he just disappeared," Buck said, frustration causing his voice to rise. "How in the hell can we not see him in all this open country? Not even a dust cloud!"

Ezra sighed heavily. "He could be hiding behind any one of those hills, waiting for us to give up."

Buck cursed, slamming his fist against his leg. "I don't want to be near Chris when we tell him we lost that bastard!"

Ezra looked at Buck appalled. "Are you insinuating that I should be the one to tell him?"

Buck eased back in his saddle, beaten. "Naw, Ez. I ain't suggestin' that.
We'll both tell him, but you know who he's gonna throw a punch at."

"I'll intervene to the best of my ability, Mister Wilmington. My power of persuasion may come in handy should the need arise."

Buck chuckled slightly. "I have no doubt about that, Ez."

The two turned their horses and headed back toward town.


Nathan was seated on one chair beside Vin's bed while Chris sat on the other side, when Vin groaned.

Chris leaned forward. "Vin? Can you hear me?"

Nathan reached to check Vin's pulse. "His heart's beating fast. Talk him out of it, Chris."

"Vin? It's Chris. Wake up, now. It's all over. You're safe."

Vin took in a deep breath, and his eyes shot open. "What? Who?" He sat up and cringed as the pain hit. "Damn!"

Chris rested a hand on his shoulder and eased him back onto the pillow.
"Hold up there, Tracker."

Vin reached out and grabbed Chris' shirt. "Calder! He...was gonna hang me."

"Vin! You're safe!" Chris pried Vin's fingers from his shirt and clutched Vin's hand hard. "You're safe! We got to you!"

Vin's widened eyes took in the area around him. He saw Nathan leaning over him and realized he was in the clinic. "I'm...what the hell happened?"

"They trussed you up in a type of noose that wasn't meant to kill you, Vin," Nathan explained. "You got some rope burns around your waist. They tied one around you to keep the noose from doing any damage. They dragged you through the street behind a horse. Chris shot the man who was doing the dragging."

Vin eased back onto the pillow, closing his eyes. "Damn it. Shit! Chris, Calder wanted ya' to see. He told me before he knocked me out. He wanted ya' to see. I didn't know they was gonna drag me. I thought...they was gonna hang me."

Chris tightened his grip around Vin's hand. "It's over, Pard."

Vin opened his eyes and gazed up at Chris, a sliver of hope in his expression. "Did ya' get 'im?"

Chris tensed. He had no idea if the man he shot was Calder or his partner.
He had no idea what Calder looked like. But Vin did. "I got someone, Vin. The other guy tore off before I knew what was going down. You said you remembered one of them being Calder. Which one was it?"

Vin swallowed and Nathan quickly poured him a glass of water, putting it to his lips. "Drink this."

Once he'd drunk some water, Vin wearily looked up at Chris. "The one you threatened last night."

Chris shut his eyes. He instinctively (or maybe it was unconsciously), put a hand to Vin's face, cupping his cheek, as he pulled his gaze away.

"Aww, hell!" Vin groaned. "Ya got his partner, not him."

Chris shook his head with regret. "I was hoping...I'm sorry, Vin. I suppose our luck just isn't that good these days."

Vin reached out and wrapped his fingers around Chris' arm, squeezing it. "Then we better find a way to change our luck, 'cause we both know that bastard's gonna try again."

Something about this whole thing was starting to turn Chris' mind in another direction. "Vin, why did Calder want me to see this? He made extra sure I saw it. Did he say anything?"

Vin thought for a moment then shook his head. "Naw, nothin'. At the time I couldn't really ask 'im." Then Vin looked at Chris curiously. "Why would Calder want ya' to see me like that? He's from my past, not yours. Or is he?"

Chris shook his head. "To my knowledge I've never had any dealing's with the scum."

He eased his hand from Vin's face and stood, rubbing his chin in deep thought. But what he was thinking about could not be voiced. Not at that time. Vin had enough to worry about. He would not add to that load. But the thought went through his head. Calder had said 'Douglas says hello, Larabee.' Who in the hell was Douglas, and what did Calder have to do with either this Douglas or Chris?

"Chris?" Nathan asked. "What is it?"

Chris turned to see both Nathan and Vin gazing at him curiously. "Trying to think of a connection. How is it that a man from Vin's past could be connected with mine?"

There was a knock on the door. Chris pulled his gun and gestured for Nathan to grab his. When the healer took up his pistol they both aimed at the door. "Who is it?" Nathan asked.

"Buck and Ezra," Buck's voice called out.

The two men put their guns away. "Come in," Nathan said.

Buck and Ezra walked in and from the looks on their faces, the news they had to report wasn’t good. "Chris? I don't know how to tell ya' this, but...we lost him." Buck looked down.

"It's all right, Buck. We know who he is. Vin recognized him."

Buck looked both shocked and relieved. "He did?" The two men looked over to the tracker. "Hey, Pard," Buck said. "How ya' doin'?"

"Reckon I'll survive. Thanks fer goin' after 'im, fellas."

"No thanks are necessary, Mister Tanner. After what he and his partner did to you, we felt it was our duty to find him and beat the shit out of him."

Vin smiled. "Such language, Ezra."

Ezra grinned. "Comes from being around miscreants like the lot of you."

"So who is this guy, Vin?" Buck asked.

"Long story," the tracker replied sleepily.

"And one that can keep until the others are here to listen to it," Nathan said. "Vin's still dealing with a blow to the head and being dragged down the street. He needs rest right now. Not more talking."

Chris nodded. "I want someone with him at all times, Nathan."

"That won't be a problem, Pard," Buck said. "Just saw Mary. She's still waiting for word on Josiah and JD, when they'll be able to come back."

Chris nodded, but it was the blank look in his eyes that spoke volumes to both Buck and Ezra. The two exchanged curious glances.

"Fellas?" Nathan spoke out softly.

They all turned and Nathan gestured to Vin who had slipped back into sleep again. "I suggest you take this conversation outside. My patient needs rest."

Buck and Ezra walked out of the clinic, with Chris following. "We'll be back in a little while, Nathan."

"I ain't goin' anywhere," the healer said.

Outside, Chris looked up one side of the town to the other. People were going about their business as though nothing had happened. Just another spark of excitement in the town that died once the source of it was out of sight. He furrowed his brow. "I'm going to Mrs. Potters. Let her know how Vin's doing. I also want to try and find his hat and jacket."

"I'll help you, Chris. That boy looked plumb naked without those things," Buck said with a grin.

"I'll scout the area, see if there could be any sign that bastard returned," Ezra said.

"Meet us at the saloon. Vin and I had a conversation and I can at least fill you in on what happened."

The three went off to their self-appointed tasks.


"This is where you last saw Vin?" Chris asked Mrs. Potter who took them to the back of her store.

"Yes. I heard this terrible sound and came out here to see the crates had all fallen over. I asked Vin if he would help me stack them up again, he told me he would be happy to. I went back inside to cover the front of the store and after about ten minutes or so I came back here to see how he was doing.
That's when I discovered he was gone."

"Chris? I ain't no tracker like Vin is, but look here." Buck pointed to footprints. "Could be nothing, but from the imprint on the ground by the crates, that's where they took Vin out. They picked him up and carried him this direction."

"It's worth a shot. Thanks Mrs. Potter."

"He will be all right, won't he, Mister Larabee?"

Chris tipped his hat to her. "He'll be fine, Ma'am. A little sore, but nothing more serious."

"Thank God for that. Will you be needing me for anything else?"

"No, Ma'am. We'll take it from here."

She smiled at them and headed back into her store.

Buck smiled. "Vin would do anything for that woman."

Chris nodded. "Wouldn't we all? Her husband's murder is what caused us to stay in this town."

The two started following the footprints. "I'll be damned. There's his hat," Buck said, and he ran to pick up the hat that lied on the ground just behind the hardware store.

"And there's his jacket." Chris went to pick up the buckskin garment when something fell out of the pocket. He knelt down and recognized the journal he had given to Vin the night of Marcus' funeral. "Aww, hell!" he said.

Buck had to smile. Chris was sounding more and more like Vin everyday.
"What is it?" he asked as he stood over where Chris was kneeling. "Oh, the journal."

Chris stood and gazed over the book. "I would have hated to tell Vin he lost this."

"Yeah. I think it's come to mean a great deal to him. I see him writin' in it every once in a while."

Chris shook his head and clutched the book tightly. "I've got to get this to him, Buck. You head on over to the saloon. I'll be there soon."

"Right, take your time, Pard."

Chris hurried off toward the clinic. Buck chuckled knowingly. It had been a long time since he had seen Chris get so sentimental about anything. He was willing to bet that journal would come to mean more to Chris than to Vin in the years ahead. Of course, Buck knew no one would take that bet. It would be too close to call.


"Mister Jones, I don't understand why we just don't take him now," Calder said as he leaned his elbow against the fireplace mantle. "I mean it's not like Tanner knows why I'm there. Why all the games?"

The middle-aged man with the white hair who was dressed in black pants, a white shirt and a black jacket, was busy lining up his next shot on the billiard table. He patiently waited for his hired man to stop whining, before he took his shot and sunk the final ball before the eight ball.

"Calder, in billiards the cue ball is used to strike the ball you really want to sink, but if you strike the cue ball too hard, then the ball it hits could end up pushed out of your reach. Or the cue ball could miss the target all together and sink itself, thus causing great frustration on your part. Now, in this case the cue ball is Vin Tanner and the eight ball, my intended target, is Chris Larabee. Observe." He lined up the play, aimed his cue stick and shot. "If you hit the cue ball just right..." the white ball hit the eight ball, causing it to land in the pocket. "The game is won. But, in order for the game to be won, you must take your time and plan the exact spot to hit. I am paying you a hell of a lot of money to follow my plan. You are my cue stick, Calder. I aim and you strike. If you scratch the shot..." he took his cue stick and knocked the cue ball into the corner pocket. He then pointed the stick at Calder's neck. "I scratch the face of the earth. If you strike the cue ball, namely Mister Tanner, just so, Larabee will be hit, and he will end up exactly where I want him."

Calder grinned. "Dead."

Jones chuckled with amusement, throwing Calder off guard enough to sideswipe him with the stick across the head. "No, you idiot!"

Calder fell to the floor grabbing his head, blood flowing from his left eyebrow.

Jones knelt beside Calder and glared at him. "I don't want either Tanner or Larabee dead. That is why I told you what would happen if you scratch the shot. It's very simple, Calder. You want Tanner, not because of the bounty, oh no, no, no, for I am paying you twenty times more than what he is worth to you dead or alive. You, in fact, want Tanner because he defied you and survived that time of torture you inflicted on him. That is your agenda.
Larabee is mine. It is only by sheer luck the two have become the closest of friends. We each get what we want with one small digression for you. You want Tanner dead. I do not. I am willing to let you toy with the sharpshooter, to indulge your evilly sadistic ways, but with the money I am paying you, I expect sink...the cue ball. Or as I said...I sink you. Do I make myself clear?"

Calder nodded. "Yes, sir, Mister Jones. Very clear. But, why do you want to hit Larabee instead of kill him?"

"My business," Jones replied as he stood and went to the mantle. He opened a brass box and pulled out a cigar and a match. He bit off the end of the cigar and spit it into the fireplace. "My business and that's all you need concern yourself with." He struck the match and lit the cigar, the smoke billowing around his head like malicious vapors.

Calder stood and straightened his shirt and duster. "Then what do you want me to do next, sir?"

Jones blew out the smoke and grinned. "They'll be on their guard now.
So...for the time being...we do nothing."

Calder snorted, not certain he heard correctly. "Nothing, sir?"

"Exactly. Not one thing. You will not even step a bullet's distance near that town. Not until I give you the word. Is that also clear?"

"But, sir..."

"I asked you if that was clear, Calder?"

Calder submitted, though with hesitation. "Clear, sir."

"Good. Now, I do believe you have an appointment in Rock Ridge do you not? A woman of the night who tickles your fancy?"

Calder smiled. "Indeed I do."

Jones reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a coin. He tossed it to Calder who caught it with one hand. "Enjoy yourself. And you will stay on in Rock Ridge until you hear from me. Consider it a vacation."

Calder's grin broadened, and he gripped the coin tighter. "Thank you, Mister Jones." He turned and left the large study, passing a short, balding man dressed in a gray tweed suit on the way out.

"Phelps, my good man, come in, come in," Jones waved the short man into the study. "We must talk business."

The short man closed the study door and turned to Jones. "Mister Jones, was that that Calder fellow you hired?"

"Indeed it was."

Phelps shivered. "A most deplorable man."

"Murderers most often are, Phelps. But it just so happens he suits my needs. What's the latest news on our research project?"

Phelps walked over to the desk and stood as Jones sat down behind it, placing his feet with their well-polished shoes on the corner. He smoked the cigar with ease and calm. Phelps was not the least bit intimidated.
"The reports indicate that the studies are still rather vague."

"They won't be when I am finished with my research. Have my contacts in San Francisco agreed to my offer?"

"More than agreed, sir, they are anxiously awaiting to hear of your findings."

"Yes, of course they are. Is your part in this ploy organized?"

"Completely. I am ready when you give the word."

"Good, good. I have waited three years for this opportunity, Phelps. Three very long years."

"I am curious, sir, as to why you desire to use such tactics for your...mode of revenge?"

"Simply because it will drive Larabee insane trying to figure out why. And also because I want to be absolutely certain that I remain in control of this entire ordeal. He had no right, Phelps, no right to take from me. It's my turn now—my turn to give it back to him. Revenge is not best when served cold, Phelps. It is best when it is served flames boiling the pot of rage."

Phelps remained placid. He was that type of man—stoic, resolved. He had to make himself that way. Being a man of short stature, he had to learn to strengthen his mind instead of his body. So he had set out to learn, to become a thinker.

He had served in the Civil War as a strategist for the Union Army. Studying people was a natural interest he held, and when Jones had hired him for this particular task over a year ago, Phelps had seen the offer as an opportunity to study the calculating mind-frame of vengeance. There was no doubt in Phelps' mind that Jones was crazy. None. But the prospect of working for a crazed maniac appealed to Phelps. And so, in a way, his own sense of vengeance could be vicariously employed through Jones' plan.

Men such as Larabee and Tanner had always laughed at him or thought him not worth their time. He would have an opportunity now to lash back at such men who flaunted their handsome looks and over-confidence in front of Phelps. He would show such men once and for all who the smarter man was. He would sit back and watch the plan unfold, and...he would call it 'good'.

End Book One
(TBC in Book Two of "A Face To The Reason": "Vin Tanner, I Hardly Knew you.")

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