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"A Face To The Reason" Parts 20-22 (Slash C/V and B/E)
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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)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 12-13 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"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)

Enter subhead content here

“A Face To The Reason”

By: Myristica


Part 20

The night before they were to move in on Garrison Jones’ estate, Buck rode out to the shack with Ezra at his side. It had become clear to the others that the two men had found a common ground between them these last few days, but no one else knew to what extent that common ground had turned out to be.

They simply categorized it as a common need between them to help ease Chris and Vin’s suffering. Still, none of them could understand the incessant smiles and grins that passed between the gambler and scoundrel.

It was a secret both men found intriguing to keep. “I wonder who shall be the first one to ascertain our level of relationship in the days ahead,” Ezra mused.

Buck chuckled. “I’m willing to bet on Josiah. He keeps hinting as to what happened between us. Can’t see the connection.”

Ezra smiled. “Appearances being deceptive has certainly proven true in our case,” he acknowledged.

“Perhaps that will benefit us in the long run, eh, Ez?” Buck gave him a wink as they turned the corner in the road. Chris’ shack was over the next rise.

“Indeed, sir. But as for betting on who shall figure it out first, personally, my money would be on Mister Tanner. Especially since he and Mister Larabee are as equally involved.”

“Maybe not as equally, Ezra. Our turn of events is brand new to us. Theirs…has been going on since the world began.”

Ezra pondered this observation and let out a sigh. “Since the world began,” he echoed. “A more apt description could never have been ascribed to those two men, Buck.”

“Still, I’d like to think we have our moments in history.”

“You are speaking of other lives, sir?”

Buck nodded. “Talked to Josiah a lot about it the last few days. Says there are these people from
who have a philosophy that souls are constantly being reborn into new bodies.”

“Well, sir, if that is a true philosophy, then perhaps we, ourselves, met when the world began.”

Buck smiled with fondness. He eased a hand close to Ezra’s cheek and gave it a soft brush. “It’s a nice thought.”

Ezra blushed a bit, and Buck could see the tint of red even as the sun slowly sank in the western sky. “You better stop that, or I’m going to stop us here and now and pull you into a kiss.”

They cleared the hill at that moment and Ezra raised a hand to stop them. “Best not think of such matters now, Buck. The bet stands. Tanner or Josiah? Shall we wager?”

Buck snorted, not unkindly. “Leave it to you to make everything a wager, Ez.”

“Still, it would be nice to know which of our friends knows us better than the others.”

“Fine, then. But the wager is this…if I win, I want one night with you under the stars, without fear of being discovered or interrupted.”

Ezra pulled back a bit at that. “A night under the stars?”

“That’s my wager.”

Ezra rubbed his chin. “Very well, I will place aside my abhorrence of sleeping on the ground should you win. But, if I win…” Ezra smiled at him with playfulness. “I get to have my way with you, anywhere, anytime and the tools used will be at my discretion.”

“Tools?” Buck eyed him warily. “What exactly are the kinds of tools you’re thinking of, Ez?”

“Oh, I’m not exactly certain at this point, Buck, but one does present itself clearly in my mind.”

“And that would be?”

Ezra straightened in his saddle and prodded his horse forward. “A feather, sir.”

Buck’s mouth dropped open, and he watched Ezra move away from him, clearly pleased with himself based on how he sat his saddle. “A feather? Ezra, you’ve got to be joking!”

Ezra stopped his horse and turned. “That is the wager, sir. Do you consent?”

Buck clearly did not know what to make of this wager. He squared his shoulders and cleared his throat. “A feather.”

Ezra just smiled, cunning and certain.

Buck chuckled. “I get the feeling it’s going to be hard to deny you anything, Ezra.”

“I’m counting on that, sir. Shall we?” He gestured to the shack and started on again.

Buck moved his horse to match gait with Ezra’s. “You are one conniving son-of-a-gun, Ez.”

“That, sir, is not to be contested.”


Upon nearing the shack, both men could see that the place was deserted. Ezra stiffened. “Buck?”

“It’s all right, Ez. Chris told me where they might be if they aren’t here.” Buck took the lead and led Ezra into a clump of trees further down the road from the shack.

In the glow of fading sunlight, both men found Chris and Vin seated at the base of a tree. Vin was lying across Chris’ lap, using the gunman’s legs as a pillow. It appeared he was sleeping. Chris was reading aloud from a book, his other arm folded protectively over Vin’s chest. The words of poetry filled the air, in soft and hushed tones.

Buck and Ezra dismounted their horses and tied them to a tree, uncertain if they should interrupt the sanctity of the moment. As they drew closer, Chris stopped reading and slowly turned to them. He said nothing, made no move of acknowledgement, but Chris’ eyes told Buck all that needed to be said.

Buck watched the scene with an almost reverent appreciation. “We’ll wait for them at the shack, Ezra,” he whispered, tipping his hat to Chris. He turned to walk back to their horses.

Ezra followed after him. “But we need to tell them…”

“The need to go over the plan can wait. They’ll be back when the sun goes completely down. Give them this time, Ezra. For the sake of their souls, Vin needs Chris to be there for him like this now more than anything else.”

Ezra turned back to see Chris had resumed his reading.

“So it seems,” he agreed. “Very well, sir. We will wait for them to return.”

And when they had removed themselves completely from sight, Ezra reached out and grabbed Buck by the coat lapel pulling him into a quick and hungry kiss.

Buck responded in kind, holding the gambler firmly in his arms. “Damn, Ez,” he breathed out. “What was that for? Not that I’m complainin’ none.”

Ezra straightened out Buck’s coat, smoothing out the lapel. “Sir,” he cleared his throat. “Are you, perhaps, familiar with poetry?”

“Not as much as I’m thinking I would like to be.”

Ezra pulled him into another kiss, this time one as gentle as rain. “I believe, we should endeavor to avail ourselves of the art. If what it has done for those two souls yonder is in anyway the result, I consider the words, or even action to be utilized in order to increase our own mutual attraction.”

“If you’re saying it stirs your blood, Ezra, I reckon I could handle a stanza or two.”

Ezra held him fast. “Not just yet, Buck. For the moment the air between us is heated enough.”

He pushed Buck against a tree and Buck did not protest in the least when Ezra mauled his mouth with a hunger so deep Buck could feel it throughout his body. He breathed out heavily. “Took to reading some Shakespeare again after Marcus came into our lives. JD wouldn’t leave it alone. I believe the following words would be appropriate here.”

“Speak them, sir,” Ezra breathed and kissed him again.

“Once more into the breach, my friends?”

Ezra furrowed a brow. “Would that not be a call to battle, Mister Wilmington?”

Buck shrugged. “Well, I thought it fit well considering what you’re about to do to my breeches.”

Ezra looked down and grinned. “May the stars direct my sail, sir.” He fell to his knees and ripped off Buck’s belt.

Buck flung his head back and gasped as Ezra took him full into his mouth and sent him beyond the clouds into a heated glory.

“Oh, God,” he moaned, running his hands through Ezra’s soft golden brown hair. “Damn that mouth of yours is sure talented, Ez.”


Chris’ voice washed over Vin’s soul as he recited the ill-fated tale of Achilles from ‘The Iliad’:

“When Hector saw his brother Polydorus sink to the ground clutching his entrails, his eyes were dimmed with tears. He felt he could no longer bear to stay aloof, and he made at Achilles like a raging fire, brandishing his sharp spear. Directly Achilles saw him, he leapt to meet him, saying to himself in exultation: ‘Here is the man who struck me the cruelest blow of all when he killed my dearest friend. We have done now with dodging one another down the corridors of battle.’ And greeting Prince Hector with a black look, he said to him: ‘Come quickly on, and meet your fated end the sooner.’”

Vin clutched Chris’ arm that rested over his chest. “Achilles went mad,” he observed.

“He loved Patroclus.”

“Like his own soul,” Vin whispered.

Vin looked up at him. An understanding flowed between them and Chris set the book aside. “When I go up against Calder and Jones, Vin, I’ll keep my wits about me. I promise. You’re alive. To Achilles, Patroclus’ death signaled his own, and he was willing to meet his fate without blinking.”

“And you? Had I been killed, Chris, what would you have done?”

Chris stared off, his hand gently stroking Vin’s shoulder. The look on his face was answer enough.

Vin sat up and turned to Chris. “I would not want your death to follow mine,” he whispered.

Chris brushed Vin’s cheeks. “It would not be your decision,” he affirmed, gently.

Vin lowered his head. “You…you would love me that much?”

“Without you, Vin, I would be Achilles to your Patroclus. I would welcome death wherever I could find it.”

“But why? I’m no good to you anymore. Even now I crave the drug. You’ll have to live with that craving if you and I stay together.”

“Then I’ll live with it. I’ll go through hell again with you, if it means keeping your soul safe. I love you, Vin. And I won’t lose you again.”

Vin quickly stood, frustration spurting out of his body in spite of the weakness that made him stumble as he moved off a few steps. “I would never burden your shoulders with this.”

Chris got to his feet and took Vin’s arms, turning him around to face him. “It’s my soul, they’re my shoulders and I, alone, determine what burdens them and what doesn’t. I told you that I would travel the world with you, as a friend if nothing else. Can’t you see that? Vin, while you were gone, I thought my world was dead. I searched for you everywhere, and it was the only thing that kept me alive, believing that somehow you were still alive and waiting for me. I’ve got you back. If you can’t find it in yourself to hold on to what I believe is still inside you, then believe in me, hold on to me and I’ll carry you through until you can grab hold what makes you Vin Tanner.”

“I don’t know what makes me who I am, anymore.” Vin sounded lost, uncertain of anything, even Chris’ presence and love.

Chris cupped his face and gazed into his searching eyes. “Vin, look at me. Look into my soul for a while. I’ll be whatever strength you need to keep you from slipping too far.”

“I need to find my own strength, Chris.”

“You will, Vin, I promise, but you’ve got to give yourself that chance. Right now you feel as though you can’t find your way out of a blizzard, but I’ve gone through a few of those myself. I know what steps to take to keep from falling and never getting back up again. And I owe you for that. You were my light to lead me home, Vin. Let me be your light now.”

Vin shut his eyes. “I don’t know how to let you.”

“Just let go, Vin. Let go and let me carry you until you can find your feet again. And I know you will.”

Vin opened his eyes and looked deeply into Chris’, saw the sincerity there and grabbed on to it. “I don’t deserve you,” he whispered.

“Love isn’t about what we deserve, Vin. If it was it wouldn’t be something we give freely.”

Vin rested his hands over Chris’. “I remember what we shared. Every day the memory gets clearer and clearer.”

“It’s like I said, Vin, no expectations.”

“No, you don’t understand. I want you to…I need you…to kiss me.”

Chris stared at him, uncertain, but his heart beat like a drum against his ribs. “Are you sure?”

Vin locked eyes with him. He seemed to hesitate, but Chris also thought it might be the need within Vin to claim his mark on this moment. “Yeah. I’m sure.”

Chris gently took Vin’s chin and eased in to where their lips brushed together.

“I won’t break,” Vin assured.

“Not that,” Chris replied. “Just want to savor this.”

Their lips pressed together and Vin opened his mouth to receive Chris’ tongue. It was warm and loving and Chris’ arms wrapped around Vin carefully, pulling the younger man into his embrace. Vin returned the embrace, tasting Chris, remembering what it felt like to have this intimate connection between them. The memory of how they first realized what they felt about each other wafted into Vin’s mind and he remembered how happy he had been to find love with this man. How, after Marcus’ death, both men gave themselves permission to love each other, how Marcus’ life had given them the courage to reach out and grab on to the truth between them.

Vin put his hands to the back of Chris’ head and pulled him into a deeper kiss. It was still outside of his grasp, the complete and encompassing love he used to know with Chris, but this was the first step to trying to recapture it. And it was sweet, and warm, and full of truth.


Chris sat at the table, Vin beside him. Ezra and Buck were seated on the other end of the table, watching them carefully.

“What time tomorrow do we ride?” Chris asked.

“We need to be at the exchange point at
three o’clock
,” Ezra replied. “Once MacAfee’s man purchases the opium, we make our move.”

Chris turned to Vin. “You going to be able to handle a gun?”

Buck lifted Vin’s mare’s leg, still in its holster, and put it on the table. “
found it in the livery. JD kept it clean, the leather oiled.”

Vin reached for it, pulling out the familiar, yet not familiar, weight. “It’s been a long time,” he said. “Maybe I should just use one of Chris’ colts. I don’t have the time to build up my arm strength for this thing.”

Buck nodded once. “Then JD can handle the sharp shooting. He’s been practicing a hell of a lot while you were gone, Vin. Gotten real good at it.”

Vin smiled. “Then he can take over for me when this is all over.”

Chris took his hand and turned to the others who gazed at them questioning.

“Chris?” Buck asked, uncertain.

“Before we came back tonight, Vin and I discussed our plans for the future. There’s too much here for us. Once this nightmare is over and I mean to the point where both of us can wake up from it and shake it off, we’ll be heading out. Vin wants to travel north, as far north as we can. Maybe all the way into
. We’ll find a spread in the mountains somewhere, keep out of sight of bounty hunters. I’m getting too damn old to worry about my past doing what its done to Vin, and Vin is too damn young to have to age before his time. We want rest, boys.”

“You’re going into hiding,” Buck said.

“After what’s happened, neither of us have a choice. I’m not going to wake up one morning and find some damn vengeance-seeking bastard using Vin like this again. And I don’t want to wake up and find Vin with a hole in his head because some damn bounty hunter thinks taking him back to Tascosa would be easier if he were dead. We’re tired, Buck. Tired of it all. I’ve been through hell and so has Vin. We’ve paid our dues.”

Buck and Ezra leaned back in their chairs, stunned by this news.

“I declare,” Ezra breathed out. “I suppose it was to be expected, Gentlemen, however I must confess to harboring some amount of hope that things would return to the way it had been before this nightmare, as surely it must be called, began.”

“Too much has happened, Ezra. Now you boys are welcome to join us, but join us or not, Vin and I are heading out.”

Buck and Ezra exchanged glances and smiles. “Chris,” Buck started. “You know damn well we’re not going to argue with you boys on this one. Although, traveling with you a ways might not be out of the question, just long enough to make sure you get on your way all right.”

“Agreed,” Ezra said. “Shall we tell the others for you?”

“That’s fine,” Chris said. “We’ll be telling them ourselves, anyway. If you do it now, it will give them time to accept it.”

Buck and Ezra stood. Buck held out his hand and both Chris and Vin shook it. “We’ll be by tomorrow morning around
eleven o’clock

“We’ll be ready.”

Buck reached down and squeezed Vin’s shoulder. “It’s going to be all right, Junior. You know that, right?”

“I know,” Vin replied, calm. “Thanks to all of you.” Vin held out his hand to Ezra who grabbed on and gave Vin a gentle squeeze. “Ez, thank you.”

“Mister Tanner, there is no thanks necessary. I consider this one a pleasure.” He tipped his hat and smiled.

“Until the morning then,” Buck said and put on his hat, leading the way out of the shack and to their horses.

Chris and Vin stood and went to the door to watch them leave. Putting his arm around Vin’s shoulders, Chris said, “That went well.”

“I honestly didn’t think they were going to put up much of a fight, Chris.”

Chris chuckled. “Me either. Wanna go to bed?”

Vin looked at him, suddenly confused. “I’m…not…”

“No, Vin. I just want to hold you. I just want to hold you until the sun comes up, and then hold you some more.”

Vin relaxed a small smile gracing his lips. “Sounds nice, Cowboy.”

Chris arched a brow. “You haven’t called me that in a damn long time, Tracker.”

Vin grinned. “Can’t let Ezra think everything’s gone and changed on him.”

Chris chuckled and, arms around each other’s waist, the two men walked into the cabin and shut the door. Chris took a moment to lock it up with a bolt.

Vin saw the mare’s leg on the table and Chris followed his gaze. “You’ll pick it up again, Vin. You just need to regain your strength.”

“I know. Just…so much time has gone by. Seven months.”

Chris pulled him into his arms and kissed him tenderly on the temple. “I’ll do what I can to make up for that time, Vin.”

“I need to make them up for you, too.”

Chris closed his eyes, pressing his brow to Vin’s. “You already have, Tracker. You’re here, you’re alive. It’s time to move forward.”

“Move forward,” Vin sighed. He pulled away and took Chris’ hand. “I’m tired.”

Chris followed him into the bedroom and after they had undressed and climbed into bed, Chris wrapped his arms around Vin’s all too skinny body. Vin nestled into the hold, seeking Chris’ warmth.

“Tomorrow is going to be the end of this,” Vin said. “Jones, Calder…all of it is going to end.”

Chris kissed him. “Damn straight. Get some sleep, Vin. When we shoot Calder dead, I want us both to be standing tall.”

Vin tightened his hold. He hated it that Chris was thinking of going in to kill someone, that his desire to kill Calder did not allow for mercy. But Vin knew Calder. There was no other way. Calder would most definitely not let them make any other choice. It was a war, and in war it was either kill, or be killed.

Chris would make sure Calder had a gun in his hand when the final shot was fired. And it would be the last gunfight Chris Larabee would ever be involved in.

The very last one.




Part 21

Ezra lit his cheroot and hugged the boulder as he watched the path MacAfee said his men would travel to reach their opium pick-up.

Buck was at his side, checking and double-checking his gun. “Mister Wilmington, I believe that is the ninth time you’ve checked the chambers for bullets. Would you please ease your apprehensions?”

“Relax?” Buck snorted. “Ez, you’ve got to be the only living statue I’ve ever met.”

“One must become desensitized to the anxiousness of danger in order to perform convincingly at the poker table, sir. And Mister Tanner is by far more in the right to be nervous than any of us.”

Buck turned, looking over to where Chris and Vin were standing on the other side of the road. Vin was hiding behind a large tree and Chris was standing off to the side, out in the open enough to see both directions of the road.

“Yeah,” he said. “I just hope we don’t end up carrying him away in a pine box.”

“That, sir, will not be an option either of us will allow, I’m sure,” Ezra replied, pulling his pocket watch from his vest and checking the time. “We should be going into action within the next half hour. Please stay vigilant,” he instructed.

Buck lifted his head to have a look around then lowered and grabbed Ezra by the lapel, pulling him in for a quick kiss. “For good luck,” he grinned.

Ezra glared at him. “You’re getting mighty daring, sir. Out here amongst our friends?”

“I sleep with other men’s wives, Ez, what did you expect, prim and proper?”

Ezra snorted. “Far from it with you, Mister Wilmington.”

“Hey!” Buck protested.

“Sir, it was you who made the observation. I am simply agreeing with you.”

“No, I mean, hey! Look!” Buck pointed, and Ezra turned to see two horsemen riding up the path.

MacAfee, crouching low, came over to them. “That’s my men. The ones we’re waiting for haven’t shown as yet.”

Horrified that MacAfee had moved in so quickly after Buck’s kiss, Ezra shot his lover a fearful glance.

Buck stiffly shook his head, indicating that the way MacAfee was keeping his attention focused on the road, there was no way he could have seen or heard anything.

Ezra took the assurance, for he had little choice not to, and lifted his head to give Chris the signal to lay low.

Chris tipped his hat to him and slid behind the tree.

With the others on their own assigned lookout points, Ezra hoped that they would remember what the signal was to move into place.

However, they did not have long to wait. Five minutes after MacAfee’s men showed up, two other riders came, one holding a large red box on the back of his saddle. “That’d be the opium,” MacAfee informed. “They always bring it in a red box.”

Ezra turned to Buck who cupped a hand over his mouth. A bird sound filled the air and all members of the Seven eased back into hiding, waiting for the signal to move.


Vin stood rigid, his back to the tree, gazing out at nothing. Chris moved closer to him, holding his shoulder. “You all right?”

“I ain’t sure,” Vin replied, his voice quaking on the words.

“Just stay close to me. Josiah and Nathan will be near as well. We won’t let those bastards get you a second time.”

“I know that, Chris. It’s just…”

“Facing this demon,” Chris finished for him.

Vin nodded. “That stuff is going to be there. I’ll be within arms reach of it.”

“And I’ll be even closer than that, Vin. You won’t reach for it, because you’ll reach for me. Got it?”

Vin turned to him and for the first time since seeing Vin go through the hell of the last few days, Chris saw a fear in those blue eyes that sent a cold shiver through his own body.

Chris pulled him close. “I’m not going to let you slip and fall, Tanner. I swear it.”

“I’m countin’ on it, Cowboy. I can’t go through this again.”

“You won’t have to. No matter what, I’ll be close enough to hold onto.”

“Don’t let Calder get ya’,” Vin whispered, clinging to Chris desperately. “You’re my rock now. I need ya’ with me.”

“I won’t be going anywhere, and Calder won’t have a chance to send me away. I swear it, Vin. We’re both going to walk away from this alive and in one piece.”

“And if we don’t?” Vin choked, his fingers gripping Chris’ arms.

Chris swallowed, gazing deep into Vin’s eyes. “Then we go together, Tracker,” he whispered.

“Together,” Vin responded, and suddenly the fear drifted away from his gaze and body, and Chris knew Vin would be able to face what was to come now. “Promise me…together,” he said.

Chris leaned in and kissed him, wondering if it would be the last breath exchanged between them in this life. “Always together.”

Vin reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his journal. He held it close to his chest. Looking at Chris he began to recite:

“Darkness clouds the dawn. And I know of only one truth. He stands with me now, caretaker of my soul. The path is stony, marked with scars, but they fade as the sun rises in his eyes.”

Chris stared deeply into Vin’s eyes. “You’ll write more, Vin. Either in this life or the next, a soul such as yours cannot be silenced.”

Chris covered Vin’s hand on the journal.

And in that moment the signal to move came.


As per the arrangement, MacAfee’s men did not get involved. They made the exchange and took off towards the railroad with the opium.

The men who had sold it were too busy counting the money and pocketing a few dollars for themselves to notice how quickly they were immediately surrounded by gunmen.

“Gentlemen, I suggest you raise your hands into the air and do not attempt to take action against us. I believe we outnumber you considerably,” Ezra said, as he held a revolver on them.

Buck and Josiah went to the men and pulled them from their horses, pushing them to the ground.

Buck aimed his gun into the face of one of the men. “Is this one of them?” he shouted. Suddenly, he looked closer. “Wait a cotton-pickin’ minute here. Damn if this isn’t the guy with that buffalo gun that day.” Buck looked around him. “Where is it, huh? Bet you wish you had that cannon now.”

The man, too surprised to react, looked up into the sun and watched as a figure moved to block the sunlight from his eyes. “Yeah,” Vin said. “He’s the one with gun, and he’s one of the men who took me from Chris’ shack.”

“I remember him, too,” Chris said and reached down to pull the man up by the collar. “Hey, hey,” the man protested. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talkin’ about. My friend and I, we’re just here to collect some money for our boss.”

“And just who is your employer?” Ezra asked, putting the barrel of his gun to the man’s nose. He pulled back the hammer.

“Um, Jones…Garrison Jones,” the other man wheezed out as he was hauled to his feet by Josiah and Nathan. Both of the men’s hands were quickly tied behind them.

“Shut up, Earl!”.

“What the fuck for,
?” the one named Earl said. He was short and stocky and balding and seemed more a weasel than a man. “They got us, didn’t they?”

“And you think if we get away from them that Jones is going to let you go without some punishment for spilling his name?” The other man was taller, stouter and seemingly more afraid than his counterpart, which made Chris wonder just what kind of hold Garrison Jones had on his men.

Buck turned his gun around in his hand. “
, I believe you talk too damn much.” He swung his gun hand and knocked the man to the side, unconscious. “Well, now, I don’t think he’ll be protesting too much for the next few hours.”

The other man, Earl, looked up at Chris and saw anger boiling inside the green eyes that stared him down. “Howdy, Earl. Name’s Chris Larabee. You and your boss took something very valuable away from me.”

“What, this guy?” he gestured with his head to Vin. “You got him back didn’t ya’?”

Chris balled his fist and raised it to strike when Vin caught his arm. “Chris, no! We need him conscious to tell us what we’re going up against.”

Realizing the logic, Chris dropped his fist. Instead, he flung the guy to the ground, putting his booted foot to Earl’s neck. “I suggest you tell us everything we want to know or I’ll crush your jaw.”

“Okay, okay! Anything you want! I swear, just don’t hurt me!”

Ezra squatted down beside him and started to fill the bullet chambers. “Damn gun was empty!” Earl shouted.

Ezra grinned. “Indeed it was. Had you looked closely enough you could have seen that.”

Buck stared at him, amazed. “Why the fuck did you unload it?”

Ezra shrugged. “Had no idea I would keep the trigger in place, Mister Wilmington. Didn’t want to take the chance I’d kill them before we found out what we needed to know.”

Earl paled at this confession. “Sweet Jesus,” he gasped.

Josiah drew closer. “Sir, I would advise you not to invoke the name of the Lord at this point.”

Ezra smiled. “Now, Earl is it?”

“That’s right...Earl Timmons.”

“Good enough, sir. About what we want to know. How many men does Garrison Jones have around his estate and where exactly are they located?”

Buck chuckled with delight and Ezra looked up at him with a smile and wink.

JD pulled out the layout of the Garrison Estate and began to mark off the areas Earl described to them.

When all the information was required, Josiah picked Earl up as Nathan did the other man who was starting to regain consciousness, and they hauled them over to a tree behind a boulder and tied them up. “We’ll be back when this is over, and consider yourselves lucky,” Josiah said as he tightened the knots. “You’ll probably be the only two who will survive this, simply because you won’t be there.”

“What about the money?” the larger man demanded.

“We’re going to give it to a just cause,” Nathan said, grinning from ear to ear.

They stood up and headed back to the others who had already mounted their horses. Vin rode up to MacAfee’s horse and faced him. “Take that money back to your laborers,” he said. “Garrison probably packed his prices on the opium and it would do my heart good knowing those people got their money back with this shipment.”

“I’m coming with you, aren’t I?”

Chris rode up to his other side and faced him. “You’ve helped more than enough. We don’t want you getting killed. Your workers need an honest man to watch out for them. If something happened to you, no telling who the railroad would send next.”

MacAfee, though obviously disappointed at this turn of the plan, could not refute Chris’ insight. “In that case,” he said, and turned to Vin holding out his hand. “Vin, here’s hoping the rest of your life will be easier.”

Vin shook his hand and smiled. “I can’t thank you enough for all your help.”

“No thanks needed,” MacAfee said.

He turned to Chris and held out his hand. The blond shook it warmly. “You’ll always have our friendship,” Chris said.

MacAfee nodded once, turned his horse around and headed back to the Railroad.

Vin and Chris exchanged knowing glances.

Buck and the others rode up to them. “We ready?” Buck asked.

Chris turned to JD. “Son, let’s see how we’re going to do this.”

JD handed Chris the map. “Five men on each side of the house. Four men, one on each side of the barn. Three covering the house from the roof. JD, your job will be to get those men. Think you can take them down?”

JD nodded firmly. “I’ll do what I have to,” he said, patting his rifle. He exchanged knowing glances with Vin. “I’d feel better if you were on the other end of this thing, though,” he said.

Vin shook his head and held out his hand. All of them saw how shaky he was. “Can’t control the muscles, JD. You’re the best bet for a sharpshooter now.”

JD squared his shoulders. “I can handle it.”

“Good man,” Chris encouraged. “Ezra, you and Buck come in from the east and north. Nathan, you and Josiah take the barn. With JD handling the guards on the roof, that’ll leave the ones coming from the west and south for me and Vin.”

Josiah turned to Vin. “Can you handle it?”

Vin pulled the gun Chris loaned him and held it up. His hand shook, but he managed a firm enough grip. “Just get me a chance to do Calder, boys. That’s all I’m askin’.”

Chris rolled up the map and handed it back to JD. “Let’s ride.”


Vin stood beside JD who hid behind a tree as he loaded up the rifle. “Remember what I taught ya’?” Vin asked.

JD took in a deep breath. “I remember everything, Vin. It’s just…I’ve never deliberately tried to kill anyone before.”

Vin took JD’s shoulder and squeezed it. “These men will kill ya’ as soon as look at ya’. I’ve heard them talkin’, heard their jokes. I know their hearts. These men won’t give ya’ a second chance, JD. They’re hired to kill or be killed. Men like that…” Vin shook his head.

JD gripped the rifle. “War situation. Buck taught me a lot of that while you were gone, Vin. I understand.” He gave Vin a determined look.

“If’n ya can take them down without killing, JD, try to, but make sure when they’re down, they stay down. Leg wound if ya’ can do it. If not, go for the larger target.”

“And from the first bullet that fires, they’ll be on their guard,” JD said.

“That’s right. You’ll be covering our backs. Just don’t get killed, JD. The goal of this is to get our boys out of this alive.”

JD nodded. “I won’t let you or Chris down, Vin.”

“I know ya’ won’t, Kid.”

JD grinned at the nickname given to him over three years before. “When this is over, I expect you won’t be calling me ‘Kid’ anymore.”

Vin had to smile. “I reckon we won’t at that.” Vin turned to see the signal that Buck waved to them from their position on the hill behind the house. A small shrub twisted, making it look like some animal was burrowing around it. Vin then turned to the hill behind the barn and saw Josiah do something similar with a small sapling.

“We’re all ready, JD. Everyone knows to listen for your first shot. Get the guy in the front, right there.” Vin pointed. “See him?”

JD aimed the rifle and took a deep breath. “I see him,” he said gently. “He’s just standing there. A good leg shot will drop him to the ground.”

“Do what ya’ have to do, Kid.”

Vin clapped him on the shoulder and returned to Chris’ side. “He’s ready. We just have to wait for that first shot.”

Chris took out his gun, checked the load one last time as Vin did his. “Stay behind me, Tracker.”

“No. We go together, as promised.”

Chris locked eyes with him. He could not argue Vin out of this, and he knew to even try would be a waste of time. “All right, then. But go where I go?”

It was a request.

Vin smiled. “There and back again, Cowboy.”

The first shot rang out and they didn’t take the time to say their final farewells.


Buck and Ezra aimed their guns firing at the five men guarding the back of the house. They emerged from the waist high grass and took careful aim before letting off more shots. There would be no time to reload and so each shot had to count. Buck used Vin’s Mare’s Leg as well as his six-shooter.

Ezra held both of his six-shooters and fired as they kept advancing. Hitting everyone he targeted.

But it was a man from the side, from behind the well, who managed to fire off the shot that slammed through Ezra’s side. He went down with a yell and Buck watched in horror as his lover folded onto the ground like a rag doll.

In a wave of anger and horror, Buck turned to fire as the man rose from behind the cover of the well and raised his gun. “You bastard!” Buck shouted and fired without thinking about his actions.

His bullet found its target in the man’s forehead, pushing his body back, his gun flying out of his hand.

Buck quickly grabbed Ezra’s hand and pulled as he continued to fire at the guard’s piling out of windows and doors to offer assistance to the other guards. “Damn it all! How many fuckin’ guards does Jones have on his payroll?” he shouted, more out of concern and fear for Ezra than he was in fear of being hit by a bullet himself. He looked down to see the gambler clutching his side, blood seeping over his fingers, staining his brown coat.

Buck pushed himself to the back wall of the immense two-story mansion and kept firing all the while calling out for Nathan. He watched in grief as Ezra tried to stem the flow of blood. “I believe I must be more thorough in obtaining specific information in my interrogation process,” Ezra quipped. “The man did not inform us of the well.”

A man fell out of the window above them and rolled to a kneeling position. Ezra, still holding on to one gun, raised it and fired. “Bastard. Too damn underestimating of a man who has been shot.”

“I should have noticed the damn well right off, Ez,” Buck ground out in regret as he kept firing. “Nathan! Ezra’s been hit! NATHAN!”

“Mister Wilmington, I assure you, it is merely a flesh wound. It is by far less serious than the wound Pitch delivered to me all those months ago. The man was not that magnificent a shot. Do not worry yourself.”

“Damn bastard shot you, Ez. I’m entitled to worry! And why the hell do you always get it in the side?”

“Would you rather it be my chest, sir?” Ezra retorted.

Buck fired off another shot, grinning. “Logic still intact. Guess you’ll live, there, Ez.”

A man drew close to the side of the house, and Buck watched the shadow move closer and closer. He could feel his heart slam against his chest, pounding out a rhythm that seemed to demand his attention more than the gunfire going on around him. He pulled the hammer back on his gun, swallowed and aimed.

“Buck? Is that you?” Nathan asked.

Buck quickly lowered his gun and reached around to pull Nathan out of the line of fire. “Damn it, Nate, you almost got your head blowed off.”

“You must forgive, Mister Wilmington, Mister Jackson. He seems somewhat preoccupied at the moment.”

Nathan saw the wound and quickly sat Ezra up against the wall of the house. He pulled away the cloth and gave the wound a quick once over. He removed Ezra’s handkerchief from the inside of his jacket pocket and pressed it against the opening. “How bad?”

“It went clear through,” Ezra said and turned to show the exit wound.

“Well, damn if that isn’t lucky.”

“He going to be all right, Nathan?” Buck asked, turning from side to side to see if any more of Garrison’s men were heading their way.

“It appears so. The wound doesn’t appear too deep to have damaged any vital organs. I’ll know more if I can get him on a table, lay him flat and examine him without all these bullets flying.”

“Of course I’m going to be all right, Mister Wilmington. It’s a mere scratch, is all.” Ezra’s face, however, told a different story. Pale, sweating, his eyes glazed over, and he collapsed into unconsciousness.

“Ezra!” Buck called.

“It’s all right, Buck,” Nathan calmed. “He’s just in shock. He’ll be fine.”

Nathan quickly stood and pulled his gun. “The others are moving in closer. Last count I saw, ten men were down. Some made it into the house. The ones inside are too many to tell. Probably trying to get Jones away from here.”

“Can’t let that happen.” Buck looked down at Ezra. “Stay with him. Make sure he’s going to be all right.

“It won’t happen, Buck. Josiah and I set the horses free right after JD took that first shot. They’re not getting out of here unless it’s on foot.”

“Vin’s trick when he helped get your father free.”

“Yup. Some things never leave you.” Nathan grinned.

“All right then. Still, stay with Ez. He needs you alive, so stay back here and I’ll go around to the front.”

Nathan grabbed his arm. “One thing.”

“What’s that?” Buck asked as he began to refill his guns.

“I’ve been around Chris and Vin long enough this last week to recognize what’s happening here. I’m not the only one Ezra needs alive.”

Buck stilled his movements. He slowly turned to Nathan, swallowing hard. “You…know?”

“Saw the signs back when Powder shot Ez, Buck. Don’t worry. I think the only one of us Seven who doesn’t know about Chris and Vin is JD. And as far as I know, no one knows about you and Ezra but me.”

“Well, I’ll be,” Buck softly chuckled. “And…exactly how do you…”

“A man is damn lucky if he can find love in his life, Buck. I may not understand it all, but I do know what it takes to survive in this world. You, Ezra, Chris and Vin, all of you found what’s necessary to keep the heart pumping. That’s all I give a damn about.”

Buck looked down at Ezra. “Take care of him for me, Nate. I’ll be back.”

Buck crouched low and hurried to the front where the shooting continued.

Nathan knelt beside Ezra and quickly removed his jacket, putting it under the gambler’s head, lowering him to the ground as gently as he could. “Yup, Ezra, whatever the future holds for you and Buck, I can guarantee it’s not going to be boring.”


Buck emerged from the corner of the house just in time to see three of the men exit from the front. He took aim and fired, his bullet hitting one man who then crashed into another. The third man turned and aimed. And was hit from behind by another shot. The man fell to the ground revealing Vin standing there, both hands on Chris’ colt. Chris stood at his back, emptying his gun into five other guards. Buck nodded once to Vin in acknowledgement and jumped onto the porch of the house. He moved quick and sure, and kicked in the door. His gun aimed, he quickly surveyed the entrance of the house. “Chris!” he called out.

Chris and Vin turned to see the door was now open. They hurried after Buck, who covered them.

Outside, the shooting diminished. JD’s rifle shots had stopped, and Josiah was finishing off the last two guards.

But neither Chris nor Vin really cared about what was happening outside. “I remember going down,” Vin said. “Cold place. Very cold.”

“Under the house?” Buck asked.

“My guess,” Vin replied.

Off to the side, by the staircase, a tall, potted bush was thrown to the side, and a man aimed his gun, firing at Buck, who was hit in the shoulder, the impact sending him to the floor.

“Goddamn it!” Chris yelled, and raised his gun to fire, hitting the other man in the shoulder. The man was flung against the far wall beside the staircase. He quickly grinned at both Chris, then Vin and hurried into the study.

Vin gripped the butt of his gun. “Calder,” he seethed. “The damn coward!”

He hurried into the study with Chris at his side.

Josiah came in with JD. “See to Buck!” Chris called out. “Both of you stay out of the study!”

Chris took a quick look around only to see Calder leaning against an oaken desk in the far corner, the windows around the study broken out by bullets. Shattered glass covered white carpeting, glistening in the reflecting sunlight like snow.

(Snow’s comin’, Cowboy. Ever ride the white, Chris?)

Chris cringed at the memory of his past dreams.

But it was the image behind Calder that took Chris even further into his past. A young man, familiar to him, yet not familiar. Short brown hair, beautiful countenance, dressed in clothes of the wealthy class. The face was familiar, but it was a face of a youth who had lost the innocence captured in that seemingly immortal visage.

The boy he had killed so long ago.

Garrison Jones’ son.

Calder looked to where Chris had diverted his eyes. He chuckled, holding his wounded shoulder. “Say ‘hello’ to Douglas, Larabee.”


Part 22

Vin gazed at his abuser with a blank stare. Chris studied the situation from off to the side and watched Vin carefully, wondering just what the tracker would do to Calder now that they were face to face. Chris stood as still as a statue, fighting his desire to pierce Calder’s flesh with every damn bullet in his gun and from his gun belt. Though he had already fired one bullet into Calder, it had not been enough to torture the man or to kill him, but he knew that Calder’s fate ultimately rested in Vin’s hands and not his.

Calder grinned sadistically. “Howdy, Tanner,” he said with a lightness to his tone that sent a jolt of anger through Chris. It was a taunting tone, one that Chris knew Vin would never forget. His hatred for Calder ran deeper than anything ever in his life other than the murderer of his wife and child. Perhaps the amount of anger directed at both was the same. Vin was his family, now. This man had tortured and abused Vin mercilessly while the tracker had been held captive. No one touches a member of Chris Larabee’s family and walks away without regret. No one. Vin would have his moment with Calder, but then, afterwards, Calder would face Chris Larabee’s wrath.

Calder shook his head and let out a whistle through his hideously smiling lips. “Well, well, well. None the worse for wear, I see. And I wore you down good, didn’t I, Tanner?” He tilted his head at Chris. “He know what I did to you, boy? He know how I took you and fucked you over and over and how you had no choice but to let me?”

Vin shut his eyes.

“Shut the fuck up, Calder!” Chris snarled.

Calder laughed with morbid delight. “So you do know! How marvelous as Jones would say. I must say though, Tanner, I didn’t think you had it in you to tell anyone, let alone your lover. He can still look you in the eye? Amazing. I’d thought for sure he’d think you were too much of a whore for him to mess with.”

Vin’s body started to shake, but he did not give in to the taunts, glaring at Calder with malice akin to madness.

Chris fought hard to keep his gun lowered. “Don’t let him get to you, Vin. He’s taunting you, that’s all.”

Calder leaned forward and winked at Vin. “You were good, too, Tanner. After a few times you just opened yourself up to me and let me do my thing and didn’t fight me anymore. Although I have to admit, I enjoyed it more when you resisted. Made it more exciting for me.”

“Vin, believe me,” Chris pled. “I don’t believe any of the shit he’s saying. It doesn’t change anything between us.”

Vin turned to him slowly, a hint of warmth in his eyes. “I know, Cowboy,” he replied, his voice soft and calm.

Without hesitating, Vin turned away from Calder and walked back to where Chris stood.

Chris watched as Calder reached behind him.

In a mere second that seemed to drag on for minutes, Chris leaned to the right and raised his gun. Vin turned, dropped to one knee, and aimed his. Both pulled their triggers. Calder’s body jerked and flew back against the wall. He never had a chance to even get his finger on the trigger of the gun he had carefully hidden behind him.

The sound of the shots lingered in the air; the smoke of both guns rose from the two barrels. After what seemed like an eternity frozen in a single breath, Chris forced his body to move. He turned to Vin who stayed there on the floor, one knee bent, the other knee planted firmly beneath him. Vin’s face was pale, and he slowly breathed in and out as though reminding himself to do so and finding the task too difficult to perform.

Chris fell to his lover’s side and pulled Vin into a sheltering embrace. He took his other hand and pressed it against the one holding the gun, still aimed at Calder’s unmoving corpse. “Ease it down, Pard,” Chris said, gently. “It’s over.”

Vin allowed the gun to be pushed down. He kept staring at Calder’s body; unable to register the fact his greatest enemy was now dead, incapable of hurting him anymore. “Can’t stand, Chris,” he whispered, rough and dry like the desert wind.

Chris eased the gun out of Vin’s hand, holstered it in Vin’s gun belt then eased his arms around Vin’s waist and pulled the younger man to his feet.

Vin clung to Chris for a few seconds, using the time to gain what bearings he could. When he was certain he could stand unaided, he pulled away, but Chris kept his hands to Vin’s sides. He tilted his head to see Vin’s pale and sweating face. The tracker looked as though he were about to collapse from the strain, and so Chris gripped him firmly. “You all right?”

“Ain’t sure,” Vin choked. “Kinda numb, I reckon.”

“Take your time,” Chris assured, stepping closer to him. “Ain’t goin’ anywhere.”

Josiah and JD ran in, their guns drawn. “Chris? What the hell?” JD asked.

“Out of here!” Chris yelled. “Now!”

Josiah took one look at Vin’s pale face, the dead body on the floor and Chris’ stern look. All was clear and he nodded once. “Let’s wait for them outside, JD,” he suggested, and quickly herded the younger man out of the study back to where Buck lied.


“They all right?” Buck asked, hugging his arm tight to his side.

“Both alive, standing. Calder’s dead. Don’t know who got him,” Josiah replied, draping Buck’s good arm around his shoulders. “Get me to Ezra,” Buck groaned.

JD stayed behind for a moment, holding his rifle. Calder was dead, yes, but what about Jones? He headed after Josiah. “We best take to searching the house for Jones. No telling where he was during all of this.”

“Vin said something about being taken below,” Buck informed as Josiah helped him out of the house.

Nathan met them and took Buck from Josiah’s hold.

“We’ll check it out,” Josiah said. He clapped JD on the shoulder and pointed to the rifle. “Make sure that damn thing is loaded. No telling how many other guards are with Jones.”

JD patted the rifle. “Loaded and ready,” he said.


Vin squeezed Chris’ arms once and let go, pulling away, albeit a might shakily.

Chris stood ready to catch him should the knees give out. Vin still wasn’t up to his usual strength and all of this excitement plus seeing Calder face-to-face must have drained Vin of all but his will to move one step in front of the other, now. “Let’s get out of here, Vin. You need some air.”

“Ain’t gonna pass out on ya’, Cowboy,” Vin whispered as he walked up to Calder’s sprawled body and gazed down at it. “Have to be sure,” he said in explanation.

Chris said nothing. He’d give Vin this moment. Vin deserved to be sure.

Vin pulled out a knife from his boot and got down on one knee. He stared at Calder’s open and unseeing eyes. Blood had pooled from the open wounds in his chest onto the floor beneath him, marking the white carpet with crimson. Chris knew what Vin was going to do. He took a step closer to offer the support unasked for, but silently given. He would never stop Vin from doing what he needed to do, even when it meant mutilating a dead body. “Go on, Vin. Kill it once and for all.”

“Kill it once, Chris. For all remains to be seen.” Vin grabbed Calder’s hair and lifted. He put the sharp edge of the blade to the scalp. In one quick movement the scalp was cut off and held like a trophy in Vin’s hands. He looked at his knife, stained with Calder’s blood. He jammed it into Calder’s chest and stood. He turned away and walked up to Chris. “Need a new knife,” he said as he past the blond man on his way out of the study.

Chris stood there for a few more seconds, watching him leave, then he turned back to Calder. He walked over to the body and pressed the tip of his gun to Calder’s groin. “Rot in hell, you son-of-a-bitch,” he said, and fired the one final shot still left in his gun.

Standing, he squared his shoulders and followed Vin out, his spurs jingling in the sudden quiet after the storm.


JD informed Vin that he and Josiah had come back to look for Jones.

Chris loaded his gun again. “Like Ezra said, we need to put a face to the reason. Let’s find that bastard.”

JD shook his head. “I didn’t see anything that resembled an entrance to an underground area, Chris. Unless there’s an underground tunnel like Ella had at her ranch.”

“Hay,” Vin said.

“What?” Josiah asked.

“I remember the smell of hay, smelled like a stable or barn.”

“Then that’s where we check first,” Chris said.

“And if he isn’t in the barn? None of us have checked this house,” JD said.

“Kid’s got a point,” Vin said. “There may be underground tunnels all throughout this stretch. He’s had a couple years to think this through.”

The sound of boards creaking stopped their conversation.

“Shall I make it easier for you, Mister Larabee?” the voice came from above them, from the landing on the second floor.

Vin tensed. “That’s him,” he said, without having to turn and look. “That damned voice. It’s him.”

Chris aimed his gun at the man, and was amazed at what he found as opposed to what he had been expecting.

Garrison Jones stood tall and robust with stark white hair and a face of distinguished aristocracy. He was dressed in a blue suite and tie, and smoking a cigar. “Allow me to introduce myself, Mister Larabee. I am Garrison Jones, the father of Douglas Jones, the young man you killed in a brawl a few years back.”

Vin slowly turned, and lifted his eyes to gaze upon the face of his tormentor.

“A face to the reason,” he whispered. And what amazed him was not that the man was tall or that he stood proud. What amazed Vin was that the man was calm, both inwardly as well as outwardly. He was too calm. Vin had always sensed the man was insane, but now, looking into Jones’ eyes, he knew beyond doubt that insanity ruled the man’s mind. First, James Hathaway had lost his son, blamed Marcus for the death and sought to destroy the scarred actor from outside and work his way deep into Marcus’ soul. And now, this man, this Garrison Jones, had lost his son due to Chris’ sure hand and well-aimed bullet, and he had sought to destroy Chris from the inside of his soul to the outside. The parallel was almost as maddening as the hell Vin had been through the last seven months.

Chris kept his gun aimed at Garrison’s chest. “Tell me why,” he ground out.

Garrison shrugged, indifferent. “Because, Mister Larabee, my son was not in his right mind when he shot up that saloon. You see, he had long before stumbled upon my business operations outside of
San Francisco
and managed to get himself into quite a bit of trouble with the drug I was selling to the Chinese labor community. He became addicted himself. And, well, once you are addicted to opium, there is really no means of delivering the body from the craving it causes. And so I kept him supplied, rather than see him go through the torment of withdrawal.”

“You mean you didn’t want to bother with the horrors the withdrawal process reveals,” Josiah corrected.

Garrison began a slow decent down the stairs. “Be that as it may, my son’s pain was not something I could live with.”

“And you let your son wear a gun, knowing the condition he was in?” Chris snarled.

Vin kept his eyes on Garrison as the man made his way down the stairs.

“Absolutely not, Mister Larabee. How he obtained the gun I still do not know, but it matters not. What matters was you should have known he was not capable of thinking that morning. He had just been given another dose when he and I arrived in that town. I was there on business. I let my son stay in the general store while I went across the street to the sheriff’s office to ask directions to a farm. You see, my business associates and I were to meet to discuss the upcoming railroad project, and the fact that Chinese workers would be employed to lay the rails. They wanted their workers happy and I was only too happy to oblige them.”

In that moment, Garrison pulled out a syringe, filled with the drug used on Vin.

Vin shut his eyes. He pulled away, pushing himself against a wall. Chris was there at his side in an instant, an assuring arm around his shoulders. “Don’t, Vin. Don’t. Keep sharp.”

Garrison chuckled.

“Yes, Mister Tanner. I can see the drug has not left your body completely. You wish to have another dose?”

Chris moved to stand in front of Vin who pushed himself against Chris’ back. “Chris,” he moaned.

“Put it away!” Chris snarled.

Garrison put the syringe on the staircase railing. “Very well, Mister Larabee. I shall not taunt your lover anymore.”

JD blanched. Josiah gestured with his hand to remain quiet.

“So, you used Vin as a target against me, getting him addicted as your son was addicted. So that I would, what? Be forced to shoot him as I did your son?”

“No, Mister Larabee. Tanner’s death was never what I was after. What I was after was to see you suffer the torments of a hell that no one can ever walk away from. Your lover will be forever drawn to the drug,” he gestured to the syringe. “Tempted as it were, like a drunkard never truly being able to walk away from the bottle.”

Vin lifted his head at this, but what he saw was the syringe. He ducked his head again and moved to Chris’ other side, keeping Chris between him and the vessel of his journey into hell.

Garrison smiled at him with cunning. “Has he really the strength to deny himself so soon after the withdrawal process, Mister Larabee? Will he be able to resist the temptation to push the needle into his skin, and allow the drug to flow into his bloodstream? Will he be able to resist the bliss that it offers? It is in many ways preferable to the nightmares he will encounter in the days to come.”

“Your son was threatening innocent people, Jones!” Chris shouted. “He was shooting off his gun at random. Any of those people could have been killed.”

“Instead my son was killed!” Garrison shouted and gripped the staircase railing with one hand, squeezing it until his hand turned white. “You didn’t even give him a chance!”

“He aimed his gun at me! I had no choice but to shoot!”

“NO! That is not what happened!”

Garrison hauled off and hit Chris sending him to the ground, his gun flying from his hand. He quickly reached for both Vin and the syringe faster than Chris could blink.

Chris crawled to his gun and turned to aim, but could not pull the trigger. Garrison’s arm was around Vin’s neck, and the needle was too close to the jugular. “Chris!” Vin shouted.

Chris kept his gun aimed at Garrison. “Put it down!” he yelled. If he could just get a good bead on Garrison’s head, if he could just make sure Garrison would not pull Vin into the line of fire...

Garrison pulled Vin along as he backed up the steps. Vin stumbled, trying to gain a footing. “Don’t fight it, Vin!” Chris yelled. “Go with him! That needle is too close to your skin! Just go with him!”

Vin locked eyes with Chris, who gazed at him as one knowing damn well the next few seconds would determine who lived and who died.

“Indeed, Larabee, one gentle press of the needle through his skin and a slight push of my thumb, for even a drop will bring him to his knees. I’ve made the dose that potent. I could push all of it into his body and he will die in less than a minute.”

Garrison continued to move up the stairs.

Chris slowly got to his feet. Josiah and JD waited patiently, wondering just how this would play out.

Chris watched Garrison carefully. He slowly took the steps one at a time, aiming his gun, searching for an opening a split second of decision. “Garrison, you do this and you’re dead,” he threatened with all the venom he could call forth from his bitter soul.

Garrison snarled at him. “I mean it, Larabee! I will inject him with the full dose, and you can all watch him die in seconds. And it won’t matter if I die before I see him die. For I will know that I will be taking your soul with me!”

“Not in this life,” Chris sneered, feeling his heart racing. It beat against his ribs in a furious rhythm as though trying to reach Vin in some way.

Garrison grinned madly. “How does it feel, Mister Larabee, knowing that you can never allow an opium-laced medicine near your lover, should he become injured or wounded? How you must watch him forever, to make sure he does not find a means to feed his hunger? How does it feel?”

Chris swallowed, knowing full well he was dealing with a madman. “If you had loved your son, Jones. Really loved him…you would know how I feel right now.”

Garrison’s face changed in a moment.

“Such the words of a martyr, Mister Larabee. Such the words of one I would expect to find bathed in his own guilt and desire for vengeance. Your words taunt me.”

“No!” Chris yelled as he watched Garrison press the needle closer to Vin’s neck, pricking the skin and drawing blood.

Chris aimed and fired, the bullet smashing into Garrison’s head, flinging his body back. Released from the stranglehold Vin pressed himself against the wall of the staircase, the syringe still hanging from his neck.

Chris holstered his gun and ran to Vin who slowly slid to the steps, staring off into nothing.

“Oh, God. Vin?” The drug could not have gone in. But even a small drop, so close to the brain...

“Get it out, Chris. Please.” Vin was afraid to move. Afraid of touching the syringe and bringing his temptation to the point of no return.

Chris got beside him and quickly pulled the syringe out. He flung it to the floor, and pulled Vin into his arms. “Did he get you?” he said, fear filling him. “Did the drug go in?”

“No,” Vin replied softly. “No, just the needle. You got him in time.”

JD hurried to where the syringe landed, and quickly smashed it beneath his boot. He looked up at Chris who nodded once to him in acknowledgement. “Thank you, JD.”

Josiah moved up closer to determine for certain if Jones was dead. “You got him, Chris. He’s gone.”

Chris stood and lifted Vin to his feet. Wrapping a steadying arm around the tracker’s waist he pulled Vin away. “Come on. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Right beside ya’, Cowboy.”

As the two left the house, Josiah started to follow when he saw that JD was still staring at Garrison’s body. “Son, he’s gone and there’s nothing more to do here. We’ve got to get Ezra and Buck back to town where Nathan can work on them proper.”

But JD could not tear himself away from the sickening sight before him, Garrison’s head misshapen now, blood pooling around it like some sick and morbid creature seeking to ensnare him.

The question Vin had asked him so long ago came filtering back in: JD, you ever see a man with his head blowed off?

He could honestly say that now he had. It amazed him that his stomach had not revolted at the any of this entire ordeal. Had he truly become that desensitized, as Ezra would say, to the violence?

“What is it, Son?” Josiah asked, suddenly concerned.

“Chris’ words to him. Did this man ever truly love his son?”

Josiah sighed. “It’s not for us to judge the love of a parent for a child. He believed he did. And all I know is, look what his son’s death drove him to do?”

“Maybe it wasn’t really Chris he was wanting to destroy, then,” JD said. “Maybe it was himself all along.”

Josiah put his arm around the younger man’s shoulders and led him out of the house, “Who can understand the motives of a madman?” he asked.

JD could not give him an answer, but Josiah was not expecting one.


(To be concluded in Epilogue)


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