Author:Joan Curtin

Rating: PG-13. Language, violence, bloodshed, and general mayhem.

Disclaimer: The characters of the Magnificent Seven are the property of MGM, Trilogy, CBS , and the talented creators of the series. No financial or creative right are claimed by the author for their characters.

Feedback:Joan Curtin

Notes and Acknowledgments: There's a lot of these. First of all, the Western Stage Company did not exist. It is loosely based on a combination of the Overland Stage and Wells Fargo. The entire scheme involving the Western Stage and short-line routes is my own speculation. Titus Roche is entirely fictitious -- Thank goodness.

I would like to thank Painted Eyes for allowing me to borrow Vin's background as a sniper, as she developed it in For Faith. I attribute my portrayal of Peso to her, as well. Somehow Peso and "fractious" have become irrevocably entwined in my mind. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Adrian for her encouragement and expertise -- the details wouldn't be the same without her keen eye and expansive knowledge. Finally, to the beta-reading firm of Bartholomew, Necessary, and TerBeek -- you guys are the best. And a tip of the hat to Kim for cheering me on.

 

 

 

Part 1

 

He lay perfectly still, belly pressed flat against the cool rock, while the sun beat hot on his back. He was made of the same colors as the earth; dun, chalky brown, shadowy grey. There was nothing bright on him, even the stock of the rifle resting against his cheek was dust-dull, and the gunmetal grey barrel did not reflect the sunlight. His body was narrow and slightly built so that when hunkered down like he was, he was no higher than the dry grasses that fluttered a few feet away from him. He scarcely seemed to breathe. All his attention was focused on the track running below him. His gaze flicked to the horizon, seeing a distant smudge that elongated into a trail of clay-colored dust against the pale blue sky. He felt hoofbeats vibrating through his belly and chest, then his sharp eyes saw the center of the roiling dust cloud. Stagecoach. It rumbled past, and for a few minutes, he could not see beyond the grasses waving in front of his nose. He lay patiently, knowing that haste could still cost him his life, and when the dust died down, the horizon was empty of everything but the blue sky and the dun-colored hills.

Vin Tanner drew what seemed like his first breath in an eternity. Even though he sensed no danger, he moved slowly, scooting down the defile on his stomach until he was sure he was out of the sight of any watching eyes on the far side of the trail, and only then did he uncoil his body, grimacing at the stiffness in his shoulder from bracing his Winchester for nearly an hour. He brushed the dust from his clothes and went to where he had left Peso tethered to a mesquite tree. He slid the rifle into the scabbard and waited for Peso to stop dancing around as he expressed his indignation at being left untended when he knew the tracker was nearby. Vin let him fuss for a bit -- was just grateful that the gelding was smart enough to be quiet when it was required, and then when it was time, he grabbed Peso's bit and pulled his head around. "You done good," he said. "But let's quit this game right now, mule." Blue eyes met brown, and Peso decided to let Tanner be the boss on this hot afternoon.

He mounted and kneed Peso into a lope, following the same trail the stagecoach had taken a few minutes earlier. Twice in the last two months, the stage from Vista City had been held up. The first robbery had been accepted as one of the hazards of living where they did; not much of value had been taken, and the sack of mail the robbers had stolen was found unopened a mile past the site of the hold-up. The sole witnesses, the driver and two passengers hadn't offered much of a description, other than saying the three robbers spoke Spanish to each other, wore dark masks that covered their faces, and were ruthlessly efficient in their methods. Vin had tried to track them, but they had left so many muddled signs that in the end, pursuit was a waste of time. A reward was posted for information, and life in Four Corners went on.

The second robbery had been more costly; the stage company's payroll had been stolen, but no one had been killed despite the gunplay that had followed. Chris had reckoned then it was a bad sign -- that no shots had been fired in first hold-up, but the second had resulted in a gun battle. The driver had been slightly wounded, and the guard traveling with the payroll had broken his leg when the robbers had pulled him from the stage roof. This time, there had been four men, heavily armed, but otherwise matching the description of the first gang. And again, they had vanished.

The situation had been deemed serious enough for Judge Travis to request the services of the seven peacekeepers to watch the routes of Western Stage Company. Which was why Vin had spent the better part of a hot afternoon swallowing dust.

Four Corners was bustling with activity when he rode down the main street. The coach, safely arrived, had been carrying mail, and most folks were lined up outside the Post Office, waiting for the Postmaster to sort out packages and precious letters. Vin sat relaxed on Peso's back, pondering the sight. A man who couldn't read had no use for letters, and he figured even though he was making progress with Mary Travis, no one was about to write him, anyhow. Didn't know anyone who would. Still, folks set a high store on the arrival of the stage, like it was carrying gold for them alone. Smiling, he slid from Peso's back and tethered him at the hitching post outside of the jail.

He crossed the threshold, then halted, his nerves tingling. Judge Travis was there, along with Chris, and a hard-featured stranger wearing a black broadcloth suit. He looked like the law, and that made Vin mighty nervous. Only his trust in Chris Larabee and Orrin Travis kept him from backing out the way he had come in, mounting Peso, and riding hard out of town for the hills. He edged in warily, and might have remained unnoticed if Larabee hadn't raised his head and seen him standing there.

Chris' eyes were grave, but held no hidden message in their green depths. Vin stepped forward and touched the brim of his hat. "Judge Travis."

Travis nodded. "Mr. Tanner, join us?" The judge's natural courtesy further disarmed his guard, and he settled tentatively, leaning against the wall in an attitude of deceptive ease. Of the three men, only Chris knew how much of an illusion it was. The judge drew a breath. "This is Mr. Titus Roche, from St. Louis. He is the Western Stage's new agent for the Vista City - Eagle Bend run, since Joe Fowler ran off to the gold fields."

Chris slanted a look at Roche. "Can't say's I envy you your timing, Mr. Roche. You've inherited a heap of problems."

"If you're referring to the late trouble, that's what I'm here to discuss with you and the Judge."

"Don't seem like it's late trouble." Vin spoke from the shadows. "I'd say it's mighty live."

Chris turned his gaze to the judge. "What does this have to do with us, Judge Travis?"

The judge hesitated briefly. "As you know, the Western has a contract with the federal government to deliver mail and payroll." His eyes skated briefly to Roche's, before returning to Chris. "It hasn't been able to fulfill those contracts due to the hold-ups."

"Army payroll?" Vin asked. Travis nodded. "Let the army guard it."

"The army has other problems."

"You want us to ride shotgun?" Chris asked. "My life's worth more'n that." He sat back in his chair and appraised Roche. "Why not get t' the root of the problem, give us time to find out who's guilty?"

"Time is of the essence in this manner," Roche answered smoothly. "The current situation is placing those contracts in jeopardy."

"It's costing you money," Chris said, and was aware of Vin's uneasy shift. Didn't sound right to him either, then. He shook his head. "No."

"Mr. Larabee, you don't have a choice," Roche said harshly. "Ask Judge Travis."

Chris felt as if he had been sucker-punched. He turned cold eyes to Travis. "Orrin?"

Travis hesitated, as if trying to find a way of speaking that wouldn't offend either Larabee or Roche, before he answered reluctantly. "As an officer of the Federal Government it is my duty to protect its interests in the territory. Sorry, Chris. Starting with the next run, you will ride shotgun from Vista City to Four Corners, until the culprits are apprehended."

Chris' jaw tensed. "Excuse the question, but whose job is that?"

"Reckon it belongs to the man in the fancy black suit." Vin said. "If'n he knows where t'start lookin'."

"Do you?" There was the faintest hint of a sneer in Roche's voice. He turned his attention to the slim long-haired man in dusty clothes, who had stepped out of the shadows. He looked more like the sort who would be robbing stagecoaches than guarding them.

Vin had heard that tone before, and let it go. "I might. You ride in on that coach?"

"Yes."

"One man ridin' shotgun ain't enough to protect a stage. You keep showin' up at the same time at the same places, yer a sittin' duck fer any predator that comes along. I'm with Larabee, Judge. And I know what my life's worth."

Travis held up his hand. "The matter is decided, gentlemen. We can work out the details tomorrow." His eyes went from the gunslinger to the tracker. "I remind you that we have both taken oaths."

Chris studied Travis' face. There was something going on there that he didn't like. Politics was like dirty water to him, and this felt foul. Couldn't throw accusations around in front of Roche, particularly when he had no foundation for them. He'd speak to Travis later. He inclined his head in assent. "I'll take it to the others, Judge." A fleeting expression of relief crossed Travis' eyes, so quickly that Chris would have said he had imagined it, if he were an imaginin' sort of man. But he wasn't and he didn't believe he had misread it. "Vin?"

Tanner straightened from his lean, touched his hat brim to Orrin Travis, and followed Larabee out the door. In an unspoken accord, they lingered for a moment outside the jail window.

"Will they do it?" Roche asked angrily.

"They will." Orrin Travis' voice sounded strained, unlike his usual commanding tones.

Alarm shivered through Chris. He felt the same tension in Vin's body, the preternatural awareness of emotions that the tracker could hone in on as certainly as a blood trail. They moved away from the window, and when they were out of earshot, Chris halted Vin with a touch. "You talk to the others. I'm going to see Mary."

"You sure you want t' get inta this?" Vin asked.

Chris's mouth hardened. "Hell, I don't even know what this is. But I'm damned sure gonna find out." He gave Vin a grim smile. "Talk to the others, tell them what the job is -- who's involved. Don't say anything about what we heard -- not till I talk to Mary and see if she has any notions."

"He's her pa, Chris."

"I know, partner, I know." He gave Vin's shoulder an encouraging pat, and turned towards the Clarion News offices.

Mary was sitting at her desk, her dress covered with an apron and protective sleeves. She was so absorbed in her work that she didn't notice when he opened the door and stood there for a moment, just watching her. He'd never meant to let her into his life, but she was there, and it was too late to pretend that he had never seen her courage, her strength, her kindness. Didn't hurt to look at her either, sitting with the afternoon sun on her hair, her pretty forehead furrowed in thought, and a nub of a pencil tucked behind her ear. He would not admit to love, could not risk that; but Mary made him feel alive -- for better or worse, he could not turn back now. He took off his hat and made a show of knocking the dust off.

"Chris!" Her hands went to her hair in an instinctively feminine gesture that put him in such mind of Sarah that he thought his heart would stop beating. "I didn't see you."

"Looked like you were deep in thought."

"I was. Time just escaped me --" Her blue eyes widened. "What time is it?"

"'Bout four."

She uttered a word under her breath that would have made most women faint at the indelicacy. "I have to get home." She jerked her printer's apron over her head. The ties caught in her hairpins, and she struggled for a moment, until Chris came over and gently untangled it. Her hair clung to his fingers, releasing a fragrance like dusty roses. "There." He stepped away, aware that to stay close to this woman would be inviting disaster for them both.

Mary flushed, smiling. "Thank you, Chris."

"So, why the rush?" he asked, all deceptive innocence.

"Dinner. The judge is bringing a guest tonight. Mr. Titus Roche."

"I've met him."

Mary's reporter's instincts flared. "Oh? You don't like him?"

"I hardly know the man."

Mary paused with her shawl in her hands. She turned to him, her eyes gleaming with what he recognized as her 'there's a story behind this,' look. "Come to dinner," she said.

He stifled his brief guilt at his maneuvering. "The judge won't mind?"

Mary's chin went up. "It is my house." She wrapped the shawl around her shoulders. "Come at seven."

"I will." Perhaps it was for the best that she didn't see his expression as he turned and headed towards the saloon.

*******************

They sat behind the screen of hazy smoke and noise provided by the late afternoon crowd in the saloon. Most folks tended to ignore their presence unless bullets were flying, which suited Vin just fine. The less attention he called to himself, the better. The others seemed oblivious to anything beyond the circle of the table. Ezra had a deck of cards in his hands, JD was fidgeting nervously with the brim of his hat. Nathan and Josiah were sitting at their ease, and Buck was at the bar, flirting with one of the girls and waiting for a refill on his beer. There were times when Vin wondered how he had come to be one of this group, and not just one of them, but second to Chris Larabee. The trust invested in him shook him to his boots at times, so he tried not to think on it. But there it was, clear as the eager look in JD's eyes.

When Buck was seated in his usual long-legged sprawl, he fixed Vin with a bright blue study. "Well, ya come in here lookin' like the crack of doom has just sounded, and I'm mighty curious why."

Vin gathered his thoughts from where they had been wandering. "Anyone see the man come in on the stage this afternoon. Tall, wearin' a Sunday go to meetin' suit?"

"I did," JD spoke up. "Looked like he was sucking on lemons, too," he grinned.

"Well, his name is Titus Roche. He's the new station agent for the Western Stage company. Lookin' ta take care of these robberies."

"I fail to see how this affects us, Mr. Tanner," Ezra drawled. "If this man requires our help to apprehend these criminals --"

"Well, that's jist it, Ez. He ain't askin us t'apprehend the criminals. He figgers it's our job to ride shotgun and make sure the Western don't lose the payroll and mail contracts. And it seems Judge Travis agrees with him."

JD looked puzzled. "It's not our job?"

"It ain't our job t'guard military payrolls, JD. And it ain't Judge Travis' job to tell us that it is."

Ezra shuffled the cards in his hands with distracted ease. "What are you insinuatin', Mr. Tanner?"

"If yer askin' what I think is goin' on, Ezra, I swear t'God I don't know. But I ain't never seen Judge Travis git skittish on me, or look at another man like he warn't certain of his own mind."

"You sure, pard?" Buck asked softly. "You tell Chris about this?"

"Hell, Chris saw it. He's off talkin' to Mary, ta see if she knows any more about this Roche than we do. He asked me to tell you about Roche, and I reckon I done that." He looked at these five men whom he trusted, who trusted him. The room was suddenly too small to contain his fears. He pushed away from the table and left.

Somehow putting his own doubts into words had left him with a disquieting unease. He knew enough of his own instincts not to dismiss them, and the only way to sort them out was to do it alone, away from distractions. The quietest place he could think of was Josiah's chapel. There was something about that ramshackle church that cleared his head, so he went there, knowing the door was always open for those seeking sanctuary.

It was dim inside, and silent. He slumped down in one of the pews, his hat held loosely in his hands, and waited for the peace to seep into his mind. The door to the church opened, and he heard a footstep behind him. He would have startled, if he had not instinctively recognized the sound. Funny how he knew them all; JD's paces, quick with youth, Buck's long strides, Ezra, graceful as a dancing master, Nathan, soft-footed and sure, Chris' ... not as silent as his own, but lightly placed, alert as cat. Josiah -- a big man, rooted to the earth. Definitely Josiah.

The pew groaned as it took Josiah's weight. "You lit out in a hurry, brother. Somethin' not sit right with you?"

"Cain't say, Josiah. You know how a lake looks on a summer day, all glittery in th'sun, until you git up close and see how dark the water really is?"

"Dark, and cold, and deadly. I reckon I do." He felt Vin's shoulder shiver against his, despite the mild air.

"Well, that's how I feel 'bout this."

"Is it that man Roche that's got you so bothered?"

Vin laughed softly. "Hell -- I don't often take someone in dislike, Josiah. But him ... he's like that black water." He shook his head slightly. "I reckon I'd better hold off judgin' the man 'til I talk to Chris."

"Mal y soit, qui mal y pense," Josiah intoned solemnly. "Evil be to those who think evil."

"Shit, Josiah. I ain't thinkin' no evil, but that don't mean it ain't out there."

"Never said it wasn't, brother."

Vin rose and settled his hat on his head. He noticed for the first time that there was a bedroll tied up and ready to go by the door. He gave the preacher a look. "You plannin' a trip?"

Josiah nodded. "You know how it is, brother. Sometimes a man has to get away to think. Our Lord went out into the desert to pray; I reckon it won't hurt me none."

"Y'ain't gonna be gone forty days n'forty nights?"

Josiah grinned, recalling that Vin had been raised by a righteous woman. "I ain't up t'the Lord's standards yet. I figure seven is about all a weak man like me can bear without losin' his mind."

Vin nodded. Times had been when he could have lived for weeks without seein' another soul. He'd changed. His life had changed. He still lit out when it got too close, but now he knew the difference between being alone, and being lonely; and the humbling comfort of somebody waiting for him to return.

He tapped the brim of his hat. "See ya, Josiah." He left the church and walked past the Clarion News. The blinds were drawn, the door locked when he tried the knob. Mary was gone for the day, then. Seemed like he would have to wait a while longer to find out if his fears were baseless.

**********************

She had known he would be on time. When Mary opened the door to Chris Larabee, the clock in her parlor was chiming the seventh bell. He came inside, filling her small doorway with his presence; rapier-slim and dangerous even in civilized black broadcloth and white linen. She supposed he had never given a thought to the gun belt strapped around his lean hips -- it was a part of him.

She was wearing dark blue silk, and put him in mind of a summer sky lit with stars. "Mary," he handed her his hat, and the blond hair he had tried to tame fell over his forehead. "Is Roche here?"

Mary blinked. She had been wondering if his little boy had the same silky hair as his father. "Roche? Oh, not yet."

"Have you told Orrin I'm joining you?"

"I had to when he asked who the fourth place setting was for." She gave him a rueful smile. "He took it well."

"I'll bet." Chris grinned wolfishly. He was scenting blood, and wondered if Mary felt it, too. He followed her into the parlor, where Judge Travis was pouring out whiskey.

"Hello, Chris. I was surprised when Mary told me you would be joining us."

"I was surprised when she asked," he took the offered glass. Travis' liquor was a hell of a lot smoother than the Red-Eye Ezra served up at the saloon, but he wouldn't be drinking to excess tonight. He needed to be sharp.

A second knock announced Roche's arrival, and the Judge went to greet his guest, leaving Chris with Mary. He looked at her over the rim of his whiskey glass. Her attention was focused on the doorway and the man who followed Travis into the room. Chris blended into the shadows, though he doubted Roche would have noticed him at all, once his eyes lit on Mary. Judge Travis made the introduction, and Mary offered her hand. Roche deliberately turned it to kiss her fingers, a presumption that made Chris step forward -- and if he let his coat swing aside to reveal his gun, well, that was just a friendly warning.

His appearance clearly startled Roche. "Mr. Larabee. I didn't expect to see you here."

Chris merely inclined his head. He took the chair the judge offered, and watched Roche with hooded eyes. Vin had surely been right -- Roche made his hackles rise, but whether it was sheer personal dislike, or a deeper sense of distrust, Chris could not say. He didn't like the way Roche's eyes followed Mary. Chris was predatory enough to recognize another predator on the hunt. He let Judge Travis and Mary make small talk with Roche for a while, occasionally adding a terse comment of his own, but content to observe his prey. He listened as Mary asked all the questions a good hostess should, and tried not to react when she posed one that was more pointed, with finesse and a disarming smile.

Roche was charming, which unsettled Chris. He never did trust a man who could waltz a woman around the floor and make it seem like he was doing her a favor. Judging from the sparks in Mary's eyes, neither did she. However, there was no way she could force the conversation to turn to the topics that needed discussing. Chris had learned patience during the war, to watch an enemy until he made an error, and then attack. He kept his eye on Travis, who was nearly as silent as he was, and saw something in the Judge that he had never thought to see. Fear. He hid it well, but Chris saw it in the way his fingers curled over the arms of his chair, in the scarcely-seen tremble of the liquor in his whiskey glass.

It wasn't until after dinner, when Mary's excellent meal had been praised, and glasses of the Judge's fine wine been consumed, that the talk turned to more serious matters than the latest elections and the weather. Roche seemed surprised when Mary did not retire to leave the gentlemen to whiskey and cigars, and when he said so, Chris nearly choked.

Mary smiled at Roche. "I may be a woman, Mr. Roche, but I also own a business and run the newspaper. I have as much right as any man to participate in a discussion of matters that affect the citizens of Four Corners."

"Of course, my apologies." Condescendingly. Roche turned his attention to Chris. "Have you spoken to your men about my proposal?"

"Vin Tanner has put the matter before them. Though I can tell you right now, that they are not going to be taken with the idea. We were hired to protect the town, not the interests of the Western Stage company."

"The effects of this could spill over into the community, Mr. Larabee. These attacks may be leveled at the Western, but the violence might not be confined to our vehicles and employees."

Chris made lazy circles on the tablecloth with the base of his wineglass. "There is a way to solve this. Give Vin Tanner a few more days to track down the bandits. We capture them, and you're safe."

Roche's reply was forestalled by a sharp rap on the door. Mary and Chris both moved at the same time, with Mary heading for the hall, and Chris close behind her. Tanner was standing on the stoop when she opened the door, his expression grave. She drew him inside. "Vin, what is it?" she asked.

Vin's eyes went to Chris. He held out a thin paper. "Wire came in from the sheriff in Julestown. Seem's the stage was runnin' late, so he went out ta take a look."

Chris grabbed the paper from Vin and read the wire. "God damn," he sighed.

"Chris?" Mary read over his shoulder. "Both dead?"

Chris nodded. "The driver and his guard. Gunned down."

"This changes things, doesn't it, Mr. Larabee?" Roche stood in the doorway, smiling. "I don't see that you can have any objections to working for me, now. This proves it an absolute necessity."

Chris fought down the impulse to smash his fist into that smiling mouth. "Oh, I have objections, Roche. And as I see it, the necessary thing is to get those bastards behind bars, not riskin our lives sittin' on the shooting gallery your stagecoaches have become. You are welcome to ride with us, but we won't be working for you or with you in any other capacity."

"A matter of semantics, Mr. Larabee."

"A matter of honor, Mr. Roche," his voice was a cold, gentle reminder of the kind of man Chris Larabee was. "We can't set out tonight, but if you expect to accompany us, you'd best be at the livery by dawn." He turned to Mary. "Thank you for dinner, Mary, it was real fine. Judge Travis, Mr. Roche ..." Politeness underlain with venom. Chris took his hat from Mary and followed Vin out the door.

Vin paced beside Chris as they headed towards the jail. The gunslinger hadn't said a word since the exchange in the Travis' house, and Vin was still puzzling that conversation out in his mind. "You find anything out from Mary?" he finally asked, deciding the best way to approach the subject was straight on.

"No. Found something out from Orrin, though."

"What'd he say?"

"Didn't say a word. That man's afraid, Vin. Now you tell me what could scare a man like Orrin Travis?"

"I seen him face down a lot of men and a lotta danger, Chris. Hell, he would've stood up fer me agin Eli Joe and all of Tascosa, if I'd asked him. Reckon the only thing that would scare a man like that'd be --" he broke off before he could say what was on his mind, knowing how Chris felt about Mary. "Don't know ..." his voice tailed off.

"You can say it, Vin. If Roche was threatening Mary and Billy -- that would make him afraid. You want to put fear into a man, you threaten what he loves the most. A blind man can see what Travis values more than his own life."

"You got proof, or jist thinkin' aloud?"

"He's slick, Vin. Charmin' as a snake to Mary. Cordial to the judge. Nothin' in the way he acts would make you think there was anything wrong."

"S'Mary in danger?"

Chris' paces slowed. "Not yet. Seems Roche is content for the time being to watch the game play out. We ain't got much time, though."

Vin raised a skeptical brow. "Man's from St. Louis?"

"So he says."

"Didn't Ezra say Maude was there, last he heard from her? Bet she'd be willin' ta weasel out some information on Roche if Ezra asked her real nice."

"Lord, if I'm askin' Maude for favors, Vin ..." Chris laughed softly. "I'm playin' poker with the devil's own mistress."

"Well, better the devil you know, or so Josiah says." Vin stopped at the alley where he kept his wagon. "I'm turnin' in. See ya, Chris." He paused, his eyes bright in the darkness. "You gonna talk t'Ezra?"

"Yeah. Vin, you said you might know where the bandits were holed up --"

"I reckon I'll be more sure after we git ta Julestown." He wouldn't say the word, but Chris knew what he was thinking. If the Devil had a hiding place in the West, it would be in Purgatorio.

Chris was tired, and dawn came early, but Vin's idea about Maude made too much sense not to pursue. Instead of going to the rooming house, Chris made his way to the saloon to talk to Ezra. He had to dodge a group of cowboys leaving in a hurry, none of them looking happy. It wasn't hard to guess the cause, once he found Ezra. The gambler was at his customary table, and judging from the pile of bills in front of him, the cowboys had just made Ezra temporarily rich.

"Have a good night, Ezra?" he asked.

"Good enough to end my temporary financial embarrassment, Mr. Larabee. Will you allow me to buy you a celebratory tot?"

"If you're buyin', I'm drinkin.'" The shot of whiskey Ezra set in front of him wouldn't have the smooth taste of Judge Travis', but at least it had an honest tang to it. Chris let it burn its way into his gullet before he spoke. "Vin tell you about Titus Roche?"

"He did." Ezra fixed Chris with a sharp glance. "It does seem that a matter of priorities needs to be established. I am not enamored of the idea of riskin' my life for a man who worries Judge Travis."

"How do you know that?"

Ezra shuffled the deck of cards at hand. "Now, I might not allow Mr. Tanner to select a bottle of wine, but I do trust him to know a rat when he smells one."

"Vin said Maude was in St. Louis last you heard from her."

The gambler's hands stilled. "My mother's whereabouts are hardly predictable, Mr. Larabee. By now she could be in San Francisco."

Chris sighed impatiently. "You have an address for her -- if she is still there?"

"She gave me her direction." Ezra resumed shuffling. "What do you want with Maude?"

"A favor."

Ezra gave an elegant snort of laughter. "How much are you willin' to pay? Maude's favors are not inexpensive."

"But surely she would do it for her beloved son?" Chris drawled.

"Sarcasm does not become you, Mr. Larabee. However, I might be able to prevail on her good graces. What do you require?"

"Information. On Titus Roche and the Western Stage Company."

"Is he rich?"

Chris thought of Roche's tailored suit and expensive accouterments. The gold watch and signet ring he wore so confidently. "I'd say so."

"That should help." Ezra leveled the cards with a sharp tap against the tabletop. "I trust that a wire in the mornin' will be sufficient?"

"Thanks, Ezra. In case you haven't heard, the stage was robbed on the way to Julestown. The driver and his shotgun rider were both killed. Brought us a little extra time. Vin, JD, and I are ridin' out at dawn, see if we can track the robbers."

"Seein' as Mr. Tanner can track a field mouse across a movin' stream, I trust that you will."

Chris grinned. "Vin'd appreciate that compliment, Ezra."

The gambler's gold tooth gleamed in his smile. "You will keep my opinion of his talents to yourself, Mr. Larabee?"

"Can't have Tanner gettin' all high and mighty on you, Ez?"

"I can scarcely live with him as it is, Mr. Larabee." But there was no rancor in Ezra's words. Considering that the gambler and the tracker were about as far apart as two human beings could be, that was high praise from Ezra, indeed. Chris poured a final shot of whiskey, then left. Caution prompted him to seek out Buck Wilmington and ask him to ride with them the next day. With that reassurance, perhaps he would be able to sleep for a few hours. He didn't have high hopes for that, but then, he couldn't remember the last time he had slept the night through without being waked by dreams he'd just as soon forget.

*********************

Dawn came shivering on the cool desert wind. Vin felt the chill through his shirtsleeves, but he also felt the promise of warmth by mid-day. He wrapped his fingers around his mug of coffee, and savored the bite and heat of the beverage. There were many trappings of civilization he could have walked away from without a backwards glance, but coffee was not one of them. When he had finished drinking, he threw his buckskin coat over his shoulders and went to the livery, where he would meet Chris, JD, and Roche.

He was the first one to arrive, not surprising since the eastern sky was just turning from deep blue to lilac as the sun edged closer to the horizon. Peso would be fractious, and Vin preferred to let him work it out of his system before they set out for Julestown. The gelding was contrary and high-strung; picked up on every tremor in Vin's nerves, and Vin figured with Roche nearby, his nerves would be jumpin' plenty. Peso fought the bridle, fought the bit, blowed up his belly so's Vin had to give him an elbow to the ribs before he'd exhale enough to get the cinch drawn up tight. And then had the nerve to give the tracker a look of wounded innocence. Finally, when both horse and rider were breathing hard, Vin stared him in the eyes. "Done?" Peso nudged his shoulder, and Vin took out the carrot he had held in his pocket. "Don't see as you've earned this, mule. But I reckon sooner or later, you will." He gave Peso's nose a rough caress, felt the velvety muzzle snuff softly at his hair. Accord had been reached.

Vin looked around the stalls at the familiar mounts. The stallion in the far stall looked like trouble. A big chestnut with a white blaze and a mean look about the eyes. Good flesh, but not a horse Vin would lay odds on for reliability and stamina. He took a closer look, approaching in near silence. The saddle and tack laid out caught his eye. Expensive. Buttery tooled leather, supple reins, gleaming. He ran a finger down the length of the saddle. Didn't take much to figure it for Roche's. He flicked open a saddlebag. Tack cloth, snaffle bit, tobacco pouch and a burled wood pipe. The other one revealed nothing but a black bandanna. Vin fingered the fabric. Silk. Seemed appropriate for a slick character like Roche.

"Find anything?"

Vin nearly leaped out of his boots. "Shit, Chris." He pressed his hand flat against his chest. "Must be losin' my edge. Didn't even hear ya come up."

"Maybe I'm just gettin' quieter from followin' you," Chris grinned. "So did you find anything?"

"The man ain't a fool. He's got plenty of money, likes showy horses and tack, silk bandanna. Smokes a pipe. He ain't givin' anything away." He hitched himself up on a stall and watched Chris tack up his mount. "You talk to Ezra?"

"Last night. He's wiring Maude this morning."

"Morning fer us, or morning fer Ezra?" Vin grinned, and heard Chris' throaty chuckle in response. Buck walked in on the good-humored exchange and groaned.

"Gentlemen, gentlemen. The birds ain't even' singin' this mornin'. To hear you so chipper, well, it ain't natural."

"Molly keep you up late, Buck?" Chris asked, bending to cinch the saddle girth and hiding his grin.

"I believe we were engaged in a mutually enjoyable --" Buck broke off when JD wandered in. " ... activity." He cleared his throat and turned to tend to his big gray mare. "Mornin', JD."

"Mornin' fellas." JD Dunne was bright-eyed as only the young could be at that hour. Of the three, he was likely the only one who had slept through the night. Buck's presence had been a surprise to Vin, but some of his nerves were eased by Wilmington's cheerful presence.

"Hey Vin, toss me that bridle?" JD called out as Vin started leading Peso from the stable. It was crowded, and Peso, sensing that something was up was fidgeting. Vin tossed the bridle to JD in passing, and went out to the stable yard. It was appreciably warmer than it had been; the sky was tinted with hues of gold and red as the sun rose over the horizon. He loved the dawn: For a moment, he could close his eyes pretend he was a free man, able to follow the whims of his heart. If he were free ... would he roam again, restlessly seeking the peace he had lost so long ago, or would he stay for a while and let Mary teach him his letters; maybe take Chris up on that offer to stay out at the shack and ranch with him? If he were free, would he stop looking over his shoulder, and start looking ahead?

It was then, when Vin was at his most vulnerable, that Roche came upon him. It was only a moment, but it was enough for Roche to see the youth in him, the loneliness, the yearning. He was blind to the steel in those blue eyes, and saw only weakness. He thought he had learned something valuable. "Morning -- Tanner, isn't it?"

The tracker appraised Roche silently. Dressed in expensive, but serviceable riding clothes. Boots that Vin figured cost the earth; a felt, high-crowned hat. A Colt strapped on his hips, but not worn with near the ease Chris carried his. "Roche, ain't it?" Vin's soft reply carried the weight of his dislike. He wouldn't let this man treat him like he was a servant.

Roche took notice. "Very well, then. Mr. Tanner." He'd play the game -- for now. "Judge Travis tells me you are a buffalo hunter."

"Used to be."

"And a cavalry scout."

"Fer a while." Vin turned his attention to checking Peso's tack. "Th' others are nearly ready. You might want ta get that red devil of yers saddled up. It's a two hour ride to Julestown." He closed his mouth down tight.

When Chris came from the livery stable, he saw the two men; Vin, with his stiff back turned to Roche, and the agent, looming like a dark shadow. There was no threat implicit in Roche's stance, but Chris felt a cold shiver work its way down his spine.

"Mr. Roche, I'd like to leave as soon as possible," Chris strode across the stable yard. "The sooner we get to Julestown, the sooner we can start lookin' for the robbers."

"Of course, Mr. Larabee." Roche tipped his hat and went into the stable. Chris stood next to Vin, seeing the suppressed anger tightening his fine features. "You all right, partner?"

Vin leaned against Peso's side for a moment. "Yeah, I'm alright. Man jist makes my hackles rise. I'm gonna git a head start, if ya don't mind. See if I cain't pick up some sign b'fore Roche decides to run this show his way."

"You think I'd let him do that?" Chris asked.

"If that man's got Judge Travis in his pocket, I reckon he c'n do jist about what he wants. Are you gonna stand against him?"

"If it came to a choice, yes."

"What about Mary?" Vin asked mercilessly, and knew he had drawn blood when Chris' expression turned icy. Vin sighed. Larabee's anger wasn't directed at him, but at his own vulnerability. A man couldn't help what he felt; he could deny it, push it away, but it would always come back. "Sorry. I spoke outta turn."

Chris dismissed the apology. "Go on. We won't be far behind you. I'll be watchin' your back."

"Who's gonna be watchin' yours, Larabee?"

"Why d'you think I asked Buck t'come along?" Chris gave Peso's rump a pat to send Vin on his way and went to roust the others out. It was going to be a long day.

*********************

Vin figured Chris would lead Roche along the stage route to show the agent the territory. Vin had ridden that trail more times than he could count, and took the short cuts he had discovered over the course of his explorations. He dropped back to the stage route when he was five miles out of Julestown, near where the attack had taken place. He reckoned he had nearly an hour before Chris led the other riders along the route. He dismounted and led Peso down to the trail worn by the wheels of the stagecoaches that passed this way.

Four Corners to Julestown was the shortest leg of the stage in a chain of way stations, forts, and small towns that were strung out like beads along the frontier. Not twenty miles north, the Chinese workers were laying track for the trans-continental railway, and the stage lines would become more fragmented; many not surviving at all. In his relatively short life, Vin Tanner had seen the death and rebirth of the West. It changed so fast, it was like to make him dizzy.

He brought his mind back to the task at hand. He stood in the track, his sharp eyes searching for the path the bandits had taken. Nearly twenty-four hours had passed since the grasses had been beaten down by hooves; a less acute observer might have missed signs that Vin picked up on -- a broken branch, a slight imprint in the dust, a hollow in a tussock of grass where a man had lain full length and watched the trail, much as Vin himself had done the day before. A shred of tobacco and a discarded cigarette paper caught his eye. He picked it up and put it in the pouch at his waist. You couldn't arrest a man 'cause he rolled cigarettes, but if he was right about the origins of the bandits, it might narrow it down from fifty, to ten men in Purgatorio. Ten men, he could deal with.

He mounted Peso and followed the trail of bent and broken grasses westward until the grass withered away to sand and stone. A muddle of hoof prints indicated that this was where the group had split -- the smoking man to his picket post, the others farther along the trail. Vin returned to the tussock and lay supine, as the man had. The grass was crushed deeper at one point, and Vin positioned himself, so that the elbow supporting his rifle was in the exact spot. It was an uncomfortable reach so the man was taller than he was, and heavily built, judging from depth of the matting. The sun rose higher, and a glint in the grass caught Vin's eye. Nothing more than a hair, a single reddish blonde hair. Vin grinned to himself. A tall, heavy-set man, right-handed, rolled cigarettes, and redheaded. From a field of possibly ten, Vin figured he had it down to one. Well, maybe two, if the man had a brother.

He left the picket post and rode slowly up the trail to the point of the attack. The scene told the story: The slew of dust where the driver had reined in sharply, the ruts where the wheels had dug in, a great smear of dark earth where the lead horse had gone down, most likely shot by one of the bandits. The latent violence of the attack disturbed Vin. He had known the bandits were ruthless, this showed them to have been vicious as well. He drew Peso to a halt and dismounted to walk the site. There were brass shell casings scattered in the grass. He picked them up. He would find out what kind of ammunition the stage driver and his shotgun used. He kept his eyes on the ground, and bent to pick up a pinch of dirt. It was still faintly damp and iron-scented when he held it to his nose. Blood.

He walked a bit more, his eyes pealed for tells, but found little. Once the attack had taken place, the violence had spilled over into chaos. He could see that the riders had split and ridden off in several directions to confound followers. Vin knew he could have followed one thread, in the hope that they would weave together at some point, but not in the time he had before Chris and the others arrived. He rode back to the picket point, hobbled Peso so he could graze, and settled in with a canteen of water.

***************************

Chris did not push the pace of the ride, figuring the more time he gave Vin to search the site of the hold-up, the more he would learn; and the more time he had to ride beside Roche, the better bead he could draw on the man. So far, the first part of his plan was working perfectly; the second was a miserable failure. Roche's dark eyes darted from point to point, but what he was looking for, he didn't say, and even JD's eager questions were met with one word answers, until the boy finally gave up and fell back to ride alongside Buck.

When JD was out of earshot, Roche finally spoke. "What was Travis thinking when he set that boy up to be sheriff?"

The tone was sour, but the question was a reasonable one, and Chris decided to answer it. "I reckon he saw honesty, courage, an unshakable sense of right and wrong -- the sort of qualities a lawman ought t'have."

"And the rest of you are just along for the ride?"

Chris grinned. "You might say so." He took advantage of Roche's slightly more cordial attitude. "Why'd the Western send one man when ten'd be more like t'get the job done?"

"You don't know that one man, Mr. Larabee." Roche's eyes glittered beneath the brim of his hat.

"No, sir. I don't. But I know Judge Travis." Chris kneed his horse into a trot, figuring he'd given Roche something to think on. It didn't stop him from feeling the imaginary daggers Roche was throwing at his back.

************************

Vin heard them before they saw him. He had been dozing lightly, his hat over his eyes, half-aware of the soft sounds of Peso's grazing and the birdsong in the trees. He felt the tremor in the earth along the length of his body even though they weren't riding hard. He had been thinking about what he had learned, and wasn't sure he was willing to share that information with Titus Roche. Some things a man kept counsel to himself and to those he trusted. He coiled his body, got up from the dusty grass, retrieved Peso and moved down to the road as Chris and the others arrived at the site.

They gathered there, Peso edging away from Roche's mount in a mirror reflection of Vin's distrust. Roche got right to the business at hand. "Well, you've had your time, Mr. Tanner. What have you learned?"

Vin pulled hard on Peso's reins, finally bringing the gelding to a standstill. "The attack took place jist down the road, you c'n see the wheel marks, the place where the horses went down, and someone was shot -- don't know if the blood was the driver's or the guard's. Looks like they died right there ... no signs of blood trails. They had one man, a lookout I reckon, up on that ridge. The others waited up there --" He gestured to a point parallel to their position on the road. "They might have exchanged some sort of signal with the picket. Then they rode down fast. They shot one man, and then most likely the lead horse. The other Western fella --" Here Vin paused, the unemotional tone of his recitation suddenly crackling with anger. " -- seems like he was gunned down in the road. The bandits took what they wanted, and rode off in different directions. My feelin' is that at some point they rendezvoused with each other, but there ain't no tellin where."

There was a moment of silence among the men, as if Tanner's vivid recitation of the brutal attack were playing in their minds. JD's throat was working visibly against his emotions. Buck looked at Vin with hot, unhappy eyes. "You gonna track 'em, Vin?"

"I reckon that's up to Mr. Roche," Vin said. His gaze rested thoughtfully on Roche. "What about it? Do you want these bastards or not?"

Roche regarded the tracker coldly. "We're going to Julestown to talk to the sheriff."

"The longer you wait, the further away they git," Vin replied evenly. "And the fainter the trail. I'm good, but I cain't track somethin' from nothin'."

"Julestown." Roche pronounced. He picked up his reins.

Chris's green eyes darkened. He looked at his fellow peacekeepers. "You heard the man. Let's get movin." He exchanged a look with Buck, an old and meaningful expression from their war days, and Buck gave a slight nod.

"C'mon, JD. Let's take point. I'm tired of breathin' dust."

Chris and Vin rode a bit in silence, purposely allowing the others to draw ahead of them. When he judged it to be safe, Chris turned to Vin. "You mind tellin' me what you didn't tell Roche?"

Vin's mouth curled. "Oh, I got a fine line on the shooter. He was kind enough t' paint me a real nice picture. Only thing is ta find him."

Chris grew cold. "You know who he is?"

"Not who, but I'd bet I know where." His blue eyes took on a distant, unhappy look. "If'n I c'n slip out from under Roche's nose, I'll do a bit of snoopin' around Purgatorio."

"You ain't going there alone, partner. Don't even think it."

"Hell, Chris. You cain't go with me. They all remember you from our last dust-up -- you'n Buck, at least." A shadow darkened his eyes as he thought of the troubles ahead. "Chris, I got a standin' invite t' Purgatorio, thanks t' Eli Joe. No one's gonna question my right ta be there. You know it's the only way we're gonna find out what really going on here."

"Does that invite include mention of that five hundred dollars your hide is worth?" Chris' voice went hard to disguise the fear he felt building around his heart. He shook his head. "Let's hear what the sheriff in Julestown can tell us before you start makin' plans for your own funeral."

Vin cast a sidelong look at the gunslinger's knife-sharp profile. "I got a plan, and it don't include me bein' six-foot under," he said, the faint reproof in his voice making Larabee's mouth quirk at the corners.

"Save it." He looked at the riders ahead of them, nearly obscured by dust. "We'd best catch up, before Roche starts looking at us cross-eyed."

*******************

Sheriff Tyler was a small, wiry man with the sharp features and gingery hair of a fox. Chris knew him slightly, and had no quarrel with the way he kept order in Julestown. He wasn't a man you asked for favors, or offered one unless it was requested. His distrust of Roche was evident, but at least he wasn't expected to be the sacrificial lamb of the Western stage company.

He took them to the undertaker's to view the bodies; something Chris wasn't too anxious to see, and which JD clearly dreaded. He'd seen men die, had even killed when he had to, but the cold reality of murder still left him shaking. As they drew near the small building where the bodies were kept, Chris caught his arm, holding him back. "You don't have to go in there, JD."

"I'm the sheriff of Four Corners, Chris. I'll be alright." He stuck out his chin, and Chris was reminded of Adam and the way he had looked when it was about to storm. I'm a big boy, Pa, he'd insist, and then shut his eyes tight against the lightning. Lord God, had he ever been so young?

Chris firmed his grip. "I know, I just wanted to say it."

"Thanks, Chris." He tucked down the brim of his bowler and followed Larabee inside.

Tyler tore off a chaw of tobacco, and offered the pouch to Chris. "Takes the edge off the smell," he said. Chris declined. He'd walked battlefields where hundreds had died and lain for days. He'd survive this.

"You gonna offer some to Roche?" he asked, and Tyler's eyes glinted. He rolled the pouch up tight and stowed it in his shirt.

The bodies were laid in coffins, and the odor of death was thick in that small room. Roche paled and covered his mouth with his bandanna. "Merciful God, what a stench!"

Chris and Vin stood over the bodies. Tyler pointed to the coffin on the left. "That's the guard. Tim Davis." He lifted the lid. Davis looked younger than JD. He had been shot through the heart.

Vin nodded. "Reckon he died fast."

"You sure you want to see the driver? Name was Tom Halloran. He was a good man. Had a wife and four kids in Vista City."

Vin nodded. "S'alright. Cain't be nuthin' I ain't seen b'fore." He waited until Tyler had pulled the lid aside. He stood still for a moment, then closed his eyes, the skin drawn taut over his cheekbones and pale with anger. "I seen enough." He turned to Chris. "Man was executed, Chris. Those bastards made him kneel down and they blew the back of his head off, right there in the road. That's the blood I saw."

"Shit." He heard JD gasp and leave the shed, wondered if he was being sick. He felt nauseous himself, from the heat and the stink, and the cold-hearted brutality of Halloran's murder. "Let's get out of here, before we all puke."

The sickness remained even in the clean air and sunlight. Buck stood next to JD, his ebullient nature quelled, his expression solemn. "What're you gonna do, Chris?" he asked.

Roche's head snapped up, angrily. He was smarting from being thwarted by Chris Larabee at every turn, at being shown to be weaker in the foul atmosphere of the morgue; at the deference even Judge Travis showed to the man. Roche had heard of Larabee's reputation, but only half-believed the dime-novel legends that were spread through the west. He was not about to be cowed by shadows. He rounded on the gunslinger as he spoke; issuing a challenge and expecting it to be answered. "I'm in charge here, Mr. Wilimington. Not Larabee, not this boy sheriff, or that half-savage tracker of yours!" His hand drifted towards his gunbelt as a warning.

Larabee's hand was at his weapon before Roche's fingers even brushed his holster. Dear God, the man was faster than a striking rattler! Roche recognized his error. He raised his eyes to Larabee's and met the cold green gaze. No fear, just icy, controlled rage that burned like a flame, and left no doubt that if Larabee had intended to shoot him, he would now be staring at the sky.

Chris spoke softly, his voice every bit as cold and deadly as his eyes. "You're wrong, Roche. Now, I don't mean no harm, but I ain't lettin' my friends wind up dead like those valuable Western employees, back there. We're going back to Four Corners and tell Judge Travis what went on here. And if you've got a notion of drawin' on me, you damn well better think twice on it 'cause you'd be dead before the idea left your mind."

Roche had gone white, his jaw knotted hard. He held Larabee's gaze without flinching, and held it for a good while. He gave a slight nod. Larabee stepped back a few paces, giving Roche breathing room. "Agreed. We let Judge Travis decide."

Chris' hand slid away from his gun. "Let's ride. It'll be near dark b'fore we git there." He turned to Tyler who had been watching the entire scene without blinking. "Thanks for your cooperation, Sheriff."

Tyler moved his chaw around and spat. "I don't give a shit who takes care of this mess, Larabee. I just want the murderers caught. Them four kids deserved a daddy."

"Yeah, they did." Chris' voice was soft with compassion. "We'll be in touch."

They rode back to Four Corners in near silence. Chris was content to let Roche take the lead and drift back to ride alongside Vin. Neither man spoke for a while, until the shadows were long and the sun was sinking beyond the horizon. Vin's eyes narrowed against the last rays, and he drew a deep breath.

"You made an enemy back there, Chris."

"He ain't the first."

"Might be the last." There was a soft humor in the tracker's voice, but also concern, which made Chris smile.

"Might be, though I doubt it. I still got the rest of the night."

Vin chuckled at that and ducked his head so the shadow of the brim cut off the golden light that had fallen across his face. "Travis ain't gonna protect you, Chris. Not if it's Mary that Roche is holding agin him."

"I know."

It was full dark by the time they rode into Four Corners. Men and horses were all weary. Roche paid the stable hand to take care of his mount, and told them he would expect Chris and whoever else wanted to be there to meet him at the jail in an hour. The others looked after their own horses, and in unspoken accord wandered over to the saloon. As soon as they had drinks in hand, they settled around their table.

Chris inhaled the fumes of his whiskey, wishing it could penetrate the lingering taste of death at the back of his throat. JD still looked pale and shaken, had scarcely said two words even to Buck. Chris poured another jolt of whiskey into JD's glass, and when the boy gave him a wary look, Chris spoke quietly. "Go ahead. You've earned it today."

"Those men ..." JD's voice shook. "They never had a chance."

"No."

"I mean -- who would do something like that? Why?"

"Ain't no 'why', JD. It just is." Vin's hand came down on his shoulder, just a brief touch, but JD nodded, acknowledging the gesture with gratitude. Vin wasn't much older than JD, but he'd seen a hell of a lot of living and dying in that short time. He'd discovered that cruelty wasn't inbred, but taught. And some men took to the learning easily, and with relish, because it gave them power. So there was a 'why', but Vin wasn't about to acquaint JD with the knowledge and destroy what innocence there was in those hazel eyes.

He slid down in the chair next to Chris. "You seen Ezra?" he asked.

"Not yet. It's about time for him to make his evening appearance. Those cowboys are hopin' to get back some of what he took yesterday."

Vin looked over at the rowdies a few tables away. "They keep drinkin' like that, and Ezra's gonna be laughin' all the way to the bank."

As if on cue, the gambler materialized out of the back room of the saloon. His attire that evening was a burgundy coat and embroidered vest. Impeccable ruffles appeared at his wrists as he shot his cuffs, and when he smiled, his golden incisor gleamed. He pulled a paper out of his pocket and set it in front of Chris. "My mother sends her regards, Mr. Larabee."

Chris read the wire, folded it, and put it in his coat pocket. "Thank her for me, Ezra.

"Well, what does it say?" JD asked, showing the first signs of interest since that afternoon. "Is Roche a crook?"

Chris' eyes were very bright, as he turned to Vin. "He may not be a crook, but he is crooked."

"Well, what does that mean?" JD puzzled.

"Means the man ain't been caught," Vin said quietly. "Chris?"

"Seems he left St. Louis in a hurry. A 'scandal of a personal nature,' according to Maude."

"That tells us about as much as we knew before," Buck said. "Hell, I've been run outta towns due to 'scandals of a personal nature,'" he joked.

"Anyone die?" Chris asked harshly. "A woman killed herself over somethin' that man did. Maude said she'd write later. She's still hunting down the details." He looked around at his fellow regulators. "It don't seem like much, but it's something we didn't have before. No one brings this up to Roche, though." He pushed away from the table. "Vin, JD, time we were off to see Judge Travis."

***********************

Chris had feared that Roche would expect to meet at the Travis house. He didn't want to see Mary and Roche in the same room until he had figured out what was behind the Judge's fears and Roche's threats. Meeting in the jail gave him the advantage of home turf, and he was determined to make the most of it.

When Roche and Judge Travis arrived at the jail, Chris and Vin had already taken the more civilized version of the high ground; Chris at the desk with JD at his side, and Tanner settled in a chair near the back wall, where he had an uninterrupted view of the door and the entire sweep of the room. His hands were folded still on his lap, but the mare's leg rested across his knees; a latent warning that Chris intended Roche to heed.

Travis looked calm to all outward appearances, but Vin, sitting in the shadows and watching like a hawk, could sense tension in the set of his shoulders and a sidelong slide to his eyes when he stood next to Roche. Chris motioned to the chairs he had drawn up. "Might as well sit," he drawled, and a smile tugged at the corner of Vin's mouth at that deceptively hospitable invite.

Judge Travis cleared his throat. "Mr. Roche has told me of the events at Julestown."

"That's a cold way of sayin' murder, Judge," Chris' eyes narrowed. "Did he tell you the driver was executed?" When the surprise showed on Travis' face, Chris turned accusingly to Roche. "Why didn't you?" he asked.

"Dead is dead," Roche answered. "Whether it was chance like the guard --"

"Warn't no 'chance'," Vin interrupted. "Man was shot through the heart."

Roche turned like a snake on the tracker. "Come now, Mr. Tanner," he scoffed. "That's highly unlikely!"

"There was a man up on the side o' that hill. A marksman. A sniper." When he saw the scornful doubt in Roche's eyes, he continued, "You think a man cain't make a shot like that?"

"Could you?" Roche asked, unbelieving.

"He could," Chris answered when Vin remained silent. "Between one heartbeat and the next." The words were chilling, and Chris had intended them to be; along with the rifle and Vin's quiet presence. He wanted Roche to know who he was dealing with.

Judge Travis looked at Roche. "What was the cargo that coach was carrying?"

"Mail. A small payroll shipment. Nothing of great value."

"'Cept the lives of two men," Vin leaned forward. "Makes you wonder why they'd bother bein' so vicious, don't it?"

"Does filth need an excuse for cruelty?" Roche asked. He rose in a swift, compact motion that sent Vin's hand towards his rifle, and brought Chris upright from his slouch. "Gentlemen, this is going nowhere. Clearly, we need to have the shipments guarded."

"W need to find the filth," Larabee snarled. "Before anyone else gets killed!"

JD had remained silent through the exchange, knowing that his words would count for little with Titus Roche, but he chose this moment to speak up, because the answer seemed entirely simple to him. "We could do both -- I mean, I'd be willing to ride shotgun, and you n' the others could find the outlaws." his bright hazel eyes appealed to Chris, then went to Judge Travis', eager and waiting for his thoughts to be acknowledged.

"I don't want to be starin' down at you with a hole in your heart, JD," Chris said. The words were gently spoken, but the vision they raised made JD swallow hard. Chris looked at Orrin Travis, his face lined with care and his hands nervously clenching and unclenching on the arms of his chair. Roche was simmering just below the boil; the undercurrent of tension was thick between them.

From the shadows, Vin's husky whisper came like smoke."Give me and Larabee thirty-six hours from dawn to find the bastards. If we can't, then we guard yer stagecoaches 'til they're caught." Even as he spoke Vin wished he had Ezra Standish's gambling heart, because his own was pounding furiously in his chest at the thought of what he had said he would do. He cast a quick glance at Chris, and read what he hoped was acceptance of his statement. Larabee's eyes had narrowed their focus on him, but there was no doubt or surprise in them.

"Twenty-four hours from dawn," Roche countered. "The next run from Davis to Eagle-Bend starts then. I won't risk that cargo, gentlemen."

"Twenty-four hours?" JD gasped. "That ain't enough time!" He appealed to the Judge but Travis only nodded.

"Can you do it?" he asked Chris.

Larabee sought out Vin, and saw a brief nod, just barely tipping the brim of his hat. He could do it. Hell, he had to do it.

"We'll do it," Vin said grimly. Lord, twenty-four hours ... from dawn, he thought with a wry acknowledgment of those hours when he would not sleep, but would lie awake just killing time ...

 

Part 2