AUTHOR: SueN

PAIRING: C/V

DISCLAIMER: Why are you reading this? The story's down below.

NOTES: Annie, here's that story I've been promising you forever. You can put the gun down now. One plot bunny thinned from the herd... Thanks to my faithful beta Ruby J., who keeps me on track. Without her, this thing would've gone off in more directions than grapeshot. Oh, yeah, it's OW.

 

 

 

They rode in silence through the still, hot afternoon, the only sounds coming from the soft clop of horses' hooves against the packed earth of the road and the creak and jingle of leather tack and metal bits. Not even the faintest breeze stirred; it was as if the air itself had died.

"Goddamn, it's hot!" groused the man riding in the middle, his thin, sweat-streaked face twisted into a mask of extreme discomfort. More sweat dripped from the ends of the lank black hair framing his narrow face and soaked into the dirty red-plaid shirt he wore. "Why the hell don't we stop? Git some water'n wait 'til it's cooler ta go on?"

"Shut up, Morgan," the man in the lead ordered in a bored voice. Despite the relaxed posture of his lean body, his green eyes were never still, but swept constantly over the land all about, searching for any sign of trouble. His low-crowned black hat was pulled low to shade his eyes from the late afternoon sun, and sweat plastered his dark blond hair to his head and the back of his neck. His pale blue shirt, too, was soaked and clung to him like a second skin. "Besides, you'd best start gettin' used ta hot. Gonna be a lot of it where you're goin'."

A soft snicker to the rear of the procession and slightly off to the left brought a smile to his face, and it was all he could do not to turn in the saddle and meet the blue eyes he knew would hold a wicked gleam. But Tanner was a distraction at the best of times, and, with him having been so close these past three days but put completely out of reach by Morgan's obnoxious presence, the Texan had gone from distraction to near obsession. Only this morning, when he'd watched Vin bending over to lay a small fire for coffee, the sight of the man's tight ass caressed by the soft fabric of his tan pants without that goddamn hide coat to conceal it had sent Chris stalking off among the rocks to rid himself of the painful swelling at his crotch.

But, God, when they got home and threw Morgan in jail, he was gonna do ever' damn thing to Tanner he'd spent the last three days imagining!

"Gotta be some kinda law against denyin' water to a prisoner," Morgan grumbled. "Hell, even in Yuma Prison, ya git water."

"You ain't in Yuma Prison, you're with me," Chris reminded him. "And I don't see the point in wastin' good water on a worthless piece'a shit like you."

Morgan scowled darkly and tried once more to free his hands, but only felt the ropes biting more deeply still into his wrists. Goddamn that tracker! The sonuvabitch had him tied hand and foot with bonds that refused to budge, then had compounded his misery, and humiliation, by knotting a length of rope loosely about his neck, but not loose enough for him to slip, and tying the other end to the saddle horn. Gave him just enough slack to sit up straight, though if he somehow managed to free his feet and get off, he'd only hang himself.

"Might as well give it up," Chris advised coldly, knowing instinctively the man was trying to work the ropes free. "The way Tanner's got you trussed, you pull too hard and you're likely ta lose a hand."

"How come he don't talk?" Morgan spat, flicking a contemptuous gaze in the direction of the long-haired man who rode so threateningly, and so silently, just out of his line of sight. "Ain't natural, a man not talkin' like that. Somethin' wrong with his mind?"

Chris sighed and tightened his grip on his reins to keep from pulling his gun and shooting the man. "Maybe he figures you're makin' enough noise for all of us," he retorted.

Shoulda taken Vin up on his offer ta gag the bastard...

Morgan turned to look again at the silent man, and felt a twinge of fear. He wasn't where he'd been before... Sonuvabitch moved like a ghost! He tried craning his neck back to see, and gagged as the rope about his throat tightened. A harsh cough escaped him as he relaxed, and a low chuckle came from the man riding before him.

"Might wanta get used ta that, too," Chris advised, a thin smile tugging at his mouth. "Gonna be feelin' it again real soon."

Morgan scowled at the man and opened his mouth to answer, then started violently as the tracker ghosted up on his right flank. Morgan tried to recover his scowl, but it deserted him again as cold blue eyes impaled him and seemed to drive the air from his lungs. There was no mercy, no humor in those eyes, only a barely contained urge to kill.

Like a damn wolf studyin' its prey...

Morgan swallowed hard and tore his gaze away from the man, suddenly recognizing the hopelessness of his situation. The tracker had trussed him up like a damn hog for slaughter, making escape impossible. And when they got him back to that town for trial, he'd hang for sure. Weren't no two ways about it.

"It's hell gettin' caught, ain't it?" Chris asked, easily able to sense the outlaw's deepening anxiety. "Least I figure it will be for you."

"Uppity bastard, ain'tcha?" Morgan snarled, infuriated by the gunfighter's unconcealed contempt. "Think yer so much better'n me!"

"Better'n a man who beats up women and shoots down unarmed men?" Chris asked in that same bored, level tone. "Yep, reckon I do."

At Chris's words, Vin's hands tightened abruptly on Peso's reins and a deep, fierce scowl twisted his face into a savage mask. Fury rose through him in a powerful tide, and it was all he could not to pull his gun and shoot Morgan on the spot. He'd known the man Morgan had killed, a homesteader named Harlan Shelby, had respected and liked him. And he'd been the one who'd ridden out to the Shelby place and found Harlan lying dead in the yard with his bruised and battered wife sobbing over his body and their two young children clinging to each other in grief and terror.

All he needed was just the smallest excuse, and Morgan would be his...

Chris glanced over his shoulder, saw the rage and hatred burning in those blue eyes, and shook his head slowly, warning Vin silently against giving in to his feelings. He'd known all this would be hard on the tracker, but not even he had understood just how hard. By nature, Tanner could not abide any form of cruelty inflicted on the innocent, the weak or the helpless, and would rise to a perfect stranger's defense without a moment's hesitation. But when someone he knew suffered, when someone he cared about was targeted, then everything in him screamed for justice.

And Vin Tanner's justice was not always a pretty sight.

He sighed and turned his attention back to Morgan, who was again worrying at his bonds. "Give it up," he advised in a low, hard voice. "You really don't wanta break free."

"Yeah?" Morgan sneered, eyeing the gunfighter contemptuously. "What're you gonna do, shoot me down?"

Chris gave a thin smile. "Might come ta that," he answered with another glance at the brooding Tanner. "If only ta put you outta your misery."

=======

The still air got only hotter and heavier throughout the afternoon, unbroken by even the merest hint of a breeze. Running his already-soaked bandanna once more across the back of his neck, Larabee scowled and swore under his breath, knowing it was time to surrender to the inevitable. The horses were thirsty, exhausted, wrung out by the heat. Forcing them to go on any longer would be nothing less than cruelty.

"Vin," he called, quietly, reining Pony to a stop and waiting for the tracker to join him.

Watching Tanner approach, he noticed that even Peso's hide-tough spirit seemed to have wilted somewhat, then studied the gelding's rider and winced at what he saw. Tanner's hat was darkened by a ring of sweat, and his long hair clung in a sodden, dripping mass to his neck. His face was red and slick, and his tan shirt was soaked.

And the ever-present hide coat was nowhere in evidence.

"We're gonna have ta stop," he sighed when Vin eased Peso to a halt. The blue eyes narrowed slightly, questioningly, and Chris grimaced. "We got no choice," he said, pushing his hat off his head and running a hand through his sweat-soaked blond hair. "Horses can't go on in this; they've been pushed long enough." He replaced his hat to keep the brutal sun off his head. "You know any place around here good for the night?"

Vin turned in his saddle and swept his gaze slowly around, studying their surroundings and thinking. Larabee and the others often teased him about carrying a thousand maps around in his head, but, at times like this, he knew they deeply appreciated his knowledge of the land. That knowledge had saved their asses more than once, and would likely save 'em again.

"Might know a place," he said at last, returning his gaze to Chris. "Used ta be a crick runnin' not far from here. It's long since dried up, but it was spring-fed. Might be I c'n find that spring."

Chris smiled slightly. Vin's "might be" was as good as any other man's certainty, and he trusted it as he trusted few other things in this life. "Want company?"

"Naw. You sit here 'n rest whilst I scout it out." He nodded toward Chris's black. "Pony's lookin' a mite tuckered."

Larabee arched a brow. "Could say the same about Peso."

Vin snorted and dropped an affectionate pat to the gelding's glistening neck. "This mule? Hell, he ain't hardly warmed up yet! Jist bein' quiet 'cause he's bored plumb outta his mind. Tried bitin' the packhorse, but the damn fool animal jist stood there 'n took it, 'n he's left him alone outta pure disgust ever' since."

"So that's what it takes, huh?" Chris joked. "All right, you and your camel there go find that spring. We'll wait for ya here."

Vin's eyes narrowed and took on an unusual hardness. "Want me ta take Morgan?" he asked softly, not liking the thought of leaving his lover alone with the man. Chris could take care of himself, but he knew Morgan's type and would never forgive himself something happened to Larabee while he was gone.

"No, I don't," Chris said firmly. "Knowin' him, he'd mouth off one too many times, and you'd have him cut ta pieces before he finished talkin'." He leaned forward in his saddle and snared the younger man's eyes with a compelling gaze. "You promised Miz Caroline you'd bring him in alive, remember? So she could see him swing?"

"Promised her I'd try," Vin corrected in a low, harsh voice. "'Sides," the blue eyes went harder still, "I know ways of keepin' him alive."

Chris barely suppressed a shudder at that, realizing yet again what a fine line Tanner sometimes walked between savagery and civilization. "No," he breathed. "I won't let you do that to yourself on account'a him. He ain't worth the cost ta your soul."

"And what about what he done ta Miz Caroline's soul?" Vin spat. "Ta John 'n Becky's? That li'l girl ain't spoke a word since her pa was killed-"

"Morgan's claimed enough victims already," Chris said firmly, reaching out to grab Vin's forearm. "I won't let him add you to the list."

Vin stared hard at Chris, into the green eyes boring into his, then down at the hand gripping his arm. The long, strong fingers held him with a force that he would never have tolerated from any other man, that would ordinarily have had him fighting to break free. But Larabee's touch was not like any other's, and he could easily feel the concern, the love, behind the force. So he quelled his instinct to fight, and felt the hand on his arm reach straight through to his soul, calming his anger and soothing his spirit.

Lord God, the man's hands were a marvel!

Chris felt his lover settle, felt the tension draining from the taut body, and saw the storm in the blue eyes subsiding. With a nod and a slight, reassuring smile, he released Vin and relaxed in his saddle.

"You go on," he said quietly. "We'll be here when you get back."

Vin allowed himself a small grin of his own. "Better be," he warned. "I ain't in no mood ta have ta track ya down jist 'cause y'all wandered off 'n got lost. Likely I'll jist make camp m'self 'n leave y'all ta the bears."

Larabee narrowed his eyes and frowned. "There's bears around here?"

Vin shrugged, and a wicked gleam appeared in his eyes. "Reckon that depends on jist how lost ya git." He laughed softly at the gunman's frown, fingered the brim of his hat, and spurred Peso into the brush.

"Goddamn smart-ass Texan!" he growled, watching Tanner ride away and admiring the sight. The tracker sat his big, cantankerous horse with an easy, supple grace, his lean body curving comfortably into the saddle and seeming almost to flow into Peso's, the two moving as one. Then, reminding himself of Morgan's presence, he forced himself to look away from Vin and carefully masked his feelings for the tracker.

But, God, he hated having to hide what he knew to the depths of his soul was right...

He slid off Pony and gave the tired horse an affectionate pat. "Don't worry, boy," he murmured, "gonna get you taken care of real soon."

"What about me?" Morgan demanded, tired of being ignored. "Ain't ya gonna let me down?"

"No."

"Why the hell not? Shit, I'm as tired as you! Ain't easy bein' tied up like this, ya know. My wrists are burnin', my neck's itchin, an' I think I'm losin' feelin' in my feet. That goddamn tracker tied these ropes too damn tight-"

"You get down," Chris said quietly, never looking at the outlaw, "and you'll try ta run. Then I'll have ta shoot ya. And it's too goddamn hot ta pull my gun."

"Now, look, Larabee-"

"You say one more word," now he did look at Morgan, and it was not pleasant, "and I'll let Tanner have ya."

Morgan swallowed, remembered the hard look in the tracker's eyes, and subsided into silence.

Chris sighed softly in relief and returned to scanning the countryside, sorely wishing he were home. It was too damn hot to be out on the road with a prisoner who talked as much and said as little as Morgan. He'd much rather be back in the saloon, drinking a beer and playing cards with the boys.

Or, better yet, back at his cabin, playing something else entirely with Vin...

He forced down the thought with an effort. Wasn't any use havin' such thoughts when he couldn't do anything about 'em. When all he had to look forward to was one more evenin' listenin' to Morgan's bitching; one more night spent so close to Vin, and having to stay so far from him...

Goddamn this heat, and goddamn Morgan! He scowled deeply and wished the bastard would give him some reason to shoot him. The man was a cold-blooded killer, and worse. He liked seeing the fear in his victims, enjoyed their suffering, got pleasure from their pain and their dying. He'd beaten Caroline Shelby simply to show that he could; he'd shot Harlan Shelby twice, though the man was unarmed; he'd taken what little money they possessed, Caroline's few pieces of jewelry, and their best gelding. And, according to eleven-year-old John, he'd ridden away whistling.

Larabee sorely wished Morgan would start whistling now, just so he could plug his mouth with a bullet.

He took out a cheroot, clamped it between his teeth and lit it, drawing deeply on it and exhaling a stream of smoke. He and Vin had spent almost a week tracking Morgan, just the two of them. The ranches in the area were due to pay their crews, and he wouldn't risk leaving the town undefended while a horde of cowboys with money burning holes in their pockets swooped down upon it in search of whiskey, women and trouble. So he'd ordered the others to stay behind while he and Vin had set out after Morgan.

And in that time, he'd seen yet again what a fearsome force Tanner was on the trail. The man was a hunter to his very core, his whole mind and every sense focused on his quarry. Hawk-sharp eyes found sign that, to Larabee's own keen gaze, was barely visible, and his keen brain had collected, sifted through and pieced together every tell until he had a true sense of the man he was after. By the third day, when they came upon traces of an old camp, Vin could tell whether it had been Morgan's from the way the fire was laid; could recognize an attempt at leaving a false trail from small habits he'd noted; could predict when the true trail was going to change directions from patterns he'd observed. So when, on the fifth day, Tanner had said, "Might be he's headin' fer Starrville," Larabee had taken it as a certainty.

Sure enough, they'd found him there, had burst into his hotel room and found him in bed with a prostitute. Chris had fully expected Vin to shoot him - or worse - on the spot, had been more than a little surprised that Tanner had limited himself merely to knocking Morgan senseless with the butt of his mare's leg and literally dragging him to the jail for overnight keeping. With Morgan safely confined, the two had celebrated their success with a good supper, a bottle of whiskey, and a night of ferocious lovemaking.

Chris slowly exhaled a cloud of smoke, deeply missing the nights they'd shared while still searching for Morgan. With only the two of them on the trail, they'd been able to indulge their passion as freely and as frequently as they wished, giving themselves to each other as they rarely had the chance to do. No hidden smiles, no clandestine touches, no stolen kisses or faintly murmured words of affection, but the open and uninhibited expression of the depth and fullness of their love. Time and again they had come together, the perfect union of their bodies mirroring the perfect communion of their souls.

But now, once again, they were denied that, forced by Morgan's presence to live without that which was so life-giving to them both. They were back to stealing and hiding what was rightfully theirs, back to whispering when they should be screaming, back to keeping apart when they were meant to be together.

God, God, how he wished Morgan would give him some reason to shoot him!

A shadow moved among the brush, and he tensed, abandoning his thoughts. Then the shadow moved closer, and he recognized Vin. He threw his cheroot into the dirt and ground it out with a heel, then swung tiredly onto Pony and waited for the tracker to approach.

"Find your spring?" he asked as Tanner drew up rein before him.

Vin bobbed his head in a nod. "Reckon so."

"Will it do for a camp?"

Vin cocked his head slightly to one side, thinking. "Reckon so," he finally allowed.

Chris sighed, certain Tanner did this just to vex him. "That all you're gonna say?"

Blue eyes narrowed slightly, brown brows drew together, and the tip of a pink tongue slid slowly over a full lower lip. Then he bobbed his head again, and grinned. "Reckon so."

Chris blew out his breath slowly and glared at the grinning tracker. "I've shot men for less than that."

"Reckon so."

The glare hardened. "You could be next."

Blue eyes laughed. "Reckon so."

Chris kneed Pony closer to Peso and leaned threateningly forward. "You're an infuriatin' sonuvabitch, and I shoulda shot ya the minute I laid eyes on ya!"

"Reckon so. But," he leaned forward and his voice dropped to a husky whisper, "then you'da missed all them times of layin' more'n jist yer eyes on me." He leaned back and grinned wickedly at Chris's stricken expression. "'R so I reckon."

Chris stiffened as a tongue of heat speared through him, then scowled murderously at Vin. "Goddamn you, Tanner-"

"Yeah, I know," he interrupted boredly, "I'm a long-haired, no-good, sorry-assed, pain-in-the-butt, sonuvabitchin' Texan. But," he added, throwing a smug grin at the fuming older man, "I jist happen ta be the long-haired, no-good, sorry-assed, pain-in-the-butt, sonuvabitchin' Texan who knows where yer campin' tonight. So you might wanta hold off on shootin' me a mite longer."

"You do this on purpose, don'tcha?" Chris growled. "You spend all your time thinkin' of ways ta torment me."

Vin shrugged. "Hell, cowboy," he said innocently, "don't take all that much time or thinkin'. Yer a right easy target." And before Chris could really shoot him, he lightly spurred Peso forward and reclaimed the reins of the packhorse, then led off toward the spring.

Chris snatched up the reins to Morgan's horse and kneed Pony after Peso, glaring what should have been flaming holes in the tracker's back.

And wanting nothing more than to snatch the maddening sonuvabitch off his horse and fuck that smug smile right off his face.

=======

Larabee and Tanner swung tiredly down from their saddles and untacked their horses, then rubbed the heated animals down thoroughly while leaving Morgan still tied in the saddle. Only when Pony, Peso and the packhorse had been adequately tended and tied within easy reach of grazing and water did they turn their attention to their prisoner.

And even then, it was only out of consideration for his horse.

While Chris held two pistols on Morgan, one his and the other the one they'd taken from the outlaw, Vin stepped forward and untied one foot, wishing the man would try something. But he sat submissively; even his endless stream of complaints had stilled. Vin crossed to the off side of the horse and untied Morgan's right foot, then drew his knife from its sheath at his belt and held it ready in his right hand. An ugly, savage frown twisted at his lips, deadly menace flooded his blue eyes, and he reached up with his left hand, pulling hard on the rope tied about Morgan's throat and jerking the man forward. Looping the slack around his hand several times, he cut the rope from the saddle horn and yanked Morgan out of the saddle.

The man fell to the ground with a choking cry and immediately Vin was atop him, straddling him, one knee pressed hard into Morgan's groin, the knife thrust against his throat, the rope still held securely in his fist. Fierce blue eyes bored ruthlessly into terrified black ones, and a low growl broke from the tracker's throat.

"Gimme a reason," Vin snarled, pressing the edge of the knife further into Morgan's throat and moving it just enough to draw a thin line of blood. "Don't even need ta be a good one."

Chris saw the shudder run through Morgan's body, and felt a chill touch his own spine. He knew full well about the predator that lurked in Tanner's soul, knew the tracker could be as pitiless as any animal on the hunt. Knowing about it, though, was one thing; seeing it was another. And it was always more than a little unsettling.

"Let him up," he ordered quietly, determined to protect Vin from himself. "Tie him ta that tree."

Morgan yelped as the tracker jerked him to his feet by the rope secured about his throat, then swore as the man nearly dragged him to the tree Larabee had indicated. Another curse tore from him as Tanner shoved him down onto the ground.

"Y'ain't got no right-"

"Shut up!" Vin snarled, dropping to his knees and again thrusting his knife to Morgan's throat. Blue eyes glittered with a dangerous light as the tip of his blade pressed into the outlaw's Adam's apple. "What you done ta the Shelbys gives me all the right I need ta treat you any damn way I want."

Fear flooded Morgan's eyes, and he licked his lips nervously. "You... yer the law..."

Vin bared his teeth in a wolfish smile. "Ain't the law," he rasped. "Jist git paid fer keepin' the peace." He scraped the tip of his knife up along Morgan's throat to the underside of his chin. "'N I reckon if I cut out yer tongue right now, it'd be a helluva lot more peaceful hereabouts."

Morgan blanched and very nearly wet himself, for he knew without a doubt that the tracker was not bluffing. He could plainly see his own death mirrored in those inhuman blue eyes, and it wasn't a pretty sight.

"Tie him up, Vin," Chris ordered in a calm, quiet voice, "then see to his horse." He watched the tracker's hands, saw their deadly steadiness, and knew that knife would go wherever Vin wanted it to, do whatever Vin wanted it to. And he didn't relish handing Morgan over to Judge Travis and having to explain where the man's tongue had gone. "Might as well use what daylight we got ta make camp."

Vin stared at Morgan several moments longer, as if deciding where to make the first cut, then abruptly pulled away his knife and slid it into its sheath. His desire for the bastard's blood still consumed him, but, for Chris' sake, he denied it and set to work on securing the prisoner. With his usual efficiency and a roughness he did not bother to restrain, he had Morgan bound securely within minutes, the intricate knots well out of the reach of the man's fingers. All the experience gleaned from his years of bounty hunting came to him now, as he calculated the various ways Morgan might try to free himself, and compensated for every one.

When he finished, he rose to his feet and stared down, studying his work with careful eyes, making sure he hadn't overlooked anything. When at last he was satisfied, he turned and gave a curt nod to Chris, then walked away to tend to Morgan's horse.

"You need ta do somethin' about him!" the outlaw spat at Larabee. "Sonuvabitch was gonna kill me!"

"If he'd really wanted ta kill ya," Chris answered boredly, "you'd be dead now. Wouldn'ta been any way I coulda stopped him, short of shootin' him. And I ain't about ta shoot him over the likes of you." He fixed cold, warning eyes upon Morgan. "You try anything, I'll let him have you." He holstered his gun, thrust the other into the waistband of his pants, and walked away without a backward glance to start making a camp for the night.

Bitterness churned in Morgan's gut as he watched the tall gunman stalk away, and he spat into the dirt. Larabee and Tanner had treated him like somethin' to be scraped off the bottom of their boots since they'd caught him, and he was goddamn sick and tired of it. They were so sure of themselves, so convinced of their superiority... Well, hell, he'd show 'em!

He tugged again at his bonds and swore at his helplessness. Goddamn tracker had him tied but good! But that was all right. He gave up his struggles and sat back. He was a patient man; he could wait.

And it'd be worth the wait to see those two layin' dead at his feet...

=======

Vin sat back against the large rock he'd chosen for its relatively flat face and gazed out at the land stretching before him, willing himself to relax. He was all knotted up inside and out, muscles too tight, nerves frayed and raw, emotions running much too close to the surface. He knew it was Morgan doing this to him, the man's hateful, hurtful presence scraping against him like sandpaper against dry wood, but there was nothing he could do about it.

Except kill Jonas Morgan, and rid himself of the aggravation.

He exhaled slowly, tiredly, and closed his eyes, resting his head against the rock. Sure sounded good, but Chris would never let him do it. Goddamn gunfighter had a sense of right and wrong that went clear through him and that couldn't be shaken or compromised, and killing somebody just because he needed killing definitely went against that sense.

But, Lord, it'd make ever'thing so much easier! Wouldn't have to waste time nor money on a trial, wouldn't have to put Miz Caroline and the kids through no more pain, wouldn't have to listen to another word of the bastard's endless complainin'...

Wouldn't have to torture himself keepin' his hands off Larabee.

Bitterness and frustration welled through him, and he opened his eyes to stare up at the cloudless sky. That was what hurt, that even out here he and Chris still had to hide what they truly felt for each other and pretend that what existed between them was nothing more than friendship. He understood the reason for such pretense back in town, or told himself he did, knew folks there would neither accept nor tolerate two men loving each other. Just didn't fit into their narrow ideas of what was "right" and what wasn't.

But, Lord, he'd never known anything more right in his life!

And though it hurt him to have to deny something so precious, he did it, if only out of consideration for Chris and the other five. Chris had suffered enough in his life; he didn't need anymore pain, and certainly didn't need the humiliation that being branded a "funny cowboy" would heap upon him. And the others...

Hell, he knew folks, knew how they thought. The others'd be branded, too, just by association. And they'd all come too far, worked too hard to make good names and find good lives for themselves for him to ruin it now with his own selfishness. So he behaved himself in public, kept a respectable distance from Chris when he could, and pretended it didn't set him on fire when he couldn't. Pretended Chris was no more than a very good friend. Pretended he didn't crave the man body and soul and need him more than the air he breathed. Pretended he didn't love Chris Larabee as he'd never loved anyone before in his life, as he'd never even known it was possible to love.

And pretended he wasn't loved like that in return.

But what made the pretense possible, and bearable, were the fleeting and precious times they were able to be together, the hours they stole between dark and dawn, the rides away from town they took for any or no reason at all, the secret meetings at Chris' shack. And sometimes, sometimes, a trip like this, where it would be just the two of them for days...

Hell, he could gladly kill Morgan for depriving him of that alone.

Except that he couldn't kill Morgan for that, because it would run right up against Larabee's unyielding sense of right and wrong. And Vin would rather stop breathing altogether than disappoint the man he loved. Even if disappointing him meant he got to show him just how much he loved him.

He sighed heavily and closed his eyes again, his whole body slumping. Once, just once, he'd really like for life to bend just a little his way...

The soft scuff of boots against sand and rock shattered his melancholy musing and brought him to immediate alertness. His hand fell to the mare's leg holstered at his thigh, and he readied himself to spring. Then he heard the faint jangle of spurs, caught a whiff of the familiar sharp tang of tobacco, and relaxed even as the dark shadow fell over him.

"Gonna have ta do better'n that if yer tryin' ta sneak up on me," he drawled, cracking open one eye and squinting up at the tall figure standing between him and the sun.

Chris chuckled softly and knelt before him. "Ain't stupid enough ta sneak up on you," he said in his low, warm voice. "Man could get himself killed that way, and I ain't in no hurry ta die."

"Where's Morgan?" Vin asked, trying not to feel the pleasure that voice sent coursing through him.

Chris gave a laconic nod of his head to one side. "Back there. Way you've got him tied, he'll have ta dig up that tree if he wants ta run." He moved closer and studied Tanner intently, noting the weariness in his blue eyes and the slump of his shoulders. "You all right?"

Vin bowed his head and stared down at his hands, knowing those green eyes could see through to his very soul. "Jist needed some breathin' room," he rasped, absently picking at his dirty fingernails.

Chris noticed the fidgeting and reached out to still it, taking Vin's hands in his and lacing his fingers through the tracker's. Tanner had taken refuge behind a solid clump of rocks and brush, and that clump now shielded them from Morgan's eyes.

"Hey," he called softly, squeezing the long, slender fingers, "look at me. I'm worried about ya."

Vin looked up, unable not to do so, and exhaled unsteadily as that loving gaze engulfed him. No one had ever looked at him as Chris did, actually looked at him, not through him or around him, with eyes that were neither predatory nor dismissive, but that saw him as he was, in his entirety, and that made him see he was enough. No one had ever loved him with their eyes before, as Chris did every time he looked at him.

And, faced by that love, he was powerless to lie. "'S harder'n I thought it'd be," he said at last, tightening his fingers about Larabee's and letting the man's solid strength seep into him through that touch. "I figgered it'd be like when I's bounty huntin'." He shrugged. "Jist track down the bastard 'n bring him back, one way or the other. Done it all the time, never thought nothin' of it."

"But?" Chris prompted quietly, plainly seeing the pain and anger that still shadowed his lover's eyes.

Vin sighed heavily and shook his head, grimacing deeply. "Ain't like them other times at all," he said softly. "Harlan was a friend. He was a good man, always treated me real decent... 'N seein' them kids without their pa, 'n Miz Caroline beat up like she was..." Anger surged through him anew, and he raised fierce blue eyes to Larabee. "Cain't remember the last time I wanted ta kill somebody so bad!" he said harshly. "Ever' time I set eyes on him, it's all I c'n do not ta slit his throat! Don't seem right that a vicious bastard like that's still walkin' around, while a good man like Harlan Shelby's planted six feet deep in the graveyard!"

"But he ain't alive for long," Chris consoled him. "Miz Shelby can identify him, and we found her jewelry in his saddlebags. He's gonna hang, pard, you know that. He shot down an unarmed man, and Judge Travis will have him at the end of a rope before you know it. And when it's over," he freed one of his hands from Vin's and placed it under the tracker's chin, lightly stroking the full mouth with a thumb, "we can go away for a few days, out to the shack, or up into the hills, wherever you want. Just the two of us. Would you like that?"

Vin nodded wordlessly, his gaze fixed on Larabee's, his lips parting beneath the loving caress of that thumb. Chris's other hand slid up his arm, stroking slowly, and he shivered beneath that touch, delighting in the fingers that played against him with such tender skill.

"Lord, ya got magic hands!" he breathed, closing his eyes as Larabee continued stroking up his arm, over his shoulder and down his back. Unable to help himself, he arched and curved his body into that caress, his head rolling loosely on his neck.

Chris laughed softly as Vin writhed like a cat being scratched and damn near purred with pleasure. "Like that, do ya?" he murmured, leaning closer and pressing his mouth to the warm flesh of the tracker's throat.

Vin moaned wordlessly and clutched at Chris' shirt, pulling the man closer still. "'Like'... ain't hardly the word," he finally managed to rasp as the gunfighter's mouth nuzzled hungrily at his quickening pulse.

Chris chuckled, his breath fanning warmly over Tanner's flesh and sending another shudder rippling through the younger man. He slid his hand down to the small of Vin's back and pulled the Texan close against him, raising his head and capturing Vin's mouth in deep and hungry kiss.

"Oh, God!" Vin moaned, melting against Chris and twining his arms about him, delighting in the warmth and hardness of the gunfighter's body. His want for the man was insatiable, his need for him never-ending. He could live a thousand years and still never get enough of the man.

Chris groaned harshly and buried his mouth in Vin's, clutching the tracker close against him. Fire shot along every nerve and raced through his blood, consuming him in white heat. He sought Vin's tongue, let his own twine with it in an intimate dance, and drank the man into his soul. He had no idea exactly when he'd grown to need Vin so, but knew it didn't matter. He needed him now, had him now. He was finally complete.

"Chris," Vin whispered against Larabee's mouth. "Chris... we cain't..." With an effort he pulled himself away, and pushed against Larabee's chest when the man would have followed. "We cain't," he said again, his voice breathless and unsteady. "Morgan..."

"Can't see us," Chris growled, trying to shove aside Vin's hands and swooping once more for his mouth.

"I know... Damn it, Larabee, stop!" he moaned, trying to hold onto his reason. "We cain't do this, and you know it! If we're both gone too long, he'll suspect somethin'... Damn it, will ya quit pawin' me 'n listen?" he hissed, swatting away the hand that stroked his nipple through the fabric of his shirt. "If ya cain't leave me be, then at least let me go kill the sonuvabitch!"

Chris sat back at that, his face flushed, green eyes glittering with desire, his breath coming in quick, harsh gasps. And slowly, slowly, a smile spread across his wide mouth. "I know you like your privacy, Tanner," he teased, "but ain't that just a little extreme, even for you?"

Vin glared at him, his face twisted into a furious scowl. "'At's right, laugh at me!" he snarled. "I'm the only one here thinkin' with his brain, 'n yer gonna sit there 'n make fun! Goddamn uppity gunfighter, just what the hell I see in you I'll never know, but, I swear ta God, Larabee, one'a these days-"

"Jesus, you talk a lot when you're mad," Chris sighed, clapping a hand over Tanner's mouth to silence his tirade and grinning wickedly into the outraged blue eyes. "Yeah, I know, I better watch my back. And if you bite me," he warned, recognizing the thought the moment it came to Vin, "you'll be pickin' yer teeth up outta the dirt. Now," he dropped his hand from Tanner's mouth, "you know I ain't gonna letcha kill Morgan. In the first place, it's just wrong, and, in the second place, we'd never be able to explain why you did it to the Judge. So, I guess you're right. One of us is gonna have ta go back before he gets suspicious." He sat back and waited, clearly waiting for the younger man to volunteer.

But Vin figured he could wait until hell froze, and crossed his arm against his chest, scowling belligerently at Larabee.

"Goddamn, now he's sulkin'," Chris sighed, running a hand through his hair. "I said you were right, what more do ya want?"

"I ain't goin' over there," Vin said in a hard voice. "Bastard gits on my nerves somethin' fierce, 'n if I kill him, you'll jist git mad. You're the leader of this outfit, you g'on over. The two of ya c'n take turns annoyin' each other 'n jist leave me the hell out of it."

Chris sighed again, exhaling slowly, struggling to maintain his patience. "Were you this picky about your company when you were bounty huntin'?"

Vin smirked. "Didn't have ta be. I's gittin' paid ta be annoyed then." Blue eyes flicked over Larabee's lean form. "But unless you got somethin' awful convincin' stashed in them pants of yers, there ain't nothin' in this fer me."

Chris's eyes narrowed and his mouth tightened, his lower lip pursing deeply. "You keep this up-"

"'N you'll let me kill him?" Vin asked hopefully.

"Single-minded bastard, aren't ya?"

Vin winked. "Y'ain't never seemed ta mind that b'fore."

"Get up!" Chris growled, rising to his feet and staring down at the grinning Texan. "You wanta kill somethin' so bad, go get supper. I'll go watch Morgan."

Vin arched a brow at his lover. "I ain't yer errand boy 'n I ain't yer dawg, 'n I won't be ordered about. You want somethin' from me, you c'n ask. Nice."

"That five hundred dollars is startin' ta look awful good right now," Chris seethed, glaring down at the tracker. "Goddamn long-haired, sorry-assed Texan... You ain't got no sense at all."

"Nope, reckon not," Vin agreed easily. "'Spect it shows in the comp'ny I keep." He heaved a dramatic sigh and shook his head slowly. "Jist ain't no accountin' fer taste. Speakin' of taste," he looked up and slowly ran his tongue over his lower lip, "you got somethin' in particular you want?"

Chris stared at that tongue, mesmerized, and swallowed hard as he fought against the urge to sink back down and seize it, and that mouth, and feast upon them. "What?" he croaked weakly.

"Supper," Vin reminded him, delighting in his power over the gunman. "Whatcha want fer supper?"

Chris swallowed again, wrestled his feelings, and his hunger, back under control, and glared down at the unrepentant Texan. "Just go out and shoot somethin'," he growled, "before I shoot you!" He turned sharply on his heel and stalked away, muttering darkly under his breath about lunatic Texas trackers.

Vin laughed softly and reached for his rifle, checking it over with the ease and thoroughness of long practice.

Still, though, there was somethin' else long and hard he'd much rather be handlin' just now...

=======

Chris leaned over and began cutting meat from the carcasses on the spit, his mouth watering at the smell. Quail. One thing was sure; anybody who rode the trail with Tanner was gonna eat real good. The tracker had a way of scaring up game where Larabee would have thought none existed, could make a camp supper more appetizing than dinner at any restaurant.

Now, if only he'd quit prowlin' around and come in and eat himself...

Larabee looked around for some sign of the man, then snorted at his own foolishness. He wouldn't see or hear him unless Vin wanted him to. Wasn't any use in looking.

He slid a portion of meat onto a plate and dropped a couple of biscuits beside it. Then, hating to share such bounty with the man, he rose to his feet and went to where Morgan still sat tied to the tree, and stared down into the outlaw's face.

"You hungry?"

"Ain't et since this mornin'," Morgan groused. "Hell, yeah, I'm hungry! I's beginnin' ta think you was plannin' on starvin' me."

"Crossed my mind," Chris admitted. "But I've had about all your complainin' I can take." He knelt and set the plat down. "Eat up. It's gonna be one of the last meals you ever get."

Morgan scowled at the gunman tried to raise his hands. They were tied securely together, then lashed by another rope to his bound feet. "And how'm I s'posed ta eat when I can't use my hands?" he demanded. "'Sides, I gotta take a piss."

Chris exhaled slowly, fighting his urge just to shoot the man and be done with it. "Wait'll Tanner gets back-"

"Hell, I can't wait no more!" Morgan whined, squirming at the very thought. "I gotta go now. I been tied ta this tree fer hours, ain't been allowed ta go since we got here... I'm tellin' ya, you make me wait a minute more, an' you'll be sorry!"

"I'm sorry now," Chris muttered. He stared down at the man for long moments, considering. Morgan had been tied to the tree since they'd stopped, had guzzled down a sizeable amount of water... Jesus, he hated transportin' prisoners! "All right," he allowed grudgingly. "You can go. But you so much as twitch, and I'll kill ya. I've had about all of you I can take."

Morgan nodded, and Chris knelt and set the plate down, then drew Morgan's gun from his belt. Holding it steady on the man, almost daring him to try something, he untied the rope that secured his bound wrists to his feet, then, careful to avoid those feet, unfastened the rope around his ankles. It was slow going with only one hand, but he wasn't about to put down his gun. For all he cared, Morgan could piss himself in the meantime.

When the man's feet were free, Chris moved around and began working at the rope that secured him to the tree. Goddamn Tanner and his knots! He couldn't help but wonder how Peso managed to work himself free so often if Vin tied every knot like he had these.

Those two deserved each other...

At last, the rope fell slack and Chris rose to his feet in a single lithe motion, his gun never once wavering from Morgan. The outlaw seemed startled by this, and not a little disappointed. Chris allowed himself a small, grim smile of satisfaction.

"Guess you're gonna need ta be quicker, huh?" he taunted. "Now, get up and get your business done. And, remember, I'm watchin'. Nothin'd please me more than shootin' ya with your own gun."

"Man needs his privacy-"

"You ain't got nothin' I ain't seen before. Now," green eyes narrowed and hardened, "go or don't. You got one minute, then I'm tyin' you back up."

"Shit," Morgan grumbled, moving slowly. He was hampered by cramping muscles, numb feet and bound wrists. "Gonna take me longer'n that jest ta git up. That damn tracker tied me so that I cain't feel my own feet-"

"Yeah, and after you eat, I'm gonna have him gag ya, too," Chris said bitingly, thoroughly tired of listening to the man. "Now, get up before I change my mind."

Morgan leaned forward and got his feet beneath him, cursing as countless pins suddenly seemed to jab into his legs. He crouched on his haunches for a few moments, wavering unsteadily as he tried to make his uncooperative limbs work, then over-balanced and toppled face first into the dirt.

"Goddamn it!" Chris growled as the man fell over with a foul curse. "Get... SHIT!" he howled, suddenly blinded as Morgan rolled over and flung dirt from his cupped hands into his eyes. He fell back a few hasty steps, unable to see, and instinctively raised a hand to rub at his stinging eyes. Then a body hit him full force, knocking him backward and forcing him to squeeze off a shot just as he hit the ground.

And the desperate fight was on. Still half-blinded by the dirt in his eyes, he struggled wildly against the man clubbing him with bound hands, lashing out frantically with legs, fist and gun. Morgan was atop him, straddling him, and Chris bucked and rolled to one side, throwing Morgan off balance, and off his body. Just as he fell, though, Morgan wrapped his tied hands around the one that maintained its deathgrip on the gun, and, locked once more in a deadly embrace, the two men began to roll as they fought furiously for control of the weapon.

"Aw, hell!" Vin snarled, summoned back to camp by the gunshot. He drew his mare's leg as he ran, and jacked a round into the chamber just as he rushed into the clearing to find Chris and Morgan fighting on the ground. "Larabee!" he shouted, raising the sawed-off and sighting down the barrel. He couldn't fire, though, couldn't risk hitting Chris. Fear filled him as he moved about, searching frantically for a clean target. "Shit, CHRIS!"

Morgan twisted in Larabee's grasp and jammed his elbows into the gunman's midsection, rewarded by an agonized cry as the air was driven from Larabee's body. For a moment, the hands fighting him went slack, and Morgan stripped the gun from them.

"NO!" Vin shouted. In horror, he rushed forward, again raising the mare's leg. But Morgan still lay atop Chris, and Vin wasn't sure he could hit him without also hitting Chris.

Or couldn't shoot him, anyway...

With a wild, wordless cry, he leapt forward, brandishing the sawed-off like a war club. Startled by that yell, Morgan looked up to see a blue-eyed savage flying toward him, murder written in the furious face. Without conscious thought, he pushed himself off the gunfighter and raised the gun in bound hands, fighting his own awkwardness to get off a shot.

All but blinded by pain and fighting the nausea curling through him, Chris nonetheless felt the sudden absence of the body that had pinned his and, knowing the fight was not over, rolled to his side and forced himself onto his hands and knees. Dazed and breathless, he fought to pull air into his protesting body, tried to clear his head of the heavy fog shrouding it. But he was brought sharply to awareness by the explosion of gunfire from nearby.

Vin's rush toward Morgan was abruptly stopped by the hard and heavy impact of some force slamming into his right shoulder. The violent jolt of it startled him, tore a harsh cry from him and knocked him backward. His legs crumpled beneath him and pitched him into the dirt, and as he landed on his right shoulder and felt white fire erupting through him, he realized he'd been hit.

The shot marshalled Larabee's senses as could nothing else. Flinging himself to one side, he stabbed his left hand toward his gun and tore it from the holster, bringing it up and aiming without conscious thought at the man turning toward him. Flooded by a cold, controlled fury, he fired again and again, pumping four shots into Morgan before the outlaw could get off even one.

The last echoes of gunfire rolled through the clearing, and a terrible silence descended. The acrid smell of gunpowder bit into his nostrils, an all too familiar scent, and, with a low growl of anger Chris thrust himself to his feet, wishing bitterly that, just once, violence would find someone else. He thought then of the man who'd caused this and looked around, feeling a grim surge of satisfaction at seeing Morgan sprawled in death, his chest torn open by the hail of bullets.

That satisfaction, though, was short-lived. He heard a low, breathless groan and spun on his heel, his heart slamming into his throat.

"VIN!"

The tracker lay on his right side in the dirt, clutching at his right shoulder with his left hand, his white face a tight mask of agony, his breath coming in short, sharp gasps through clenched teeth. Blood covered his fingers and soaked into his tan shirt in a rapidly spreading stain. Chris shoved his gun into its holster and rushed forward on rubbery legs, then dropped to his knees beside Vin.

"Jesus!" he rasped harshly, immediately bending over the tracker and examining him for an exit wound. "What the hell happened?"

Vin hissed sharply as Chris's hands, careful though they were, jarred his shoulder and sent fresh torrents of hot pain shooting through it. "Sonuvabitch shot me!" he spat. "What the hell d'ya think happened?"

Chris exhaled slowly, deeply, and sat back, swallowing hard and setting a hand on Vin's good shoulder. "Bullet's still in there, pard," he said softly. "And we gotta get this bleedin' stopped."

"Hell," Vin whispered, closing his eyes. "I's afraid... you was gonna say that."

Chris gave a strained smile and ran gentle, shaking fingers through Tanner's hair. "Sorry, cowboy, but it's gotta be done." He leaned over Vin again, and rolled him carefully onto his back.

"Shit!" Vin hissed through tightly clenched teeth as pain knifed through his shoulder, into his chest and down his arm at that movement. He felt a strong hand curling firmly about his neck, felt another covering the hand he held to his shoulder, and forced his eyes open to stare up into the white face of his lover. "'M all right," he whispered harshly.

Chris stroked Vin's throat with a thumb, feeling the too-rapid throbbing of the pulse there. "Yeah, I can see that." Hating what he was about to do, but knowing he had no choice, he quickly untied the bandanna at Vin's throat and folded it into a pad, then looked into his lover's pain-filled eyes, as if seeking permission.

Vin, too, knew what had to be done and gave a single nod, then moved his hand and braced himself for what was to come. Even so, he cried out hoarsely and arched off the ground as Chris pressed the pad firmly against the wound, driving white-hot torrents of agony into him.

"God, Vin, I'm sorry!" Chris whispered strickenly, forcing himself to hold the pad in place. Vin was clutching at him with his good hand, trying desperately not to move, his teeth clenched tight, his eyes closed, the cords of his neck standing out as he strained against the pain. Chris felt that same pain tearing into his own body, into his soul, and wished bitterly that Morgan were still alive, just so he could shoot him again. "Hold on, pard," he urged, taking Vin's good hand in his and holding tightly to it. "Just hold on. I gotta keep the pressure on 'til the bleedin' stops."

Vin didn't answer, couldn't answer. Chris's hand seemed to be driving the bullet ever deeper into him, and, though he knew Larabee was only doing what had to be done, that didn't make it hurt one damn bit less.

"It's all right," Chris soothed in a tight, strained voice as Vin's hand held his in a deathgrip. "It's gonna be all right." He hoped. God, he hoped! "But I gotta do this. I know it hurts, but I'm not about ta let you bleed ta death."

Vin tried to maintain his hold on Chris's hand, tried to follow the thread of the man's words, but was being rapidly overtaken by the effects of pain and blood-loss. His head was beginning to fill with a heavy humming that muffled all other sound, and his tunneling vision was obscured by a thick gray mist. Sweat bathed his ashen flesh and soaked into his hair and clothing, yet he felt a terrible chill seeping through him.

"Come on, Vin, stay with me!" Chris ordered harshly, tossing aside Tanner's blood-soaked bandanna and replacing it with his own handkerchief. "Talk to me, cowboy. Goddamn it, talk to me!"

"C... cold," Vin muttered through clenched teeth, shivering as the chill sank ever deeper. "Chris?"

"I'm here," Larabee assured him. "I'm right here. I ain't goin' nowhere."

"M... Morgan?"

"He's dead. I got him just after he got you."

Vin nodded weakly and swallowed, his mouth and throat dry. "Good," he whispered, shivering again. "Least now... we'll h... have... some quiet."

"Yeah," Chris rasped, fairly certain that quiet was about the last thing he wanted right now. Vin's hand was cold, his skin clammy, and he was far too pale. "I'm gonna take care of ya," he said harshly. "You know that, don'tcha? Vin?"

Tanner didn't answer. Another tremor shook him, a shuddering gasp escaped him, and he relaxed, subsiding into unconsciousness.

Chris bowed his head and closed his eyes, fighting to quell his fear and forcing himself to think. He had whiskey in his saddlebags, and Nathan had sent bandages on the packhorse... Laudanum. Had he sent laudanum? Probably. The man had absolutely no faith in his six friends' ability to go anywhere without getting hurt.

"All right, Tanner," he muttered, opening his eyes and glaring at the unconscious tracker, "you stay with me long enough for me ta get you back ta Nathan, then he can take care of yer sorry ass!"

=======

Buck propped his feet up on the desk and leaned back in his chair, sipping gratefully at the cup of hot, strong coffee and resolutely ignoring the complaints coming from the crowded cells. He was fed up with the cowboys; they could all bleed to death as far as he was concerned. He was tired, he ached in every part of his body, including parts he'd never known he had, and he was still pissed as hell.

Lord, what a shitty day it'd been!

He took another sip of coffee and tried to remember how it had started so he could explain it to Chris when he returned. Jesus, Larabee. Now there was a man who was gonna be pissed!

But damn if the ol' stud hadn't been right. As soon as the ranches had paid them, cowboys had come swooping down on the town, screaming like banshees, drinking all the liquor they could find and generally raising hell. The five regulators who'd stayed behind had been hard-pressed to keep the trouble from getting out of hand, and to keep anyone from getting hurt or killed. But they'd done a pretty good job.

Until today.

Buck sighed and rubbed his tired eyes with a hand. This afternoon had seen the king of all barroom brawls erupt. It had started, predictably enough, between hands from the James and Royal ranches, and, so long as it had stayed between them, it had been all right. Vicious and dirty, but all right. Hell, what else was to be expected from those two bunches?

Then the boys from Jack King's Crown Ranch had somehow gotten involved, and it had gone downhill from there. Buck had found himself fighting cowboys he didn't recognize, surrounded on every side, struggling just to stay on his feet, and failing more often than he liked to admit. And it had been that way for all of them. At one point, he'd seen Ezra clubbing cowboys senseless with the leg of a shattered chair, then had turned to see JD wading into a crowd of drunken Royal boys. He'd gone immediately to help the kid, but had been diverted by the four men pounding the hell out of Josiah. Once he'd helped trim the odds for the preacher, he'd made his way to JD, and the two of them had fought back to back.

But, with so many men who disliked each other so intensely, it had been bound to turn ugly, and it had in a hurry. Somewhere along the line, guns and knives had made an appearance, and the mess had turned into a potential bloodbath. The peacekeepers had gone for their guns then, and, aided by Inez's shotgun, had finally brought the whole thing to a stop.

But not before serious damage had been done. By the time it was over, three men had been cut by knives or broken bottles, one had been winged by a bullet, and countless others had been battered to varying degrees. Most troubling to the regulators, though, was that, in trying to wrestle a knife from one of the cowboys, Nathan had gotten slashed across his left palm, and his right arm had been broken.

Now their healer was out of commission.

Buck sighed and closed his eyes, feeling again the knot of worry that had settled between his shoulders. The wound to Nathan's left had was painful, but shallow; in a couple of weeks, it would be healed. But his right arm...

At least it had been a clean break, and for that Buck was grateful. He and Josiah had set it easily enough - if moving a man's bone back into place could ever be called "easy" - and had splinted and bandaged it to Nathan's approval. But it was the man's right hand, damn it, the one he used to mend others' broken bodies. And it would be six weeks at the earliest before he'd be able to use it again.

Goddamn it, who in their right mind went after a town's only healer in a fight?

Nope, Buck Wilmington had precious little sympathy for the moaning, groaning cowboys locked in the cells behind him. Let 'em hurt. Hell, let 'em rot. It was no more than they deserved.

He did, however, worry about his friends. What if somethin' happened to one of the boys before Nathan's arm healed? Drew trouble like flowers drew bees, every one of 'em, with a couple of 'em especially prone. Hell, he probably oughtta just go ahead and lock JD in a closet for the next six weeks, keep the boy outta trouble...

He sighed again and drained his coffee, then reached up to rub the tired and aching muscles of his neck. Ugly. It'd been just pure ugly. And this was the reason Buck hated ugly.

Lord, he'd be glad to see Chris and Vin tomorrow!

 

Continued....