TITLE: Legends Born: To Heal the Hunter


AUTHOR: Joan Curtin

RATING: PG-13 Language. Pejorative terms and racial slurs uttered against Nathan.

SPOILERS: To the Pilot Episode.

DISCLAIMER: Sadly, I can't claim financial or creative rights to the characters of the Magnificent Seven. Those belong to the writers and producers of the series.

** Denotes dialog from the series.

FEEDBACK: Please. Joan Curtin

Note: I suppose you might consider this an alternate universe since it is my version of the events that took place before the Pilot episode. I'm sure there are other stories which I haven't read, dealing with the same subject, and logic dictates that some cross-over of ideas is inevitable. However, I have not knowingly used any other author's ideas. If there is some coincidental resemblence, it is because great minds think alike, and not conscious plagiarism.

I have also taken the liberty of allowing Mary Travis and Vin to meet prior to the gunfight. I think she would have at least known that he was in town, and that he was working at the hardware store. I know it is not canon, but that is the way it works in this story.

I hope to continue the series with Chris Larabee's story. Feedback is welcome. And I'd love to read other versions of this idea, so feel free to contact me with URL's.

As always, a thanks to my Beta-readers, particularly Sue N. And a tip of the hat to Sue Bartholomew, for providing the cowardly sheriff with a name. Mel and Elizabeth, thanks for the encouragement.





Legends Born -- Part One

To Heal the Hunter: Nathan Jackson and Vin Tanner


Chapter One

Nathan Jackson was tall, broad-shouldered, dark-skinned. He was used to seeing fear and caution on the faces of people he met, and there were times when he'd catch a glimpse of himself in the mirror and understand why folks would cross the street when they saw him coming. He looked like trouble. He might have been. He was a former slave who carried the scars of his cruel past on his back. And if he had been turned bitter and mean by that past, he could have been a killer.

But like many big men, he was conscious of his power to hurt, and his years of endurance had made him think twice about striking out without good reason. He was dangerous when riled, but gentle at the heart. He was polite, soft-spoken, and carried himself with quiet confidence and natural dignity. He was a good man. He had come to Four Corners to heal, not harm, and to start a new life as far from the old one as he could.

He opened the door of the Clarion News, setting the bell overhead chiming to announce his entrance. A slender woman armed with an oil can was doing battle with a printing press, and apparently losing. She blew a strand of hair aside and dragged a sleeve over her forehead. "What can I do for you?" she asked and turned to face him.

She was about the prettiest woman he'd ever seen, with pale blue eyes and a wealth of blonde hair that grew in a widow's peak on her forehead. He regretted the flash of alarm that crossed her face, and he took off his hat, tucking it under his arm to appear as meek as a man his size could.

"I's wonderin' if you might be able t'run this advertisement in the Clarion," Jackson asked. He held out a piece of paper, and her look of alarm changed to one of surprise. He figured she hadn't thought that a Negro'd be educated enough to write.

She took the paper from him and read, "Nathan Jackson. Wounds healed. Bones set. Fevers broke. Clinic open next to Watson's Hardware, upstairs." She frowned at him. "You're a doctor?" she asked.

"No, ma'am." There was pride in that voice, but also regret. "I ain't no doctor, and never claimed I was. But I's a medic in the Union Army durin' the war, and b'fore that, learned about healin' from my grandmother. I reckon I kin do what that advertisement says." He glanced out at the street. "Seems like this town could use a healer."

The woman smiled. "We could at that, Mr. Jackson." She held out her hand. "I'm Mary Travis, the publisher and owner of the Clarion News. Welcome to Four Corners."

Nathan thought she was indeed one of the prettiest women he had ever seen. "How much do I owe you, Ma'am?"

Mary quoted her price, and Jackson counted out the coins. "I'll be settin' out my shingle this afternoon."

Mary Travis gave him a measuring look. "Mr. Jackson, I hope you won't take this the wrong way. The people of this town are good people, decent folks for the most part -- but they come hard to trust. It may take them a while to get used to your presence."

Nathan couldn't help smiling at her concern. "I reckon I know that ma'am. But blood is blood, and pain is pain, and I figger if folks need help, they'll come 'round once they see I kin help 'em."

"I hope you're right, Mr. Jackson. I'll do my best to encourage them. Though I hope I won't be one of your first patients." She gave him a rueful look, and Nathan's smile widened.

"I hope not, ma'am. But if you need me, you'll know where I am." He settled his hat on his head, touched the brim, and took his leave.

The first two weeks were hard. His only patients were a couple of cowboys who got drunk and shot each other up bad enough to require his services. But folks were getting used to seeing him around town, and Mary Travis made it a point to greet him when she saw him on the street. She even continued to run his advertisement after he admitted that he didn't have enough money to keep it posted. The third week, things got better.

Nathan was labeling jars of supplies when he heard footsteps on the stairs leading to the clinic. More than one person, in a hurry. He felt the jolt of excitement -- the knowledge that someone needed his help, followed by the nervous fear that he might not be able to help -- and opened his door to Mary Travis. Gloria Potter was standing there too, with her son clasped to her side. The boy's face was white and tear-stained, and he was holding his left wrist in his right hand.

"Mr. Jackson -- Tommy was running down the boardwalk -- he fell and hurt his wrist." Mary touched Gloria Potter's shoulder. "Gloria, this is Nathan Jackson. Won't you let him take a look at Tommy's arm?"

"Is he a doctor?"

"He's a healer," Mary explained. "He took care of wounded Union soldiers during the war. You can trust him, Gloria." Gloria Potter's face was tense with worry; she wouldn't look at Nathan, but watched Mary closely as if she depended on her to interpret a foreign language.

Nathan sighed, used to folks not speaking directly to him. He knelt down, going eye-to-eye with young Potter. "You gonna let me take a look at that?" he asked.

The boy looked at him, eyes wide. Nathan opened his hand, and Tommy set his small, pale wrist across it. "It hurts," he sniffed.

"Reckon it does." He looked up at Gloria Potter. "Seems swollen. I'm jes' gonna touch it real careful, an' you kin tell me if it hurts. Okay, son?"

Tommy nodded, and Nathan began a cautious examination. When he had finished, Nathan let Tommy's arm down gently. He smiled. "You got yo'self a sore wrist." He stood. "Miz Potter, I don' think it's more 'n a sprain -- gonna swell up and bruise. I got some arnica I c'n wrap it up with, t'help keep it from swellin' too much. Boy should keep it in a sling fer a few days ..."

Tommy's eyes opened even wider. "A sling? Like I been shot?"

Gloria Potter bit her lip and Mary's breath drew in sharply. Nathan looked at the boy. "Ain't nothin' special 'bout that, son. All it does is hurt. Why don't you come over here where I kin take care of that, so you kin git outta here?"

Nathan kept up a steady stream of easy conversation with Tommy as he bound up his wrist and tied one of his own big bandannas into a neat sling. "You be careful, now. No more runnin' on the boardwalk, hear?" He reached into a wide-mouthed jug and offered Tommy a piece of hard candy.

Tommy went to his mother's side, smiling now that his ordeal was over, and Gloria Potter extended her hand to Nathan. "Thank you, so much, Mr. Jackson." This time, her eyes smiled into his. "I don't think a doctor could have done any better." She hugged Tommy. "How much do I owe you?" she asked Nathan. He would have given her the service for free just to build good will, but he could see she was a proud woman. He quoted his price, and she dug into her reticule. "You did real good, Mr. Jackson. I'll get the word out to folks that we have a genuine healer in town."

She and Tommy left, but Mary lingered, curious about the man and his clinic. "You know, I'd like to write an article for the Clarion about you, Mr. Jackson. Give you some free advertising, get folks to notice you're here." She lifted an elegant brow, and Nathan wondered what on earth a woman like her was doing in a town like Four Corners.

"Thank you, Miz Travis. But I reckon I'll jes' let things come as they will."

She gave him a measuring smile. "Let me know if you change your mind, Mr. Jackson. I've been fighting for this town for a long time -- we need good, decent men like you to settle here, start businesses, farm the land. Show the bullies like Lucas James that we have as much right to be here as they do."

"You sho' speak with a passion, Miz Travis."

Her chin came up. "My husband was killed trying to prove that this town was worth fighting for. I won't do less for his honor's sake. I want my son to have more than just a memory of his father."

A husband, dead. A son, who Nathan had never seen in town. A woman, doing the work her husband had died for. "Thank you, Miz Travis."


"Miz Potter wouldn't a' brought her son t'me on her own."

She just smiled. "I hope she brings you good luck, Mr. Jackson." She left the clinic, and Nathan watched her cross the dusty street to the Clarion offices. Mary Travis might not be able to save Four Corners by herself, but it wouldn't be for lack of determination.


The next week brought a steadily increasing trickle of patients to Nathan's door. Their complaints were minor; but he listened to all, dispensed medicines, gave advice. The small jar where he kept his fees filled up so that he had to make a trip to the bank. And if the Bank Manager wasn't exactly friendly, neither did he refuse Nathan his services.

The longer he was in town, the more Nathan saw the dangers threatening the town's existence. Big ranchers like Lucas James and Guy Royal sent crews into town to disrupt the peace and raise hell. Itinerant cowboys drank and gambled, and killed each other in the saloons and bawdy houses. The decent folk that Mary spoke of didn't walk out past dusk and bolted their doors. And at least one business a week shut down. Nathan thought it was like pouring water from one hand to the other, losing half to the dry sand underfoot.


"Buffalo hunter." Gloria Potter looked out the window at the rider coming down the main street of Four Corners.

"How do you know that?" Mary asked, amused. It was Gloria's favorite pastime, watching the comings and goings in town. If the woman hadn't worked at the store, Mary would have offered her a job as a reporter for the Clarion.

"Filthy buckskin jacket. Rifle in a rawhide sling. Long-haired, unshaven. Looking for a drink and a ... well ... amusements." She folded a length of calico and handed it to Mary. "You watch yourself out there, Mary."

"I'm sure I'll be perfectly safe." She tucked her package under her arm and went outside. The buffalo hunter had pulled up in front of the store, but hadn't dismounted. He sat slouched in the saddle, unsteady. Mary thought he had started his carousing already, and brushed past him.

He reached out, grabbed her arm. Mary cried out in alarm and tried to jerk away. She looked up at him, and her fear died in her throat. Pain-clouded blue eyes met hers. His hand burned through the fabric of her sleeve. Not drunk, she realized.

She heard footsteps coming fast from across the way, and Nathan was running towards her. "Miz Travis!" he called out, ready to come to her defense. Mary tugged her arm free of the man's grasp. For a moment he fought for balance, then just as Nathan was about to seize him, he fell from the saddle, landing in a pitiably small heap at the healer's feet.

"Miz Travis, you all right?" Nathan asked as he knelt beside the buffalo hunter. "He didn't hurt you?"

Mary nearly laughed. "I don't think he could hurt a fly, the shape he's in, Mr. Jackson." She looked down at him. "What's wrong with him?"

"Won't know 'til I git him up t'the clinic. He's burnin' with fever, that's sure." When he turned the man over, his hat fell from his head, and Mary saw that the grime and the growth of beard hid a young, fine-featured face. His lips were dry and cracked. Mary's maternal heart gave a sympathetic twinge. Nathan slipped his arms beneath the man's shoulders and knees, and, with no more effort than if he was lifting Tommy Potter, rose to his feet.

Mary touched Nathan's arm. "Let me know how he is," she said.

Nathan carried the man up the stairs to the clinic and laid him on the cot by the window. Despite the heat of the day and the burning fever in his body, he wore a heavy buckskin jacket. Nathan pulled that off, then untied the bandanna from his throat, and opened the calico shirt he wore. The side of the shirt was stiff with dried blood and had adhered to a wound in the man's side. Nathan got a basin and some hot water from the kettle he kept over a low fire. He soaked the fabric free of what looked like a knife slash running along the man's ribcage. The slash was inflamed, but it was hard to tell if that was the source of the fever. Might just be too much sun and not enough water.

The presence of one wound prompted him to look for another, and he began to strip off the man's clothes. He wore as many layers as an onion -- Nathan supposed for convenience and comfort; less to carry, and the desert nights were cold. Beneath the layers of calico, cord, and cotton, the hunter's body was slight, but with whipcord hard musculature testifying to strength and endurance. As Nathan examined him, he found evidence of old injuries; scars, the irregularities of bones broken and mended, bruising that told of some sort of fight not too long past -- perhaps the source of the knife wound, as well. Even long-healed stripes on his back that Nathan recognized as lash marks. He'd been beaten, badly. And not as an adult. That made Nathan's stomach churn.

He cleaned out the knife wound, and set in a few stitches, all without his patient waking. That fever had to come down. He bathed his face and torso with cool water, tried to spoon some herbal tea down his throat without much success, but hoping he'd got enough in him to reduce his temperature. When the hectic flush faded from the hunter's cheekbones, Nathan covered him with a light blanket and prepared to wait out the afternoon.

After a while, the man began moving restlessly, and Nathan came to the bedside. As he bent to lay a cool cloth on his forehead, the man came awake all at once, reaching for Nathans' throat with murderous intent, his eyes slits of blue fury and his body coiled for the leap. The movement was unexpected, but Nathan's reflexes were fast, and he had the advantage of size and strength over his weakened patient. He caught his wrists in his big hands and forced him back against the pillows.

"Easy, son," he soothed. "Easy. Y'ain't got no cause t'kill me. I's only tryin' to help."

The man was panting, and as quickly as he had tried to attack, he suddenly shrank back as far as he could from Nathan's touch. "Who're you? Where am I?" he rasped out.

"Name's Nathan Jackson. You're in a town called Four Corners. You rode in earlier, fell outta yer saddle. You got a fever, and a wound gone bad in yo' side."

"You a doctor?" he asked suspiciously.

"I call myself a healer. Close to a doctor as you'll find in these parts."

"Where'r my clothes, an' my horse?"

"Clothes are on the chair over here. Horse is at the liv'ry." Nathan cautiously moved closer. "You got a name, son? I'd feel better knowin' who was jumpin' down my throat."

He looked sheepish. "Sorry, I ain't used to bein' fussed over. Startled me is all. Name's Vin." Nathan let the deliberate omission of a last name ride. A lot of men out here tended to lose their last names real fast.

"I'll be mo' careful in the future," Nathan grinned. "You got the moves of a wild cougar there, Vin."

"Kept me alive, I reckon." He watched as Nathan went to the stove and poured a muddy-looking concoction into a cup. It didn't smell like coffee. "What's that?"

"Herbal tea, t'take down the fever yo' runnin'."

He offered the cup, and Vin took it warily. He sipped it, and grimaced. "T-tastes like horse piss!"

"Drink it," Nathan ordered. And when Vin looked at him with murder in his eyes, Nathan just laughed. "I'm bigger n' you. And fo' the moment, I'm stronger. Drink it, son."

He seemed to study Nathan for a moment, then with a slight nod, he finished the tea without further protest. Exhaustion overcame him quickly, and Nathan had to snatch the cup from his fingers as he drifted off.


Chapter Two

His name was Vin Tanner, only he didn't tell too many folks his last name since he could never be sure that they hadn't come across a Wanted poster with his face on it. Five hundred dollars had a way of making him mighty interesting for all the wrong reasons. Biggest wrong reason was that he was innocent and had to prove it before the Sovereign State of Texas decided to hang him. Running into two bounty hunters after his carcass hadn't been in his plans at all. He'd kilt one of them with his shotgun, but the other one was too quick and too close. He'd pulled a knife on Vin, got inside his guard and sliced him up good, before Vin managed to turn the knife and gut him. He wasn't an intentionally brutal man, but he had a powerful desire to live -- or at least not die swinging from the end of a rope. That had been three days ago, near the Mexican border town of Purgatorio. Vin had thought to head there, but the encounter with the bounty men had changed his plans. He had gone North instead, into the New Mexico territory, hoping to hide in the desert till he was healed. Seemed the fever'd addled him enough t'send him to Four Corners.

As much as all his instincts told him to pack up and run, his body wouldn't let him. He couldn't afford to trust anyone, but the big healer didn't ask questions, and Vin sensed no harm in him. He didn't let his guard down, but he allowed Jackson to do what was needed. He drank his horse-piss teas, and let him poultice and change the dressing on his wounded side. He was too weak to fight, anyways, so he figured he might as well conserve what strength he had.

The second morning, he woke up and thought he had died during the night. Sunlight pouring through the window illuminated a woman who was about as close to an angel as he'd ever seen. Pale skin, silver-gilt hair, long down-cast lashes, a soft, tender mouth ... Vin sighed.

At the sound of his exhalation, the angel put down her pencil and came to the bedside. She reached out a hand to touch him, and he startled back. "Ma'am, you don't wanna do that," he said softly. "I ain't fit t'touch."

She hesitated, then despite his objections, laid her hand against his cheek. Vin swallowed hard. It had been a long time since a woman had touched him so gentle, made him feel things he had no right feeling. She frowned down at him. "You still have a fever," she said.

"Yes, ma'am. I reckon I do."

"But you are getting better," she said.

"I hope so." He managed to look away from her blue eyes. "Where's the doc?"

"Mr. Jackson went to get some breakfast. I told him I'd sit with you until he came back."

"You don't hafta do that, ma'am. I'll keep jist fine. You look busy."

She cast a look back at the papers strewn over Nathan's table. "My name is Mary Travis. I own the newspaper here in town." She went to the table and picked up yesterday's edition. "Would you like to read it?" she asked.

He shook his head. He hoped she would take the flush on his cheeks for fever. He didn't want to admit to her that he couldn't read her newspaper, or anything else. "I cain't --"

"Oh, of course, you've been ill. I'm sorry, Mr. ...?" She arched a blond brow.

"Vin. Jist Vin."

"Vin, would you like me to read it to you?"

"That'd be mighty kind of you, Miz Travis." It would be like heaven, he thought. To have a beautiful woman like that read to him; just looking at her wouldn't get him anything but a headache. But maybe he could take that memory with him. Her voice was as pretty as she was, cool and soft like a flowing stream. He closed his eyes, even though he didn't want to, and listened as she read to him about the small events that made life in this town called Four Corners.


The next time he opened his eyes, Jackson had returned. He stood at the stove, stirring a pot of something that smelled good. Vin no longer felt like a knife was buried to the hilt between his ribs, and his fever had pretty much left him. He recognized the hollow, flat feeling in his belly as hunger and he cautiously pushed himself upright.

"Hey, Doc. Is that stir-about food r'horse piss?"

Jackson grinned over his shoulder. "Soup. You hungry?"

"Cain't remember the last time I ate."

Looking at that young, hollow-cheeked face, Nathan could believe it. He ladled soup into a cup and carried it over to his patient. "Careful, now. It's hot."

Vin sipped at the broth. It was good; rich and salty. Tasted like strength. Jackson handed him a thick slice of bread. Vin dunked it into the broth to soften the crust, and that tasted good, too. "Thanks, Doc," he sighed.

"Tole you befo', I ain't no doctor." Jackson took the empty mug from Vin.

The young man laughed softly. "Hell, I been treated by Indian medicine men, an' by so called 'doctors' from back East. I reckon you and them Indians got more a right to be called 'Doc," than them fancy fellers."

"I call myself a healer, that's all," Jackson said firmly. He came over to Vin's bedside. "I need to take a look at yo' side, see if it's stopped drainin'." He'd learned not to touch the young man without speaking his intentions first. His reflexes were lethal, even in his weakened condition, and Nathan's throat bore the bruises to prove it.

Vin leaned forward and let the healer unwind the strip of linen from his torso. Jackson took a good long time examining the slash. "Am I gonna live?" Vin finally asked, his voice edged with humor and impatience.

"You fight in the war?" The innocent question made Vin nearly leap away from his touch.

"Fer a while, near the end. Why'd you want t'know?" he asked suspiciously.

"Jes' curious. You got a lot of scars --"

A small, derisive breath puffed out. "Cain't help that, Doc."

"No." Nathan knew that. Had more than a few scars of his own that he wasn't too keen on folks seein'. He could feel the reluctance to be touched right through his patient's muscles. He sighed. "Looks good. I c'n take them stitches out, if you don' mind."

"Yer the doc," Vin said.

Nathan laid out a small, sharp knife and forceps. "I'll cut the thread, then you'll feel a bit of a pinch when I pull it out. Ain't nothin' to it."

"Reckon I c'n take it." The fine mouth thinned.

Nathan thought it was a real shame that Vin had been hurt so bad in the past that he didn't expect any quarter or mercy, not even from a healer. He worked quickly, gently, and when he had finished, he replaced the bandaging to protect the wound until it was completely healed.

Vin swung his legs over the side of the bed. "I'll jist get on outta here, Doc. Let ya have the bed for someone who needs it."

Nathan set a hand to his shoulder. "Whoa, there. Jes' cause you're healed up on the outside don't mean you're healed inside, too. You go ridin' off inta the desert an' you could be killin' yo'self."

The young man's mouth twitched into a wry smile. Couldn't remember the last time anybody had cared whether he lived or died. Felt good, but the instinct to keep moving was strong. "How long b'fore I can ride out?"

"Least a week."

Vin thought of the contents of his pockets. Two dollars was about all he had between this world and the next. Two bucks, an ornery horse, and a sawed-off gun. And a debt to the healer for saving his life. Suddenly, he didn't feel so good ...

Nathan saw the color leave his face, and gently forced him back down against the pillows. "You ain't goin' nowhere 'til you kin sit up without goin' white as a sheet."

Again, that derisive chuff of laughter. "Hell, Doc. I've rid twenty miles with a bullet in me. I figger I c'n walk outta here."

"Without fallin' down them steps?"

Vin considered. "One day more, Doc."

Nathan nodded, knowing that he'd wrung a concession from his unwilling patient. "Then you'd better git yo' rest, son. 'Cause it ain't gonna be easy."


Vin left the clinic the next morning, determined not to let Jackson see how weak he still was. First place he went was to the livery to see his horse. Peso owed his name to the price Vin had paid for him, seein' as no one else was brave enough to take him on; but he and the ornery horse understood each other real well. It was other folks who thought he was the spawn of Satan.

To Vin's surprise, Peso had been behaving himself -- like he knew his master wasn't gonna be around to care for him. He still acted like his feelings was all busted up 'cause he'd been neglected by Vin for the last few days. When Vin reached out, Peso pulled away, just as Vin figgered he would. "Get you an apple if you keep behavin' yerself," Vin promised, and Peso's ears flicked as if he was already anticipating the treat. As Vin turned to leave the stable, Peso snaked out his long neck and bumped his nose against his master's shoulder. "Yeah, I know yer back there," Vin said with a smile.

He got clean clothes out of his saddlebag and used some of his cash to buy time in the bathouse. Cleaned up and shaved, he looked less like an outlaw. He needed to find some sort of temporary job to earn enough to pay the healer. When he'd asked Jackson what he owed, he'd been shrugged off, but his Ma hadn't raised him to take advantage of folks' kindness.

Even though it felt odd to be without his jacket and his sidearm, Vin left them in the room he had taken -- scarcely big enough to turn around in, and it had still cost him two bits for the week.

He caught a glimpse of his reflection as he passed by a window. A slender, long-haired young man wearing cords and a calico shirt looked back at him. The words "Wanted" and "Five Hundred Dollars Bounty," weren't tattooed on his forehead, neither. Hell, he scarcely recognized himself. He asked a passer-by where he could find the Clarion News offices, and set off in that direction.

The bell strung overhead sounded when he went inside. Mary Travis was sitting at her desk, her head bent over her work, but she looked up quickly when she heard the jangle. He could see she was searching to place him her memory, and then when she had, her face lit with a smile fit to make a man blush to see such a welcome. "How are you, Mr --"

"Vin'll do, Ma'am." He gave her a deferential nod. "An' I'm doin' better than I was."

"Yes, I can see that." She set down her pen. "How can I help you?"

"I's wonderin' if you could do me a favor, ma'am?"

"If I can." She brushed a lock of blond hair from her forehead, leaving a smudge of ink on her fair skin.

Vin pulled out his handkerchief and offered it to her. When she was puzzled by the gesture, he pointed to her forehead. "Ink."

"Oh ..." she blushed. "Thank you ... Vin." She wiped off the ink and handed the cloth square back to him. "Now, I do owe you a favor."

Vin swallowed. "Well, I's wonderin' -- seeing as you run this here paper, an' all, if you know if anyone could use a hand around here? I ain't good at much but I ain't above doin' an honest day's work."

"You're staying in town?" she asked, surprised.

"Fer a spell, 'til the Doc says I c'n ride out, or least until I c'n pay him fer taking care a' me."

Mary thought for a moment, then shuffled through the papers on her desk, looking for something specific. "Actually, Virgil Watson -- the man who own the hardware store -- is looking for a man of work. He's offering five dollars a week and a room." She handed him the paper. He glanced at it and handed it back to her.

"Think he'd hire me on?"

Mary nodded. "If you're honest and willing to work, I don't see why he wouldn't. I'd put in a good word for you."

His blue eyes widened. "Ma'am, you don't know me from Adam --"

She smiled at him. "I have pretty good instincts when it comes to folks -- and you don't look like a criminal."

Vin's stomach churned. He didn't want her to take on the risk of his bounty. "Ma'am, I ain't exactly what you think -- I been out here a long time, and I done things --"

"Half the men in this town have done things they aren't proud of; but that doesn't mean they aren't good men at the heart," Mary said firmly. "My husband believed everyone deserved a fresh start, and he died protecting the rights of men like yourself who came west to do just that. Small farmers, and ranchers fighting to keep their land --" She broke off suddenly, her eyes filling with tears. "I'm sorry. I tend to crusade."

Crusade. A word Vin had learned to associate with war and vengeance. Not a word he expected from a woman with the face of an angel. "S'all right, Ma'am. I reckon we all got somethin' we gotta do t'stay alive," he said softly. "I'm obliged to ya fer tellin' me about that job. I'll go right on over."

"You tell Virgil to come to me for a character. I'll be glad to give it." She watched him out the door, and then turned back to the editorial she was writing against Lucas James and his gang, who had been terrorizing the citizens of Four Corner for months.


Miraculously, he got the job. Virgil Watson was pretty desperate for help, and once Vin mentioned Mary Travis' name, he'd been hired on in a flash. He found himself with an apron and a broom in his hand before he could stammer out a thanks. He worked for four hours before Virgil told him it was quitting time. Seemed an easy enough job. Virgil Watson had heard about his injury, and was willing to hold back on the heavy work until Jackson gave him the go ahead.

After he'd hung up his apron, Vin stepped out onto the boardwalk. Four Corners was about as small, dusty, and ugly a town as he'd ever been in, but it seemed like it was going to be his home for a while. He went back to the rooming house for his things; managed to convince the owner to give him back half of what he'd paid, and moved into the small room over the hardware store. It wasn't much bigger than the rooming house, but it didn't smell of old onions and stale sweat, and it had a window looking over the main street.

He was about to go to the saloon for a beer and dinner before returning to his room, when the sound of riders coming in at a gallop made his heart quicken. Alert to danger, his hand went to his thigh, reaching for his gun. Too late, he recalled it wasn't there. If this was trouble, and he figured it was, the sheriff would have to take care of it, and it sure didn't seem that the sheriff had much of a mind to take care of anything, according to Mr. Watson.

The riders thundered into town. Eight men, and a flat-bed wagon with a man wrapped in blankets tied onto it. They reined in below Nathan's clinic, and one of the cowboys dismounted and bellowed up to the clinic door. "Hey! Healer, we're lookin' for you!" He picked up a stone from the road and heaved it at Jackson's door.

Vin began a casual-seeming stroll over. "You lookin' fer Doc Jackson?" he asked one of the riders.

"Got a man with a bad leg that needs tendin'."

Vin took a look at the man in the wagon bed. His face was a pallid greenish-yellow, and Vin caught a whiff of the sickly sweet smell of putrefaction. Seemed like they'd already waited a mite too long, he thought. "If ya fellers stop throwin' stones at the Doc's door, I'll try and find him for ya."

"Don't take too long, boy."

Vin's brow lifted at the tone of the man's voice, but he'd been called worse, and shrugged it off. He didn't say that a few minutes one way or another wouldn't make much difference to a man poisoned with gangrene.

Before he could set off on his way, he saw the tall healer heading towards the clinic. "There's the doc, now," he said.

The cowboy gave him a disgusted look. "Yer lyin'. He's a darky. Ain't no such thing as a darky doctor. I ain't lettin' no nigger set his hands on Mr. Fallon."

Two spots of anger burned on Vin's cheekbones. He'd never judged a man by the color of his skin and nothing raised his ire more than a body who did. "Then I reckon your Mr. Fallon's gonna be a dead man, 'cause ain't nobody else in this town t'give a damn." Vin turned on his heel, touched his hat brim to Nathan and went at a quick-step towards the saloon.


They were a trail gang come in from Texas. They'd sold off their cattle in Vista City and were on their way back to Amarillo when Fallon's horse threw him, and broke his leg. The bones had cut through the skin, and though they had drawn them back in when they'd set the leg, the wound had remained open and festering. The last two days, Fallon had clearly grown sicker, and now they had no choice but to stop. That was the story the sour-faced cowboy gave to Nathan. He wouldn't look at him as he spoke, and Nathan figured it was because he didn't like the color of his skin. Nathan believed God created all men alike inside, no matter what they was on the outside. So he'd treat this Mr. Fallon like he'd treat anybody else needing help.

Wished they'd brought him in sooner, though. Nathan knew the scent of gangrene. Made him sick to smell it again. He'd had enough of it in the war to last a lifetime. He unwrapped the filthy bandages splinting Fallon's leg and looked at the ugly wound. Red streaked up the leg towards the groin and the big blood vessels that would carry the infection to his heart.

Nathan did what he could. He cleaned the wound with carbolic, used herbal ointments to soothe and disinfect, re-splinted it properly. He spooned his teas down Fallon's throat, and still knew the man would probably be dead by the next day.

The healer sighed and sank down in the chair in front of his stove. He rubbed his forehead and his aching eyes. It wasn't until he felt the cool breath of evening air on his neck, that he realized someone had come into the clinic. He hadn't even heard footsteps on the stairs.

"Hey, Doc."

Nathan smiled as he recognized the soft, raspy voice. "You feelin' poorly or jes' payin' a social call?"

"I'm fine. But he sure don't look too good." Vin inclined his head towards Fallon. "Gangrene?"

"Yeah. Ain't much I kin do."

"Them cowboys ain't gonna like that. If ya need a hand with 'em. Let me know." Nathan looked at him in surprise, and Vin gave him a wry smile. "I cain't do much, but I'm a fair shot, if it comes down t' that."

Nathan didn't know what to say. He'd met good people and bad of all colors in his journeys; had white Union soldiers claim they was fighting for his freedom, but none had ever offered to put themselves between hatred and a bullet for him. He met Vin's steady blue eyes. Saw things there he didn't think the man was aware he was revealing; courage, honesty, trust. He didn't know who this man was, or where he had come from, but he was true clear to his heart. Nathan felt it.

He shook his head. "I hope it don't come to that."

"If it does, I'll be workin' fer Virgil Watson over at the hardware store." Vin tapped his hat brim. "See ya, Doc."

"I'll have a look at your side b'fore you take off."

Reluctantly, Vin raised his shirt and stood patiently as Jackson examined the wound. He probed it gently, felt the reflexive withdrawal from his touch like it was still tender. "Does it bother you?" Jackson asked.

"Pulls a bit if I stretch it too far. Don't worry on it, Doc. I'm bein' careful." He tucked his shirt back in the band of his trousers. "Thanks agin. Cain't think of many folks who'd take the trouble with me as you did."

Nathan grinned. "I's supposed t'leave you layin' on the ground at Miz Travis' feet?" He held out his hand and Vin clasped it firmly.

"Ya could've," he said, as if abandonment was something he knew well. Again, that touch of the hat brim, and he drifted out of the room, seeming to fade into the twilight shadows. Nathan sighed and turned back to Fallon. His breathing had become more erratic and there wasn't much that could be done but to ease his passing.

There was a hard knock on his door, and Nathan opened it to the head cowboy of Fallon's crew. He brushed past Nathan and stood over his boss. "He don't look any better," he said. He picked up a mug of herbal tea set on the table. "What's this shit?"

Nathan felt a rush of anger. "Somethin' t'ease his pain. He ain't better. An' he ain't gonna git better, Mister. I figger he'll be dead by this time tomorrow. If you'd got him here sooner --"

The last words were choked off as the cowboy grabbed Nathan's throat. "Yer a lyin' nigger! Yer killin' him with yer darky poison!"

Nathan took hold of the man's wrist and squeezed until he yelped with pain and released his grip. "I'm doin' all I kin do fer a man with gangrene," he rasped painfully. "Git outta here!" He took the man's shoulder in his big hand and shoved him towards the door. "You wanna know how yer boss is doin', you kin ask in the mornin'."

The man's eyes burned with hatred. "I'll be back, nigger. And if Mr. Fallon ain't alive tomorrow, you won't be neither." He strode out and down the stairs.

Nathan rubbed his throat. Was it just a threat? And if it wasn't, would the folks in Four Corners give a damn about what happened to him?


Chapter Three

Virgil Watson couldn't help liking the young man he'd hired on Mary Travis' recommendation. He'd had a few doubts at first, fueled by Gloria Potter's low opinion of the man's previous occupation and disreputable appearance, but when he'd shown up to ask about the job, he'd been clean, neatly dressed, and respectful. His hair was long, but Virgil figured he was entitled to wear it however he liked. He couldn't complain about his work, either. He was quick, quiet, intelligent. He didn't say much, but Virgil could see his mind working overtime. Mary had cautioned him about giving the young man too much work until he was recovered from his wound and fever, but since Vin didn't seem inclined to use that as an excuse to shirk, Virgil was willing to allow him a few days of light duty.

Stock came in that day, including a box of five Winchester rifles. Virgil walked in as his new employee was opening the crate. He watched as the young man took one of the rifles in respectful hands, weighing it, checking the balance, then raising it to his eye. Something in the way he flicked the tang sight up and aligned the weapon made Virgil think that he had more than a passing familiarity with firearms. The look in those blue eyes caught him short as he stood in the doorway.

"Looks like you've handled a rifle before," he commented.

Vin lowered the sight and set the rifle back in the case. "I've shot some." His fingers caressed the glossy wood of the stock like other men might caress a woman. "Been a long time since I --" He broke off, a flush coming to his cheekbones, and then paling as if his wound had given a nasty twinge. "Where'd you want me to put these?"

"In the locked case behind the counter." He tossed the key and Vin snatched it from mid-air. "Take you three months t'pay for one of those guns -- if you were willing to starve for it."

Vin shook his head. "I got a gun. Not like this, but it c'n get the job done."

Virgil would have asked him what that job was, but something in the set of the man's angled jaw made him keep that question to himself. "You c'n take off after you put those rifles away."

"I still got an hour to work, Mr. Watson."

"Yeah, but y'already swept the stoop six times and straightened every tool in the store," Virgil smiled. "Take the hour and get some rest. We're due for a big delivery the day after tomorrow, and you'll put in enough hours to make it up then."

"Thanks." He nodded his appreciation to Watson. He set the rifles in the cabinet and locked it. Then he hung up his apron, settled his hat on his head and went outside. He tipped the brim of his hat to Mary Travis as she was locking up the Clarion offices, and she smiled back. A few doors down, Gloria Potter was sweeping the boardwalk in front of her store. She gave Vin a curious look, then a small nod of recognition before she resumed her work.

Those two small acts made Vin pause for a moment and consider where he was and what he was doing. He'd been alone for a long time; no family, no friends, no place to call home. He had no intention of letting Four Corners draw him in just because folks treated him halfway decent. They was only that way because they didn't know the truth about him, about the bounty on his head, about the things he had done. About the noose that was awaiting him in Tascosa, Texas for a murder he didn't commit.

He'd have to clear the Tanner name before he had any right to settle down. He owed it to the memory of his Ma and Pa.

Loud shouts and shots from the saloon brought Virgil outside quickly. He stood next to Vin, looking down the street. "Don't sound like it's gonna be a quiet night," he sighed. "Damn cowboys."

Vin nodded. "They the fellers rode in yesterday? Took their trail boss to Doc Jackson?"

"That's them," Virgil said sourly. "Wish the bastard would die or get well already."

"He ain't gonna git well. Not swelled up with gangrene like he was. Seen enough a' that in the war," Vin sighed. "See ya in the mornin', Mr. Watson." He started towards the outside stairway leading to his room, but paused when he heard Virgil give a low whistle.

"Now we're goin' to the devil for sure." Watson was staring at a man dismounting in front of the hotel.

Vin followed his gaze curiously. Didn't know what Virgil meant. All he saw was a sinewy shadow and a big black horse. "Why d'ya say that?" he asked.

"That's Chris Larabee."

"Never heard a' him."

Watson chuckled. "Then you ain't from around these parts, son. Larabee's a gunslinger. Go into Potter's store and take a gander at them dime novels. Half a' them are about the Legend of Larabee. The meanest, coldest sonofabitch in the West. And the fastest gun this side of Texas."

"That the truth?"

"Yeah, that's the truth." Virgil's voice had lost its humor. "The sorry truth." He spat into the dust. "If I was you, son. I'd stay clear of him. He's nuthin' but the worst kind of trouble."

Vin thought that if Virgil had been walking down the streets of Tascosa, he'd be hearing the same thing about Vin Tanner. He watched the dark shadow of a man disappear into the hotel. So, Virgil thought the devil had come to Four Corners. Vin had demons enough to keep company with Chris Larabee, he just kept them better hidden. He said goodnight once more to Virgil and went up to his room.

He lay for a while on his bed, feeling the air weigh heavy on him. Felt like a storm a-coming, even though there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Signs and portents ... he'd heard the phrase somewhere and it had stuck with him. He thought of the Comanche; their beliefs in dreams and spirits that spoke to men, whispering of changes in the wind. Then there was a quick slip of a breeze through his window, tossing the curtains capriciously. A whiff of tobacco smoke from a cheroot drifted in. He would have gotten up and looked out, but he still tired easily, and his eyes closed of their own accord. He'd intended to eat, but instead curled on his side and fell asleep.


Nathan sat in the darkness and watched as the life drained slowly from Fallon. The man had never regained true consciousness, but the agonal respiration of his dying was horrible. Nathan had given him laudanum as the end approached, not knowing how much pain he was feeling, but not wishing him to die without something to blunt his sensations.

He had heard the gunfire and the drunken revelry from Fallon's gang through the early evening, and now from the silence of the night, he figured they had drunk themselves into a stupor. The morning would bring sore heads, and sour stomachs -- not conducive to accepting the news of Fallon's death. It would be a rough haul, Nathan figured. He would have felt better about it if the Sheriff had any strength in this town, but he was weak and ineffectual. Didn't give Nathan much hope for his survival if Fallon's foreman was set on making him pay for his failure to keep the trail boss alive.

Nathan could have left Fallon, but he didn't, watching him until he drew his final breath at dawn. Then he covered the man's face and went out to stand on the small balcony overlooking the main street. It was too early for anyone to be up, and as soon as the town stirred to life, he would have to go to the undertaker's for a coffin. Then the everybody'd know that he had failed to save the man's life.

He went back inside and opened his windows, hoping to clear the air. He fixed some breakfast, and then when he heard the town waking up, he went to the undertaker. He had the misfortune of running into Fallon's head man as he stumbled out of the hotel. He looked blearily at Nathan, then blinked up at the undertaker's sign overhead. For a moment, he didn't seem to make the connection. Then an ugly look of rage suffused his face and he grabbed Nathan's shirt front.

"Tell me that you ain't here 'cause of Mr. Fallon," he hissed.

His breath was foul and Nathan drew back from it. "Look, I'm mighty sorry, but he was dyin' when you brought him in. I done what I could t'make his passin' easier --"

"Listen, nigger. I know what you done. You kilt him with yore poisons. I saw it with my own eyes. Mr. Fallon was livin' when you got him, and now he's dead. I ain't too stupid to add that up."

Nathan pulled the man's fingers from his shirt front. "I done all I could. Ain't no doctor I ever seen who could 'a saved him. Get your men t'gether and bring him down from the clinic. Give him a decent burial an' go back to Texas."

"Git yer filthy hands offa me, nigger!" When Nathan released him, the cowboy drew back like he was about to let loose a punch.

Standing outside the Clarion's doorway, Mary saw the altercation and hurried over. "Is there a problem, Nathan?" she asked.

The cowboy looked her up and down. "Yeah, there's a problem, lady. This healer a' yours killed Mr. Fallon."

"Mr. Jackson didn't kill your boss. I saw you bring him in. He was dying even then."

"You a doctor?" the cowboy sneered.

"I know the smell of gangrene," Mary said. "Better than you, apparently. Or else you would have brought him into town sooner. And if I hear any more threats against Nathan Jackson, I'll go for Sheriff Wyatt." She prayed that the cowboy didn't know how ineffectual that threat was.

He looked at her hard, but she didn't flinch. "This ain't the end of it, lady." He turned on his heel and strode away.

Mary let out a breath of relief and turned to Nathan. "I think it is. Nathan, are you all right?"

He found it amazing that this slender, exquisite woman was asking if he was all right. "I'm fine, Miz Travis. I sure hope it is the end. Cain't say I'll be sorry when they ride out with their boss in his coffin. Be lucky if no one else gets killed. Meanwhile, I got t'git that body out a' the clinic." He watched Mary walk to the Clarion, looking over her shoulder as if to make sure that trouble wasn't dogging her. The undertaker sent his assistant with Nathan to collect the body, and in less than an hour, Fallon was in his coffin and ready for burial.


Vin began his work at the hardware store just as Nathan and the undertaker's assistant were carrying Fallon's body down the stairs. He shook his head. Felt sorry for the doc, since he seemed like he would take losing a patient hard. Couldn't say he'd miss the rest of Fallon's crew. Be glad to see them ride outta town. He hung up his hat, slipped the apron over his head, and picked up his broom to begin getting the store ready to open.

As he swept the broom across the planks, his mind drifted. He'd slept pretty well, ate a big breakfast. On his way to the store, Gloria Potter'd actually smiled at him as she opened up the mercantile. Long as he kept the reminders of his past -- his jacket and his gun -- out of sight, and as long as he wore that apron and had a broom in his hand, folks was real nice. He didn't understand it himself. Under the skin, he was the same man he'd been when he'd ridden in; and they didn't know that man any more than the man they was watchin' sweep Watson's front porch. Just seemed they found that one easier to accept.

Virgil Watson came out and stood beside him. "Fine mornin', Vin."

"Yes, sir. Don't think it'll last too long. Jist saw 'em carry that trail boss' body down t' the undertaker's."

"Good -- Not that the man died, understand," Watson amended when Vin's brow flew up. "Best those troublemakers get outta town. Leave us in peace. We got enough troubles of our own without bringin' in bad elements from outside town. Like that --" He glared rather pointedly at the tall, slim man in a black duster striding from the hotel towards the saloon. "Like that gunslinger."

Vin just kept on sweeping. The first sign of trouble was a single shot fired from the direction of the livery, then suddenly Fallon's gang galloped down the main street, and bullets started flying from all directions as the likkered up cowboys began giving Mr. Fallon a wake that Four Corners would never forget.

Ar first, their gunplay was limited to firing into the clouds and spending a lot of ammunition. Then as more liquor found its way into their systems, they began shooting up the town, sending glass flying from broken windows, and the citizens of Four Corners scrambling for cover wherever they could find it.

Watson's hardware store was protected by a fairly deep porch, and Vin stayed outside watching the gunplay with a fine disregard for the bullets that were zinging into the dust and the wooden siding scant inches from where he stood with the broom still in his hands. He wondered where that no-account Sheriff Wyatt was hiding. A flurry of hoofbeats answered that question. Wyatt and his equally worthless deputy were riding hell-bent-for-leather out of town.

Vin heard hoarse shouts coming from the direction of the clinic. Seemed Fallon's ramrod and two of his henchmen had decided to make good on their threats against Nathan Jackson. They were muscling the big man down the stairs. Vin felt an uncomfortable cramp in his stomach. He didn't like what he was seeing. He turned to speak to Virgil, but the store-owner had fled inside. Vin watched as the trail gang bound Nathan's wrists in strong rope and flung him onto the back of the wagon bearing Fallon's coffin. Someone called out an invite to a lynching, and Vin stood stock still, every nerve in his body screaming that he had to do something to stop the atrocity. None of the other citizens of Four Corners seemed to have any inclination to get involved. Most of them were still cowering even though the gunfire had died down, and those that weren't cowering were lining up to see the spectacle of a public hanging.

Vin wasn't a man to rush headlong into danger without measuring the odds. Odds -- hell. There were no odds. Seemed like one man wouldn't stand a chance. Then he saw Mary Travis come from the Clarion offices, clutching a shotgun that was near as big as she was and planting herself firmly in the path of the gang. The wind gusted, snatching at the frail silk of her dress and whipping strands of gold hair around her face. She backed up a few paces as the procession advanced and then stood firm.

**"Stop right there," she ordered, the business end of the gun held level and straight.

**"Step aside, lady."

**"We don't hang men around here for no reason."

The foreman turned back toward the wagon. ** "He killed a good man. Said he was a doctor, but he let him die."

**"I never said I was no doctor!" Nathan gasped from the back of the wagon, and was roughly wrestled into silence.

**"Nathan didn't kill your boss. Gangrene did."

**"Ya oughtta be thankful we're gettin' rid of this quack," the foreman spat contemptuously. "Ain't no darky doctors and there never will be."

Mary aimed and cocked the shotgun. **"You're not hanging that man," she threatened, her voice shaking with emotion, but determined not to back down. If she had to scatter that man's brains from here to Vista City, she would do it to save Nathan's life.

The man looked down at her, at her unwavering blue eyes and at the shotgun she held. Hell, everyone knew women couldn't shoot worth the damn, but that big gun could loose a swath of buckshot to cut a man in half. His eyes hardened and narrowed. **"I said, git outta my way!" At the same time he kicked out with his boot, catching the barrel of the shotgun and knocking it up towards the sky. The jarring impact tripped the trigger and the gun discharged into the air, the recoil of the big gun throwing Mary clear off her feet and into the dirt.

He laughed.** "We got a funeral to go to, boys. Git this wagon movin'." One of the other cowboys stood over Mary as she lay stunned. He grabbed the gun from her hand and mounted up.

Mary struggled to her feet, dizzy and hurting, but angrier than she had ever been in her life. She looked around at the citizens of the town -- folks who owed Nathan, who owed everybody who'd fought to keep this town alive, and now didn't give a damn whether he lived or died. **"Are you people just going to let this happen?" she cried. And no one answered. Her tear-reddened eyes met Vin's, imploring his help, and when she didn't see what she hoped in them, she shook her head in disgust and took off after the wagon.

That was it. That was all Vin could stand. Odds or not, innocent men did not get hanged, not as long as there was a breath in his body. He'd been in Nathan's place not too long since, and he wasn't about to let a good man die because folks wasn't willing to stand up to a gang of no-account bullies. Angry now, he set his broom down. Time for setting back and letting life flow around him was past. That warn't his nature, ever.

He strode inside the store, took the key to the gun cabinet from the drawer and opened it up. He hesitated for a fraction, then chose the Winchester 73 he'd held the other day. There were shells in the drawer, too and he began loading the chamber.

"What the hell are you doin'?" Virgil Watson demanded.

"Goin' t'save a man's life."

"Not while you're workin' for me, son."

Vin put a few more shells in his shirt pocket, hung his apron up, and took his hat from its peg. He started out the door, followed closely by the irate and nearly speechless Watson.

**"You walk off with that rifle and you're fired," Watson threatened.

Vin chambered a final shell in the Winchester. **"Hell, I'm probably gonna git myself killed. Now I gotta worry about a new job, too."

Virgil didn't know how to respond to that wry, laconic statement. He watched silently as the quiet youth he had hired turned into a steely-eyed man with determination and courage in every line of his slim body. He held a grudging respect for Vin, despite the blatant disregard of his demands. And he had to admit that he looked far more at home with a gun in his hands than a broom.

Vin jacked a shell into the firing chamber.

He looked up. His eyes locked with the ironic green gaze that belonged to the gunslinger, Chris Larabee. Larabee gave a nearly imperceptible tilt of his head in the direction of the lynching party. Vin nodded and stepped down from the boardwalk, meeting the gunslinger in the middle of the street.

Larabee didn't say a word, didn't even glance over at him. Vin figured the man knew the odds as well as he did; but suddenly the odds didn't matter. The presence of the tall gunslinger, the aura of menace that drifted around him like the folds of his black duster, the man's cool confidence -- made the odds against them vanish like clouds in the high desert air. With the rifle slanted over his shoulder, Vin's paces fell into perfect rhythm with Larabee's strides as they followed the last of the marauding cowboys towards the cemetery.


He was going to die. Nathan didn't doubt that. The rough hemp of the rope chafed his neck, the gun barrel pressed beneath his jaw made him gag, and his ears ached from the gunfire erupting around him. He was going to die, and not the way he would chose to leave this life.

He'd seen men dragged off and lynched before; you couldn't live in the deep South and not know that terror intimately. He'd hoped that had been left behind him -- he was a free man -- good as anybody else. Heard that was true in the West. Lies, bitter, ugly lies. The folks in Four Corners were no better or no worse than those he'd left behind. Other than Mary Travis, they'd turned a blind eye just as easy; even the man who said he'd put himself in harm's way.

That thought caught Nathan up short, and he was ashamed that his anger had prompted it. Vin was only one man against Fallon's gang and most of the town. What chance could he have, and what right did Nathan have to expect him to lay down his young life for a man he'd met less than a week ago?

Lord, give me a chance to go down fighting, Nathan prayed. That was all he wanted.

The cowboys halted the wagon in the cemetery. There was an old dead tree, naked as a skeletal hand emerging from the dry dirt in the center of the graveyard. They threw the rope end over one of the branches and hauled Nathan to his feet, so that he stood teetering on the brink of the wagon bed, one skittish pace away from oblivion.

No one spoke. Not even Mary Travis, standing as pale and straight as a lily-flower in the crowd that had gathered. Then, into that breathless silence, two men walked through the cemetery gate.

Vin, a rifle balanced on his shoulder and standing hip-shot with careless ease. And at his side, a tall, grim-faced man dressed in black like a sliver of night daring the noon-day sun. He shifted the folds of his duster, and the silver conchas on his gunbelt glittered balefully. His cold eyes took the measure of the situation. He drew in on his cheroot, and let the smoke go in a nearly silent exhalation before he issued his challenge.

**"Cut him loose."


There were those who witnessed the gunfight who later said they'd never seen anything like it. Nathan couldn't speak to that himself -- he'd been doin' the hangman's dance when Vin's well-aimed shot severed the rope and dropped him back to earth.

They said Larabee shot fast as lightnin' and Tanner with the eye of an eagle. Said it was over before they could blink. They said it was the day Four Corners changed forever. Some said it was the end, but for Nathan, and for the two men who saved him, it was just the beginning ...


Continued in: 'A Sliver of Night: Chris Larabee'