By SueN

UNIVERSE: OW

DISCLAIMER: Not mine, all theirs, makin' no money.

RATING: PG-13 for rough language and some violence (hey, it is me!)

NOTES: This originally appeared as an adult story called "These Hands." But, as so often happens with me, I got to fiddling around with it (no story is ever really finished with me <g>), turned it into a genfic, added some things that hadn't fit in the first version, et voila! A new, or semi-new, story <g>. It all started with a list discussion: What would happen if one of the Seven lost one of his senses or his faculties?

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 shirt he wore. “Why the hell don’t we stop? Git some water an’ 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 snort to the rear of the procession and slightly off to the left sent a faint wave of relief through him. He hadn’t seen so much as a flicker of humor in Tanner since they’d caught Morgan; the closest thing to a smile the tracker had permitted himself was the ugly snarl that bared his teeth each time he looked upon the prisoner.

Like a wolf sizing up its prey for the kill…

“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, little caring if the man withered up and died of thirst. “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 about his neck 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 from his own saddle.

“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. Sonuvabitch had done little more than growl at him since clubbing him over the head back in town, and that was when he made any sound at all. “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.

Should’ve let Vin 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. He 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 Injun about to strike…

Morgan swallowed hard and tore his gaze away from the man, more frightened by the savagery in those glittering eyes than he cared to think and deeply unnerved by his own helplessness. The tracker had trussed him up like a damn hog for the slaughter, making escape impossible. Tanner could do whatever the hell he wanted, and there wasn’t a thing in the world Morgan could do about it.

“It’s hell gettin’ caught, ain’t it?” Chris asked, coolly amused by the fear and frustration nearly pouring from the outlaw. “’Least I figure it’s gonna be hell for you.”

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

“Better than a man who shoots down unarmed men and beats up on women?” Chris asked in an icy tone. “Yeah, I guess 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 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 bitterly. “What’re you gonna do, shoot me down?”

Chris shot another glance at the brooding Tanner, then turned a thin, humorless smile upon Morgan. “If you’re lucky.”

The still air got only hotter and heavier throughout the afternoon, unbroken by even the faintest hint of a breeze. Running his damp 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, his tan shirt and the waistband of his pants soaked. The man looked every bit as miserable as Chris felt.

“We need 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, the first words he’d spoken in hours. He narrowed his eyes and thought a moment longer, then returned his gaze to Larabee. “Used ta be a crick runnin’ not far from here. It’s long since dried up, but it was spring-fed.” He dipped his head in a small nod. “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 an’ 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! He’s jist sulkin’ ’cause I won’t let him git at that sugar he smells on the packhorse.”

“He figures you’re keepin’ it all for yourself, huh?” Chris joked. “All right, you and your sulkin’ horse go find that spring. We’ll wait for ya here.”

Vin’s eyes narrowed and took on a dangerous hardness. “Want me t’ take Morgan?” he asked softly, not liking the thought of leaving Chris alone with the man. Larabee could take care of himself, but he knew Morgan’s type and would never forgive himself if something happened to his friend 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 to 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 of him. He’s not worth your soul.”

“And what about Miz Caroline’s soul?” Vin spat. “Or John an’ Becky’s? That li’l gal 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. It held him with a force he would never have tolerated from any other man, that should have had him fighting to break free. But Larabee wasn’t any other man, and from their first days together Vin had found himself accepting much from the gunman that would’ve gotten anyone else killed. Usually he took it out of his regard for Chris. This time, though, he accepted it because he recognized Chris’s regard for him.

Chris felt his friend settle, felt the tension easing from the taut body and saw the storm in the blue eyes subsiding. With a nod and a slight, reassuring smile, he squeezed Vin’s arm once and released it, then sat back in his saddle. “You go on,” he said quietly. “We’ll be here when you get back.”

Vin allowed himself a small, strained smile of his own. “Better be,” he rasped. “I ain’t in no mood ta track y’all down jist ’cause y’ wandered off an’ got lost. Likely I’ll jist make camp m’self an’ leave y’all t’ the bears.”

Larabee tensed at that and narrowed his eyes, only barely resisting the urge to look around. “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!” Larabee growled as Tanner rode away. “Gonna make me shoot ya yet!” 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?”

Chris heaved a sigh and half wished he had let Vin take the prisoner. “No.”

“Why the hell not?” the man whined. “Shit, I’m as tired as you! Ain’t easy bein’ tied up like this, y’ know. My wrists are burnin’, my neck’s itchin, my back hurts, 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.”

“Look here, Larabee–”

“You say one more word,” now he did look at Morgan and it wasn’t pleasant, “and I’ll let Tanner have ya.”

Morgan swallowed, remembered the hard look in the tracker’s eyes, and lapsed into a petulant silence.

Chris sighed softly in relief and returned to scanning the countryside, 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. Hell, it was too damn hot to be out doing anything! He’d much rather be back in his own town, in the saloon, drinking a beer and playing cards with the boys…

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 brood mare. 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 chasing 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 the chase. Hawk-sharp eyes found sign that to Larabee’s own keen gaze was barely visible, and his quicksilver brain had collected, sifted through and pieced together every tell until he had a true sense of the man he was hunting. 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 working girl. 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 low-stakes game of cards.

But that had been the last time he’d seen Vin relax. Once they’d picked up Morgan early the next morning and started back to town, the tracker had been tighter than an over-wound watch, his hackles high, his hand never straying far from his gun. Chris could feel the rage, the hatred, pouring from him, and wondered what he’d do when Tanner’s thin, fraying control finally snapped.

Just how far would he go to save his friend’s soul?

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 his 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, Tanner, and if I shot you right now, anybody who’s ever known you would understand why I did it!”

“Reckon so. But,” he arched a brow and smirked at the scowling gunman, “then you wouldn’t have nobody ta talk to here ’cept Morgan.” He shrugged and grinned wickedly at Chris’s stricken expression. “’R so I reckon.”

Chris stared murderously at Vin. “Goddamn you, Tanner–”

“Yeah, I know,” he interrupted boredly, having heard the coming tirade more times than he could count, “I’m a long-haired, no-account, sorry-assed, pain-in-the-butt, sonuvabitchin’ Texan. But,” he added, throwing a smug grin at the fuming gunman, “I jist happen ta be the long-haired, no-account, sorry-assed, pain-in-the-butt, sonuvabitchin’ Texan who knows where yer ornery ass is campin’ tonight. So ya 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 aggravate me.”

Vin gave a lazy shrug. “Hell, cowboy,” he said innocently, “don’t take all that much time or thinkin’. Yer a right easy target.” And before Chris could reach for his gun, 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 relishing the thought of the surprise he’d see on Tanner’s face the day he really did put a bullet between those mocking blue eyes.

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 covered him with gun drawn and ready, Vin stepped forward and untied Morgan’s left foot, wishing he would try something. But the bastard 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 horn and yanked Morgan out of the saddle.

The man fell to the ground with a choking cry and immediately Vin was atop 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,” he 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 t’ 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 when he did.

“Let him up,” he ordered quietly, determined to keep Tanner’s blood-thirst in check. “Tie him to 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 spat, dropping to his knees and again thrusting his knife to Morgan’s throat. Blue eyes glittered with a dangerous light as the tip of the Bowie pressed into the outlaw’s Adam’s apple. “What you done t’ the Shelbys gives me all the right I need t’ treat you any damn way I want.”

Terror 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 yer tongue out 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 to 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 thrust it into its sheath. His desire for the bastard’s blood still consumed him, but for Chris’s sake he denied it and set to work 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 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 they’d beaten him… Well, hell, he’d show ’em!

He tugged again at his bonds and swore as his efforts only seemed to tighten the knots. 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 tree 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 scouring against him like sand in an open wound, 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 tree. 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 everything 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 any more pain, wouldn’t have to listen to another word of the bastard’s endless complaints…

Except that he couldn’t kill Morgan, because it would run right up against Larabee’s unyielding sense of right and wrong. And Vin just wasn’t sure that giving Morgan what he deserved was worth losing Chris’s respect.

He sighed heavily and closed his eyes again, his whole body slumping. Damn, havin’ friends could complicate a man’s life…

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 t’ do better’n that if yer tryin’ t’ 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, his low and easy voice a decided contrast to his intense scrutiny of the man before him. “Man could get himself killed that way, and I ain’t in any hurry to die.”

“Where’s Morgan?” Vin asked, not meeting Larabee’s eyes, not wanting him to see just how high in him the desire for their prisoner’s blood still ran.

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 narrowed his eyes, noting the weariness in the tracker’s 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 read him as so few others had ever managed and not at all sure he could bear having Chris see what lived in him just now. “Jist needed some breathin’ room,” he said softly, absently picking at his dirty fingernails.

Chris noticed the fidgeting and gave a small nod. “He’s gettin’ to ya,” he surmised, sympathy lacing his voice.

Vin groaned deeply and finally lifted his tortured gaze to the gunman’s face. “’S harder’n I thought it’d be,” he rasped, wearied by this constant battle with himself. “Figgered it’d be like when I’s bounty huntin’, y’know? Jist track the bastard down an’ bring him back, one way or th’ other. Done it all the time, never thought nothin’ of it.”

“But?” Chris prompted quietly, plainly seeing the pain and anger that haunted his friend’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… An’ seein’ them kids without their pa an’ Miz Caroline beat up like she was…” Anger surged through him anew and he fixed fierce blue eyes on 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! It ain’t right that a piece ’a shit like him’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, Vin, you know that. He shot down an unarmed man, and Travis will have him at the end of a rope before you know it. And when it’s over,” he reached out to set a strong and comforting hand on the tracker’s tight shoulder, “maybe you can head out to the hills for a while, go huntin’, get away from folks, do whatever ya want. You ain’t been away from town for a while now. I figure it’s gotta be wearin’ on ya.”

Vin nodded absently. Truth was, though, his need to escape from town, from people, wasn’t nearly as demanding as it had once been, and he actually found a surprising sort of comfort in being around others. Or at least being around these others.

Strange what havin’ friends could do for a man…

“Mebbe,” was all he said.

Chris frowned and let his hand drop away, surprised that Vin hadn’t jumped at the offer. But as he thought about it, he realized that Tanner hadn’t been “disappearing” nearly as much as he used to. And it wasn’t always the demands of the town on its peacekeepers that kept the Texan close. He truly seemed more comfortable there, seemed to be coming to grips with the fact that he had a place to call his own and folks who cared about him.

Somewhere along the line, Vin Tanner had decided to stop running.

“Gonna give yerself a headache thinkin’ so hard in this sun,” Vin chided lightly. “If ya really want yer hair ta hurt, why’n’tcha go talk t’ Morgan? One of us oughtta go check on him anyways.”

“Oh?” Two blond brows shot up. “And just why does it have ta be me?”

Vin crossed his arms against his chest and met his friend’s stare evenly. “Yer the boss ’a this here outfit, ain’tcha?” He shrugged. “I reckon a boss oughtn’t ask of them he bosses what he wouldn’t do hisself.”

Chris snorted sharply. “Oh, now you admit that I’m the boss! Strange how that only occurs ta you when you don’t wanta do somethin’!”

Vin glared back at him. “Y’ know as well as I do that if I go back there, I’ll end up killin’ that sonuvabitch jist t’ shut him up. Then you’ll git pissed an’ start yellin’, an’ I’ll have ta kill you ta shut you up. Then I’ll have ta cart both yer carcasses back ta town, an’ it’s jist too goddamn hot fer that kinda work. So, no,” he lifted his chin belligerently, “I don’t wanta do this, an’ if gettin’ outta doin’ it means I gotta say yer the boss, well then, hell, yer the boss!”

Chris sat back and waited for the torrent of words to end. “You done?” he asked when Tanner at last fell silent. The tracker scowled at him, and Larabee shook his head slowly. “Jesus, you talk a lot when you’re mad! Now,” he arched a blond brow, “you know I ain’t gonna letcha kill Morgan. In the first place, it’s just wrong, and, in the second place, the Judge would get real pissed that you deprived him of a hangin’. You know how much he hates it when we do that. And in the third place, I ain’t haulin’ a dead body around in this heat. But you are right about one thing. One of us needs ta go check on Morgan before the bastard does figure a way outta those ropes.” And he stared pointedly at Tanner, clearly waiting for the younger man to volunteer.

But Vin figured the uppity sonuvabitch could wait until hell froze, and crossed his arms against his chest, scowling belligerently at him.

“Goddamn, now you’re 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, all teasing gone from him. “Ain’t no sense in me doin’ it when you won’t let me kill him, even though we both know he’s got it comin’. Yer so all-fired set on keepin’ him alive, you g’on over. Y’all can take turns annoyin’ each other an’ jist leave me the hell out of it.”

Chris sighed again, slowly, struggling to maintain his patience in the face of his partner’s implacable refusal to see reason. “Were you this picky about your company when you were bounty huntin’?”

Vin shrugged. “Didn’t have ta be. I’s gittin’ paid ta be annoyed then.” He lifted his chin and arched a brow, his eyes going hard and cold. “An’ I didn’t have nobody ridin’ with me tellin’ me who I could an’ couldn’t kill.”

Chris drew a deep breath and released it slowly. Vin wasn’t a murderer, he knew that. But he also wasn’t a man who gave much credence to the notion that every human life was sacred. Tanner had seen too much of and suffered too much from the more brutal tendencies of the human race for such an idea to carry any weight with him. He believed in mercy but he also believed in justice, and, in his mind, the latter did not always include the former.

When Vin Tanner said, “I got no problem killin’ you,” he meant it.

“All right, you win,” Chris sighed at last, knowing it was time to concede defeat.

Vin blinked and straightened, a light of hope dawning in his eyes. “Yer gonna let me kill him?”

“No, goddamn it, I’m not!” Chris answered sharply. “Jesus, Vin, will you let that drop? I meant I’ll go see ta Morgan!”

“Oh.” He exhaled heavily and bowed his head, wondering just how much more of Morgan’s presence he could take. But, hell, maybe the bastard would try to escape…

“Shit,” Chris sighed, rising to his feet and staring down at the troubled Texan. “You wanta kill somethin’ so bad, go shoot us some supper.”

Vin looked up and scowled at the gunman’s curt tone. “I ain’t yer errand boy an’ I ain’t yer dawg, an’ I won’t be ordered about. Ya want somethin’ from me, you c’n ask. Nice.

Chris sighed again and scrubbed a hand over his face, wondering just what the hell made him think Jonas Morgan’s life was worth all this. Then again, it wasn’t really Morgan he was fighting for here… “You’re awful aggravatin’ for a man with a price on his head,” he said at last. “You’d think somebody worth five hundred dollars would worry a little more about not pissin’ off the man he’s already promised that money to.”

The words had their intended effect, teasing some of the edge from Vin’s nerves. He shot a narrow-eyed glare at Larabee, lifting his chin defiantly. “Hell, who’s t’ say I ain’t changed my mind about wantin’ you t’ get that money?” he challenged. “Why should I make you rich when I don’t stand t’ get a plug nickel fer puttin’ up with you all this time? You don’t think that kinda aggravation’s worth a few hunnerd dollars?” He snorted sharply and shook his head in disgust. “Shit, seems like I oughtta git some kinda reward fer not shootin’ yer uppity ass!”

Chris opened his mouth, blinked and slowly shook his head, utterly bewildered by what passed for Tanner’s logic. “What?” he croaked weakly.

“Now, ask me nice about supper an’ I’ll think on it,” Vin scolded, shaking his head again. “Lord, but yer manners need work!”

Chris glared down at the maddening Texan, wrestling his urge to strangle him into cooperation. “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 gave a small, satisfied smile and reached for his rifle, checking it over with the ease and thoroughness of long practice.

Did Larabee good to get knocked down a peg or two ever’ now and then…

Chris leaned over and began cutting meat from the carcasses on the spit, his mouth watering at the smell. Sage hens. One thing was sure; anybody who rode the trail with Tanner always ate 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…

He looked around for some sign of the tracker, 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 plate down. “Eat up. It’s gonna be one of the last meals you ever get.”

Morgan scowled at the gunman and tried to raise his hands. They were tied securely together, then further immobilized by another rope that ran from them to his bound feet, rendering him unable to lash out at his captors. “And how’m I s’posed ta eat when I cain’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, ya 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 sizable amount of water… Ezra was right; they weren’t paid enough for this! “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 his Colt. 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 his torso 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’ would please me more than shootin’ you where you stand.”

“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 jist 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 and somewhat stunned by the hard fall that had knocked the wind from him, he struggled to fend off his attacker. Morgan was atop him, straddling him, clubbing him with bound hands, and Chris lashed out frantically at him with legs, fists and gun, then 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 and fury raced through 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. Terrified of the enraged tracker, 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.

The shot marshaled Larabee’s senses as could nothing else. Morgan was turning the gun toward him, but, before he could fire, Chris launched himself into the man and knocked him back. The gun went flying from Morgan’s bound hands and Chris lunged for it, snatching it from the ground and rolling onto his back, aiming without conscious thought at the man now lurching toward him. Flooded by a cold, controlled fury, he fired again and again, pumping three shots into Morgan, stopping only when the outlaw fell and lay still.

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, this kind of trouble 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. Hell, Vin should be happy.

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 welled through 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 Tanner.

“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 hoarsely. “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,” he said softly. “And we gotta get this bleedin’ stopped.”

“Aw, hell,” Vin whispered, closing his eyes and swallowing hard as his stomach lurched sickly. “I’s afraid… you’s gonna say that.”

Chris gave a strained smile and gently squeezed Vin’s left shoulder. “Sorry, pard, 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 worried face of his friend. “’M all right,” he whispered harshly.

Chris managed a thin smile. “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 friend’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 harshly and arched off the ground as Chris pressed the pad firmly against the wound, driving white-hot torrents of agony into him.

“I’m sorry!” Chris whispered hoarsely, 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, the cords of his neck standing out, his entire body a long, rigid line of torment. Chris hated doing this, but knew it had to be better than watching his friend bleed to death. “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 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 sodden bandanna and replacing it with his own handkerchief as the flow of blood continued. “Talk to me, pard. Goddamn it, Tanner, 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’ anywhere.”

“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. “Everything’s gonna be all right,” he said harshly, wondering which one of them he was trying to reassure. “You hear me? Vin?”

Tanner didn’t answer. Another tremor shook him, a shuddering gasp escaped him, and his eyes rolled back in his head as his body went limp beneath Larabee’s hands.

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 their 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 your sorry ass!”