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Author: LaraMee

Rated: PG-13 for language and violence

Characters: All Seven; h/c focused on Chris and Vin, angst on Josiah

Disclaimer: Trilogy, Mirisch, MGM, CBS, TNN...not me. I get no monetary gain. Wouldn't turn down a smile from a certain blue-eyed tracker though!

Notes: I started this quite some time ago, then it got lost in the flurry of grad school and such. As usual, I claim no medical knowledge, I just know what I want to do to make the story go. As they all are, this one is dedicated to my cyber soul-mate, Muse.

Synopsis: Chris and Vin are kidnapped and tortured by someone seeking revenge on Josiah. He does have trouble turning the other cheek after all! The others go in search of their friends...but will they be able to save their lives and Josiah's soul?






"Ah...hell," Ezra Standish grumbled. He leaned his weight against the larger Buck Wilmington. The dark-haired man was angry. They were all angry, but it was typically more evident on the former lawman. The gambler could feel the other man literally shaking, as his temper took over.

"Damn it Ezra, get outta my way!" Wilmington growled through clenched teeth.

"Mister Wilmington, may I remind you as to the reason we have been riding through violent storms for the past several days? Sir, I for one did not come all this way - most assuredly ruining at least one outfit of clothing - to watch you unleash your considerable anger upon this gentleman."

"Yeah? Well maybe you oughta just go outside - "

Pressing back against the ranting man, Standish turned his attention toward the man in question. "Now, my good you have already ascertained from his appearance, my companion is in a somewhat agitated state. I fear that, when he becomes so disposed, there is very little anyone can do to reason with him. Might I suggest that you answer his queries quickly, while I am still able to exert some smattering of control over my rather large and volatile friend?"

The man they were facing stared at the verbose conman; his expression clearly communicating the fact that he had no idea as to what the well-dressed man had just said.

With a dramatic sigh, Ezra said slowly, " were...taken. if you don't, I fear that he," he nodded toward Buck, "will simply beat you to death."

Wilmington growled and tried to lunge past Standish. Nearly losing his balance, the gambler managed to remain on his feet. The younger man looked evenly at a very shaken townsman. "You were saying?"

"Uh...yeah," the man that the peacekeepers had cornered in the rundown saloon stuttered. "C-Cody Bill and th' others...they rode off this mornin' with them two in tow. Didn't neither of 'm look much in th' shape t' argue 'bout it."

"Exactly what do you mean?" Standish asked. His voice held a dangerous tone that hurried the other man to finish his tale.

"Both of 'm was bruised an' bloody. Th' one with th' long hair...he's all slumped over 'n th' saddle. Looked like he must a took a couple a hard whacks to th' head. Didn't look much like he knowed where he was 'r nothin'."

"And none of you fine towns folk lifted a finger to help?" Buck fairly danced with barely restrained anger now.

"Mister," the man swung an arm around to indicate the muddy little town. "Ain't a soul in this here town that'd lift a finger t' save their own ma from Cody Bill. Th' man's plum loco."

"Well, obviously they have departed from this morose hamlet. In which direction did they effect their egress?" The man stared blankly at the dapper young man once more.

Leaning over his smaller companion's shoulder, Buck bellowed, "which way'd they go??!??"

"Oh!" The man jumped as if he had been shot. "Uh...north...northwest."

"How long ago?" Buck continued his less elaborate questioning.

"Reckon 'bout six, eight hours ago."

"Great," Wilmington growled . "It's blowin' up a new storm, night's comin' on, 'n they're miles away."

Pressing the large man toward the door, Ezra said, "yes, but they have to stop for the night as well. Our horses are spent and I for one would like a warm dinner and some dry clothing. We'll continue our search at first light."

"First light! Damn it, Ezra, you heard the man. Vin at least 's in bad shape, 'n I reckon Chris' prob'ly in trouble as well. We gotta go after '!"

"Mister Wilmington, I too am concerned for the health of both men. However, we have no hope of finding them tonight, in the rain, and on exhausted mounts."

By this time they had reached the tiny, rundown livery. Josiah Sanchez, JD Dunne, and Nathan Jackson were waiting for them there. The three peacekeepers had been currying and feeding the weary horses themselves while the other two men had searched for information concerning their missing comrades. Ezra quickly related the information they had gathered. Like Buck, the impulsive young Dunne was ready to leave immediately. Jackson, more pragmatic, agreed with Standish. The surprise came from Josiah Sanchez, who sided with Wilmington and Dunne After several long minutes of heated discussion, JD and Wilmington reluctantly agreed to spend the night in the dismal little town. Josiah stormed away from the others, uncharacteristically cursing.

They had been looking for Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner for days, ever since the men failed to return from a day of fishing. While it wasn't unheard of for them to disappear for a day or two, this time was different. Judge Travis was due the day following their trip, and Chris did not shirk his duty to the older man. Larabee took it as his personal charge to be available to the man who was responsible for their current position as peacekeepers. He would never willingly ignore that duty; a sure sign that there was something wrong. With Travis' blessing, they had saddled up and ridden out in search of Larabee and Tanner.

The five men finished caring for their animals, then sought out shelter in the local saloon. Securing the only two rooms available, they dined on a questionable stew, before retiring for the night. Sanchez continued to resemble nothing so much as the storm clouds that had plagued them throughout their search. He ignored their attempts at conversation, sitting alone at another table through the rest of the evening. The big preacher even refused to join them in the tiny, drab rooms above the saloon, returning to the drafty, filthy stable instead.

"What's goin' on with him?" Buck wondered aloud.

Shaking his head, Nathan said, "don't know, but I think there's somethin' more goin' on than just worryin' about Chris and Vin."

"Last time he acted like this was when that crazy Poplar was in town," JD ventured. The four peacekeepers looked at one another, concern growing for their companion. If the devil had decided to give them a taste of hell suddenly, he was doing a good job.



Another morning. At least, judging from the lighter gray of the heavy clouds overhead, the sun had risen. Stifling a groan, Chris Larabee struggled to sit up. Pressing his back against the tree that had been their only shelter during the storm, he managed to find a more comfortable position. He coughed, the sound coming from deep in his chest. Turning to one side, he spit out a mouthful of bloody phlegm. His attention was drawn in the other direction by a faint sound. Vin Tanner lay curled in a tight ball against the cold without and pain within.

Chris was growing more and more concerned for his younger friend. Vin had taken a terrible beating at the hands of Cody Bill Watson. Larabee had been unable to get Tanner to respond to him in the three days since. The lanky hunter would stumble along, pulled harshly by his bonds, after one or another of the Watson gang. When shoved roughly into the saddle, he would slump listlessly on his big black mount, oblivious to the world around him. The only thing that kept the young hunter mounted was the fact that they tied him into the saddle.

The blond, bound likewise to his black gelding Pony, rode as near Vin as possible. He kept up a tireless litany, punctuated more and more often by his growing cough, trying to get a response. Tanner seemed to neither see nor hear him. Head slumped forward on his chest, he simply sat there.

Pulled harshly from their worn out mounts each evening, the men were bound to a tree on other immovable object. Neither fed, nor given anything to drink, they were virtually ignored until the next morning arrived. Then the ritual would begin once more. There was no explanation forthcoming as to why he and Vin had been attacked and taken prisoner. None of it made any sense; although both men knew of Cody Bill Watson, neither had ever had any dealings with the man.

"Vin? Hey, pard? You hear me?" Chris asked, his voice raspy.

Tanner moved slightly, but made not response. That was something at least, more than had happened at any other time Chris had spoken to him. Larabee chose to take it as a sight that the young hunter was regaining his faculties.

Their captors had yet to wake. Bundled under oiled ponchos, they had drunk themselves into stupors the night before. Chris hoped that they would sleep for a while longer. Both he and Vin could use the extra time to conserve their severely depleted strength. Leaning back against the tree, the blond closed his eyes. His mid wandered back through the events of the past three days. Settling on the beginning of their current situation, he allowed the events to replay in his fevered mind...


"Think you'll ever make it back to Tascosa?" Chris asked.

Shrugging, Vin said, "sometimes I think maybe it just ain't meant t' be."

They had taken the day off, riding out before dawn to go fishing. The two men had spoken very little during the trip, but this was not uncommon. Both were known for their economy of speech. If they had something to say, they said it. These two, however, had been able to communicate just as well in silence since the moment they had first met.

"Things have been pretty quiet in town lately. With the Judge coming in tomorrow, we could talk to him, maybe we could -"

"Don't say it Chris," Vin said with a sly smile. "Sure as I decide t' head out t' take care a things back there, somethin's bound t' happen. We make plans, there's gonna be a stage hold-up or bank robbery sure's shootin'."

Larabee laughed. "Okay, tell you what. Sometime in the near future, we'll just saddle up and ride out...won't say a word to anyone, not even each other."

Vin nodded. "Sounds like a good idea. Might work if we sneak up n th' situation."

They had returned to companionable silence once more. Neither of them had spoken more than a handful of words until late afternoon. A sudden chill wind had pulled the two men from their silent reveries.

Looking skyward and then back toward Chris, Vin said, "storm comin'."

"Yeah," Larabee agreed. They rose and made ready for the return to Four Corners. Just as they mounted, both men saw a small group of riders approaching, already covered in ponchos for the incoming rain. Exchanging looks, Chris thumbed the leather thong from the hammer of his Colt. Vin pulled his hogleg from its holster, laying it across his lap. They watched the riders draw up only a few feet in front of them.

"Howdy," one of the men said. He was a big man, just slightly smaller than a young bull. a thick beard and mustache made him seem even bigger.

Chris nodded his reply, his face impassive. "Help you boys?"

"Sure can -" his voice became deadly as every man pulled at least one fire arm from beneath their ponchos. Even on their guard, there was nothing that the two peacekeepers could do. "Y'all can hand over them" To prove his point, he sent a bullet through the flesh of Chris' left arm.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, the blond took the shot in silence.

"Don't make me ask again," Cody Bill said.

They turned over their guns reluctantly. Blue eyes conveying a challenge to their captors, Vin took of his neckerchief and used it to bind his friends arm. Watson responded by favoring them with a smile that reminded them of nothing so much as a rattlesnake. He said nothing, however.

Roughly and firmly bound to their saddles, the two men were led away by the gang. So began their decent into hell...


Chris was pulled from his thoughts by a fit of coughing that threatened to tear him apart. He doubled over in pain, feeling as if he was about to dislodge his guts with the violent spasms that took him over. He wished for a drink of water, but knew it wasn't about to happen anytime soon. They had been given neither food nor water since their captivity had begun. The gunman had managed a few mouthfuls of rain during the storm; had managed to wet a handkerchief and press it to his companions mouth. Vin had suckled the cloth weakly, barely acknowledging the moisture. It wouldn't keep them alive for long; if they didn't find a way to escape, or if the others didn't find them, it would all be over in a few more days.

Looking around, Larabee saw that the gang members had still not begun to stir. It was a statement of the captives condition that they had not even posted a guard. Obviously they no longer considered the two men any type of threat.

Tanner's eyes had opened finally. Leaning as close as he could, Larabee looked into his face. Vin continued to stare unseeingly into the distance. The bruises and abrasions from the beating he had received looked worse than ever, the younger man's face was gray with illness now. Dark circles embraced the pale blue eyes, nearly obscured by the mottled coloring left by the crazed man who held them captive.

"Vin? Can you hear me pard? Come on now, I need you to wake up. Come on, you mangy tracker, wake up!" His voice was coming dangerously close to holding a pleading tone.

Barely able to admit it, even to himself, Chris Larabee was afraid. Not of the men holding them prisoner; not for his own life. He was afraid for the life of the man beside him. He had been surprised that Vin had even survived the abuse he had suffered at their captor's hands. Larabee's mind drifted to the events that had caused Vin to be beaten so severely...


"I said git yer gawddamn ass on that horse, y' worthless piece a shit."

"Don't think so," Vin said quietly, a look that combined cocky humor and a challenge shining in the cobalt blue eyes. "Ain't had 'm breakfast yet. Fella can't be 'xpected t' be at 's best on an empty stomach." He hadn't seen the fist that seemed to connect with his jaw from nowhere. Unprepared, he found himself flat on his back, staring up into the face of Satan himself.

"Git yer smart ass up 'n on yer horse. We're leavin', an' we're leavin' now!"

Pushing himself to his feet, Tanner stretched to his full height. He found that he still had to look up at his foe, but made it clear that he wasn't about to back down.

Chris moved to stand next to the hunter. Slightly taller than his friend, Larabee had to tilt his head back to look up at the outlaw's face as well. Placing himself shoulder to shoulder with Vin, he let the gang know that bound or not, he would back the sharpshooter's move.

"You sonofabitch, I ain't in th' mood t' put up with this shit. Now, git on that horse, 'r I'll make y' sorry y' ever crossed m' path!"

"Can't say as that'd be too hard t' do," Vin said evenly, despite the fact that he had to spit out a mouth full of blood to do so.

"BASTARD!" Watson screamed. The response to their provocation was vicious. The big man ripped a shot gun out of the hands of the man next to him. Before either prisoner could react, he raised the weapon and clubbed Vin to the ground with the heavy butt. Two more blows were delivered after the smaller man fell.

"NO!" Larabee screamed; he threw himself against the big man. Watson shoved him away easily, raising the blood-splattered shotgun for another attack. Without thinking, Chris threw himself on top of his injured friend. The gun butt caught him in the ribs. The blond gasped as he heard something give way inside. Despite the pain, he dug in and continued to cover the now unconscious man with his body.

It took four of the outlaws to pull him from atop Tanner, but in the end they dragged him away and lashed him to his horse. Chris watched helplessly as they shoved Vin onto Peso's back and strapped him to the saddle. He slumped there lifelessly as a rag doll on the broad back. Had it not been for the bindings, he would have simply tumbled back to the ground.

Chris had kept an eye on his friend throughout the long day. They had spent most of it traveling through storms, but, despite the bone-chilling deluge Vin remained unconscious. Whenever he was close enough, Larabee tried to bring the other man back from wherever he had gone. Nothing broke through the heavy curtain that hid his best friend from him, though. By nightfall fear was almost a living entity beside the gunslinger. The only thing that told him that Vin was still alive was the gentle rise and fall of the narrow chest.

Bound with heavy ropes, Larabee worked at loosening them as they traveled. By the time they had stopped for the night, he had managed to do nothing more than rub the skin of his wrists raw and bloody. Pulling him from Pony's back, one of the outlaws noticed the bloodied hemp. Dragging the blond to Cody Bill, the man showed the big man what the peacekeeper had done.

Watson's retaliation was swift. With several of his men holding the gunslinger down, he grasped Chris' wrist and twisted. Unable to do anything but scream his anger hoarsely, he felt the bones of his wrist pop and contort as the big man slowly broke his wrist. Chancing a look at his attacker, Larabee saw an expression of perverse enjoyment on the man's face.

Pushing the pain to the corners of his mind, the blond tried once again to end the mystery of their torture. "Why...are you...doing this?" He said through gritted teeth.

"Y' don't gotta know...but when y' meet that goddamned preacher friend a yours, in hell, be sure an' thank 'm."


Chris looked down at his swollen and useless limb. He had tried a few times to loosen the ropes since Watson had broken his wrist. Within seconds the pain would become intolerable. Even though he would do his best to continue, he couldn't gather enough strength to make any progress in loosening the bindings. A distant sound drew his attention from his dark thoughts, and Larabee looked toward their captors. The men were beginning to stir; their respite would soon be a thing of the past.



They had been on the road for five days now. The rain had finally moved on, but sunshine did little to lighten their moods. Finding enough dry wood to make a fire, the five men sat in silence around it. Buck and JD had spent most of the day arguing about anything and everything while Ezra expounded endlessly on the state of his clothes. Josiah Sanchez had been particularly quiet since they had left the nameless little town; now he sat off away from the other men. Nathan turned from the fire and moved to stand near the former preacher.

"You've been awful quiet since we've been back on the road," the former slave said without preamble.

"Figure Buck and JD are talking enough for all of us Nathan."

"True enough," Jackson said with a smile, "but I think there's somethin' goin' on...something's troublin' you."

Josiah turned away, unwilling to let the younger man see the pain that flashed through his brilliant blue eyes. Continuing the silence for several minutes, he finally nodded and turned to look his friend in the face. "Yes brother, there is something weighing on my mind. However, this is one thing I'd prefer to relate only once." Unfolding himself from the ground, he strode back to the fire, Jackson on his heels.


Chris had forgotten what it was like not to hurt. Even his time in the hell-hole outside Jericho had caused him less pain and misery. At least there he had only faced his own death; he had not had to watch a friend die by inches.

They had finally been allowed some water. Chris had the sinking feeling that their captors generosity had little to do with concerns for their health. Cody Bill Watson seemed more concerned with prolonging his own perverse enjoyment. Still bound, with his left hand all but useless, the gunslinger fought to pull the comatose hunter to a sitting position. He tried to avoid the blank blue eyes. Slowly maneuvering the canteen to Vin's lips, he managed to get a few mouthfuls of the tepid liquid into the other man's mouth. Tanner swallowed automatically, the only acknowledgement he gave, responding to anything beyond his own mind.

"Taste good?" Larabee asked quietly. "Want some more?" Vin drank the offered water without response; then letting the water run down his chin. Chris took the canteen away and allowed himself a long swallow before re-capping the container. Setting it on the ground carefully, he wiped Tanner's chin with his sleeve.

"You're a slob," he grumbled lightly. Still the blue eyes stared blindly forward. "Damn it Vin. I wish you'd wake up, pard, I miss hearing your voice."

For a second, the gunman thought that the younger man was going to respond. But Vin only allowed his eyes to flutter closed, returning to wherever he had gone within his mind. With a sigh that turned into a moan, Chris Larabee sat back on his heels.


"I believe I know who Cody Bill is trying to draw out."

"Who?" Buck asked.

"Me," Sanchez informed them.

"You? Why?" The former sheriff nearly leapt to his feet.

"Revenge," Josiah said sadly. "Pure, unadulterated revenge."

"Why, pray tell? Didn't he like one of your sermons?" Ezra quipped.

Staring hard at the gambler, Josiah said, "because I killed the rest of his family."

The men looked at on another in disbelief. They were all aware that Josiah had earned a reputation with his gun before they had met him, and he had admitted himself that he had trouble 'turning the other cheek'. However, it made no sense to any of the man that Josiah Sanchez, their spiritual center, could ever have destroyed an entire family.

"They must have deserved it," Nathan said resolutely.

"Thank you for your vote of confidence, brother, but my justification in killing Cody Watson's family isn't the issue. My responsibility in their deaths is. And now, somehow, he has discovered who is important to me. And he is most assuredly torturing two of them. He is making Chris and Vin pay for my transgressions...slowly and painfully he is making them pay."

"But why not just shoot them and be done with it?" JD asked, paling when he realized what he was suggesting.

"Because I do believe that, as a child, Cody Bill not only enjoyed pulling the wings off flies, he also took great pleasure in feeding the hapless creature to the largest spider he could find."

"Well," Buck said, his voice dangerously soft, "I say we go spoil the man's fun."

"I concur Mister Wilmington. At first light -"

"First light hell!" The ladies man exploded, his considerable temper once more taking over, "I say we go right now!"

"Buck, listen," Jackson broke into the tirade. "If Vin was here, I'd say let's go, but he ain't. We ain't trackers, none of us is good enough to find our way in the dark. On top of that, with all this rain, it's gonna be harder than hell to find them in the daylight. It's gonna be dawn in a few hours; we'll go then...all right?"

The big man stood, still ready to bolt. One hand pounded helplessly against his leg, while he glared into the fire. The other men watched him silently. Finally, Wilmington growled, "yeah," and stomped into the darkness.

"He'll be all right, once he cools down," JD said softly.

"I disagree Mister Dunne," Standish said. "I don't believe that any of us will be 'all right' until this entire catastrophe has been concluded."




"Hey...cowboy," the soft words pushed their way through the darkness and pulled Chris back toward consciousness. He forced his eyes open, trying to place the voice. The soft twang and rasp were familiar, but it took his sleep-fogged mind a minute to place it. When he realized who had spoken, he jerked fully awake, sitting straight in the saddle.

'"Vin!" His voice was filled with relieved joy. Then he managed to look into Tanner's face, and his hopes fell. There was no sign that the younger man had spoken; no sign that he yet knew what was going on around him. It had been a trick of his sleeping mind.

Too sick and tired to care, to hurt to hold them back, Chris allowed a few errant tears to fall. Frustration, anger, and helplessness battered against what defenses he had left. With a scream that was more animal than human, Larabee dug his heels into Pony's sides. Startled into action, the big black horse bolted forward. Caught unaware, the men who guarded him were too slow in reacting.

The cry still filling the air around him, Larabee urged the horse toward the leader of their captors. Turning to meet him, Watson was hit broadside; Pony's broad chest crashing into the big man and his mount. With a cry of surprised anger, Cody Bill flew from the saddle, landing hard on the ground, several feet away. The look on Chris' face was as feral as his cry had been. The outlaws that reached him first felt cold chills as they witnessed that look. Averting their eyes, they surrounded him, blocking further attack.

Still recovering, the big man stormed over to the gunslinger, his men scattering at his approach. Heedless of the fact that Chris was still bound to his saddle, the angry man pulled him harshly from the horse. Silently, Larabee hung from the saddlehorn, arrows of pain shooting from the tips of his fingers to his shoulder. He could feel bone and muscle strain, tear and crack as he dangled awkwardly from the horse. Through tear-filled eyes, he looked up to see Cody Watson towering over him, a look of murderous rage on the beefy features.


"How sure are you that we're goin' in the right direction?" Nathan asked Buck, watching the other man staring at the ground ahead of them.

"Am I as certain a my trackin' as I would be if it was Vin? No," Wilmington offered. "But th' grounds all tore up in this direction, and I reckon that's as good a sign as any that them bastards took Chris an' Vin this way."

Jackson nodded his agreement. "How far you reckon they're ahead?"

"That, I ain't got a clue of," the other man confessed. Then he stopped, throwing one hand up to stop the others and grasping his Colt with the other.

The other four men followed suit, reining in their horses and pulling out their guns. They watched as, in the near distance, they saw a single rider, flying hell-bent-for-leather right for them. Looking at one another in shock and amazement, they simply sat there, staring. Within the space of a few minutes, the lone man rode right up to them. it was only then that he even registered the fact that there were five men waiting for him. He pulled on the reins so harshly that his mount nearly flipped backwards. Facing the specter of five armed men, he paled, throwing his arms into the air.

"D-don't sh-shoot!" He cried out.

"Who are you?" Ezra asked with uncustomary brevity.

"Name's fellas lookin' fer a couple 'a friends?"

"Where are they?" Buck strained forward, his gun aimed between the terrified man's eyes.

"B-back that-a-way," Jesse nodded behind him. "Other side a them trees. L-look, I throwed in with 'm, but I had enough. That man's crazy!"

Deciding rescuing their friend was much more important than one single, terrified man, they dismissed him. As they passed, JD pulled the man's gun from its holster while Ezra removed the shotgun from its boot. Not sparing him another thought, the quintet sped away.


Watson plowed one beefy fist after the other into Chris' back and side. Pain consumed the battered blond like a summer brush fire. he tasted blood as he bit through his tongue to keep from screaming. Time stopped; tunneling down to a single action - the big man's fists.

Then - suddenly - it was over. Shaking with pain, Chris turned to see why the beating had stopped. Cody Bill Watson was standing there, one big fist drawn back to hit him once more. Then, Larabee realized that something was different...Cody no longer had a forehead. Still trying to deliver a final blow, Watson crumpled soundlessly to the ground. His next realization was that the other members of Watson's gang were running frantically for cover, the two captives forgotten in their panic.

Chris struggled to re-gain his saddle. Pulling himself upward by arms that shrieked with agony, he mounted Pony and kneed the big black over several yards. Coming abreast of Peso and Vin, he watched the gunplay taking place nearby. Unable to reach the big horse's reins, he refused to leave Tanner's side.

Catching a blur of white out of the corner of his eye, Larabee turned to see his oldest friend flying toward them. The big stallion was stretched out low, Buck lying flat against the horses neck. Pulling up next to the other men, he spared Chris a quick look that spoke of raw pain at the sight of their condition. Then, his six shooter in one hand, he gathered up both sets of rains. Three men on horseback flew back the way one had come.

Reaching the cover where the other four peacekeepers were hidden in the trees, Wilmington reined the horses in. Quickly dismounting, the big man hurried to his friend's side. Grabbing his knife, he quickly sliced through Chris' bonds. With the big man's help, Larabee slid from the saddle. Reaching the ground, he folded up, his legs unable to support him. Buck lifted the blond and carried him to a safe hiding place.

"Vin...g-get...Vin," Chris cried through the pain.

"I am, stud, hang on." Moving back to the horses, he stopped, staring at the other man. He took in the vacant look; the lack of recognition in the pale eyes, and groaned. "Ah, hell son," he sighed as he quickly freed the younger man's hands. Gently pulling Tanner from the saddle, he carried him to where Chris lay.

Despite his own injuries, Larabee reached one arm out, pulling Vin next to him as Buck lowered him to the ground. " 'm...Buck."

Nodding, his face stricken, the big man returned to the fight. While the others battled the dwindling number of outlaws, Chris fought to remain conscious, and to keep Vin safe. It was several long moments before the shooting dwindled and finally stopped. The outlaws had either been killed or had followed Jesse along the desertion trail. As soon as they were certain that they had no more opposition, the other peacekeepers gathered quickly around their two injured comrades. Josiah Sanchez released something between a groan and a cry, and stalked off, his weapons drawn. The others watched, concerned as to where the big man's guilt was taking him.

"What do you think he's gonna do?" JD whispered.

"I don't know for sure, kid, but right now we gotta take care a these two." Buck answered in a pained tone as he turned his attention back to Larabee and Tanner.

Nathan took charge, delivering orders that the other men responded to immediately. They worked quickly to tend the frightening number of injuries the men had received. "JD, get a fire goin', Ezra, I need my saddlebags. Buck, I need you to get Chris' shirt off, while I take care of Vin's. Watch his arm there, it's been broken at least once."

"I will," Wilmington said quietly. He couldn't help but be thankful that he wasn't looking into the haunted eyes of the sharpshooter. Turning to his semi-conscious friend, he said, "Chris? Y' with me pard?"

"Y-yeah," Larabee managed before he felt himself being once again ripped apart. The coughing continued for a full minute. "Good...t' see you," he mumbled when he could speak.

"Nathan," Wilmington's voice was filled with concern. "He's coughin' blood."

"Damn. How bad?"

"Bad enough I reckon."

Jackson spared a look at the blond. Nodding, he said, "reckon they've done some damage to his lungs, but it could be a lot worse. Don't let him lay down, we're gonna have to keep him propped up."

"I'll see to it," Buck promised as he gingerly removed the man in black's shirt. "I'm sorry stud," he said in response to the weak groan that passed from the blond's lips.

"S'...okay," Larabee managed.

Next to them, Nathan was looking over the too-quiet sharpshooter. His head, neck and chest were covered with bruises, several cuts indicating where he had been hit with the most force. Other than that, however, Vin seemed unhurt. The fact that Vin responded to no one and nothing concerned all of them greatly however.

"What's wrong with him, Nathan?"

"Don't know for certain, but I've seen it some before. Man takes a bad hit in th' head, and it's like he's asleep with his eyes open."

"Th-they hi...t him with...a g-gun...b-butt," Larabee gasped out.

"Damn," JD cried softly from where he was building a fire.

Nodding, Jackson continued his examination without comment.

" right?" The injured blond questioned.

"I don't know anything right now Chris. Now I want you to be quiet and let us take care of things. No more talkin'."

"But - "

"Shut up Chris," Wilmington nearly begged.

"Chris," the former slave said evenly, "I swear I'll tell you everything as soon as I can. Right now, you need to sit back and let us take care of things. Buck, I need you to give him just a few drops of Laudanum, all right? I don't want him to have too much till I can look him over, but it's clear he's gonna need something to keep him calm."

Wilmington rustled through the healers saddlebags and retrieved the small amber bottle. He managed a sad smile when his old friend took it willingly. "Reckon that'll help y' feel better."

Nodding weekly, Chris leaned back against the tree trunk that supported him. He allowed himself to drift through the fog, hiding from the pain that ravaged his body. He felt hands moving lightly over his mangled arm, searching out the breaks. Then the hands moved to his head and neck, exploring the cuts and bruises. Despite the pain that continued to pulse through his body, he could only sit there; he was too exhausted to do more than moan pitifully. Sometime later he felt his arm and shoulder taken into other hands, and the limb was pulled painfully straight. He cried out weakly.

"Sorry Chris, but we needed to set it," Jackson apologized.

He wanted to answer, but couldn't form even the most rudimentary sounds. The pain continued to wash over him, overwhelming his to the point that his only recourse was to collapse into oblivion. As the darkness claimed him, he heard his old friend speak, his voice filled with worry.


"It's okay, Buck, he's just passed out." The dark man reassured the man. "That's the best thing we can hope for right now. Put this salve on those cuts, and then make him comfortable. Reckon the best thing right now would be to stack up a couple of saddles and prop him up against them. Whatever you do, don't let him lay flat."


"I'm on it Buck," their youngest companion reassured him. Then all of them jerked as a gunshot echoed through the trees, followed by two more. "Oh, damn," the Easterner groaned as his eyes sought out reassurance from Wilmington.

"I'll go," Ezra spoke for the first time in several minutes. He had made himself useful assisting the others as they cared for the injured men.

"No," Buck said insistently. "Josiah made his decision Ezra. We've gotta worry 'bout Chris and Vin right now.

"But -" for once, words failed the erudite man.

"Once we get 'm settled in, me 'n you'll go look for th' damn fool," Buck reassured him. "But right now, we've got work t' do here."

Nodding, the gambler returned to the task at hand.


Chris swam back toward consciousness, called there by concern for his friend. Struggling, he managed to open his eyes, staring around him as the shapes and colors formed the figures of his friends. "Naaa...Nathan?"

"Damned f you ain't th' stubbornest fool on God's green earth," the former slave scolded.


The big man knelt beside the struggling blond, laying a gentle hand on his forehead. "He's the same."

"What...what do" He managed a few swallows of water from the canteen that Jackson held for him.

"We keep him comfortable, tend him as best we can. That's all we can do for now."

"You...make it," Larabee fought the pain and weakness to sit up.

"Chris," Jackson easily pressed the smaller man back down. "I want you to listen to me and try to understand. Back during the war, I saw this sort of thing. Man gets a bad blow to the head, he just sort of...goes away; inside his head. Some of 'm come out of it after awhile. All we can do is wait."

"Some...of the men," Chris repeated quietly.

With a sigh, Jackson nodded, knowing that there were no words that would bring the battered blond peace right now. The only person who could do that continued to stare blindly into space.

"Mister Larabee," Standish's voice filled the void. He and Buck had just been preparing to leave in search of the tortured former priest. "If I may, I will relate a tale that I hope might ease your mind a little."

"Well, if nothin' else, maybe it'll get 'm t' go back t' sleep," Buck quipped.

Ignoring the bigger man's gibe, Ezra continued. "Some time back, in New Orleans, there chanced to be a handsome young grifter plying his trade in a variety of gambling establishments. While he made no friends amongst those he met, neither did he make enemies...until one fateful evening."

"This got a point?" Nathan asked.

"As I was saying," Standish said coolly, "one evening he chanced to run afoul of three humorless gentlemen. They left his company poorer in the financial sense, having learned a valuable lesson concerning the separation of man and money.

"They were, however, unappreciative of that lesson, and lay in wait for the gambler. When he chanced to come into the alley in the interest of tending to nature's call, they initiated a rather vicious attack."

"Ezra? A point?" Even JD was losing patience with the verbose Southerner.

"The beauty of any story, my dear boy, is the telling of it," he admonished. "At any rate, the hero of this tale was left battered, beaten and bleeding in that alley. He remained there until the next morning, when a kind, caring young charwoman chanced upon him. She took him into her room, saw to his medical attention and care, providing a haven during his convalescence.

"Thanks to the beating he had received, the grifter was insensate for several days; staring blankly into the void, as it were. He was unable to perform even the most rudimentary of tasks for himself; the young woman left to care for his every need."

Even Ezra had to stop at that, the vision it created sending arrows of pain into each man. To think of Vin Tanner so completely helpless was almost unbearable. Finally, the conman continued his story.

"Fear not, for this tale has a happy ending. The comatose man simply awoke one morning, with no memory of what had occurred. Indeed, he knew nothing of his trip there, his memory lost for some space of days prior to the incident. While it took him some time, he managed to regain all of his faculties and eventually was able to return to his stock and trade." The Southerner finished his tale.

" long di-did it to better?" Chris whispered, knowing without a doubt the identity of the young man.

Smiling his golden smile, Standish said, "all told I had headaches and short spells of unconsciousness for some weeks after my recovery. I apologize for being so transparent, Chris. What I wish to convey is that, if tenacity and intestinal fortitude are indicators, Mister Tanner will most assuredly recover from this affliction. I dare say that he far surpasses me in both traits."

Larabee smiled his thanks, nodding then, he allowed himself to slip back into unconsciousness.

"That all true, or y' just telling him a bedtime story t' calm 'm down?" Buck asked softly.

"Alas, Buck," Era sighed, "it is all quite authentic." He managed a stricken smile as he returned to the task of joining Wilmington in searching for the tormented former preacher. The two men started off in search of their oldest member, only to stop when the object of their planned search entered their campsite.

"Josiah?" Dunne almost whispered.

Not answering the young man, Sanchez dropped two sets of saddlebags and several bedrolls to the ground near the fire, following them with a variety of gunbelts; including those belonging to their two friends. "We'll be better able to use these things than their former owners, and I'm certain our brothers will appreciate the return of their property." His brilliant blue eyes settled sadly on the unresponsive young tracker as he spoke.

"I'm sure they will," JD said resolutely.

"Josiah? We heard shots," Buck voiced the concerns they all had.

Nodding, the big man said, "two of the horses were suffering. I put them out of their misery." He turned to the former sheriff and answered the question he didn't ask. "The men that I found were already dead."

Wilmington nodded. In his mind's eye he saw again the pure rage on the other man's face as he fired the shot that ended Cody Bill Watson's miserable life. There was no sign of that rage now, as Sanchez knelt beside Vin and Nathan.

"What can I do to help?" He asked softly.

"Just keep an eye on him, nothin' more we can do right now," Jackson responded. "I'm gonna go brew up some tea to help Chris' cough, and something to hopefully give Vin some rest."

Nodding, the older man settled in next to the too-still body. He took up a damp kerchief and bathed the battered face. Josiah stared into the vacant eyes, as if he could gather some hint as to where Tanner had gone. The young man blinked from time to time, but otherwise remained just as they had placed him.

"I don't know where you are, or if you can hear me, Vin Tanner," Sanchez whispered. "But I promise you this...I will not leave you, brother. I will do everything in my power to see that you're taken care of until you're able to care for yourself."