Breach of Faith, part 2

Disclaimers, etc. in part 1

"You did a neat job on those stitches, Mr. Jackson," Dr. Jensen commended.

"Thanks," Nathan said.

Buck recognized the pride in the healer's voice. Though Buck and his friends trusted Nathan implicitly to care for their injuries, Buck knew the doctor's words of praise meant a lot to Nathan.

Buck's attention returned to JD who lay as still as death on the bed, an image that made his gut tighten with anguish. "Is JD gonna be okay?" he demanded.

"As long as those cuts heal without getting infected, he should be fine." The doctor's round face sobered. "He'll have some scars, though. After they start healing, dab some castor oil on them. That might decrease some of the scarring."

"Especially that one," Buck said softly, pointing to the cut on JD's pale cheek. "When he gets back home, Casey'll think he's turned into some kind of bandit."

"Is Casey his girl?" Dr. Jensen asked.

Buck nodded and smiled for the first time since JD had run into the wire. "I guess you could call her that, though what she sees in him, I'll never know. Ain't that right, kid?" Buck teased, and even though he knew JD couldn't hear him, it made Buck feel a little better.

"Anything else I should be watchin' for?" Nathan asked the doctor.

Jensen shook his head. "Just keep those cuts clean and make him as comfortable as possible." He set a bottle down on the nightstand. "Here's some laudanum if he has trouble sleeping because of the pain."

"How long's he gonna be laid up?" Buck asked.

"At least a week, probably two before he can travel any distance." The doctor paused and held up a cautionary finger. "Provided he doesn't get infection." Dr. Jensen picked up his medical bag. "Make sure someone's with him at all times for the first couple days so he doesn't rip those stitches or pull his bandages off."

Nathan nodded somberly. "All right."

"If you need me, tell Julia and she'll send one of her men into town to get me."

"Julia?" Buck interjected.

"Julia Jordan. This is her place," the doctor explained. "She's a good woman."

Frustrated anger made Buck rake a hand through his thick hair. "She's the reason JD's lying here."

Dr. Jensen's good-natured expression faded as he shook his head. "Julia fought putting up the wire for months before she finally gave in. The squatters didn't give her a choice."

"There's always a choice," Buck growled.

"And she used them all before stringing the wire. I can tell you right now that she's probably more upset than you about what happened."

"I doubt that." Buck gazed down at JD's face, the paleness broken only by white bandages, and he ground his fist into the palm of his other hand. "He don't deserve to be hurtin' like this."

Dr. Jensen laid a hand on Buck's shoulder. "I'm sure he doesn't, but I think he's still pretty lucky."

Buck frowned. "Lucky?"

"He's got friends like you." The doctor placed his hat on his head and walked out.

Buck glanced up and caught Nathan's compassionate eyes on him.

"He'll be okay, Buck," Nathan reassured, then smiled. "The doc's right about him bein' lucky."

Buck wasn't so certain about the luck thing, but he did appreciate Nathan's words of reassurance - they meant more to him than the doctor's. He turned back to JD and restlessness crawled through him. Damn, he hated feeling so powerless! If only he hadn't accepted JD's challenge to race - maybe JD wouldn't be lying here, looking like a broken little boy.

JD groaned and Buck touched an uninjured spot of skin on his shoulder. "It's all right, kid. I'm right here. I ain't goin' nowhere."

"I'll go tell the others how he's doin'," Nathan said. "I'll be back to spell you in an hour or so."

"No hurry, Nathan. I don't plan to let him out of my sight for a while." He smiled, though it was more of a grimace. "Can't leave him alone for a minute - never know what trouble he's gonna get himself into."

Buck was aware of Nathan's gaze on him, but he didn't look up. He was afraid he'd see accusation in the healer's eyes.

"If you'd been acting like an adult instead of a kid, JD wouldn't be suffering."

Buck didn't know if Nathan or his conscience said it - it didn't matter. The fact was JD's injuries were Buck's fault.

Faintly aware that Nathan had left the room, Buck leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thighs and clenching his hands together. He stared at JD's pallid features, but what he saw was JD lying on the ground, the barbed wire wrapped around him, and the pleading in JD's eyes for Buck to take the pain away.

And if Buck had the power, he would've gladly exchanged places with JD.

Setting his razor down, Chris leaned over the wash pan that sat on a bench outside the bunkhouse and sluiced water across his freshly shaven face. It felt good to get the dust and whiskers off. He straightened and droplets splashed on to his bare chest as he groped for a towel.

"Here ya go." Vin handed him the rough towel.

"Thanks." Chris scrubbed his face dry, then spotted Nathan walking toward the bunkhouse. Chris wrapped the towel around the back of his neck and grasped both ends as he and Vin waited for Nathan in silence.

"How's the kid?" Vin asked as soon as Nathan was within hearing range.

Ezra and Josiah came out of the bunkhouse and joined them as Nathan wearily climbed the steps to the porch.

"The doc says he should be able to travel in a couple weeks," Nathan replied.

Chris noticed Vin and Ezra close their eyes in momentary relief, while Josiah murmured an "amen." Chris turned back to Nathan. "He wake up yet?"

Nathan shook his head. "Not yet. Buck's sittin' with him right now. I'm gonna clean up some, then go back up there. The doc said not to leave JD alone for the first couple days. I think he's worried that he might move around too much and start them wounds bleedin' again."

"But it looks like he'll be okay, right?" Chris asked.

Nathan smiled and some of the tension eased from his face. "I think the tough part'll be gettin' him to stay in bed once he wakes up and is feelin' stronger."

"We can hogtie him if we have to," Vin said with a quiet smile.

Chris could feel the strain easing from his friends at Nathan's good news, and Chris's muscles relaxed as he took a deep breath. "Mrs. Jordan's invited us to dinner at the house. We'll draw straws to see who sits with JD."

"I'll stay with him," Nathan volunteered. "I want to keep a close eye on him for the first twenty-four hours. I'll try to get Buck to come down to dinner, but I got a feelin' that'll be like tryin' to chase a bear away from honey. I think he blames himself for what happened." He rubbed his eyes. "I'm gonna catch an hour of sleep before goin' back. It's gonna be a long night."

Nathan entered the bunkhouse with Ezra and Josiah following him.

Chris glanced at Vin who'd resumed his lean against the wall, his expression pensive. "Whatcha thinkin' so hard about?"

"Tascosa," Vin replied, then met Chris's gaze. "Think we'll ever make it there?"

Chris fingercombed his damp hair back and smiled. "Does seem like the forces of nature are kinda workin' against us, don't it?"

"Somethin' is anyhow."

After spending so much time in the taciturn man's company, Chris had come to read Vin fairly well, and he could tell something else was bothering him. Chris plucked his shirt from a nail on the wall and shrugged into it. "Spit it out."

One corner of Vin's mouth lifted in a wry grin, but his expression grew troubled once more. "Maybe I should head out on my own."

Chris fastened the buttons of his shirt. He had suspected that's what was badgering the younger man. "Don't you think the boys'll be a bit put out, leavin' them behind and all?"

Vin shuffled his feet. "Aw, hell, Chris, ain't a one of them that hasn't been hurt on account of me."


Vin blinked. "Huh?"

"I don't think Josiah's been hurt yet." Chris couldn't quite keep the grin from his lips.

Vin snorted. "That's only 'cause he ain't seen any of his damn crows since we left Four Corners."

"At least you won't be able to take the blame for the crows." Chris finished tucking his shirttails in his waistband and planted his hands on his hips. "Look, Vin, I know how you feel, but there ain't a one of us who don't want to be here. Remember after we caught Yates when you wanted to go after Eli Joe by yourself, but all the boys told you they'd help? Well, that's how it is now. We're all in this to the end, whether you like it or not."

Vin's scowl told Chris he didn't exactly like it, but Chris was gratified he didn't argue. He eyed Vin's whiskers, picked up his razor and held it out to him. "Your turn."

Vin stared at the razor like it was a rattlesnake, then he sighed like a condemned man and took it from Chris's hand. "Next thing I know, you'll be wantin' me to take a bath every day."

Chris grinned and slapped his arm. "Now that you mention it..."

Vin leveled a mock glare at his friend, and Chris hurried into the bunkhouse, laughing softly.

A few minutes before six, Ezra, dressed in his plum-colored coat with black lapels, led the way across the ranch yard to the house. Though he didn't approve of Mrs. Jordan's decision to string barbed wire, he was excited about finding a piece of civilization in this godforsaken territory. The woman struck him as intelligent - like his mother - but principled, definitely not like Maude, he thought wryly. It was a combination that intrigued Ezra and he was anxious to learn more about her.

Chris had changed into a pale blue shirt with his black jeans and suspenders, giving him a much less menacing aura. Josiah had dug out his white shirt and string tie, but had foregone the suitcoat. Vin had shaved and put on his red shirt and a bright blue bandanna, which was a definite improvement over his usual dusty shirt and hide jacket. Mister Tanner, however, did not appear to be very happy about the upcoming rendezvous and Ezra could guess the reason.

Right after the incident, Ezra was ready to teach the owner of the wire a lesson. However, Mrs. Jordan wasn't the arrogant, greedy rancher Ezra was prepared to loathe. The fact that she'd invited them to dinner and treated them as guests told him one of two things - she was truly contrite for what happened to JD or she was pretending to be truly contrite. A year ago, Ezra would've figured it was an act, but the six men he rode with had taught him that not everyone was guided by rapacity. He would give Mrs. Jordan the benefit of the doubt, and assume she was truly repentant for what had happened to their young friend.

As the others stood behind him on the porch, Ezra knocked. Mrs. Jordan, wearing a turquoise-colored dress, swung the door open and greeted them with a gracious smile. "Good evening, Mr. Standish." Her gaze flickered across the other men, and she seemed half amused, half impressed by their attire. "Gentlemen. Come in."

Ezra led the way inside and surreptitiously inspected the spacious interior and high ceiling. The Currier and Ives prints that adorned the walls and the Hepplewhite furniture that sat in the grand front room told Ezra the Double J ranch had done very well for itself.

"You may set your hats there," Mrs. Jordan said, pointing to a large round mahogany table with a satinwood veneer.

She glanced at their gunbelts and if she found it odd for them to be wearing them, she refrained from speaking her thoughts aloud. Ezra, however, suddenly felt somewhat self-conscious for having donned his weapon. The guns were as out-of-place here as a child in a poker game. The memory of young Olivia flashed through his mind and he amended his thought - as out-of-place as most children.

Ezra set his hat on the table's smooth surface and the others followed his lead. Mrs. Jordan led them into the parlor where flames popped and crackled in the fireplace. November evenings tended to be cool in this part of Texas.

"Would you like a drink?"

The deep voice startled Ezra and his companions, and they turned to see a tall, muscular man dressed in a suit enter behind them.

Mrs. Jordan smiled fondly. "I'd like you all to meet my son Justin." She introduced each of the four men, and when Ezra shook Justin's hand, he gazed into his blue eyes, trying to read the man. But Justin was adept at keeping his thoughts private, and Ezra idly wondered if he was a sporting man like himself.

"I'm sorry for what happened to your friend," Justin said with the correct amount of sympathy. "Mother was telling me about the unfortunate accident when I got back from business in town." He walked toward a counter that held a couple liquor decanters and numerous glasses. "How about some brandy?"

"You got whiskey?" Vin asked.

Justin smiled, but Ezra noticed the gesture didn't quite touch his eyes. "I have scotch."

Vin frowned and Ezra leaned forward to speak close to his ear. "Scotch is refined whiskey."

"Scotch sounds just fine," Vin said after a moment.

"I'll have the same," Chris said.

Ezra and Josiah opted for brandy. After the men had been served their drinks, Justin poured a small amount of brandy for his mother, then a full glass for himself. Ezra took a sip of brandy, then swirled it in his mouth a moment so he could appreciate the divine extravagance of such a fine liquor.

"Most exceptional," Ezra commented.

Justin glanced at Ezra curiously. "You're from the South, Mr. Standish?"

"Please call me Ezra, and yes, I am from the distinguished state of Georgia."

"I've never been there, though I've heard many wonderful things about it."

"As well you should. It's a delightful place."

"So delightful that you left it." The twinkle in Vin's eyes took the sting from his words, and Ezra recognized his friend's dry humor.

However, Justin did not and his expression darkened as he turned his scrutiny on the ex-bounty hunter. "And where are you from, Mr. Tanner?"

Vin shrugged, his long hair brushing across his shoulders. "Nowhere in particular."

His vague answer didn't seem to set well with Justin, but before Ezra could add some refinement to the situation, Chris spoke up. "How long have you lived here, Mrs. Jordan?"

Ezra smiled to himself, gratified to see Chris was learning the fundamentals of diplomacy.

"Close to thirty-five years. I came out here with Tom as a young bride. We were determined to leave a legacy behind," Julia Jordan replied. "Justin was born two years later."

"All I've known is the Double J," Justin added. He swirled the amber liquid in his glass and finished it in one swallow. "I've been trained to run this ranch since I was a young boy."

"When my husband died three years ago, Justin took over the running of the spread." She gazed at her son fondly. "And he's done a fine job, too."

Ezra spotted Nathan descending the wide curving staircase. The healer joined them, an apologetic half smile on his face. "I tried to get Buck to come down, but he won't leave JD alone for even a minute."

"I'm glad you could make it," Mrs. Jordan said politely. "Justin, this is Nathan Jackson. He's also with the boy who was injured."

Justin shook Nathan's hand. "You're the healer Mother was telling me about."

Though it wasn't a question, Nathan nodded self-consciously. "I just do what I can to help hurt folks."

"And he's very proficient in his vocation," Ezra added.

Nathan glanced in surprise at Ezra, but the gambler pretended not to notice. He and Nathan often clashed on ideology, but Ezra had come to respect and admire the soft-spoken former slave. Ezra also retained a portion of guilt for what had happened to Nathan at Stewart Randolph's hand, and found himself uncharacteristically wanting to make amends.

Justin poured Nathan a drink and handed it to him.

A woman dressed in a black skirt, white blouse, and apron stepped through a doorway. "Dinner is ready."

Mrs. Jordan led the way into the dining room. She waved toward the chairs on either side of the long rectangular table, while she took the head position. Ezra sat on her right, with Justin across the table from him. Chris was seated next to Jordan, then Vin beside him. Nathan took the chair to Ezra's right and Josiah sat beside him.

A tureen of soup was brought out and placed before each of them. Ezra sniffed the beef broth appreciatively. This was the type of cuisine he was accustomed to, at least when fortune had smiled upon him and his mother. When fortune abandoned them, Ezra's memories weren't as favorably inclined. He could remember evenings when he went to bed with an empty belly and no prospect of breakfast. Ezra's throat tightened with the reminiscence and he thrust it aside. When he'd become an adult, he'd sworn that he would never go to bed hungry again, and so far, he'd kept that vow.

He picked up his soup spoon and saw Chris and Vin shadow his action. Smiling to himself, Ezra enjoyed the consommé.

"That was right tasty, ma'am," Josiah said a few minutes later.

"I'll pass on your compliment to Maria," Mrs. Jordan said.

"Wait until you taste her Carbonnade Flamande," Justin said with a wink.

"Belgian Beef Stew," Ezra translated for his friends. "A true delight for the palate."

Mrs. Jordan studied him a moment with perceptive eyes. "You are a puzzle, Mr. Standish."

"How is that, madam?"

"A man like yourself here in this untamed land. It seems you would be more at home in a city like San Francisco or St. Louis."

"She's got you pegged right," Nathan teased.

Ezra flashed a quick smile. "I must confess this is not an environment I am particularly fond of, but I am adaptable and enjoy an admirable challenge."

Mrs. Jordan rested her elbows on the table and clasped her hands. "May I ask what you seven gentlemen are doing traveling together through this area?"

"You can ask," Vin said, a sharp edge to his words, his meaning crystal clear.

"We're just passin' through," Chris added smoothly.

"To where?" Justin asked.

"Wherever the road of deliverance takes us," Josiah replied.

Mrs. Jordan's gaze shifted to Josiah. "My foreman said you're a preacher."

Josiah shifted his head slightly. "I'm a bit rusty, but I think I still have a little fire and brimstone left in me."

"There's a chapel about a quarter of a mile from here that hasn't heard God's word since my husband died. Would you consider conducting service there on Sunday?"

"I'd be honored," Josiah replied with a smile.

The Carbonnade Flamande was brought out and all conversation ceased while everyone ate. After the cobbler dessert, Ezra dabbed his lips with a napkin and pushed back his plate. "Please pass on my compliments to Maria, also."

"I'll do that," Mrs. Jordan assured. "I'll also have a tray sent up to Mr. Wilmington."

"Thanks," Chris said.

Justin stood and opened a humidor on a side shelf, withdrew a handful of cigars and passed them out. Within a couple minutes, smoke swirled around them from the expensive cigars.

"So what have the grangers done that made you string up the wire?" Chris asked conversationally, studying the glowing end of his cigar.

"You name it, they've done it," Mrs. Jordan answered with a weary shrug. "At first it was just little things, like a few cattle missing or a milk cow of theirs on our land. Then they tried to stake their claim on a few extra acres and some of them even began to build homes on Double J land. After we chased them off, we noticed more cattle had disappeared. When we questioned the squatters about them, they denied taking them."

"Maybe they didn't," Vin interjected.

"Then who did?" Mrs. Jordan demanded.

Vin shrugged. "Hungry Indians. Cattle rustlers. Hell, maybe the cows just wandered off on their own."

"They didn't. We found fresh hides on their property," Justin said sharply. "But what really made us string the fence was when they started diverting our only source of water."

"How does stringin' barbed wire stop that?" Vin asked.

"The water supply is on our side of the fence," Mrs. Jordan stated.

"Until the farmers started cutting the wire," Justin added.

"How long's that been going on?" Nathan asked.

"About six months. We just don't have enough men to keep an eye on the wire twenty-four hours a day," Justin said.

Julia Jordan leaned forward in her chair, her surprisingly youthful face lighting up. "You men wouldn't be interested in hiring on for as long as it takes for your friend to heal, would you? We need men to ride the fence line over night. The pay's two dollars a day."

"They're our guests, Mother," Justin reminded.

She cast her son a frown. "Yes, they are, but I thought if they'd like to earn some money while they were here, we could use their help."

Chris didn't like the idea of sitting around twiddling his thumbs while JD healed, but he wasn't certain he wanted to work for the person responsible for JD's condition either. "Our friend was damn near killed by that wire," he said quietly, but with a firm undertone.

"And we're very sorry that happened," Mrs. Jordan said. "But I'm not going to lose everything my husband worked for. When we first got here, there was nothing but tumbleweeds and jackrabbits. Tom bred a sturdy breed of cow that could thrive on this land and our herd grew from fifty steers to three thousand. So you see, Mr. Larabee, the Double J isn't just some cattle and land. It's the culmination of a dream my husband and I shared, and I won't let anyone steal that."

Chris didn't want to understand, but he did, only too well. He and Sarah had had dreams, too - dreams that included leaving a legacy to Adam and the other children they'd planned to have. But their dream had been cut short. He liked and respected Mrs. Jordan, and his gut told him she was an honest, fair person. He nodded slowly. "I'd rather be doin' something instead of sittin' around all day waitin' for the sun to rise and set. I only speak for myself, though."

"I'll ride with you," Josiah offered.

"Once JD's doin' better, I'll help out, too," Nathan put in.

Chris nodded, then glanced at Ezra. "How about you?"

Ezra's jaw muscle clenched and unclenched. "I would prefer to have nothing to do with such abominable wire, but -" he looked pointedly at Mrs. Jordan. "-I do understand the reason for it. I shall assist, also."

Chris hadn't been certain which direction Ezra would lean - after many months of being together, Chris still hadn't figured out the gambler. He gave Ezra a grateful nod, then steeled himself for the last man. "Vin?"

Chris inwardly cringed as met Vin's scowl that damn near singed his hide. He understood Vin's feelings, but that didn't mean he shared them. If they were going to be stuck here for a while, Chris wanted something to occupy himself. Helping their hostess and earning a few extra dollars seemed a decent way to pass the time.

"I ain't gonna do it," Vin said without hesitation, and turned to the matriarch. "I don't believe anyone's got the right to fence in the land."

Instead of being angry, the woman appeared sorrowful as she nodded. "I understand more than you realize, Mr. Tanner. A few years ago, I thought the same thing. I figured there'd be more than enough land for everyone, but the settlers are moving in too fast. I didn't want to put up the wire - but it was either that or lose my ranch."

Vin shook his head. "Instead, JD and others like him will get hurt. Maybe someone'll die. How many lives is the land worth? Two? Ten? A hundred?"

Justin's eyes narrowed. "If you don't like it, Tanner, maybe you should just leave."

"Justin, that's no way to treat a guest. He's entitled to his opinion," his mother chided, steel underlining her words.

"I just don't understand how a person can put some dirt ahead of a human life." Vin stood and nodded curtly to Mrs. Jordan. "I won't be stayin' here."

"You don't have to leave, Mr. Tanner. Despite our differences, you are welcome to stay in the bunkhouse," Mrs. Jordan assured.

Vin shook his head slowly, his eyes somber. "I don't think I can, Miz Jordan." He glanced at the table, but refused to meet Chris's gaze. "Thanks for supper." Then Vin stalked out of the dining room, leaving awkward silence in his wake.

Chris smoked his cigar calmly, though his insides churned with disappointment and something akin to anger. He'd seen this side of Vin only one other time - when they'd escorted a wagon train to their new land. Vin had abandoned them then, too, though Charlotte Richmond had given him a push. Chris understood how love could change a man for the better - hadn't Sarah changed him? But what Vin and the married woman had shared wasn't anything close to love. If it had been, Vin wouldn't have become an irresponsible stranger, going against his beliefs and ready to leave behind everyone who cared for him.

"Your friend has strong opinions," Mrs. Jordan remarked.

"Most good men do," Chris defended. "He's been a tumbleweed most of his life. I reckon it's hard for him to understand why people would want to leave their mark on the land."

"He sounds more Indian than white," Justin said with a smirk.

Though not appreciating Justin's comment, Chris shrugged nonchalantly, unwilling to reveal any more of Vin's background to the Jordans. "He has his own ideas. When do you want us to start patrolling the wire?"

"Tomorrow is soon enough," Justin said. "You can get a good night's sleep first."

"Would you perchance be a gambling man, Mr. Jordan?" Ezra asked.

Justin's attention turned to Ezra. "I've been known to play a little poker."

"Would you be interested in partaking in a game of chance?"

"We need two more players." Justin glanced at the other men.

Chris shook his head. "I'll pass. I'm going to get some sleep."

"I'll play," Josiah said.

Nathan nodded. "Maybe just a few hands. I reckon Buck will call me if he needs me."

Justin stood. "Let's retire to the game room, shall we?"

After the four men were gone, Chris stood. "I'd best go."

Mrs. Jordan pushed back her chair and got to her feet. "I'll walk you to the door."

Chris retrieved his hat and he and Mrs. Jordan stepped on to the porch. A cool breeze skated across him, but it felt good after the warmth of the house. "Thanks for dinner," he said, then started to leave.

Mrs. Jordan laid a hand on his arm and he stopped to look at her in the dim light.

"I appreciate your agreeing to help us, especially after what happened to your young friend," she said sincerely.

He shrugged and lifted his gaze to the star-studded sky. "I understand dreams," he said with a husky voice.

The woman tipped her head to the side, the moonlight glinting her gray hair with silver strands. "What was her name?" she asked softly.

Startled, Chris studied her a moment before replying. "Sarah."

"She's dead?"

Chris nodded as his throat tightened.

"I'm sorry," Mrs. Jordan said tenderly.

"So am I." He took a deep breath to ease the sorrow squeezing his chest. "It was a long time ago."

"It doesn't matter how long ago it was. The pain will always be there. I know." She smiled sadly. "Justin wasn't our only child. Two died before they could even breathe their first, and another died before he was a year old. So believe me when I say I understand your grief, Mr. Larabee."

Feeling a kinship with the woman who was old enough to be his mother, Chris lent her a slight smile. "I reckon you're right. The most I can do is take a day at a time."

She squeezed his arm fondly. "That's all any of us can do." Mrs. Jordan crossed her arms. "Now go on and see if you can talk your friend into staying."

Chris wasn't surprised she knew what he planned to do. The older woman was intelligent, compassionate, and tough - a combination that had enabled her to flourish in this wilderness. He nodded, placed his hat on his head, and strode away.

Walking back to the bunkhouse, he spotted movement by one of the corrals. He studied the shadowy figure and recognized the slouch hat and dark horse - Vin. Changing direction, Chris approached him.

Vin spun around, pulling his mare's leg from its holster.

Chris raised his hands. "It's me, Vin."

"Hell, Chris, you know better'n to sneak up on a man," Vin growled as he replaced his sawed-off carbine.

Chris smiled lazily. "I wasn't sneakin'. You're just gettin' deaf."

Vin merely glowered at him. "I ain't gonna do it."

"What?" Chris asked innocently.

"I won't stay." Vin pulled the cinch tight around his horse's belly, keeping his eyes averted from Chris. "I can't believe you and the others are gonna work for them folks responsible for JD bein' hurt so bad." He finally met Chris's gaze. "What do you think Buck's gonna say when he finds out?"

Chris shrugged. "I think he'll see that Mrs. Jordan ain't to blame."

"Geezus, Chris, how can you be so damned blind? She strung wire across open range. That ain't right and you know it!"

Chris's temper rose. "What makes you right and everyone else wrong? Just because you don't want to leave a legacy behind don't mean other folks don't. They got a right to protect what's theirs."

"Then the same holds true for them settlers comin' in. What if the Jordans are fencin' in land that ain't theirs? We only got their word."

"Which is good enough for me!"

Vin's eyes sparked and he shook his head. "Damnit, Chris, you been blinded by Miz Jordan's nice manners and fine airs." He mounted his horse in one fluid motion, then gazed down at Chris, sadness and anger vying for supremacy in his expression. "I'll be campin' nearby until I know JD's gonna be okay."

"Then what?" Chris demanded, though he had a sinking feeling he already knew.

Vin swallowed and Chris saw regret shadowing his features. "I'm goin' on to Tascosa alone."

Chris grabbed hold of Sire's bridle. "Don't. You need help whether you want to admit it or not. Besides, JD ain't gonna be none too happy that you left without sayin' goodbye."

Vin sighed heavily and rested his crossed wrists on the saddlehorn. "I ain't gonna make a bunch of promises I don't know if I can keep. But if I do decide to head out, I'll say bye to the kid first." Chris tipped his head questioningly and Vin couldn't help but smile slightly. "And the rest of you, too."

Chris released Sire. "That's good enough for me."

Vin studied him a moment. "I'll be stoppin' by tomorrow to check on JD."

Chris smiled. "Good."

Then Vin reined his horse around, touched his heels to the animal's belly and was gone into the night.

Chris listened to the hoofbeats fade away until only the night sounds remained. He gripped the top pole of the corral, not caring that wood splinters gouged his palms. Sometimes Vin acted as touchy as a grizzly with a sore paw, but the hell of it was, Chris could see his point. He didn't think Vin was right, but that didn't mean he didn't understand. And maybe that's what made it so tough to watch him ride off alone into the night.

"Watch your back," Chris said in a low voice as he gazed in the direction Vin had ridden.

Chris eased his fingers from the wood pole and started toward the bunkhouse with slow, weary steps. He wouldn't let Vin go to Tascosa alone. Vin needed help even though the tracker had too damn much pride to admit it. Chris would find a way to get through to Vin. And if that didn't work, he'd tie him up and gag him. Chris smiled to himself - that was about as likely as a pig flying to the moon.

Inside the bunkhouse, Chris lit a lamp and sat by the table to stare into the flame. Had it only been that morning when JD had gotten tangled in the wire? Chris scrubbed his face with his palms - it seemed like days ago. When it happened, Chris had been determined to see the people responsible for the wire punished. But meeting Mrs. Jordan had changed his mind.

Was Vin right? Was he letting the woman's fine manners blind him to her guilt? No, his gut was telling him she spoke the truth, and he'd lived this long because he'd listened to his gut. If Vin hadn't been so hellbent against stringing wire, he would've recognized the truth, too.

Chris sighed. Vin had given his word he wouldn't leave without saying good-bye and Chris knew he'd keep that promise. The important thing now was for JD to recover from his wounds. First thing tomorrow morning, Chris would go see how the kid was doing. He recalled the horrific gashes and welling blood, and bile rose in his throat. He hoped that Nathan and the doctor were right about JD recovering so quickly.

Another thought struck Chris and he groaned. He wasn't looking forward to telling Buck that all of them, excluding Vin, were going to help the Jordans by patrolling the barbed wire.

Part 3