The Trail to Tascosa

by The Traveling Dime Store Novelist

Disclaimer: As much as I would like to say I did, I can't--I don't own the characters or the original M7 concept. I only become obsess--er, attached to them and write fanfic for others to enjoy.

Rating: PG-13 for language and violence (hey, it's a western!!)

Note: Sorry it's taken so long to get the next installment out of the Tascosa series. I wrote 2 (Just Another Day and Should the Angels Call) in between -- that's my excuse! <g> This is the longest Tascosa story yet. It takes place a couple weeks after the fourth installment. I've also incorporated some of the things we've learned in the abbreviated second season. Hope you enjoy it and all comments are welcome!

Story Five

Breach of Faith

By The Traveling Dimestore Novelist

The only thing that would have made this day any better was the companionship of a soft, friendly woman, but Buck Wilmington wasn't about to complain too much. He and his six companions had just spent a week in a lively little town while Nathan recuperated from the whipping he'd received a couple weeks ago. Buck scowled, remembering Randolph, the southerner who'd been determined to bring back slavery and the so-called genteel South to a ranch in Texas. He turned slightly to glance at Ezra who rode silently beside him. Randolph had been an old friend of Ezra's, but when it had come down to choosing between him and Nathan, Ezra had come through on the right side. Buck doubted that Ezra would've made the same decision a year ago.

Buck sighed and looked ahead to the vista of open grazing land. He turned his thoughts to more pleasant musings - Rose, Pansy, Violet, Lily, and Daisy. Flowers of the desert, all of them. Buck smiled with the memory of the evenings he'd spent exploring their silky soft petals. Of course, he hadn't been the only one who'd sowed a few wild oats among the fair flowers. His companions had taken advantage of the bouquet of ladies, too. And when they left the town, the seven men were more relaxed than they had been for some time. Even Chris had enjoyed himself, just like old times.

Yep, that overdue rest did us all a world of good, Buck thought. Now they were back on the trail to Tascosa, still over two hundred miles away, even though they'd left Four Corners nearly four months ago. Buck looked at Vin who slouched in the saddle with deceptively relaxed ease. He knew the tracker's gaze was constantly searching their seemingly empty surroundings for a sign of danger or an overly ambitious bounty hunter looking to collect the five hundred dollar reward on Vin's head. Eli Joe, the man who'd framed Vin, had been killed by Chris to save Vin's life. Vin was hoping that once they made it to Tascosa he could find someone who could clear him of the murder charge hanging over him.

Buck's horse tugged at its bridle and shook its head, as if wanting to run in the warm sunshine.

JD Dunne, riding on his left, took a tighter hold on his own horse's reins. "They're feelin' frisky, too."

Buck grinned devilishly and leaned closer to the younger man. "Not as frisky as you were feelin' a few nights ago."

JD's face turned scarlet beneath the narrow brim of his derby hat. "Ah, c'mon, Buck. At least I slept in my own bed every night."

"Yeah, and I'm right sorry 'bout that, JD, but then not everybody has my stamina."

JD's dark, expressive eyes widened. "Your what?"

"Energy, JD," Buck said with a wink.

Ezra chuckled from the other side of Buck and the mustached man was glad to hear the gambler's laughter. Ever since Ezra had been forced to kill his friend Randolph, he'd been quiet and withdrawn. Until Buck had introduced him to Violet, that is.

JD snorted. "You want to see energy? Race ya!" Excitement sparked his voice and face as he urged his mare into a swift gallop that sent horse and rider dashing away from the six men.

The boy's enthusiasm was contagious and Buck found himself laughing aloud as he kicked his gray's flanks. His horse leapt into motion and Buck whooped joyfully just for the thrill of the race on such a perfect day.

"You ain't gonna beat me, JD!" Buck hollered.

"You wanna bet?" JD shot back as he leaned low over his horse's neck.

The younger man remained a length ahead of him, but Buck didn't care. He was enjoying the feel of the wind in his face, the horse's muscles bunching beneath him, and the scent of sage that tickled his nose with its redolence. JD seemed to be one with his mare as they raced across the land in a blur of brown and black. He rode with an innate grace that Buck couldn't help but admire in his young friend. He'd known JD could ride, but he didn't realize how well until this very moment.

Buck slowed his horse slightly and JD increased his lead dramatically. Buck wondered when JD would notice that he'd been given the victory. He glanced back to see their five companions nearly a quarter of a mile behind them, then turned ahead to yell at JD to rein in.

Suddenly JD's horse squealed and planted its rear hooves in the ground. JD, though an expert rider, was thrown over the horse's neck. JD's scream of pain, combined with his horse's frenzied whinny, froze Buck's blood in his veins. He spurred his own horse forward, but drew to a stop just short of the horrific sight.

His heart pounding in his chest, Buck fairly flew out of the saddle and fell to his knees beside JD's bloodied body. Barbed wire wrapped around the younger man's chest, his arms and legs. A barb had ripped his left cheek open and blood welled from the gash. His shirt was turning red even as Buck knelt helplessly beside him.

"Nathan!" Buck yelled. "Nathan, get over here!"

The metallic taste of fear filled Buck's mouth and he took hold of one of the wires circling JD's arm. He tried to remove it, to make it stop hurting the kid. JD screamed in agony and Buck let go of the wire like it was a snake. Instead of helping, Buck had hurt JD more.

"Sonuvabitch, JD, I'm sorry," Buck said, his voice thick with contrition.

Buck wanted to hold JD, remove the agony in his face. He found a small spot on JD's shoulder that wasn't stained red and touched it gently with a shaking hand. "Hang on, JD. Nathan's comin'."

"B-Buck," JD said hoarsely. "It hurts."

Buck swallowed the block of emotion in his tight throat. "I know it does, kid."

"What h-happened?"

"You got thrown into some barbed wire." His voice trembled.

The arrival of the other five men amidst pluming dust, jingling bridles, and squeaking leather sidetracked Buck's attention for only a moment. "Hurry, Nathan."

The healer dismounted before his horse came to a complete stop, and he jerked his medical bag from his saddle. Buck shifted over slightly and Nathan knelt beside JD. Nathan's expression grew even more somber as he eyed the blood staining JD's chest, and his hands hovered above the boy's body, as if uncertain where to begin.

"We gotta get this wire off of him," Nathan said in a low, tentative voice. "We need a cutters."

The men exchanged helpless looks. Nathan blinked and shook his head as if trying to clear it. He fumbled in his medical bag and pulled out his razor sharp scissors.

"That gonna work?" Buck demanded.

"You got somethin' better?" Nathan shot back.

Buck licked his dry lips and passed a shaky hand across his brow. He shook his head.

"Okay, I'm gonna need your help, Buck," Nathan said. "You need to keep him from movin' too much or he's gonna make them wounds worse."

"Ain't I gonna hurt him more by holdin' him down?" Buck asked anxiously.

"It won't be as bad as them pointed barbs." Nathan leaned close to gaze into JD's pale face. "Listen to me, son. This is gonna hurt, but if I don't get these wires off you, I can't take care of them wounds. You understand?"

JD nodded, then closed his eyes and his face spasmed with pain. "Go ahead," he said faintly.

"Try not to move anymore'n you have to," Nathan said softly.

"I'll be right here with ya, kid," Buck reassured, then grit his teeth and laid his hands on JD's shoulders. "Go 'head, Nathan."

Nathan slowly and carefully began to snip the wire wrapped around the boy's body. JD whimpered and Buck clenched his teeth together so hard, his jaw ached. First the wires came off from around JD's legs, then his chest, and finally his arms where the barbs had penetrated the deepest. JD's muscles flexed beneath Buck's palms and when JD let out an animal-like moan, Buck's insides twisted into a tight, torturous knot.

"Hang in there, kid," Buck murmured.

Nathan removed the last strip of devil wire from the boy's body and wiped the sweat droplets from his brow with a shaky hand "Okay, I'm done. Josiah, water."

Josiah quickly retrieved a canteen and handed it to Nathan, then hunkered down beside him. "How is he?"

Nathan shook his head, his expression grim. "He's losin' a lot of blood. I need to sew him up and get those cuts wrapped up."

Buck, his hands still resting on JD's shoulders, raised wide eyes to the healer. "He's gonna be okay, right Nathan?" he asked with a raspy voice.

"I'll do everything I can to make sure them cuts don't get septic," Nathan said gently.

Buck glanced up to see Chris standing beside him and felt his friend's hand on his shoulder. "Nathan'll do his best," Chris said quietly.

Nodding, Buck leaned back on his heels and rested his bloody hands on his thighs. "I know. It's just that this shouldn't have happened. Geezus, Chris, we were just havin' some fun."

Chris squeezed his shoulder. "It wasn't your fault, Buck. You couldn't have known about the wire."

"If I hadn't pulled up, maybe I would've seen it and stopped him." Guilt tore at Buck's gut.

Chris's jaw knotted with frustrated helplessness. He understood Buck's self-reproach, but it didn't help him find the words to ease his guilt. With a sigh, he watched Nathan, Josiah, and Buck begin the painfully slow process of caring for JD's injuries. There was nothing he could do here and turned back to join Vin and Ezra.

Ezra held JD's horse's bridle as he stroked the animal's damp neck soothingly while Vin examined the mare's legs.

"How is she?" Chris asked curtly.

"In better shape than JD, but she could use some doctorin'," Vin replied. He rose and retrieved a few items from his saddlebag. Squatting down by the horse again, Vin went to work on a nasty gash on the animal's fetlock. The mare whinnied and tossed her head, and Ezra surprised Chris by talking to the horse in a gentle, drawling voice as the gambler rubbed her nose.

"You doin' okay down there?" Chris asked as he watched Vin's hands move familiarly across the wounded leg.

"It bled a lot, but don't look too deep. Not like JD's." Vin ran his palms lightly down the animal's leg. "Damn! Who woulda thought there'd be wire around here!"

The disgust in Vin's voice didn't surprise Chris. The ex-buffalo hunter was a wanderer, a man who had no plans to settle down and didn't understand the enticement of owning a piece of land.

"Don't see why folks think they got to fence this in," Vin continued, his voice low and angry. "Seems to me the land was put here for everyone to use."

Chris shrugged, hiding his own frustration behind a calm facade. "Maybe so, but there's gettin' to be more and more folks tryin' to use the same piece of ground."

"And there are those who become greedy in the pursuit of the land," Ezra interjected.

"Well, you'd know about greed," Vin murmured.

Ezra blinked and for a moment, anguish shimmered in his expression, then his usual imperturbable look returned.

"Aw, hell, Ezra, I'm sorry. I didn't mean that," Vin said, apology and regret in his tone. "Seein' JD hurt like that just makes me plumb mad."

Ezra smiled slightly and his eyes flickered with surprise and muted relief. "Apology accepted, Mister Tanner." His gaze slipped over to JD, then back to Vin. "I share your sentiment."

"Push comes to shove and people start doin' crazy things," Chris said quietly.

"And JD's payin' for their craziness," Vin added.

"Yep," Chris bit off. JD had been guilty of nothing other than indulging in youthful high spirits under a clear blue sky, and now he lay bleeding and badly injured. Chris's fingers curled into tight fists. "The kid was only having some fun," he reiterated Buck's words hoarsely.

Vin paused in his task and angled a glance at Chris, who met his understanding gaze silently. Then Vin nodded slightly and returned his attention to the horse's injuries.

Ezra continued stroking the injured mare's neck with slow easy motions, but his jaw muscles clenched. "I for one would like to locate the owner of such abominable wire, and give him a taste of his own medicine."

"You're gonna have to get in line," Vin stated, then added in a husky voice, "'Specially if JD don't make it."

Chris swallowed hard and nodded.

Half an hour later, Chris leaned against a wood fence post smoking a cheroot, consciously keeping his body relaxed but his gaze darted back and forth between JD and their surroundings. Vin hunkered on his heels a few feet away, a stem of grass between his lips, but Chris knew he kept a vigilant gaze for hostile guests as Vin, too, worried about the kid. Ezra stood off to the side, helplessly watching Nathan, Josiah, and Buck wrap bandages around JD.

Suddenly Vin rose to his full height in one graceful motion. "We got company comin'."

Chris and Ezra moved up on either side of him as they watched six horsemen approach. The new arrivals, all dressed in range gear, drew to a halt a few yards in front of them. The leader, a stocky man wearing a dusty vest, plaid shirt, and bandanna, studied them a moment, then glanced over in the direction of JD. "What happened?" he asked.

"Barbed wire," Chris said flatly. "You have any idea how it got here?"

The man's dark eyes narrowed. "Yep. We put it there."

Buck, who'd stepped up beside Chris, charged toward the newcomer, his expression blazing. Chris and Ezra each grabbed an arm to stop him.

"Hold on, Buck," Chris hissed in his ear. "There ain't no law against stringin' wire up."

"There is when it damn near kills someone," Buck exclaimed. His anger rolled off him in sheets of hot rage.

"That what happened to your friend?" the stranger asked.

"He was just takin' a ride and enjoyin' the day," Vin said, his tone full of loathing. "Horse stopped fast when he saw the wire."

The man looked over at JD again, and he shifted uneasily in the saddle. "Damn shame. He ain't the first one that's happened to and he ain't gonna be the last, but it's the only way to keep the grangers off the land. You got any place to take him?"

Buck's muscles slackened, and Chris and Ezra released him.

"Why? You figurin' on finishin' the job you started?" Vin demanded, his blue eyes glittering dangerously.

Chris narrowed his eyes and wished the usually reserved Vin would rein in his rare temper. They needed a place for JD to recuperate, and if this man volunteered someplace, Chris figured they'd best take him up on that offer. Even if he and his companions were responsible for JD's injuries.

"Look, I'm damned sorry this happened, but the fact is, you were on private property, so don't go blaming us." The stranger's expression relented and he fingered his leather reins. "You're welcome to stay at the boss's until your friend's back on his feet."

Chris sized up the rough-hewn man and believed his regret that JD had gotten tangled in the wire. He exchanged looks with Buck, Ezra, and Vin, then nodded. "We'll take you up on that offer."

The man appeared relieved. "The ranchhouse is a few miles east. I'll send one of my men to town to get the doctor."

Chris glanced questioningly at Nathan, who worried his lower lip then nodded in acquiescence, and Chris turned to the stranger. "We'd appreciate it."

"Slim, ride into Porter and get Doc Jensen. Irish, you head back to the ranch and let 'em know we got company comin'."

The two cowboys galloped away in opposite directions. The leader turned back to Chris. "Name's Roy Fuller and I'm the foreman of the Double J spread."

"Chris Larabee," Chris said, then introduced his six friends.

"How we gonna get JD there without hurtin' him more?" Buck asked from beside JD's still body.

"I can make us a travois," Vin volunteered.

Fuller sent the rest of his men back to work and moved off to examine the barbed wire fence. While Vin went in search of materials for the travois, Chris joined the ranch foreman.

Fuller glanced up at Chris, a scowl on his face as he held up a piece of wire. "Damn grangers cut it. If they hadn't, your friend would've spotted it early enough to stop."

"You been havin' trouble with the farmers for a while?" Chris asked.

The man nodded. "Ever since we put the wire up, and we strung it because they were startin' to plow up our rangeland and steal the water. We've had to put teams of men riding the fence twenty-four hours a day, and still they get past us."

"Ain't there enough land to go around for all of you?"

"You know anything about raising cattle, Larabee?"

Chris shrugged. "I had a small horse ranch four, five years ago."

"With this land, each head of cattle needs nearly ten acres for grazin', which means the boss can't afford to lose even a few acres."

Mixed feelings inundated Chris - he should blame the Double J for what happened to JD, but found that he understood more than he wanted to. They were only trying to protect what was theirs, which was something Chris himself had done when he'd had Sarah, Adam and a home.

Chris's fingers curled into fists and he left the foreman to join his friends.

Twenty minutes later, Chris and Vin tied the travois's two poles to either side of Vin's saddle.

"I don't like 'em, Chris," Vin said in a low voice.

Chris rested his forearms on the saddle seat and studied the tracker over the horse's back. "You don't have to like 'em, but JD needs someplace to heal."

Vin's lips thinned. "So we go into the wolf's den."

"But we got us something sheep don't - our guns," Chris said with a crooked smile.

Vin tilted his head slightly in amused acknowledgment.

Working slowly and carefully, Nathan, Josiah, Buck, and Ezra lifted JD on to the blanket stretched between the cottonwood poles. They used another bedroll to wrap around his trembling body.

"Ready?" Roy Fuller asked.

Chris nodded.

The men mounted up and followed Fuller. Ezra led JD's injured horse, while Nathan and Buck rode on either side of the travois, keeping an eye on JD. Chris and Josiah rode flanking the foreman.

"Where do you boys hail from?" Fuller asked curiously.

"You name it, we've been there," Chris replied curtly.

Fuller's lips thinned in irritation, but Chris didn't apologize for his brevity.

Josiah rested his wrists on his saddle's flat pommel. "What my friend means is we're wandering nomads, like Moses and the Children of Israel wandering the desert in search of the promised land."

"You a preacher man?" Fuller asked.

"I've been known to call upon fire and brimstone a time or two."

"The boss'll be right glad to hear that. There's a chapel not far from the house that hasn't heard the Lord's word for nigh onto three years now."

Startled, Chris glanced at Fuller. "You sound like you miss it."

Fuller shrugged. "S'pose maybe I do. It's a lonely land out here, Larabee. Anything to break up the days'd be welcome."

Josiah smiled and spoke dryly, "I've heard worse reasons for visiting the Lord's house."

"How long you been working here?" Chris asked.

"Close to twenty years now. Seen a lot of changes in that time." He removed his hat and scratched his balding pate. "Some good, some not so good."

"The wire one of them good or not so good changes?"

Fuller looked like a kid who just got caught stealing a piece of peppermint. "I don't like the barbed wire any more'n you, but we plumb wore out everything else. This was the boss's last hope to hang onto the ranch."

"We almost there?" Buck's impatient call interrupted their conversation.

"Another mile," Fuller replied. "How's he doin'?"

"How do ya think he's doin'?" Buck said angrily.

Fuller sighed, then asked Josiah, "He the kid's brother?"

"Sometimes I think so." Josiah shook his head. "He feels a certain paternal protectiveness for JD since the boy is alone in the world."

"Felt that way a couple times myself since I ain't had a family of my own either," Fuller said with a shrug.

Chris turned his gaze forward as thoughts of his own family caught him off-guard. His memory did that to him now and again, like it knew when he lowered his mental defenses. After four years, he should've been able to think about them without the damning moisture burning his eyes or his gut twisting like a fish at the end of a line. But the wound was still there, healed on the outside but tender below the surface. He wondered if that gaping hole would every completely close.

Ten minutes later the ranch outbuildings came into view and Chris studied the imposing holdings. Large cottonwood trees stood on either side of the two-story house, and a long porch stretched across the front. A mixture of comfortable chairs and a glider sat on the porch, inviting guests to relax in the shade during the heat of the day or enjoy the cool evenings. A half dozen barns and corrals were situated in a neat pattern away from the house and the two sprawling bunkhouses.

Vin whistled low.

"A veritable oasis in the middle of a forsaken desert," Ezra commented dryly, though his expression told them he was suitably impressed.

They rode up to the front of the whitewashed house and a slender figure wearing trousers came out onto the porch. As they drew nearer, Chris could make out silver gray hair and suddenly realized the person was a woman.

"Bring him inside - I've got a room ready for him upstairs," she said with a tone that told Chris she was accustomed to having her orders followed without question.

Buck, Nathan, and Josiah carefully carried JD inside and followed the woman up a wide curving staircase, while Vin, Ezra, and Chris remained on the porch. A few minutes later, the woman, along with Josiah, joined them outside.

She crossed her arms, then uncrossed them and lifted them in surrender. "I don't know how I can apologize, except to say how sorry I am this happened."

"You can start by gettin' rid of all that barbed wire, ma'am," Vin said curtly.

She met his stormy gaze and though she was a good ten inches shorter than Vin, she didn't appear intimidated. "I wish it were that easy, but I'm fighting a battle for the survival of this ranch."

"And JD is fighting a battle for his life," Vin shot back.

Regret shadowed her eyes as she sighed heavily. "The doctor is on the way, though from what I saw of your Negro friend, he seems to know a little about doctoring."

"Yes, ma'am, that he does," Josiah spoke up, his low voice soothing.

"May I be as so bold as to inquire your name?" Ezra asked the woman.

She smiled in embarrassment. "I'm sorry. My manners are not as sharp as they used to be - that must come from living out here. I'm Julia Jordan."

"Double J," Chris said, realizing what the brand meant.

"It was my husband's idea," she explained with a hint of embarrassment. "I'll have Roy take you to the spare bunkhouse to use while you're here. We only use it in the spring and fall when we have to hire extra hands to round up the cattle."

"We appreciate that, Mrs. Jordan," Chris said.

"It's the least I can do." She glanced past them and shouted, "Roy!"

The foreman ambled over to them. "Yes, ma'am?"

"Could you show these gentleman to the spare bunkhouse?"

Fuller nodded. "Sure thing, Mrs. Jordan."

The woman turned back to Chris. "Again, I'm sorry about your young friend, but I'll ensure he gets the best care possible." She paused a moment and swept her gaze across Josiah, Ezra, and Vin. "I'd like to have you all join me for dinner this evening - it'll be served at six."

"Thank you, ma'am. We'd be honored," Josiah said, touching the brim of his hat courteously.

Vin abruptly stepped off the porch and strode to his horse, his shoulders stiff.

Chris narrowed his eyes and when Mrs. Jordan looked at him questioningly, he said, "Vin doesn't approve of the barbed wire."

"There was a time not too long ago when I would've agreed with him," the woman said thoughtfully. "But times change. I hope you can convince him to join us."

"I'll try to talk some sense into him," Chris said.

Mrs. Jordan nodded and returned to the house. Fuller looked over at Chris.

"We'll be along," Chris said.

The foreman nodded and led Ezra and Josiah to their temporary quarters. Chris took a deep breath and joined Vin who stood hipshot by Sire, anger evident in his tightly pursed lips.

"What's goin' on, Vin?" Chris asked quietly.

"It ain't right," Vin stated. "She's only tryin' to buy us off."

Chris shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "I got the impression she was really sorry about what happened."

"If she was, she'd get rid of all the damned wire afore someone else gets hurt, or maybe killed."

"Look, I know you don't have any use for barbed wire, but it's gettin' more and more common. You can't stop it, Vin, no matter how much you hate it."

Vin's gaze pierced Chris. "So you're sayin' I should just roll over and accept it? Accept that kids like JD are gonna keep gettin' hurt 'cause people like Miz Jordan have to protect their precious land!"

Impatience skittered through Chris. "I don't like what happened to JD anymore'n you do, but what I'm sayin' is Mrs. Jordan owns the land and she can do what she wants with it, whether we like it or not. Besides, we're just passin' through. Once JD is healed, we'll be movin' on," he explained.

Vin licked his dry lips and studied the shimmering heat waves rising above the land. "It ain't right," he repeated, but this time there was less force behind his words.

"Maybe not, but it ain't our concern."

Vin took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. "I reckon you're right, but it don't make me feel any better."

"I know what you mean." He laid a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Now, are you gonna pass up an opportunity for a fancy meal?"

Vin smiled reluctantly. "I s'pose she'll expect me to use all them damn forks and spoons the right way."

Chris chuckled and winked. "Just watch which ones Ezra uses."

Vin shook his head, but the twinkle had returned to his eyes. "All right, I'll go."

Chris slapped Vin on the back and they led their horses to the corral.

"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."

"Josiah."

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.

Buck shifted his numb backside in the chair and stifled a groan. The sun was just peeking over the eastern horizon and Buck had spent the entire night alternating between sleeping restlessly in the chair and gazing at JD who would occasionally shift and groan. Buck leaned over to examine JD more closely, to see if he looked better than he had earlier. Two hours ago Buck had been so frightened by his paleness, that he'd awakened Nathan who sat in a similar chair on the other side of JD's bed. After changing the bandages, Nathan had assured him everything was looking fine.

A little color seemed to have returned to JD's cheeks and Buck murmured a silent prayer of thanks that JD was recovering, albeit slowly. Buck pushed himself to his feet and rubbed gritty eyes. He was going to have to give that boy a kick in the butt as soon as the kid was feeling a little better. Buck was getting too damn old for these long, tense vigils.

Buck moved to the window and saw Chris striding across the ranch yard toward the house, his black clothes contrasting sharply with the coral glow of the sunrise. Even from this distance, Buck could see the weariness in his old friend's steps and he frowned, wondering what caused it. Could it be worry over JD or something else?

Buck glanced at Nathan who was sleeping in the other chair, his arms crossed and his chin touching his chest. The healer looked as exhausted as Buck felt.

Footsteps in the hallway alerted Buck to someone's approach, and he opened the door a crack. He wasn't surprised to see Chris, and he swung the door open the rest of the way.

"Come on in," Buck said in a low voice.

Chris nodded and slipped inside. His gaze immediately fell on JD, who looked like a young child in the middle of the large bed. "How's he doin'?"

"Better, I think," Buck replied. "Gave me a scare overnight, but wasn't nothin'." Buck's stomach dropped with the memory of his fear.

"I'll sit with JD while you get some breakfast," Chris said, his tone brooking no arguments.

"I think I should--"

Chris shook his head. "Go on, Buck. You need a break."

Buck took a deep breath and ran a hand through his hair, tousling it further. "All right, but you call me if anything happens."

Chris nodded. Buck nabbed his hat from where it hung on the back of his chair and started for the door, but Chris's grasp on his arm stopped him.

"There's something you need to know," Chris began, and Buck was puzzled by his nervousness. "We decided to work for the Jordans while we're here."

Buck's eyebrows furrowed as he wondered if he should be angry. "I guess it beats sittin' around all day countin' the ants."

Chris's somber expression didn't ease. "We're going to be ridin' the fence line over night to make sure the wire ain't cut."

Though Buck's mind was a bit cloudy, he didn't have any trouble getting angry about that. "Why?" he demanded.

"Because it's a job and I don't think it's right for them folks to be runnin' over property that ain't theirs."

"You can say that after seein' what that devil wire did to JD?" Buck's voice rose along with his fury.

"If it hadn't been cut in the first place, JD would've seen it and he wouldn't have been hurt," Chris argued, keeping his voice down.

"He's right, Buck."

Buck turned to see that Nathan had silently come up behind him. Betrayal bit deep into Buck. "You're a healer and you can still say that?"

Nathan nodded. "Miz Jordan only strung the wire - the grangers cut it. Besides, a person's got a right to protect their property."

Buck closed his eyes a moment, trying to reconcile his bitter hatred toward the wire and the people responsible for putting it up. And how would JD feel when he learned his friends were protecting the very wire which had hurt him so badly? "I don't know. It still don't seem right somehow."

"Vin feels the same way," Nathan said quietly.

"He's gone," Chris interjected softly.

Buck and Nathan looked at him with twin looks of surprise.

"He rode out last night," Chris answered their unspoken question. "He'll be campin' close by. He said he'd stop by today sometime to check on JD."

Though Buck sensed there was something Chris wasn't telling him, he didn't have the energy to pursue it. "I won't be leavin'," Buck said, then added firmly, "but I don't know if I can help guard that wire neither."

"I understand," Chris said. "Now why don't both of you head down to eat. I'll stay with JD for a while."

Buck looked over at the boy and he curled his hands into fists. He still couldn't look at JD without hearing his agonized cries as the boy lay on the ground, the wire wrapped around him. Buck swallowed the block of anguish. As soon as he had some breakfast, he'd return. He wanted to be the first one the kid saw when he finally regained consciousness.

Vin shoved back his empty plate at the restaurant. After the fancy supper last night, it was nice to have some normal food - fried steak and potatoes, biscuits, eggs, and gravy. He sipped his coffee, trying to come up with a plan for the day. He'd go back to the Double J to see JD like he'd told Chris he would. Shaking his head, Vin still couldn't believe how gullible Chris, Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan had been. A wolf was still a wolf even if she dressed in fancy clothes.

He tossed some coins on the table, then left the restaurant. Pausing on the boardwalk, he leaned against a post and wrapped his fingers around his gunbelt. He studied the folks moving up and down main street, intent on their errands, but stopping to visit and gossip now and again. It was a scene he'd observed in a hundred other little towns - Anders, Texas was no different.

After watching for a few minutes, Vin sighed and stepped down onto the street to the hitching post where Sire stood three-legged. Vin stuck his boot toe into the stirrup and swung his other leg over the saddle with practiced ease.

As much as Vin hated going back to Jordan's spread, he was more worried about JD. Maybe he had been too hasty. Restlessness plagued him as he wondered about Chris and the others working for the Jordans. His friends might very well be stepping into some trouble they couldn't handle while guarding the wire. Maybe Vin should've stayed with them. He remembered Dicky O'Shea and the trouble his gang had brought to the small wagon train. And with a flush of self-reproach, Vin remembered how he'd left his friends for a woman who could never be his....

He'd made a mistake then - he didn't want to make the same one again. Vin had an unsettled feeling in his gut that there was something else going on here, something running beneath the surface of this dispute. He had to return - he didn't want his friends thinking he'd abandoned them again. Hell, he'd swallowed his pride for lesser reasons. He needed to talk to Chris about his suspicions - Chris often had insights that Vin missed, and vice versa. Between the two of them and the rest of the Seven, maybe they could stop the war of the wire.

With his mind made up, his stomach stopped clenching so tightly. Satisfied that he'd made the right decision, Vin urged Sire down the street and in the direction of the Double J spread.

An hour later with the late morning sun shining on him, Vin paused near the place JD had been hurt so badly. From atop his horse, he could see numerous rust stains on the grass - JD's dried blood. Vin's mouth grew dry, realizing how close they'd come to losing the kid. Geezus, JD deserved to live and marry and raise a family, not ride with a footloose group of hired guns that courted death as readily as Buck courted a pretty woman. Once the boy was healed, Vin would leave - alone, just as he'd told Chris he would. The charge hanging over Vin was something he had to take care of, knowing he could still die by the rope if he couldn't find a witness to the murder. He had no right dragging his friends down with him.

He unscrewed the cap of his canteen and took a long drink of the lukewarm water. It soothed his parched throat, and he swirled some around in his mouth to ease the dryness, then swallowed.

"Hold it right there, mister!"

Vin froze, the canteen in one hand, the cap in the other. Sonuvabitch - he'd let down his guard.

Two men on horseback moved into his field of vision. At first, Vin thought they were Double J cowhands, but the well-oiled weapons and cold look in their eyes dispelled that notion. These men were hired guns.

"Put your hands up," one of them ordered.

Vin raised his arms slowly, still holding his open canteen. "You boys're makin' a big mistake."

The man holding the ivory-handled Colt snorted. "It's you who's made the mistake, mister. Who the hell are you?"

Vin shrugged, willing his heart to slow its frantic beating. "Just a stranger passin' through."

The other man, who held a Winchester and wore a scraggly beard, studied Vin too closely. "I seen him before, Mangus."

"Where?" Mangus demanded, brushing his thumb across his black mustache.

"Down El Paso way. He took in a friend of mine - this here fellah's a bounty hunter. Name of Tanner," the outlaw said, his features stony. His finger curled around the trigger and Vin's breath stuttered in his throat.

Mangus smiled, revealing even white teeth. "Take it easy, Lomax. Seems to me I recall hearing about him from an old friend of mine. He's not a bounty hunter anymore - in fact, he's on the same side of the law as us now. Isn't that right, Tanner?"

Vin had no choice but to play the game. "That's right. There's a paper on me for murder." He kept his features nonchalant. "Mind if I put away my canteen?"

Mangus studied him for a long moment. "Sure, go ahead."

Conscious of the two men's attention fastened on him, Vin replaced the canteen cover and wrapped the strap around the saddlehorn. He rested his hands on the pommel. "So what's goin' on?"

"Ain't none of your concern," Lomax retorted, then spit a brown wad of tobacco at the ground near Sire's front hooves.

Vin shrugged, forcing an indifference his tense muscles didn't possess. These men may hold the key to the puzzle he was trying to sort out. "Suit yourself. It's just that I've been lookin' for a job lately." He grinned. "You know, one that pays more'n a dollar a day and room and board."

"You any good with that mare's leg?" Mangus demanded.

"You any good with that purty Colt?" Vin said with a lazy drawl.

Mangus smiled. "I like you, Tanner. If you're serious about a job, I might have something that could interest you."

"You can't trust him," Lomax argued. "He could still be bounty hunting."

"Then I'd have to turn myself in," Vin said flatly, his gaze drilling into Lomax.

Mangus chuckled. "Come on, let's get back to the camp. We can discuss the particulars there."

"You boys figurin' on keepin' your guns on me the whole time?" Vin asked.

"Just because I like you doesn't mean I trust you." The mustached gunhand motioned with his revolver the direction he wanted Vin to ride. "You got to prove yourself first."

Vin nodded. "Sounds fair enough." He reined Sire around apprehensively. At least they hadn't disarmed him - that was a start. Besides, Vin was curious to hear about this offer.

As they rode, Vin pondered the mystery he'd run into. Did these men work for the Jordans or the grangers? If it was the Jordans, then why did Mrs. Jordan offer Chris and them a job? If it was the grangers, Chris had been right to place his trust in Mrs. Jordan, and Vin had been wrong.

Fifteen minutes later, they arrived at the entrance to a box canyon, and after a few more minutes of riding, Vin spotted a campfire and half a dozen men gathered around it. All of them appeared to be hired guns, too, which didn't surprise Vin. Now his only problem was going to be how to get away from them.

The desperadoes got to their feet to watch them approach with suspicious eyes. A couple of them laid a hand on their weapons.

"Who's he?" a man with an eyepatch demanded.

Vin recognized him from a wanted poster - Curly Hobbs. He looked around, finding two others he'd seen on papers in the sheriff's office in Four Corners - Sam Tate and Black Jack Roberts.

"His name's Tanner. I figure we can use him," Mangus said.

"Why? There's enough of us to take care of things," Roberts grumbled.

Mangus shook his head. "Situation's changed. There's some hired guns working for the Jordans now."

Vin's heart slammed against his ribs. That answered one question - these men worked for the grangers - but it also brought up another one. How had Mangus heard about Chris and the others so quickly? They must have someone feeding them information from the ranch. Who? The foreman Fuller? Or Maria the cook who probably overheard everything they'd talked about last night? Or one of the two dozen men who worked for Jordan?

The only two things Vin knew for certain were his friends would be walking into an ambush, and he had to bluff his way through this game or he wouldn't have a chance to warn them.

And suddenly he wished Ezra were here to give him some tips on bluffing.

Buck returned to spell Ezra who'd watched JD while Buck shaved and changed his clothes. The midafternoon sun slanted in through a slit in the curtains, warming the room, and a hot breeze stirred through the open window, raising the temperature even further. It was hard to tell if JD had a fever or was sweating from the unusual heat like the rest of them.

"Any change?" Buck asked Ezra quietly.

The gambler looked up from his game of solitaire, his expression somber. "He murmured something like 'look out', but other than that, he's been quiescent."

"Kwi- what?" Buck asked.

"Quiet," Ezra translated with a slight smile.

"Why didn't ya just say so?"

"I did." Ezra gathered his cards in his smooth, slender hands. "I shall send Josiah up next."

Buck shrugged. "Go ahead, but I ain't leavin' any more today. He's got to be comin' out of this real soon."

Ezra stood and his backbone popped audibly. He smiled apologetically. "Rigors of the trade."

Buck waved a hand and went to stand by the bed to look down at JD's pallid features. "C'mon, kid, wake up. You been asleep long enough."

As if JD heard him, he began to stir. At first, it was merely a twitch of an eyelid, then he moved his arm.

"Ezra," Buck whispered, afraid to break the spell of JD's awakening.

"I see," Ezra said from right beside Buck. "Come on, Mister Dunne. It is time to rejoin the world."

JD blinked, focusing on the two men above him and wishing whoever was in his head with the hammer would stop pounding so loudly. At first, it was too hard to concentrate to figure out who they were. In his mind's eye, he saw the taller man push him out of the way and take a saber across the chest for him. "Buck?"

Buck hunkered down beside the bed and laid his hand lightly on JD's arm. His bright smile was damn near painful to look at. "'Bout time you woke up, kid. We were gettin' a mite worried about you."

JD's mind felt hazy, cloaked in a heavy fog. "I...b-been sleepin'?"

"That you have, Mister Dunne."

JD switched his gaze to the man in the green coat. Ezra. "How l-long?"

"Over twenty-four hours," Buck replied. "I'll bet you're thirsty, aren't you?"

JD thought about that for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah...I am."

Ezra moved away and returned a few moments later with a glass of water. Buck helped JD sit up and Ezra lifted the glass to his lips. It wasn't cold, but it tasted good. He drank most of it before Ezra pulled it away.

"Go easy there, JD," Buck warned. "We don't want you gettin' sick by puttin' too much down there right away."

"I'll go get the others," Ezra said.

JD watched him leave the room. With his thirst somewhat satisfied, JD became aware of the aching in his body. His body felt like he'd been run over by a train and heat streaked through him like he'd spent too much time in the sun. "What h-happened?"

Buck appeared worried which made JD worry.

"It's all right," Buck said, as if sensing his fretting. "You got into some barbed wire."

JD blinked and the images replayed through his mind. He remembered racing with Buck across open range, then suddenly Buck wasn't there and JD's horse whinnied and stopped so fast JD couldn't stay in the saddle. Then there was pain - flames of agony all over him - flaying his skin.

"Take it easy," Buck soothed, laying a hand against JD's hair. "You remember, don't you?"

JD nodded. "I got thrown."

Buck's jaw muscle clenched.

"We were racin'...and you s-stopped." The accusation in JD's voice was like a hot poker in Buck's gut. "Why'd you...stop?"

Buck's chest felt like someone had tied a rope around it. "I knew I couldn't beat you - you were too damned fast for me."

"Why...d-didn't you t-tell me there was...b-barbed wire?" JD struggled to ask.

"I didn't know, kid. Honest to God, I didn't see it neither." Buck could barely speak around his heart which had settled in his throat.

"It hurts, B-Buck...hurts s-so damned much."

Buck stroked the boy's thick hair like a father would soothe his son. "I know it does, JD, I know it does. But you're gonna be just fine." He didn't know if he spoke the words for JD's or his own benefit.

The door opened and Nathan, then Josiah, Chris, and Ezra entered.

Nathan went around to the other side of the bed and laid a hand on JD's forehead. He smiled. "Looks like your fever broke. How're you feelin'?"

"He says it hurts," Buck replied sharply. "We got to give him some laudanum or somethin'."

"All right, JD, I'm going to have you drink some more water, then I'll give you somethin' for the pain, okay?" Nathan said.

"'Kay," JD replied, sounding too much like a little boy.

Josiah handed Nathan a glass of water, and this time Nathan held it to JD's lips while Buck held the boy up. JD finished the whole thing and whimpered slightly when Buck lowered him back to the pillow.

Nathan filled a spoon with laudanum. "Here ya go, JD. This'll help you sleep so's you can heal."

JD accepted the medicine without a word, but grimaced as he swallowed. JD looked around and noticed the others in the room. A slight but genuine smile lifted his nearly colorless lips. "Chris, Josiah, g-glad you're here." His eyes closed, then a moment later they flashed open. "Vin. Where's...V-Vin?"

Buck tensed and sent a helpless look to Chris.

"He's busy right now, JD, but he'll come visit after you get some sleep," Chris said gently.

Buck narrowed his eyes, but was glad Chris hadn't told him the truth. Later, when JD was stronger, he'd tell the kid what was going on. That is, if JD ever forgave him. The metallic taste of remorse filled his mouth. Or if he could forgive himself.

JD's eyes closed as he drifted off to sleep.

Nathan nodded. "He'll be just fine now. The sleep'll be good for him, help him get his strength back." He glanced at Buck. "Why don't you go get some sleep? Me and Josiah can sit with him for a time."

Buck drew away from JD as if he'd been burned. "All right." He stood and grabbed his hat, wanting to escape the memory of accusation in JD's tortured eyes. Though aware of his friends' surprise, Buck quickly escaped the room and hurried down the stairs as vomit rose in his throat. Outside on the porch, he hurried to a corner and took deep breaths to press the bitterness back down.

JD blamed him for what happened and Buck couldn't dispute his guilt. He shouldn't have let the kid race hellbent for leather across unfamiliar land. JD may not have understood, but Buck was experienced enough to know that unknown land meant unknown dangers.

"You okay, Buck?"

Buck whirled around to face Chris, nearly losing the control he'd just regained. He sucked in a deep breath to steady his nerves. "I was until you sneaked up on me!"

Chris grinned wryly and shook his head. "You're the second person to accuse me of sneakin' lately." His humor faded. "What's goin' on with you and JD?"

Buck looked away. "What d'ya mean?"

"You know damn good and well what I mean. You were about as white as JD when we came in the room."

Buck dragged a hand through his thick hair. "I was just worried is all."

"Don't give me that bull. Somethin's wrong between you two."

Buck turned and met Chris's too damned perceptive eyes. "It ain't any of your concern."

"Seems to me I've said that to you more'n a few times." Chris had the humility to look abashed. "Maybe there's somethin' I can do to help."

"Ain't nothin' anybody can do unless you can turn time back to yesterday mornin'."

Chris narrowed his eyes. "It ain't your fault, Buck."

Damn, sometimes they were too much alike. Buck took a deep shaky breath. "Yeah, it is. I knew better than to race like that. If I'd been actin' like a growed man, instead of a kid, JD wouldn't have gotten into the wire."

"Well, I gotta admit, sometimes you do act younger'n JD, but most of the time that ain't a bad thing." Chris shrugged self-consciously. "Sometimes I wish I could be more that way. Hell, Buck, it was a nice day and you and JD were havin' some fun. That ain't a reason to be whippin' yourself."

"Tell JD that," Buck said, his voice so low Chris had to lean forward to hear him.

Chris frowned. "JD don't blame you."

The pain in Buck's expression told Chris otherwise. "He's hurtin' right now, Buck. He don't know what he's sayin'."

Buck laughed, but there was only self-loathing in the sound. "Oh, he knew exactly what he was sayin', 'cause he's right."

Chris took a step toward his old friend, and laid a hand on Buck's shoulder. He felt the muscle tense beneath his palm. "Wait until JD's feelin' better. I think you're gonna find out that he don't blame you at all. Fact is, I got a feelin' he's gonna be feelin' mighty guilty himself for doin' somethin' so stupid."

"It wasn't stupid," Buck shot back, anger sparking his midnight blue eyes.

"That's right, it wasn't," Chris said softly.

Buck blinked, caught in Chris's trap. A smile twitched his lips. "Damnit, Chris, you're gettin' too good at that."

Chris smiled. "I learned from the best."

Buck laughed and slapped Chris's shoulder. "I guess you did."

"Go get some sleep. Things always look better when you're not dead on your feet."

Buck's face suddenly appeared exhausted. "I think I'll go do that." He paused and studied Chris a moment. "Thanks, pard."

"You're welcome."

"Come get me when JD wakes up."

Chris nodded, then watched Buck stagger off toward the bunkhouse. That was one problem solved - the other one still remained.

Where the hell was Vin?

Vin ate the beans and hardtack without complaint, though his newfound companions didn't. He listened to Hobbs and Roberts compare their supper to something a helluva lot less appetizing, but it didn't bother the ex-bounty hunter. He'd heard worse.

Vin was damned lucky he'd been able to convince Mangus he was sincere in his search for a job. For the first time, Vin was almost glad he was a wanted man. It gave him more credibility to this bunch of cutthroats.

He stood to take his plate to the pan of water. As he washed it, Lomax joined him.

"I'm keepin' my eye on you, Tanner." The man's breath was nearly as deadly as Top Hat Bob's.

Vin smiled. "Don't got much to do, huh?"

"You turned my friend in so I owe you for that. Once this job is over, you and me is gonna have a little talk." Lomax's lips twisted into a caricature of a grin. "That is, if you don't happen to get shot by a stray bullet."

Vin angled a look at the man who resembled a rat with small beady eyes and scraggly whiskers. "You'd do well to remember that I'm gonna be keepin' my eye on you, too." He stalked away before Lomax could respond.

Vin walked into the darkness at the edge of their camp. He could feel eight pairs of eyes drilling into his back, and knew this wasn't the time to try anything. He'd have to bide his time, get the men to trust him, and hope he succeeded in escaping to warn his friends.

A cool breeze swept across him and he shivered, but the chill came from within. He'd come to take his friendship with Chris and the others for granted and had forgotten what it was like to have only himself to rely on. This is what it'll be like when I head to Tascosa on my own, he thought, and remorse filled him. He didn't want to go back to the way it was when he was alone. Back then he hadn't known what it was like to have someone like Chris or Buck or Ezra or Josiah or Nathan or JD watching his back. He hadn't known what is was like to have men beside him whom he could trust.

He hadn't known loneliness like he knew it now in this camp of enemies.

Did he want to split up with the only true friends he'd known and travel to Tascosa alone?

He shook his head. He couldn't answer that now. Later, after they'd gotten out of this mess, Vin would have time enough to make a decision. Provided, like Lomax said, he survived.

Vin heard the quiet crunch of footsteps behind him and his shoulders tensed as his hand moved to his mare's leg.

"You wouldn't be thinking of leaving us so soon, would you?" Mangus asked.

Vin turned slowly, easing his hand away from his weapon, and smiled crookedly at the outlaw leader. "Only when I gotta relieve myself."

Mangus grinned. "Guess a man does need some privacy now and again." His smile faded. "Any one of these men here would shoot you in the back as much as talk to you."

"Nice bunch of fellahs."

"They do their jobs," Mangus said with a shrug. "Just like you do yours and I won't care where you go or what you do."

"Have to prove myself first, huh?"

"Everyone here already has. You're my wild card, Tanner."

Vin wrapped his fingers around his gunbelt and stood with most of his weight resting on one leg. "Then why'd you hire me on?"

"I needed another man and you were there. Simple as that."

Vin narrowed his eyes. "I guess, unless you got some other reason."

Something flickered in Mangus' eyes - something Vin almost missed. "And what reason would that be?"

Vin smiled widely, intending to throw the killer off-balance. "Damned if I know, but then I ain't the boss man here neither."

Mangus laughed. "I sure hope you're on our side, Tanner, 'cause if you aren't, you're taking all the enjoyment out of killing you."

Vin's palms grew damp, but he forced himself to chuckle along with the outlaw. "Believe me, it ain't gonna be much fun for me neither."

Mangus clapped Vin on the back and led him back to camp, an arm around Vin's shoulders.

Chris planted his right foot on the lowest corral pole and folded his arms across the top one as he watched the sun settle behind the western horizon. Horses milled about in the corral and men's guttural voices drifted from the bunkhouse. The keen scent of fresh droppings stung his nose, but the familiar smell didn't bother him. Instead, he focused on the darkening land, watching, hoping to see the welcome silhouette of Vin riding toward the ranch. If Vin had said he'd come back today to check on JD, he would have. Unless something had happened to him.

No. Vin could take care of himself. He'd been doing it for a long time before the seven men hooked up. Still, it didn't ease the apprehension that stole through Chris like the desert night breeze.

Suddenly he snorted and shook his head. Who would've thought Chris Larabee, loner gunman, would become as worrisome as a mother hen with six chicks? Hell, Chris wouldn't even have believed it of himself. But here he was fretting and not just about Vin, but JD and Buck, too.

"Searching for our delinquent companion?"

Chris turned to see Ezra, wearing his buckskin jacket and brown trousers, join him. He shrugged. "If you're talkin' about Vin, yeah, I guess I am."

Ezra came to stand beside him and Chris saw mirroring apprehension in the gambler's eyes. "Do you believe he has fallen into some nefarious predicament?"

"Could be." The ball of worry in Chris's gut grew. "It ain't like Vin not to hold to his word."

"You're correct in that assumption. Would you like me to ride into town and search for Mister Tanner?"

Chris had considered doing that himself but discarded the idea - Vin would have a good laugh about Chris Larabee fussing over him. "Vin's a big boy. He can take care of himself. We got a job to do tonight."

Ezra rubbed his jaw with his thumb and stared thoughtfully across the twilight-touched land. "What if Vin's in trouble?"

Chris noted Ezra didn't use any of his two-bit words, revealing how concerned he truly was. Chris sucked in a lungful of cool air. "Vin survived years on his own - one day alone ain't gonna hurt him."

"Unless he ran into some trouble he couldn't handle," Ezra added softly.

"Damnit, Ezra, we can't go runnin' off every time one of us takes off for a little while," Chris said sharply to hide his own concern. "We told Mrs. Jordan we'd patrol that fence line tonight and that's what we're going to do."

Ezra's lips thinned and he nodded curtly. "Of course, Mister Larabee. When one's word is given, it must be kept."

Josiah's tall form emerged from the shadows. He looked from Chris to Ezra then back at Chris. "Are we ready?"

Chris nodded, tight-lipped. "Yep."

The three men saddled their horses quietly, and if Josiah noticed the strained silence between Chris and Ezra, he didn't comment. Chris glanced at Josiah. "Is Nathan coming?"

Josiah shook his head. "He's staying with JD. Wants to make sure the boy is healing all right." He looked around. "Have you heard anything from Vin?"

"No," Chris replied shortly. "Let's go."

He mounted his black gelding, then waited until Ezra and Josiah did the same. Chris angled his hat brim lower on his forehead. "If Vin doesn't show up by tomorrow afternoon, we'll ride into town and look for him."

Ezra's lips tipped upward and his green eyes twinkled. "Shall we attend to our devoir?"

Chris frowned and glanced at Josiah questioningly.

Josiah shrugged a broad shoulder. "I hope it means our job, because if it doesn't, I don't want to know."

Chris chuckled, alleviating some of the tension that had settled in a knot between his shoulder blades, then raised his hand and led them away from the ranch. An hour later they arrived at the fence and found four other Double J men there to greet them. Darkness blanketed the earth with only the silvery light of a half moon casting dappled shadows on the ground.

"Larabee," Fuller said with a nod. He introduced the Double J men to them. "Each of us can take our men and follow the fence in opposite directions. There's three other men about five miles down on each side - you'll meet with them in the middle then turn around and come back the same way. Any questions?"

Chris shook his head.

"Good," Fuller said. "You and your boys follow it north. We'll go south."

Chris listened to a small animal scuttle across some rocks. There was a flutter of an owl's wings then the high-pitched squeal of a rabbit. Prey and predator - a fact of life in the animal world and sadly, in the world of humans, too.

He chased his gloomy thoughts aside and gave his horse a light tap with his heels. Keeping his senses alert, Chris became the predator.

Vin hunkered down beside Lomax who kept casting him hostile glances in between watching for outriders along the fence line. They had settled on a rise overlooking the barbed wire where they had a bird's eye view. Vin's stomach burned as he wondered what Mangus and his band of cutthroats had in mind.

A few minutes later, three riders came into view. The solid black clothing that matched one rider's big black gelding made Vin's breath catch in his throat - Chris. And it looked like Ezra and Josiah were with him. Vin fought the urge to stand up and shout at them to find cover. If he did that, all of them would be dead. No, he had to wait to see what Mangus had in mind.

Lomax raised his rifle and sighted in on Chris. Vin put a hand on the barrel, forcing it down. "Mangus hasn't given us any orders yet," he hissed.

"I'm about to," Mangus said from behind them. "You ready to start earning your pay, Tanner?"

Vin's heart stumbled in his chest. He had to do something or his friends would be cut down.

"Hold it," Mangus suddenly said. "We got company."

Vin followed Mangus's gaze and spotted a small group of men approaching Chris, Ezra, and Josiah from the opposite direction.

"There's too many of them," Mangus said in a low voice.

Vin breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief. That gave him some extra time to escape and warn the others.

"We'll have to hit them some other night." Mangus clapped Vin on the back. "Let's get back to camp."

Lomax followed Mangus, while Vin watched his friends for a few moments longer. Inexplicable loneliness surged through him. He should have stayed with them - that's where he belonged.

He turned and joined the outlaws.

Chris listened as Josiah and Ezra spoke with the three Double J hands for a few moments, but his sixth sense kicked in and his neck prickled. Someone was watching them - he could feel it. From beneath his lowered brim, he searched the silvery blue landscape, trying to pierce the darkness for whoever was out there.

"Chris." Josiah's voice broke his concentration. "Ready to ride back?"

The eerie sensation faded, leaving Chris feeling oddly bereft. "Yep."

The three men turned as one and retraced their trail following the barbed wire.

"Damnit, Buck, I want to get up and do it myself," JD growled.

"You heard Nathan. No movin' off this bed for at least another day," Buck said.

"But I got to use the privy."

"I'll help you with the chamberpot."

JD closed his eyes, exasperated by his watchdog. Amazingly enough, JD didn't feel too bad considering it was only three days ago that he'd been hurt. Contrary to what everyone had thought, most of his cuts were shallow enough that they'd already scabbed over. The few deeper ones still pained him, especially those Nathan had stitched together. But JD was tired of Buck and Nathan watching him like a hawk. Hell, even Chris had sat with him a couple hours that morning, his cool eyes not missing a single twitch.

JD threw back his blankets, intent on taking care of business himself. Buck's hand immediately gripped JD's arm.

"Now, JD-"

"Buck." The warning in JD's voice must have startled the older man because he backed off slightly. "I can do this myself."

Buck threw his arms in the air. "All right. If you're goin' to be as stubborn as a cross-eyed mule, go right ahead and fall on your face. See if I care."

"All right then," JD said and began to ease himself up. The pain caught him off-guard and rivers of fire streaked through the deepest injuries. He hissed in pain.

In spite of his supposed indifference, Buck was right there, easing him back down on the bed. "There - you believe me now?"

JD closed his eyes, fighting the bolts of lightning searing through him. "All right," he said, damning his weak voice. "We'll do it your way."

A few minutes later, Buck pushed the chamberpot under the bed and out of sight. "See now, that wasn't so bad, was it?"

Embarrassment burned almost as much as JD's injuries. "Shut up, Buck."

Buck covered his mouth with a hand, but JD could see the laughter dancing in his dark blue eyes. Dang, if that man didn't see the humor in everything!

As JD's chagrin and pain faded away, his thoughts took him to his companions. He'd seen all of them except Vin more than a couple times in the last day. Every time he asked someone about him, no one would give him a straight answer.

"Where's Vin?" JD asked softly.

Buck, seated in his chair once more, sat up a little straighter and his gaze flitted to the window. "He's around."

"Why are you and everybody else lying?" JD's heart leapt into his throat. "He ain't hurt or dead, is he?"

"Hold on now, kid. Don't you go jumpin' to half-assed conclusions. As far as we know, Vin's okay."

"What do you mean, 'as far as we know'?" The ball of dread grew in JD's stomach.

Buck leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs, then clasped his hands. "Do you know what Chris and the others did last night?"

JD shook his head.

"They patrolled that barbed wire fence for the Jordans," Buck explained.

"The wire I run into?"

Buck nodded, his expression somber. "Yeah. Guess the Jordans been having trouble with the grangers cutting it and they need men to guard it so what happened to you won't happen to no one else."

JD curled his right hand into a tight fist. "What I did was plumb stupid, Buck."

"What're you talkin' about?"

"Hell, I knew better than to go racin' across land I didn't know," JD confessed in a small voice. "Chris and the others must think I'm pretty stupid."

Buck's mouth dropped open. "Nobody thinks you're stupid, kid." He grinned. "Well, maybe when you get to tellin' your jokes." His voice grew somber. "Look, JD, it was all my fault."

"Your fault? How do you figure that?"

Buck raked a hand through his hair. "You told me that yourself yesterday when you woke up. I shoulda seen that devil wire."

JD stared at his friend a moment, then broke into laughter. "Geezus, Buck, you don't know everything, even though you think you do. If I blamed you, I didn't mean it. It comes down to me learnin' from my mistakes and this was a helluva one. Mrs. Jordan come up this morning and apologized about the wire. I don't blame her, Buck, or you, or anyone else for that matter. And if the guys want to patrol the wire, I don't mind. Fact is, I'd do it, too, if I was feelin' up to it."

Buck's expression lightened considerably and his eyes glimmered. "Thanks, kid." Then he flashed the famous Wilmington grin. "You hungry?"

"Starved," JD replied without hesitation.

"I'll run down and see if I can sweet talk Maria into makin' something for you." Buck jumped up and was gone in an instant.

JD crossed his arms carefully across his bandaged chest and scowled. "Just my luck Maria's beautiful and I ain't gonna be eatin' any time soon," he mumbled.

Suddenly JD realized Buck hadn't answered his question about Vin.

Chris, Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah dismounted in front of the liveliest saloon in Anders and wrapped their horses' reins loosely around a hitching post. Ezra ducked under the rail and joined the others on the boardwalk. By unspoken agreement, they entered the Tin Bucket and strolled to the bar. Chris noticed the attention they garnered, but ignored it.

"Whiskey," Chris said.

His three companions motioned for the same. As Chris searched the room for a familiar face, Ezra moved toward a poker table. Chris shook his head tolerantly - get Ezra anywhere near a deck of cards and it was like a duck taking to water. He turned to the bartender. "We're looking for a friend of ours. Long hair, wears a leather jacket, fringe on the shoulders, and a sawed-off carbine on his leg. Seen him?"

The round-faced man shook his head. "Sorry, mister. Ain't seen anyone like that."

Chris nodded his thanks. "Let's go check out the rest of this one-horse town." As they passed the poker table where Ezra stood, Chris slapped his arm. "C'mon, Ezra. We got work to do."

With only a small sigh, Ezra touched the brim of his hat to the poker players and followed his friends out of the smoky saloon.

The four men stood on the boardwalk, looking up and down the main thoroughfare. "Josiah, Nathan take the other side of the street. Me and Ezra'll take this side. Meet back here when you're done."

An hour later, they met at the appointed place.

"A lady at the restaurant said she seen him yesterday morning - he had breakfast there," Nathan reported.

"Good. At least we know he was here," Chris said.

A man wearing a lawman's star on his chest approached them. "Mornin' gents."

"Mornin'," Chris returned the greeting. He sized up the sheriff in a moment - this lawman had never faced anyone more dangerous than a boisterous drunk.

"I hear you men are lookin' for someone," the lawman said.

"That's right," Chris replied. "He was here yesterday morning but no one's seen him since."

"He got a name?"

Chris glanced at his companions and caught their wariness. He couldn't very well give Vin's name since he was wanted for murder in this territory. "Joe Jacobs."

The sheriff puckered his brow. "Never heard of him. Why you lookin' for him?"

"He's my kin. Wanted to let him know his ma died," Chris lied smoothly.

"What's he look like? I can keep an eye out for him."

Chris wasn't sure he wanted to give the man Vin's description, but then the sheriff didn't seem overly bright. He described Vin.

"It's a shame about his ma," the sheriff said with a shake of his head. "My own folks died a couple years ago."

"Sorry to hear that," Nathan offered sympathetically.

"Thanks. I'd best get back to work. Iffen I see your kin, I'll let him know you're lookin' for him."

"Obliged," Chris said.

The lawman strode away, whistling a nameless tune.

"Do you think that was wise?" Ezra asked.

"I'm not sure," Chris replied candidly. "All I know is we got a missing man and we don't know what happened to him."

Josiah glanced up at the setting sun. "There's many misfortunes that can befall a man on his own out here."

A chill slid down Chris's back as he met Josiah's somber gaze.

"What do we do now?" Nathan asked.

"Get back to the ranch, then go do our job. If Vin hasn't shown up by tomorrow morning, I'm going to do a little scouting around," Chris said.

The four men mounted up silently, each speculating about the fate of Vin. The unease in Chris's gut had grown into a full-blown fear - fear for Vin's life. He was certain Vin hadn't gone on to Tascosa - he'd given his word he wouldn't leave without saying good-bye to JD. And Vin Tanner was as good as his word.

Clouds blanketed the stars and moon, allowing little light to alleviate the night's darkness. Trees and rocks were barely discernible and Chris wondered how they'd see anyone cutting the fence unless they were right on top of them. He glanced to his right to see Ezra's dark form riding about ten feet away. On the other side of the fence, he knew Josiah and Nathan mirrored their path.

"'Sham'st thou to show thy dangerous brow by night, when evils are most free?'" Ezra quoted.

Chris looked over at him. "Shakespeare?"

"That's correct," Ezra said, surprise in his voice. "How are you acquainted with the Bard?"

Chris shrugged. "Ma always made sure we had books around to read and not just the Bible, though I did my share of readin' that, too."

"You astound me, Mister Larabee. I had assumed a man of your ilk wouldn't know the difference between the Bard and Mark Twain."

"What's a man of my 'ilk' anyhow?" Chris asked, humor in his voice.

Ezra's smile flashed pale white in the darkness. "Perhaps I should have said a man of your distinction."

Chris chuckled at Ezra's quick parry. That he felt this comfortable around the gambler was a miracle in itself. A year ago Chris wouldn't have given a plug nickel for Ezra's life. Now, Ezra was as intertwined in his life as the other five men.

Faint gunshots caused Chris to tug back on his gelding's reins. The shots came from behind them and he wheeled his horse around. "Let's ride," he shouted to his three companions.

Riding as fast as they dared in the black night, it took them nearly five minutes to make it to the site of the skirmish. Two riderless Double J horses milled about in the abrupt silence.

"Nathan, Josiah, find out how many men are hurt. Ezra, with me," Chris ordered.

Chris took off up the hill, the gambler right beside him. As they neared the crest, the sound of hoofbeats told them the ambushers were escaping. He and Ezra shrank back into the shadows. A hundred feet away he saw the horsemen ride past. One of the riders in the middle captured his attention. He recognized the familiar silhouette and his fingers tightened into fists. Vin. And it looked like he was riding with the grangers.

Sonuvabitch. No wonder Vin hadn't returned to the Double J - he'd hooked up with the other side. Betrayal made Chris clench his jaw and his heart kicked his ribs. If he hadn't seen Vin himself, he wouldn't have believed the ex-bounty hunter would go against them like that. He knew Vin didn't like the barbed wire, but to do something like this...

"Was that Vin?" Ezra asked in a low, shocked voice.

Chris nodded curtly. "Yep."

"Perhaps he is merely pretending to be on their side," Ezra said.

"Vin didn't make no secret of his dislike for the wire."

"But to ambush men under the cover of darkness doesn't seem like Mister Tanner's style."

"No, it don't." Chris swallowed hard. Had Vin turned against them for the sake of the land? It didn't seem likely since he'd said more than once that human lives were more important than a piece of ground. But the fact is, he and Ezra had seen him with the enemy. He looked at Ezra. "We don't know what's going on with him anymore. If it comes down to us against them, Vin is one of 'them.'"

Ezra fingered the leather reins. "It doesn't seem possible that Mister Tanner would vacillate his loyalties so hastily."

"You saw the same as me. What the hell do you think is goin' on?" Chris demanded, anger and disgust making him abrupt.

Ezra was silent for a long moment. He shook his head. "I cannot fathom a plausible reason. However, I don't believe that Vin would do something so nefarious."

Chris squeezed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, trying to stem the whirling maelstrom of betrayal and fury at Vin's action. All he knew about Vin told him he wouldn't have done this. The only problem was Chris had seen it with his own eyes.

Chris reined his horse around and he and Ezra rode cautiously through the darkness. They joined Josiah and Nathan, who was wrapping a bandanna around a man's arm.

"How many hurt?" Chris asked.

"Only one," Nathan replied.

"All the shots we heard, I thought there'd be more," Chris said.

"Did you find something?" Josiah asked.

"We saw eight riders - they must work for the grangers." Chris paused a moment and stared off into the distant inkiness. "Vin was with them," he added, his voice husky.

"He's a man of strong convictions," Josiah remarked calmly.

"Too damned strong," Chris murmured. "He's gone over to the enemy's camp."

"We don't know that for certain," Ezra spoke up. "Maybe he has infiltrated their camp in the hopes he can allay more violence."

Nathan shook his head sadly. "If that's so, it ain't workin'."

"I'm not so sure about that," Josiah said. "Eight men ambush three other men and only one is hurt. Seems kinda odd, doesn't it?"

Chris narrowed his gaze. "What're you gettin' at Josiah?"

The preacher rubbed his jaw. "I'm not sure, Chris. Something just doesn't seem right here."

Chris stood in his stirrups to stretch his legs. "Yeah, and that something is Vin. We don't know which side he's on right now." He stared off in the direction the bushwackers had ridden. Chris would come back when it was light and try to trail them - maybe he'd find some of the answers he sought. Chris brought his attention back to the wounded man. "Nathan, take him back to the ranch. I doubt the grangers'll try anything more tonight, but the rest of us will keep on patrollin' until dawn."

Chris glanced at Ezra and caught his troubled expression. "We'll get to this bottom of this, Ezra," Chris said softly. "Then we'll know for certain."

Vin's mind registered the sound of Mangus's backhanded slap a split second after the force of the blow knocked him to the ground. Vin's cheek and mouth burned and the coppery taste of blood filled his mouth. He scrambled to his feet, rage fueling his momentum.

"I wouldn't, Tanner," Lomax warned, his revolver aimed at Vin's chest.

Vin halted immediately and stared at Lomax a moment, then shifted his gaze to Mangus. He spat blood to the ground and hoped he hadn't lost a tooth. "What the hell was that about?"

Mangus shook his head. "You disappointed me, Tanner."

"What the hell are you talkin' about?"

"You shot before I gave the order," Mangus said. "And then you missed what you were aiming at."

Vin's heart thundered in his chest. Had Mangus guessed that his shot had been intentionally high to warn the Double J riders? "I thought you wanted me to show you I could do the job."

Mangus stepped closer to Vin and their boot toes nearly touched. "You didn't follow my orders. Every man who works for me either does what I tell him or he's dead. Which do you want to be?"

Vin drew the back of his hand along his mouth to wipe the blood from his lips. "Damnit, Mangus, I thought I was doin' what you wanted. You said we was goin' ambush them, and that's what I did."

Mangus studied him for a long moment and Vin forced himself to hold the man's gaze. Finally, the leader nodded. "All right, Tanner. I'll give you another chance, but if you mess up again, it'll be the last thing you ever do. Comprende?"

"Oh, yeah, I comprende all right." Vin stuck as much contempt in his tone as he dared.

"We're gonna lay low for a few days until they get comfortable again, then we'll pick the time and place," Mangus said. He stared hard at Vin. "And next time, we're not going to leave any survivors." The outlaw strode away to the campfire.

A chill shimmied down Vin's back. Mangus was cold-blooded enough to do just that, too. At least Vin had gained some time to plot an escape and get back to the Double J to warn the others.

Lomax holstered his revolver and stepped up to Vin. "If Mangus don't take care of you, I will. Course I might not wait for a reason neither."

Vin watched Lomax join the deadly gunmen. Had the farmers really hired these cutthroats to get rid of the wire and the Jordans? Most farmers Vin had seen were poor folks just trying to make a go of it and rarely had enough money to make ends meet. If they had hired Mangus and the rest of these outlaws, where had they gotten the money to payroll them?

Vin moved off to the creek and rinsed his mouth. The cold water against the cut on the inside of his cheek made him mutter a curse. The epithet, however, was directed more at his foolhardiness than the pain. He'd corralled himself right into a box canyon with no way out.

What would Chris say if he knew how stupid Vin had been getting into this mess?

"He's done some stupid things before, but this one just about tops it," Chris said with a shake of his head.

Buck, riding beside Chris, nodded. "You don't believe he's gone over, do you?"

"You tell me."

"You're the one who knows him best."

Chris sidled a glance at his companion. "My gut tells me no, but I keep rememberin' how he left us when we were with that wagon train."

Buck waved a negligent hand. "You can't judge him by that - hell, he wasn't exactly thinkin' with his head."

Chris allowed a slight smile. "Guess you got a point there."

"Have you told Mrs. Jordan about Vin?"

"Nope, and I don't plan to neither."

Puzzled, Buck tipped his head in question. "Don't she have a right to know?"

Chris shook his head. "No she don't. We ain't even sure whose side he's on yet."

Buck clenched his jaw and rode beside Chris in silence, following the easily discernible trail the ambushers had left last night. After Chris had gotten a few hours of sleep, Buck had volunteered to help him try to track the gunmen to their hideout.

"Why'd you come with me?" Chris asked. "I didn't think you wanted anything to do with this wire."

Buck shrugged, not quite understanding the reasons himself. "Me and JD had a talk yesterday. He kinda opened my eyes some."

"What'd he use - a crowbar?"

Buck shot him an irrepressible smile. "Nope, just the plain old truth. Y'know, that kid's gettin' downright scary sometimes, Chris."

"How so?"

"He's gettin' to sound more and more like you." He gazed at his old friend fondly.

Startled, Chris searched Buck's familiar face for a sign of teasing, but he didn't spot any. He turned his gaze ahead as his throat constricted. Though Chris was often irritated by JD's enthusiasm and lack of common sense when it came to guns and gunfights, he felt an odd sense of humility that the boy would look up to him so much. Lord knew, Chris didn't deserve JD's idolatry. Chris had done too many things in his life that were less-than-admirable.

Buck slapped his shoulder. "Don't worry about it, pard. I'm makin' sure JD don't turn out like a stick-in-the-mud like you."

Chris chuckled. "Thanks, Buck. I'm sure JD will appreciate that."

The horses' hooves clicked on solid rock and the two men drew their mounts to a halt. Chris looked down and swore. "No more tracks."

Buck narrowed his eyes and cast his gaze across the desolate land. "I'll head off that way to scout around."

Chris nodded and set out in the opposite direction. After a fruitless hour of examining the ground all around the large slab of rock, he came up empty. He met Buck back on the rocky base.

Buck removed his hat and thrust his fingers through his hair, leaving strands sticking out in all directions. "Not a sign."

"Same," Chris said. "That does it - we ain't gonna find Vin unless he wants to be found."

"JD's been askin' about Vin," Buck said quietly.

"What'd you tell him?"

"Nothin'." He smiled, a shadow of his usual grin. "I don't know how much longer I can keep it from him, though."

Chris took a deep breath. "I'll tell him."

"You sure about that?"

Chris nodded. "Yeah." He turned to meet Buck's gaze. "Vin promised he'd say bye to JD before he left. I got to believe that Vin's gonna keep to his word."

Buck's brow creased. "Left for where?"

"Tascosa. He's thinkin' on goin' the rest of the way by himself."

Buck cursed. "Now that's a damn fool thing to do."

"Yep. But you know Vin - once he gets something in his head, it takes dynamite to get it out." Chris sighed. "I was hopin' to talk him out of it, but now I don't even know what's goin' on inside that thick skull of his."

"Maybe Ezra's right - maybe he's workin' on the inside to help us."

"Then why didn't he let us know?" Chris demanded. He brushed a hand across his black gelding's neck. "I just don't know, Buck," he added softly, not even bothering to hide his exhaustion and apprehension from his old friend.

Buck resisted the urge to lay a comforting hand on Chris's arm. Though Buck liked Vin, sometimes the man was a complete mystery to him. Buck didn't like to admit it, but the soft-spoken man turned just as many women's heads as Buck himself did. But did Vin do anything about it? Shoot no. It was like the man was made of stone - he was a bit like Chris Larabee that way, though even Chris didn't often turn away a willing woman.

"We should head back," Chris broke the silence.

"You don't want to look around?"

Chris shook his head. "We could spend days searchin' every canyon and ravine in this area and we still wouldn't find them. Looks like we're just gonna have to be extra careful on patrol."

"I'll be joinin' you tonight," Buck said.

Chris arched an eyebrow.

"I'd feel godawful bad if somethin' happened to all of you while I was tucked into my bed all safe and sound," Buck answered the unspoken question.

"What about JD?"

"Nathan says he's healin' fine and he can start movin' around on his own some. Besides, Mrs. Jordan said she'd keep an eye on him if we wanted."

Chris urged his horse into a walk and Buck followed. As they traveled, Chris asked, "So what do you think of Mrs. Jordan?"

"She's a fine lady. They don't come much better."

"Vin said I was blinded by her fancy airs. You think he was right?"

Buck crossed his wrists and rested them on the saddlehorn. "What I think is Vin was the one blinded - by his hatred for the wire."

"What if the grangers ain't behind the fence cutting?" Chris asked, his voice pitched low.

Buck blinked. "If it ain't them, who would it be?"

Chris shrugged. "I don't know, but somethin' Vin said about it maybe bein' someone else kinda stuck in my craw."

"What if he found out it was someone else?"

In spite of the heat of the day, a shiver passed through Chris. "That someone else may figure he knows too much."

"But how does that explain him bein' with the gunmen last night?"

"I haven't figgered that out yet, but I will."

Buck pressed his lips together at the iciness in Chris's voice. Sometimes Chris scared the hell out of him and this was one of those times.

"Is there anything I can get you?"

JD glanced up from his book to see Mrs. Jordan framed in the doorway. "Ah, no ma'am, I'm all right."

She crossed her arms and leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb. "How are you feeling?"

"A lot better. Nathan said I can get out of this dangblasted bed tomorrow." His cheeks flamed with embarrassment. "Not that this is a bad bed or anything, but--"

Mrs. Jordan smiled and held up a hand to stop him. "I understand completely. About ten years ago I hurt my back and had to lie in bed for three months. They were the longest three months of my life."

Relieved that she wasn't insulted, JD nodded. "I don't know how you did it, ma'am. I've only been here four days and I feel like I'm going loco."

Mrs. Jordan entered the room. "Mind if I sit down and visit for a few minutes?"

"Go right ahead." JD pushed himself a little further up in the bed and Mrs. Jordan adjusted the pillows behind him. "Thanks."

She seated herself in the nearby rocker. "I'm curious about you seven men."

JD blinked, startled. "Why's that?"

She shrugged. "It's not very often we see such a large group traveling together unless they're outlaws."

JD shook his head vehemently. "We're not outlaws, ma'am. Fact is, I used to be a sheriff." He smiled self-consciously. "Well, sort of. Me and the others was hired by a judge to watch over a town for a time."

"All seven of you?"

"Yep, and believe me, that town needed all of us."

Mrs. Jordan's blue eyes twinkled. "Sounds like it was quite a wild place."

"Yes, ma'am, it was. We pretty much tamed it, then decided to move on," JD said proudly.

"So why did you come down this way?"

JD wasn't about to tell her about Vin and the reward on his head. "We just followed the road south and ended up down here. I didn't mind - I figure on becoming a Ranger someday."

"That's a lofty goal. I know some Rangers - good men, but hard." She studied him a moment. "I'm not sure I can picture you as one."

"Oh, I will be. You just wait and see if I don't."

Mrs. Jordan smiled. "I have a feeling you can do pretty much anything you put your mind to, JD."

"Yes, ma'am. Buck and the others have taught me a lot - more'n I ever expected to learn out here."

"They're good friends, then?"

JD grinned. "The best, ma'am."

"Then maybe you can tell me why Mr. Tanner left and hasn't come back to visit you?"

JD felt the blood leave his face. "What?"

"They haven't told you?"

"Told me what?" JD demanded.

"Your friend Mr. Tanner left the first night you were here. No one's seen a sign of him since."

JD's heart slipped into his throat. "Are you sure?"

Mrs. Jordan nodded. "I'm afraid so. I guess Mr. Tanner isn't the good friend you thought he was."

JD shook his head. "No. I don't believe it. Vin wouldn't leave without sayin' good-bye, specially since we come down here--" He broke off, startled that he almost allowed their secret to slip.

Mrs. Jordan's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"

"Nothin', ma'am. I'm just a little worried is all. Do the others think something happened to him?"

"I don't know. No one will talk about him."

JD's stomach muscles clenched. No one had talked to him about Vin either. Why? Had something happened to Vin? Were they sparing JD because they thought he wasn't strong enough yet?

"Has everyone gone to patrol the fence line?" JD asked.

Mrs. Jordan nodded. "They left about half an hour ago."

JD's gaze strayed to the dark beyond the window. He ached to be out there with them instead of here, missing out on the action. JD missed riding alongside the friends he idolized. Of course, if they knew how much he looked up to each of them, Buck would never let him live it down.

"You want to be with them." Mrs. Jordan's gentle voice broke into JD's musings.

He brought his attention back to her, embarrassed that she'd read his thoughts so easily. "Can't very well do that until I'm all healed."

"I suppose not." Her face became pensive. "I sometimes wish my son could be more like you and your friends."

JD frowned. "What do you mean?"

She shrugged and the lines in her face seemed to deepen. "Sometimes I get the impression Justin is more loyal to a deck of cards than this ranch."

"I don't understand."

Mrs. Jordan sighed. "I'm sorry, JD. I'm merely tired and when I'm tired I say foolish things." She stood. "You should get some rest now."

"No offense, ma'am, but all I been doin' is sleepin'."

"And look how quickly you're healing." She walked to the door and paused. "I wouldn't worry about your friends, including Mr. Tanner. I have a feeling they can take care of themselves. Good night."

"Good night," JD echoed as she left his room.

He wasn't certain he agreed with her. In the past few months since they left Four Corners, it seemed as if they'd been plagued by more mishaps than the whole time they'd been in town. His accident with the barbed wire was only one more incident to add to the growing list.

Was Vin's disappearance the latest?

After a fitful night's sleep, JD lay staring at the ceiling of his bedroom. It was just past sunrise and already he was bored. If he had to spend another day in this bed, he was going to do something drastic. He wasn't sure what yet, but if Buck and Nathan thought he was going to lie around like some damned invalid, they had another thing coming.

He heard the sound of hoofbeats coming into the ranch yard, and he sat up straighter to see out the window. He spied Chris, then Buck, Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan ride in. It didn't surprise JD that Vin wasn't with them.

JD almost felt sorry for the next member of the Seven who walked in his room. JD wasn't going to let him out until he got some straight answers about Vin. Forcing himself to remain patient, JD began to count the painted leaves on the wallpaper, but after one hundred and forty-seven, he gave up.

Footsteps with the unmistakable sound of jingling spurs - either Chris or Buck's - caught JD's attention. A moment later, Chris Larabee's black-clothed figure filled the doorway. There was a weariness in his posture and creases in his brow that hadn't been there a couple days ago. For the first time JD could remember, Chris didn't appear invincible. He only looked...tired.

"Mornin' JD," Chris greeted. His lips formed a smile that didn't touch his eyes and JD's unease grew.

"How was the patrol?"

"Quiet," Chris replied as he removed his hat. He moved to the rocking chair and sank into it with a weary sigh. "How're you feelin'?"

"Like I'm goin' to go crazy," JD said with more force than he'd intended.

"Gettin' cabin fever already?" Chris asked with a crooked grin.

JD knew his face reddened - he wasn't accustomed to Chris's teasing. "Yeah, I guess." He met the older man's blue eyes. "Where's Vin?" JD spied the trepidation in his eyes before he could hide it. "Has something happened to him?"

Chris scrubbed his face with his palms. "I wish I knew, JD."

"Mrs. Jordan said he left the first night we were here."

Chris glanced sharply at him. "When did she tell you that?"

"Last night. Why didn't any of you tell me?" JD couldn't hide his disappointed hurt.

"Truth be told, we didn't know what to tell you," Chris said softly. "Vin left because we agreed to patrol the barbed wire for the Jordans. He said the wire shouldn't be there for folks like you to get hurt. He was pretty mad about it."

JD wasn't certain how he should feel. It warmed JD to know Vin would be that concerned about him, but he didn't think it was right for Vin to leave. "Where'd he go?"

Chris shrugged. "That's what we've been trying to figure out." He leaned forward, his forearms braced on his dusty black thighs. "Me and Ezra saw him a couple nights ago. He was ridin' with the bunch that ambushed some of Jordan's men who were guarding the fence, too."

JD tried to swallow, but his mouth had gone bone dry. "Vin wouldn't go against us."

"I wish I could be as certain as you, kid."

Anger filled JD. "You should be more certain. Vin's your friend - you should know he wouldn't raise his gun to you."

"I want to believe that, JD, but we haven't heard from him since the night he left. And he was damned mad then."

"All of us have been mad at one time or 'nother, but none of us have gone against each other. You know how Vin is - he'll lose his temper and a little later he'll be cooled down again. He just got to have some time to think things through."

"Yeah, I know, but that doesn't explain why he's with them gunmen or why he hasn't tried to get a hold of us."

JD wanted to argue for Vin, but Chris had a good point. "What's gonna happen to him?"

Chris shrugged. "I guess that all depends on whose side he's actually on when the dust settles."

"You expectin' more trouble?"

"Yep. I just wish I knew when and where they were going to hit next."

"Maybe they seen all of you workin' for Jordans now and decided not to try anything else."

Chris smiled faintly. "I wouldn't bet on it."

JD sat up straighter and pain jabbed through him. He lay back against the pillows, cursing the damn cuts.

"You okay, JD?" Chris asked in concern.

"Yeah, just fine," he said curtly. "Damnit, Chris, I hate bein' so helpless."

"Nobody likes it, kid." Chris stood. "The important thing is for you to heal some before we head out."

"To where?" JD asked plaintively.

"I'm hopin' Tascosa." He settled his hand gently on JD's shoulder. "After I get some rest, I'll come by and see how you're doin'." He strode to the door.

"Chris."

The blonde man halted and looked back at JD.

"If you find out anything about Vin, I want to know right away," JD stated.

Chris stared at him a moment, then nodded. "You got my word."

JD listened to the jingle of spurs fade with Chris's departure and his sense of helplessness expanded. Vin had turned against them? No, JD couldn't believe it. Vin was loyal to a fault and had risked his life too often for all of them. Why couldn't Chris recognize what JD could see so clearly? Or was this another case of JD being too naïve?

Troubled thoughts clouded JD's mind. Every bone in his body told him Vin could be trusted, but if Chris didn't trust Vin anymore, how could JD?

He fisted a hand and struck the mattress. Damn my foolishness for getting everyone into this mess! If I hadn't gotten wrapped up in the wire, they wouldn't have ended up in the middle of this range war. And Vin would still be riding with us.

Moisture filled his eyes and anger rushed through him like the white waters of a fast flowing river. Would he ultimately cause the Seven to break up? He remembered what it was like when that marshal had come to town. JD had watched everyone but Buck ride away in separate directions and JD's heart had nearly splintered with the loss. Would it happen again, only this time forever?

Josiah stood at the back of the small church trying not to fidget as he readied himself for the service he was about to conduct. Mrs. Jordan, accompanied by her son Justin, entered and he smiled.

"Good morning," Josiah greeted, shaking Justin's hand.

"And a beautiful morning it is, too, Mr. Sanchez. The Lord has smiled down upon all of us," Mrs. Jordan said.

Josiah's apprehension faded. "I do believe you're right, Mrs. Jordan."

She glanced around at the seats that were nearly filled with Double J hands and a few families. "It seems you'll have a full house."

"I hope I don't disappoint them," Josiah said.

Mrs. Jordan laid a gloved hand on Josiah's arm. "I don't think that's possible."

Justin led his mother to a front pew as Chris, Buck, Ezra, and Nathan entered the church. Each one had cleaned up and donned fresh clothes. Their presence surprised Josiah, but he was gratified they had come.

"If you gentlemen will find a place to sit, I'll start the service," Josiah said, his eyes twinkling.

Buck and Nathan walked toward the front unselfconsciously, but Chris and Ezra remained standing at the back.

"If you don't mind, I would prefer to tarry here," Ezra said, his green eyes darting about nervously.

"I'll stay with Ezra," Chris said quietly. "I ain't so sure God wants me in His house."

Josiah's chest tightened and he laid a hand on Chris's shoulder. "He does, Chris. He does."

Josiah walked to the front of the small chapel and began the service with "Amazing Grace." During the sermon, he preached about greed and sloth and how what each person sows he reaps. He noticed Chris and Ezra listening closely, though Ezra looked away every time Josiah's gaze met his. Josiah also noticed how intently Mrs. Jordan listened, though Justin appeared to be sleeping through most of the homily.

At the end of the service, Josiah shook hands with folks as they left. Everyone thanked him for sharing the Word and expressed their hopes that he'd return. Mrs. Jordan and her son were the last to depart.

"Thank you so much, Mr. Sanchez. I can't tell you how much it means to me to have you preach in here. My husband built this a year after we moved here. He always said we should give what we can back to Him for the blessings we receive," Mrs. Jordan said softly, her voice emotion-laden.

"Thank you, Mrs. Jordan. The honor was all mine," Josiah said.

"That was an interesting sermon you gave," Justin commented.

Josiah crossed his arms. "In what way?"

"The topic - greed and sloth. Why those?"

"Why not? We can all use a reminder now and again about the sins of excess." He smiled to ease the tension he sensed emanating from Justin. "Even myself."

"Are you sure you weren't editorializing the differences we have with the grangers?"

Josiah shook his head. "That's between you and your Maker. I only spoke in generalities and in the voice of conscience."

"Do you think we're wrong?" Mrs. Jordan suddenly asked, her gaze drilling into Josiah.

"It isn't for me to decide. That's up to someone a lot more powerful than myself."

"You didn't answer my question."

Josiah narrowed his eyes. "Yes, I did."

She studied him a moment before nodding. "I suppose you're right. Trying to do the right thing all the time has become a challenge unto itself. Sometimes I wonder if it's worth it, then I look at Justin and know that what Tom and I created is a legacy for our son and his children."

A shadow of a frown touched Justin's lips.

"Provided the son feels it's a legacy and not a millstone," Josiah said, watching the younger man closely.

Mrs. Jordan glanced in puzzlement at Justin. "Why in the world would it be a millstone?"

Justin smiled and patted the back of his mother's hand. "It's not, Mother. Mr. Sanchez is doing what preachers do best - casting out nets."

The woman eyed Josiah silently for a moment, then smiled. "Thank you again, Mr. Sanchez."

"It was my pleasure, ma'am," Josiah said.

The Jordans left and Josiah went to put out the candles at the front of the church, then he retrieved his hat and departed the peace of the Lord's house. Something told Josiah this would be the last peace he'd experience until the dispute was resolved.

The next couple days passed slowly for Vin. He was watched like a hawk with no chance to escape. The inactivity wore on his nerves, but he wasn't the only one. A couple fisticuffs had erupted between the rough gunmen and Mangus had given them an ultimatum - no more fighting or leave. As simple as that. Vin had a feeling, however, that if he picked a fight, his only option would be a bullet where it did the most damage.

So he stayed to himself, willing the time to move more swiftly, but at the same time knowing he was running out of time. The third day after the ambush on the Double J fence riders, Mangus left the camp after a word with Lomax. Vin itched to follow the leader. One look at Lomax, however, dispelled that notion. The killer eyed him like a snake staring at a mouse.

Vin had an idea Mangus was meeting with the man who paid this band of murderers and he chafed at the inability to learn who was behind all the trouble. The more Vin thought about it, the more he was convinced it wasn't the farmers. If it wasn't them, who had the most to gain? He discarded the Jordans - they wouldn't be cutting their own wire. Who then?

"Tanner," Lomax called.

Vin rose from his perch on a log and approached the weasly man. "What?"

"A few of the boys are goin' for supplies - you wanna ride with?"

Startled, Vin studied the man's close-set eyes. What was his game? "You suddenly start trustin' me?"

Lomax's laughter sounded like a mule's bray. "I ain't ever gonna trust you, Tanner, but Mangus figgered you might like to go into town."

This might be the break he needed if he ran into Chris or one of the others. "A beer does sound mighty good."

"You'll be ridin' with Hobbs, Tate, and Black Jack." Lomax aimed a dirt-encrusted finger at him. "You try anything and any one of them'll cut you down."

"Don't worry. I'm on your side," Vin reassured, hoping he did a convincing job.

"Right." Lomax's tone told Vin otherwise.

Vin and the three outlaws saddled their horses, mounted up and headed into town. As they rode, Vin studied the surrounding land, but nothing moved in the hot stillness and their journey was uneventful. Once in Anders, the four men stopped in front of the nearest saloon. Vin held back, hoping they wouldn't notice, but Tate grabbed his arm.

"C'mon, Tanner. Lomax told us not to let you out of our sight," Tate growled.

Vin smiled thinly. "Ain't that nice." He allowed Tate to tug him into the dim saloon. "You buyin' me a drink?"

Tate scowled and released his grip on Vin's arm. "Go to hell." Tate strode to the bar.

Vin grinned at his back and murmured, "After you."

With a sigh of resignation, Vin joined the ragtag group and ordered a beer. As he sipped the lukewarm drink, he leaned against the bar and studied the saloon's inhabitants. Four men played poker at a rickety table and for a moment, Vin pictured Ezra cleaning them out. It'd been nearly a week since he'd seen his companions and he wondered how JD was faring. Vin hated this not knowing.

The batwing doors were pushed open by a stocky man wearing a sheriff's badge and Vin tensed. The lawman stood in the doorway a moment, sending his gaze across the room. When the sheriff spotted Vin, his brows furrowed, and he strode straight toward him. Alarm tingled down Vin's spine.

"You must be Joe Jacobs," the lawman said.

Startled, Vin shook his head. "You got me mixed up with someone else."

The man tried to suck in his belly. "I doubt it. You're the only man I ever seen with one of them things." He pointed at Vin's mare's leg. "Your kin was in town a few days ago askin' about you."

Confused, Vin asked, "My kin?"

"Yep. A feller wearing black with a tied-down rig. Said," the sheriff paused and he seemed uncomfortable. "Said they was looking for you to tell you your ma died."

The man in black must have been Chris, but what was this about his ma dying? He sidled a glance at the three outlaws with him and noticed the suspicion in their faces. Vin had to get rid of the lawman before all hell broke loose. "Look, Sheriff, I ain't this Jacobs person and my ma's been dead for years."

The sheriff refused to let it go. "You fit his description to a T." Wariness slid across his face and his hand moved to his revolver. "You ain't hidin' something, are ya?"

Hobbs, Tate, and Black Jack moved around the sheriff in a close semi-circle.

"Maybe you'd best just be mindin' your own business, law dog," Hobbs taunted.

The sheriff's hand curled around his revolver butt.

Before Vin could move, Hobbs drew his own gun and fired in one smooth motion. The saloon erupted into scraping chairs as the sheriff collapsed to the floor, the sawdust lapping up the crimson blood that meandered through it.

Vin's eyes widened with shock and rage. "Why the hell'd you do that?"

Hobbs smiled with pure malice. "They can only hang a man once."

"C'mon," Black Jack broke in. "We need to get our supplies and get the hell out of here."

The three killers had their guns drawn and were covering the foot-shuffling men in the saloon. Would more people die before this nightmare was over?

Reluctantly, Vin followed the hired guns out the door, though he refused to remove his sawed-off carbine from its holster. Sickness rolled through him. He had hoped to curb the violence, but had only made it worse.

No one dared to confront them as they took what they needed from the mercantile, then mounted their horses and rode out of Anders. Vin turned in his saddle to look back at the silent town. He could almost see the black pall hanging over it.

Chris and Josiah rode to town in companionable silence. The midday sun had hit its zenith and was starting its descent across the blue sky that capped the barren land. A hint of sage teased Chris's nose, followed by the rotting scent of carrion. He glanced around to see the remains of a rabbit and knew the bones would be picked clean the next time he passed by. It was the way of the desert, the cycle of life and death. The strong fed upon the weak and enabled the strongest to live and bear young.

They entered Anders, surprised by the inactivity on the main street. The few times they'd come to town, there'd always been people about.

"I don't like this, Chris," Josiah said in a low voice.

Chris's sixth sense prodded him. "Yep. Something's wrong."

They dismounted and stepped on to the boardwalk. Four men came out of one of the saloons, carrying another man. Chris peered into the dead man's waxen face. It was the sheriff.

"What happened?" Chris demanded.

"Four men come to town and shot Sheriff Long," one of the men carrying the body replied.

Frowning, Chris entered the saloon with Josiah behind him. He immediately noticed the flies swarming around the fresh blood stain on the sawdust-covered floor. His skin tingled and fear rippled through him like water disturbed by a pebble.

Josiah turned to one of the loiterers. "Can you tell us what happened?"

The man bobbed his head and his adam's apple dipped up and down. "The sheriff was talkin' to these four gunmen when one of 'em pulls out a gun and shoots him dead."

"What did the gunmen look like?" Josiah pressed.

The witness scratched his bony chin. "The one who done shot him was wearin' an eyepatch. Another one was a big tall feller with cold black eyes. Then there was a long-haired feller with this sawed-off carbine on his leg. Don't remember much about the last one, though."

Chris looked at Josiah, finding his dread mirrored in Josiah's expression. Vin had been with the men who killed the sheriff.

"How long ago was this?" Josiah asked.

"No more'n twenty, thirty minutes." The man's lips thinned. "The bastards had the balls to stop at the store and get supplies afore they lit out."

"Which way did they go?" Chris demanded.

"South."

"Thanks," Josiah said, his voice even.

Turning, Chris and Josiah left the saloon and climbed back onto their horses. Without a word, they spurred the animals southward. They hoped to spot some sign of Vin and the gunmen, but after half an hour, Chris slowed his horse to a walk.

"We ain't gonna find them," Chris said flatly.

Josiah removed his hat and drew his forearm across his damp brow, but remained silent.

"Sonuvabitch. He's crossed the line, Josiah." Fury thrummed through Chris's words.

"We don't know--"

Chris tugged his reins sharply, stopping his horse. "What don't we know?" he shouted. "What kind of proof do you need?"

Josiah studied Chris, his expression unruffled. "Guilty until proven innocent? That doesn't sound like you, Chris. Especially since this is Vin we're talking about."

"Damnit, Josiah. I don't want to believe it, but it's starin' us in the face. Hell, Vin's slappin' us in the face with it."

"Listen to yourself, Chris. You've condemned Vin without hearing his side, something you wouldn't do to anyone else." Josiah's penetrating gaze unsettled Chris and the blond gunman looked away. "Tell me the real reason you're so angry."

Chris stared down the road, but his gaze was focused inward. He felt the stab of betrayal anew, the anger that Vin had left them behind when they needed one another to look out for each other. Vin had broken an unspoken vow to the group - especially Chris - when he'd left the ranch. It was that breach of trust that ate away at Chris's insides. He took a deep steadying breath. "He deserted us, Josiah. We come down here with him to help clear his name and he leaves us. Where the hell is his loyalty?"

Josiah pressed his lips together, then said quietly. "Tell me something, Chris. Where did you learn about loyalty?"

Chris thought for a moment and shrugged. "I suppose when I was growin' up."

"With your family?"

Chris nodded.

"What do you know about Vin's family?" Josiah continued.

"Not much. His ma died when he was a kid. Don't know anything about his pa and he don't have no brothers or sisters." Chris stared at Josiah as things began to fall into place. Comprehension punched the air from his lungs. "He don't know what it's like to belong."

Josiah smiled at Chris like the blonde man was his prize pupil. "That's right. He's been a loner most of his life and suddenly he has six loyal friends who won't leave him be - who are like family - and he's not quite sure how to handle it."

Chris shook his head. "And when we disagree on somethin', he takes to bein' a loner like he used to 'cause that's what he knows best."

"Only this time he got caught up in something he's not sure how to get out of, because I can't believe Vin has turned killer. That would be like a bear sprouting wings and flying."

The heavy mantle of anger slipped off Chris's shoulders, leaving him feeling less burdened than he'd been since Vin had ridden off. "You think his new 'friends' have figured him out yet?"

Josiah shook his head. "I think they're still trying to decide if they can trust him or not."

"As long as he can convince them he's on their side, he stays alive," Chris said softly, worry filling the void left by his departed anger.

"Yep. I'm also certain he'll be trying to warn us when he finds out what's planned against the ranch." Josiah brushed his mustache thoughtfully. "What do you think of Justin Jordan?"

"I'm not sure." Chris angled a glance at the big man. "What're you thinkin', Josiah?"

"I'm thinking that even though the Lord loves a mystery, I'm not real keen on them myself."

Chris waited for Josiah to elaborate, but he didn't. "We'd best head back to the ranch," Chris said. He paused a moment. "You really think Vin's on our side?"

Josiah smiled broadly. "As much as I believe the sun will rise tomorrow."

Chris's lips quirked upward. "That's what I call loyalty, Josiah."

"That's what I call faith."

Chris chuckled and the two men started back down the road. There may be a passel of unanswered questions regarding Vin, but Chris now knew Vin would have the answers when they got back together. And they'd be the right answers.

After unsaddling and grooming their horses, Chris and Josiah spotted their friends gathered on the wide porch. The two men walked across the dusty yard to join them. Chris wasn't looking forward to telling them about the sheriff and Vin being with the murderers, but they had a right to know. But they would also know that Chris still believed in Vin.

Laughter greeted Chris's ears as he and Josiah neared the verandah. Buck leaned against a post while Ezra sat in a chair beside a small table playing solitaire. Nathan sat on the top step not far from JD who was dressed and relaxing on the swing.

"Chris, Josiah, you're back!" JD's young face lit with a smile that damn near blinded Chris.

"How're you feeling son?" Josiah asked, none of the turmoil he had to be feeling in his low rumbling tone.

"Almost as good as new, but no one believes me," JD complained.

Chris met Buck's smiling visage and Buck's grin faded as he asked, "What's wrong?"

Chris removed his hat and slapped it against his thigh, raising a small cloud of dust. He should've known Buck would notice his agitation. Ever since they'd met twelve years ago, Chris had never been able to get anything past him. "The sheriff was murdered in town today." He paused and pushed his sweat-soaked tendrils back from his forehead. "Vin was with the man who did it."

Stunned silence gripped the men.

Buck sighed. "I guess that's it then."

Chris shook his head. "No, it's not. Vin didn't shoot that lawman and I--" He glanced at Josiah and drew strength from his steadfastness. "I believe Vin's still on our side."

JD appeared relieved, as did Ezra, though Buck and Nathan looked skeptical.

"How can you be so sure, Chris?" Nathan asked.

Chris shifted his attention to the healer. "Because I know Vin and I know he wouldn't turn against us." He held Nathan's gaze. "And if the men he's riding with figger out he's not with them, they're gonna kill him just like they done to the sheriff."

"Can't you get him away from them?" JD asked.

The boy's naiveté still surprised Chris sometimes. Chris shook his head. "We don't even know where to find them. Besides, I think Vin infiltrated their camp to get to the bottom of this mess."

The sun slanted under the porch eaves, creating long shadows of the men who gathered in somber silence. A hawk cried from its spiral flight high in the sky and a horse neighed in the corral. Maria's faint voice from the kitchen drifted out to their ears and the smell of cooking meat wafted between the men.

A sweat droplet rolled down Chris's back between his shoulder blades, giving him something to concentrate on rather than the helpless ache in his gut. It was the same helplessness he saw in each of his five companions' faces. They wanted to help Vin, but had no idea how.

The door opened and Mrs. Jordan stepped out, dressed in her usual trousers with a blouse, vest, and boots. Startled, she frowned slightly and joined the men, planting her gloved hands on her hips. "You all look like you lost your best friend."

They all looked away from the woman, and Chris knew it was because she'd hit too close to home.

"The sheriff was murdered in town today," Josiah said.

Mrs. Jordan's eyes widened and she covered her mouth with a hand. "What happened?"

Josiah told her, then added reluctantly, "our friend Vin Tanner was with them."

Wrath flashed in her blue eyes. "He'll hang right beside the man who pulled the trigger."

Chris brought his head up sharply. "No, he won't! He's not a murderer!"

A lesser person would have taken a few steps back from Chris's cold passion, but Mrs. Jordan was anything but weak. "Then you'd better find him before we do." She spun on her heel and strode back into the house.

"Sonuvabitch," Chris cursed loudly. "Tonight when we ride the line, I'll want two of you close to the fence, the other three will be fanning out to check out the ridges overlooking the fence. We can't wait for them to make the first move this time."

"I can ride with you," JD spoke up.

"No you can't," Nathan said firmly. "You do that and you'll be bleedin' all over again."

"Nathan's right, JD. You'll only slow us up," Chris said.

Chagrin flashed through the boy's eyes but Chris didn't apologize for his brevity. He didn't have time to soothe bruised feelings right now. "Let's go grab something to eat and get riding."

Everyone but Buck and JD followed Chris toward the larger bunkhouse where their supper would be about ready. Buck watched them stride away, purpose in every firm step.

"You listen to them, JD," Buck said quietly. "They're right and you know it."

JD, an arm wrapped around his waist, nodded. "I know, Buck, but I hate feelin' so damned useless."

"I know, kid. You just get better so when Vin comes back, we can be on our way."

JD's dark eyes studied Buck closely. "You really think he'll come back?"

Buck smiled in reassurance. "If Chris Larabee was bound and determined to bring me back, why I'd just give myself up right now." He paused a moment, his expression sobering. "Chris ain't gonna stop until we got Vin back."

JD nodded and Buck could see some of his apprehension melt away.

"I'll help you back upstairs," Buck said, leaving no room for argument.

Vin's insides hadn't settled down since Hobbs had murdered the sheriff. Vin wanted nothing more than to get on Sire and ride the hell away from this craziness. Except now he had to bring the killers to justice and stop the violence before any more people were killed.

What message was Chris trying to get to him? What did he mean about his ma dying? Was there a layered meaning to it?

Had he meant that JD had died? Vin closed his eyes to stave off a wave of nausea. He had promised to go back to Jordans to see JD and he hadn't. Maybe it was too late now.

No matter what, Vin had to make his move tonight. He'd already spent too much time with the bloodthirsty gang and all he had to show for it was his involvement in a sheriff's murder.

Lomax moved away from the evening campfire to join Vin. "You seem a mite nervous, Tanner," Lomax said with grotesque grin. "Could be you ain't as tough as you want us to think?"

Vin merely stared at him, afraid his rage and hatred would erupt if he answered the bastard.

"You get your last chance to show us what you're made of." Lomax narrowed his close-set eyes. "Mangus said we're hittin' the fence riders tonight."

Vin's heart missed a beat and he struggled to keep his face from betraying his turbulent thoughts. He glanced upward into the darkening sky where a few stars already glittered overhead. "Tonight's as good a night to die as any other."

"For them," Lomax added with an evil sneer.

Vin managed to smile even as he kept his hands clenched together to keep from strangling Lomax. "So we hit them tonight. Then what? We just gonna keep on doin' this thing half way?"

"Nope. Next time we're gonna chop the head off the snake."

"What do you mean?" Vin asked.

"Lomax. Your turn to cook," Mangus ordered as he came up behind them.

With a guilty look, Lomax nodded at the boss and left.

Mangus pulled the makings for a cigarette from his breastpocket. "Lomax told you about tonight?"

Vin nodded. "Yep. He also said we'd be cuttin' off the snake's head next." He lifted his eyebrows in question.

"Sometimes Lomax talks too much." Mangus paused and shook some tobacco from a leather drawstring pouch on to a square paper. "Not like you, Tanner. I admire that in a man."

"Then why tell him all your plans?"

Mangus shrugged indolently. He rolled the paper into a smooth cylinder then licked one edge to hold it together. "I've known him the longest. Of course, if someone offered him a hundred dollars to kill me, I have no doubt he'd do it."

Vin had never been able to understand how an outlaw's mind worked, and he still hadn't a clue. "You have any friends you can trust?"

Mangus thought for a moment, then shook his head. "Not since I was eighteen years old. That was when my best friend turned me in for robbing a stage."

"What happened?"

Mangus slipped the cigarette between his lips and struck a lucifer on his boot heel. He lit the cigarette and took a puff. "I killed him," he finally answered matter-of-factly.

Vin shuddered inwardly.

"I kill anyone who doublecrosses me," Mangus continued.

"I figgered," Vin said dryly.

"Can I trust you, Tanner?"

Vin's lungs felt tight and sweat slicked his palms, but he met Mangus's gaze steadily. "You can trust me as much as you trust Lomax or any of the others."

"Smart answer." Mangus spent a few moments merely smoking his cigarette and the red glow lent the man's face an even more menacing appearance. "We're hitting the Jordans' ranch house day after tomorrow, after the riders leave for the night."

"The grangers finally want this over?" Vin asked.

"The boss wants it over."

"Ain't they the same?"

Mangus smiled without warmth. "You know all you need to know for now. Let's see how you do tonight." He strolled off to join the outlaws.

Frustration knotted Vin's muscles. He had to prove himself or he wouldn't learn who the boss was, but that meant he'd have to hit what he aimed at tonight. Vin knew Mangus would be watching him closely to see if he held up his side of the bargain. Of course, Vin could try to slip away tonight before the ambush to warn Chris and the others. Vin knew the location of the hired guns' camp which would help even if they moved to another hideout.

Some sixth sense told Vin he had to get away soon before Mangus caught on to his deception. When Vin hooked up with his friends again, they would put an end to the fence war and bring the sheriff's murderer to justice.

With his mind made up, Vin joined the hired guns to eat supper. As Vin managed to swallow the nearly unpalatable food, he had another reason to be glad he was leaving the gang - he couldn't tolerate much more of Lomax's cooking.

Vin silently cursed Mangus for putting Lomax and Hobbs on either side of him. First as they'd traveled to their ambush point and then when they were lined up on the ridge. Vin couldn't get away with each man less than a yard away. He gripped his sawed-off carbine in his hands, but the familiar weapon felt awkward. It wasn't supposed to be used against his friends.

"I see someone comin'," Lomax hissed.

Vin squinted in the direction Lomax pointed. A man on a dark horse rode the ridge directly below them instead of the fence line.

"They're gettin' smarter," Hobbs commented, an odd admiration in his tone. "There's another one over on the other side ridin' high, too."

Vin followed Hobbs' gaze and moonlight glinted off a light-colored horse. The man's familiar posture in the saddle told Vin that rider was Buck. Vin scuttled his gaze back to the nearer horseman and recognized him, too. Chris. Vin's heart pressed into his throat.

Lomax aimed his rifle at Chris and murmured, "Just a few more feet, cowboy, and you're mine."

Vin didn't have time to think, but merely reacted. He shoved the butt of his mare's leg into Lomax's face. The outlaw roared in surprise and pain, but he managed to squeeze the trigger of the rifle. The shot exploded in Vin's ear and the sound of a squealing horse shattered the night's silence. Hobbs turned his revolver to Vin and a muzzle flash nearly blinded Vin. A burn creased his head, but he managed to swing his own weapon around and shot Hobbs in the chest.

Vin scrambled to his feet as his free hand touched his brow. His fingers encountered something wet and warm - blood.

He was faintly aware of more gunshots and loud curses in the darkness, but his survival instincts kicked in, telling him to find his horse and ride fast and far. A few bullets whispered past him, but no more found their mark. He made it to Sire's side, having tethered him a few feet from the other horses and managed to haul himself into the saddle. He leaned low over Sire's neck as he fired a few quick rounds in the direction of the hired guns and urged Sire away from the camp.

Vin's head felt like an anvil with a hammer striking it and he had a difficult time focusing in the darkness. Sire was trotting away from the scene of the ambush, but Vin had no idea where they were headed. He should try to get to Chris... Chris! Had he been shot when Lomax had fired? He had to get down there and find out. But which direction?

He could hear the sounds of the gun battle still going on someplace behind him. Should he go that way? Vin tried to concentrate past the pounding in his head, but his thoughts hopped around like a wing-shot grouse. He chuckled at the image, then clamped his lips together to stop the irrational laughter. Damn, he couldn't even help himself, much less his friends. But I have to try!

Sire slowed to a walk and picked his way carefully between a rock outcropping. Vin brought his horse to a halt and squeezed his eyes shut against the thundering in his head. Dizziness assailed him and his sense of balance wavered, then disappeared. As Vin slipped off Sire's back, he muttered, "damn." Then everything went black a blessed moment before he hit the ground.

Chris kicked free of his stirrups as his horse went to its knees. Chris rolled away from the animal and a sharp rock cut a deep gash in his left arm. He cursed even as he pulled his gun from its holster and fired up at his attackers. He heard more gunfire from behind him and was relieved to know Buck, Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan were covering him.

Chris scrambled to his feet, but remained doubled over as he dashed for the cover of a rock. Bullets kicked up dirt and stone splinters at his feet. He raised himself up to try to see the exact location of the hired guns. Spotting a flash from a rifle, he fired a few quick rounds at it and was rewarded with a howl of pain.

"Got you, you sonuvabitch," Chris growled as he emptied the spent cartridges from his Colt's cylinders and re-loaded.

The gunfire abated, then stopped completely. The sound of horses riding away told Chris the outlaws were escaping. He stood up behind the rock and clenched his teeth. The bastards got away again.

Had Vin been with them?

Chris walked over to his wounded horse and found blood staining the animal's knee. "Shit!" Though he'd left his own horse at the ranch and used one of the Jordans' horses, Chris didn't relish the thought of putting any animal down.

"Chris! You okay?" Buck's frenzied voice drew nearer.

"Over here," Chris called.

A few moments later, the four men materialized out of the darkness.

"Anyone hurt?" Chris demanded.

"We're okay. We thought they got you though," Nathan said.

"My horse caught the bullet meant for me," Chris said.

"Bad?" Buck asked.

Chris nodded. "Needs to be put down."

A few moments later, Chris took care of the suffering animal.

"Another ambush that wasn't very successful," Josiah commented.

"You thinkin' Vin had something to do with that?" Chris asked.

"Either that or those hired guns have lousy aim." Josiah smiled.

"If we have Mister Tanner to thank for our continued good health, I fear that his own health may not be as safeguarded," Ezra said.

Chris nodded. "They aren't stupid. They're gonna figure Vin out and his life ain't gonna be worth squat." He turned to gaze up the dim ascent. "Let's go take a look up there."

Ezra kicked his left stirrup free and Chris climbed up behind him, settling on the saddle skirt. A few minutes later, he slid off the mare and looked around. The dim figure of a man lay where he'd fallen and Chris's breath stuttered in his throat. He strode over to the body and turned him on to his back. Relief flooded Chris when he saw the patch covering one eye.

"The sheriff's murderer," Josiah said quietly.

Chris nodded. "Yep."

Nathan hunkered down beside the dead man and touched a piece of the dark circle ringing the wound. "This is gunpowder."

"Whoever shot him was right beside him," Ezra interjected.

"Vin," Josiah said.

"Looks like he's still one of the good guys," Buck said with a wide smile.

"And he did save our hides," Chris added, unable to hide his relief and gratitude.

"But where is he now?" Nathan asked somberly.

Grave silence greeted his question.

"Maybe he's headed back to the ranch," Buck volunteered.

Chris shrugged to hide his uneasiness. "Maybe." He glanced around, hoping to spot Vin coming out of the shadows, but only stillness surrounded them. "We'll have to take this man's body in to town."

"That must be his horse over there. I'll get it," Buck volunteered.

"Let me take a look at your arm, Chris," Nathan said softly.

Chris had forgotten about the injury during the gunfight, but now the ache registered in his tired mind. Blood soaked his shirtsleeve. Nathan gently pushed him down on to a rock, then examined the cut. By the time he cleaned it with water and put a bandage around it, Buck and Josiah had secured the dead man's body to his horse's saddle.

Chris stood, swayed, and Ezra placed a steadying hand on his uninjured arm.

"Easy, Mister Larabee," Ezra said.

"You lost a lot of blood and need to get some rest," Nathan explained.

"That's probably good advice for all of us," Chris said. "They ain't gonna try anything more tonight."

Ezra guided Chris over to his horse and helped the blonde man mount first. Ezra climbed on to the horse's back behind him.

"You afraid I'm gonna fall off?" Chris asked with a slight smile.

Ezra shook his head. "I merely choose to protect my clothing from the blood you so thoughtlessly shed."

Chris heard the teasing in Ezra's voice and chuckled. Then his thoughts turned to Vin and his humor faded. What had happened to him during the ambush?

Vin slowly became aware of soft voices and a sizzling sound accompanied by the smell of side pork and fresh coffee. Then there was the quiet clatter of dishes and a child's babbling. Vin knew he should open his eyes, but he was afraid the peaceful scene he envisioned would disappear in the harsh light of reality.

Finally, he convinced himself to open his eyes and a sharp ache stabbed his temple. He groaned, blinked, and laid a hand against the offending pain.

"It's all right, mister. You're safe here." A woman's gentle voice flowed through Vin like maple in the springtime.

He focused on the pale oval face above him. A blonde braid spilled over her shoulder and compassionate blue eyes studied him closely. Her dress though clean, was patched and faded. In her arms was a baby who flailed his fists and kicked at his blanket.

"My name is Elise Eriksson," she said with a smile. "And this is our son Gunnar."

"He's a f-fine lookin' boy, ma'am," Vin managed to say. "You have...s-some water?"

"Of course." Flustered, she scurried off and returned a few moments later with a glass of water. "Can you handle it?"

"I think s-so." Vin took the cup from her and thankfully drank the cool water. He handed it back to her. "Thank you."

"You are welcome."

He glanced around the small cabin, noting the dirt floor and sparse furnishings. There were no windows, but the door was open to allow air inside the clean but shadowy interior. He spotted a double bed in a corner and realized he was lying on a cot.

"My husband found you yesterday morning and brought you here," Mrs. Eriksson explained.

Vin frowned, trying to remember through the curtain of pain that encased his thoughts. "What happened?"

She shifted her son from one shoulder to the other and gently bounced him. "We were hoping you could tell us. It looks like you were shot."

Vin's fingers touched a bandage around his forehead. "I can't remember."

"Do not worry. It will come back to you. What is your name?"

"Vin, Vin Tanner," he replied.

Mrs. Eriksson smiled down at him, lighting up her pretty face. "At least you remember your name."

Vin managed a crooked grin.

A man strode in the door, blocking the sunlight and darkening the interior for a moment. He joined them and put an arm around the woman's shoulders. "You were to call me when he woke."

Vin finally recognized their heavy accent as Swedish.

"He will not hurt me, Hans," Elise said.

"We do not know that," Hans said firmly. "Finish with breakfast."

Elise sent Vin an apologetic look, then moved off to the kitchen at the other corner of the cabin. Hans crossed his arms over his broad chest. "Why were you shot?"

"Like I was tellin' your wife, I don't recall."

Wariness lit Eriksson's pale blue eyes. "Are you working for the Jordans?"

Vin shook his head, confused. Eriksson was obviously one of the grangers. Wouldn't that make him one of the men who hired the band of cutthroats Vin had just escaped from? Vin glanced around the meager room again - these people had little and not nearly enough to pay for the services of men like Mangus. Was someone else behind the sabotage of the wire and the ambushes? "I thought I was workin' for the grangers," he answered carefully.

Eriksson shook his head vehemently. "We are farmers. All we want to do is start a new life here on our own land. Build something to leave our children. But the Jordans, they have hired men to trample our ground and chase off our livestock."

What the hell was going on? If the settlers hadn't hired the killers and the Jordans hadn't, who had? Vin's head pounded unmercifully. He couldn't think now - it hurt too damned much.

"Look, Eriksson, I don't know what's going on. I was with the group that ambushed some of Jordan's men. I aimed to try'n stop them."

Eriksson's eyes narrowed. "So who were they working for?"

Vin shrugged tiredly. "I wish I knew."

"Breakfast is ready," Elise announced. "Are you well enough to join us, Mr. Tanner?"

"Elise," Hans said in a low, warning voice.

She laid her slender hand on his arm. "Do not worry so. He is too weak to do anything."

Eriksson studied his wife for a moment, and Vin noticed his eyes soften with love. "All right." He turned back to Vin and his expression became cautious once more. "But if you should try something, I will have to hurt you more."

Vin chuckled weakly. "Don't reckon that'd take too much right now."

Eriksson smiled reluctantly. "Come, I will help you to the table if you are feeling strong enough."

"I'll make it," Vin said firmly.

Vin wrapped his arm around Eriksson's wide shoulders and the farmer helped him to his feet. The room spun and Vin concentrated on the baby cradle that sat beside the bed. After a few moments, his balance returned and he leaned heavily on Eriksson as they walked to the table.

Grace was said and the food passed around. Gunnar babbled and Vin looked at the infant in his mother's lap. Mrs. Eriksson crooned to the boy in their native language, playing with his fingers and toes, and making Gunnar squeal with delight. A strange ache opened within Vin as he watched the young family and the love they so obviously shared. Vin had never considered settling down, not even with Charlotte, but now he could see where maybe a man needed to plant roots.

He looked from Mrs. Eriksson to her husband. Could these people have done everything Mrs. Jordan said? It didn't seem possible.

The throbbing in Vin's head decreased to a mere ache and he grew stronger with each passing minute.

"Where do you come from, Mr. Tanner?" Eriksson asked.

"Nowhere in particular. I guess I'm what you'd call a tumbleweed," Vin replied wryly.

"That does not sound like a happy life," Elise said.

Vin smiled crookedly and tipped his head to the side. "It ain't bad, ma'am. I was ridin' with six other men - friends - until I ended up with that gang of killers."

"Why did you leave your friends?" Elise asked, her blonde brows furrowed in question.

Vin glanced down as heat suffused his cheeks. "I've been trying to figure out that myself." He pushed back his empty plate. "Thanks, ma'am. That was real good."

"You are welcome," Elise replied.

Vin tried to remember how he'd gotten hurt, but his memory was hazy. He could recall going into town that day to get supplies and the sheriff had come over to him. The sheriff! Vin closed his eyes and remorse rolled over him. Hobbs had murdered the lawman. Anything after that, however, was shrouded in fog. Unease tendriled through Vin. There was something important that he should remember, but the elusive memory remained beyond his grasp.

"You say you ride with the men who attacked the Double J cowboys?" Hans Eriksson asked.

"Only to try to stop the violence and bloodshed."

"To do that you must get rid of all of Jordan's hired killers," Eriksson said, anger sparking his eyes.

"No!" Vin said firmly. "One of my friends was hurt by the wire. The Jordans offered us a place to stay while he healed. Mrs. Jordan told us that the grangers were stealin' cattle and takin' land that wasn't theirs, so my friends agreed to ride for them, to guard the wire."

"We have never stolen anything," Eriksson said, pride giving his words added impetus. "We only take the land that is ours. We have land deeds to prove our claims."

Vin shook his head. "You're sayin' that you're all innocent and Mrs. Jordan is sayin' they're the victims." He paused a moment, ruminating all the information he had. He brought his gaze up to Eriksson. "What if both of you are innocent? What if you folks and Mrs. Jordan are all victims?'

"How can that be?" Elise asked, her eyes wide.

"Damned if I know, ma'am," Vin said softly. "But if we don't find out, a lot more innocent folks are gonna be hurt, includin' my friends."

Chris guided his horse to the hitching rail in front of the Tin Bucket Saloon and dismounted tiredly. Last night's patrol had gone smoothly, with no sign of the ambushers from the night before. But there was also no sign of Vin.

Chris strode into the saloon, his spurs jingling a soothing rhythm with each step. His eyes adjusted quickly to the dim saloon and he spotted Ezra at a table playing poker with Justin Jordan and two men in suits - probably businessmen here in Anders.

Buck waved from a corner table and Chris joined him, Nathan, Josiah, and a pale-looking JD. He hooked a chair from another table with his boot and swung it around to the opening Nathan and Josiah made for him.

"How ya doin', JD?" Chris asked, his voice raspy from exhaustion and worry.

JD's grin was only slightly less bright than normal. "Just fine. Good to be out of that room for a little while."

"And it's only gonna be a little while," Nathan warned. "Remember, an hour here, then back to the ranch in the wagon."

JD nodded though his dark eyes held a hint of rebellion - a rebellion he was bound to lose against the healer.

The waitress brought another whiskey glass to the table and set it in front of Chris, though she fluttered her eyes at Buck. Buck, however, only smiled at her and she seemed disappointed in his lack of interest as she moved back to the bar.

"You sick, Buck?" Chris asked, pouring himself a shot of liquor.

The mustached man smiled sheepishly. "Naw, I just aim to keep JD out of trouble and can't be doin' that if I'm gettin' in trouble, can I?"

The men chuckled, but it was a lackluster sound. Each man felt the absence of Vin like an open sore that wouldn't heal. Nobody knew where to look for him or even if he was still alive.

"How long Ezra been playin'?" Chris asked, glancing at the gambler.

"A few hours," Josiah replied. "Justin was already here when we came in."

Chris frowned. "Justin winnin' or losin'?"

"A little of both," Nathan answered. "Until about half an hour ago. He's been losin' since then."

"So he's not a very good poker player," Chris stated.

"What're you thinkin', pard?" Buck asked.

Chris raised his gaze to meet Buck's midnight blue eyes. "I'm thinkin' that some people may not believe in legacies."

"What do ya mean?" JD asked, confusion lighting his expression.

"I mean that tonight we're not gonna be ridin' fence." Chris stood. "And right now we're gonna do some investigating."

Chris's smile was dark and feral, like an animal that just caught the scent of his prey.

Vin laid back down after eating breakfast and when he awakened in the mid-afternoon, he heard angry men's voices from outside. Looking around the cabin, he saw the baby sleeping in its cradle, but neither Elise nor Hans were inside. Puzzled, he pushed himself upright and managed to get to his feet without falling flat on his face. After the cabin quit spinning, he stumbled to the door and paused in the opening as he blinked in the bright sunlight.

He spotted a group of about a dozen men and a few women talking and arguing among themselves.

"Mr. Tanner," Elise called and hurried to his side.

The conversations died away and each pair of eyes focused on Vin.

"You should not be out here," Elise scolded.

"I'm fine, ma'am," Vin said, easing his arm out of her grip. "What's goin' on?"

Hans stepped forward. His face was red as if he were angry or embarrassed. "We are deciding what to do with you."

Vin pulled a hand through his long hair. "What do you mean?"

"Since you rode with the killers, we wonder if you have not lied to us and are just like them," an older version of Hans spoke up. "My son wants us to believe you are innocent, but we are not so certain."

Vin stepped away from the doorway and out into the yard. He held up his hands. "Look, I know what you must be thinkin'."

"Do you, Mr. Tanner?" the same older man asked. "It is said you were with the men who murdered the sheriff."

"I don't deny it," Vin said. "But I swear I didn't know Hobbs was goin' to kill him or I woulda done something." He paused. "I killed Hobbs during the ambush against the Double J riders."

Another weathered man nodded. "His body was brought into town yesterday by some hired guns who work for the Jordans."

"What hired guns?" Vin asked in confusion.

"A man who dresses all in black. They say his name is Chris Larabee and that he is a gunman."

Vin took another step toward the hostile gathering. "Chris is my friend and he's not a killer. He's helped a helluva lot more people than he's ever harmed."

"Then why is he riding for the Double J?" another man demanded.

"Because Mrs. Jordan said you farmers were the ones breakin' the law."

Rumblings rolled through the small crowd.

"And we are to believe you, a man who rode with killers?" Hans's father asked.

Frustration knotted Vin's jaw. "I don't care if you believe me or not. I'm tellin' you the truth."

"I say we tie him up and take him into town to let the law take care of him," a man about Hans's age said.

Words of agreement greeted his suggestion. Vin's breathing grew more labored and his head began to pound like a war drum. If they tied him up, he couldn't warn Chris and his other friends.

Warn? What did he have to warn them about? Vin placed a hand against his brow, trying again to remember what remained so elusive. And urgent.

A touch on his arm made him jerk away.

"It is all right, Mr. Tanner. We will not let them hurt you," Elise soothed.

"Get away from him Elise," Hans's father shouted.

Elise frowned. "He will not hurt me."

At least one person trusted him, Vin thought. He caught Hans's gaze and saw uncertainty there.

"Please don't let them take me to town," Vin said, his voice low and compelling.

A few men stepped forward, along with Hans.

"We will take you to town and put you in the jail until the circuit judge arrives. He will decide if you are innocent or guilty," Hans said.

Vin gripped Hans's arms. "I have to stop them."

"We only have your word that is what you are doing," Hans said softly. "Do not worry. If you are innocent, you will be released."

"By then it'll be too late!" Vin shouted.

"Too late for what?" the elder Eriksson demanded.

Vin's squeezed his eyes shut, but the blank spot in his memory remained. As did the sense of desperation.

Hands grabbed Vin and his eyes flew open. "No!"

"Tie him up and put him in the barn. Tomorrow morning we will take him into Anders," Hans's father exclaimed.

Vin struggled against his captors but his wound had sapped him of much of his usual strength. He was no match for the group of burly farmers as they tugged him away from the tiny cabin.

The sun began to disappear behind the western horizon, streaking the sky with blood red and fiery orange spikes. Chris had never been one to believe in portents, but the ominous vision sent a chill straight to his soul. He trembled and glanced at his five companions to see if they'd noticed his spooked reaction. All of them, with the exception of JD who wasn't riding with them yet, continued to saddle their horses. Josiah, however, looked up and his worried countenance met Chris's.

"I don't know," Josiah spoke in a low, rumbling tone. "Last time I saw a sky like that it was the night before the battle at Shiloh."

Dread pierced Chris anew at the memory of that gruesome battle. He wondered if he and Josiah had fought together then. He glanced at Ezra and wondered if he'd been on the other side. Another shiver shimmied down Chris's spine.

"It's gonna end tonight, Josiah, one way or another," Chris said, his voice heavy.

"Yep. One way or another," Josiah reiterated softly.

The approach of fast pounding hooves on the ground startled them and they looked up. A rider came in fast right up to the front porch. Chris and his friends hurried toward the house as they saw Justin and Mrs. Jordan come out the door.

"The grangers...they got the men pinned d-down," the man gasped out.

"What men?" Justin demanded.

"The ones g-guarding the wire over by Red Canyon. Don't know how m-much longer they can last."

"We need to get reinforcements over there," Mrs. Jordan ordered.

Justin nodded and found Roy Fuller in the crowd that had gathered. "Roy, get every man saddled up. We're riding to Red Canyon." He caught Chris's gaze. "Larabee, you and your men ride with us."

"Don't you think you should leave some men here to guard the ranch?" Chris called out.

Justin seemed startled. "You're right. Roy, pick out three men to stay here. The rest of us'll ride."

Movement exploded among the men, but Chris remained standing where he was, flanked by his companions. "Three men ain't very many."

Mrs. Jordan crossed her arms. "If the hired guns are at Red Canyon, then they won't be here. Maybe we can end this thing tonight."

"I'll be here," JD said.

"And you'll be stayin' low," Buck interjected. "You ain't healed yet, JD."

JD pressed his lips together but didn't bother to argue.

Chris turned and strode back to the corral where their horses awaited. He heard his friends following.

"What're you thinkin', Chris?" Nathan asked.

"I'm thinkin' we'll start out with them, then fall back. I got a bad feelin' about this whole thing," Chris replied. His gaze found JD. "I want you to stay out of sight until we get back. This whole thing might blow up tonight and I don't want you in the middle of it."

JD nodded gravely. "I'll wait for you."

"You damn well better," Buck said. He laid a hand on JD's shoulder. "No heroics, kid. At least until we get back and can watch your backside."

JD smiled. "And I can watch yours."

Buck grinned, then mounted up.

JD watched the five men join the larger group of Double J cowhands. He rested his palms on his revolvers, wishing he was with them. But Chris said they'd return, and then JD would be able to help again. Provided Chris's gut feeling was right.

JD had no doubt it was.

The inside of the barn was lit by a lantern when Elise brought Vin's supper to him. Vin sat against a post on the hay-covered floor with his wrists tied behind him. His ankles had also been trussed to keep him from escaping.

"You gonna untie me so I can eat?" Vin asked.

Elise shook her head, unable to meet Vin's gaze. "I am to feed you."

She lifted a spoonful of stew to his lips and Vin opened his mouth. There was little meat, but the gravy was thick.

"You have to let me go, Elise," Vin said softly.

She shook her head. "I cannot. The men have decided you must be taken into town to stand before the judge."

"Look, there ain't time for that now."

"You keep saying that, but you do not tell my why."

Vin leaned his head back against the post and stared at the shadows on the barn's ceiling. "All I know is somethin's gonna happen and if I don't stop it, a lot of folks'll get hurt."

"What will happen?"

Frustration dogged Vin as it had all afternoon. "I don't know!"

"If you do not know, where will you go to stop these killings?"

"I have to find my friends. They'll help me figger it out."

"I am sorry, but Hans and the others will be very angry if I let you go."

Vin closed his eyes and a sunburst spilled across his memory. He pictured Lomax and Hobbs on either side of him in the darkness, then a rider nearing them. He saw Lomax aim his rifle at the rider - Chris!

Vin's eyelids flew open. "They're gonna attack the snake's head tonight."

Elise stared at him in bewilderment. "I do not understand."

Vin forced himself to remain calm though all his nerves felt on fire. "I remember now. One of the men told me they were going to cut the snake's head off, but he didn't tell me who the snake was. But I got a pretty good idea."

"What do you mean?"

"I've been tryin' to figure out who would gain the most from all this, and I think I figgered it out." He leaned as far forward as he could. "Please, Elise, let me go. If you don't, my friends could be killed and the grangers will be blamed. It's gonna explode into all-out war."

Indecision clouded the young woman's face. Suddenly she set the plate of food aside and scooted around behind Vin. He felt her work on the rope's knots a few moments, then his hands were free. He quickly untied his ankles and scrambled to his feet, ignoring the ache in his head.

"Thank you," he said softly but intently. "Where's my gun?"

"It is with your saddle." She pointed to a corner of the barn and Vin spotted his tack.

He quickly strapped on his holster with the mare's leg, then grabbed the blanket and saddle. He slipped out of the barn and paused a moment The moon was rising, playing hide and seek with patchy dark clouds that lay like bruises across the night sky. A chill swept through him and he prayed he wasn't too late to save his friends' lives.

Chris kept falling back further and further from the main bunch of Double J men, until they could no longer see the last man. He pulled up. "Let's head back."

The five men wheeled their horses around and sent them into a ground-eating canter back to the ranch. Twenty minutes later, they arrived and found it remained quiet. Chris took them directly into one of the barns. "Leave the horses in here. We don't want to show our hand too soon."

As they put the saddled horses into the empty stalls, a man entered the dark barn. The men had their guns in hand before they realized it was JD.

"JD, you almost got your fool head blown off," Buck growled, re-holstering his revolver.

"Sorry," came the boy's sheepish apology. "I saw you come back. See anything out there?"

Chris shook his head. "Nope, but I can feel them."

They gathered at the wide door and studied the quiet layout. Chris pointed to the roof of the house. "Buck, climb up there with your rifle. Josiah, Nathan, take the other barn. Ezra and JD, you two stay here."

"Where are you goin'?" Buck asked suspiciously.

"I'm gonna scout around, keeping to the shadows. I'll give you all a signal if I see anything," Chris replied.

"What kind of signal?" JD asked.

Chris smiled without humor. "You'll know it. All right, get to your places. They could be here any time."

Buck, Josiah, and Nathan slipped away under the night's cover. Before Chris could follow them, a hand grabbed his arm.

"What of Vin?" Ezra asked.

"I have a feeling we'll find him one way or another," Chris replied somberly.

Ezra's light green eyes lacked his usual impassiveness as he released Chris.

"Watch your backs, boys," Chris said, resting his gaze on Ezra and JD a moment longer.

"You, too, Chris," JD replied, his face pale but determined.

The older man nodded, then followed his companions into the darkness.

Vin escaped the Eriksson's with little difficulty. They hadn't placed a guard outside, so he'd been able to saddle Sire and get away before anybody was the wiser. As he rode across the dark landscape, he tried to come up with a plan. However, he wasn't sure what he'd find when he got to Jordans so it didn't make much sense to plan anything.

Sire's hooves beat a blunt tattoo on the ground as they traveled toward the ranch. Vin allowed Sire to have a little more head, trusting the horse to miss the holes that might be in the road. Vin arrived on a crest a quarter of a mile from the ranch. Silence met his ears and it didn't look like a war had raged down in the ranch yard. Yet.

He lifted his head, sniffed the air and listened closely for the sound of anything foreign to the night. A faint whinny caught his attention. It hadn't come from the Double J which meant there was somebody else was out here. Probably the attack party.

Vin allowed Sire to pick his way toward the location of the other horse as Vin kept his senses keyed up. Five minutes later, he spotted a group of horses, along with their owners who were sitting silently in the saddle, as if awaiting a signal. And Vin could guess what that signal would be.

He swallowed the dryness in his throat. This was it. This is what he had hoped to stop. Now how could he do it? He spotted Lomax separated by about ten feet from the group and his eyes narrowed. Vin could kill two birds with one stone.

Taking a deep breath, he eased his weapon out of its holster then gave Sire's sides a squeeze. The horse ambled over to the end of the group of men where Lomax was. The killer glanced at Vin, then did a double take.

"Well, well. I didn't expect you to come back, Tanner." His hand went to his revolver.

"I wouldn't if I was you," Vin said in a low voice. "You boys havin' a party without me?"

Lomax shrugged. "Figgered we might have more luck since you kept warnin' them before. Nothin' I hate more than a traitor."

Vin ignored his comment. "Where's Mangus?"

"Someplace out there."

Vin's breath shallowed. "How many men?"

"More'n enough to take care of whoever's down there."

Lomax sounded too damn sure of himself.

"Who's bankrollin' this outfit?" Vin asked.

"Mangus never said, but I figgered it out on my own." Lomax spat a wad of tobacco to the ground. "You're a dead man, Tanner. There's nine of us and only one of you."

"Maybe, but I'm goin' to take you and as many others as I can with me."

"Answer me one thing before you die, Tanner. Who's side are you on anyhow?"

Vin smiled coldly. "The right side."

"If you was on the right side, you'd be with us." Lomax paused and Vin saw his hand grab for his revolver. Vin squeezed the trigger of his mare's leg, catching Lomax in the gut. With a stunned expression on his ugly face, Lomax slid off his horse to crumple on the ground.

It took only a moment for the rest of the killers to realize what happened. Gunshots broke the silence and Vin fired a few more rounds at the outlaws, gratified to see he hit two of the hired guns.

He urged Sire into a mad dash away from the melee and headed straightway to the ranch. A group of horsemen materialized in front of him and it took a moment for Vin to recognize Mangus's surprised look. Then the leader drew his gun and fired at Vin, as Vin shot at him. Burning pain broke in Vin's side, but he saw that his bullet hit its mark as Mangus sagged in the saddle.

More gunfire broke out around him and he leaned low over Sire's neck, sending covering fire at the ambushers as he rode past them toward his friends and, he hoped, safety.

Men shouted and horses' hooves pounded behind him. They were staging their attack now and Vin would be leading them. Vin only hoped he wouldn't be mistaken for one of the bad guys.

His head ached and his side felt like it was on fire, but dogged determination and cussed stubbornness kept him in the saddle as he rode hellbent for leather toward the Double J.

Chris heard the sound of gunshots and frowned. What the hell was going on? He squinted into the darkness and spotted a ragged line of horsemen flying across the open range toward the ranch. The gunfire grew louder and Chris wondered why they were announcing their arrival so early.

He whistled shrilly, but doubted if his companions needed the signal. They could see and hear the same as Chris and they'd wait until the gunmen were within range before beginning their defense. One man rode ahead of the bunch, hunkered down in the saddle; probably to make himself a smaller target.

Chris raised his rifle, sighting in on the leader. The man's horse jumped an outer fence and the rider flailed in the saddle, nearly falling to the ground. Chris lowered the rifle, bewildered by the man's odd motion. It was almost as if he were hurt.

The attackers' line drew nearer as their horses leapt the fence. There had to be over a dozen hired guns coming in to destroy the Jordan ranch, and if Chris and his companions hadn't returned, they probably would have succeeded with little resistance. But Chris had no intention of letting them win this battle.

He lifted the rifle to his shoulder again and drew a bead on the leading man. Closer...closer he came until he was within range and Chris's finger began to curl on the trigger. Suddenly the rider straightened and turned in his saddle to fire at the horsemen behind him. Recognition punched Chris in the gut - Vin!

"Don't shoot at the first man. It's Vin!" Chris yelled, praying everyone heard him.

Then all hell broke loose.

Bullets plowed into the corral post that Chris hid behind. He lifted his rifle and picked out a target. The man tumbled backwards off his horse. Chris searched for Vin among the chaos of men and animals and explosions and curling cordite. He couldn't find him and his breath faltered. Had he been hit?

His stomach churning, Chris turned his attention back to the skirmish. Gunfire came from the defensive locations and more men fell from their horses. After the first wave, half the horses milled about riderless as their owners lay on the ground. The survivors - killers used to having the odds in their favor - began to retreat.

"Hold your positions!" a man with a mustache shouted.

The cowards ignored him and continued to ride away from the ranch.

Chris noticed the leader held his left arm awkwardly as if he'd been wounded, and Chris used his Colt to take a couple shots at him to finish the job. But his aim went wide.

He suddenly spotted Vin as the leader turned his horse toward the ex-bounty hunter. Vin held his mare's leg loosely in his right hand and Chris suspected he was out of cartridges. Frightened for Vin's life, Chris stepped away from his cover and strode toward the two men as he reloaded his own revolver.

"It's over, Mangus," Vin said with a gravelly voice. His mare's leg was empty, but he wasn't certain he had the strength left to raise his sawed-off carbine even if it was loaded.

"It's over for both of us." Mangus stared at Vin, his revolver aimed at Vin's chest. Hatred was etched in the killer's features, but oddly enough, there was also admiration. "I guess I should have let Lomax kill you when he wanted to."

"It's too late for him to do anything but burn in hell."

Mangus shook his head. "Never did like him anyhow, but I'd hoped you were on my side. Now I'm going to have to kill you."

Vin shrugged. "Go ahead. I'll rest easier knowin' you've taken your rightful place with the devil."

Mangus smiled cruelly. "I'm the one with the loaded gun, Tanner.

"But I'm the one with the friends who'll kill you for me."

Something akin to envy strayed across Mangus's face. "I guess we'll end up together after all." His finger curled around the trigger and a gunshot rent the silence.

Vin jerked, but it was Mangus who slid off his horse's back, a shocked look on his face. Vin raised his gaze to see Chris striding toward him, smoke curling from his Colt's barrel. Relief flooded through Vin and he dismounted awkwardly.

Chris stopped ten feet from Vin, looked at Mangus's body, then back at Vin. "You okay?"

"Right as rain," Vin managed to say even as dizziness assailed him. The side wound had spilled a lot of blood.

Ezra, JD, Josiah, Nathan, and Buck joined Chris, and they were all smiling.

Vin grinned back at them. "Howdy pards. Right glad to see y'all."

"I assure you the feeling is mutual, Mister Tanner," Ezra said.

"You need any help?" Buck asked.

Vin shook his head and took a couple faltering steps, then the world began to spin and he pitched forward.

Chris stepped up, catching Vin as he passed out. He straightened with Vin slung over his shoulder, the younger man's weight a welcome burden after the days of worrying about his fate.

Mrs. Jordan joined them, a rifle in her hands. "Is that Tanner?" she demanded.

"Yes, ma'am," Josiah replied. "The lost sheep has returned."

"He'll have to go to jail for his part in the sheriff's murder," she said firmly.

Chris, holding Vin, shook his head. "No, ma'am. He's not going to jail and he's not going to stand trial for something he didn't do." He began to walk toward the bunkhouse with Nathan beside him as he tried to see how badly Vin had been wounded.

Mrs. Jordan hurried up to step into Chris's path, forcing the blonde man to stop. "He has to pay for his crimes."

Chris stared at the woman for a long moment. He'd wanted to spare her the truth for a little while longer, but Vin needed to be looked after and his well-being was more important. "If you're lookin' for someone to pay for his crimes, I'd look a little closer to home, Mrs. Jordan."

"What to you mean?"

"Why did your son want every single man away from the ranch tonight? If we hadn't come back, your 'legacy' would be in ashes right now," Chris said, drilling the woman with his sharp gaze.

"What the hell are you insinuating, Mr. Larabee?" she asked, her voice low.

"Your son is up to his neck in gambling debts. In order to pay them off, he has to sell this ranch and he can't do that unless you're willing to do the same. Since you weren't, he figured he had to give you a push." Chris shifted Vin's body slightly. "Ask Justin when he comes back - hopefully you can tell if your son's lying better than you know him."

Chris walked around the stunned woman and into the bunkhouse. With Nathan's help, he carefully lowered Vin to a bottom bunk. Remaining hunkered down beside the bed, Chris stared down into Vin's pale and grizzled features. It looked like he hadn't shaved since the day they'd joked together on the bunkhouse porch. It seemed an eternity ago.

"Is he gonna be all right?" JD asked.

Chris turned to see JD, Buck, Ezra, and Josiah gathered around the bunk. For the first time in too long, the seven men were together once more.

"He's got two bullet wounds," Nathan announced. "The head injury looks like it's a couple days' old."

"The night he saved my life," Chris said softly.

Nathan nodded. "Probably. The other one is fresh and looks worse than it is. The bullet took a chunk out of his side and he's bled a lot, but he should be healin' fine in a couple days."

Chris closed his eyes for a moment in gratitude, then pushed himself upright, feeling all of his thirty-plus years. "We got one more job before it's all over."

Vin suddenly shifted and groaned. He opened confused eyes, which slowly began to focus. He fixed his gaze on Chris and a corner of his mouth lifted. "Thanks, cowboy."

Chris leaned over and placed a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Nathan's gonna take care of you while we wrap up the loose ends."

"It was Justin, wasn't it?" Vin asked weakly.

Chris nodded. "Yep. He left with most of the men tonight, supposedly to help some Double J men pinned down by Red Canyon."

Vin lifted a hand and grasped Chris's arm. "He might be goin' after the farmers." He coughed, closing his eyes momentarily. "They ain't...g-guilty of nothin' but...tryin' t-to start a new life."

Chris wanted to ask him how he knew that, but there were more important issues right now. "We'll stop Jordan, one way or another. You got my word."

Vin smiled. "That's always...b-been good enough for me." He closed his eyes, surrendering to oblivion.

"And your word's always been good enough for me," Chris said softly. He squeezed Vin's shoulder and straightened. "Take care of him, Nathan."

"Let's get that sonuvabitch before he can hurt any more innocent folks," Buck said in a steely voice.

Resolve filled each man's face. Justin Jordan had fooled everyone and was the reason JD had been hurt and Vin lay on the bunk, his pale face the color of the muslin sheets.

Chris strode out of the bunkhouse, four of his companions following him. They entered the barn where they'd left their saddled horses and led them out of the building. JD took Nathan's horse's reins in his hands.

"You ain't goin' with us, JD," Buck said.

"Yes, I am," JD tossed back. "I feel like I gotta do something since it was my fault we got stuck here in the first place."

Josiah shook his head. "It's nobody's fault, son. Some things were just meant to be and us getting involved in other folks' problems seems to be something we can't escape."

"It is our destiny," Ezra added.

"Seven men, one destiny. Sounds like one of Jock Steele's dime novels," Josiah said, his blue eyes twinkling.

Chris hid a smile behind his hand. Hell, maybe Josiah was right. It seemed that the seven men's lives were entwined in some way that Chris had never experienced before.

Destiny.

Fate.

Luck.

Whatever it was that had brought the seven men together had become stronger than the sum of their parts.

A figure leading a horse approached them. As it got nearer, Chris recognized Mrs. Jordan.

"I'm going with you," she said firmly.

"I don't think that's such a good idea," Chris replied, equally adamant.

"Justin is my son. Maybe I can talk him into giving himself up."

"And if you can't, we're going to have to fight."

Mrs. Jordan squared her petite shoulders. "Then that's what'll happen. But I have to try."

Chris studied her a long moment. He couldn't blame her for wanting to find out why he would turn against everything he'd been raised to respect and care for. He nodded. "All right. But if it turns ugly, you get the hell out of the way."

She seemed relieved. "You have my word, Mr. Larabee."

"All right. Let's ride!" Chris called out.

The six riders thundered away from the ranch in the moon's glow.

An hour later, they arrived at Red Canyon but found no sign that a gunfight had occurred. Chris dismounted and hunkered down to study the tracks. Buck joined him.

"What do you think, Buck?" Chris asked in a low voice.

"I'd say Justin took the men he had and headed west, toward the farmers' land."

Chris rubbed his brow. "Yep, that's what I figure."

The two men remounted and rode west for five miles before seeing something in the silvery light. Mrs. Jordan drew up alongside Chris. "What is it?"

"Looks to be your son and the Double J men," Chris replied, resting his crossed wrists on the saddlehorn.

She stood in her stirrups to gaze at the dim figures a couple hundred yards away. "What are they doing?"

"Nothing yet, but they aren't just hangin' around for no good reason. I s'pect they plan on hitting the farmers tonight, supposedly in retaliation of what happened at the ranch." Chris paused. "Only problem is what he planned to happen didn't."

Mrs. Jordan pressed her lips together. "What if you're wrong about him?"

He met her troubled eyes. "I don't think I am."

She took a deep breath. "I'm going to talk to him."

"We all go."

Chris and Mrs. Jordan led the way to the men who had reined in a couple hundred feet from a farmer's cabin.

"What's going on, Justin?" Mrs. Jordan demanded.

Justin jerked around in the saddle and his shock was genuine. "Mother! What are you doing here?"

"I could ask you the same question. We came by Red Canyon. There's no sign of any ambush."

Chris narrowed his eyes as he watched the two Jordans.

"That's because we scared them away," Justin said.

"He's right, Mrs. Jordan," Roy Fuller added. "When we got there, some men rode away."

"Do you know where they went?" Mrs. Jordan asked.

Justin shook his head. "We couldn't trail them in the dark. But we figured they were the grangers or men hired by them."

"Or they were men you hired to make trouble," Chris interjected flatly.

"What in the hell are you talking about, Larabee? Why would I have my own men shot at and our wire cut?" Justin demanded with the correct amount of indignation.

"Because you have gambling debts to pay and the only way to do that is to sell the ranch."

Justin turned to his mother. "You don't believe this nonsense, do you?"

"Look at me, Justin," she said. Reluctantly, Justin faced her. "Are you trying to destroy the Double J?"

Justin held her gaze for a few moments. "Of course not," he replied, his eyes flickering over her shoulder.

Sorrow spilled across Mrs. Jordan's fine features. "Why didn't you just ask me for the money?"

Justin remained silent for a seeming eternity, his face inscrutable. Finally, his jaw clenched and animosity sparked his eyes as all the malevolence in him seemed to erupt. "Because there's not nearly enough to pay my debts. Because I never did give a damn about you and Pa's precious ranch. And because I want to leave this damned territory and never set foot on this godforsaken land again." His voice rose with each declaration until he was shouting.

Mrs. Jordan shook her head sadly as a tear spilled down her cheek. "Why didn't you ever tell us?"

"How could I? All I'd heard about since I was old enough to understand was the ranch. Everything revolved around the Double J. Even I wasn't as important as the goddamned ranch."

Chris shifted in his saddle uncomfortably. All the violence had stemmed from a family disagreement, escalating into a near-range war.

"We did it all for you, Justin. Everything Tom and I worked for was for you," Mrs. Jordan cried.

"You never asked me if I wanted it," Justin said huskily.

"It's all over, Justin," Chris said in a low voice. "Give me your gun."

Justin stared at Chris, not making a move to follow his order.

"Please, Justin, don't make it any worse. Give Mr. Larabee your weapon," Mrs. Jordan pleaded.

After a few more tense moments, Justin surrendered his weapon. His shoulders slumped as the Double J hired men talked among themselves.

A husky blonde man came out the cabin door and walked toward them as a woman holding a baby stood in the doorway.

"If you have come to chase me away from my home, it will not work," the man said in a Swedish accent. "Elise and I will not leave."

Mrs. Jordan turned to the young farmer and shook her head. "There will be no more trouble from the Double J. You have my word."

The farmer studied them warily. "Why should I believe you?"

"Because I own the Double J and I'll make sure the wire is taken down."

The man's expression eased and he nodded. "Thank you."

The pretty young woman with the child joined them and the man wrapped an arm around her waist. She gazed up at Chris with a curious expression. "You are Mr. Larabee?"

Chris nodded. "That's right. Do I know you?"

She shook her head. "I know your friend Mr. Tanner. My husband found him after he had been hurt. He stayed with us for a little while. Is he all right?"

"Yes, ma'am. He saved a lot of lives tonight," Chris responded. He smiled at the young family. "Thank you for taking care of him for us."

"I am glad he is back with you," Elise said.

Chris tipped his head in question, but the husband and wife returned to their home.

"Josiah, Ezra, let's get Jordan to jail," Chris said. "Buck, you get JD back to the ranch."

"I'm all right," JD objected.

"Only if your face is characteristically the color of milk," Ezra said.

"I'll tuck him in," Buck assured. "Come on, kid."

With only a token protest, JD allowed Buck to lead him away. The Double J ranch hands followed them.

"If you don't mind, I'll ride with you, Justin," Mrs. Jordan said.

Her son shrugged, as if he didn't care one way or another. And he probably didn't. The time for caring had come and gone.

Chris slumped in his saddle as they headed toward town. He was exhausted and the cut on his arm had begun to ache again. What he needed was about twenty-four hours of uninterrupted sleep and he had an idea he finally might be able to get it.

Unless destiny was ornery enough to strike the seven men again in the next day or two.

"Anyone seen Vin?" Chris asked as he glanced around the bunkhouse.

"Can't keep that man in bed unless I tie him down," Nathan grumbled. "Some example he's givin' to JD."

The youngest member of the Seven grinned, but wisely didn't comment.

"I believe our taciturn Mister Tanner is conversing with his horse," Ezra said dryly. "I believe he said something to the effect that at least Sire would listen without interrupting."

Buck, JD, and Josiah laughed. Even Nathan managed a smirk. Chris merely shook his head and rolled his eyes. "Sounds like things are back to normal around here."

He strolled out of the bunkhouse and into the dusky evening. Just as Ezra had said, Vin was near the corrals, brushing Sire's already glowing black coat. Sliding his hands into his pockets, Chris joined the long-haired man.

"Nathan ain't none too happy with you," Chris said, leaning a shoulder against a corral post.

"If I stayed in that bed any longer, no one was gonna be too happy with me," Vin refuted.

Chris chuckled. "Can't say I blame you. Three days would drive me crazy, too." He watched Vin flinch slightly as he curried Sire's back, but knew his words of caution would fall on stubborn ears. "You never did tell us how you got involved with that gang of killers."

Vin set aside the curry and picked up the brush. "They found me. One of them recognized me, told the others I was wanted for murder, so Mangus offered me a job." Vin paused and sent Chris a crooked grin. "'Course he didn't trust me, but he said he needed the men."

Chris suspected Vin wasn't telling him everything and he probably wouldn't either. "He sure as hell had enough when they attacked the ranch. Probably picked them up in the saloons."

Vin shrugged. "They turned tail and ran fast enough when you and the boys surprised 'em."

Chris studied Vin as he continued to groom his horse. "I didn't know what to think when you didn't come back to see JD like you'd said."

Only a sliver of the sun remained and purple fingers stretched out from the horizon, fading into the velvet blue of the night sky. The breeze brought the scent of sage and lifted Vin's jacket fringe. The ranch hands' voices rose and fell, and a coyote's lonely yip was answered by another.

"I figgered you probably wondered about me. After everything I said to you, I'm surprised you didn't think I switched sides," Vin said quietly.

Chris considered not telling him, but decided to tell him the truth. "Fact is, I thought you'd gone against us by takin' up with the grangers. Ezra, he kept tellin' me you wouldn't have done it, but I wasn't so sure." Chris glanced at Vin to find his friend studying him intently. "I lost faith in you, Vin, and I'm sorry."

Vin set aside the brush and stepped over to Chris. He planted a booted foot on the lower corral pole and rested his arms on the top one. "Seems like it all started right here. Me tellin' you you were wrong about the Jordans and you tellin' me I was wrong." He smiled. "Guess we were both wrong. I ain't any good at hidin' how I feel about things, Chris. If I don't agree with you, I'm gonna say so, but that don't ever mean I'd turn against you and the others. You got my word on that."

"I guess I knew that, but I was mad and when I'm mad I don't think real straight." Chris chuckled self-deprecatively. "My temper always did get in the way. But I won't ever doubt your loyalty again, Vin. And you have my word on that."

Chris held out his hand and Vin reached over to grip his forearm as Chris did the same. They nodded at one another as they shook.

Chris crossed his arms over his chest as he leaned a shoulder against the post. "So what'd you decide about Tascosa?"

Vin clasped his hands. "About five days ago, someone asked me why I left my friends."

"What'd you say?"

Vin angled a look at Chris. "Said I didn't know. When I left maybe I had a reason, but damned if I could remember it." He turned his gaze to the fading sunset. "I ain't never said this to anyone before, but when I finally get to Tascosa, I'm hopin' you and the others'll be ridin' beside me."

Chris followed Vin's gaze to the western horizon. The world had gone silent and still, like it was holding its breath. A falling star arced across the sky, its splendor fading as it fell toward the earth. "Seven men, one destiny," Chris said quietly.

Vin turned to him, the question in his eyes.

"Something Josiah said," Chris explained. He smiled. "We got a ways to go and there's gonna be more arguments between us, but the bottom line is we're in this together until the end."

"One way or another," Vin added.

Chris nodded somberly. "One way or another."

The two men gazed at each other for a long moment, and in one another they recognized that destiny had played a part in bringing them together as allies and friends that fateful day in Four Corners over a year ago.

And destiny would make them brothers on the trail to Tascosa.

THE END (until destiny strikes again)

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