The Trail to Tascosa

by The Traveling Dime Store Novelist

DISCLAIMER: The following stories are works of fan fiction. They are not intended to infringe upon the copyrights of CBS, The Mirisch Group, MGM, Trilogy, or anyone else who may have legal claim on "The Magnificent Seven". I do not claim the characters or concept, and the only profit I get is the enjoyment of writing the stories and sharing them with other fans.

This series of stories takes place, as the title suggests, on the way to Tascosa to clear Vin’s name. The tales will follow one another chronologically and will keep to stories involving only the seven men with no romantic entanglements or off-the-wall characterizations (I hope!). As the characterizations are based on my observations, they may not agree with your own, as we all see the world from our own unique perceptions. If anyone would like to send comments, you can send them to me at my e-mail address at the end of the story.

Story One

The Journey Begins

By The Traveling Dimestore Novelist

The sounds of fiddle music, people laughing and talking, combined with a rainbow array of brightly colored dresses and white boiled shirts to give Chris Larabee more than a hint of claustrophobia in the newly built schoolhouse. The town of Four Corners had come a long way in the six months since Chris and his six compatriots had arrived. No longer did trail-weary cowboys go on drunken shooting sprees, and those who preyed on the weaker had either been hunted themselves and brought to justice, or chased out of town.

For the first time, the farmers had had a prosperous harvest, and to show their appreciation for the townís betterment, a special celebration with a dance had been planned in the seven menís honor. Chris wouldíve preferred a simple handshake, but the townsfolk of Four Corners had been adamant. Besides, he wouldíve never heard the end of it from Buck Wilmington if he had refused.

He searched the swirling and milling crowd for Buck, and wasnít surprised to find him dancing with a pretty redhead. The adoring way she gazed up at him made Chris wonder which line Buck had used this time Ė he seemed to have a bottomless cache of them. He continued to look around, and spotted Josiah Sanchez talking to Mrs. Potter from the general store, and Nathan Jackson was visiting with Mary Travis, the owner of the Clarion News, the town newspaper.

Childrenís laughter floated across the room, catching Chrisí attention. He wasnít surprised to see Ezra Standish hadnít been able to lay his cards aside even for one evening - he was surprised by the group of kids gathered around him as he performed parlor tricks with his calling card, the ace of spades. Maybe it shouldnít have been so amazing, seeing as how Ezra had captivated the children in that Seminole village theyíd defended from a crazed Confederate officer and his army in what seemed a lifetime ago. On the outskirts of the youngsters stood JD Dunne, the youngest member of the seven, following Ezraís deft hand movements with nearly as much awe as the children. Chris drew the edge of his hand along his mouth to hide an amused smile Ė in some ways, JD was more like the children than a feared member of the group of men some folks had dubbed Larabeeís gang.

His humor faded as he surveyed the room for the seventh man, but Vin Tanner was nowhere to be found.

Mary Travis approached him, and smiled warmly. "You should be proud of what youíve accomplished here, Chris."

"I didnít do it alone," he said.

Her smile faltered and Chris admonished himself for being so curt. "Iím sorry, Mary. Itís just that maybe weíve done too good of job."

She tilted her head questioningly. "I donít understand."

He shrugged. How did he explain the restlessness that had been growing in him the last couple of months? Even he couldnít understand why he felt a need to get on his horse and ride as fast and as far as he could. All he knew was that his gut felt like a watchspring that had been wound too tightly, and was threatening to fly apart.

"You got what you wanted, Mary," he continued. "Folks arenít afraid to leave their homes after dark anymore. The first schoolteacherís cominí into town next week, and I even heard that a US marshal will be cominí up here pretty soon."

"Thatís only an unsubstantiated rumor," Mary said firmly. "Nobody is going to force you and your friends to seek other employment. This is your home now."

He looked past Mary, to a picture in his mindís eye, the final image he held of Sarah and Adam waving good-bye. He forced himself back to the present, and met Maryís blue-gray eyes. "I never planned on stayiní and plantiní roots here. Thereís still too many unanswered questions."

The strains of a waltz circled them.

"Questions about your wife and son?" Mary asked quietly.

Chris balked, trying to decide how much he should tell her. He nodded. "Partly, but thereís other things inside of me, things that you wouldnít recognize." He ran a restless hand through his reddish-blond hair. "Things I gotta get settled before I can ever think about a home again."

He could tell she was upset, but he had no comforting words to give her. He admired and respected Mary, and liked her son Billy, and he knew she felt the same, maybe more, for him. But he had no right to make promises he didnít know if he could ever keep.

"If youíll excuse me, I think Iíll go outside and get some air." He paused. "Itís getting a mite close around here."

Maryís disturbed expression told Chris she understood the layered meaning of his words. He plucked his black hat from a wood peg and left the crowded schoolhouse behind. Stopping on the steps outside, he breathed in the fresh evening air. A hint of autumn was already in the breeze, and Chris wondered if he could spend a whole winter cooped up in Four Corners without going crazy. He doubted it.

He dug a cheroot from his shirt pocket, placed it between his lips, then struck a lucifer. He cupped his hands around the flame and lit the thin cigar. Taking a long drag, he allowed his gaze to flicker across the quiet street. He spotted Vin down the block, a solitary figure standing by the livery corral. With long, easy strides, Chris walked down the street and joined the ex-buffalo hunter.

Vinís forearms rested on the top corral pole and one booted foot was braced against the lower. In his hands he loosely held his harmonica, but it didnít appear heíd been trying to coax a tune out of it. His gaze remained on the black silhouettes of the mountain range, but Chris knew he had been aware of him the minute heíd stepped out of the schoolhouse.

"Not enough women to go around in there," Vin commented without looking at Chris.

"Buck didnít have any trouble findiní one," Chris said.

Vin turned to Chris and smiled crookedly. "Does he ever?"

Chris didnít answer, but looked up at the star-filled sky. Heíd often stared up at the same sight as he lay in his bedroll in a place where his only neighbors were a coyote or two, and maybe an owl or rabbit. Although those had been lonely times, he hadnít felt the restlessness that was ballooning inside of him now Ė an edgy, fidgety feeling, like waiting for the other boot to drop.

"Tascosa," Vin said quietly.

Chris brought his attention back to the soft-spoken man.

"Itís time I got myself squared with the law," Vin went on.

Chris could recall at least four times when theyíd planned to go to Tascosa, but each time something had come up that required their Ďspecial skillsí. Vin had felt loyal enough to the group that heíd sacrificed the obligation to himself and stayed with them. That loyalty was just one of the traits Chris admired in the confident, self-effacing man heíd come to rely on more heavily than the others. However, Chris understood Vinís need to clear his name; hell, heíd feel the same way in Vinís boots.

Chris stared at the glowing red end of his cheroot. "When do you want to leave?"

"The sooner the better," Vin replied without hesitation.

Chris thought a moment. "The judge comes in on tomorrowís stage. I want to set things right with him before heading out."

Vin slanted him a glance, and his eyes twinkled below his slouch hatís brim.

Chris shrugged beneath his perceptive gaze. "This townís getting too damn domesticated for me."

"And by the sound of it, you been spendiní too much time around Ezra and his four bit words," Vin said, his eyes creasing at the corners.

A crooked grin tugged at his lips. "He does kinda grow on a person, doesnít he?"

Vin glanced back at the schoolhouse, a beacon of civilization in the wilderness, and his expression sobered.

Chris intuitively knew what he was thinking. "Weíll seeíem again Ė kinda like a bad penny that keeps showing up."

"Seven bad pennies," Vin correctly wryly. He took a deep breath, then tucked his harmonica in his jacket pocket. "How about we leave day after tomorrow, early?"

Chris nodded. "Thatíll give us a day to get our business taken care of before headiní out for good."

"Iím gonna turn in," Vin said. "Morningíll come mighty fast."

"I think Iíll do the same."

Together, Chris and Vin walked side by side in the nightís darkness toward the boardinghouse. The music from the schoolhouse danced through the trees and blended with the soft soughing of the wind. Rough laughter tumbled out of one of the saloons as they passed by, and a working girlís giggle from an upstairs room drifted down to the two men.

But it was the coyoteís mournful yipping for its mate that caught Chris and Vinís attention, called to the part of each of them that civilization couldnít touch. They paused a moment to listen to natureís siren.

"Whatíll you tell Mrs. Travis?" Vin asked in a low voice.

"The truth," Chris replied after a moment. "Itís all I got to give her."

Vin nodded in understanding and the two men entered the whitewashed boardinghouse.

Four Cornersí main street was strangely quiet as Chris and Vin tied their bedrolls and saddlebags to their horsesí saddles. Vin finished the task and leaned against Sireís side, studying the coral glow that set the mountain peaks afire. He didnít know how many mornings of freedom he had left. If he couldnít clear his name, the law would have to be upheld and heíd pay the consequences in spite of his innocence. A shiver shimmied down his spine as he thought about his own death. Heíd faced it so often, the possibility of it shouldnít have spooked him, but it did. He remembered how his ma had died, kicking and fighting all the way.

Boy, youíre a Tanner. Donít you ever forget that.

His motherís final words echoed in his mind as they often did when he was uncertain if heíd made a right decision or not.

"You ready?" Chris asked.

Vin banished the doubts from his mind. "Yep."

The two men mounted their horses, and paused a moment to glance down the silent street where nothing moved except a few crows cleaning up some spilled corn. Suddenly, the black birds squawked and cawed, and hopped into the air to fly a short distance before settling again.

A single rider rounded the corner and his horse walked toward Chris and Vin. Josiah drew the animal to a halt beside the two men, and Vin noted his saddle was outfitted with traveling gear.

"Whatíre you doing, Josiah?" Vin asked, his brow puckered in question.

"The Lordís work," he replied with a faint smile and low, rumbling voice.

"I doubt the Lordís gonna be anywhere near where weíre goiní.

"There are lost souls everywhere, itís just that some are more lost than others." He divided his gaze between the two men, and Vin couldnít help wondering if Josiah meant him or Chris, or both.

Vin extended his hand to Josiah, who shook it firmly. Chris, on the other side of Vin, sent the ex-preacher a slight smile and nod.

He looked up to see Nathan riding toward them; he, too, had his saddle loaded with gear.

"Nice morniní, isnít it?" Nathan remarked as he neared.

Vin glanced at the awakening sky to hide the smile that tempted his lips. "Downright purty."

"You goiní any place in particular?" Chris asked dryly.

Nathan shrugged. "I been saviní for a shiny new medical kit. I hear Tascosa might have one."

Another rider approached, the horse galloping down main street. Ten feet away, JD reined in and the animal stopped on the proverbial dime. "Mind if I tag along?" He grinned, his smile reminiscent of the boy heíd been when heíd first arrived in Four Corners. "I can ride and I can shoot."

"And I hear you swim and fly purty good, too," Vin said, allowing his smile to grow.

"You heard right," JD replied, taking the long-standing joke in stride.

"What about your sheriff job?" Chris asked.

JDís dark eyes sparkled. "I resigned last night. Judge Travis said a marshal would be arriving by the end of the week so I ainít leaviní the town in a bind." He glanced at Vin. "Besides, I figger my experience as a lawmaníll come in handy proviní your innocence."

Vin smiled in amusement at his boyish enthusiasm. "You got a point there, JD."

Chris shook his head, but he, too, had a hint of a smile on his face.

It didnít surprise Vin to see another horseman headed their way.

"Good morning, gentlemen, and I do use the term loosely," Ezra greeted, his tone sardonic. Fastidiously, he flicked some imaginary dust from the sleeve of his green jacket. "Would you perchance be needing my assistance in your glorious quest to clear our companionís fine name?"

JD frowned as if thinking hard to figure out what Ezra just said. Vin grasped the general meaning and extended his hand to the gambler and con man. "Welcome aboard, Ezra."

Although Ezra appeared the dandy, his handshake was firm and his sea-green eyes steady. "My pleasure." He paused, then added in his indolent southern drawl, "Besides, I believe my reputation has precluded the further enhancement of my resources."

"Huh?" JD asked, his forehead creased in confusion.

"He canít find any more suckers whoíll play poker with him," Vin translated.

Ezra feigned disappointment. "I should take offense at such denigration of my sterling character, but the actual veracity is that itís time to facilitate my emigration to some other locale."

Vin studied Ezra a moment, noting the twinkle that appeared in his eyes, and he shook his head in mock resignation. "Hell, you might come in handy Ė you could always confuseíem into takiní the wanted paper off me."

"It would be my pleasure, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied with a grin wide enough that Vin could see his lucky gold tooth.

Vin glanced at Chris who had a forearm resting on his saddlehorn, and the former fast gun shrugged, but Vin could tell he was proud of their friends. When the seven diverse men had first hooked up, it didnít seem like they had a snowballís chance in hell of coming together as a team. But they had, and theyíd become friends in the bargain.

Vin looked down the street, wondering if the seventh man would join them. He liked Buck, but never quite understood how he and Chris had become so close. The two individuals seemed as different as night and day Ė Chris the oppressive dark and Buck the blinding light.

But, then, maybe that was reason enough.

With an encompassing and grateful look at the men who would ride with him to help clear his name, Vin took a deep breath and nudged his horseís flanks with his boot heels. Chris guided his horse up beside him with the others stringing into a line behind them.

From her newspaper office, Mary Travis watched the six men ride in single file down the street toward her. Her stomach clenched with something akin to sorrow, and she rolled her fingers into fists. With trembling legs, she walked to the door and stepped outside onto the boardwalk to watch them pass.

Chris, being the natural leader, led them. She stared at his profile, silently willing him to look at her. When he was directly across from her position, he turned his head and their eyes met. She could see apology and regret, but she also saw determination and his damnable pride. Her heart twisted and she choked back a cry. He hadnít given her the opportunity to fall in love with him, and for that she should have been grateful. But she cared for him and identified with his pain.

He touched the brim of his hat with two fingers and nodded, his face as inscrutable as ever. Then he turned his gaze to the road ahead.

Mary blinked back tears and met Vin Tannerís respectful nod and slight smile. She smiled tremulously in return.

As each man passed, they touched their hats courteously and smiled their farewells. Mr. Standish, whom Mary had come to like despite his glibness and penchant for gambling; Mr. Sanchez who had rebuilt the church single-handedly, but refused to preach from its pulpit; Sheriff Dunne, the boy whoíd grown into a man under Chris and the othersí tutelage; and finally Nathan, whom Mary had known the longest and held the most fondness for. Heíd saved more than one personís life in Four Corners and heíd be sorely missed, but she reluctantly understood his loyalty to the men whoíd saved him from hanging.

Her father-in-law, Judge Oren Travis, joined her and put an arm around her shoulders. Together, they watched the dust settle behind the menís horses as they left the town behind. A single tear rolled down Maryís cheek and she brushed it away impatiently.

"We should be glad they stayed as long as they did," Judge Travis said quietly.

Mary nodded. "I suppose, but I thought maybe. . . ."

"Chris Larabee is a man with more than his share of ghosts chasing him, and he wonít be able to settle down until heís laid them to rest." The judge paused. "But heís a damned good man and the others arenít going to abandon him. Fact is, theyíve already ridden through hell for each other, and probably will again in the days ahead."

Startled, Mary turned to look at him. "What do you mean?"

"Men like them draw trouble like honey draws a bear, and I have a feeling the trail to Tascosa is going to be longer than any of them imagined."

The sound of rapid hoofbeats on the hard earth caused them to look back and see Buck Wilmington riding hard down main street. He slowed to a trot as he passed them and managed a tip of his hat and a rakish smile, then he, too, was gone like the morning mist.

Mary took a deep breath and drew away from her father-in-law. It was time to get back to work Ė they still had a long way to go before Four Corners was completely civilized. Straightening her spine, she walked back into her office and began to set type for the Clarion Newsí front page story Ė a tale of seven heroes who tamed a town and left a legacy of peace when they rode away.

"Rider coming fast," JD called out from the rear of the group.

The rest of the men stopped and turned in their saddles to see who was approaching. Chris didnít bother to look Ė he knew who it would be, and a sense of satisfaction rose in him. Buck nodded to the men as he rode up beside them. He reined his big gray in beside Chris and Vin.

"Buck," Chris said simply.

Buck drew his lips together and narrowed his eyes, then asked, "Howíre the women in Tascosa?"

Chris glanced at Vin who smiled conspiratorially, and they both turned to Buck and spoke as one, "Donít come much livelier."

Nathan chuckled first, then JD joined in and Josiah smiled broadly. Ezra shook his head as if asking himself what heíd gotten himself into, but his eyes were filled with mirth.

"Sounds like a right fine place," Buck drawled. "Mind if I tag along?"

"Wouldnít be the same without you," Vin said, a lazy grin spreading across his face.

Chris merely gazed at Buck silently, and when Buckís eyes settled on him, they remained there long enough to communicate a friendship that seemed to persevere in spite of Chrisí attempt to sabotage it. And, in that moment, Chris realized he was glad Buck hadnít given up on him. Maybe someday Chris would be able to look at his oldest friend and not see all heíd lost, but the one thing heíd been able to hold on to.

He met Vinís glance as Vin looked at each of the six men gathered around him, giving them one last chance to go back to Four Corners, but nobody took him up on the unspoken offer. Chris sent Vin a nod, then took a deep breath and without another word, began the journey to Tascosa.

They traveled nearly thirty-five miles the first day before Vin found a campsite beside a narrow river in a small sheltered canyon nestled in the foothills. As soon as the sun set, the autumn air cooled even more and a breeze from the snow-tipped mountains blew across them. They huddled around a campfire as Josiah stirred a mixture of canned and foraged food in a skillet, including a couple rabbits Buck and JD had shot in a contest to see who was quicker. The contest had been declared a draw by Ezra.

"Smells mighty good," Nathan commented, his hands buried in his jacket pockets.

"Yeah, what is it?" JD asked in between chattering teeth.

"I call it Ďthe last supperí," Josiah replied with a wink.

"How appropriate," Ezra said dryly. Vin noticed that heíd pulled his buckskin jacket over his fancy coat.

Buck tossed a blanket at the youngest member of the group. "Wrap up in this afore you catch your death and we gotta nursemaid you," he groused.

JD scowled at him, but didnít throw the blanket back; instead, he pulled it tight around his shoulders. "Who was it who came down with the trots a couple months ago and acted like he was on his deathbed?"

Buck aimed a forefinger at JD. "I knew a fellah that died Ďcause he couldnít keep anything inside of him."

"Donít worry, Buck, youíre so full of it that that ainít ever gonna happen to you," JD shot back.

Vin bit back a grin. JD had learned to hold his own pretty well against Buck who ceaselessly teased the younger man, about everything from his hat to his bad jokes.

"I believe your apprentice has learned his lessons well, Buck," Ezra said, and sneezed once, then a second time.

"God bless you," Josiah said.

Ezra arched an eyebrow. "I highly doubt it, but thank you nevertheless."

Vin looked up to see Chris enter the camp, his black duster drawn around him to hold the chill at bay. "See anything?"

Chris shook his head. "Nothing, but it felt good to stretch my legs some."

"We keep to this pace, we should get to Tascosa in good time," Vin commented.

"We gotta be careful we donít wear out the horses," Chris said. "We got to take the pass through these mountains, then on the other side weíve got a stretch of desert."

"And itís going to be damn cold going through the mountains this time of year."

"Colder than this?" Nathan asked.

Vin nodded. "The pass is at about ten thousand feet, and it starts gettiní snow in late August."

"So itís got over a month of snow up there already?" JD asked, his eyes wide.

"Probably a foot or more. Sure hope you boys brought your woollies," Vin teased.

Ezra sat up straight against the log he leaned against. "And if we did not have the foresight to acquire such raiments, what is one to do?"

"One would have to freeze his ass off," Chris put in, a rare twinkle in his eyes.

Buck, sitting beside Ezra, guffawed and elbowed him in the side which earned him a pointed glare. The others chuckled as Vin studied Chris Ė itíd been a long time since Chris appeared so relaxed. Not that Chris didnít get a good gibe in now and again, but his whole attitude seemed more content than it had been in awhile, and Vin understood why. Heíd had the same uneasiness in Four Corners Ė like pacing back and forth in a cage without getting anywhere.

Even though the evening was cold, Vin felt more comfortable than the nights heíd spent in his room at the boardinghouse. Being outside under a canopy of stars with no walls around him reminded him of the time he lived with the Indians Ė those had been good days until the army had come to herd them on to a reservation. After having lived in a town for nearly six months, Vin understood how the Indians had felt when theyíd been stuck on a small parcel of land after having the entire country at their disposal.

He shook aside his dismal thoughts. His life with the Indians was in the past, like so many other things. What mattered now were the six men surrounding him who believed in him enough to travel nearly five hundred miles to help clear his name. The fact that heíd do the same for them didnít matter Ė heíd been a loner most of his life, and it felt strange to have these men stand by his side and risk their lives for him.

"You figure we should set out guards tonight?" Chris asked him quietly as he puffed on a cheroot.

Vin thought a moment, then nodded. "Probably wouldnít be a bad idea. Iíll take first watch."

"Donít feel obligated to take moreín an hour," Chris said in a low voice. "Everyoneís here Ďcause they want to be."

Vin shouldnít have been surprised that Chris wouldíve been thinking along the same lines as he was. He gave him a sheepish smile. "I ainít used to dependiní on others."

"Itís a two way road, Vin." Chris glanced at Buck who was talking to Ezra. "Sometimes we forget that."

Josiah filled plates with his Ďlast supperí which looked more like son-of-a-bitch stew, but nobody complained. It was hot and filled them up. Afterwards, JD and Ezra cleaned up the dishes in the cold , swift-running stream with a minimum of complaining. By the time they finished, a full moon had risen and the coyotes had started their lonesome howling. The men donned extra clothing, and slipped into their bedrolls while Vin took a position on a rock about ten yards from the fire. He kept his eyes averted from the fireís light, and he could pick out individual trees and bushes surrounding them. As long as they didnít start moving, Vin ignored them.

Twenty minutes later, snores from the camp told Vin the others had fallen asleep. Although he was pleased theyíd joined him, Vin enjoyed the peace and solitude of the night. There was something about a sky full of stars and a full moon smiling down on him that made him glad to be away from civilization.

Heíd almost forgotten what it was like to be away from people and their constant chatter. Even when they werenít talking, Vin could hear their footsteps, their laughter, the rustle of clothing as they walked. There was never any escape from it in a town. Here there was only the occasional coyoteís howl, the sweep of an owlís wings as it swooped down on its prey, and the crackle of dry leaves under a squirrel or rabbitís foot.

Suddenly a scream broke the nightís stillness and Vin came to his feet, his heart pounding against his ribs. At first he thought something had happened to one of the others, but a quick glance told Vin they were all right except for their sleep-dazed alarm. He tried to pierce the darkness, scanning the shadows for any sign of what the ungodly sound had been. He spotted two red glowing eyes staring at him from the blackness and his blood ran cold. As if hypnotized, he couldnít pull his gaze away from the unnatural sight. Then they were gone, like a spirit in the night.

Icy fingers of dread wrapped around Vin and gooseflesh arose on his arms; he felt as if someone had just tramped across his grave.

"Jesus, God Almighty, what was that?" Buck demanded, looking around with wide eyes.

"Sounded like a woman beiní killed," JD said, his voice somewhat shaky.

"Or the devil taking another soul," Josiah added softly.

Chris was standing, his revolver balanced in his hand. "It was a mountain lion," he stated.

Although Chrisí tone was steady, Vin noticed his anxious gaze darting about.

"I take it that was not the household variety kitty cat," Ezra said, his face somewhat pale. He was the least accustomed to natureís ways and Vin could tell he had been badly spooked by the bloodcurdling sound.

"You take it right," Vin said as he continued a visual search of the woods. "He wasnít moreín twenty feet from me."

"You sure?" Chris asked with a frown.

Vin nodded, and moved toward the others. After his eerie encounter with the mountain cat, he instinctively sought human companionship. "I could see his eyes. Game must be scarce up in the mountain that itís cominí this close to people."

"You figger itís still out there?" JD asked in a low voice, his eyes round as saucers as they jumped from shadow to shadow.

"Even if it is, it wonít come any closer with so many of us," Chris said firmly.

Buck crept up behind JD and meowed loudly in his ear. JD jumped nearly a foot in the air, then whirled on Buck and punched him in the chest. "Geezus, Buck, you do that again and Iíll shoot you!"

Buck only laughed, which further incensed JD.

"Thatís enough," Chris broke in before their antics escalated any further. "Two guards at a time. Iíll sit up with Vin, then weíll wake Ezra and Nathan in a couple hours, then Josiah and Buck, and Iíll take a second watch with JD." He looked around at the still somewhat uneasy expressions. "That cat ainít gonna stick around here with so many of us around. Go on back to sleep."

Vin gripped his sawed-off carbine in his hands, then consciously loosened his stranglehold on the weapon. He doubted any of them would get much sleep anymore tonight.

As the others warily slipped back into their bedrolls, Chris strapped his gunbelt around his hips, and tugged on his duster and broad-brimmed hat. He joined Vin at the perimeter of the camp and they took positions on two nearby rocks.

"I donít like it, Chris," Vin said in a low voice, more troubled than he liked to admit. He recalled the conversation heíd had with Chris in Purgatoryís saloon when theyíd been hunting Cletus Fowler, the man whoíd murdered Chrisí wife and son. "You told me about that cat that you were trackiní when you were ranchiní, and how it turned the tables on you."

"But we ainít trackiní this one," Chris stated. "He probably just got a little nervous when he ran into our camp." He blew a stream of smoke from a freshly lit cheroot, and kept his vigilant gaze roaming the darkness.

"I donít know." Vin said, not convinced. "When I was liviní with the Indians, there was this grizzly that killed a woman, and ripped up a couple others pretty bad. The People said that a riled spirit had gone into that grizzly and they had to send the spirit back where it come from."

"Howíd they do that?"

"The shaman held this ceremony Ė lasted two days and a night."

"What happened?"

"The bear disappeared, never to be seen again," Vin replied softly.

"I guess Josiah is about as close to a shaman as we have," Chris said, the barest hint of a smile in his eyes.

Vin scowled. "It ainít funny, Chris. I seen some pretty strange things when I lived with them."

Chris sobered instantly. "I didnít mean anything, Vin, but I think the cat just came down from the mountain Ďcause he got hungry and we happened to be in his regular path."

Vin took a deep breath, knowing Chris was more than likely right. But even acknowledging that didnít make the hair at the back of his neck settle down. He trusted his instincts, and his instincts told him something wasnít right Ė somehow the balance had been thrown off out here in this wilderness.

"We can take a look around at first light," Chris said, sensing Vinís unease. "Find out where it went."

Vin nodded, his sour gut only marginally appeased by the older manís suggestion. He tried to set aside his doubts, and concentrate on keeping guard, but he couldnít shake the feeling that it wasnít over yet.

The first slant of daylight found Vin poking around in the underbrush for signs of their night intruder. JD watched as Vin hunkered down amongst the spiny brush and touched a paw track in a patch of soft dirt not covered by fallen leaves.

"Damn big cat," Vin commented dryly.

Chris, who was taking his second watch with JD, leaned over to get a closer look. "Biggerín the one that was killiní my stock."

JD stared down at the print and his palms grew moist. Heíd never known a wild animal to be so bold. "He was this close to us?" JD asked, embarrassed that his voice sounded higher pitched than normal.

Vin nodded grimly. "Looks like he didnít just leave right away either."

"What do you mean?" Chris asked.

"Look at the tracks. He walked all around the camp, then finally left," Vin explained, pointing to the circular route of the faint prints.

A chill that had nothing to do with the morning air touched JD and the fact that both of the older, more experienced men looked jumpy didnít help his own nerves.

"That ainít natural," Chris reiterated Vinís words from last night.

A black and white magpie landed on a branch above them and scolded them loudly, startling each of the three men. JD reflexively drew his revolver and dropped into a firing stance. Belatedly realizing what had made the sound, JD sheepishly slipped the weapon back in its holster.

"Remind me not to sneak up on you," Vin said, droll humor coating his voice. He had nearly done the same thing as JD, but had caught himself at the last moment. Damn, he was starting to act like a mouse in a room full of cats, then chided himself for the fit likening.

"The best thing to do is head on out just like we planned," Chris said. "Thereís no reason for it to follow us."

Vin met Chrisí eyes, and he could see that he wasnít as certain as heíd been last night. He probably said it more for JDís benefit than theirs Ė Chris sometimes acted as much like a mother hen as Buck.

The three men returned to camp where the others had risen and were shaving as water bubbled cheerfully in a couple tin coffeepots over the fire. The scene appeared so normal, Vin almost lost the sinister unease that had dogged him since the god-awful scream last night. He moved off to take care of some personal business, then returned, carrying an armload of dry branches for the fire. He leaned against a rock, hooked his fingers in his belt, and divided his attention between the men and their coral-tinged surroundings.

Buck and JD were trying to share a small triangular mirror to shave, and by the looks of their nicked faces, neither one was succeeding. A few feet from them, Ezra brushed his red jacket and Vin wondered how long the fancy coat would remain clean Ė heíd give it until mid-morning. Josiah had again taken the task of making their meal, and he was adding some oats to a pot of boiling water. Vinís stomach growled, reminding him that supper had been a long time ago. Nathan was going through his saddlebags as if inventorying his supplies.

Nathan caught his gaze and shrugged, reading Vinís puzzled expression. "You never know when weíll need this stuff."

So the mountain cat had gotten to Nathan, too. It was just that he could do something to ease his worry.

Chris came to stand by Vin. "Will we make it over the pass today?" he asked.

"Should," Vin replied. "Unless something comes up."

"You expecting anything in particular?"

Vin smiled and squinted up at Chris. "Hope not."

The ex-shootist didnít smile in return, but sent his narrow gaze to the unbroken land around them. There probably wasnít another human being save the seven of them in a twenty mile radius; of course, it mightíve been easier dealing with a two-legged varmint than an animal gone loco.

A couple hours later, theyíd put about five miles between themselves and their campsite. The men, whoíd been unusually quiet and tense in the saddle since theyíd ridden out, now relaxed and tossed occasional comments about.

Ezra was beginning to regret wearing his red jacket, not that it wasnít warm enough since it was made of the finest wool available. No, heíd underestimated the amount of dust on the switchbacks leading to the pass. Moreso, he found himself in the unfortunate rear position Ė behind six horses that had no compulsion whatsoever about sending dust pluming around him to settle on his person. He looked ahead to see Vin had taken the lead with Chris following close behind on the narrow trail. If Ezra managed to move up to the front of the column, heíd have less spiraling dirt to contend with. When they stopped to give their horses a rest, he would casually lead his animal up to a more auspicious position. Not that he would usurp Chris or Vinís rank in the single line, but he could manage to have fewer ill-mannered beasts Ė of course, meaning the horses, not the men who rode them Ė ahead of him.

He heaved a long-suffering sigh and looked over the edge of the narrow trail that sloped steeply downward. A few trees and rocks, along with some patches of white snow, studded the descent, but there was little that would stop a person once they started falling. With a shiver of foreboding, he looked away from the rim and sent his gaze forward.

Abruptly, he noticed the rear quarters of Nathanís horse getting closer and he reined in, startled to see everyone had stopped. He frowned, wondering why Vin had halted the group. The tracker had turned in his saddle, and was looking back down the trail where theyíd come and saying something to Chris. Ezra couldnít see their expressions so he didnít know if something was bothering them or if Vin had just decided to take a rest and let the horses blow.

"Ezra!" Vin suddenly shouted as he gestured wildly. "Look out!"

Puzzled, Ezra glanced around, then upward to a massive rock beside the trail. A blur of tan hurtled down toward him and its weight knocked him off his horse. Rolling and smashing into brush and rocks, Ezra could smell the fetid breath of something feral and hot. In some corner of his mind, he recognized the furred body that tumbled down the incline with him Ė the mountain cat had followed them.

He struggled to push the animalís muzzle away, to keep it from tearing his throat out, even as he tried to slow his descent. Suddenly he rammed into something hard and immovable, and Ezraís breath was knocked from his lungs. The cat laid its ears back, and snarled down at him. Ezra stared up at yellow-stained teeth that appeared long and dangerous. He struggled to breathe as his chest burned with red hot fire, and tried to release his sleeve gun. The cat roared and shifted, and the derringer popped out. Without aiming, Ezra squeezed the trigger and the animalís howl of rage and pain gave him momentary satisfaction. The cougar didnít relinquish its prey, though, and he growled, opening its jaws to administer the fatal bite.

"Scare him away from Ezra," Vin hollered as he fought to control his mount and slip his Henry rifle from its scabbard at the same time.

Down the row, he saw Buck had his horse under control and was bringing his carbine to his shoulder. Chris, too, had raised his weapon.

The men fired down at the cat, careful not to aim too close lest they hit Ezra by mistake. They were rewarded by the creatureís swift retreat, but their companion lay silent and unmoving nearly a hundred yards down the embankment.

"We gotta get down to him before he bleeds to death," Nathan shouted, dismounting cautiously on the narrow shelf.

"If heís not already gone to the hereafter," Josiah said, his voice strained.

"Iíll go down," Buck volunteered as he bounded out of the saddle of his gray and unlooped his lasso. He removed his hat and hung it from the saddlehorn by its chinstrap. "I need a few of you to hold the rope."

Ground-tying their horses, Josiah, Chris, and Nathan quickly joined him. Josiah took one end of the rope and tied it around his waist to act the anchor, instead of taking a chance on using one of the horses and having it grow frightened on the precarious switchback.

Vin hurried over to the huddled group and leaned over the trailís ledge, then put his telescope to his eye to try to determine the extent of Ezraís wounds. His stomach muscles clenched at the sight of Ezraís once-white shirt now soaked with scarlet blood.

"Heís in a bad way," Vin managed to say in a steady voice.

Buck dallied the rope around his waist and placed a booted foot at the edge. "Once I reach him, Iíll probably have to carry him so youíll be pulliní us both up together."

Chris nodded. "Weíll do it. Go."

The men watched anxiously as Buck moved downward with too much haste.

"Slow down," Chris hollered. "Or you ainít goiní do him or yourself any good."

Buck didnít reply, but Vin noticed he did as Chris said, and for that Vin was grateful. Too often Buck played the wild card; this time however, because Ezraís life lay in the balance, he would play it safe.

Vin stood near the edge, watching Buckís progress and searching the terrain for any sign of the crazed cat. Heíd never known an animal to act so recklessly, to attack a person who wasnít even alone. Even the cat Chris had hunted hadnít attacked him, but had killed his packhorse instead. Man was the only animal who did something as foolhardy as attacking a person, and he was usually desperate when he did.

Vin shouldíve heeded his gut feeling. Guilt weighed heavy on his shoulders Ė he was the tracker, the person whoíd learned the ways of the hunter, and was the most knowledgeable about animals and their habits. If he had listened to his instincts, Ezra wouldnít have been attacked. Vin shouldíve taken the rear position where he could keep an eye on everyone, as well as watch their back trail. Instead, heíd ridden ahead and Ezra was lying down there, maybe dying. Or, the thought brought a sickness to his gut, already dead.

JD joined him, his complexion milky and his gaze hopping about nervously. "Howíd you know it was back there?"

Vin remained silent for a moment, then replied. "I felt it."

"Huh?"

"I just knew," Vin stated, unable to completely stifle the impatience produced by his own blunder. How did he explain something he didnít even understand?

JD stared at him like heíd grown a second head.

"Iím down," Buckís faint voice rose up to them. "And heís clawed up real bad."

Vin looked through the telescope again to see Buck examining Ezraís bloody chest carefully.

"Can you move him?" Chris called down. "Or should we send Nathan down?"

"Itíd be best to get him up there," Buck returned.

They could see Buck remove his coat and after a few minutes, he managed to make a large sling with the jacket where he could rest Ezraís limp form close to his chest and have one hand free to help him climb.

"Thatís right, Buck," Chris said in a low voice as he stared down the hill. "Just like we done in Alamosa."

"Start pulling us up real slow-like," Buck hollered.

Vin and JD added their hands to the rope and the five men carefully, but steadily drew Buck and their injured companion up the hill. By the time they neared the top, Buckís face was slicked in sweat and Ezraís blood had stained the front of Buckís shirt.

JD and Nathan took hold of Buckís arms to help him up the rest of the way. Once he was on flat ground, Vin and Chris gingerly lifted Ezra out of the fashioned sling. JD hovered close to Buck who breathed heavily from the long climb.

"You okay?" JD asked, his voice sounding young and anxious.

The gravity of the situation had sobered all of them, even the normally unflappable Buck.

"Iíll be okay, kid," Buck said in between gasps. "Itís Ezra I ainít so sure about."

Ezra wasnít a big man, but he seemed even smaller in Chris and Vinís arms. His pasty complexion and shallow breathing frightened Vin, but he bit back his fear. If Ezra died, his death would be on his conscience Ė Ezra had come with them to help clear his name.

"There ainít enough room on this trail to work on him. We got to get him someplace where I can boil some water and get him cleaned up good, then sew up them pieces of skin," Nathan said.

"The trail opens onto a plateau about a half mile ahead," Vin said.

Nathan nodded. "Thatíll have to do."

"Chris, letís get him on my horse, then Iíll ride with him and make sure he donít fall off," Vin suggested.

Chris nodded tersely, and Vin saw the anguish in his green eyes nearly hidden by the shadow of his wide hat brim. Folks who didnít know the former gunslinger thought he was a harsh, unfeeling man. Vin knew otherwise; Chris cared deeply for his friends and would walk through hell for them. Maybe that was why he inspired so much loyalty from the six men who knew him best.

Working together, Chris, Vin, and Nathan were able to get Ezra up on Vinís blaze-faced black gelding. Vin hauled himself up into the saddle behind him and wrapped his arms around Ezraís middle, heedful of the deep gashes on his torso.

He took the reins in one hand. "Iíll go on ahead. Iíll be goiní easy-like so you can catch up."

Chris laid a hand on Vinís leg and looked up at him. "This wasnít your fault, Vin."

"Tell Ezra that," Vin stated bitterly, and urged his horse into a slow walk as not to jar his badly hurt friend any more than necessary.

His horse picked its way up the switchback, its shoes ringing on the rocks. Vin kept a watchful eye out in case the cat returned to finish the job heíd begun on Ezra.

The gambler groaned and shifted, only to moan even louder.

"Take it easy, Ezra," Vin soothed. "Weíre gonna get you fixed up real soon."

"Wh-what happened?" Ezra managed to ask.

"The cat jumped you."

"Cat?"

"The mountain cat, remember?"

After a moment, Ezra nodded nearly imperceptibly, but Vin felt the movement against his shoulder.

"How bad?" Ezra asked with a pain-roughened voice.

"It ainít good," Vin said bluntly. "I donít know if your purty red coatís gonna make it or not."

"You doÖknow how toÖcheer a fellow," Ezra managed to say.

"I try my best." Vin kept a firm hold on Ezra and he could feel his friendís warm blood dripping on his hands and wrists. How much blood could a man lose and still keep on breathing?

"You just hold on, Ezra. Nathanís gonna take good care of you," Vin reassured.

"Uh, hmmm," Ezra mumbled.

His head lolled against Vinís upper arm, telling him that Ezra had lost consciousness.

A few minutes later the sound of horses alerted him to the arrival of the others, and the trail opened to a wide flat plateau with scrub brush, jack pine, and some sturdy hardwoods growing up from the rocky soil. A small mountain stream tumbled over the rocks, and would be a good source of fresh water. Vin halted and waited until Josiah and Chris came over to lift Ezra down from the saddle. Then Josiah cradled Ezra in his arms as if he were a child and carried him to the blanket Nathan hurriedly rolled out. He gently laid him down and helped Nathan take care of the injured man.

Vin remained mounted. "Iíll be back." He reined Sire around to go back the way theyíd come, but Chris grabbed the horseís bridle.

"Youíre not going out there by yourself," Chris said flatly.

"I ainít sittiní here while that killer cat is roaminí around free," Vin stated, his tone as determined as Chrisí.

"Itís only an animal, Vin. It ainít like a man who knows the difference between right and wrong," Chris exclaimed.

Vin glanced up to see Buck had joined them, wearing his blood - Ezraís blood - smeared coat. "Iíll ride with him," Buck volunteered.

Chris shook his head in disgust. "And how are you two going to find it? You got to scramble down that hill where it took off from and trail it from there."

Vin shook his head, and searched the area around them. A chill rippled through him. "Heís close, Chris, closerín we think."

"And how do you know that?" Chris demanded.

Vin brought his steady gaze to bear on him. "Just like you knew."

Chris studied him a long moment with narrowed eyes, then nodded reluctantly and released the bridle. "All right."

"Weíll be back Ďfore nightfall," Vin assured. He glanced at Ezra and his fingers tightened around the leather reins.

"Nathaníll take care of him," Chris said, reading Vinís thoughts. He stared at the two men, his eyes speaking his worry for them.

Vin nudged his horseís flanks, and Buck moved to follow, but Chris stopped him.

"You keep an eye on him, Buck," Chris said in a low voice. "Heís gonna do something to get himself killed if he ainít careful."

"Donít worry, Chris," Buck said with uncharacteristic somberness. "Iíll take care of him."

Chris nodded as he watched him follow after Vin, then shook his head at the irony. Usually Vin was the level-headed one, and Buck the reckless one. It was strange Ė Chris had seen Vin face death calmly, with a wry sense of humor, but this cat had somehow gotten to him. Chris had to admit, heíd never known an animal to act so brazen before, and it was damned eerie.

A feeling of dread settled at the base of Chrisí neck. Who wouldíve figured only a day out of Four Corners theyíd run into trouble? So much for a nice, uneventful trip to Tascosa. He turned to glance over at Nathan and Josiah who worked intently on Ezra. Figuring heíd just distract them if he checked on Ezra now, he walked over to JD who seemed more than a little lost.

"Whereíd Vin and Buck go?" JD asked as Chris approached him.

"After the cat."

"You figger theyíll find him?"

Chris shrugged. "Hard to say."

JD took a deep breath and snatched his hat off his head, then turned the brim around and around in his hands. "I ainít never seen so much blood from one person before, Chris. Not even when we were in that Seminole village. How do you get used to it?" He gazed imploringly at Chris, like a kid begging to be reassured that Santa Claus was real.

Chris shook his head slowly. "You donít. You just learn to deal with it. And Iíll tell you something else, JD, the day you do get used to it is the day I stop ridiní with you." Chris paused to let his words sink in, then suggested. "Why donít you take care of the horses while I get a fire goiní? Then we can put some coffee on and make something to eat. Looks like Nathan and Josiahíll be busy for a time."


An hour later, JD dropped an armload of foraged wood on the ground a few feet from the fire Chris had started earlier to heat water for Nathan. JD paused and glanced at Ezra who lay about six feet from the flameís warmth.

Josiah finished tying off the last of his bandages and wiped his brow with the back of his wrist. He glanced at JD and sent him a reassuring smile. "Donít look so worried, JD, itíll take more than a cat to bring down someone like Ezra."

"How is he?" Chris asked Nathan.

"We got the bleeding stopped so he wonít bleed to death, and I got him sewed up good. If no infection sets in, he should be ready to travel in four or five days as long as he goes easy-like," Nathan replied. He glanced around, and his brow furrowed. "Whereís Buck and Vin?"

"Hunting," Chris simply answered.

Josiah glanced sharply at him. "They went after it?"

"Yep."

Josiah looked around and hunched his shoulders as if chilled. "I got a bad feeling about that animal, Chris."

"After what it did to Ezra, we all should," Chris stated, then moved away to keep an eye out for any uninvited guests.

Buck handed Vin the reins of his horse and waited until the tracker mounted back up.

"Find anything?" he asked.

Vinís jaw muscle clenched as he shook his head. "Nothiní. Itís like it disappeared into thin air."

"Now donít you go and make a bogeyman out of this cat," Buck stated. "It probably just jumped up onto some of these big rocks."

Vin looked around at the cabin-sized boulders surrounding them. "Maybe. But we know itís hurt."

"Ezra musta shot it with that pea-gun of his." At Vinís questioning look, Buck went on, "His sleeve gun was out when I went down to get him, and one of the shells was missiní."

Vin nodded in agreement. "Moreín likely." His hazel eyes turned inward. "Wonder how heís doiní."

"Nathanís takiní care of him. Heíll be just fine," Buck reassured. He glanced up at the angle of the sun. "Weíd best head back."

Vin shook his head. "I want to make a wider pass to see if I can cut his trail. I want to find out where that cat went, and make sure it ainít cominí after us."

Buck studied the ex-bounty hunter; Chris was right, Vin wasnít acting like his usual self. "Look, Vin, itís an animal. It donít think like we do. Heís probably dyiní someplace from that gunshot wound."

"He ainít losing that much blood. You can go back; I donít need a mother hen."

Buck grinned. "Maybe not, but if I go back without you, Chris is gonna chew my butt out good. And believe me, Iíd rather face that cat than Chris when heís got a burr under his saddle."

Vin smiled slightly, the first smile Buck had seen on his face since the catís attack on Ezra. Vin was a good man, but sometimes he took things a mite too personal.

They continued on, letting their horses pick their way across the rocky slope. For two more hours they searched for a sign of the mountain lion, but the animal had gotten clean away. With a resigned sigh, Vin led them back toward the plateau where theyíd left the others. By the time they arrived, the moon had risen.

"I thought you said youíd be back before nightfall," Chris said sharply as soon as they dismounted.

Buck glanced down, not about to betray Vin, but Vin spoke up. "I talked Buck into stayiní out longer. Howís Ezra?"

"Heís still alive," Chris replied tightly.

Buck and Vin let out twin sighs of relief.

"Nathan and Josiah sewed him up and the bleeding has pretty much stopped," Chris went on. "We just have to keep an eye on him to make sure infection donít set in. Could you tell where the cat was headed?"

"Hard to say. It seemed to be moviní away, but I donít knowÖ" Vin shrugged as he gazed off into the darkness.

"You got some kind of connection to this cat, Vin?" Buck asked. "Ever since it showed up last night, you been actiní like a girl at her first dance."

Vin glared at him. "You wouldnít understand, Buck."

Buck shifted his stance and hooked a thumb in his gunbelt. "Try me."

Vin glanced at Chris then back at Buck. "The Indians I lived with believed in ghosts and bad spirits that came back in animals to haunt the liviní."

Buck pursed his lips. "So what youíre sayiní is this cat has some kind of bad spirit in him thatís makiní him attack us."

Vin shrugged, and stubbed his boot toe into the earth. "Somethiní like that." He lifted his wary gaze to the surrounding blackness. "Itís out there and it ainít far away. Donít ask me how I know, I just do."

Although Buck didnít believe in Indian superstition, he did feel a shiver chase up his spine. Damn, Vin was starting to get to him with his spook stories.

"As soon as you two get your horses taken care of, címon and get something to eat," Chris suggested.

Buckís stomach growled, reminding him it had been a long time since breakfast, and the piece of jerky heíd had during the day hadnít done much to keep his belly from shaking hands with his backbone.

That night the men were subdued as they ate their meal. Ezraís battered body and occasional groans reminded the men how close death had come to them again. And the unknown location of the cat only increased their uneasiness.

Vin couldnít shake the feeling that the animal was toying with them, like a cat with seven cornered mice. When it was time to clean up their plates in the nearby stream, Vin joined JD and Buck.

"You donít have to play mother hen," Buck threw Vinís own words back at him, but a smile tempered his words.

Vin grinned wryly. "Iím just makiní sure you and JD get them dishes clean."

Buck snorted and elbowed JD. "Next time weíll just let him take care ofíem."

JD smiled weakly.

Vin noticed an unnatural silence to the night. It was as if all of nature was holding its breath, waiting for something to happen. A twig snapped, sounding like a gunshot in the quiet. Buck and JD came to their feet instantly, and Vin straightened, straining to hear something, anything to identify what had made the sound. Utter stillness met their ears.

"Letís get back to the camp," Vin said softly.

The three men quickly gathered the plates and moved back to the security of the fire and their companions.

"Itís out there," Vin said, his voice pitched low.

They moved Ezra a little closer to the fire and tightened the circle around him. The wind began to sigh through the trees, rattling the dead leaves still on the branches, and sharpening Vinís senses. He lifted his head, closed his eyes, and sniffed the air. The best hunter of the Indian tribe heíd lived with had been able to identify the scent of an animal on the breeze and Vin had learned how to do it also, although not nearly as well as his friend.

He concentrated on separating out the smells of the coffee, the nearby horses and their droppings, and the earthy odor of soil and decaying leaves. A flicker of something else drifted to him, and his eyes flew open. He looked in the direction the wind came from, searching the shadows.

"What is it, Vin?" Chris demanded.

Vin shook his head, frustrated that he hadnít been able to get a better grasp of the scent. He looked around to see everyoneís attention centered on him.

"I thought I smelled it," he stated without embellishment.

"The cat?" JD asked in disbelief.

Vin nodded somberly.

The fire crackled and sent a shower of orange embers upward into the night sky. The tension around the men was thick enough to cut with a bowie knife.

"We need to get some sleep," Chris stated. "Vin, you and Iíll take first watch again. The rest of you get some shut-eye. Weíre going to have some long days ahead of us."

Nobody argued, and they crawled into their bedrolls. Vin noticed, however, that everybody kept their weapons close at hand and they didnít close their eyes right away.

"Iíll take a spot a little ways from the camp to keep an eye out. You stay beside Ezra," Chris said.

Vin grabbed his arm. "Be careful, Chris. If it attacked Ezra in broad daylight with all of us close by, it wonít hesitate to attack a single person at night."

Chris smiled slightly, reassuring him. "Donít worry. Iíve had some experience with mountain cats."

Vin released him sheepishly. "Guess you have. Sorry."

Chris shook his head. "No need to apologize for worryiní about a friend." He glanced at Ezraís still body. "Or weíd all be apologiziní."

Vin watched Chris walk into the darkness and lean against a tree trunk. His figure blended with the treeís shadow, nearly rendering him invisible. Vin turned his attention back to Ezraís pale face that reflected the fireís flickering flames. He picked up a cloth that lay in a basin of water, and squeezed the moisture from it then laid it on Ezraís forehead. The gambler moaned from someplace deep within him, and Vin swallowed hard, empathizing with his pain.

As time dragged, sweat appeared on Ezraís face and Vin wiped it away with the cool cloth. Ezra began to thrash about, and Vin carefully restrained him so he wouldnít break open Nathanís precise stitches.

"Take it easy, Ezra," Vin soothed. "Youíre safe here."

Chris neared them and Vin glanced up. "How is he?"

Vin shook his head. "He got a fever."

Chrisí jaw muscle knotted. "Might be the first sign of infection, or it could just be his body tryiní to heal."

"Thatís what I figure."

"Itís time to get Josiah and Nathan up for the next watch. Nathan can keep an eye on him," Chris said.

"Iíll take an extra shift since weíre a man short and -- "he paused. "I ainít gonna sleep anyhow. Wake Josiah to take your place and Iíll sit with Ezra a while longer."

"You sure?"

Vin nodded.

After Chris had awakened Josiah, he laid down to sleep, and Josiah paused by Ezra.

"How is he?" Josiah asked quietly.

Vin shrugged. "Not any better."

Josiah studied Ezra a moment, then glanced at Vin. "Some times things happen that nobody can explain. It isnít anyoneís fault, it just is. Donít blame yourself for what that mountain cat did."

"Anyone ever tell you you sound a lot like Chris sometimes?" Vin asked with a half-hearted smile.

"Iíll take that as a compliment, my friend." Josiah said warmly, then moved off to stand guard on the camp.

Half an hour later, Vin was dabbing away the sweat on Ezraís face when the gamblerís eyes flew open.

"Ezra?" Vin said softly.

Ezra blinked, and found Vinís oval face in the dim light. He squinted at the man, noting heíd removed his slouch hat and his hair looked unkempt and tangled. "Vin?"

He smiled in response. "Howíre you feeliní?"

Ezra thought about that a moment. How did he feel? His stomach burned like heíd gotten a hold of some bad liquor and his chest felt as if someone had taken a whip to it. For a moment, he wondered if his uncle had punished him again for touching his auntís good china.

"Like hell," he managed to croak out.

Vinís crooked smile looked familiar. "Well, you look like hell, too."

"Thanks a lot, friend," Ezra said in a pain-husky voice. "Thirsty."

Vin reached for a nearby canteen and poured some water into a tin cup. He placed his hand behind Ezraís head and raised him up slightly so he could drink without choking. Ezra swallowed painfully, but the liquid felt good going down and his parched mouth appreciated the wetness.

He couldnít drink all the water, and Vin seemed to understand and withdrew the cup. He gently laid his head back down on the makeshift pillow.

"Better?" Vin asked softly.

Ezra nodded. "Thanks." His eyelids felt like someone had tied anvils to them. He closed his eyes and drifted back to sleep.

Vin pulled the blankets up over Ezraís bandaged chest and his fingers curled into fists of helplessness.

"Iím gonna get the cat that done this to you Ezra. I swear it," Vin vowed in a low voice.

An hour later, Nathan took Vinís place and Vin slipped into his bedroll, but his mind remained wide awake. What if some restless spirit had come back as a mountain cat and was avenging some wrong? Why had it chosen them?

Vin closed his eyes, and in his mind, he saw the two red glowing orbs heíd seen the night before. Was it only last night the cat had first shown itself? It seemed longer. A whole lot longer.

Gunshots brought everyone instantly awake. Chris, sitting with Ezra, glanced around, accounted for everyone but JD whoíd been on guard with him. Chris pulled his revolver from its holster, and hurried in the direction of the gunshots. He was gratified to see Buck and Vin close behind him, leaving Josiah and Nathan with Ezra.

"JD!" Buck hollered, more than a tinge of worry in his tone. "Where are you, kid?"

"Over here," came his faint reply.

They followed his voice, and found him sitting on his backside next to the stream, his gun in his hand. Buck and Chris hunkered down on either side of him, and they were shocked to see how white his face was.

"What happened?" Buck demanded. "You look like youíre half a step away from dead."

"Donít say that," JD snapped. "It almost got me."

"The cat?" Vin asked, standing like a sentinel above the trio.

JD nodded. "I was splashiní some water on my face, when I look up and see it stariní at me. I kinda fell back and pulled out my gun. I shot at him, but he was gone."

"He didnít attack you?" Chris asked, puzzled.

JD stared at him in disbelief. "No. But maybe if you all go back to camp, you can give the cat a second try."

Chris laid a light hand on his shoulder. "That ainít what I meant, JD. Itís just that he attacks Ezra when weíre all close to him, but youíre alone and he doesnít do anything to you."

"Maybe it figured he wasnít even big enough for a snack," Buck teased, a twinkle in his dark eyes.

"That ainít funny!" JD growled.

"Take it easy, JD," Chris soothed. "Letís get back to camp."

Chris and Buck straightened, then Buck lent JD a hand up. Chris could see the boy was still shaky, and he couldnít blame him Ė to look into the killer catís eyes and wonder if he was going to end up like Ezra. Or worse.

Vin angled away from them, heading toward the horses.

"Whereís he goiní?" Buck asked, puzzled.

"To get himself killed," Chris replied tersely. "You two go on back, tell the others what happened. Me and Viníll be along."

JD stopped and opened his mouth, but Buck grabbed his shoulder and pulled him along. "Címon, kid, letís see how Ezraís doiní."

JD glared at Buck, but didnít argue, and allowed Buck to drag him away. Chris followed the ex-bounty hunter, and found him where he knew he would.

"Goiní someplace?" Chris asked calmly as he watched Vin saddle his horse.

"You know damn well where Iím goiní," he replied, his mild tone contrasting with the blunt words.

"How long you gonna track him? A day, two days, a week? Maybe a month, or more?" Chris shook his head. "Hell, why donít you just forget about Tascosa altogether and dedicate your life to huntiní down every single cat in these mountains."

Vin tightened the saddle cinch then turned to stare at Chris, his drooping hat brim shading his stony expression. "That catís got a taste of blood, and the only way to stop him is to kill him," he stated.

"So youíre gonna take care of him yourself." Chrisí tone was brittle. "Even if it means settiní yourself up as the bait."

Vinís hazel eyes didnít waver. "If thatís what I have to do."

Chris held his gaze, seeing the determination in the younger manís face. He nodded slightly. "All right."

Vinís expression eased. "You know why I got to do this."

Chris shook his head and frowned. "No, I donít."

Vin glanced down, threaded the leather reins between his fingers, then looked back at Chris. "All of you are here Ďcause of me. I ainít ever had friends like that afore."

"Would you have done the same for any of us?"

"Sure, but it ainít the same."

"Yeah, it is." Chris took a deep breath. "Ezra gettiní hurt wasnít your fault, just like whatever happens on the trail to Tascosa isnít gonna be your fault. Weíre all in this together, Vin, whether you like it or not."

Indecision clouded Vinís unshaven face, then a small, rueful smile lifted one corner of his lips. "Maybe, but this catís mine. He made it personal when he picked me out, stariní at me in the dark like he done."

Chris studied him a long moment, then nodded. "All right. Why donít you get some breakfast before you head out?" He paused, remembering something Josiah had told him. "You know, breakfast is the most important meal of the day."

Vin stared at him a moment, as if trying to decide if he was crazy. He shook his head, but his eyes twinkled. "I guess you got a point there. Besides, Iíd best get my bedroll and saddlebag or itís gonna be a mighty cold huntiní trip."

"Or a damn short one," Chris added, a smile tugging at his lips.

Vin ground tied Sireís reins, then he and Chris joined the others.

Buck glanced up, his expression revealing his surprise that Vin had returned with Chris. "I thought you were hellbent on goiní after the cat."

Vin nodded resolutely. "I am. But I figgered Iíd best get my gear." He glanced at Josiah who stirred a big pot of bubbling porridge. "That about ready?"

"A couple minutes more." He gazed at Vin, then looked upward. "I donít see any crows."

Vinís brows drew together questioningly.

"Death comes on the crowís sable wings." Josiah poured Vin and Chris each a tin cup of coffee.

Vin accepted his cup with a nod and a quirked smile. "You sayiní no oneís gonna die?"

Josiah inclined his head slightly. "Iím saying that for a man trying to kill himself, youíre going to have a mighty tough time of it." He paused. "Of course, I did see those crows the morning we left Four Corners."

Vin frowned. "I ainít gonna get myself killed Ė I aim to kill the cat."

Josiah arched his eyebrow, but didnít comment. Vinís scowl deepened.

Chris looked from Josiah to Vin and back. Sometimes Josiah talked in circles, just like the preacher he claimed not to be anymore.

Josiah dished out breakfast and the men ate quickly and silently. Vin finished eating, then threw his saddlebag over a shoulder and picked up his bedroll.

"Donít wait up for me, boys," he said lightly.

"You ainít goiní after that cat by yourself, are you?" JD asked in disbelief.

Vin nodded slowly. "Got to, JD."

He turned and walked toward the horses.

Buck snorted. "I thought I was the crazy one!"

"You canít let him go," Nathan spoke up. "What if that cat turns on him? There ainít gonna be no one around to look out for him."

Chris took a sip from the steaming coffee, and savored the warmth as it slid down his throat and into his belly. "Weíll give him a fifteen minute start, then a few of usíll follow him."

Buck studied Chris a moment, then grinned and slapped his thigh. "Vinís gonna be madderín a stepped-on rattler when he sees us behind him. Iím lookiní forward to that Ė I donít think I ever seen him real riled before."

"Youíd best keep your eyes open for the cat instead of watching Vin," Josiah began. "He was right Ė that cat has some bad spirits in him."

"Arenít you cominí with us?" JD asked.

Josiah shook his head. "Iíll stay here with Nathan and Ezra. Who knows, that animal may pay us a visit."

Fifteen minutes later, Chris, Buck, and JD rode after Vin. The tracks were easy to follow and the men held back so the ex-buffalo hunter wouldnít spot them right off. They continued further into the mountains and Chris kept a vigilant watch, especially on the boulders alongside the trail. He had the same type of feeling he had when he first realized the cat heíd been hunting on his ranch had become the hunter. Frowning inwardly, Chris reminded himself that the cat was far ahead of them Ė theyíd caught occasional glimpses of a paw print alongside Vinís horseís tracks. Still, something didnít set right.

He looked back at Buck who, at first glance, appeared relaxed with his right hand tucked into his waistband as they rode, but Chris caught the slight narrowing of his eyes and the clenched jaw muscle as he searched their surroundings. Buck caught his eye, and tipped his head minutely.

Chris noticed that JDís horse tugged at the bit as if sensing JDís nervousness. The boyís hand hovered near his revolverís handle, and his gaze roved about anxiously. Chris felt the same jumpiness, but the years had tempered his ability to handle it, just as it would do with JD after he gained some more experience.

Chris turned forward once more and noticed a shiny red drop on the ground. He halted his horse and dismounted, then hunkered down to get a closer look at the blood.

"What is it?" Buck asked.

Chris straightened and looked around. His shoulders tensed, and his stomach curled with unease. "Blood. Probably the catís."

"It ainít Vinís, is it?" JD asked in concern.

"No. We wouldíve seen some sign if it had gotten him," Chris replied. He stuck his foot in the stirrup and hauled himself back into his saddle. "I think weíd better catch up to Vin before that cat decides on his next victim."

He nudged his horseís flanks, and his mount jumped ahead. Hooves on the hard ground told him Buck and JD were right behind him. Off the switchback trail and into a narrow valley, Chris followed the tracks until he spotted a Vin on horseback a few hundred yards ahead of them.

Although the air was cold, patches of snow melted under the warm sun, making the ground muddy and slippery. Chris allowed his horse to pick his way toward Vin who had seen them and waited. The three men drew up to Vin and stopped.

"We didnít want to miss any of the fun," Buck spoke first.

Vinís eyes glittered dangerously as he fixed his gaze on Chris. "I told you that cat was mine."

Chris shrugged. "Like Buck said -- "

"This ainít fun," Vin said curtly. "I said Iíd take care of the cat myself."

"We only came to help," JD said simply.

"I donít want anyone else gettiní hurt on account of me."

Buck rolled his eyes heavenward. "Damn, I knew you were spendiní too much time with Chris."

Chris sent Buck a sharp glare, then turned back to Vin. "Four men will have a better chance of cutting his trail and tracking him down. You know that as well as me, Vin, so donít you use that misplaced guilt to get yourself killed."

Vin studied Chris for a minute, his expression hewn in stone. Then slowly, he relented and nodded shortly. "All right, but you all keep your eyes open. Weíre close, damned close."

"We know Ė we saw the blood," Chris said. "I didnít think weíd catch up to him this fast."

Vin nodded in agreement, and urged Sire ahead. Chris, Buck, and JD had no choice but to follow him. As they traveled further into the valley, more snow littered the trail, slowing the horses. They spotted only one more drop of blood that shown starkly against the pristine white snow.

Mid-afternoon found them near a mountain stream, and they let the horses drink as the men stretched their legs. Vin leaned against a boulder and chewed on some jerky as he surveyed the area around them. Gunmetal gray clouds had come in over the mountains, obliterating the sun, and a few snowflakes began to drift down and powder the earth.

"How close are we?" Chris asked.

Vin shrugged. "We shoulda caught up to him by now. That wound should be slowiní him down."

Chris glanced around and frowned. "Whereís Buck?"

"Takiní care of business," JD replied off-handedly.

The horses lifted their heads from the creek and began to move restlessly. Their eyes rolled, and they whinnied and snorted nervously.

Alarm rifled down Vinís back and he pushed away from the rock. "I donít like this."

"Buck!" Chris called out. "Buck, where are you?"

Vin lifted his head, and sniffed the air. His apprehension tripled. "The cat Ė itís here. Close by." He spun around. "Buck!"

The men pulled their guns from their holsters and pressed through the underbrush, ignoring the thorns that tugged at their clothing and scratched their hands and faces.

They found Buck walking toward them, buttoning his pants.

"Canít a man get any privacy around here?" he groused.

The catís growl answered him as the furred animal launched itself from behind some thick underbrush at Buck and knocked him to the ground.

Vin raised his sawed-off carbine and scrambled around, trying to get a clear shot of the cat as it and Buck rolled back and forth across a pile of snow. Buckís grunts and the catís inhuman snarls threatened to break Vinís concentration. Chris and JD were also trying to find a clear target, but they, too, were scared theyíd hit Buck instead of the cat.

Suddenly JD moved in close and before Chris could haul him back, he kicked at the enraged cat to draw its attention from Buck. The animal swung a sharp-clawed paw out that caught JDís boot and knocked him to the ground. The diversion was enough to give Vin an open target and he fired at the killer. The cat was punched forward by the bullet, and he staggered a few feet away from Buck. JD raised his gun and shot the animal again. It fell to the ground, and after a few moments, lay motionless.

Heavy silence surrounded the men, broken only by Buckís ragged breathing and the delicate sound of snowflakes landing on the ground. JD was the first to move and he scurried over to Buckís side.

"You okay, Buck?" he asked anxiously.

"I think so, kid," Buck replied.

JD helped him to a sitting position.

"I donít see any blood," Chris said, squatting down beside them.

Buck looked down at his chest, then his legs and arms and grinned widely. "Hey, Iím not bleeding."

"Your heavy coat mustíve protected you," Vin said. He shook his head. "Ezraís blood musta set him off." He looked over at the dead cougar and took a deep breath. "I guess it donít look much like an evil spirit, does it?"

Chris shook his head. "Only a mountain lion."

He and JD each took one of Buckís arms and helped him up. He groaned and wrapped an arm around his chest.

"Even though you donít have any wounds, Nathan should take a look at you and make sure you donít have a cracked rib or two," Chris suggested.

"Good idea," Buck said.

As the three other men moved off toward the horses, Vin walked over to the dead animal. He stared down at it, trying to figure out why a wild animal would turn killer. He hunkered down, saw where his and JDís bullets had gone into the cat, finally bringing it to ground. Frowning, he rolled the still-warm body over, searching for the wound where Ezra had shot it. His frown grew, and his palms moistened. He couldnít see any other holes in the cat besides those from his and JDís weapons.

Slowly, he stood and pivoted in a full circle, looking, trying to see beyond the curtain of snow and trees and rocks. His nose twitched from the smell of death, but there was something more, something he hadnít even considered.

Vin raced to the horses, where his friends were trying to calm the skittish horses. His arrival brought the fresh scent of the cat, and the animals rolled their eyes and jerked their heads up in fear.

"We gotta get back to camp," Vin stated urgently.

"What?" Chris demanded.

Vin swallowed hard. "Thereís two cats, not just one." At their puzzled looks, he continued. "That cat we killed doesnít have an old wound. The one that attacked Ezra is still out there somewheres."

Without another word, the four men quickly soothed their horses and mounted up, then followed the trail theyíd just come down.

After Josiahís experience in the Indiansí sweat tent, heíd had a profound change in his way of thinking. Not that anyone had noticed it outwardly, but Josiah had felt it, like a bath from the inside out. All the anger and bitterness toward his father had been cleansed from his heart, and with that acceptance came an ability to sense things more clearly Ė things like changes in nature and people around him.

Things like good and evil.

A shiver skated down his back, but the sensation came less from the cold and more from an inner chill. Maybe he didnít have Vinís knowledge of wild animals and their ways, but for what he sensed he didnít need it. Something evil skulked in the periphery of his awareness; something that bespoke of crows and death.

Nathan dropped an armload of wood on the ground and brushed the wood chips and fresh snow from his coat sleeves. He moved to their injured friendís side and knelt down to examine him. "Is Ezra all right?"

Josiah, standing over Ezra and Nathan, nodded. "I think his fever may even be down some."

Nathan laid his hand on Ezraís brow and a smile lit up the dark manís features. "I think youíre right. That means there probably ainít any infection." He tilted his head back to gaze up at Josiah in the fading light of the day. "So whatís botheriní you?"

"Spirits." Josiah glanced down at Nathan and smile ruefully. "And I donít mean the kind in a bottle."

Ezra coughed, drawing both menís attention. Josiah hunkered down on the other side of the gambling man. Ezra opened his eyes and blinked a few times, but he appeared more lucid than he had since the catís attack.

"Welcome back," Josiah said in a low, gentle voice.

Nathan laid a hand on Ezraís shoulder. "You stay right there and donít move. Iím gonna get you some water and somethiní to eat."

Josiah watched Nathan carry out his tasks, until Ezraís weak voice brought his attention back to the wounded man.

"We still in the mountains?"

Josiah nodded.

Ezra raised his eyes to gaze at the snow that feathered down from gray, pillow-like clouds, then looked around the nearly deserted camp. "Where is everyone?"

"Hunting the cat that did this to you," Josiah replied.

Ezra frowned as if trying to remember something. "Vin, he said heíd make the cat pay."

Josiah nodded, not surprised. "Heís been takiní what happened to you mighty personal."

Ezraís chuckle was followed quickly by a grimace. "Thatís our Mr. Tanner Ė someone should tell our champion of justice that he is not responsible for all that occurs in this world, especially not for the actions of a creature of capricious nature."

Six months ago, Ezra wouldíve blamed Vin and everybody else for the misfortune. Josiah studied his pale, whisker-shadowed face Ė of all the seven men, including JD, Ezra had grown the most. When theyíd first met him, heíd been a liar and a cheat. Since heíd joined the group, Ezra had unearthed another man hidden beneath the glib con man exterior. That man possessed courage and loyalty, and had laid his life on the line for his friends. Out of the seven, Josiah suspected Ezra was the most surprised to find those traits within himself.

"I think you should tell Vin that yourself," Josiah said softly. "I have a feeling itíll mean the most coming from you."

Ezra stared at Josiah a long moment, then nodded slightly.

"How long have I been this way?" Ezra asked.

"A day and a half."

"Has anybody else --?" he suddenly asked, his eyes wide.

Josiah shook his head. "Not yet."

Ezraís sigh of relief again reminded Josiah of the transformation Ezra had gone through since joining the group. Six months ago, he wouldnít have cared what happened to any of them.

Josiah looked up to see Nathanís figure approaching in the scant light hampered by the increasing swirl of snowflakes. He held a canteen in one hand and a plate in the other. A movement to his left stopped Josiah cold and he found himself staring into the mountain lionís devilish red eyes.

"Donít move," Josiah ordered in a low urgent voice.

Nathan halted in mid-step and his dark eyes shifted from left to right. "What is it?" he whispered.

"The cat," Josiah responded, keeping his body motionless. "Heís about six feet from you."

The mountain lion growled, revealing his position.

Josiah glanced across the fire to see his gun lying on his saddle where heíd left it earlier. He debated his choices Ė he could go for the weapon and chance the cat attacking him or Nathan or Ezra, or he could simply remain still, waiting for the animal to make the first move.

The cat made the decision for him and began to slink closer toward Nathan, its eyes reflecting the orange flames and giving the beast an unnatural glow, like a spirit come back to earth.

Nathanís eyes widened, but with his hands full, he couldnít get to his knife before the animal could jump him. Josiah had to make a lunge for his gun and hope he could shoot the cat before it hurt Nathan too badly.

Suddenly, the cat sprang. Nathan reflexively dropped the canteen and dish. A gunshot sounded from beside Josiah. The animal dropped to the ground a few inches short of Nathan, who stared at it as if not believing what he saw. At first, Josiah didnít know who had shot the mountain lion, then he glanced at Ezra who held a revolver limply. The sweat droplets glistening on his pale face told Josiah how much effort it had taken the wounded man to raise the weapon and fire it.

Nathan stepped over to Josiah and Ezra, his hands trembling. "Thanks, Ezra," he said, his words heartfelt.

"My pleasure," Ezra responded faintly.

Josiah smiled as he took the gun from Ezraís loose grasp. Yes, Ezra had come a long way from the man whoíd refused to join them when he learned Nathan, a former slave, would be riding with them.

Lifting his face to the pure snowflakes, Josiah allowed the peace of the quiet evening to flow into him. The evil that had disrupted the balance had been vanquished. At least for a little while.

Vin halted his horse and tilted his head slightly. "Did you hear that?"

Chris nodded tersely. "Gunshot."

The four men spurred their horses on faster despite the fading light and the damp, penetrating cold that cut to the bone. Vinís heart thundered in his chest Ė had the cat doubled back to their camp? Everything he understood about wild animals told him no, but the mountain lions hadnít acted like normal creatures.

The campfire was barely visible through the drapery of snowflakes, but as they drew closer, Vin could see Nathan kneeling beside Ezra. Where was Josiah?

Vin reined Sire in about ten feet from the fire, and spotted Josiah coming out of the underbrush. He heaved a sigh of relief.

"We heard a gunshot," Chris stated curtly.

Josiah tipped his wide-brimmed hat back off his forehead. "That was Ezra sending the devil back to Hades."

"The cat came back?" Vin asked.

"It was cominí at me when Ezra shot it," Nathan replied, and shuddered. "If he hadnít, Iíd probably be in the same or worse shape than Ezra."

"I highly doubt that would be possible," Ezra spoke up from his prone position on the ground. Although weak, his voice carried characteristic wryness.

"There were two cats, werenít there?" Josiah asked softly.

Vin frowned. "Howíd you know?"

Josiah tipped his head and smiled mysteriously. "Balance, my friend, balance."

Four days later, Ezra was well enough to travel and the men, restless to get moving, saddled their horses in the early morning chill. As Chris readied his horse, he listened to Ezra and Buck engage in another battle of wits. Buck had unbuttoned his coat and shirt to show Ezra the saber scar heíd received saving JDís life.

"I donít see what the problem is," Buck was saying. "Women loveíem."

Ezra, standing stiffly but on his own, stared distastefully at the long puckered scar across Buckís chest. "Perhaps the fairer sex you are acquainted with prefer a man with such blemishes."

Buck leaned closer to Ezra as he re-buttoned his shirt, and winked. "It makes a woman want to make it all better, if ya get my drift."

Ezraís lips twitched as if he were holding a smile at bay. "I most definitely get your drift, and would ask that you kindly use the stream to remove said drift from your person."

"Huh?"

"He means you need a bath," Nathan translated with a crooked grin as he finished tying his saddlebag to his saddle.

Buck appeared indignant, and JD laughed aloud. Buck glared at him, but that didnít stop the younger manís mirth.

Buck turned back to Ezra. "If thatís the thanks I get for tryiní to cheer you up, Iím not even gonna try anymore."

"Alleluia," Ezra said.

"Amen, brother," Josiah added.

Chris allowed a small smile at his friendsí antics. Everyone had remained in fairly good spirits and no arguments had erupted between the men since both mountain lions had been killed. But Chris knew that wouldnít last forever. Restlessness and boredom sooner or later would combine to make tempers hair-trigger short Ė Chris had seen it happen before and he didnít want them to end up the same way. It was time to move on.

He glanced at Vin whose quiet, self-assured manner had slowly returned. A few times, however, Chris noticed him watching the others, a distant look in his eyes. He knew Vin still blamed himself for what happened to Ezra and what had nearly happened to Buck and Nathan. Chris had said everything he could to him, and even then heíd felt like a hypocrite. Who was he to be telling a man how to deal with guilt when Chris himself had lived with that cancer eating away at his insides ever since Sarah and Adam had been killed?

Chris took a deep breath of the fresh, crisp air and lifted his gaze to the clear sky. Maybe someday he would wake up and the vision of Sarah and Adam waving goodbye wouldnít be the first thing heíd see in his mindís eye. Maybe somedayÖ.

He spoke over his horseís back in a low voice to Vin. "Weíll have to go slow for a while."

Vin nodded, his hazel eyes somber. "Tascosa ainít goiní anywhere." He finished with his saddle and moved over to help Ezra.

Ezra laid a hand on his horseís arched neck as Vin lifted his saddle onto the mareís back. "When are you going to stop blaming yourself?" he asked softly.

Startled, Vin shot him a glance, then gave his attention back to his task. "I shoulda seen it cominí."

Ezra arched a sandy eyebrow. "If I had known you were a clairvoyant, I would have employed your services myself to become a wealthy man."

Vin scowled. "I had a feeliní about that cat, but I didnít listen to my gut."

"Ah, a feeling. Now there is something I am somewhat familiar with in my profession." Ezra carefully dug a deck of cards out of his green jacket pocket.

Vin tightened the saddle cinch, then dropped the stirrup down and rested his arm on the saddle seat. "That ainít the kind of feeliní I meant."

Ezra shuffled the cards with less efficiency than usual, but he managed to mix them up then fanned them, face down. "Pick a card."

Puzzled, Vin reluctantly took one but didnít look at it. "Now what?"

"What is it?"

Vin turned it over and revealed the seven of spades.

Without looking, Ezra pulled the ace of spades out of the deck and held it up. "And therein lies the difference between you and I, Mr. Tanner. It is your nature to assume responsibility, and it is my nature to remain solitary. I have learned that one cannot live alone in this world without losing something more valuable, and you, my friend, must learn that the world is not your cross to bear alone." Ezra deliberately lifted his gaze to Chris, then Josiah, Nathan, JD, Buck, and finally came to rest on Vin again. "Companions one can rely on are a rare gift indeed in this life, and I for one do not intend to dispose of such extraordinary benefaction. What about you, Mr. Tanner?"

Vin stared at Ezra, thinking about what heíd said. Hadnít Vin himself thought the same thing a week ago when theyíd all rode out of Four Corners to help prove his innocence? Everybody had chosen to come with him out of friendship and loyalty Ė commodities that couldnít be bought or sold. It had been earned, just as the six men had earned Vinís friendship and loyalty.

He grinned crookedly at Ezra. "As soon as I figger out what you said, Iíll let you know."

Ezraís expression didnít change, but his eyes smiled and he nodded.

Later, as the seven men continued their journey to Tascosa, Vin brought up the rear, keeping an eye out for any dangers along the trail. However, the guilt had left him, and in its wake he found gratitude for the friends who rode with him.

His gaze found Ezra who rode near the front of the line of men, and thought of the seven of spades. Then he smiled to himself.

"Me neither, Ezra," Vin gave his answer softly, "me, neither."

The End of Story One

The Trail to Tascosa #2: The Tennesseee Stud

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