Ghosts Ride Again
 By: Maggie Smith
   Series: The Lost Legacy 
 

***********************************************

Disclaimer: Okay, here it goes. It pains me to say the Magnificent Seven now belong to me. Yes,
they were a surprise birthday present from my guardian angel, who knew that the pod people had
abducted my Vin and replaced him with some horrible, sadistic, reality version of the male
species. I digress. Well, it was a dream I had the other night and you know what they say, if you
wish hard enough anything can happen. Now back to the reality of my life, Mirisch Co. and CBS
own said property above and maybe one day I’ll actually accept that, but until then I live in my
fanfic.
Ratings: PG 13 for language and violence
Warnings: This story takes place in my Lost Legacy Series, which I have created Chris Larabee
and Vin Tanner as brothers. Oh, if only............
Author’s notes: Smarm/h/c are alive and well thanks to my pardner in writing Cass, who has
beaten me to death with smarm and so now I can’t seem to get enough of it. Scary isn’t it. I used
to be strong, but everyone has a breaking point.

For continuitys sake this is the third in the Lost Legacy series. Cassie, who has pushed her way
into my universe, is writing the second as a birthday story for me. She’s late, but will be posting a
part along side me tonight.

***********************************************

When one leaves this world for the other realm, a mystery is left behind of where they have gone. But have you ever
wondered if a Ghost can rise again????????????

***********************************************

“Do you think its such a good idea for them to be going off alone?” J.D. Dunne stood on the
porch of the local jailhouse and watched three riders heading east out of town.

“Why wouldn’t it be kid? You afraid the Larabee temper  will rear its ugly head and they’ll shoot
each other.” Buck Wilmington  was standing beside the youth and chuckled at the teen’s apparent
discomfort.

“Well, no. But.....” J.D. turned helpless eyes to his tormentor.

“Don’t worry, J.D. They’ll be fine. Besides they’re just going to Bitter Creek, and they won’t be
gone more’n three days tops. Stop worrying. What could happen?” Buck slapped the younger
man on the shoulder, stepped off the porch, and sauntered toward the saloon to join the other of
the seven left behind.

“I sure hope your right.” The kid watched the three travellers until the dust kicked up by their
horses had settled back onto the earth.  He then turned and followed the trail Wilmington had left
a few minutes earlier, wishing once again, that he didn’t have to be left behind.

************************************************************************

“Something on your mind, Jon?” Chris Larabee sat his horse in the middle of the trio headed for
Bitter Creek. He had been watching his father and noticed he was antsy and had been that way
since he showed up in Four Corners two days ago.

Jon Larabee glanced at his oldest son and then back at the horizon. “Just nervous is all, son.” The
older man gave Chris a soft smile.

Larabee nodded his understanding, it was still new to him to call the man to his left brother. He
could only imagine how his father felt, having spent so little time with Vin Tanner. “Nothin’ to
be nervous about. Just take it one day at a time.”

The youngest and newest Larabee was sitting quietly to the left of the two men and listening to
their conversation. He still felt as if nothing had changed. He didn’t need a father, hadn’t before
and sure didn’t now. But he did feel good when he thought about Chris being his brother. He’d
had plenty of older boys around him when he was growing up, telling him what to do, and
showing him the ropes, but they never stacked up as a big brother. Tanner shook his head and
laughed quietly at the thought. Hell, none of them would have ever been a match for Chris
Larabee, then or now.

“Whats so funny, cowboy?” Chris asked, also smiling.

“I was just thinking what it would have been like having you as an older brother when I was
growing up.” Vin gave the gunslinger a sad smile.

“Pure hell, son.” Jon answered before his oldest could.

“And whats that suppose to mean.” Chris jerked his head toward their father and gave him a hard
stare.

“As much trouble as I had keeping you out of trouble, I can just imagine what you would have
gotten Vin into.” The elder man began chuckling as he was seeing the events unfold in his mind
like they had truly happened.

“Hey, I wasn’t that bad.” Larabee turned and gave his younger brother an exsaperated look.

“Of course not.” Vin tried to keep a straight face and help defend his brother, but once he heard
the laughter coming from Jon, he broke into chuckles himself.

“Somehow, I’m regretting this trip already.” Chris spurred his horse ahead of the other two trying
to escape the laughing, but as soon as he was at a safe distant he let a grin crease his face. He
stopped about 20 yards in front of them and turned his mount to wait and watch. He had been
wary about letting Jon around Vin, but from the looks of things, they were getting along okay.

Jon had seemed to take the absence of Chris as the perfect opportunity to give Vin some
background on his less than perfect older brother.

“Ah, I’ll never forget the look on Lily’s face when I brought Chris home from jail that day. She
was fit to be tied, and poor Chris. It took him a whole week before he could look at his ma. I told
her it wasn’t his fault. That Janson’s bull was so old, it had died of a heart-attack before Chris
and of course Buck, tied it up in that tree.” Jon had to stop when the laughter got the best of him.

Vin was still trying to figure out how Chris and Buck had gotten a 600 pound bull in a tree in the
first place. So, instead of wondering, he asked.

“How did they get it up there in the first place? That big of bull wasn’t about to go peaceably.”

The oldest Larabee glanced at his son and felt his smile grow even more, if possible. “Well, Buck
had went to the Doc’s earlier that day because of stomach ache. Well, old Doc had some of this
sleeping medicine laying out while the boy was there, and as they say the rest is history. They
dragged that ole bull using my wagon team of mules and then used those mules as pulleys to
raise the steer high enough to tie to a strong branch. Unfortunately, Ben Janson had been riding
by and saw the whole thing. He took those two straight to the sheriff and then went back after his
bull. Like I said it was dead before it got up in the tree. Seems, the Doc, who also took care of
our livestock, checked out the bull and said ole Buck had given him enough sleeping medicine to
knock it out for a year, and thats what killed it.” Larabee finished his story with a sigh. It felt
good to relive the old days.

“So what happened to Chris and Buck?” Tanner seemed enthralled by the epic.

“Lily wanted to take him out back and whip him good, but I told her Chris was to old for that.
So, I took him on my next cattle drive and made him ride drag two days straight. That boy had
ate so much dust, I was afraid he was gonna choke to death. But instead, as soon as we got back,
he went and joined the army.” Jon looked toward his oldest son and began remembering the day
when he had told him he was going to war. “If I had known that the war was just around the
corner, I would have tried to talk him out of it.”

Vin watched the hurt dance in the other man’s eyes. He could only imagine how the man would
react if he told him about his days in the war. “Sometimes you can’t change what others do, Jon.
No matter how hard you try.”

Jon flashed his youngest a smile. “Yeah, I expect I couldn’t have talked you outta nothing. You
got blessed with the Larabee stubborness, plus that of the Tanner’s. And trust me boy, if your
half as stubborn as your ma, Lord help us all.”

Tanner laughed at the man’s statement. Something he hadn’t done in a while. “Thats what a few
outlaws I’ve run into have said.” The two began laughing together and continued their march to
meet up with Chris.
 
************************************************************************

“Full house, Ezra.” J.D. threw his cards in the middle of the table and looked to the gambler in
triumph.

“Very well done, son. But I’m afraid your celebration is quite premature.” Ezra Standish softly
let his cards fall to the table to reveal four 10’s.

“Damn.”

“Watch your language, kid. You ain’t old enough to cuss yet.” Buck was sitting next to the teen
and had been in the game himself until the hand before.

“He’s right J.D. Wait until you get a few years on ya and then you’ll know the true meaning of
cussing.” Nathan Jackson was also sitting with the others but just as a spectator.

“Brother Nate has a point. Cussing is like living. If you haven’t done your fair share of living,
then you haven’t done no cussing.” Josiah Sanchez had entered the room and caught the ends of
the conversation.

“Huh?” Once again the youth was caught off guard by the ramblings of the others.

“Never mind, son.” The gambler grinned at the confused look on the youth’s face. “You’ll grasp
the meaning later on, I’m sure.”

“Okay.” J.D. just nodded his head.

“Well, I do believe its time I pay a visit to some neglected ladies.” Buck rose from his chair and
started toward the batwing doors.

“Better be careful, brother. A woman can be mighty testy if shes not well taken care of.” Josiah
gave the gunslinger a conspiratol smile as he took the vacated seat.

“Oh, don’t worry, Josiah. I aim to take real good care of them.” Wilmington winked and began to
whistle as he left the saloon.

“One of these days.” Nathan shook his head and decided to join in the new game of chance with
his friends.

************************************************************************

“Help! I need some help over here.” Buck had been walking toward the end of town and was just
passing an alley when he heard the cry.

“Hello, who’s there?” Wilmington placed his hand over his gun and waited.

“I need help. I’ve been stabbed.” The voice sounded weak and fading fast.

“Just hang on mister.” Buck quickly rushed into the alley and immediately regretted it.

************************************************************************

“How many rooms can I get you fellas?” The desk clerk of the Bitter Creek Inn was a weasley
man, who looked like he would sell his own mother if the price was right. All three Larabees’
disliked him at once.

“Three.” Chris’s curt response should have warned the man to not breech any conversation, but it
seemed the clerk also lacked brains.

“You boys here on business or pleasure?”

Jon didn’t seem to mind the incesant questioning, so answered. “We’re here on a family outing.
These are my boys.”

The man turned to introduce himself but thought better of it when he saw the mirrored faces of
danger staring at him.

“Well, I hope you enjoy your stay, Mr.-” The clerk stopped and glanced at the name Jon had
registered them under. “Larabee. If you boys need anything...”

“We won’t.” This time the man took heed to Vin’s reply and shut up.

“I don’t know about you two, but I’m beat. I think I’ll go on up and get some shut eye.” Jon hid a
yawn and grabbed his saddlebags.

“Must be old age catching up with you.” Chris let an evil grin cross his face.

“Just wait, one of these days you’ll be my age.” Larabee slapped his son on the back and then
tipped his hat to Vin in a goodnight salute.

“Good night, Jon.” Tanner turned to Chris with an arched eyebrow. “Saloon?”

Larabee threw his arm over the tracker’s shoulder. “Saloon.”

************************************************************************

“Long time, no see, Wilmington.” Buck blinked his heavy eyelids, trying to remember what
happened. *The alley. Suckered.*

“Who the hell are you and what do you want?” The gunslinger’s voice sounded stronger.

“Why, I’m looking for my old friends. I found you, so that would leave Larabee.” The last word
was more of a sneer.

Buck opened his eyes fully and took in the man in front of him. He was a little older than him,
somewhat heavier, but from the looks of it, it was all muscle. He had a scar down the left side of
his face and cold black eyes.

“Brenner?!” Wilmington gasped as memories flooded his mind. “Your suppose to be dead.”

“Now, now. If I was dead, would I be standing here talking to you.” Brenner shook his head
making long locks dance across his face. “I’m only gonna ask once, where’s Larabee?”

Buck tried to slow his runaway heart, but was failing miserably. “He ain’t here.”

“I can see that. Tell me where he’s gone.” The man stepped forward and was now face to face
with the gunslinger.

“Well, I don’t know. But if I did-” Wilmington stopped as if thinking. “I wouldn’t tell you.”

This didn’t please the scar-faced man. He was about to draw back his hand to hit Buck when he
was interrupted by a voice.

“Buck, you down there?”

*Oh God, J.D.*

Brenner apparently picked up on Wilmington’s distress. “A friend of yours. Maybe we should
invite him to the party.”

Buck lunged for the man but was grabbed by two goons who he assumed had jumped when he
got in the alley.

“Buck?” J.D. had come down the alley and caught sight of the men holding the gunslinger. “Let
him go.” The kid went for his guns, but he wasn’t fast enough.

“I wouldn’t do that, son. Drop them.” Brenner had drew his weapon and now held it pointblank
at Buck’s head.

“Do as he says J.D.” Wilmington hoped he sounded calmer than he felt.

“Its alright son. Buck and I are old friends and he was just telling me where I could find another
friend. Chris Larabee. You wouldn’t happen to know would you.”

J.D. had dropped his gunbelt and guns and was now staring at Buck hoping to get some inkling
of what was going on.

“He don’t know nothing. Let him go.” The gunslinger struggled once more, but his captors were
too strong.

“Maybe he just needs a little help remembering.” Brenner began to lower his weapon but stopped
at Buck’s midsection and fired.

Wimington felt the fire rip through his side and yelled out in agony.

“BUCK!” J.D. started for the gunslinger but was caught across the face with the pistol that had
just shot his friend.

“Now tell me boy or you will be next.”

J.D.’s head was swimming and he knew somehow if he told this man where Chris was, he would
kill him. “Go to hell, mister.”

“Now that wasn’t very nice.” Brenner raised his gun as if to fire again when someone came
flying down the alley.

“J.D.!” Casey Wells slid to a stop beside the fallen youth.

“Well, it seems this party is growing.”

“What do you want?” Casey tried to sound unflustered but one look at Buck’s prone form on the
ground made her voice crack.

“All I want is to know where I can find Chris Larabee.” The gunman kept his gun poised over
J.D. and waited.

“If I tell you will you leave them be?”

“Anything for a beautiful lady.” Brenner uncocked his weapon and stepped back.

“Casey don’t.” J.D.’s weak protest fell on deaf ears.

“He’s in Bitter Creek. Left this morning and won’t be back until day after tomorrow.”

“Now, see that wasn’t so hard. Lets go boys.” The three men went out the back way of the alley
as footsteps came pounding down the sidewalk to the entrance of the side street.

“J.D. you alright?” Casey knelt to check the youth.

“Get Nathan. Buck’s hurt bad.” J.D. began crawling to the gunslinger’s side as Casey left to find
the healer.

“Buck, you okay?” The teen picked up the figure and cradled him in his arms.

“Gotta warn Chris. Brenner’s alive.” Wilmington was beginning to shiver from shock.

“Its okay, Buck. Hang on. “

“No J.D. You’ve gotta warn Chris about Brenner.” Buck reached up and grasped the kid’s hand
in his.

“I will. As soon as Nathan sees to you I’ll send a telegraph to Bitter Creek.” This seemed to help
ease the injured man’s distress.

“Good.” Wilmington gasped and then gave in to the darkness.

***************************************************

 The fight for what one believes in can sometimes cost the price of innocence.

***************************************************

“How do you think the others are doing?” Chris sat quietly in the darkened saloon and tried to
hide the concern he felt in his words.

“Why, you worried?” Vin let a smile inch its way across his mouth. He knew the older man
cared more than he let anyone see.

“Of course not, just curious.” Although the statement had the usual Larabee crispness, the
gunslinger’s eyes gave way to the blatant lie.

Tanner chuckled at the other man. “Well, if I know those five, they’ve probably done been run
out of town.”

Chris saw the twinkle in his brother’s eyes and shook his head at his misplaced anxiety. “Yeah,
especially Ezra.”

The two men began laughing at the thought of their cardshark partner. He’d more than likely got
himself mixed up in some kind of scheme and talked either J.D. or Buck into going along with
him.

“Is there a Chris Larabee here?” Both jerked their heads toward the batwing doors and saw what
looked to be the telegraph operator standing there.

Chris exchanged a quick glance with Vin and then began to rise. “I’m Larabee.”

The patrons around him seemed to shrink at his gruff voice. They had heard tones similar
to that before, and they always meant danger.

The operator rushed to the table. “Sir, this wire just came for you. The clerk at the hotel said I
would find you here.” The middle aged man shoved the message into the gunslinger’s hands.

Larabee scanned the words and felt his heart constrict as their meaning became clear.

“Chris, whats wrong?” Vin sensed more than saw the change in his brother’s body language.

“Trouble back in town.” The gunslinger raised concerned eyes to the tracker. “J.D. says he needs
me there quick.”

“I’ll go get the horses ready.” Tanner rose from his seat and was about to turn and exit the
saloon, when he felt a hand on his arm.

“Both of us don’t need to go.” Chris saw the argument coming and hurried to ward it off. “You
stay here with Jon and as soon as I get whatever’s wrong cleared up, I’ll come back.”

The bounty hunter didn’t like the idea. If there was trouble at home, he wanted to be there with
the others.

“Chris....”

Larabee held up his hand to stop his younger brother’s protest. “If it looks like we need you, I’ll
send for you.” The gunslinger saw the apprehension cross the tracker’s face and waited.
“Besides, I think you and Jon need some time alone, anyway.”

After a few seconds, a calm expression settled on the younger man and Chris relaxed. He was
afraid he would have to hog-tie Vin to keep him here.

“Alright, but if you need me....”

“Don’t worry, you’ll be the first to know.” Larabee slapped Tanner on the back and left the
beer parlor to retrieve his horse. He hoped whatever was going on in Four Corners wasn’t as
bad as his gut was screaming at him.

*Calm down, Chris. Brenner is in Four Corners and as long as Vin’s in Bitter Creek, he’ll be
safe. Right?!*

*****************************************************

“Damnit, Buck. Be still.” Nathan pushed at his restless patient unsuccessfully.

“Look, Nate. I’ve gotta warn Chris.” Wilmington tried once more to get off the bed.

“J.D. went and sent him a telegraph. He’ll be here as soon as he can, but in the mean time, I’ve
gotta get that bullet out of ya. Or by the time Chris does get here, it may be right on schedule for
your funeral.” Jackson slung the gunslinger back onto the cot with a frustrated sigh. The injured
man had been unconscious when they brought him in, but to the healer’s dismay, that had been
short-lived.

Just as Jackson began to work on his patient the door to the clinic burst open and an out of
breath J.D. came running through.

“J.D., I thought I told you to go rest. You took quite a lick to the head.”

“Sorry, Nathan, but I had to know how Buck’s doing.” The youth quickly went to the bed.

“I’m fine, kid. Did you send that message to Chris?” Wilmington turned pain-filled eyes to the
young man and waited with bated breath.

“Yeah. I told him Brenner was here and to come back quick.”

The gunslinger let out the pent-up sigh and relaxed. “Good, by the time Brenner makes it to
Bitter Creek, Chris will be safely back with us.”

“Now, can I get you fixed up or do you want to go riding out and meet Chris?” Jackson gave the
man a hard stare hoping the other didn’t miss the anger behind it.

“Take it easy, doc. I’m gonna be the best patient you ever had, you just watch.”

Nathan snorted and turned to retreive his knife. “Maybe, when Hell freezes over.”

Buck started to laugh at the healer’s jib, but thought better of it when a horrendous pain went
crashing through his side. The gunslinger could feel the blackness taking over and decided to let
it. Chris was on his way back and now there wasn’t anything Brenner could do to hurt either of
them.

*********************************************************

Vin had sat alone in the tavern for the last two hours berating himself for not going along with
Chris. He knew the other man wouldn’t leave him here if he was needed in Four Corners, but the
tracker couldn’t shake the feeling Larabee was keeping something from him.

“Damn, this whole brother thing is becoming a nuisance.” Tanner whispered to himself. The
bounty hunter got up to leave when he spotted his father and three other men heading his way.

Vin waited until the men joined him and noticed the tension radiating from Jon. “Something
wrong?”

Tanner glanced from his dad to the smiling man to his right.

“Not at all, Mr. Larabee. Your father and I were just getting acquainted and when he mentioned
his youngest son, why, I just had to meet you.” The words sounded sincere but didn’t quite reach
the man’s eyes. Vin stared into them intently and saw a madness hidden beneath and knew then
that he and Jon needed to get out of there quick.

“My name ain’t Larabee, its Tanner, and Jon and I need to be going. We’ve got a long haul back
home tomorrow.” The tracker tried to ease himself near Larabee but his path was abruptly
blocked by the madman’s henchmen.

“Now, now thats not very hospitable. I insist you and your father come with me so we can get to
know each other.” Brenner backed up his statement with the click of his revolver, which was
placed to Jon’s side.

“Alright. Take it easy.” Vin kept his voice low while scanning the bar to try and find an escape.

“I wouldn’t even think about that if I was you. I will kill him if I have too. I only need one of you
alive for my revenge.”

The tracker guaged Brenner’s face once more and knew he wasn’t bluffing. The man to Tanner’s
right quickly took the saw-offed Winchester and then stuck his pistol in the bounty hunter’s back
and motioned him forward.

“Who the hell are you and what do you want?” Vin stumbled slightly when Brenner stepped in
front of him.

“I’m the ghost of things past, here to see justice done.” Cyrus chuckled softly at his metaphor and
then turned and exited the saloon with two disgruntled Larabee’s behind him.

********************************************************

Chris had rode hard and made excellent time back to Four Corners. The town was quiet except
for the patrons at the bar, but none of that interested the gunslinger. The only thought he had at
the moment was to find the others and find out what was going down.

Ezra spotted Larabee from his perch at Nathan’s clinic window. “He’s here.” Standish turned
quickly, relaying his message, and then proceeded out the door. As he reached the sidewalk, he
gave a soft yell.

“Chris!”

The gunslinger jerked to the voice and was surprised to see Ezra. He figured the man would be in
the saloon taking some poor souls money.

“Ezra, whats wrong?” Chris met the gambler halfway across the street.

“I think we should discuss this in Mr. Jackson’s clinic.” Standish swung back the way he came
and didn’t wait to see if Larabee was following. He started up the stairs and noticed the
gunslinger matching him step for step.

The journey seemed to take an eternity, but lasted only a few seconds. The two men entered the
quiet refuge and Chris stopped as his eyes fell on the bed.

*Why did thing always come back, no matter how hard you try to forget?*

Larabee stared at the still form of his oldest friend and felt a bitter chill graze his spine. No
explanations had been voiced or even asked as of yet. The black-clad man could not speak past
the lump of fear lodged in his throat.

J.D. sat by Buck’s bedside and watched the many expressions cross his hero’s face and felt a
sense of guilt.

“I’m sorry, Chris. I know I should have let you know about Buck, but he made me promise not
too.” The kid tried to keep the quavering from his words, but it seemed their leader hadn’t heard
the young man or was just so engrossed in his grief, he had forgotten anyone else was in the
room.

The gunslinger slowly cleared his throat and asked the dreaded question. “Nathan, how bad?”
Chris winced at his own words, hearing the worry laced inside them.

The healer walked over to the older man and placed his hand on his shoulder. “He’s gonna be
alright. He’ll have to rest for a few days cause he lost a lot of blood, but he’ll be fine.”

“Where is the son of a bitch?” The cold had seeped in the gunslinger’s voice once again as he
turned to face Jackson.

Josiah, who had been watching the exchange from the window, stepped forward to answer. “He
left looking for you.”

“I thought he was still here?” The confusion was evident in Chris’s speech.

“He was Mr. Larabee. He tried to extract your whereabouts from Mr. Wilmington, but as you can
see, he was unsuccessful. So, he decided to bash our young protege’s head in to acquire your
location, but was also ineffectual. Ms. Wells happened to pick that particular moment to
announce herself and to avoid more harm to her beau, provided the miscreant with the
information.” Once more Ezra’s sordid way of spinning tale, had drew the morbid picture.

“Then why am I here if Brenner’s on his way to get me?” Larabee had passed the worry stage an
now entered full blown rage.

J.D. stood and came to join the others, not wanting to disturb his injured friend. “Buck thought it
would be best to have you come back here. He wanted you close by when you did meet up with
this guy.”

Chris finally focused on the teen and saw the bruise adorning his forehead along with the frown
of worry. *Damn, once again I’m the cause of someone else’s pain.* A cold fury began bubbling
up from the gunslinger’s insides.

Josiah saw the change in Larabee and knew something had to be done quick or he was going to
explode.

“So, is Vin and your father with you?” Sanchez waited patiently, hoping the change of subject
would calm the other man down.

Chris hesitated for a few seconds, letting his temper simmer. “No, I left them in Bitter Creek and
told....” The gunslinger let his sentence hang as a horrible thought just entered his head.

“Whats wrong, Chris?” Nathan squeezed the shoulder he still held and felt the tension radiating
there.

There was a painful silence echoing around the room then suddenly shattered as the leader spoke.

“Did you say Brenner knew where I was?” Chris turned his head to the gambler beside him.

Ezra nodded slightly, still puzzled at the man’s unusual reaction. “Yes, Casey told him you had
gone to Bitter Creek-” Standish stopped unexpectedly as the comprehension of what he just said and
the abscence of Vin, hit him. “Dear Lord!”

J.D. glanced from one stricken face to the other until he stopped at Chris. “Whats wrong?”

Larabee gazed at the youth once more and tried to voice the dread that had installed inside his
heart. “If Brenner knows I was gone to Bitter Creek and I’m not there,” Chris halted as he saw the
recognition in the teen’s eyes, followed by the terror he to felt.

“What are we gonna do?”

“First, I’m going to send a telegraph and warn Vin, then I’m headed back to Bitter Creek.” The
gunslinger turned to leave, but Nathan’s strong hand stopped him.

“Not alone you ain’t.”

Chris glanced back over his shoulder and saw the determined looks staring at him. “Alright. Ezra
and Josiah will come with me, while you and J.D. keep and eye on Buck. Cyrus may forget about
Jon and Vin, come back and try to finish what he started.”

Four heads nodded in agreement and was followed by footsteps as three of the seven set out to
protect the one that had been left alone.

************************************************************

“Where you taking us?” Vin Tanner sat atop his horse in an odd angle considering his hands
were tied to the saddle horn.

“Why, Mr. Tanner is it?” Cyrus Brenner glanced over his shoulder to peer at the tracker. “Why,
thats for me to know and for you to find out.” The scar-faced man chuckled humorlessly and
then returned his posture to the front again.

“Jon, you have any idea whats going on?” The bounty hunter turned confused eyes to his also
bound father riding beside him.

The older Larabee shook his head. “Not a clue, son. The only thing I can figure is this guy has
something against Chris and since he wasn’t around-” Jon let his words trail off.

“Yeah. This guy thought we would be the next best thing.” Vin exhaled slowly. If it wasn’t
bounty hunters after him, it was some insane ‘miscreant’, as Ezra would say, hounding the
Seven. “I guess this explains why they sent that telegraph for Chris. They figured getting him
back to Four Corners would keep him out of this fella’s reach.”

“But for how long?” Larabee gave his youngest a knowing look. “As soon as Chris finds out,
he’ll be hell bent to find us.”

Tanner sighed and nodded. “Well, I guess we’re just gonna have to think of a way out of this
mess before Chris finds us.” The tracker turned his head in a quick sweep of his surroundings
and the captors. “The only thing is,” Vin paused, glancing at his father. “It ain’t gonna be that
easy.”

************************************************************

Chris, Ezra, and Josiah arrived in Bitter Creek in the wee hours of the morning. The streets were
quiet and the saloon had even closed up for the night.

“Head toward the sheriff’s office. Check and see if he or his deputies recognized anybody with
Brenner’s description in town.” Larabee gave the orders in a clipped tone. He was still berating
himself for leaving Vin and his father behind.

“You could not have known the danger, Mr. Larabee.” Ezra had seen the emotions in the
gunslinger’s eyes and felt compelled to try and ease his pain.

“Yeah. Maybe.” Chris gave the gambler a rare smile. “If you guys find out anything, I’ll be at the
hotel.”

Josiah, who had sat quietly during the exchange, nodded his head and trotted off toward the jail
with Ezra on his heels.

The clerk wasn’t at his desk when the black-clad man entered, but after several minutes of Chris
ringing the bell, the weasley man appeared.

“Who is-” Mr. Davis cut his angry words off as soon as he saw the gunslinger. “Mr. Larabee.
What....What can I do for you?”

“I wanted to ask you a couple of questions.” Chris’s threatening tone caused the clerk to jump.

“Of course.”

“Did you see anybody hanging around the hotel, maybe a suspicious looking stranger?” Larabee
waited as the man seemed to contemplate his question.

“Well, there was a couple of fellas’ here a few hours after you, your brother, and father arrived.
The scar-faced one asked me if I knew if a Larabee had checked in today.” Davis swallowed
quickly as he noticed the thunderous expression on the black-clad man’s face. “I told him there
was three of you, but only one was in the hotel at the time.”

Chris felt his heart drop to his knees. “You didn’t point my father or brother out to this man, did
you?” Larabee was losing his patience fast.

“No...NO sir. Its the policy of the hotel for complete confidentiality.”

The gunslinger sighed in relief. “I need the key to my brother’s room.”

The clerk turned and got the key, but hesitated before handing it to Chris. “Your brother isn’t up
there. Neither is your father.”

“Did they check out?” Larabee was getting confused.

“No,” Davis’s squeaky reply set the gunslingers hackles on end.

“Then where might I find them?” Chris reached over and grabbed the weasel by the collar and
hauled him halfway across the desk.

“They left with the scar-faced man.” The clerk was visibly trembling.

“I thought you said you didn’t indicate who they were.” Larabee let his left hand reach across
and retrieve his six-shooter.

Davis saw the blatant movement and immediately began to sweat. “I....I .... didn’t. Your father
was coming down the stairs when this guy asked me about you. He came over and wanted to
know what the scar-faced man wanted with his son. I swear!” The man had felt fear before, but
knew if he didn’t convince the gunslinger soon of his innocence, he was a dead man.

Chris held onto the clerk for a few minutes, and then with a growl tossed him to the floor on the
other side of the desk.  He took a few calming breaths and then turned to go find Josiah and
Ezra, hoping they had better news.

***********************************************************

The sunlight was breaking over the plains when the weary travelers finally stopped. The ground
was flat as far as the eye could see, except for the huge fort sitting in the dead center.

“Where are we?” Jon stretched his muscles the best he could, old age definitely had its
disadvantages.

“Welcome to my humble home, gentleman. I call it, Diablo’s Hand.” Brenner signaled a man
standing atop the gate. “I hope you boys like it, because you are going to be here for a while.” As
the madman finished talking, the 20 foot high wooden doors began to creak open.

The two Larabees were hustled through the opening and then stopped once inside. The place was
something very similar to a prison camp. There were men in old uniforms doing different jobs,
such as digging holes, chopping wood, or moving rocks. All with chains on their wrists.

“You are one sadistic son of a bitch.” Vin couldn’t contain his anger any longer. The sight
around him brought back too many memories of the war. “I’m gonna be happy to blow your
head off.” The tracker gave Cyrus a deadly glare.

“Now, now. Temper, Temper. You wouldn’t want to land yourself in the box so early, would
you?” Brenner smiled at the thought. “Actually, that seems to be a very good idea. With all these
men compliant to my rules, I had forgotten what it was like to have a free-spirit among the
bunch, so to speak.” The madman motioned for two of his henchmen to grab Vin.

The bounty hunter knew exactly what Cyrus was up to and decided he would die first. The two
goons grabbed Tanner and was hauling him off his horse when the tracker landed a foot to the
one on the left’s face. The man screamed and reached for his broken nose.

The one on the right was stunned for a second, which was a second too long. Vin jerked his
bound hands in an upward motion and cold cocked the goon. The tracker was acting on pure
survival instinct at this time. He swiveled around waiting for the next assault. Unfortunately, it
wasn’t a physical one.

The gun shot echoed around the younger man as the sudden pain erupted in his right shoulder.
Tanner couldn’t keep his footing so went down face first rolling onto his back when he landed.

“Vin!” Jon tried to dismount but a gun pointed in his face caused him to rethink his decision.

“Your gonna have to teach your boy how to mind, Mr. Larabee. That was a stupid, stupid move.”
Brenner had lost all of his congenial mood. He gestured for a couple of more men to take
Jonathan, then he hopped down from his mount and walked over to the dazed bounty hunter.

“Well, have we learned our lesson yet, Mr. Tanner.”

Vin opened his pain-filled eyes and glared at the man standing over him. “Go to hell, Brenner.”

Cyrus laughed, “Your going to certainly add a little fire to the place.” The man stared at the
injured tracker’s defiant gaze. “But I can’t have the other workers getting any ideas.” Brenner
pivoted as if turning away, but as quick as a snake’s strike he hauled off and kicked the younger
man in the right side.

Tanner bit his lip until he tasted the saltiness of his own blood. There was no way he was going
to let this man hear him scream. “Is that the best you can do, bastard?” The words were half
amused, half agony.

The scar-faced man was beyond reasoning. “Take this piece of shit and lock him up.”

“You can’t do that, he’s hurt.” Jon tried to jerk from his captors grasp, but was unsuccessful.

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry, daddy dearest. This is nothing compared to whats to come.” Brenner
smacked the older man on the cheek and walked away.

**************************************************************

Buck Wilmington felt himself floating, but couldn’t understand why. He thought for sure he was
in Blossom’s room unfortunately the searing pain in his side disagreed with that idea. Slowly, the
man blinked his eyes trying to gauge his surroundings.

There was a little light breaking through the curtains allowing him to see in the shadows. He felt
a small weight against his right side and gently turned to see what was holding him down. A
shiny, black-haired head lay on crossed arms snoring softly.

“Kid,” Buck said, moving his right arm in attempt to rouse the younger man. “Hey, kid.”

J.D. jerked at the voice. “Buck?!” The teen rubbed his eyes and then looked toward the bed.
“Your awake.” A smile split the youth’s face.

“Yeah, but I’m wishing I wasn’t.” Wilmington winced as he tried to sit up.

“Easy, Buck. You tear open them stitches and Nathan’ll skin you good.” The kid placed his
hands on the gunslinger’s shoulders in attempt to hold him still.

“Ah, hell, kid. Old Nate won’t do no such thing.” Buck grinned and pushed at J.D.’s grip.

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that, iffen I was you.” Jackson stepped through the door to the room
catching the end of the other man’s statement.

“Hey, Nathan.” The gunslinger turned on the charm.

“Don’t even try none of that animal magnetism on me, Buck. I ain’t no woman.”

Wilmington saw the determination in the healer’s eyes and decided to save the fight for another
day. “I surrender.” The man threw up his hands and gasped as the movement.

“You alright, Buck.” J.D. flinched at his friend’s pain.

“No....problem, kid.” The gunslinger closed his eyes trying to wish away the pain. “Where’s
Chris?” He was hoping a change of subject could help.

“He ain’t here.”

Buck jerked his gaze to Nathan. “What do you mean, he ain’t here?”

“I mean, him, Josiah, and Ezra headed out for Bitter Creek last night.” Jackson walked over to
the bed and began checking the man’s bandages. Wilmington saw he wasn’t going to get
anymore out of the healer.

“Whats he talking about, J.D.?” The kid tried to avoid the hurt gaze, but couldn’t.

“After Chris found out Brenner was headed to Bitter Creek, he and the others headed back.” J.D.
paused, not sure of how to tell Buck the rest.

“And?” The gunslinger pushed Nathan’s hands away and glanced from one to the other. “Would
somebody tell me what the hell’s going on?”

“Easy, Buck.”

“Don’t ‘easy, Buck’, me, Nate. Why didn’t you stop him? You know Brenner was hell bent to
kill him.” Wilmington tried once more to rise, but fell back as the pain stabbed through his gut.

“Buck,” J.D. waited till the older man was looking at him. “He had to go back. Vin and Jon
stayed behind in Bitter Creek. Chris thought it would be safer, seeing as how.....” The kid let the
words trail off as he saw recognition enter the other man’s eyes.

“Damn.” Wilmington sighed, laying back. “You boys heard anything yet?”

“No,” Nathan pulled up the extra chair and sat across from J.D.

But before any of them could continue the conversation, a light knock on the door interrupted
them.

“Come in.” Jackson reached for his sidearm, just in case.

The door opened slowly and Mary Travis stepped in, closing the door behind her.

“I just came from the telegraph office. Mr. Greely asked me to deliver this to you.” Th e reporter
held out a piece of paper and the trembling of her hand was evident to the three men.

Nathan stood, walking over to the young woman. “You alright, mam.”

Ms. Travis breathed deeply, trying to calm herself. “Yes, thank you. If you need me,” Mary
blinked as she felt tears threatening. “Please let me know.” The blonde woman nodded to each
man and then exited as quietly as she had entered.

J.D. glanced to the paper Jackson was now reading. “What does it say, Nate?”

The healer didn’t seem to hear the question because he didn’t answer. The kid glanced at Buck
and saw the fear reflected in his eyes that the youth felt in his. “Nathan?”

J.D. rose and went to stand in front of Jackson.

“It says, Brenner’s got Jon and Vin.” Nathan glanced from J.D. to Buck’s now ashen face.

“What does Chris want us to do?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing.” This time Buck ignored the pain and jerked himself into a sitting position. “What
does he expect us to do. Sit here and twiddle our thumbs wondering if Vin’s alive or dead, or if
Brenner’s blown Chris’s head off?” Wilmington was completely enraged and moving to get out
of bed.

“Damnit, Buck. Your still too weak. Get back in that bed.” Nathan moved to block the
gunslinger’s path.

“The hell I will, Nate. Chris is gonna need all the help he can get. And Vin,” Buck sucked in a
ragged breath. “God help us, Vin’s gonna need us all.”

The three men swapped worried gazes and then nodded their heads in silent agreement. Apart,
the Seven were vulnerable, but together, they were invincible.

***************************************************************

Jon Larabee had never felt more helpless in his life then he did at this moment.  He watched
reluctantly as they led his youngest son to the middle of the courtyard, where an iron box of
about 4 feet high and 4 feet wide stood. He knew Vin hated the confines of the city, so he
could only imagine the horror going through his son’s mind as they grew closer to the chamber.

“At least let a doctor see to his shoulder.” Jon tried once more to reason with the madman
walking away from him.

Brenner stopped suddenly and swiveled around to the older man. “Why, Mr. Larabee. I would be
happy to do that,” Cyrus paused and a smile crossed his face. “But, unfortunately, our doctor was
‘killed’ in an accident last month.” The man snorted in laughter as he returned to his journey
toward his quarters.

Larabee stared intently at the retreating back, planning many ways for this man to die, when he
heard the loud clang of the metal door being shut. He jerked back to the box with an
uncontrollable shudder.

“Just hang on, son. Chris will be here with help soon. I promise.” Jon whispered his prayer
hoping Vin could hear him. But, before he attempted to talk to Brenner again, he was roughly
dragged toward a shack and forced inside.

“Put that uniform on old man. You got work to do.”

****************************************************

The coming of the new day didn’t bring about an improvement to Chris Larabee’s mood. Neither
he nor the others had come up with any leads on Brenner. It was as if the man had vanished
without a trace.

“Damn, this can’t be happening.” Chris was standing outside the saloon waiting for Josiah to
bring the horses and Ezra to get back from the telegraph office. He hadn’t slept since before
leaving Four Corners the first time. This was only adding to his black mood.

He thought for sure Brenner would leave some kind of calling card or at least a trail. But
apparently Cyrus was up to something and wasn’t ready for the gunslinger’s presence just yet.

“Chris,” Larabee jumped at the deep baritone of Josiah’s voice. He hadn’t even heard the older
man walk up.

“Sorry, Josiah.”

“No harm done, brother.” Sanchez stared at his friend, noticing the shadows under his eyes and
the grim lines along his forehead. “We’ll get them back. No matter what.”

The black-clad man gazed into his friend’s eyes and saw the determination within them. “I hope
your right.”

“Of course I am,” Josiah smiled softly. “I’ve got an inside source, remember.” The preacher
watched as the desired effect of his words came across the other man’s face.

“Been talking to some more dogs?” Chris quirked an eyebrow, thankful at least one of them was
keeping a level head. He started to say more, when he noticed Ezra’s urgent pace toward them.

“What’s wrong?” Larabee felt his gut clinch tighter, if possible.

“I’m afraid our other compatriots have left on an excursion?” Standish saw the blank looks on
his friends’ faces and decided to clarify his statement. “Nathan, J.D., and Buck are on their way
here.” The gambler held out a piece of paper that resembled a telegraph wire.

“What!” Chris growled at the messenger and then grabbed the paper to see for himself. “Damnit
all to hell.” The gunslinger crumpled the document and swore a few more times.

“What does he think he’s doing?” The gunslinger knew instantly he was lost in a waking
nightmare.

“I’m afraid that may be our problem, Mr. Larabee. We’ve forfeited all cognitive abilities
concerning this situation.” Ezra had been just as frustrated himself when reading the message,
but now as he thought about it, Buck and the others where doing nothing he nor the rest
wouldn’t be in the same predicament. Riding hell bent to help the others.

“Ezra’s right, Chris. He, Nathan, and J.D. need to be here just like we do.” The preacher watched
patiently as understanding lit the younger man’s face.

“Yeah, but that don’t make it easier, Josiah. I’ve already let two of family get taken by this
asshole, I just don’t want Brenner to finish what he started with Buck.”

“Very understandable, and more than enough reason for us to be together. Easier to watch the
others back that way.” Sanchez glanced from Chris to Ezra. “Wouldn’t you agree, brothers’?”

The gambler nodded slightly and so did Larabee. “We wait then. As soon as they get here, we
head out and try to find Brenner’s trail.” The gunslinger turned from his friends’ and went inside
the saloon.

“And pray, Brother.” The preacher looked expectantly toward the sky.

“Amen, Mr. Sanchez.” Standish also raised his eyes heavenward. “Amen.”

*******************************************************

“We go now.” Angus Carter glared at the men around him. “The boss said to get Larabee and
bring him to the fort.”

“Dead or Alive?” A grungy, long haired cowhand smiled at the thought of their intended mission.

“Alive, but he didn’t say nothing about damaged.” Carter was also a man who loved to inflict
pain on others, especially those with reputations such as Chris’s.

“What about them other 5? This mornin’ they was only two, but about half hour ago three more
arrived.”

“One’s but a pup and the others already wounded. Just you and Bart worry about Larabee. Me
and the other boys’ll distract the guards.”

The noon sun beat down on the eight men as they discussed the plan. They had been waiting
since sunup to carry out their orders from Cyrus. Now the victory was at hand, so two of the band
separated.

“Anybody screws this up and Brenner’s gonna have our hide.” Angus yelled to the retreating
men. “I would rather face Lee’s whole army, than Cyrus when he’s mad.” Carter shuddered as he
finished his threat. “Move out.”

He and the other five headed toward the saloon to begin the festivities.

*******************************************************

“Damnit, Buck, you promised.” Nathan Jackson was standing over Wilmington, who against the
healer’s orders, had headed straight for the saloon. “You said that you would rest at least an hour
when we got here.”

The gunslinger glanced up into the worried face of his friend. “Look, Nate. I am resting. I’m
sitting down, no whisky and no women.”

Jackson sighed heavily, “Alright.” He sat down with the other five at the table and finally took in
the faces around him. Ezra looked like he had been at an all night poker game with his bloodshot
eyes. Josiah’s five o’clock shadow was getting a little rough and then there was Chris. Nathan
had expected the worse, but seeing it made it twice as bad.

“Chris, you had any sleep?”

“Yeah, bout two days ago.” Larabee glared at the healer knowing exactly where he was headed
with this conversation. “Forget, Nathan. I ain’t gonna rest until I get Vin and Jon back.” The
gunslinger returned his gaze to the empty coffee cup in front of him.

“Where do you think he went, Chris?” J.D. had barely spoken on the trip here. The others could
tell by the brightness of his eyes he was scared.

Larabee looked up and instantly regretted it. He had been dealing with this mess just fine, until
he saw the kid’s face. “I don’t know, kid. I really don’t know.”

“Then maybe I can help you out.” Angus walked up to the table and plopped an open whisky
bottle in the middle. “Compliments of Cyrus Brenner. Drink up boys, this may be your last
chance.”

The noise in the room died immediately. “Mister, I don’t know who you are, but you just said the
wrong thing.”

Chris rose from his chair and faced the intruder.

“I don’t think so, Mr. Larabee or is it Tanner, like your baby brother?” Carter was beginning to
regret his cockiness as the blue orbs staring him down turned to glaciers.

“My dear sir, might I suggest you state your intentions and quickly. We are not working with all
our faculties at this time.” Ezra also stood and swung his coat to reveal his revolver.

“Now, I wouldn’t be to hasty to shoot the messenger iffen I was you. I’m the only ticket you got
to finding your brother and father.”

Larabee felt the red hot rage coursing through his body, but miraculously controlled it. “And why
would you do that?” Chris stepped closer to Angus.

Carter swallowed involuntarily before answering, “Those were my orders. To bring you to join
your family.”

“Thats gonna be mighty impossible, son. Considering theres six of us and only one of you.”
Josiah leaned back in his chair while scooting it away from the table.

“I’m not as stupid as I look, mister.” Then with a quick nod, Angus signaled the others to attack.

J.D. hastily grabbed Buck and threw him to the ground and reached for his six-shooters. Nathan
uprooted the table knocking Carter off-guard. Ezra and Josiah swiveled around in time to see the
threat from behind and begin firing. Chris was so intent on getting Angus he missed the two
flanking him.

Buck had rolled to his good side and was trying to get a bead on the men surrounding them, but
instead caught sight of Larabee’s danger. “CHRIS! behind you.” Wilmington started firing at the
goons but he couldn’t get into a sitting position fast enough.

He saw them hit the gunslinger over the head and watched helplessly as they drug him toward the
exit in back of the saloon.

“J.D.!”

The youth turned quickly, afraid his friend had been injured again. But as soon as he saw the
anguish and the direction of the man’s stare, he knew the problem. The teen jumped up from his
position next to the bar and headed in Chris’s wake.

Unfortunately, Carter had caught sight of J.D.’s intentions and moved to block his path. The two
men stood toe to toe with guns drawn.

“Get out of my way, mister or I will kill you.”

“Now, now, is that anyway to talk to your elders?” Angus laughed in J.D.’s face and immediately
regretted it as he felt the searing pain in his chest, then blackness.

“I tried to warn you.” The teen stepped over the dead body and raced outside, but found nothing.
No more bad guys, no horses, no tracks, and worst of all. No Chris Larabee.

*******************************************************

Chris felt the air of movement and then the hard cold feeling of dirt as it impacted with his face.
He tried to get up, but his hands were tied and the pounding in his head felt like a barrage of
artillery fire.

“Well, well. Long time no see, Christaphor.” Cyrus stood over the gunslinger, waiting for the
attack he knew was coming.

Larabee heard the menacing growl and didn’t realize until he had jumped up that it was coming
from him. “You son of a bitch!” Chris lunged for the laughing man in front of him, but was cut
off as he fell to the ground once more with the added agony of a rifle butt to his kidney.

“Its good to see the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Brenner knelt down and grabbed the
gunslinger by the hair and jerked his face to his. “I’ve waited years to make your life a living hell
and looks like all my patience is finally paying off.”

“Where are they, Cyrus?” Chris yelped at the tug on his tresses increased the pain already in his
head.

“Always playing the big man, aren’t we Larabee? You know, I was surprised when you brother
started acting the big hero, but I realize even being half a Larabee causes you to have a huge
ego.” Brenner chuckled as he yanked his hand back that still held the hair, but then roughly let
go.

Chris caught himself before his face contacted with the ground again. Larabee eased his aching
head toward the madman. “I want to see my brother and father.”

“I guess thats reasonable considering you came all this way.” Cyrus motioned for two of his men
to pick Chris up. “If you’ll look to your left you’ll see daddy dearest all safe and sound.” Brenner
pointed to a pile of rocks near the far wall.

The gunslinger blinked a couple of times and then finally brought Jon into focus. He could tell
his father was filthy from the rock dust, but other than that he didn’t seem too worse for wear.

“I’m not in the habit of beating on old men, Larabee.” The other man had noticed Chris’s
scrutiny of his father.

“Alright, now wheres my brother?” The gunslinger turned an all to familiar icy glare on Cyrus.

“Well, if I may direct you attention to the center of the courtyard.” Brenner slowly turned and
pointed.

“I don’t see anything but a storage box of some kind.” Chris hoped his voice didn’t reflect the
panic he was experiencing in his heart.

“As they say, Christaphor. Those see only what they want to see. But I’m sure a closer look
wouldn’t hurt.” The older man began walking to the center of the courtyard and signaled for the
goons to bring Larabee. “You see, far off it resembles nothing but a box, but up close its a work
of art. Don’t you think?” Brenner quirked an eyebrow at the now silent gunslinger. “Whats the
matter, cat got your tongue? Why don’t you say hello.”

Chris felt his heart drop to his feet and his hands go ice cold. He could hear the labored breathing
coming from inside and the only light that could penetrate the abyss was shining through a slit
about 4 inches wide.

Larabee jerked from the henchmen's’ grasp and steadied himself before kneeling in front of the
opening. The light only fell about 2 inches distance, so nothing appeared to be occupying the
interior.

“Vin?” The gunslinger jumped slightly at his voice. “Vin, you in there?” Chris waited for what
seemed to be an eternity and then he heard it.

“Chris?” The raspy whisper tore what little threads that still held Chris Larabee’s heart together,
into pieces.

“Yeah, Vin. Its me.” The gunslinger reached up and grabbed the slit with his bound hands. But
only his fingers would fit through the opening. “I’m right here, cowboy. You alright?”

Larabee heard some movement and was surprised when he felt the fingers entwine with his. “Get
me out of here, Chris. Please?”

The black-clad man tightened his hold on the cold fingers in his. “Just hang on, Vin. I’ll get you
out I promise.” Larabee sensed the bond being broken as the fingers fell away. “Vin, can you hear
me?” Chris waited, hoping to hear his brother’s voice again.

“Well, I guess Mr. Tanner’s all tuckered out. I reckon blood loss, lack of food, and sheer terror
will do that to you.” Brenner slapped the gunslinger on the back and started to turn away.

Chris reluctantly let go of the box and stood up. “What do you mean blood loss? What have you
done to him?”

The older man swiveled around to face the other. “He was becoming unruly. So, I put a bullet in
him and then threw him in that little bitty box.”

Larabee lost all awareness of his own pain. “Let him go, Cyrus. Its me you want, not my
brother.”

“At first, yes. But, not any more. That boy done crossed me and I ain’t gonna let that go
unpunished.”

*******************************************************

“Damn, damn, damn.” Buck Wilmington paced the length of the jail for the thoushandth time,
cussing every step of the way.

“Buck, would you please sit down. You ain’t gonna be no help to nobody iffen you hurt yourself
even more.” Nathan Jackson had perched himself on the edge of the sheriff’s desk and made a
point to fuss at Buck everytime he passed him.

“Look, gentlemen. I wish me and my deputies could help you more, but these boys you brought
in ain’t saying nothing.” Sheriff Jack Barnes was sitting quietly behind his desk taking in the five
men before him. He had heard the rumors, the gossip, and all the sordid tales, but at this moment
all he saw was very angry, very scared men.

Wilmington stopped long enough to punch the wall. “We should’ve done something. I should’ve
done something.”

“You tried, Buck.” J.D. stood near the wood stove and watched the helplessness cross the
gunslinger’s face.

“Not hard enough, kid.” The older man turned slowly and leaned against the wall. He looked at
the faces around him and saw the guilt he was now feeling etched in each one .

“Berating ourselves is not going to help our situation, gentlemen. I believe now would be the
time for extracting certain information from vocally impaired individuals.” Ezra Standish
shuffled his deck of cards waiting for the meaning of his words to sink in.

Josiah, who stood ever quiet in the corner, glanced first at the sheriff, then the prisoners. “Mr.
Barnes. Would you be so kind as to leave us alone for a few minutes? My friends and I have
something important we need to discuss, in private.” Sanchez walked slowly to the cell doors.

“I don’t know. I am the law around here and I can’t let nothing happen to these prisoners.” Jack
knew the moment the men had made the ultimate decision. Find their friends at all costs.

“I wouldn’t worry, sir. We have not yet lost an incarcerated person. Believe me, when I say they
are in very capable hands.” The gambler looked into the man’s eyes with a perfect poker face.

“Well, I don’t usually do this. But seeing the circumstances, I’ll go along with it on one
condition. You boys promise they won’t ‘accidently’ escape or have any fatal incidents.” The
sheriff gave each man a hard stare. He had been a lawman for going on thirty years and had
always been a fair man, no matter what the crime.

“You have our word, Mr. Barnes.” Nathan stood up from the desk and held out his hand in a
gesture of a handshake. The older man hesitated for a few seconds and then accepted the bond.

“You’ve got half an hour.” The five nodded as they watched Jack close the jailhouse door.

“What have you got in mind, Ezra?” Buck raised himself from his leaning position and waited
for the gambler to explain his intentions.

“It seems someone neglected to inform our ‘friends’ on the finer points of the game of chance. I
just felt we could give them the lessons they are lacking.” Standish gave the gunslinger a deadly
gaze before swinging toward the captives. “Gentlemen, might I interest you in a little wager.”

*******************************************************************

“Don’t get any bright ideas, Christapher. You know how much I hate someone who disobeys
me.” Cyrus Brenner waited at the bottom of the steps to the bunkhouse. Larabee had been hustled
inside and forced to put on an old Union uniform. Minus the hat and shoes, of course.

“I ain’t going nowhere without my father and brother, Brenner.” Chris jerked his shackled hands
from the goon’s grasp and walked down the steps to face Cyrus toe to toe.

“Good. I’m glad to hear it. In that case, I know you won’t be going anywhere for awhile. Alive,
that is.” The scar faced man laughed shortly, turning to leave.

“I wouldn’t bet on that, Cyrus. If you remember anything about me, you should remember I don’t
take people hurting the ones I love, lightly.” Larabee glared a hole through the other man, but
unfortunately, Brenner wasn’t aware of it.

“Then I guess its been a real bitch for you not being able to find the man responsible for killing
your wife and son. It was a real shame about that, too. If it had been me, I would have keep them
both. One for entertainment and the other to carry on my family name.” Cyrus grinned as he saw
the color drain from the other man’s face.

Chris knew he was losing control and couldn’t stop himself. He had wrapped the chain on his
wrists around the man’s neck and was squeezing with all his might, before he realized what he
was doing.

“Get........him........off.........me!” Brenner was gasping his orders as he felt himself succumbing to
the blackness.

The two henchmen stared in stunned silence for a moment and then jumped into action. The one
Vin had broken his nose earlier, rammed his rifle into the back of the gunslinger’s knee, but was
unsuccessful. Larabee was so enraged he was ignoring anybody and anything except the death of
Cyrus Brenner.

“H..u..r..r...y....” The madman was on the verge of panic.

Broken nose tried again, only this time he aimed for the gunslinger’s kidney once more. The pain
obviously penetrated the man’s senses because he loosened the slack on the chain, but still didn’t
relinquish the hold completely.

“Let him go Larabee, or I’ll shoot your father right now.” The other goon recognized that Chris
was beyond reaching physically and hoped his threat would do the trick.

The gunslinger shook his head as if to clear the fog and then threw Cyrus to the ground.

Brenner lay in a heap gasping and clutching at his throat. “You’ll......pay........for........that.......”
The man coughed trying to inhale air.

The young Larabee just stared coldly at the snake beneath his feet. He would have killed him, if
the threat against his father hadn’t been uttered. “Just remember what I said, Cyrus.”

Brenner glanced at the man standing above him and realized for the first time, he had truly
underestimated him. But that wasn’t going to happen again.

“Take.....him......to.....his......father.” Cyrus’s voice had returned to a wheez and still held a touch
of insanity.

********************************************************************

“Now, this is how the game works. There are three of you and two bullets in this gun.” Ezra
extracted his derringer from his wrist harness. “And these are cards. I’m going to allow each of
you a draw. Whoever has the unfortunate luck to pull a seven or lower will be shot. But, I am a
reasonable man, so I will give you exactly two minutes after you select your card to decide to
either show me the one you got, or tell me where we can find our friends.” Standish paused
letting the men grasp the severity of the situation. “Let me also inform you boys, I don’t bluff.”

The gambler drew his derringer up, placing it chest level at one of the prisoners’.

“How...how do we know you won’t just kill us after we tell you what we know, or if we draw a
higher card.” The cowhand began to sweat profusely as he stared at the gun.

“Well, thats a very good question. I’m not much of a trusting man myself, but Mr. Sanchez here
is a preacher of sorts. He has been entrusted by many with their confessions, so I’m sure if he
gives you his word that he will do everything in his power to keep me from doing just what you
said.” Ezra glanced to Josiah with a nod of his head. “Am I not correct, sir.”

“Absolutely, Brother Ezra. I have kept many a secret based on my word of honor. And I give it to
you three now. I will see to it that Mr. Standish does nothing more than what he has stated.” The
preacher held his hand up in a pledge. “As God is my witness. Amen.”

The prisoners’ exchanged nervous glances and then nodded their heads in agreement.

“Well, now. Who’s going to attempt the first draw?” Ezra swiveled his gaze back and forth until
he settled on the hired gun in the middle. “Ah, you sir.”

The gambler held the deck of cards through the bars and waited as the young man drew. He
watched as the color immediately vanished from the other’s face. “Whatever’s the matter, son?”

The five protectors’ waited with bated breath for the captive to answer. “You promised, right
preacher?” The blonde man gave Josiah a pleading look.

“Yes I did, son. Now tell us what you know.”

The prisoner began to speak but was quickly cut off. “Are you crazy, Henry? You know what
Brenner will do to us if we talk.”

Henry gave his friend a puzzled look and then glanced to the five hard faces in front of him. “I
know what they’ll do if I don’t tell them, Johnny. At right now, I’m more worried about them.”

J.D., Buck, and Nathan stepped forward to join Josiah and Ezra, listening as Henry recanted
everything landmark and mile between here and the Devil’s Hand.

************************************************************************

“Son, you alright?” Jon Larabee had watched fearfully as Brenner had taunted his first born.

Chris took in his father’s appearance closely, wanting to make sure the older man was indeed
okay. “Yeah, dad. I’m fine. Its Vin I’m worried about.” After making sure his father wasn’t too
worse for wear, the gunslinger gazed at the torture chamber in the middle of the courtyard. “How
long as he been in there?” Larabee turned a heart wrenching gaze to Jon.

“He threw him in there about five minutes after we arrived. But before that, he shot him. I
wanted to stop him but I couldn’t.” Chris saw the guilt echoing in the older man’s eyes.

“I know you did. Right now we have to concentrate on getting Vin out of that box and then
getting the hell outta here.” The gunslinger swung his gaze around them, noting the guards
positions, but his eyes focused once more on the hollow cube housing his younger brother.

“Theres something your not telling me. I know Vin hates confined places, but its worse than that,
isn’t it?” Larabee shut his eyes and tried to avoid answering the question. “Damnit, Christapher.
Talk to me. He’s my son, I have a right to know if theres something else going on here.

Chris opened his eyes slowly and laid his hand on his father’s shoulder. “The headmaster of the
orphanage Vin stayed at, well he would punish Vin.”

Jon waited for his eldest to continue, but nothing more was offered. “And?”

“And, he would put Vin in a cellar, not much bigger than that crate, leaving him for days without
food or water.” The gunslinger watched the horror and then the fury pass over his father’s face.

“That son of a bitch. How could anyone do that to a kid?” Jon felt his heart constrict from the
image of Vin as a boy, locked in a dark hole. “If I’d only looked harder. If I’d convinced Emma
to let me raise him...”

“Stop it, Jon.” Larabee jerked the older man to face him. “Thinking about what ifs and what
could a been ain’t gonna help us right now. Whats done is done.”

The rancher looked in his son’s face expecting to see hate, but was surprised when he saw only
sorrow.

“I felt the same way when he told me, dad. But it doesn’t change what happened.” Chris hoped
his father would get over the guilt, but in the past few months since he had found out, he hadn’t.

“Your right. Its in the past and Vin needs us right now.” Jon gripped his son’s arm and gave him
a weak smile.

********************************************************************

“I don’t like this.” Nathan pulled his mount to a stop and looked at his surroundings. There was a
few rock outcroppings, but other than that, nothing.

“I’m inclined to agree with you, Mr. Jackson. If Henry’s instructions are correct, we should be
right on top of this Taj Mahal.” Ezra also came to a halt alongside the healer.

“Well, it seems we have be duped, brothers’.” Josiah sighed as he too took in the barren scenery
around them. “What do we do now?” Sanchez turned to his friends’ noting the confusion in their
faces.

“That boy knew we wasn’t bluffing, so I don’t think he lied.” Buck paused as a wave of pain
assualted him. “I say we keep going.”

“I don’t know, Buck. Your looking a little green and you haven’t had any rest since we left Four
Corners.” J.D. rode up beside his best friend and placed a hand on his arm. “Come on. A few
minutes rest isn’t gonna make that much of a difference.”

Wilmington swung around and glared at the teen. “The hell it isn’t, kid. You don’t know Brenner
like I do. You haven’t seen the hell he can inflict or how quick he can kill a man for looking at
him the wrong way. A few seconds would make a difference if it meant we could get Chris, Vin
and Jon out of that bastard’s clutches.”  The gunslinger started sweating from the exertion the
tirade had taken on him.

The youth stared at the worry and fear in his friend’s eyes and began to hate Cyrus Brenner for
causing it. “I’m sorry, Buck. I want to find them as much as you do. But getting ourselves lost, or
worse, caught ain’t gonna help them.” J.D. tightened the grip he still held on the older man’s
arm.

Buck gazed into the boy’s eyes and knew what he said was true. “Alright, kid. We’ll take a
break.” Wilmington began to dismount but instantly caught a movement to their left. “We got
company.”

The other four turned slowly and realized the cowhand at the jail had indeed given them the right
directions, but at what cost.

“You boys drop those guns nice and easy.” A big man with curly red hair emerged from the
nearest of the rocks and cocked his pistol. “I hear your looking for Mr. Brenner. Well, allow me
and my friends’ to escort you.” The gunman nodded his head and twelve men on horseback rode
up to retrieve the reigns of the fives’ horses.

“Why thats right nice, but we’d prefer to find our own way, if you don’t mind.” Buck’s voice had
dropped to a deadly whisper.

“I wouldn’t mind and neither would the boys, but I’m afraid Mr. Brenner would be plum mad at
us if we didn’t show the proper hospitality to future guests.” Red smiled showing yellow unkept
teeth and then spit a wad of tobacco at the gunslinger’s horse. “Lets ride before I decide you’d
look better dead than alive.”

The conversation seized as the gunmen closed the gap and herded the five onward.

***********************************************************************

“Mr. Tanner, are you still alive in there?” Cyrus kicked the side of the box and laughed when he
heard the slight moan. “I guess you are.” Brenner motioned for Broken- nose to open the
chamber and stood back a little.

As the lock was about to be slid off, a shout brought the scar faced man’s attention to the gate.
“Now what?” He tapped the goon on the shoulder indicating for him to stop and then gave his
full focus to the intrusion. As he watched the approaching horses, he immediately recognized the
form of Buck Wilmington. “Continue with your little project, while I go meet our ‘guests’.”

But before Cyrus could leave, the gunman stopped him. “What do you want me to do with him
when I get him out?”

Brenner creased his forehead in thought and then answered. “Keep him here until I signal for you
to bring him to join his friends’.”

The henchman nodded and turned back to the box.

The madman sauntered to the gathering group and let a smile cover his face as he noticed the
paleness of Wilmington. “Well, well. I see my aim was off. I’ll have to work on that.”

Buck felt the hate seeping through his body. “Yeah. Real shame, Brenner. Must be the old age
creeping up on ya.”

Cyrus guffawed at the gunslinger’s words. “You can’t be implying I’m getting long in the tooth.
Why, I feel as young as a spring chicken.” The scar faced man turned to his gunmen, gesturing
for them to help the others’ off their horses.

“Wheres’ Chris, you son of a bitch?” Wilmington grimaced as he landed on the dirt, but still
managed to ask the question that was on all their minds.

“I should have known you’d ask that. After all, you two were never far apart during the war.
Unless, you were preoccupied with the fairer sex.”

“You still didn’t answer his question?” Josiah stepped forward but was stopped quickly by the
nearest guard.

“Well, excuse me for being rude. I haven’t introduced myself. Cyrus Brenner.” He held his hand
out to the preacher, but pulled it back when he saw the glare directed at him. “Apparently, you
gents have been inflicted with the Larabee manners’.” Cyrus sighed. “But, in answer to your
inquiry. He’s safe and sound with daddy dearest right over there.”

The five looked toward the area the madman had pointed and each breathed a sigh of relief.

“Wait a minute. Wheres Vin?” J.D. swung his eyes back to their host.

“Ah, Mr. Tanner. Well, I’m happy to say you arrived just in time. He was about to be reunited
with his family. And as soon as you boys’ have changed, I’ll let you all get acquainted again.”
Brenner watched as the five were pushed toward the bunkhouse. “Yes, this shall be a joyous
gathering.”

********************************************************************

Chris had missed the exchange between Brenner and the others. His eyes had been riveted on the
box or rather the opening of the hollow cube. Broken nose hadn’t wasted anytime extracting the
occupant and what Larabee saw made his heart stop beating.

Vin fell to the ground outside the chamber and never moved. His hair was matted to his head and
his clothes were hanging a little looser than before.

“Damn.” The gunslinger started toward the prone figure but was stopped by a rifle being stabbed
into his side.

“Mr. Brenner said for you to stay here.”

Larabee stared defiantly into the goon’s eyes and was about to push him aside when a gasp from
his father caught his attention. The gunslinger swung his gaze to his brother, but there was still
no movement. As he turned to ask Jon what was wrong, his eyes fell on the five Union clad men
walking toward them.

“It seems this day is getting worse, son.” The elder Larabee had been ready to follow Chris to
Vin, when he saw Cyrus leading their friends’.

“Well, it looks like today is truly a day of gathering. I’m sure you know these men, Christapher,
so I’ll save the introductions until later. I must see to my other guest. He should be happy to see
you.” The madman turned from the group and walked to where Tanner still lay.

He glanced at the immobile figure for a few seconds and then kicked him. “Wake up, young
Larabee. You have visitors.”

The first thing to penetrate the tracker’s mind was the screaming pain in his side. As he started to
focus he heard the voice, the taunting. “Go to hell, Brenner!” The raspiness of Vin’s voice was
more apparent but the anger was very clear.

“I’m glad to hear you say that son. I’d hoped breaking you wouldn’t be this easy.” Cyrus leaned
down and pulled the bounty hunter to his feet by the hair of his head.

Tanner swayed slightly but fought the dizziness. He blinked slowly trying to focus on his
surroundings and see some way out.

“Still looking to escape, are we? You’ll be happy to know you won’t have to plan alone. I’ve
brought some more friends’ for you.” The madman stepped back slightly and swept his arm
behind him. “Go on, say hello. They’ve been very anxious for your arrival.”

Vin sighed heavily, attempting to control the nausea and weakness in his body. He finally got
some hold and reopened his eyes to find out what Cyrus had been babbling about. The tracker
looked toward the rocks expecting to see his father, but the six men around him caught the
buckskin off-guard.

Tanner swiveled himself toward Brenner and raised his hands trying to grab the other around the
neck. Cyrus stepped back when he saw the move, yelling as he went for someone to restrain Vin.
Broken nose grabbed the bounty hunter from behind but almost lost his grip.

“I suggest you calm down, Mr. Tanner. Unless you want to be imprisoned once more.” The
lunatic chuckled at the sudden loss of fight in the younger man. “I thought that would get your
attention. Escort him to his friends and then make sure he gets dressed appropriately.”

The tracker stumbled as Broken nose shoved him toward the rock pile. He could feel his last bit
of strength weakening but ignored the sensation and concentrated on getting to the others.

********************************************************************

“What the hell did he do to him?” Buck grimaced as he watched the man weave his way to them.

“Something Brenner’s gonna regret ten-fold.” Chris’s voice held a danger none of them had ever
heard.

The conversation halted as the bounty hunter grew closer. Nathan immediately rushed to his aid
along with Chris and Jon. J.D. had stayed beside Wilmington when he witnessed the palor of his
friend.

“Don’t worry, Buck. Your always telling me how stubborn Vin is. You said it was the Larabee
curse, right?” The youth looked up at the gunslinger with a mixture of worry and terror.

Buck glanced into the teen’s eyes and felt a sadness that someone so young had to endure such
heartache. “Your right, kid. He’s as mule-headed as Chris, maybe worse.” Wilmington tried to
reassure J.D. with one of his smiles, but it failed to meet his eyes.

“Easy, Vin. We’ve got you.” Jackson reached the bounty hunter first and tried to steady him even
though his hands were shackled. “Where you hurt?”

Tanner felt the hands, heard the words, but didn’t have the strength to answer.

“Come on, cowboy. Talk to us.” Chris had grabbed his brother’s other arm also noticing the
nonresponse.

“Chris?” Vin stopped his trek as the voice penetrated his muddled brain.

“Right here, Vin. We’re all here. I need you to tell Nathan exactly where your hurt, okay?”
Larabee waited with bated breath as the younger man tried to focus on Chris’s face. Finally, the
tracker nodded and resumed his walk.

The healer and the gunslinger helped Tanner to the rocks and then attempted to make him
comfortable against a big boulder.

“Alright, Vin. I’m gonna have to take that coat and shirt off so I can get a better look at them
wounds.” Nathan motioned for Josiah to come and help him knowing Chris wasn’t gonna be
much help.

“Evenin’, Brother Vin.” Sanchez squatted near Larabee and pushed him softly aside.

“Josiah?” Tanner turned a puzzled gaze to the preacher.

“Yes, its me.” The older man saw the tracker was staring at him like there was something he
wanted to say. “What is it, Vin?” Josiah paused in his task of untying the bounty hunter’s bonds
and pushed the matted hair from around his eyes. He noted the fever radiating from the brow and
was about to say something to Nathan when the younger man’s words caught his attention.

“He said you were right about crows.”

Sanchez gave the others a look of confusion. “Who said I was right about crows, Vin?”

The others watched silently as the bounty hunter swallowed trying to clear his parched throat.
“Eric Myers. He was in the box with me. Told me if I could hang on, everything would be okay.”
The tracker suddenly gasped when Nathan eased his coat off him.

“Sorry, Vin. This is gonna get worse. You just take it easy alright.” Tanner seemed to drifting
into unconsciousness.

“What else did Eric say, Vin?” Chris leaned in beside Josiah and grabbed the tracker’s hand in
his.

The younger man lifted his eyelids slowly and focused on his brother. “He said Brenner’s gonna
get whats comin’ to him real soon.” Tanner finally gave in to the darkness that had been
threatening to overtake him.

“Damn, how bad is he, Nate?” Buck was propped against the side of the boulder staring down at
the scene.

“It ain’t good. He’s lost a lot of blood, he’s got a fever, and I think he’s got a couple cracked
ribs.” The healer peeled the shirt from the man’s chest and hissed when he saw the damage
underneath. The skin had a bright purplish look tinged with a crimson hue. “At least the bullet
went clean through.”

Jon had stayed back as long as he could. “Is he going to be alright, Nathan?” The others turned
startled expressions to the oldest Larabee as they heard the quiver in his words.

Jackson stopped his ministrations long enough to give each man a knowing look. “He’s strong
and a fighter. He’s gonna be just fine.” *I hope and pray.* The healer added to himself.

“Gentlemen, I’m afraid this isn’t going to do at all. He should have been put in that uniform by
now and be ready to assume his duties.”

“DUTIES!” Chris jumped to his feet and turned on the lunatic. “You’ve lost your ever-loving
mind, Cyrus. He can’t stand on his own, much less do you bidding.”

Brenner smiled to himself. “In that case, leave him where he is. And only when he’s able to get
up on his own and walk across this courtyard, will he be allowed inside the bunkhouse.”

The shocked silence hung in the air around the eight men. “You can’t be serious. He’ll die out
here, especially since theres a storm coming. Come on Brenner, I know your an insane maniac,
but have a little decency.” Wilmington had rushed forward and would have charged the man if
Chris hadn’t held him back.

“Well, if you feel that way, your welcome to keep him company, Buck. Give him words of
encouragement, things of that sort.” Cyrus laughed lightly at the deadly glares directed at him.

“You sir are the sickest bastard I have had the misfortune to encounter. Not only are you stuck in
some delusional time warp, your inflicting unjust harm on an innocent.” Ezra’s southern drawl
had developed into a hiss.

“Oh, I am sorry for making you wear the blues, my southern fellow, but when in Rome. Well,
you know the saying. What will it be, Wilmington. Are you going to sacrifice your bed for a nice
rock pile next to the invalid?”

“I’m staying, not him.” Chris shoved the gunslinger behind him.

“I’m sorry, but no.” Brenner’s announcement was followed by a crack of thunder in the distance.
“It seems Mother Nature has seen fit to send us a cleansing storm. I wouldn’t want you to die of
pneumonia, now would I?” Cyrus gave the gunslinger a mocking glare.

“I’ll stay. Let Buck go with the others.” J.D. stepped around Larabee and faced the older man.

Brenner looked the youth up and down, sizing him up. “Well, the spoils of childhood are truly
wasted on the young.” The lunatic snorted, smacking the teen on the cheek. “But, if your so gung
ho to prove your manhood, who am I to stop you. Enjoy your night.”

Cyrus pushed J.D. to the ground at Wilmington’s feet. “Take the others to the bunkhouse and
secure everything for the storm.”

The gunmen grabbed Nathan, Ezra, Josiah, and Jon, but hesitated when they saw the resistance
from Buck and Chris.

“We ain’t goin’ nowhere without them.” Wilmington’s words were as ice cold as the wind now
blowing around them.

“Sorry, mister. Boss said you go in. One way or another.” Red approached the gunslinger
brandishing a steel club.

“Buck, please. Don’t do anything stupid. I’ll be alright and I’ll take good care of Vin.” J.D.
inserted himself between the two opponents.

Wilmington glanced down into the youth’s face and felt himself start to tremble. “I can’t let you
do this, kid.”

“It ain’t up to you, Buck. Look, this madman is determined to punish you and Chris. Don’t let
him get to you like this. Chris is gonna need you now. You concentrate on him and let me worry
about me and Vin. Promise me, Buck?” The boy grabbed the older man’s shoulders and squeezed
them reassuringly.

“I’ll see you in the morning, J.D.” Wilmington hoped his words sounded better then he felt.

“I’ll be here.” The teen stumbled as Red pushed him aside and approached the gunslinger once
more.

Buck turned to his oldest friend and winced at the sheer helplessness he saw in the other’s eyes.
“Come on, Chris. J.D.’s gonna take care of Vin. We gotta due what Brenner says for now.” The
gunslinger gasped as he reached up to grasp Larabee’s arm.

Chris never let his gaze waver from his younger brother’s still form as he instinctively grabbed
on to the other man. “Easy, Buck.” The leader slowly relented his visible bond and allowed the
henchmen to lead them toward the bunkhouse.

“How does he know about, Eric, Chris? You tell him?” Wilmington walked sadly beside his
friend, never looking to what they were leaving behind.

“I don’t know, Buck. The only people who know about Myers is you, me, and Cyrus.” Chris
glanced over at his friend noticing the puzzlement etched on his face.

“That don’t make no sense, Chris. Eric’s been dead almost ten years.”

“Yeah, I know. Something else is going on here, pard. I just hope its something good.” Larabee
tried to turn his head and see the two youngest of the group, but Broken nose stepped into his line
of sight.

“Don’t worry about them, friend. They’ll be dead soon enough and out of their misery.” The
goon giggled at his attempt at humor and missed the scream of the crow as it passed over head.

************************************************************************

J.D. eased himself onto the dirt beside the tracker’s unconscious form. Tanner’s coat and shirt
had been removed and unfortunately Brenner hadn’t left anything for the teen to cover him up
with. The only the youth had was the Union shirt on his back, but because of the shackles he
couldn’t take it off.

“I’m sorry, Vin. I ain’t got nothing to cover you up with, and I don’t know how to help you.” J.D.
felt the silent tears threatening to pour from his eyes. He remembered feeling this helpless once
before, when he watched his ma die. “You gotta stay with us, Vin. We need you. Especially,
Chris. You hear me? You gotta hang on.”

The boy moved to the bounty hunter’s side and gently raised him to a sitting position. Tanner
moaned softly at the movement but didn’t wake.

“Its okay, I’m just gonna wrap my arms around you and try to keep you warm.” J.D. slid his
chained arms over the bare torso of the tracker and then leaned him back against him. “Just rest,
Vin. I’ll take care of you, I promise.”

The kid settled back against the rock and held the older man as close as he could, praying it
would be enough to keep Tanner warm throughout the night. As the youth began to doze he felt
the first drops of water hit his face and slit his eyes open. The moon was surrounding by black
clouds, but for the moment shone like a beacon in the night. J.D. let his eyes drift shut once
again, but just before they closed he caught the fleeting glance of a bird fly by him.

“Ain’t no crows gonna take you away, Vin. I won’t let them.” The kid tightened his grasp for a
moment and then succumbed to the exhausted sleep pulling at him.

********************************************************************

To be a part of this world, but suddenly taken from life’s breath can cause a soul unrest.- Maggie

*********************************************************************

The storm was raging as the sun tried to peak through the blanket of black. The guests of the
bunkhouse had not slept due to their constant vigil at the window to watch the two partners left
outside. The helplessness they each felt had turned to fury and then finally to hate. A hatred so
deep and powerful that would surely cause irrepairable damage to any soul.

“Why don’t you rest, son? Vin’s gonna need us strong.” Jon Larabee laid a comforting hand on
his eldest’s shoulder, sighing at the tension radiating from the touch.

“I’m fine.” Chris never took his eyes from the still forms near the rock pile. He had watched in
frustration his younger brother’s bouts of fever induced delirium and the emotional pain-filled
expressions that crossed J.D. Dunne’s face, wanting with all his being to rush to their aid. But the
iron shackles and armed guards had prevented the suicidal tendency.

Jon nodded his head at his futile attempt but he had still felt the need to at least try. “Alright.”
The older man turned to resume his restless pacing beside Buck Wilmington, but was stopped at
the sudden opening of the barracks door.

“Well, gentlemen, good morning.” Cyrus Brenner sauntered into the room oblivious to the deadly
glares encasing him. “I’m glad you all are up and ready to greet the new day. I for one am
excited.”

Buck stepped forward but felt a restraining hand on his arm. He swung on the intruder, but
stopped when he saw the wise eyes of Josiah Sanchez.

“Not yet, brother.” The preacher could see the deep circles and dimness of the usually vibrant
orbs and cursed the madman behind it.

“Now why would you feel excitement my dear insane one?” Ezra Standish arose from his
position on the cot and attempted to slap the imaginary dirt from his Union blues.

“Why, just the for the fact I’m breathing.” Cyrus paused, taking in a lungful of air. “And the
possibility of someone not being.” Brenner chuckled at his own rhyme and turned a knowing
look to Chris.

“I wouldn’t be too happy, Cyrus. You have no idea who your dealing with.” Larabee started to
advance on the scar faced man but thought better of it. He needed to keep it together for Vin and
J.D. “Let us go to them.”

Cyrus glanced at the faces around him and knew in that instant his victory was at hand. He had
played his cards with the two aces of the group and it seems, he had won.

“By all means. Please bring the soaked young men inside and clean them up. I want them to be
rested and ready to go by this afternoon.” The lunatic brought his pocket watch out and glanced
at the time. “You have exactly five hours to see to them and then we ride. And afraid only the
good ‘doctor’ may accompany my men to retrieve yours.”

“You are truly out of your mind, sir.” The gambler had lost his poker face and his hatred was
shining bright in his green eyes.

“Well, I see your observation skills second that of your poker playing talents, Mr. Standish. I
have been called many things, but I believe I like yours the best.” Brenner slapped the man on the
cheek and then left.

“That son of a bitch is determined to kill us one way or another.” Wilmington hissed, partly from
anger and partly from pain.

“Buck, you need to calm down and get some rest. If this maniac is true to his word, J.D.’s gonna
need you.” Nathan walked up and started manuvering the gunslinger to a nearby cot.

“Your right, doc.” Buck allowed himself to be placed on the bed and covered. “But as soon as
you get J.D. in here, wake me. I wanna be near him.”

The healer nodded and then followed in Brenner’s wake hoping to find Vin and J.D. just as they
had left them. Alive.

********************************************************************

“You gotta talk to him J.D.” The pale figure squatted beside the teen and whispered his
instructions softly.

“I’mmmm.....tryiiiinggggg.” The youth’s chattering teeth was interfering with any coherent
wording.

“I know you are, kid. Your doing a great job. Vin’s lucky to have you to care for him.” The man
patted J.D. lightly on the shoulder.

“Uh, yeah, realll...luckyyyy.” The boy wrapped his arms tighter around the fevered tracker and
groaned from the chill gripping his limbs.

“J.D. Listen to me, okay.” The unexpected stranger reached out and turned the teen’s face
towards his. “There are many things in life we cannot control. One of those is death. But the
thing about dying is you don’t have to be alone. Because if you love someone, you can give them
that love until their last breath.”

J.D. stared at the black orbs in a trance. He was mesmerized by the voice and the depth of feeling
he heard behind it. “Kinda like my ma. I couldn’t do nothing to help her, but I never left her. I
was always there, talking to her. Telling her my silly jokes she would attempt to laugh at.” The
kid swallowed as the lump formed in his throat.

“Yeah, like that, J.D. And even though I know Vin’s not gonna die, the one thing that will help
him hang on is you. Knowing your here with him.” The stranger sighed and patted the boy’s
cheek lightly.

The teen still couldn’t break the link with the man. “Who are you?”

The figure stood slowly and allowed a small smile to grace his ghostly features. “Lets just say
I’m a friend.”

J.D. blinked his eyes and was about to ask another question but the man was gone and in his
place was the concerned face of Nathan.

“J.D., you alright?” The healer reached out and felt the boy’s forehead, wiping some of the rain
from his brow.

“Nathan?” The teen was still feeling confused, but amazingly enough, warmer.

“Yeah. I’m gonna take you and Vin to the bunkhouse and get you fixed up. Can you stand or do
you need me to let the guards help you?” Jackson helped J.D. raise his arms from the tracker’s
body and then eased the bounty hunter to a sitting position so the youth could get up.

J.D. looked from Vin to the goons’ and made his decision. “No, I’m alright.” He rose shakily and
took Tanner’s left arm, while Nathan took his right.

“On the count of three, J.D.”

The kid nodded. As one they gently brought the tracker upright and somewhat standing. Vin
swayed slightly, but seemed to be on some level concsious.

“Vin, can ya hear me?” Jackson swung the bounty hunter’s arm over his shoulder and grimaced
at the pain he saw it caused the younger man.

“Its....okay.....Nate.” Tanner’s eyelids sluggishly opened enough to produce two very tired orbs.

“Yeah, its gonna be okay.” Nathan couldn’t help but smile as he carefully began to walk the
bounty hunter toward the barracks with shackled hands. J.D. was helping as he could, trying not
to aggrevate the wound to Vin’s shoulder. The bleeding had stopped during the night and the
cold rain and air seemed to take some of the swelling down.

“Vin, you doing alright?” The teen suddenly remembered the stranger’s words to him earlier and
wanted the tracker to know he was there if needed.

Tanner turned his head cautiously and took in the sight of the youth. His black hair was matted to
his head and his face was paler than usual, but Vin saw the ever present exuberance in the boy’s
eyes and attempted a slow grin.

“Yeah, kid. Thanks.”

J.D. looked up at the older man and felt his heart grow at the gratitude reflected in his friend’s
eyes.

“Anytime, Vin. Anytime.” The boy squeezed the bounty hunter’s arm affectionately, looking
toward the waiting shelter. A brief flash of black caught the youth’s attention and he looked
toward the side of the building. There standing in the shadows of the now breaking sun rays, was
the pale stranger. J.D. stared at the man, once again entranced.

The visitor nodded at the youth and then vanished. J.D. gasped at what he just witnessed.

“Kid, you okay?” Tanner drew the healer to a stop at the youth’s sudden distress.

“Wha-” The boy turned startled eyes to the two men. “I just saw..” He stopped instantly as he
realized he had no idea what he saw.

“Its okay, J.D. Your probably still disoriented from the lack of sleep and exertion. Lets get you
two inside, now.” Nathan tugged on the bounty hunter’s arm and started them in motion once
again.

Vin never took his eyes off the teen. “Don’t worry, J.D. Your not seeing things.”

J.D. swung his gaze to the tracker. “You saw it?”

Tanner let his eyes drift halfway shut and then replied. “More than once.”

**************************************

Beware of the Walking Dead

**************************************

“How you doing, Vin?” Nathan paused just shy of the barrack doors to check on the now quiet
bounty hunter.

“I’m still here, doc.” The tracker turned a slow grin, albeit weak, on the healer.

“I can say one good thing about the Larabee stubborness, it sure ain’t wasted on the young.”
Jackson chuckled softly at the glare Tanner threw at him.

“Nathan’s right. We thought you were stubborn before, but since you found out you and Chris
were brothers. Good grief.” JD was trying to help keep the tracker’s mind off the pain.

“Keep it up, kid.” Vin attempted to hold the other with a cold stare, but the innocent hazel gaze
got to him.

“Here, let me help, Brother Nate.” Josiah had walked onto the top steps to aid the other men.

“Take it easy with his shoulder.” The healer slowly relinquished his hold on Tanner and turned to
JD. “Need a hand?”

“Naw, I’m okay Nathan. Thanks.” The teen waited patiently while the doctor and preacher
helped Vin into the room before following.

JD paused once inside to let his vision adjust and wasn’t surprised to see Chris glued to the
tracker’s bedside. What did surprise him though, was no Buck Wilmington. The youth instantly
became worried. Ezra must have caught the boy’s apprehension for he went immediately to his
side to assure him.

“Do not worry, Mr. Dunne. Our illustrious ladies’ man is merely following doctor’s orders.” The
gambler pointed to the prone figure in the last bed and JD let out a sigh of relief.

“Thanks Ezra.” The teen patted Standish on the arm as he almost ran to the gunslinger’s bedside.
“Buck?” The boy stared at the pale form of his best friend and began to feel a hate he’d never
even imagined.

“Kid?” Wilmington slid his eyes open part way and was afraid he was imagining things when he
encountered the youthful face of his friend.

“Hey, Buck. You okay?” The teen leaned over slightly to gauge the older man’s features closer.

“I should be the one asking you.” Buck let a smile crease his lips for the first time in days. “God,
kid. I thought I lost you.” The gunslinger squeezed his eyes shut against the pain he’d endured
both physically and emotionally.

“Take it easy, Buck. I’m alright. So’s Vin. We’re all together again and thats all that matters
now.” JD took Wilmington’s hand in his, gripping it tightly and smiling at the man as the
gunslinger’s eyes drifted shut once more.

*******************************

“Damnit, Chris, give me some room.” Nathan gave Larabee a frustrated look but was blatantly
ignored by the gunslinger as he sat on the mattress beside his brother.

“How you doing, Vin?” Chris’s voice was barely above a whisper.

“Better now. You guys okay?” Tanner raised his head to look around him.

“Don’t worry son. We’re all holding our own.” Jon leaned near the head of the bed cautious not
to get in the already perturbed healer’s way.

“Good. Can we get the hell out of here now?” The tracker let a small smile crease his lips as he
heard the chuckle from his older brother.

“I’m ready when you are, cowboy.” Larabee reached out and brushed some loose strands of hair
from Vin’s forehead.

But before the conversation could go further, the front door of the barracks slammed open,
causing them to jump at the intrusion.

“Aw, what a precious sight. Have ya ever seen anything so sweet?” Brenner turned a mocking
glance to the goon beside him.

“What the hell do you want now, Cyrus?” Chris stood up and placed himself protectively
between the madman and Vin.

“Well, its time to go. I just come to see if my guests were packed and ready to travel.” Brenner
laughed quietly at the glares he was recieving.

“Your a crazy son of a bitch.” JD’s usually gentle voice dripped with venom as he mimicked
Larabee’s movement placing himself between Cyrus and Buck.

“Now, now. Such language from a child. Didn’t your momma teach you better son?” Cyrus knew
he had hit a nerve as he saw the color drain from the teen’s face.

“You leave my ma outta this.” Dunne took a step forward but Josiah’s gentle hand hindered his
way.

“Easy, kid. He’s just goading you. Don’t play into his hands.” JD took a couple of deep breaths
and then glanced at the preacher.

“Thanks.”

“Thats what I’m here for, guidance.” Sanchez winked at the boy getting the desired result of a
smile.

“Well, now. If everyone is finished with this amazing show of comradery, its time to shove off.”
The madman turned and gave his henchmen a slight nod. Four men entered the room carrying
shotguns and sidearms. They were definantly armed for a battle but one look at Vin and Buck
and all thoughts of an attack left the men’s minds.

“Alright.” Chris swiveled back around and saw Tanner was already half way off the bed. “Easy,
cowboy. Let us give you a hand.” Larabee reached out offering his shackled aid and helped
steady the younger man as he began to sway when he had gotten upright.

“Damn. I hate feeling like this.” The tracker gritted his teeth trying to will the room to stop
spinning and his stomach to keep what little he had left in there, in there.

“Just take it slow. We ain’t in no hurry.” Nathan’s soothing voice once again worked its magic as
the bounty hunter’s breathing and upset stomach became normal.

“Thanks, doc.” Jackson returned Tanner’s slow smile with one of his own, but a grumble from
behind them diverted his attention to another patient.

“The same goes for you too, Buck. Don’t you go and open that wound, ya here?” The healer
chuckled at the colorful response from the gunslinger and then the reprimand from JD.

“You do as Nate says, Buck.” The teen tried to help Wilmington but was pushed aside with a
gruff, ‘I can do it myself, kid.’ JD rolled his eyes heavenward and luckily turned back to the
gunslinger in time to keep him from hitting the floor face first.

Buck grabbed at the youth with his tied hands and was successful in keeping himself upright if
not very gracefully. “Thanks, kid.” Wilmington opened his eyes and was happy to see the
youthful grin that met him.

“Anytime, Buck. Anytime.”

“Alright, gentlemen. Time is wasting, and I’m a busy man.” Brenner gave the prisoners’ one last
glance before heading out the door. The goons’ hustled all eight men out in single file, well
except for Chris, who had a death grip on Vin, and JD, who had wrapped his arms around Buck
much like he had Tanner the night before.

As they were marched to the front gate, they saw the solemn looks of the seventy-five prisoners’
around them, and then the smirks worn by the other guards. They were stopped about fifteen feet
from the front passage, where four unmounted horses and Cyrus waited.

“I’m sorry I’m unable to supply you horses, but trust me you won’t need them.” The scar-faced
man snickered as he turned his mare at the now opened doors of the fort. “Move out!” Brenner
swung his hand forward at the guards who were now riding and pushing the eight behind their
leader.

“Where do you think he’s taking us, son?” Jon was following close behind his sons’ and had a
sinking feeling things had just took a nosedive.

“To our graves.” Chris’s clipped tone made all the men shiver as they realized their time had just
ended, and they had no way out.

****************************

The sun had reached its peak above the dry, red desert now being travelled by the eight prisoners’
and their captors. The shackles and injuries had fatigued them immensely but they were in no
way ready to give up, for they knew surrender would be sure death.

“How you doing, cowboy?” Chris hadn’t left the tracker’s side since the barracks and for this
Tanner was grateful. He had long ago used up his reserve energy and only his brother’s sheer
determination was keeping him going.

“I’m still alive, does that count?” Vin gasped as the heat took his breath away.

“A whole helluva lot.” Larabee took a quick glance at the bounty hunter and instantly regretted it.
Tanner’s face had gone from pale to crimson red, which matched what once was a union shirt
one of the guard’s had given Chris to put on the tracker. *Damn. His shoulder’s bleeding again
and from this damn heat, I can’t tell if he’s running a fever.* “You got the chills or anything?”

Vin squinted his eyes and gave Larabee a hard look. “Don’t worry about me, Chris. I’m still here
and I ain’t planning on going nowhere real soon.”

The gunslinger noted the grim determination etched in the tired blue eyes and for once thanked
the Larabee stubborness and that of the Tanner’s. “Glad to hear it.” Chris returned the obstinate
look with one of his own and then resumed his walk with nothing but morbid thoughts for Cyrus
Brenner running through his head.

*************************

“You okay, Buck?” JD wiped the sweat from his brow and turned to the silent man beside him.
They were the last in the group and the teen could see the others were holding their own so
decided to guage his best friend’s condition.

“Fine, kid.” Wilmington’s soft gasps told the other he was anything but, but knowing the
gunslinger, it was better not to push it.

“Okay. But if you need anything, let me know, okay?” JD let his gaze linger until the other man
returned the look. What the boy saw made him feel a little better. Buck had gotten some of his
color back, but due to the beating they were receiving from the sun, JD didn’t know if that was
good or bad. However, the old Buck look of tenacity reassured him the other was just as he said.

“Same here, kid.” The gunslinger waited until JD nodded his agreement and then went back to
his march with a little more peace of mind.

They had gone about another 10 feet when the kid’s yelp of surprise mixed with a sudden gasp of
pain caused the parade to halt. Buck turned to where the boy was suppose to be beside him but
instead found JD lying on the ground clutching his arm.

“Kid, whats wrong?” Wilmington immediately crouched beside the youth and tried to get the boy
to let him see what had happened but the wildness in JD’s eyes said he was in too much pain for
comprehension. “NATHAN!” The gunslinger hadn’t realized he had shouted for the healer until
Jackson appeared on the other side of JD.

“Buck, what happened?” Nathan was also trying to get the youth to let go of his left arm but was
likewise met with resistance.

“I don’t know. We were walking along and then all of a sudden he yelled and when I turned
around he was rolling around on the ground. Nate, whats wrong?” Wilmington was becoming
agitated at the boy’s continued whimper of agony.

“I’ll find out as soon as JD tells me. You hear me, son? I need to know whats wrong?” The
healer used his soft voice to try and coax the teen from his pain induced fog back to reality.
Dunne blinked a couple of times to remove the tears and finally brought Jackson’s face into
focus.

“Nate?” The gasp tore through the hearts of the seven men now surrounding the youth.

“Yea, JD. Its me. What happened, son?”

“I was walking,” The boy paused as a wave of anguish washed over him. “And then I felt
something hit my arm. When I looked down a scorpion had landed near my wrist. I tried to sling
it off, but I only managed to aggravate it and it stung me.” Tears had appeared once more in the
youth’s eyes as he clutched at his arm harder.

“Damn. What are we gonna do?” Buck turned hopeful eyes to the healer.

“I don’t know, Buck. If I had my supplies, I’d be able to give him some medicine to counteract
the poison, but....” Nathan stopped and looked at the others around him letting his eyes convey
what his mouth wouldn’t or couldn’t say.

“Well, isn’t that a shame. Looks like the boy will be better off staying here and suffering in
peace.” Cyrus had rode up behind them and heard every word exchanged.

“The hell he will.” Buck jumped up and would have lunged for the madman if Josiah hadn’t once
again stepped in with a steadying hand.

“Easy, brother. We aren’t going anywhere without JD. You hear me, Brenner. Either you let us
help him, or you might as well end it here.” Sanchez let Ezra take Wilmington and then turned to
look the scar-faced man eye to eye.

“It would interfere with my plan if we left the youngster here. So, if you can keep him from
holding up our progress, your welcome to bring the lad along.” Cyrus laughed softly at the deadly
glare Buck was throwing at him and then returned to his position at point.

Nathan laid a gentle hand on the boy’s brow offering what comfort he could. The healer sighed,
wishing for once he wasn’t the medicine man of this group.

“Here, let me take him.” Jon leaned down and carefully pulled JD upright taking as much of the
youth’s weight as he could. “You just rest against me, JD. Okay?” The older man felt the nod
next to his shoulder before he turned to look at his sons’.

Chris’s eyes had deepened with even more rage if possible and Vin was listing slightly to the
right, but was also radiating a sense of fury. Larabee gave his boys’ an encouraging smile as he
led the boy forward to resume their walk.

They hiked for about three more hours before coming to an oasis. Cyrus called for them to halt
and allowed the prisoners’ to recline near the water.

“Gentlemen, I suggest you enjoy it while you can.” Brenner paced by the men and immersed his
canteen in the sparkling pond.

“I turly hope our host chokes on the shimmering pool of heaven he is capturing.” Ezra’s usual
drawl was somewhat hindered by his chapped and slightly cracked lips.

None of the others had the strength to answer the gambler so acknowledged their agreement with
a nod of their head.

“JD, how you doin’?” Nathan had situated himself next to the youth and was examining the red,
puffed up knot on his left arm. The poison had made his skin a light black color mixed with the
crimson of the inflamated area.

“Beeennn betttteeer.” The boy’s pronounced shivering immediately caused the healer alarm.

“Damn. He’s got the chills.” Jackson looked around swiftly for something he could use to cover
JD, but was met with only tumbleweeds and dirt.

“Nate.” The healer swiveled quickly to the voice’s position and was surprised because he hadn’t
recognized Tanner’s drawl.

“Yeah, Vin.”

The bounty hunter swallowed a few times trying to get his mouth wet enough to finish what he
was trying to say. “See that plant over by the water.” Vin attempted to point out the object but a
gasp of pain was his response.

“Easy, cowboy.” Chris reached over and rubbed his younger brother’s back giving him what
support he could.

Jackson glanced to the small lake and saw a few bushes with purple flowers surrounding the
outer bank. “You mean the prickly lookin’ ones?” The healer gazed over his shoulder to get an
affirmative from the bounty hunter.

“Yeah. Get one of the stems and break it open. Rub as much as you can over JD’s sting.” Tanner
paused as a wave of dizziness assualted his system. He felt himself starting to tip sideways but a
solid form halted his fall and the resounding heartbeat against his left cheek told him what had
stopped him. “Thanks, Chris.” Vin was afraid his mumble wouldn’t be heard but the whispered,
‘your welcome’, told him otherwise.

Nathan knew what the tracker was trying to tell him so didn’t push any further explanation from
the already exhausted man. “Alright JD. You hang on, I’m gonna get you something to make you
feel better.” The healer scooted across the ground until he was within arm’s length of the plant.
The guards hadn’t noticed Jackson’s actions due to them gorging themselves on the water.

Nate grabbed the biggest stem he could reach and broke it off near the root. He was surprised
when a salve of some kind began oozing out the bottom. He quickly turned it up to keep the
medicine from escaping as he made his way back to the boy’s side.

“You think this is gonna work?” Buck had propped JD against his chest so the kid was as
comfortable as possible.

“I don’t know, but at this point we don’t have nothing to lose.” Jackson turned the stem over and
poured out a handful of salve then applied it to the boy’s wound. He could feel the heat radiating
from the youth, but pushed down his concern and concentrated on his task.

“Brenner, you think you could share that water?” Chris had eased Vin until he had mimicked
Wilmington’s pose with JD.

Cyrus stopped midway of putting his canteen to his mouth to take his first drink and gave the
gunslinger a contemplative glance. He lowered the container and stood. “I would Larabee, but
I’m not one to waste the necessaties of life on deadmen.” The madman chuckled resuming his
course to his horse.

“I wouldn’t drink it if he offered it to me at my last breath.” Josiah’s baritone voice broke into a
short cough.

“Amen, Mr. Sanchez.” Standish closed his eyes briefly hoping to suddenly have a brainstorm and
get he and his friends’ out of this mess.

“Its alright, Ezra. We’ll find a way out.” Jon had situated himself in the middle of the men and
had watched the defeat and desperation pass over the gambler’s features.

“I know we will, Mr. Larabee. We have beaten the odds too many times for me to believe
otherwise. I was just merely thinking how refreshing it would be to be reclining on my mattress
at the hotel in Four Corners.” The man of chance put his poker face back in place berating
himself for allowing someone to read his true thoughts.

Before the older man could respond, a gasp from one of the guards’ caught the men’s attention.

“Help me...” Red was clutching his throat and reaching frantically for anyone closest to him.

“What the hell’s wrong...” Broken Nose was trying to avoid the frenzied grab when he also began
grasping his throat and gasping for air.

Cyrus watched the unusual scene from beside his mount and was appalled as his other two
goons’ began mimicking the others. “What in the hell is wrong with you four?”

“Can’t you see their choking to death.” Nathan jumped to his feet having just finished his
doctoring of JD.

“On what?” Brenner didn’t seem at all concerned for his mens’ health as he voiced his question.

“I don’t know, but you need to help them.” Jackson had reached Red and was trying to get him to
calm down, but was unsuccessful.

As the healer watched in horror, the man’s eyes rolled back in his head and he fell dead at
Nathan’s feet. Jackson turned to Broken Nose, but was met with the same reaction. As the nine
men stared, all four guards fell to the ground, dead.

The scar-faced man drew his pistol instinctively when his last man fell. “Alright, what did you do
to them?” Cyrus pointed his gun at Nathan.

“I didn’t do nothing but try and help them.” The healer raised his bound hands in some
semblence of non-resistance.

“How were we suppose to do anything, you maniac. We’ve been tied up since we got to that
looney barn you call a fort.” Buck pulled JD behind him the best he could as Brenner swiveled
his weapon to train on Wilmington.

“Actually, it doesn’t matter. This should be far enough.” The madman paused as he let his gaze
and gunhand land on Chris. “Get up, Larabee. I’ve waited a lot of years for this. I know I may not
get all of you before you can get me, but I will take you with me first.” Cyrus laughed as he
watched Larabee move Vin til he could get up to face Brenner.

The tracker tried to grasp his brother’s arm, but his right shoulder and body protested
immediately. “Chris?”

The gunslinger ignored the plea from his brother and the helpless looks he knew now adorned his
friends’ and father’s faces. “Lets get this over with, Cyrus.”

Tanner had managed to get to his knees as he stared at the scene unfolding before him. He knew
none of the others were close enough to push Chris out of the way, so the bounty hunter deemed
himself the volunteer. As he saw the trigger of Brenner’s gun begin to ease back, a sudden flash
of black caught his attention. He started to look around for the apparition he knew would follow
the crow, but the sound of gunfire halted all his movements.

Vin’s gaze was riveted on the smoking pistol in the madman’s hands. He couldn’t seem to break
the spell. The swirling smoke was mocking him. Everything he had come to believe in these last
few months, every fiber of his existence was being torn from him. Tanner knew what awaited
him if he turned his eyes. So, instead began to give in to the darkness that had begun calling his
name in that hellhole Brenner had referred to as the box. But, as he felt himself sinking a
whispered voice swirled around his head. He tried to focus enough to recognize it, but all he
could make out was the words.

“This ghost shall ride no more, my friend. Rest.”

***********************

JD had heard the loud noise and had accustomed it for what it was, gunfire. *Why would we be
in a gunbattle out here?* The teen was still feeling the aftereffects of the scorpion bite, and was
definately confused.

“Kid, can ya hear me?”

*Buck?* JD tried to focus, *Oh God, Buck. Had he been shot again?* The boy fought against the
plaguing fatigue and opened his eyes to find the smiling face of his best friend. “Buck?”

“Hey, kid. How ya feel?” Wilmington reached up and pushed some wet locks of hair from the
boy’s head while checking for fever.

“Better. What happened?” JD attempted to sit up, but a restraining hand from the gunslinger
halted the movement.

“Its okay, JD. Take it easy. Seems we had a run of good luck. Brenner and his goons are dead.
Nathan’s seeing to Vin and then we’re gonna get the hell out of this place.”

The teen creased his brow in a frown. *Dead. But how?* “I don’t understand, Buck.”

Wilmington smiled softly at the youth. “Neither do we, kid. But right now, we don’t care.”

Suddenly, JD began feeling tired again. He tried to stay awake and ask more questions but the
unexpected relief of the words the other man just uttered made him give up the fight.

***********************

Four days later..........Back in Four Corners

Nathan’s clinic had seen many visitors in the last year and a half, but none more than these past
few days. The healer had had JD bedridden for as long as he could possibly keep him down,
which turned out to be 24 hours, before he bolted right along with Buck Wilmington. The
gunslinger’s gunshot wound had healed quickly once they had returned home, so Jackson didn’t
say too much when he had hit the door running.

Josiah and Ezra had suffered minor bouts of heat-exhaustion, which Nathan was amazed they let
him treat, that is until they got a hankering for whisky instead of water. Then they had exited as
much in a hurry as Buck and JD. Jon hadn’t left Vin’s bedside and neither had Chris. Since
Tanner’s collapse in the desert, both men had been afraid the shock had finally taken the tracker
from them.

“You two need to get some rest. I barely got enough room in here for one patient, much less
three.” The healer’s recurring speech over the past couple of days once again fell on deaf ears.

“I’ll leave as soon as Vin wakes up.” Jon gave Jackson a tired look before glancing once more at
the unmoving form of his youngest son.

Chris gave the medicine man his usual response, silence. The gunslinger hadn’t said two words
since he had caught Tanner’s unconscious figure, that fated day in the desert. Larabee had known
instinctively his brother thought him dead, so hadn’t been all surprised when the younger man
had crashed into his arms’. Larabee had refused to leave Vin’s side any longer than to relieve
himself and then he was back once more.

“Alright. I’m gonna go make sure the rest of this bunch is at least taking it easy. I feel just like
some mother hen with a bunch of unruly chicks.” Nathan’s muttering was as expected, ignored.

“You’d think he would have woke up by now.” Jon’s voice sounded his age as he reached over
and stroked his youngest’s hair softly. “He looks so much like his ma when he sleeps.” The older
man sighed heavily and rubbed at his tired eyes.

“Go on and get some rest, dad. I’ll send one of the others when he wakes up.” Chris’s attention
had been diverted out the window since they brought Vin to the clinic. He occasionally turned to
his brother, but only when he was alone.

“How do you know?”

The unexpected question caught the black clad man off-guard. “Know what?”

Larabee stared intently into his oldest eyes as he took his time in wording his next phrase. “How
do you know he’ll wake up, Chris. Its been four days. He barely even moved when we brought
him out of the desert and took over the fort.”

The anger now radiating the gunslinger’s form didn’t surprise the other man. He’d seen the fierce
protectiveness his son had for Vin even before he had told him they were brothers.

“The same way I know he’d wake even if you weren’t here. Vin has only run from one thing in
his life and thats Tuscosa. And only then he did it because nobody would listen to reason. He’s
not a quitter. Never has been, never will be and thats why I know he’ll wake up as soon as he
can.” Larabee let his cold gaze penetrate his father’s before turning back to the window.

Jon nodded sadly as he rose to leave. “I’m sorry, son. I didn’t mean anything by my question. I
just wanted to know how it felt to be that close to him.” As the older man started to reach for the
door, he felt a soft hand on his arm.

Larabee turned and was now looking at the eyes he’d seen so many years ago, his little boy.

“I’m sorry, dad. I know your still trying to get to know Vin. I’m sorry I took my frustration out on
you.” Chris heard his voice catch as he dropped his hold.

“I know, son. I think the next time we try this vacation thing, you and Vin and of course the
others if they want, should come down to the ranch. I think that would be the safest bet for us.”
Jon let a soft chuckle escape as he thought about how much trouble the seven men could get into
without even trying.

“Yeah, that might be a good idea. I’ll ask Vin when he wakes up.” The youngest Larabee slapped
his father lightly as he turned to resume his seat.

“You do that.” Jon opened the door and exited the solemn room with a heavy heart, not knowing
what tomorrow would bring.

The gunslinger gazed at the bounty hunter as he heard the door click shut. “I think its time you
wake up, cowboy. You’ve never been one to lay around while their’s work to be done. If I didn’t
know better I’d think you’ve been hanging around Ezra too much.” Larabee reached out and
imitated what his father had done earlier, but stopped and jumped to his feet when he was once
again answered with nothing.

He sauntered to the window and glanced down at the streets below. They had thinned out since
the army came and took the hostages Brenner had in his fort back to their families. Luckily, the
guys were able to exact their freedom with minimal to no resistance. It seems when the leader
was killed, the fight left his followers.

The gunslinger thought back to that day and was still amazed by what happened. Cyrus had him
dead to rights. There was no way he could have missed, but he did. Larabee shook his head, “I
guess God does watch over fools and little children.”

“Which does that make you?” The whispered Texas drawl floated around Chris making him
believe he was dreaming. Turning in slow motion, he came eye to eye with his younger brother.
The gunslinger rushed to his vacated seat and revelled in the twinkle that was again present in
Tanner’s eyes.

“Hey, cowboy. How ya feel?”

Vin began chuckling softly and was happy when it didn’t cause any unbearable pain. “Its seems
we’ve been through that before.”

Larabee also laughed quietly. “Yeah, seems so.”

“You never answered my question.” The bounty hunter shifted in the bed.

“I guess I would qualify as a fool.” Chris reached out and helped Vin get more comfortable.

“Why do you say that?”

“Well, everytime I turn around I’ve got someone hunting me down. If I hadn’t went and done
some things in my past, that wouldn’t be happening now. I would call that foolish.”

“I’d call that human.” Tanner paused as he took a good look at his older brother. Except for a few
days of a beard and shadows under his eyes, he seemed no worse for wear. “I thought you were
dead.”

Larabee almost missed the uttered words. Almost. “So did I. I’m still not sure what happened.”

Vin stared past Chris out the window at something that had briefly passed by.

“You alright?” The gunslinger noticed the frown and thought Tanner was in pain.

“No. I mean yeah. I just thought I saw something.” The bounty hunter glanced outside once more
but was met with nothing but sunshine.

Larabee saw the grimace slowly disappear and continued. “I looked Cyrus in the eye while I was
waiting for the bullet to hit me, but all of a sudden when the gun went off, nothing. Brenner
looked as shocked as I felt. He raised his pistol to fire again, but suddenly clutched his throat like
the others did earlier and fell dead at my feet.”

Vin weighed the story carefully and came up with only one conclusion. “Eric.” He hadn’t meant
to say the name out loud so was surprised by Chris’s inquiry.

“Who?”

Tanner glanced into his brother’s eyes again. “I said Eric. Eric Meyers. He’s the reason your
alive.”

The gunslinger began to get worried. “Vin. Eric Meyers is dead. He was killed by Cyrus 10 years
ago.”

The tracker nodded his head slowly. “Yeah. He told me. I met him when I was in the box. He
said for me to hang on that Brenner’s time was now. I didn’t know what he meant until Cyrus
was about to shoot you. I saw a flash of black right before the gunshot. I thought for sure you had
been hit. I felt myself passing out, but before I was completely out of it I heard Eric say
something to me.” Vin paused, wanting to guage Chris’s response to his crazy talk and was
relieved to see nothing but interest. “He said this ghost will ride no more. Rest. Thats when I
knew Eric had saved you and the rest of us.”

Larabee had never heard a more ludicrous story in his life, but somehow, maybe instinct, he
knew it was true. “I always knew there was something special about that kid. I guess now I know
what it is.” Chris patted Tanner’s arm as he saw the bounty hunter’s eyes begin to drift close.
“You just sleep, little brother. I’m watching for the ghosts now.”

**********************

The End.