A Life for a Life
By: Maggie
eagleimaggs_7@yahoo.com

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

Rating: PG13
Disclaimer: Ain’t mine.
Warnings: DEATHFIC, yes I said deathfic. You can blame this one on my Monday from He**.
The character I started out killing changed when PENNY, yes I said Penny, issued a challenge.
So anybody gets downright vicious with me, blame her. Comments are welcome of any kind, I
treat you all the same. <EG>

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

“So, how long you gonna be gone, Vin?” JD Dunne stood just inside the livery stall as he
watched Vin Tanner saddle his horse.

The tracker turned slightly to look at the teen. “I should be back by sundown tomorrow, why?”
Tanner stopped his motions and turned to stare at JD face to face.

“Well, its suppose to be a surprise, but I can trust you.” The youth was about ready to burst at the
seams with excitement. “Buck and I found out tomorrow is Ezra’s birthday and we’re gonna
throw him a surprise party at the saloon.”

Vin raised a questioning eyebrow at the boy. “How do you expect to get Ezra out of the saloon
that long?”

JD sighed, he’d asked Wilmington the same thing and his response, ‘don’t worry kid, leave that
to ole Buck.’ “Lets just say thats Buck’s job.”

The bounty hunter chuckled softly as he turned back to finish his task. “I’ll be there kid.”

The teen nodded and whooped with joy. “Alright. This is gonna be the best.” He swiveled
around as soon as he got his answer and almost ran over Chris Larabee who was just entering the
stable.

“Whoa, JD.” The gunslinger reached out and caught the boy just in time to save him from
kissing the dirt.

“Sorry, Chris.” JD smiled quickly at the older man before continuing on his journey.

“Where’s he going so fast?” Larabee glanced back inside to meet the blue eyes of his best friend,
who was leading Bounty toward the front door.

“Probably to tell Buck to add one more sucker to the party list.” Tanner gave Chris a slow grin
which was met by a small smile.

“Yeah. Buck hit me with the idea a few minutes ago.” The gunslinger shook his head doubtfully.
“I can’t believe their trying to pull a con on Ezra.”

Both men began laughing trying to picture the gambler falling for such as obvious ruse.

“Oh well, at least they’re trying.” Vin eased himself and his horse forward and Chris began
walking beside them into the street.

“You got any idea which way your heading?” Larabee averted his eyes to focus on something up
the boardwalk.

Tanner slid his friend a sideways glance knowing the gunslinger was worried about him going
out alone. “I figured I’d head west then double back through Beggar’s Pass.”

Larabee nodded his head thoughtfully before giving the other man his full attention again.
“Watch your back, cowboy.”

Vin gave Chris a half nod before grasping the other man’s upper arm in their traditional affection
of friendship. “Always do.” Tanner swiftly mounted and headed out of town in a slow trot, never
knowing the concerned frown of his best friend following his retreat.

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

The tracker had made good time the night before and was thinking of making midday camp at
the entrance to the pass, but a glint of metal caught his eye making him stop suddenly. He took
out his spyglass and trained it on the position from where the light had attracted his attention. He
figured it was just a discarded piece of trash some campers had left behind, but what he actually
saw made his heart drop to his toes.

A camp full of about 30 outlaws. Not just regular bandits, but Tanner recognized stone cold
murders’. “This ain’t good.” Vin quickly shut his glass and looked around for somewhere to
sneak up on the group. He didn’t want to get too close, just close enough to maybe figure out
what they were up too.

He spotted a grove of trees about 25 yards from the site and decided thats where he needed to be.
The bounty hunter coaxed Bounty down a short incline and then quietly led her to his
destination. After ground tying her, he pulled his rifle from his scabbard and inched closer to the
men. He had picked a spot about 5 feet from a clump of bandits and settled in to listen to them
talk.

“Whadda’ think, Hank. Is this gonna be as easy as Rupert says?” A burly man, who looked to be
in his late forties, turned to address a slim young man to his right.

“Don’t know. I’ve heard about these fellows and they ain’t no bed of roses to deal with. Their
leader, Larabee, he’s a fast-gun. They say the pup, Dunne may be faster than ‘im in a few years.”
Hank paused to sip at his whisky bottle. “I’d say a few of us ain’t gonna come back breathing.”
The man began laughing uncontrollably at the sour looks that were thrown at him.

“How did Rupert say we’s suppose to catch these guys off guard, anyway?” Gus, the older man,
stoked the fire under the beans he was cooking before looking at the other man again.

“Rupe said some of the boys’ went into town yesterday and overhead Dunne and Wilmington
talking about some party gonna be in the saloon tonight. I’d reckon that would be as good a
place as any to jump ‘em. They’d be all in one place.” The four men around the camp began
smiling as they realized the job may be as simple as shooting fish in a barrel, but the smiles
swiftly vanished as a snap of a twig got their attention.

Vin held his breath as he saw the men turn in his direction. Tanner knew he hadn’t moved but a
movement to his left entered his periferal vision and he discovered an outlaw about a foot from
his hiding place. From the looks of it the man was coming back from relieving himself, and was
oblivious to the danger, not only to himself but to the tracker.

The bandits at the campfire pulled their pistols and with a split second warning shout, began
firing. The poor soul who had made the mistake of not announcing himself went down on the
second shot, unmoving. Vin knew the instant the others’ began moving what was about to
happen, so tried to get out of the vicinity as soon as possible, but he didn’t quite make it.

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

“Okay, we’ve only got about an hour before Buck and Ezra get back.” JD was handing out
streamers to the three men surrounding him. “Inez is getting the food ready, and Ms. Travis and
Casey are wrapping the presents for us.” The teen grabbed a handful of decorations for himself
as was about to turn around to put them up, when he noticed the others’ weren’t moving.
“What?”

Josiah Sanchez slid Nathan Jackson a quick wink before turning a stern look on the boy. “JD, as
my memory serves me, we were to attend the party, not participate in the decorating.” The
preacher almost lost his nerve to tease the younger man as he saw the shocked look cross his
face.

“But, guys. I can’t do this myself. Your not saying you don’t want to help. I thought..” A hand
over the youngster’s mouth quickly stopped the flow of rambling.

“Easy, kid. Josiah’s just funning ya. Of course we’ll help.” The healer chuckled softly as he
removed his hand and saw the perturbed gaze directed at him.

“Hey, if we’ve only got an hour, I suggest we get on with it.” Chris picked up his appointed
decorations and headed to the bar.

It took the four men almost the entire time to get everything ready for the party, but when they
were finished it was a project worth being proud of, the streamers were green with red bows, and
JD had made a homemade Happy Birthday sign out of some old burlap.

“You think he’ll like it?” The teen gave the others’ a questioning glance.

“Of course he’ll like it JD. Stop worrying.” Larabee slapped the youth lightly on the back as he
headed out onto the boardwalk.

He gazed at the sun beginning to set in the west and felt a sudden chill race down his spine.
“Where the hell are you, Vin?” The gunslinger tried to shake off the morbid images now
plaguing his thoughts, but a nagging sensation just wouldn’t let them go.

“He’ll be here, brother.” Sanchez hadn’t meant to follow the leader but a feeling of his own told
him the other was worried.

“Yeah, I know Josiah. He said he’d be here for the party, so he will.” Chris let his cold mask slip
back in place as he heard the distinct voice of Buck headed their way.

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

Vin had felt pain many times in his life, but this time it wasn’t the agony from his wounds that
was causing him the most difficulty. It was the thought he wouldn’t reach his friends’ in time to
warn them of the attack.

He looked down at his left side and couldn’t help but flinch at the crimson river still flowing.
He’d used his clean shirt and bandanna but nothing was staunching the blood from the gunshot
wounds. He had felt the first one, but at his examination of the injury was surprised to find
another about 3 inches above the first.

“Damn.” Tanner squeezed his eyes shut as a wave of pain assualted his system, almost toppling
him from his saddle. He had managed to get Bounty and head out before they figured out
someone else had been at the camp. He just hoped now he could hold on long enough to make it
to town. “Almost sundown. You can do it, Tanner.” Vin breathed in hard a couple of times to
ease the pain and then focused once more at the task at hand.

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

“Everybody in place.” JD ran around the saloon yelling for Mary, Casey, Inez, and the other of
the seven to hide. Wilmington and Standish had just rounded the corner and were headed into
the tavern.

Chris watched with amusement as the adults rushed to find a suitable spot. He, himself just
continued to sit at his usual table sipping his whisky.

He heard the footsteps getting closer and couldn’t control the leap of his own heart as the
batwing doors swung inward. The two men stood inside the entrance slightly stunned, but the
huge yell of “SURPRISE” brought both to reality.

“Dear Lord!” Ezra clutched at his chest as the six people jumped at him from various spots
around the saloon.

“Happy Birthday, Ezra.” JD walked up to the gambler from his right side and patted him on the
back.

“A person’s birth is indeed a day of celebration, brother.” Josiah smiled and shook Standish’s
hand.

“Happy Birthday, Ezra. I hope you have a good one.” Nathan also shook the still stunned man’s
hand the preacher had just released.

“I knew we could pull this over on ya.” Buck slapped Ezra hard on the back and caused him to
finally blink.

“I truly am shocked. How did you ever find out it was my birthday?” The gambler looked at the
gunslinger with a puzzled gaze.

“Maude told us. She was telling some more of your childhood stories the last time she was here
and it just happened to slip out.”

“Indeed, I’m sure it did.” Standish rolled his eyes realizing his mother had yet again gotten his
goat.

“It is your birthday, isn’t it, Ezra?” JD stammered sligthly hoping he hadn’t made a huge
mistake.

“Yes, Mr. Dunne. For once my dear mother told the truth.”

“Good. Then lets go eat.” Wilmington spotted the feast laid out on the bar and immediately
made a break for it.

The gambler stood back watching his friends talk and laugh as they helped themselves.

“I wasn’t sure they could pull it off, but Happy Birthday, Ezra.” Chris had walked up beside
Standish and was now holding out his right hand in a gesture of a handshake. The gambler saw
genuine friendship etched in the other’s eyes and thought what a happy birthday indeed.

“Thank you, Mr. Larabee.” The two gave each other a firm shake before looking to the other
party goers once more.

“I do have one question though?”

“Whats that?” Chris gave Standish a sideways glance.

“Where is Mr. Tanner?”

Larabee looked out the bar window to the growing darkness before he answered. “That, Ezra is
something I would like to know.” The gunslinger sighed as the blackness began mocking him
and then gave his attention to the party once more.

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

“Alright boys. They have no idea whats going down. So we hit the saloon full force. I don’t want
nobody in that place still standing when we’re done.” Rupert glanced at the viscious killers
riding beside him then back at the town. “The seven are about to fall.”

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

Vin had gone from pure agony to nothing. He didn’t know whether to be happy or not, but the
sight of the town livery caused his mind to switch to another problem.

“Gotta get to the saloon.” As Tanner swung his mount in the general direction, he caught the
dust swirls coming from the other edge of town. Dusk had fallen making details hard to see, but
the tracker knew on instinct his time had almost ran out.

So, with a burst of adrenaline, he spurred Bounty into a dead run at the tavern. As he got within
about fifteen feet, he started yelling a warning.

“TAKE COVER!” He almost didn’t recognize his own voice, but the crashing of tables being
thrown aside and chairs being flung across the room was music to his ears as he slid his horse to
a stop at the alleyway near the bar.

He half fell, half jumped off Bounty and wasn’t surprised when his knees nearly buckled. “Just a
little farther, Tanner.” Vin spotted a barrel that would make great cover for the coming
onslaught, so turned shortly slapping his horse’s rump to get it out of the line of fire, before
putting his last reserves of energy into making it to that container.

As he sunk down behind it, the first volley of bullets began whizzing overhead, but Vin wasn’t
worried about that now because the return fire from inside the saloon was what he’d been
wanting to hear.

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

“Am I to assume this wasn’t part of the festivities?” Ezra looked to Buck at his right before
firing at the line of gunmen outside.

“I didn’t order no gunbattle.” Wilmington gave the gambler a mischievious wink as he heard the
yelp of an outlaw.

“Who the hell yelled?” JD was positioned to the left and was shooting both pistols’ into the
crowd of attackers.

“Sounded like Vin.”  Josiah chanced a quick look in Chris’s direction and the deadly gaze
adorning the gunslinger’s face confirmed his suspicions. It had been Vin.

The battle lasted for about 30 minutes when the bandits realized their plan had been foiled and
over half their men were dead.

“Retreat.” Rupert grabbed his horse which was tied near him and immediately raced for the
outskirts of town not caring if anybody was following.

The protectors waited until they heard the distant hoofbeats before emerging onto the boardwalk.
The streets were once again quiet, but scattered with bodies. This didn’t concern Chris Larabee
one bit, his only ambition was to find the missing tracker.

“Everybody spread out and find Vin.” The gunslinger turned to head to the livery while the
others picked various points. He had gone about 10 feet when he heard the low moan. He
stopped and listened finally pinpointing where the noise had originated.

Larabee spotted the barrel from the flickering street fires, which had been lit a couple of hours
earlier, but didn’t notice the prone body behind it until he was right beside him.

“Vin?” The strangled question sounded like the wind ripping through a grove of trees. “Oh God,
Vin.” Chris fell to his knees beside the unmoving bounty hunter. He hadn’t even stirred at his
name. Larabee quickly began an examination of the man’s injuries and inhaled sharply when he
found the bullet wounds to the abdomen.

“NATHAN!!!!!!!” The gunslinger hadn’t known he could yell so loud but was happy when he
saw the fluttering of Tanner’s eyelids’.

“Chris?” The hoarse whisper was followed by a harsh cough.

“Take it easy, cowboy. Nate’s on his way, your safe.” Chris pulled off his black duster and
wrapped his friend’s now shivering form inside it.

“You alrighttt?” Vin’s teeth had begun to chatter slightly.

“Yeah. Thanks to you, we’re all fine.” Larabee saw the younger man was getting weaker as the
chills was racking his lanky form. He eased the tracker forward slightly and held him close to his
chest hoping to add some strength to his friend. “You just hang on, okay?”

The gunslinger felt the fever radiating through his coat and heard the labored breathing coming
from Vin. But before he could offer more words of support he heard the running footsteps
nearing their position.

“Ease up a little, Chris.” Nathan had slid to his knees on the other side of the two men and
wasn’t surprised at what he saw. He knew when Larabee yelled, it wasn’t good.

The gunslinger loosened his grip enough to let the healer see Vin’s wounds but didn’t break
contact with the bounty hunter.

“Damn.” Jackson sucked in a deep breath at the damage he was witnessing.

“How bad is it, Nate?” Buck was standing behind Chris with his hand laying gently on his
friend’s shoulder.

Nathan squeezed his eyes shut not wanting to face the looks he knew were about to come on the
others features.

“Nathan?” JD stepped up a little.

“Itss okayy, docc.” Tanner raised a bloody hand and covered one of Jackson’s. Vin looked up as
best he could and tried to give the healer a slow grin but a sudden spasm of pain caused him to
gasp in agony.

“Deep, even breaths, Vin. Thats it.” Nathan squeezed the hand he still held and watched in
horror at the anguish his friend was suffering.

“Nathan?” Chris’s voice had dropped to a deadly whisper telling Jackson he couldn’t avoid the
inevitable.

“Theres nothing I can do. He’s lost too much blood and the damage is too severe.” The healer
heard the resounding gasps and bowed his head to his chest. He had failed to do the one thing he
had strived for all his born days. To save those he loved from the clutches of death.

JD watched the face of Chris Larabee trying to guage that this was all a bad dream, that Vin
wasn’t lying in the gunslinger’s arms, dying. But the cold gleam that entered Larabee’s eyes
along with the tightening of his grip on Tanner’s form told him all he needed to know.

Josiah had known from the first gasp that escaped Nathan’s mouth, there was no hope. So he
started praying. And then stopped. The only thing that would save the souls of the men now
dying along with the tracker, would be a miracle of life for Vin. So, thats what the preacher
began praying for.

Buck didn’t want to feel this way again. To be standing aside and watching his friend’s soul
being ripped out and stomped on, but thats exactly what was happening. Wilmington saw the
first day he met Vin Tanner the bond that was formed between him and Chris. At first the
gunslinger hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it, but as the days went by, it became painfully
obvious. So after he accepted the kinship, Buck began feeling himself pulled into the circle.
He’d felt Tanner’s uniqueness, but hadn’t realized what extraordinary talent the tracker had for
drawing folks to him. And this is why, Buck Wilmington felt the agony twice as hard, not only
for Larabee’s sake, but for his own.

Ezra had been enjoying himself like no other time in his life, but as always it had changed to
something dark. As Standish watched the flames from a street fire bounce off the pale face of
Vin and the desolete features of Chris, the gambler knew he would never celebrate being born
again in his life. For he was watching his reason for living slipping through his fingers like a bad
hand of poker.

Larabee knew he hadn’t heard the healer right. *Nothing he could do. Of course there was
something he could do, save Vin’s life.* But as the gunslinger raised his eyes to see Jackson’s
lowered head and then turn to take in the expressions of defeat in the other men’s faces, he knew
he had lost yet again.

“Chriss?” Tanner blinked several times trying to ward off the growing darkness he knew had
nothing to do with the night.

Chris shook himself and gave the younger man all his attention. “Yeah, Vin?”

The bounty hunter looked into the aquamarine eyes he knew as well as his own and felt like a
failure. He had failed to keep the look of emptiness from his best friend’s eyes and now there
was nothing he could do about it. “I’m sorry, but if I hadd to choosee a life for a life, I woulldd
always choosee mine.” Tanner used his last bit of energy to grasp Chris’s hand as he finally let
the voices calling his name, take him.

Larabee watched the life drain from the blue eyes and then felt the physical bond of their hands
break. “Vin?” The gunslinger reached up with the released hand and touched the tracker’s
forehead brushing wet strands from his brow. “Come on, Vin.” Chris didn’t or couldn’t let go.
He was spinning out of control and this time he knew when he stopped so would his life.

“He’s dead, Chris.” Nathan also reached up and pulled the gunslinger’s hand away as he used his
other hand to close the bounty hunter’s eyes.

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

Two days later............

The town had recovered from the gunplay and was once again running in some semblence of
normalcy, that is until you spotted one of the protectors’. They had put the tracker to rest in the
graveyard the day before and at least one of them was at the gravesite at a time.

What had surprised the townsfolk was the form of Chris Larabee still sitting in the graveyard. He
hadn’t left the bounty hunter’s side since they had laid him to rest.

“Chris, you need to get some rest.” Nathan had tried to get the others to come by and talk the
gunslinger into at least eating, but nothing. Larabee wouldn’t even acknowledge they were there.
“Letting yourself go won’t bring him back, Chris. And Vin wouldn’t want you too.”

“Go away, Nathan.” The voice was hollow but deadly clear.

“Alright.” Jackson glanced once more at Chris then at the marker at the head of the still fresh
grave before he headed back to town.

Larabee looked up briefly at Nathan’s retreating form but couldn’t feel sorry for the way he had
acted. Actually, he didn’t feel anything. He turned back to stare once again at the dirt that now
housed his best friend. He reached out and grabbed a wayward weed sticking out the top and
then patted the earth back down on the hole he created.

“You said if you had a choice between your life or ours’, you’d choose yours. I never pegged you
as being selfish, cowboy.” Chris let his hand fall flat against the soft ground and closed his eyes
against the stinging sensation that assualted them.

The gunslinger stayed that way until nightfall when his body’s exhausted condition caused him
to pass out. Buck had been watching from the shadows and was waiting for this exact moment.
He pulled his friend upright and slung him over his shoulder, but before he took him to town and
his room, he gave one last long look to the grave at his feet.

“I know you only meant a life for a life, pard, but I’m afraid you took two.” Buck sighed softly
as he turned and hauled Chris to Nathan’s awaiting hands.

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

The End
LFL: Chris Epilogue